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Unknown grid intensity

Letter from the Editors

The internet—essential to modern life and also the world’s largest coal-powered machine. 

Like the shipping industry, packets zigzag across the globe and connect billions of people through a colossal distributed infrastructure we rarely see until it chokes, like a container ship stuck in the Suez Canal or Facebook going down. 

Ships run on bunker fuel, some of the dirtiest sludge on the planet. Much of the internet burns on coal, the historically the cheapest, most convenient fuel available. And while the IPCC is calling “a code red for humanity,” the tech sector and shipping each emit 1-3% of the world’s carbon a year with projections rising. 

The internet is becoming a brittle and polluting monoculture. Seven Big Tech companies predominantly control the internet and its infrastructure, and they are among the wealthiest in the world. 

As the climate crisis intensifies, with more frequent and severe weather events, and more wealth is consolidated in the tech sector even during a pandemic, we’re seeing how this destructive default doesn’t serve humanity or the planet.

What’s more, when we do see chances to change the rules for a fairer, more sustainable, more just set of defaults, to steer us away from the cliff, we see these same firms lobbying to kill this progress in the name of short-term profits.

A Dissonance 

Like many tech workers who grew up loving the possibilities of the internet to connect and empower people, learning about its destructive power causes us to experience a dissonance. How can this tool, with so much potential, speed up fire and floods and human suffering? What are we going to do about it? 

Tech is built and maintained by people. What tech workers do each day can either accelerate the climate crisis or slow it down. As tech ownership and profits become concentrated to the hands of a few, how can workers advocate for their rights and more equitable futures? More than transitioning energy, we must shift power. 

Divest from Big Tech

Today, we’re seeing tech workers unite across geography and pay grade to link arms with climate activists to demand better. 

Big Tech sells itself as a solution to the crisis. But it’s part of the problem, too. The tech sector is rife with lucrative contracts with fossil fuel companies. Brilliant software engineering—optimizing this, improving a model for that—ends up accelerating the extraction of oil and gas, which when burned, pollutes the air, heats the planet and cuts short the lives of millions of plants, animals and people.

Big Tech must end its business with fossil fuels companies. And we, the people who dream of a sustainable, just and diverse internet, need to divest from Big Tech.  

A Fossil Free Internet by 2030

That why we want to focus our efforts on achieving a fossil-free internet. And we want to make that happen by 2030. 

The urgency and scale of the climate crisis demands action. With a big push, the internet could be decarbonized in a few years. And in that transition, we could reform the internet and turn it into a positive force for climate justice. 

To get there, we need new narratives that shift what is desirable and possible. We need to transform our practices and make strategic partnerships with allied causes. And we need open infrastructure—data, code, poetry and repeatable pilots—to model how we can build bridges across social movements and achieve a fossil-free internet by 2030.

This issue of Branch uplifts the people and projects who are making that vision a reality. We want to situate these issues in larger movements for sustainable and just societies. We want to think at a network-level and in open partnership to gain momentum. We want to challenge colonial solutions on how to get to a fossil-free internet through further extraction of the Global South. 

The next few years will be critical for the future of the planet and the internet. We need to expand the coalition of people working towards this shift. We hope you find some inspiration for action here. 

Climate Justice as a Core Competency among Internet Practitioners

Designs from Kimono Pattern Books (ca. 1902) via The Public Domain Review

A few months ago, we at the Green Web Foundation set out to understand: How do we advance climate justice as a core competency among internet practitioners? 

To learn more and practice these findings, we created a fellowship programme to bring on board five fellows with a range of perspectives and experiences. This article summarises the findings and co-learnings through the fellowship so far.

How It’s Going

The Green Web Foundation’s fellowship set out to explore three goals. Firstly, to explore the narratives of responsible internet practices. Secondly, to understand the key characteristics of climate justice in the context of a sustainable internet. Lastly, ways to teach these practices forward among internet practitioners. 

The Narratives

The Green Web Fellowship sought to explore compelling narratives that link responsible Internet practice with climate justice. This first phase focused on testing and learning from what is working in narrative storytelling. Validation and feedback in various communities were drawn upon, from open source web developers to digital security trainers, from sustainable development experts and climate activists.

The emerging themes are:

“A fossil-free internet by 2030.” Through conversations with our fellows and in our convenings, we realized setting a target would help galvanize and focus on climate action. We’re currently commissioning supporting research on a path to fully transition the internet away from fossil fuels by 2030. This has been an exciting development to emerge from this research.  

“Divest from Big Tech.” Even if the internet moved to 100% renewables, while it would definitely be an improvement, we wouldn’t have achieved a sustainable and just internet. We would also need to be prepared to talk about power as well as energy—being prepared to divest from Big Tech and its control over our internet infrastructure, software and economics is one way to address an existing imbalance of power. We can point to multiple examples of divestment as a strategy to press issues that would otherwise be ignored by large, powerful players, from the social justice point of view, but increasingly a climate justice point of view as well.

“Climate justice as a core competency.” Many efforts to green the internet do not centre on climate justice. While our program has a long way to go to better understand what it means to address this idea meaningfully, we are finding that it is very enriching to do so and supports a larger vision of social justice and equity. 

Climate justice in the context of a sustainable internet

Building on the fellows’ experience and learning arcs, as well as in conversation with communities and one other, the programme sought to understand the skills and characteristics that might describe climate justice as a core competency with internet practitioners. 

The key to this was understanding how fellows could be community organisers and peer learners as they answer this question for themselves. We host weekly conversations about how to connect their individual interests and experiences to the goals of the larger fellowship program. So far, this has been a rewarding space for peer learning and new takes on the program’s theme have emerged from it, including: 

  • Where you stand depends on where you sit: position, visibility & defusing privilege
  • Reform, Resistance, Reform after Resistance
  • Appropriate technology and a sustainable internet
  • How much do tech workers currently talk about `climate justice` and other keywords? Data scraping and analysis. 
  • Framing sustainability with and without justice.
  • Openness as a tool to shift power.
  • Abolitionist tech stack.

Salient questions our fellows are surfacing as part of the research:

  • What resources are powering our projects and how do we manage those resources? 
  • Are we willing to approach our work with a set of values that centers several generations after us? And how do we do that?
  • What protections do we need to fight for in the workplace to hold companies accountable around climate justice goals?
  • How do we measure our impact on the climate crisis?
  • Are we willing to sundown projects if mitigating their negative impact on the environment is impossible or creates little impact?

We created an open library of recommended reading and other resources we come across or write. This is hosted on Zotero, an open-source tool that makes it easy for others to contribute and export these readings. 

Teaching It Forward

It’s not just about understanding what climate justice looks like—internet practitioners will have to commitment to transform practices and behaviours with the aspiration to connect with others and teach it forward. 

In support of that, we hosted the Gathering for a Sustainable Internet with 25 digital rights, climate justice, and open/green technology practitioners thinking at a “network level” about these challenges. We sought to work with people interested in building bridges, working in a coalition with each other, and collaborating at scale. 

Together with the human rights and digital security trainer Beatrice Martini, we hosted a Capacity Building workshop in November for the fellows on designing learning experiences for adults and how to design syllabi. This workshop builds on a course taught at Harvard School of Education and the agenda and activities will be published in the open. 

The next phase of the fellowship will focus on how to best serve the communities and beneficiaries from the fellows are working with, and how their engagement can refine and improve these advocacy narratives, learning materials and ultimately find pathways to incorporate climate justice in the careers of internet practitioners.

ABOUT THE PROGRAM

The program is only halfway done and will run for several more months. If you want to read more about how internet practitioners can advance climate justice in their own work, read more about what the fellows are learning and trying out on the Green Web Foundation blog

Letter from the Editors: Change is a ‘Commoning

Astronomical drawings of the sun from 1882
Group of sun spots and veiled spots (Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, 1882) Source: Public Domain Review

Aerosols and masks, wildfire smoke, air pollution and police choking, intubation and asphyxiation.  

Breathing can be so fraught. Incredibly precious yet quotidian.

Fill the lungs. How much can you hold?

Sometimes, when I’m spending the day in front of my computer or engrossed in my phone, I don’t remember breathing at all. It must have happened. But where was my mind?

Right now, I’m with my breath. And on the lost breaths of so many. And on the deep yearning I have for my son, and the generations after him, to breathe with ease.

Tears come to my eyes with grief and the knowledge that it won’t be easy for him, for so many. What an unfathomable loss.   

The breath. It’s so simple, really. And so wondrous. How we inhale what plants have exhaled. Everyone should have the right to breathe with ease, the possibility of surviving and thriving.

Well, what am I going to do about it?


We are dreaming of a sustainable and just internet—an internet free of fossil fuels, free from extractivism and surveillance. 

We dream of an internet that helps dismantle the forces delaying climate action. 

We dream of an internet that enables lifelong learning, genuine exchange and meaningful work.

We dream of an internet that respects your right to be offline and to participate on your own terms.

We dream of an internet that is intertwined with other dreams of liberation. 

We’re dreaming together.  

This issue of Branch magazine is a practice of collective imagination. There are fragments and fleeting glimpses. Sometimes there is simply a lingering sense of what should be.

We invite you to wander along with us. 

What will you find? What will move you? How will we be changed together?  

All that you touch you change

All that you change changes you

The only lasting truth is change

God is Change

Earthseed: The Books of the Living by Octavia Butler

Inspiration for this issue emerged from adrienne maree brown’s beautiful writing about the power of science fiction and the need to transform ourselves to transform the world. She grounds her community justice work in accessible, creative scholarship about Octavia Butler and leads a facilitation practice that links imagination with political change. 

Open Climate Now!

Colorful meandering routes of the Mississippi River
Meander Map of the Mississippi River by Harold Fisk (1944). Source: Public Domain Review

Two global movements—open and climateboth reckoning with privilege and power in their own organizing, should seize the moment to work more intersectionally and learn from each other. The open movement with its values, community and action has the potential to greatly contribute to climate research and activism, and climate scientists and organizers should join the fight for the (digital) commons. We need open climate action, and we need it now! 

Beginning in the fall 2020, we the authors, piloted a series of “Open Climate” community calls to explore how to apply openness to climate action. What resulted was a conversation among a mix of disciplines and practices (sciences, humanities, community organizing, alternatives to intellectual property), backgrounds in the open movement (Free and Open Source software, data, hardware and knowledge) and global experiences that we hope will be productive for larger climate action.

This article is our first meandering attempt at recounting what we have learned thus far about the gaps in our movements and how they came to be and where open movements are doing hopeful work for the planet.

Continue reading “Open Climate Now!”

Letter from the Editors

A page from the 1901 issue of Shin-Bijutsukai, a Japanese design magazine
A page from the 1901 issue of Shin-Bijutsukai, a Japanese design magazine | Public Domain Review

We believe that the internet must serve our collective liberation and ecological sustainability. We want the internet to help us dismantle the power structures that delay climate action and for the internet itself to become a positive force for climate justice.

Branch magazine is a space for personal reflection, critical engagement with technology and internet economics, as well as experimentation and storytelling. It is an online magazine written by and for people who dream of a sustainable and just internet. 


Creating change requires all kinds of practices—art and design, professional development, civic participation, policy and advocacy, imagination and positive visions for our future. This magazine is our small attempt to gather what inspires and challenges us and to publish that in the open. 

We invited 25 wonderful people to share how they understand the climate impact of technology and how we might change it for the better. In this magazine, you will hear from internet professionals—developers, designers, managers, executives, educators, policymakers, funders and artists—describe how they are greening their daily professional practice. You will see that there are very direct actions, such as switching computation to run on renewables. Yet there are deeper, systemic ways to green the internet that you will also find described here, and it is this practice that we seek to cultivate.  

For deeper change to happen, internet professionals must understand the underlying structural issues of the climate crisis and its inequalities. We must go beyond tech solutionism and towards intersectional climate justice work. We strive to connect sustainability to root causes and to inequalities experienced at different intersections—gender, race, class, ability, and so on. 

Going forward we see the need to more develop interdisciplinary practices and tools for greening the internet. Mentorship and collaboration play a key role, as does supporting technologists on their climate journeys and closing the gaps in climate justice and digital rights efforts. 

The Making of Branch: GOLD principles

In the making of Branch, we wanted the website itself to live up to the dream of a sustainable internet. We know that technology isn’t neutral, and therefore we set out to embed the values of a more sustainable, just internet into the website design and development.

We were inspired by frameworks for inclusive design and accessibility, such as POUR (perceivable, operable, understandable, robust) in the WCAG guidelines. For the Branch website, the qualities we sought were Green, Open, Lean, and Distributed, or GOLD

Here’s how we broke down GOLD for making an online magazine. We think it can be adapted for other digital products as well.

Green

Green refers to green energy and the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. We thought through the digital supply chain: from the site running on servers powered by green energy, to adapting what we send over a network, to designing for the widest range of devices, and reducing the need to run on newer hardware.

Open

Open in this context refers to a cultural practice beyond a software license. We share the site’s source code on Github, and we also chose to use WordPress because we know that more than a quarter of the web runs on WordPress. We teamed up with experts in the ClimateAction.tech community with prior work in this domain, like the author of wp-susty,  to make the approach we took easier to emulate on other sites without needing to be a specialist developer.

Most the content is licensed under the permissive Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license, and we sourced many of our images from public domain archives and other open image pools. We also chose an open license to make it easier for the ideas in this magazine to be copied and modified across other nodes of the internet. We hope this gives the content a resiliency long after this website is forgotten.

We also wanted to be open and transparent about physical resources required to use digital services, which is why we foreground grid intensity on the website. By exposing the materiality of the internet and the intermittent patterns of renewable energy, visitors to the site can see how the website changes in response to the amount of renewables on the electricity grid. 

Lean

Lean is an acknowledgement that even when we use green energy, there is still an unavoidable environmental impact to most digital activity. Our decisions of what to build matter, and so we chose to tread lightly. While lean here refers to avoiding needless waste, at the same time, like in healthy ecosystems, it is critical to keep some slack in the ecosystem and to stay flexible and adaptable to outside changes. Otherwise, if we obsess over efficiency above all else, we can end up in a brittle, hyper-optimised state. Or we end up cutting out features and media so intensively that we remove much of what makes the internet fun to begin with.

Distributed

Distributed refers to both geographical and temporal shifts of activity. We designed the website to be easy to cache and distribute across a content delivery network. Furthermore, visitors can time-shift more energy intensive activities, such as downloading heavy media files, to happen when there’s greener electricity available. 

We hope you enjoy this first issue of Branch magazine. Thank you for reading!

About the authors

Michelle Thorne is interested in climate justice and a fossil-free internet. As a Senior Program Officer at the Mozilla Foundation, Michelle leads a PhD program on Open Design of Trust Things (OpenDoTT) with Northumbria University and several art and research initiatives as an Environmental Champion in Mozilla’s Sustainability Program.

Chris Adams is a co-organiser of the online community Climate Action.tech, and co-founder of greening.digital, a consultancy specialising in helping digital teams, build greener digital products and services. He joined the Green Web Foundation in 2019 to lead their energy, open source and open data initiatives.