Tenets of digital rights affirm our undeniable ability to exploit data, devices, hardware, and software the way we see fit, on our own terms, in the spirit of innovation. What we need is a decolonial approach to innovation that starts with an assumption that we, in fact, have no digital rights. We are not entitled to do what we wish with whatever we are able to learn or know on the Internet.
Recently, while working to design a grant program to support Internet innovation, I was introduced to SATELLITE, an annual conference launched in 1981. It had “the goal to connect and unite the satellite industry as we headed towards new frontiers”. It is here that various digital communities learn and share with one another about the opportunities and benefits of satellite technology. Historically, it is also the place where billionaire entrepreneurs have come to announce their intention to colonize outer space.
Soon after the introduction, I found myself watching the video stream of Blue Origin’s New Shepard Mission NS-17, an inaugural commercial space flight in August 2021 ferrying four private US citizens to space, including Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chairman of Amazon. I was in awe and marvelled at the feat. But something felt terribly off. I had many questions. How is it that Jeff Bezos gets to go to space on a rocket ship of his own imagining? What is he planning to do once he gets there? And what does that mean for the rest of us still here on planet Earth?
Everything about Blue Origin, the New Shepard, Jeff Bezos, and his cowboy hat is steeped in frontierism and colonial tradition. The narrative unfolds like a modern-day tale of Christopher Columbus setting sail to the new world in search of more exploits and some “Indians”. Funded by the US government and promoted as one more “small step for mankind”, Mission NS-17 bears witness to the dream of the future, renders Bezos the space baron we’ve all been waiting for, and puts on full display the power that wealth generated from the Internet can have to transform our reality in dramatic fashion.
Undergirding this tableau is a sense of determinism and entitlement, the will and power of Bezos to exploit and manipulate all that Amazon data to propel himself out of the stratosphere, figuratively, and beyond the Káráman line, literally. So extreme in his wealth, so emboldened by his digital entrepreneurship, his private reach for the stars takes on a universality about innovation and what is possible if only we could harness data and technology to our advantage to claim galactic sovereignty.
Coincidentally, the march toward technological sovereignty is generally the starting point for many digital rights discussions. This reveals why I find most of those discussions to be on a slope of toxicity. Tenets of digital rights like net neutrality, privacy, open access, and decentralization work in concert to establish digital entitlements that can be institutionalized and formally recognized by governing bodies. These entitlements affirm our undeniable ability to exploit data, devices, hardware, and software the way we see fit, on our own terms, in the spirit of innovation. These entitlements, I would argue, mirror exactly the entitlements that allow Bezos and other space barons to perpetually exploit us and the planet to their advantage, to build their rockets, and establish new colonies far, far away.
This is an inherently colonial approach, a terra nullius scheme toward innovation that holds the belief that the digital space is unchartered and unclaimed and ready for the taking; that each of us, pulling on our bootstraps, should have an equal opportunity to not only access but create and dominate new digital realms.
Believing in a notion of digital sovereignty necessitates practice in digital dispossession. My claim of a slice of the digital pie means you don’t get to claim it. Sovereignty as the basis for an argument of legitimate authority and autonomy over a parcel of land or a web address is a deeply rooted Euro-colonial construct, the same construct that fortified Columbus’ exploration/exploitation of the new world back then and props up Bezos’ exploration/exploitation of outer space right now.
I would argue that a decolonial approach to innovation starts with an assumption that we, in fact, have no digital rights at all; that we, in fact, are not entitled to do what we wish with whatever we are able to learn or know on the Internet. Instead, a decolonial approach could mean that we are beholden to mutuality, obligation, and duty to each other and the planet with respect to what we know about the world and ourselves, how we came to possess that knowledge, the resources that emerge because of it, and how we share these within our communities online and in real life.
This decolonized approach is a relational one. It would mean that data, knowledge, and resources don’t belong to us, rather they reveal themselves to us. Our duty then is to honour that revelation and share it with members of our community out of mutual respect and obligation. We need to look no further than Bezos’ own family for examples of this.
Following her divorce from Bezos in 2019 after 25 years of marriage, Mackenzie Scott made a pledge to commit the bulk of her wealth from her 4% stake in Amazon to equity-focused, community-based organizations through unrestricted grant-making. In a blog post titled Seeding by Ceding, Scott acknowledges how her wealth came to be from collective and exploitative efforts of labour, resources and a system, how it was “enabled by systems in need of change”, and “prioritized organizations with local teams, leaders of color, and a specific focus on empowering women and girls” as grant recipients. Her post acknowledges that her wealth doesn’t belong to her, it simply availed itself to her. Her trust-based approach to redistributing that wealth centres mutuality, obligation, and duty and acknowledges that the path to innovation is found in solutions that “are best designed and implemented by others”. The news sent shockwaves through the philanthropic community. Demonstrating innovation and disruption in the non-profit industrial complex, Scott’s ceding offers an antithesis to Bezos’ grand ascent. And yet, it’s still alarming that we have to rely on the benevolence of rich individuals to have these realisations that wealth built on exploitation must be redistributed to the public.
Other decolonial approaches to innovation and space travel can be found in the arts. Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach quilt, the first in a series of quilts entitled Women on a Bridge, tells the story of young Casie Louise Lightfoot who travels among the stars at night as she sleeps on the roof of her tenement building in New York City. “All you need is somewhere to go you can’t get to any other way. The next thing you know, you’re flying among the stars.” Here the decolonial approach is an imaginary one. It is one born out of scarcity and lack which allows for imagination so radical that it transports the body to a higher plane and mutates the sense of self into something more empowered and self-determined. Ringgold’s piece later turned into a celebrated children’s book, transports its viewer similarly on a skyward journey that is open and free and aligned to the energy and memory of the planet without causing anyone or anything any harm.
The decolonial imaginary approach to innovation also shows up in more recently digital art. Aliah Shefield’s “Earth is Ghetto” is a song for anyone who is sick of Earth. With hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, the video of Sheffield singing a melodic spiritual about the desire to escape the planet has spawned multitudes of cover songs. Sung by other professional and amateur singers these covers have millions more likes and views spread across several platforms like Instagram and Tik Tok. The viral chorus, sung en masse, poses itself as an SOS sent from an extraterrestrial stranded on Earth. Political and satirical, the song was inspired by and comes in line behind other digital artists that create alien avatars and use them to critique societal ills and injustice.
Earth is ghetto I wanna leave
Can you beam me up
I’m outside on the street
By the corner store, you know the one on 15th
Got a bright shirt on so I’m easy to see
I been down here stranded
I can’t reach my planet
But I need to leave
You should see these people
It’s hard to believe
How they treat
It’s hard to conceive
Earth is ghetto
I wanna leave
Jeff Bezos’ space cowboy is an all-too-familiar character in the frontier narrative. His achievements are celebrated and recognized as universal and representative of humankind when in reality his exploits don’t actually reflect the type of innovation that’s been happening for generations in my neighbourhood and probably yours too. These alternative approaches centre our relationships and our imaginations, not our egos. And they’ll carry us to space and beyond just the same.
Shayna Robinson is a futurist and tech environmentalist. Shayna embodies this through her work as Program Officer at the Internet Society Foundation where she leads the Research, BOLT and RARE Grant Programmes.
As more countries realize the potential AI has to offer in terms of economic opportunities, large societal problems have also been lumped under the category of things that can be “solved” using AI. This is reflected in the national AI strategies of various countries1 where grandiose claims are made that if only we throw enough computation, data, and the pixie dust of AI on it, we will be able to solve, among other things, the climate crises that looms large over our heads.
AI systems are not without their flaws. There are many ethical issues to consider when thinking about deploying AI systems into society—particularly environmental impacts3.
The following article is the second part of the two-part series “The Story is a Forest.” Part one appeared in Branch Magazine Issue #1.
Narratives with Mass Resonance
In part one, we explored bottom-up, individualized climate communications, and learned this requires quite a bit of resources, like research, the construction of multiple narratives, and people on the ground willing to engage their peers. For this reason, possible top-down approaches, with the potential of ‘more for less,’ become incredibly tantalising. So are there any? As we gather more data on what connects to different identities, values and worldviews, some common themes emerge.
I call these ‘narratives with mass resonance.’ They are:
Climate legal action is generally recognized to have started in the United States in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. To date, almost 1,000 climate change-related cases have been filed around the world, covering 25 countries. These cases are especially salient when they involve youth and children, as they represent the class most affected by government action or inaction.
In August 2018, at age 15, Greta Thunberg started spending her school days outside the Swedish parliament to call for stronger action on climate change by holding up a sign reading “School strike for the climate.” By 2019, there were multiple, coordinated city protests happening around the globe involving millions of people, many of whom were students. Her impact on the world stage has been described as the “Greta effect.”
Greta’s main talking point is that climate change will have a disproportionate effect on young people and that their futures are being stolen. This involves the concept of ‘Earth overshoot,’ that is, adults are consuming so excessively they’re using up the Earth’s resources, like freshwater, forests, fish stocks, etc. beyond their ability to regenerate and provide for future generations.
It’s difficult to quantify the effectiveness of the “Greta effect.” Motivating millions upon millions of people to engage in political activism for the environment does spread awareness of climate science, generate a critical mass of public engagement for politicians to see and has undeniably helped normalise climate change as a topic in the public discourse. In June 2019, a YouGov poll in Britain found that public concern about the environment had reached record levels in the UK since Thunberg (and Extinction Rebellion) had ‘pierced the bubble of denial.’
In February 2019, Thunberg shared a stage with the then President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, where he claimed: “In the next financial period from 2021 to ’27, every fourth euro spent within the EU budget will go towards action to mitigate climate change.” Climate change also played a significant role in the European Parliament elections in May 2019 as Green parties recorded their best ever result, increasing their MEP seat numbers from 52 to 72. Many of the gains came from northern European countries where young people had protested during Fridays for Future.
In July 2019, inspired by Thunberg, wealthy philanthropists and investors from the US donated about $600,000 to support Extinction Rebellion and school strike groups to establish the Climate Emergency Fund. Trevor Neilson, one of the philanthropists, said the three founders would be contacting friends among the global mega-rich to donate “a hundred times” more in the weeks and months ahead. Recently, and perhaps, relatedly, Jeff Bezos pledged to create a 10 billion-dollar Earth Fund. However, activists are justifiably skeptical about the mega-rich’s commitment to effectively dismantling the high-carbon economic system they built their wealth upon.
Thunberg can also be credited with accelerating the anti-flying movement by promoting train travel instead. The buzzword associated with this movement is “flight shame.” It’s a phenomenon in which people feel social pressure not to fly because of associated emissions and climate change. For example: Traveling from London to Amsterdam by train instead of plane can cut CO2 emissions by 90%. Sweden reported a 4% drop in domestic air travel for 2019 and an increase in rail. And the number of people flying between German cities fell 12% in November from a year earlier. Meanwhile, Deutsche Bahn has reported record passenger numbers and claims to be the largest user of renewable power in Germany today.
And yet, we’re beginning to see how highly publicized narratives like intergenerational responsibility are less resilient than peer-to-peer communications and are uniquely vulnerable to being co-opted. Recently, a 19-year-old German vlogger dubbed, “the anti-Greta,” Naomi Seibt, was promoted heavily by leading figures on the far right. Her mother, a lawyer, has represented politicians from the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in court.
Seibt’s been quoted as saying, “Climate change alarmism at its very core is a despicably anti-human ideology.” She’s been employed by the Heartland Institute, a think-tank closely allied with the White House, to make climate denial videos.
Economic, political and social realities help determine which of these influencers will be favoured. People who are insecure, lacking access to education and medicare for example, and who live in societies with greater wealth disparity, like in the US, may be more likely to support strongman figures playing to their defence mechanisms. Whereas those who are secure may be more inclined to support figures advocating for courage, collectivism and action.
The frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms are increasing
As average temperatures rise, so will heat-related disorders
Air pollution and relatedly, respiratory illness, can worsen
High CO2 concentrations are associated with decreased mental performance
Climate change increases the transmission of certain diseases;
Creates food insecurity
Causes mass migration and, most likely, increased violence
And threatens our mental health and well-being (e.g. eco-anxiety)
As leading health experts have affirmed, the climate crisis is a threat multiplier, particularly for communities suffering from environmental injustice. And, climate change isn’t a future risk, the impacts are occurring now. However, as we explored in part one, fear narratives, like focusing only on climate change’s many adverse health effects such as those listed above, can trigger defence mechanisms. This is why the topic of public health must be handled carefully, and even, cleverly.
We may look to a few historical examples of moments when a public health crisis fuelled by environmental abuse mobilised political action. In 1952, a thick layer of smog settled over London, England. This severe air pollution event was caused by the city’s excessive use of coal and lasted five days. It’s estimated up to 12,000 people died and 100,000 more were made ill.
Environmental legislation since the Great Smog of London, such as the City of London Act 1954 and the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and ’68, introduced measures to address air pollution, like the mandated movement toward smokeless fuels. Financial incentives were offered to households to replace open coal fires with alternatives, such as gas fires. Some talking points used to gather support for such measures were the social and economic costs of air pollution, and that clean air was as important as clean water. This is clever messaging because it normalises clean air by comparing it to clean water, which was already viewed favourably and had been successfully fought for in the previous century.
Why had it been fought for? Well, before the Great Smog of 1952, there was the Great Stink of 1858. The Great Stink happened when hot weather brought out the smell of human and industrial waste present on the banks of the River Temes. This waste was also linked to the transmission of cholera.
It’s here we see a great example of environmental action through satire, with many cartoons of the day highlighting the unacceptable state of things and mocking government inaction.
Following the Great Stink of London, government authorities accepted a proposal for an integrated and fully functioning sewer system from the civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette. This marked the beginning of London’s sewage reform.
During the 1970’s and 80’s the ozone hole was identified by scientists, which is linked to an increase in skin cancer. The hole was caused by the use of manufactured chemicals. An international treaty to phase out a number of these chemicals, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, was agreed to on the 26th of August 1987, and entered into force exactly two years later.
With the parties to the Protocol having phased out 98% of their ozone-depleting substances, they saved an estimated two million people from skin cancer every year. It’s speculated the Protocol was so successful because much of the negotiation was held in small, informal groups. This enabled a genuine exchange of views and created trust. The people negotiating the treaty also included scientists, which lent credibility. We must also note that the ozone-damaging chemical industry didn’t have the lobbying power fossil fuel companies have today.
While critics could claim most governments merely philosophize about what an emergency response to climate change could look like after declaring a climate emergency, the coronavirus pandemic propelled countries globally into radical economic, political and social measures, including ‘shutting down the economy,’ that is, closing shops, cafes, restaurants, etc. as well as borders to mitigate the spread of the virus. These measures could certainly be described as anything but business-as-usual — and as reflecting an emergency taken seriously.
While these responses have been imperfect, and there is much to criticise, it’s worth wondering why the pandemic mobilised action in a way climate change hasn’t. As we explored earlier, some reasons are that climate change is relatively slower to show its impacts, and it’s larger in scope and therefore requires a multi-solutions approach representing a heavier cognitive load (i.e. it’s not ‘solved’ by a silver bullet technology like a vaccine). Plus, years of corporate lobbying has spread disinformation and slowed action. Moreover, the coronavirus feels personal. That’s because it’s spread person-to-person and invades the body. Could a greater narrative emphasis on the body — such as the presence of microplastics in our digestive tracts or pollution in our lungs — spur more climate action?
Images of nurses with mask-creased faces — red and bleeding skin — invaded our social networks accompanied by the hashtag #StayHome, invoking wartime propaganda asking people to ‘do their part’ and glorifying sacrifice. We will see the same messaging if the climate crisis worsens. While indeed everyone has a part to play in climate change mitigation and adaptation, it’s essential we counter messages that distract from government accountability and position avoidable suffering as acceptable. Key to this is creating alliances between essential workers — medical professionals, educators, grocery store clerks, etc. — and activists.
Over the years, the ecofascist idea that civilisation is fundamentally in conflict with the environment and Malthusianism, which advocates for population control as a means to avert resource insecurity (leveraged as a racist dog whistle, shifting blame to largely non-white countries experiencing higher birth rates while ignoring the climate impact of high-consuming, largely white countries), have seeped into the public imagination. In addition to this, ‘learned helplessness’—when a person comes to believe they cannot change a situation and therefore stops trying —could result when climate collapse is accepted as possible, if not probable. The coronavirus on the other hand, carries no such baggage.
However, in the instance of COVID-19, we again see how large narratives of courage, collectivism and action can be countered with defence mechanisms, individualism and inaction. Anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists are criticizing the coronavirus vaccines, linking them to, of all of things, 5G communications networks.
In the US, the epicenter of the anti-vaccination movement is the Children’s Health Defense (CHD). CHD has spread the rumor that the COVID-19 lockdown was being used opportunistically for the installation of 5G masts. It also ran a piece suggesting the pandemic provides cover for a “global agenda” trying to make us all “subjects of a techno-communist global government,” ideas and verbiage redolent of those espoused by ecofascist Ted Kaczynski— also known as the Unibomber— in his manifesto “Industrial Society and its Future.”
Some prosperity narratives focus on how climate action can raise resource efficiency, and stimulate innovation and new investment in infrastructure to improve the economy. However, as we’ve explored, our current economic system, which aims for infinite growth, is a major driver of climate change. It’s therefore necessary we reconceptualise prosperity; prosperity not as an ever-increasing GDP, but as financial stability and meeting — not exceeding — one’s needs. Importantly, this will involve narratives that challenge consumerism and the myth of ‘green growth,’ and relatedly, the concept of decoupling.
Relative decoupling refers to a decline in the ecological intensity per unit of economic output. In this situation, resource impacts decline relative to the GDP, which could itself still be rising. In other words, total material throughput and emissions can continue to rise. Absolute decoupling refers to a situation in which resource impacts decline in absolute terms. Sufficient absolute decoupling remains unproven and, when we’re running out time, we can’t afford to make decisions based on wishful thinking when we know what works now.
Prosperity doesn’t only have material associations, it can also refer to experiences that help us thrive physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Walking through a forest, access to a community of people we care about, exercise and growing a garden are all experiences with low planetary impact.
One environmental movement that focuses on re-imaging prosperity is Degrowth. Degrowth emphasizes the need to reduce production and consumption in the Global North and advocates for a socially just and regenerative society with well-being as indicator of prosperity instead of GDP. Well-being can include, for example, life expectancy and self-reported life satisfaction and happiness.
The movement relies heavily on economic data to support its claims. For example: Indicators of well-being are higher the more equitable a society is, in other words, people are happier in societies where wealth disparity is small. What we find is well-being isn’t exclusively coupled with GDP growth. Not to mention, climate change (as it’s linked to GDP growth) would certainly negatively impact people’s well-being.
28% of all new income from global GDP growth over the past 40 years has gone to the richest 1% (all millionaires). In other words, nearly one third of our labour, resource extraction and CO2 emissions have been done to make rich people richer.
Hickel also makes the point that, in psychology, the capacity for self-restraint in the face of excess is considered to be a mark of maturity, empathy and wisdom. And yet, applying this principle to consumption is considered unthinkable. These degrowth talking points both challenge the economic growth paradigm and offer a new vision of prosperity that centers humans and the environment.
Mutually-Reinforcing Talking Points
Intergenerational responsibility, public health and prosperity narratives can be combined to create a holistic approach to climate storytelling. Since each of these topics benefit from climate change mitigation and adaptation, communications professionals can lead with climate or with a co-benefit. Here are some examples:
Leading with climate: “We have a responsibility to solve climate change to make sure everyone, especially our children, can lead healthy and prosperous lives”
Leading with a co-benefit: “We can reduce death, illness — and financial costs — from climate change if we prioritise our children, public health and prosperity”
Ideally, over time, climate action and its co-benefits merge so thoroughly they become one and the same.
Christopher Booker argues there are only a few basic storylines: Overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, and comedy, tragedy and rebirth. At the core of these examples are stories of various kinds of transformation through confrontation: Social, economic, spatial and personal.
Could fitting the climate issue into these familiar plots help connect it to people? Could the ‘monster’ we need to overcome be climate change? Or perhaps, corrupt elites, like fossil fuel CEOs and colluding governments, who have profited at the planet’s expense — at our expense? How might we tell a rags to riches story that rejects our current conception of prosperity? How about a homecoming story: We build a closer relationship to the environment — in this way, returning to ourselves as part of it?
There are few aesthetic and literary movements associated with positive climate action, like afrofuturism. Another that’s gaining popularity is solarpunk. Solarpunk creators imagine what a sustainable world could look like, and how we can get there. Solarpunk typically features Art Nouveau motifs, heavily greened cityscapes, diversity and community, and of course, solar and wind power. But, solarpunk is still quite niche. There’s much work that needs to be done here.
We’ve just thoroughly explored climate change communications: Its history, the status quo and potential experiments in storytelling. We’ve learned that our ever-evolving understanding of climate science should be at the core of all our communications, and that a good faith, one-on-one conversation is the most resilient but small-scale form of engagement on climate change. And, narratives relating to intergenerational responsibility, public health and a re-imagined concept of prosperity are particularly effective at inspiring large audiences towards action — yet are less resilient, and are especially vulnerable to being co-opted.
These micro and macro climate communications work together, offering an entry point to lasting change: A deeper confrontation with — and transformation of — our relationship to the environment, each other and ourselves. Informed by climate science and ecology, what’s common to all these narratives is a different way of being in the world: A rejection of the idea that our relationship to the environment and to each other is fundamentally extractive and adversarial. The truth is we have the capacity for both selfishness and generosity, and we can make choices about how to be and what will enable us to collectively survive.
Indeed, climate change may be the worst story ever but it’s also not a terribly new one. The first human adaptation known to us is hunting and gathering. As early tribes realised the importance of food security and strength in numbers for their survival, they developed stories to reinforce supporting behaviours. These stories warn of anti-social behaviours, like deception, stinginess, and theft, which could put groups at risk of food stress. This is famously embodied in mythological trickster figures.
As we take a closer look at the environment, its interdependencies, tensions, temporalities, processes, etc. may become more familiar to us. But there’s much we cannot perceive or measure. Once we let go of the idea the environment is totally calculable and therefore controllable , we can also abandon the harmful notion that everything in nature can be assigned monetary value. We can begin to understand the environment as a humble approximation and conservation as an act that is good-in-itself.
Only then can we truly integrate regenerative behaviours into our lives, becoming better stewards, collaborators and observers of the many people and organisms we encounter. We will have ‘written a story’ worth living for.
About the Author
Christine Larivière is a digital communications strategist, manager, and analyst with a data-driven approach who’s working on climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Two global movements—open and climate—both 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.
My name is Dennis “Bumpy” Pu‘uhonua Kanahele. I’m the head of state of the nation of Hawai’i. The journey for me started back some 40 odd years ago. It was in 1978 that the Hawaiian culture was starting to rise up. During that time, there was a state constitutional convention which created the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Can you imagine not knowing anything about your culture, and all of a sudden, there’s this rush of information, of history, that’s starting to come in, and it’s all very foreign to us. We were absorbing a hundred years of our history in a short time and trying to understand what happened.
And so in 1980, the first trustees of this office ran, and I was one of them. I just wanted to get involved. It was the reawakening of our culture.
Thirteen years later the Apology Law came into effect. It acknowledges the overthrow of the Hawaiian government a hundred years earlier. That law was signed by the President of the United States in 1993. In November, Congress passed it: both the House and the Senate.
I was appointed that same year, in July 1993, as a Sovereignty Advisory Commissioner, for the state of Hawaii. Then we faced a decision: now that the United States finally apologized to the Native Hawaiian people for their participation in the overthrow, the Hawaiian people can now proclaim the restoration of our independence—should we decide to. That was a heavy heavy thing. I was a commissioner hearing that legal opinion. So I was like, holy smokes.
We learned we could craft a constitution based around the ohana and the family system. So that’s what the elders did. On January 16, 1994 we proclaimed the restoration of Hawaii’s independence. I was appointed the temporary head of state for the nation of Hawaii. We went right into constitutional convention.
And oh my goodness, to watch 70, 80, 90 year old elders actually figuring out what civil rights mean, what enumerated rights mean, what is a judiciary branch, what is an executive branch.They crafted a constitution in one year. It had a general Legislative Assembly, made up of Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian. And they set up the judiciary branch, the tribunals side with only Hawaiian, and the elders would be the enforcement side of the nation.
Believe it or not, it became a sustainable act by putting the elders there. Because our children would become elders. And so it becomes a sustainable way to hang on to things that were stolen in the past.
Now, I can go into all kinds of stories that happened from 1995 on. It was really a push and pull thing with a government. I got arrested and treated as if I was going through an apartheid kind of situation. I started to participate in state functions just so that I would show the initiative of trying to unite us, no matter what the government did to me, like putting me on probation for three years. We had the land, but we didn’t get a lease until 2001.
The state gave us respect, not as squatters, but as people that were wronged a long time ago. And we’ve been trying to restore some sense of what belonged to us. That is what a nation is, that is why the nation was created. Because we knew that if we didn’t do it, then it would probably be so hard right now to do what we did all these years. We had no help from the state, no federal government funding. Nothing to really take us to the next level.
That changed in 2018. A community internet project is the first project that we had working with the State of Hawaii government. And we did that through the blessings of Internet Society and Mark Buell. And we worked with the Hawaiian Telcom, agencies we never got along with earlier, because of the political stance we took and things that were done years prior that brought us to this point.
But it was a whole new journey, because the state needed a pilot project. And we never worked with the state. And so, we ended up trenching the trenches, laying the lines and working with experts in broadband networks.
And they came in heavy. They showed us how to wire up the connections. And we started to help put them up and really dig in. What we were doing, unbeknown to us at the time, was actually becoming our own internet service provider.
And I tell you, I wouldn’t buy a service from us right now. Because we’re still in the learning parts of connectivity. But we’re working at it.
But you know, once you get broadband, you want more speed. And we’re learning how to regulate the speed and all that stuff now. And internet access is a human right. That is a sanction from the United Nations.
So, some of the hardest things are not so much our technology and hardware, but getting the right people to care for it. And so we are really excited about the relationship that we’ve carved out with the connection of broadband. I think that was what made us trust working with anybody after that.
Sovereignty and sustainability are who we are. The connection between sovereignty and sustainability is like brother and sister, the past and the present, AHUPUA’A!
We had a system called the Ahupua’a system. The water system was how the water flowed from the mountain to the ocean. Now, that water from the mountain to the ocean was maintained—it was managed. That was our system, we managed the system. And we were so in tune with Mother Earth. That’s basically what aloha meant to us. Our ancestors had to maintain the waterways in the mountain, and the flow of the streams down to the ocean. So they would make taro patches and fish ponds along the way down to the ocean. And the sustainability of that was not just the human beings, but all the fish and all the things that would spawn and would come in from the ocean and swim upstream.
We try to use sustainable technologies. Because Mother Earth is still giving us a chance, we should be fortunate.
How can we sustain ourselves? How can we bring sustainability back?
This is what restoration of independence means to me, for our country. And using technology like broadband and communications and all these other good things to speed up the restorationprocess of the oceans and of all animals that run in oceans.
The Hawaiian people have never given up on Aloha.
About the author
Dennis “Bumpy” Pu‘uhonua Kanahele is the head of state of the nation of Hawai’i and founder Pu‘uhonua o Waimānalo, a Hawaiian cultural village and traditional agricultural restoration project in Waimānalo, Hawai‘i.
What is D4S, and what are your hopes and plans for it?
D4S is the acronym for Digitalization for Sustainability- Science in Dialogue, a project focusing on the opportunities and risks of digitalization for deep sustainability transformations. We realized that although there are many researchers working on solutions for different issues arising from the continuing digitalization of economy and society, many of them remain within their epistemic communities and lack opportunities for transdisciplinary cooperation and developing overarching approaches.
To pull various disciplinary and cultural backgrounds together, we compiled an European Expert Panel consisting of 15 renowned academics and practitioners representing a variety of tech, transformation and sustainability communities. With their knowledge, we aim to develop a progressive vision for a sustainable digitalization and enhance the European science-policy discourse.
We focus on three major goals: first, deliver comprehensive analyses outlining the challenges and potentials at the nexus of digitalization and sustainability. Second, develop guidelines, design principles and policies to shape digitalization towards deep sustainability transformation. And third, outline an inter- and transdisciplinary research agenda to keep learning and inspire more research, and research funding, for the coming years.
You recently hosted the symposium. What did you learn? What do you see as next steps for this emerging field?
In five sessions, we discussed approaches for sustainable digitalization from the perspectives of science, policy and civil society. For example, one session reflected on how civil society can network more effectively in the international sphere and participate in the development of sustainable digitalization at the EU level. In another session and with a view to science-policy, different research endeavors and potential points of collaboration were presented to bring together researchers from all disciplines to work on questions related to sustainable digitalization.
It was fantastic to learn how many initiatives and approaches are already in place—in the many communities as well as in different countries. However, throughout the debates it became very clear that there is a lack of networking between science, policy and civil society. Especially academia and the scientific community need to set a focus on engaging with the civil society and actors within the tech industry to achieve genuine change. Additionally, various activities seem limited to particular countries, and there is a lack of internationalization of discourses across national borders.
Internationalization and joint action will become critical in the upcoming months as groundbreaking decisions are pending at EU level, e.g. with the adoption of the Digital Services Package, and also at global level with the UN Digital Roadmap. And it is important that as many voices as possible from civil society and the scientific community are heard who advocate for just and sustainable digitalization.
We hope with this symposium that we pushed the debate, lifted ambition and turned into ideas for collaboration across national borders. We believe this is essential to achieving a deep sustainability transition.
One of the conversations was about Bits & Bäume. From your research group’s perspective, could you share more about this movement and its potential to grow?
When we started our research group Digitalization and Sustainability in 2016, we quickly noticed that there was barely any political awareness of, and public debate about, the risks and opportunities of digitalization for sustainability.
So our research group mobilized a number of civil society organizations working on sustainability on the one hand and on tech issues and internet governance on the other to host a networking conference that brings both actors and discourses of these two topic fields. The conference Bits & Bäume, representing the tech community as the ‘bits’ and the sustainability community as the ‘bäume’ (the German word for tree) in Berlin in November 2018 was a large success with close to 2,000 participants, lots of media coverage and—best of all—significant impact as political parties and the German government started working on a progressive agenda of digitalization for sustainability. Moreover, a movement has grown out of this conference with a variety of local networking events and new alliances.
Now the question is: How can this movement connect with organizations and events taking place in other countries, and is it possible that an international movement on digitalization for sustainability emerges?
In the workshop at the symposium, we invited representatives from civil society organizations to discuss ideas and prospects for collaborative action for sustainable digitalization on the European level. Vivian Frick, who was part of the research group “Digitalization and Sustainability” and the organization team of the Bits & Bäume conference, stressed the need to take into account the social power dynamics in the legislative process.
Literacy and power dynamics influence who gets to speak and who is heard in the discussion on a sustainable digitalization. Focusing the discussion purely on technical issues of digitalization is likely to exclude people. Therefore, the discussion should be steered towards issues of social equality and sustainability in order to be inclusive. Gauthier Roussilhe, Alexander Sander and Marie-Kathrin Siemer added valuable perspectives from their work on ICT and sustainabilty in other EU member states and stressed the momentum for concerted action at the European level to influence important ongoing policy proposals, such as the Digital Markets Act, the Digital Services Act, or the European Data Act.
Another important topic was about Europe’s twin transition. How does D4S approach this policy moment and what do you recommend decision-makers take into account here?
The terms “transition” and “transformation” are used in many different context from various actors. Yet if these terms are understood as profound (‘disruptive’) social change, not all change that goes along with digitalization deserves this term. Neither do digital transformations necessarily lead to “sustainability transformations”, sometimes bringing along rather unsustainable transformations. So first of all, research is needed that clarifies terms.
Moreover, our D4S dialogue project aims to develop and discuss potential criteria and case studies that carve out conditions for digitalization-borne sustainabilty transformations. This will be done by differentiating between forms of digitalization that bring about such transformations vis-à-vis forms of digitalization that merely bring about incremental optimizations (i.e., “hill climbing” social change).
Decision-makers should particularly look out for, and co-create the development of, effective policies and new institutions that help maximize the transformative potential of ICT and mitigate undesired effects from digital disruptions that bring about new unsustainable modes of production and consumption.
Read further research from the research group in this issue of Branch:
The recent launch of the online magazine “Branch” has opened up the topic of sustainable digital technology to a wider audience. This first issue also provides a better understanding of the position of specific tech actors regarding digital sustainability. However, what about other perspectives? Sustainable digital technology is a complex subject that will require international cooperation, but the French community publish in French and rarely translate its reports and papers, as do Germans. This article tries to provide an understanding of the French perspective on digital sustainability and its recent progress.
Disclaimer: I do not represent the French sustainable digital community, I am just trying to synthesize the action of many individuals and collectives in French.This contribution is a rework and an updated version of an article published in November 2020 on my personal website.