A Net Gain

Just a few years ago, Internet purists were arguing that cyberspace should be kept totally free of vulgar commercial content. In 1995, with 30 million users around the world (76 percent of them in the U.S.), it’s the ad-driven part of the World Wide Web that’s growing the fastest. In 1994, there were only 588 commercial Web sites; now there are more than 15,000, with 73 new ones added every day. Some 66 percent of Internet “servers” now handle commercial traffic exclusively.

But even if the Web is becoming, like Forbes magazine, a “capitalist tool,” that doesn’t mean it should be ignored by environmentalists. The beauty of the Internet as a weapon for the eco-warrior lies in its inherent democracy. Unlike cable television, with its electronic portals controlled by a few billionaire executives, anyone can start an uncensored Web page.

And in 1996, most environmental groups have done just that. Even the most inexperienced Web surfer will soon be dipping his toes into sites brimming with information, “Action Alerts” and links to other pages. At the League of Conservation Voters site, activists can download their congressman’s voting record—and email Washington with their reaction to it. On EcoNet, the oldest environmental online service, they can join ongoing discussion groups and click on the latest green news from around the world. And on the ambitious EnviroLink Network, they can make contact with just about every green group with an electronic presence.

Still, many environmentalists remain wary of technology, particularly when it’s computer technology. As this issue’s cover story, “The Virtual Environment,” points out, an ambitious plan by the Brainerd and Bullitt Foundations aims to reverse that situation, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where the Voluntary Simplicity movement is an uneasy neighbor of the high-tech powerhouses.

Sure, environmentalists shouldn’t get so snared in the Web that they can’t distinguish a real tree from the electronic one on their computer screens. But in an age where information travels at light speed and the environment is under unprecedented attack on many fronts, we can’t afford to ignore a powerful tool that grows by 10,000 users a week. As Sam Tucker, executive director of the WebActive Internet site, puts it, “People thought that 500 cable TV channels was a lot. This is zillions of channels.” E’s cover story this issue looks at the environment online and guides you to the key players.

Also in this issue, E presents the second part of its series on consumerism, focusing on the daunting media/advertising alliance that conditions Americans from the earliest age to try and buy their way to happiness. Laurie Mazur’s story provides compelling evidence of advertising’s omnipotence in the modern world. As she describes it, “Space may be the final frontier for advertisers—because the Earth is already taken.”

Thanks to the Onaway Trust for its continued support.

—Jim Motavalli