The Virtual Environment Green groups and businesses, usually distrustful of technology, are setting up shop online

In his office at WebWorld in Seattle, Roger Adams is working on the United Nations Environment Programme’s on-line action guide for community organizations. He e-mails drafts to the working groups, and is told that the guide needs more material on sustainable agriculture. Adams writes a quick query on his Macintosh and “uplinks” it into a “listserve,” which automatically sends it on to 2,000 environmentalists around the world. He goes back to working on his document, with the e-mail program working in the background. Within an hour, a listserve subscriber in South Africa has sent him the material he needs. Adams copies the material into his document, attributes it, and completes a new draft, which he immediately e-mails back to the working group.

Across the continent, in Portland, Oregon, Joe Wildhart of the Beaver Creek Alliance is working on a new newsletter. Because he can’t afford a computer and hates them anyway, Joe painstakingly types his information in narrow columns on a manual typewriter, then rubber cements the strips of copy onto a page mockup. When the eight pages are done, he turns to the old printing press he found in a church basement and patiently cranks out 500 copies. That night, with some Alliance volunteers, he’ll hand collate the pages, staple and fold them, then glue on stamps using a sponge. The Alliance has run out of printed labels again, so everything will have to be hand-addressed.

Both these imagined scenarios characterize the environmental movement in 1996. There are more Joes than there are Rogers, and that’s fine if you’re an anti-technology “Neo-Ludditte” like writers Kirkpatrick Sale and Alexander Cockburn. It’s not so fine if, like many environmentalists, you’ve concluded that the movement can’t afford to be politically correct and utopian in the face of rapid environmental degradation that needs quick action.

After all, big national and multinational corporations—the environmental movement’s friends and foes—are embracing the technology without reservation. At computer maker Apple, for instance, the “paperless office” is not just a pipe dream (see sidebar). Electronic forms are used for all office memos and purchase orders. The company even uses electronic—not paper—FAX. “Even when people are applying for a job, they type it on an electronic form,” says Corky Chew of Apple’s Environmental Division. Chew adds that the company’s remote access capabilities allow workers to log onto and work on their office computers from any other location. “You can work anywhere you want and still have access to your office,” Chew says. “That’s definitely environmental because it cuts down on paper use and the pollution that goes along with commuting.”

It isn’t just corporations that E/The Environmental Magazine—a growing percentage of the American people are, too. The three largest online services—CompuServe, America Online and Prodigy—have 10 million subscribers. There are 100,000 Internet World Wide Web sites in the U.S., with 17 million users now—one in 11 Americans—and a projected 25 million by the year 2000. In just one year—1993 to 1994—the Web grew 10,000 percent. At that dizzy growth rate, everybody in the world would be connected by 2003. As Steven Levy recently noted in the New York Times Magazine, “…[T]he Internet has established itself as the real key to the electronic future….It is based on unlimited channels of communication, community building, electronic commerce and a full-blown version of interactivity that blurs the line between provider and consumer.”

One might assume that a movement with a passion for trees, oceans and animals isn’t likely to get excited by computers, modems and keyboards, but some firm link between environmentalists and the new technology seems inevitable. The environmental movement, which has always prided itself on a ceaseless flow of solid, scientifically-based information, won’t reach its intended audience if it’s still communicating through smudgy newsletters.

How computer-crazed have we become? According to an eye-opening survey by the California-based Techtel Corporation, 21 percent of the American people think that computers really could take over the world, and they don’t think that’s such a bad thing. More than a third would rather have 100 computers in charge than 100 politicians. And, in a distinct sea change in American leisure life, 43 percent said they’d rather spend an hour working on a personal computer than watching TV. “Couch potatoes” are becoming “mouse potatoes”—56 percent say they can’t even imagine a world without computers.

Environmental computer gurus deny that they’re fascinated by technology for its own sake; they just want the information to get out. According to Josh Knauer, executive director of the popular Pittsburgh-based EnviroLink Network Website, “A very healthy view is to see the Internet as one tool in a big toolbelt working to clean up the environment. It can provide immediate access to a large amount of information.”

The first green computer service, the San Francisco-based EcoNet, began operating before the Internet was commercialized. Unlike the wide-open Web, it was initially only a subscriber service, offering access to environmental newsgroups, reprints of environmental stories and e-mail for a monthly fee. EcoNet still operates that service, but its World Wide Web site—with much of the same information and features—is available free to anyone who knows its “URL” address (or finds it through an Internet search site). The result is that more information is getting out to more people.

EnviroLink’s Knauer gives a concrete example of how green activists can use the Internet. His Midwestern neighbor is Waste Technologies Incorporated (WTI) of East Liverpool, Ohio, which operates the world’s largest toxic waste incinerator. Midwestern environmentalists have long tried to get the incinerator shut down, and were heartened by a Bill Clinton campaign promise to do just that. But WTI is still operating, so environmentalists exchanged knowing looks at Clinton’s State of the Union expressions of concern for children living near toxic waste sites. “There’s an elementary school a few hundred feet from the East Liverpool incinerator,” Knauer says. “We heard Clinton’s statement, and immediately went to the White House World Wide Web site, where we got the full text of the speech and a whole bunch of supporting documents. We are disseminating information about what Clinton says and what he does to millions of people around the world.”

True believers like Knauer see the Web as a great equalizer. “Small groups may not be able to afford a full-page ad in The New York Times, but they can certainly pay for a Website,” he says. “The Internet is not an experiment, and it’s not just for computer geeks anymore. It’s a totally democratic, decentralized form. Unlike television, which features GE and NBC telling us about nuclear power in a completely controlled medium, the Web gives us free access to undiluted opinion from scientists and policy experts.”

Plugging Everyone In

Environmental activists love to network, and that’s what the Internet does best. Roddy Scheer was, until recently, online networking coordinator for New York’s Greenworking, an informational umbrella for 500 environmental groups in that state funded by the Human-i-Tees Foundation. Now he’s a freelance “Webmaster” for the green community. “The Internet is such an inexpensive form of communication and outreach,” he enthuses. “It’s something that was just meant for environmentalists to grab onto.”

Scheer would like to see activists using the Net to relay messages and working documents, reach out to the public, monitor public opinion, gather information and conduct research. It seems elementary, but many environmentalists are still pounding typewriters and relying on the post office’s “snail mail.” As Cheryl Haeseker, director of public information at the Web-savvy 20-20 Vision puts it, “It takes know-how and technical resources and, unfortunately, people with computer skills are not necessarily drawn to nonprofit work.”

Haeseker has a point and, fortunately, it’s now being addressed—in one part of the country at least. A coalition of two Seattle-based funders, The Brainerd and Bullitt Foundations, began in 1995 an ambitious effort to put the Pacific Northwest’s estimated 250,000 environmental activists online. The main product of the coalition so far is a grassroots service called OneNorthwest, which offers assistance to environmental groups in the form of roving computer experts called “circuit riders.”

OneNorthwest Executive Director Steve Albertson, formerly with Microsoft, says that the region’s environmental groups, despite their location in the most computer-savvy part of the country, are largely unconnected to electronic tools. “We recognized that environmentalists were not using e-mail or the World Wide Web,” he says. “A separate organization was needed to develop computer capabilities for the 600 to 800 groups we have in the region.”

The foundations hired a Montana-based group called Desktop Assistance to prepare a study, which offered a three-year turnaround plan that’s become a blueprint for OneNorthwest. Its goal is to create 3,000 new e-mail addresses—and have 20 major organizations communicating on interconnected Local Area Networks (LANs)—by 1997. This year, OneNorthwest is working to set up electronic conferences to link activists into regional discussions, and to provide an “action alert system” to quickly respond to emergencies, like oil spills or forest clearings. It’s also providing environmentalists with templates so that they can get their information into the arcane “html” language that the Web uses. Albertson says there are already some 75 environmental Web sites in the Northwest, so things are looking up.

Kathy Becker, The Bullitt Foundation’s program officer, says that the Web isn’t just for big organizations. “The most grassroots, lowest-funded, rural groups are the ones embracing this technology the fastest,” she says. “They’re the groups that have had the biggest communications problems: everyone works, so there’s nobody available from 9 to 5, and everything gets done by letter or FAX.” Becker, noting that “the cost of technology has come down dramatically,” says that computers can “level the playing field in terms of communicating our message to the largest number of people, which is what democracy is all about.” Like Knauer, Becker sees online services as “one more tool in the environmentalist’s toolbox.”

Paul Brainerd, who runs the foundation that bears his name, didn’t have to be sold on the value of computers. Brainerd is the founder of Aldus Corporation and a pioneer in desktop publishing; he sold his company in 1994 to devote full time to philanthropic work. “When I began meeting with environmental groups I discovered how far behind they were—there was a huge technology gap between them and what I was used to in the corporate environment. They weren’t connected to networks or commumicating with electronic mail, and they weren’t thinking about how these tools could be used strategically to advance the goals of their organizations. It was clear that, if they were going to win, they’d have to learn how to use computer-based communication tools more effectively.”

Brainerd says that “1996 is key—we want to get 1,000 activists online this year. One of our main problems is that people in the West are spread out over a large geographic area. But, on the positive side, we’ve found very little support for the anti-technology, `Luddite’ point of view. People aren’t using computers simply because they just didn’t know. And, of course, money is always tight, so they haven’t been able to buy computers and software and modems. Luckily, we’ve been able to attract a fair amount of funding for this project.”

Another funder with a strong interest in taking the environment online is the Charlottesville, Virginia-based W. Alton Jones Foundation. “We’re all environmental funders that have gone through our own internal revolutions in communications technology,” says Brian Wheeler, a OneNorthwest board member and technology specialist with W. Alton Jones. “For us that process has been going on for the past six years. We’ve had Internet e-mail since 1992—you can send us grant applications that way. We also have a Gopher site and a Web page under construction.”

According to Wheeler, “What unites the foundations is the recognition that the environmental community is in general pretty far behind in its use of communications technology. We have a desire to move the organizations they work with forward along the technology curve. That means more than just setting up a Web site, it also means such new services as FAX-on-demand, FAX broadcasting and various types of electronic mail. No technology can replace solid organizing skills, and a lot of the groups we fund are all about organizing and educating the public. Technology is just a tool that can help them.”

Getting Known

There’s that word again. Technology as a tool for the eco-warrior. Haeseker of 20-20 Vision says it a bit differently. Computers, she says, “are a way of gaining visibility and engaging more people to take action for the environment.” Some of the means of engagement are rather basic. 20-20 Vision found, for instance, that many people don’t know their own congressional district, and so developed a special “District on Demand” service on its Web page that requires only the user’s zip code. Like 20-20 Vision itself, the Web page is oriented toward activating the citizenry with “Urgent Environmental Alerts!” and plenty of electronic and snail mail addresses. One obstacle: 20-20 Vision has found that some elected representatives still aren’t equipped to receive electronic mail. And some of the ones that are don’t treat it with the same gravity as regular mail. 20-20 recommends using its e-mail tools, but also putting it in an envelope “so you’re guaranteed that your opinion is being registered.”

“We see our Web page as a means of reaching out to young people,” Haeseker says. “It seems to be working: Our Web page has attracted about 25,000 hits since being launched in 1995, and the response we get makes us think we’re ahead of the c

urve. We’ve concluded that information providers of any sort need to look to digital means for transferring information, or get lost in the shuffle. I think we will see a lot more progressive activism online.”

Haeseker would get no argument from Sam Tucker, “publisher” of the new WebActive magazine on the Web. E spoke to Tucker on the day last winter that WebActive launched a revamped version of its site, complete with an Internet press conference using Real Audio software. “We’ve had regular press conferences before, but this was the first time we’d done one that was Internet-only. It was an exciting thing to try. People could submit via e-mail or call in. We answered eight to 10 e-mails, and three or four people `called’ in, allowing us to talk live with them on the Net. And we had 25 to 30 people listening in.”

WebActive is quite sophisticated, offering online audio interviews with such activists as Ralph Nader and John Adams, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The site, updated weekly, also offers commentaries from former Texas Lands Commissioner Jim Hightower, a “Site of the Week,” and “Hot Activist Projects,” which allows direct user involvement. (A recent “Day of Protest” against Internet censorship drew 75,000 FAXes, phone calls and e-mails to Congress.) WebActive is also a gateway and a review of many other sites, some 500 at last count. Andy Goodman, president of the Environmental Media Association, uses it often. “Surfing ain’t enough,” he says. “What I like most about WebActive is its orientation toward action.”

Tucker is convinced green groups can greatly increase their reach with the Internet. “An environmental organization may have something to say, but it’s hard to get the mainstream media to cover events. So rather than spend valuable time knocking on the press’ door, just go on the Net. The fact that you can make your own news is one of the most exciting things about the Internet.” Roddy Scheer agrees. “The whole point about this medium is that we can still control it, or at least our areas of it. I see the progressive Web community growing exponentially, until it includes millions of people.”

Access to Information

Probably the best use of the Internet for environmentalists is as an information source. Within minutes, activists can back up their opinions with hard facts from online databases. There are quite a number of these, most prominently the Alexandria, Virginia-based Greenwire, which markets a daily compendium of environmental news to corporations ($1,500 a year) and non-profits ($795 a year). Marketing Director Meg Schwind reports that Greenwire’s clients come from both ends of the spectrum, from the Cato Institute and the National Rifle Association to The National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife.

Greenwire information is available daily by FAX or e-mail, and it’s also accessible with a member ID through Greenwire’s Web page. A non-profit approach to the same idea is the La Plume, Pennsylvania-based Ecologia, which is a resource for technical environmental databases. Randy Kritkausky, Ecologia’s president, says, “One problem with the World Wide Web is finding the one or two information sources that you need among the thousands of environmental databases that are out there in cyberspace. We’re trying to bring together the useful needles in the Internet haystack.”

Some databases are quite specific. The New York-based TogetherNet, for instance, is a virtual gateway to United Nations information. And the Environ mental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) homepage is a huge resource of regulations, archives, publications and general public information. Within minutes, the full text of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board dioxin reassessment report can be on your desk.

Just a few years ago, the media moguls were boggling the public’s collective mind with the prospect of 500 television channels, but the Web offers many thousands, and it grows geometrically every day. “We spend our time culling through those zillions of sites and trying to pick up the really good ones so that people can use the Internet as a positive force,” Tucker says.

An example of doing just that is Voyage Publishing’s bimonthly electronic magazine Science and the Environment, launched last October and targeting high school and college kids with environmental information. (So far, 4,500 teachers are accessing the database.) According to Voyage’s John Quackenboss, 500 news magazines, research and technical journals are culled “to find the most interesting information, to which we add colorful graphics and maps, then put it up on the Web.”

“Clearly,” Quackenboss says, “the need is there, because environmental textbooks are antiquated, often 10 years old or more. We provide current views in the classroom, so students can see relevance of what they’re studying.” Access to services like Science and the Environment would be greatly enhanced, of course, if schools plug in to the Internet. Says Scheer, “If we could get a Web-connected computer in every school [President Clinton announced just such a $2 billion plan last February], that would be wonderful. The more access to information, the more power people have.”

And that’s basically the premise behind the Institute for Global Communications’ (IGC’s) EcoNet, which has been opererating since 1986. Some users had criticized EcoNet’s old and rather clunky text-based interface, but few would complain about its modern graphical software, or its very useful Web site. EcoNet is also popular with activists because it provides low-cost e-mail and Web access to non-profit groups. (A membership costs $12.50 a month, which includes six free hours of online time.)

Will the Web eventually make EcoNet’s stand-alone service redundant, just as it’s threatening the major services like America Online and Prodigy (which are likely to become giant Web sites themselves)? Antonio Diaz, EcoNet program coordinator, says that people make the difference. “What still makes us unique is the access to our community of organizations and individuals,” he says. “It’s very different from what you might find with other service providers.”

In response to the competition, EcoNet is planning this spring to cut user costs by eliminating setup charges and increasing free monthly hours to 15. “It will make us more cost-effective and interesting for people,” Diaz says.

All the major online services see the environment as a major topic, though their approach is usually carefully neutral, offering links to environmental Web pages rather than opinionated content. Carol Wallace of the White Plains, New York-based Prodigy says, “What we do with the environment is what we do with all our interest areas. The groups themselves have the content; we just find the best sites—the ones that are most reliable and kept up to date—so that people don’t have to go hunting and searching.” Prodigy’s rival, America Online, is working with EnviroLink’s Josh Knauer to provide a revamped environmental area with more content.

The Internet can certainly be oversold. Online chat forums, for instance, struggle to achieve the normal quick ebb and flow of speech, and activists can waste h

uge amounts of productive time surfing from one Website to another in pursuit of elusive information. Former computer junkie Clifford Stoll, author of the book Silicon Snake Oil, is urging the Web-obsessed to unplug and experience life. “It is an overpromoted, hollow world,” he says, “devoid of warmth and human kindness….For all the promise of virtual communities, it’s more important to live a real life in a real neighborhood.” Most environmentalists would agree with that, but then, not many environmentalists would let themselves get buried in the computer’s virtual version of reality in the first place. To them, the real neighborhood—and the real world—will always be the point.