Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Personal Factor Four: Organizing Real Environmental Action With The Internet
Vinay Gupta, 24 Jun 06

Once in a while, somebody notes that the Internet should be materially contributing to solving the world's problems. I think the notion has been around since about 1965. I'd like to raise some ideas for you, WorldChanging's Open Thinktank, to think about, speculate on, contribute to and improve. Our goal is to get to a personal Factor Four improvement in your environmental impact and mine by using the collective intelligence and collective action that the internet enables...

Natural Capitalism and Waste Aggregation
One of the key concepts of Natural Capitalism is "Sell Services, Not Products." Part of the rationale for this is what I'm going to loosely term "Waste Aggregation." To take a canonical NatCap example, imagine an elevator. If the elevator is owned by the business which uses it (say a hotel) then the energy efficiency and reliability of the elevator has relatively minor impact on the bottom line of the hotel. As long as it basically works, nobody cares about its quality.

Now imagine this elevator is leased, and the company which leases it to the hotel also has to keep it running. Suddenly this company's bottom line is massively impacted by the reliability of their elevators, because every repair costs them money. For the hotel, a few thousand dollars a year on the bottom line is no big deal. But for the elevator leasing service, all those repair costs aggregate and turn into a large enough pool of money to do real engineering with. By aggregating the waste we make it profitable to get rid of it.

Recycling is a form of "waste aggregation" by the way.

Demand-Side Aggregation
To push this example further, suppose the company which leases the elevators pays for the power they consume too. Now the waste aggregated covers not just the mechanical reliability of the elevator, but also its electrical efficiency. If they also recycle / reuse elevators at end of life there is yet more aggregation. This can be termed demand side aggregation.(sorry I don't have a better link for that!)

The Internet is theoretically a great place for birds of a feather to flock together to produce demand side aggregation. (Dan Savage's Law of Internet Perversion more or less states that, no matter how weird your kink, there is a community online for you) Another good example of Internet-enabled demand-side aggregation is a site which purports to allow groups of individuals to collect money together in the manner of the Street Performer Protocol.

Where could the Internet's ability to create demand side aggregation be turned into real environmental gains? One idea - and nobody do this as a start-up before I get to it - would be to aggregate demand in an area for green real estate development. Find two hundred potential buyers, then approach green builders and set up a deal for perhaps twenty units, given that the proven demand exceeds the supply by a factor of 10-to-1, reducing risk. Another example might be communities coming together to mass purchase energy efficiency improvements or wind credits.

If we have to solve the problems we have on this planet with the tools available, the Internet is potentially a very, very good tool. Where can we use the aggregating power of the Net to reduce environmental impact worldwide?

All of Us Are Smarter than Any of Us Are
The Peak Energy Blog reads like it was written by a fellow traveller. I just came across it today by chance via a google search. Every time I look something environmental up online, I wind up one of two places: the EIA or some random green weblog. There are a lot of us out there - tens or hundreds of thousands I think.

The environmental problems we face are huge and many of them are amenable, at least in part, to relatively small actions by large groups of people. Furthermore, the intellectual labor of sorting out our environmental problems may not have to be done by a few think tanks stocked with full-on genius polymaths. It may be that a lot of our problems can be analysed to solution by "peer production." If it's good enough for Linux and Wikipedia, after all...

So how do we mobilize the Yacking Hordes of the Internet, of whom I am one, into effective teams to do something about our environmental problems?

There are a set of questions I have about the environment that I have never been able to find a good, clear answer for. That doesn't mean that there are no good, clear answers, but that I haven't been able to find them.

1. Paper or Plastic at the checkout? (I'm joking)
2. How does personal income correlate (on average) with net environmental impact (graphs, please!)
3. What are the ten most environmentally damaging consumer products in America?

These are just examples, you understand. But it seems that small teams of people, like those who operate some areas of Wikipedia, could answer these questions in a definitively well-researched form. If the programmers and architects had enough spare resources to recreate Unix and are working on recreating Windows/MacOS, can the Greens create something of equivalent power and value, a Manual Of Doing The Right Thing that people can refer to to solve their ecological quandries? What other artefacts could peer production create to help us do a better job of living on the planet? Could we start with an annotated library of Buckminster Fuller's patents, for instance?

How many other, better ways are there that we could take the combined brainpower of the ecologically-minded amateurs and start churning out real solutions? How do we actually start to harness our collective intelligence to think our way out of the potentially fatal cultural deadlock we are in about our current energy and environmental crises?

Speculation, if you will, in the comments...

Aggregating into a movement
I spent a part of today digging double dug beds, which are a part of biointensive agriculture. I hadn't had a spade in my hand since Scotland, probably, over a decade ago. I broke the damn fork so I hope the warranty works. I learned a few things in the process, and I expect to learn more as the process unfolds. (I may wind up living inside my own fiction if I'm not careful!)

All over the internet there are small and large communities of practice - centers of excellence in organic farming or living cheaply or doing home solar. There are professional networks for architects and designers. There is a grass roots movement which has been running since at least the 60s and perhaps before that, learning and maintaining knowledge.

Without meaning to sound alarmist, I'd like us to consider that the time may be at hand where we have to turn the very large number of people with green leanings into effective political and financial pressure groups. There is no guarantee that the nation state or the international agency is the right level of political action to solve environmental problems: while international agreements have done very well in certain areas (the ozone layer, for example) so far nobody has got a realistic handle on CO2 or the ways of live which are crashing our global biodiversity. We may need new approaches to solve these problems.

The problem is that individual action seems too weak: ok, I could buy more CF bulbs and be a little greener, even if I like incandescent light a bit more... but so what? Sure, I could walk more and drive less... but so what... Sure I could... individually, I feel like my actual impact is negligible. And it is.

Symbolic, token green action is personally satisfying, and may indeed be building necessary momentum and infrastructure for transforming our society, but it has little overall effect. Everybody expects somebody else to Do Something and, in truth, many of the worst problems are systemic and deeply entrenched. How energy efficient is your apartment building? If it leaks like a sieve, is there anything you can do about it? Not much, not really...

There are, however, a few clear winners we need to get behind, technologies and ways of life which could, with appropriate support, really change the way our society impacts our planet.

I'd like to pick three examples.

The first example is Green and High Performance Building. Pretty simple, really: cut the energy used to heat, cool and light your home by 75% in some cases. If a couple of hundred thousand people on the internet mobilized behind this, how much could we cut our collective environmental impact? Even if only 10% of us migrated into green dwellings over the next decade, how large would the net savings be for the group which supported this effort? Living in a green house is probably the best thing you can personally do to reduce your environmental impact.

The second example is Hypercars. Although for most of us, our homes have around twice the CO2 emissions of our cars, transport still has huge impacts on how our society functions. While "efficient cars" may be the wrong approach in the long run (see New Urbanism for a better idea) the car is still a critical battleground over the short term, particularly given the geopolitical importance of oil. The green benefits of getting america off oil would only be the beginning: imagine the "oil peace dividend."

The extremely rapid sales of hybrid vehicles are a great start, but a more efficient powertrain is only the start of designing efficienct vehicles. While I am agnostic-leaning-atheist on the hydrogen economy part of the hypercar concept, still the super-lightweight 200 mpg diesel hybrid has its appeal! How do we, as potential customers, catalyze the car companies to give us their best and push the technology envelope as far as possible to get the most efficient vehicles that are financially and technologically feasible? Do we, as potential customers, have a role in the vehicle design process?

The third and last example is Organic Farming. The number of reasons organic farming is the Right Thing are beyond immediate measure. It may not be the only Right Thing (I might be quite partial to vat grown meat), but for reasons from soil preservation through to personal health, organic is a boon. Ideas like Community Supported Agriculture have already shown that community organization can help produce a feasible, financially sustainable livlihood for organic farmers. I do not know how far organic food can replace our current pesticide-and-fertilizer food economy: there may be limits both economic and physical - but clearly we could as a culture support a much, much larger and more competitive organic farming industry. Could we do the same kind of grass-roots communit activism to create "community supported builders" (CSB) and "community supported cars" (CSC)? I am sure there ways of using our collective buying power to create the new products we want.

So let's put these three changes into context. If you are reading this the odds are very strong that you live in the North, that you are one of the richest human beings on the planet, that you have a computer and a roof over your head. If this describes you, then consider this: if you had a green home, a hypercar and ate all organic produce, your net environmental impact could be 25% of what it is now.

A purely individual Factor Four reduction in our individual environmental impact might not be feasible. Green homes are hard to find right now, hypercars don't exist and organic food is often quite expensive.

But I think that enough of us working together could start to produce Factor Four improvements in the lives of those at the forefront of our movement, the very earliest adopters. We can use our collective heft to start a "green house, green car, organic food" movement that could motivate people across the country to work together to lay the foundations of real change.

Let's discuss these ideas in the comments and elsewhere. I'm not sold on this particular agenda: a lot of analysis would be needed to figure out if these are the right places to start. Likewise, I haven't addressed cultural, institutional level changes like migrations to new fuel economies, which might be the best long term solutions.

To make tracking the discussion across other sites easier, please use the tag personalfactorfour (no spaces) if you are making blog postings etc. about this or related ideas!

Bookmark and Share


Vinay I like your idea of using the internet to aggrgate efficiencies costs etc. Examples and models can be powerful motivating tools to kick start change,bring down costs and I'd like to be part of an on and off line community doing those things.In Australia the areas you cite domestic buildings personal transport and food consumption account for about 20% of Green House Gas production. I dont know what the figs in the US are probably not that much different to here.In other words there is a lot of energy use over which we have little Direct control.A factor 4 redction would mean a 15% overall reduction not to be sneezed at but still well short of the 50-80% we need. To attack those other 85% *structural* Green House Gasses, in tandem with personal reduction aggregation we will need to aggregate our political/advocacy action as well. Governments and corporations need to make deep changes in how they do things and they will if they get a very strong message from lots of folks , often. And the net can and should be a major part of that strategy. Jim

Posted by: jim on 25 Jun 06

In the USA, the EPA says 40% of our energy goes into buildings, resulting in 38% of our CO2 emissions. Cars (they say) account for about half that amount so we're talking around 60% of America's CO2 emissions by the time we optimize buildings, cars and food.

Of course, not all buildings are personal residences and I should have said something about commercial buildings.

One request: because a lot of the discussion on this threat may well revolve around environmental impact estimation, could I ask people to link to the sources of their numbers as much as possible?


Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 25 Jun 06

Jim - where does the other 85% go in Australia?

I agree about the political advocacy - I think that if we moved to carbon taxes we'd half our emissions in ten years. Of course, there's a decent chance that carbon taxation is incredibly regressive: the very rich use only a few times more energy than the poor, and therefore a CO2 tax doesn't spread the load of the government very "fairly."

although opinions vary:
(that's a good intro piece on CO2 taxes)

So there are complex social factors to examine also.

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 25 Jun 06

The internet is critical to developing new consciousness, educating, and the rapid dissemination of new concepts.

It is also starting to become a place for policy formulation. Over at DailyKos (, energy discussions eventually turned into an attempt to frame a workable energy policy for political platforms -- a policy that would lead to a sustainable and prosperous energy future (for the United States and the world). This drew heavily on a wide range of sources for inspiration and concepts -- including WorldChanging.

While not perfect, the distillation seems to have some real merit -- check out EnergizeAmerica 2020 at It is still a work under construction, still evolving. It is an 'open source' attempt to develop a workable energy policy in the United States that would radically change the nation's path for the better.

Now, with 20 acts, it is far from fully comprehensive ... it doesn't do everything ... there is not enough on, for example, smart growth ... not enough direct discussion of R&D requirements ... not enough on the need for a smart grid ... but the 20, if passed, would significantly change the situation for the better.

This was presented at the YearlyKos convention in Las Vegas, with Governor Bill Richardson as a participant in the panel. For an annotated version of this briefing, see: .

The fourth section of the briefing might be worth checking out, as it focuses on guiding principles. These include that 'there is no silver bullet' but, at the core, the EA2020 team work to the principle that we seek to enable the right choice as the easy choice.

Check this out ... we'd appreciate comments, thoughts, etc ...

Posted by: Adam on 25 Jun 06

Damn, I can't believe I didn't know about that! WOW Thank you. I'm reading now...

One thing I'd immidiately note is that LEED is not sufficiently aware on energy issues: you'd do better mandating EnergyStar I think. See "LEED is broken; let's fix it" by Randy Udall and Auden Schendler:

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 25 Jun 06

Thanks for taking a look at EA2020 ... if you wish, eventually, to write it up -- easy to get at key authors via the e-mails over at the site.

Re EnergyStar via LEED -- sadly, both LEED and EnergyStar have some serious issues associated with them. Part of the EnergyStar 'fraud' is that there are products being sold with EnergyStar labels in classes of appliances for which there is no EnergyStar program. E.g., both programs / environments need serious improvement.

Posted by: Adam on 25 Jun 06

Great post. I found it through Groovy Green, but also wanted to post my comment here.

The line that was most interesting for me was this:
"Could we do the same kind of grass-roots community activism to create "community supported builders" (CSB) and "community supported cars" (CSC)? I am sure there ways of using our collective buying power to create the new products we want."

Community Supported Agriculture has been a great success. It has allowed consumers to have more control over their food and know where it comes from. It also has helped many farmers. It has helped farmers find a market, make better margins, and probably has helped them switch over to organic and better farming practices.

Why couldn’t we do an organized grassroots approach to building and cars (and maybe even alternate energy)? Form a group, find an interested builder/architect/designer, decide on a location/land/property, fix existing structures or build new ones.

In CSAs, one of the benefits to the farmers is that in many cases they receive the money for the season up front. A similar concept could help the CSBs and CSCs, although now you are talking more money and probably higher risk…however I’m sure a functional model could be designed.

Posted by: Rebecca Carter on 29 Jun 06

Thanks for the comment, Rebecca. I think we *could* do an organized, grass-roots approach to buildings for sure: get together with 300 of your closest friends and find a builder who's willing to work with you to build 10 units which, from that group of 300 people, will definitely be sold.

Co-housing seems to work this way sometimes, but I don't know very much about their development cycles or how they get off the ground. I think it's probably a good model of how a community can get together to build real estate, but it is something I need to read up on more.

Cars are a harder proposition, I think. The costs involved in new car development are measured in billions and tens of billions. That's a much taller order!

But even here, I wonder if consumer activism doesn't have a critical role: get enough people together to say "this is what we want!" and car companies will pay attention and try and serve those markets... At the end of the day, their job is to sell you a vehicle!

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 29 Jun 06

With Katrina and now the flooding of the Northeast, wouldn't this be the time to start screaming about wastewater treatment beyond the septic tank, i.e. "living machines"..and shouldn't people start speaking out about how harmful the polluted groundwater is? When in Ct. last week I saw road signs "Entering the Watershed of a Public Water Supply". The New London newspaper had an article June 25 headline: "We're talking about a crime scene investigation--some forensic ecology, if you will". Scientists need to get into the press NOW!

Posted by: Carole Clark on 30 Jun 06

I'm going to collect some more ideas about this on the Bright Green Wiki. The Wiki hasn't seen very much use of late, perhaps we can kick start it again.

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 30 Jun 06



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg