On April 1, 2010, Lucie Crise, a journalist for the French magazine Rue 89, wrote to me with the following questions about Coalition of the Willing. Answers were provided in writing. Francophones can read the published interview at Rue89.
– What do you see as the problem with the current politics of global warming?
Global warming not only presents us with a major ecological crisis but a global political crisis as well. It is clear from the failure of the Copenhagen talks that the international system of states is inadequate to enable a response to the challenge of global warming. Many people blame political leaders for the failure of the talks. But the problem is not the leaders (many of whom seem to be genuinely concerned to respond to global warming). The problem is the system of competing states, the inter-national system, which was born with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and which has come the define “the political” generally. The global capitalist system that we know today has grown up through competition and negotiation between states, facilitated by international law. But because the international system in premised on competition, it makes it difficult for coalitions of states to band together to address common problems. And that’s how things stand today.
Global warming calls for a new political ecology. This problem is like nothing the human race has faced before: it is global in scope and potentially cataclysmic in its effects. And the political system of competing states that we have at the moment prevents us from even responding to the problem. Our only hope is to transform the political. Fortunately, this is not as difficult as it sounds: the infrastructure that will enable this transformation is already in place and the process is underway. “Coalition of the Willing” is not so much a new idea for tackling global warming as it is an attempt to focus attention on how new internet technologies are already transforming the way that people all over the world understand themselves as empowered political agents. I think that in the next few years we will see global climate action networks start to play an increasingly powerful role in world affairs, as people come to appreciate the impotence of the international state system for tackling global warming. The way ahead lies in global grassroots action, coordinated through online platforms for participation. If we continue with politics as usual, there is no future.
– Why do you think that the web 2.0 could be a part of an ecologic war?
The internet is rapidly evolving from a space for sharing information to a space for collaboration. The open source movement is leading this development. Ten years ago, “open source” was a collaborative approach to designing software online. Today open source is becoming a generalized “culture” – an attitude and approach to designing innovative solutions to all sorts of problems, used in business, government, and the not-for-profit sector. Our idea in “Coalition of the Willing” is that an open source approach to the war on global warming could transform the nature of this struggle. Currently people all over the planet are waiting for their governments to take action on this problem. For people who care about the future of the planet, it is deeply frustrating to see how slowly the process is going. But we don’t need to wait for governments to fight this war themselves. By setting-up a series of online platforms for collaboration that enabled people to freely contribute to the grassroots struggle against global warming, we’d not only enable all sorts of new ideas, interventions, and initiatives, we’d facilitate the kind of global transformation in political consciousness that I was speaking of before. By working and creating together across borders, acting towards a common goal, people would come to realize a new form of political identity beyond the nation state. That, I think, is the ultimate contribution that web 2.0 could make to the ecological struggle.
– In Beyond Copenhagen, you wrote that Web 2.0 could provide people all over the world with the opportunity to creatively engage the problem. Do you really think that people will act?
Three things would be required in order for it to work. First, the web 2.0 sites would need to be state-of-the-art platforms that mixed cutting-edge collaborative and crowd-sourcing technologies with seriously cool design. If the sites are easy to use and fun to explore, people will want to contribute to them. Second, we’d need to organize some high-profile collaborative projects to kick-start the sites. If people saw that business, activist, and research and design teams were already using the sites to collaborate on new initiatives, they’d be more likely to pitch in or start projects of their own. Third, the sites would need to be properly promoted. “Coalition of the Willing” could be part of this. At this stage, the film is a think-piece and optimistic manifesto. But once the sites it describes come online, the film could be used as an advertisement.
– Do you think that it will change anything at the current apathy as you describe it? How could they make a difference?
The reason people feel apathetic is because they believe there is nothing that they can do to make a difference beyond consuming less, which isn’t much fun. The truth is that there are all kinds of things that people could do to make a difference – there is simply no forum that would enable people to pool their ideas, form groups, and get started. As for how people could make a difference: I think it is unnecessary to tell people what needs to be done, and probably counter-productive too. The world is full of talented, smart, and creative people who are perfectly able to dream-up actions and initiatives of their own. That’s the beauty of an open source approach to collaboration: you don’t need to organize people from “above”; you simply prepare the sites and spaces in which they can self-organize and let them do their thing.
Why do I think this would work? Because talented, smart, and creative people all over the world would see this as an exciting opportunity to actively engage the greatest problem of our time. In a word, it would be immensely empowering. People love the idea of saving the world. Here is a chance for people to actually participate in doing it. That is an empowering prospect
– What do you mean by “creatively engage”? Is this about imagination?
Imagination is important, but what we need right now is collaborative action. The three internet sites that we describe in “Coalition of the Willing” are aimed to enable people to participate in designing and actioning real solutions to the many problems thrown up by climate change. This approach is already being applied to humanitarian crises about the world (see this article on open source humanitarian design ). We could take the same approach to the climate crisis – indeed, we need to do this.
– What do you think people can do with the web 2.0?
At least three things. First, wikis enable people to compile databases of information. Wikipedia is an example of this. We argue in “Coalition of the Willing” that the next step is to create a Green Knowledge Trust, based on the Wikipedia model, that would enable people form all over the world to share practical know-how for low-carbon living, and also practical strategies for adaptation to climate change. Second, online collaboration software enables us to build platforms for participation, which innovators and experts from about the world could use to create new solutions to the problems of the future. We call this an Open Innovation Center. A team at MIT has already built a prototype of this sort, which has produced some exciting innovations. Third, social networking technology enables people to organize movements and initiatives on a global level. People are familiar with MySpace and Facebook, but these systems are only the beginning. Imagine a Facebook-styled social networking system connected by links and feeds to an Open Innovation Center and a Green Knowledge Trust. That would be an extremely exciting development that could really change the way that people about the world understood what was possible for them to do and achieve.
– Are individualism and consumerism reasons to the global warming?
Consumerism is a major part of the problem. Capitalist economies are premised on the idea of constant growth, and to achieve this they need to be constantly introducing new products for people to buy. These products are manufactured cheap in the developing world and shipped all over the planet, all at a considerable ecological cost. Why do people feel the need for all these new products? It is because people have become used to defining themselves in terms of the social status they derive from new products. Consumerism has become part of how people form their sense of individual identity. All of this needs to change, but it won’t be easy, and it won’t happen fast.
– You say (in Essay #3) that “The story of sorryeverybody.com illustrates how an online initiative can focus and coordinate the action and desire of a multitude of people in geographical space. It shows how, under the right conditions, a site, or series of sites, can trigger a human swarm that centers about an issue of common concern and functions as a locus of empowerment”. Don’t you think that these kinds of mobilizations are quite different from each other in their stakes?
People participate in swarm movements for all sorts of reasons, it’s true. But these movements don’t take shape without some common problem or concern that binds the swarm together. It’s only when people recognize that they share a problem or concern with others that they are inspired to action. Take the example of sorryeverybody.com. The people who contributed to that site were no doubt upset about the re-election of Bush for all sorts of reasons. The site took off, however, because it provided an opportunity for them to give expression to a common desire – to apologize, on behalf of the US, to the rest of the world. The opportunity to act together towards a common goal was inspiring and empowering for them. Swarm movements take shape when a mass of people see the opportunity of acting together towards a common goal.
– Could you explain swarm politics in a few words?
Swarm movements take shape when a mass of people see the opportunity of acting together towards a common goal. Individuals gravitate towards the collaborative activity as a source of empowerment, and they participate for the hit or experience.
– Do you live according to your desire to end the global warming?
I do my best, using green energy at home, public transport to get about, and off-setting my air miles with carbon credits when I fly. I still have a carbon footprint, but I hope to find new ways of reducing it as the years go by.
I think it is important for people concerned about the environment to avoid becoming ashamed and self-hating on account of the negative contribution they make to global warming. The unfortunate fact is that most of us don’t have the tools and means to live fully sustainable lifestyles – not yet at least. But people all over the world are coming up with new ideas and innovations that will make this possible in the future, that that gives us reason to be optimistic. Instead of beating ourselves up for what we can’t achieve at the moment, we should be focusing our energies on forward-thinking initiatives that will change the world. This is the kind of attitude that Simon Robson and I have taken to making “Coalition of the Willing.” Fortunately, we’re not alone in taking this attitude. I think that sites like WorldChanging represent the cutting edge of contemporary social change, which is being driven by an optimistic, creative attitude towards the future.