Sunday, 24 February 2008

Draft Article for Sublime Magazine (comments?)


Question. What do sustainability and web 2.0 have in common?

Yes they are both buzzwords. Yes they are both new developments. Yes they are both pervasive, working at many scales, touching and potentially changing everything. Yes they are both to do with complex networks. They are probably close rivals for the candidate of the metaphor of our age (is society like a network, or is it like an ecosystem). But what I have in mind is something else…

Answer. Both involve redesigning life, making it more efficient.

What I want to explore here is the way in which they are starting to work together, to create more sustainable ways of life, using the new applications - wikis, blogs, diggs, tags, profiles, calendaring… - to allow people to organise without needing organisations.

Sociologist Anthony Giddens argued in the1990s that we have reached ‘the post tradition and custom society’. At that time his main example was self help crazes. These codified a life into rigid commandments; giving you the user instructions for daily life. ‘The Rules’ told ten million people how to date. The Atkins Diet told one in ten adults how to eat. It was the decade of ‘How To’. Like the traditional customs they replaced they were rigid schemes of rules. The attraction in many ways was the traditional certainty this reintroduced; ‘if he rings after Wednesday, don’t accept a date for Saturday’!

Now what seems to have emerged is a more fluid self-organising answer to the same lack of traditions and customs. It is a Wiki world. One in which amateur astronomers, bedroom DJs, local activists, Linux coders, bloggers and so on can find each other and organise without needing an organisation. The very things that made up institutions – including rules such as the etiquette of online chat - have detached and become free floating formats. It’s no longer a question of the conduct of your own life within a fixed society. It’s a question of creating that society together.

This is a crucial development for sustainability. Governments and corporations are lumbering. Whereas we can decide tomorrow how to drive – for instance, we can decide to lift-share on a mass scale. All we need is the format to do this within, with trust, feedback and search and other useful mechanisms. (In fact there is a very good online system for this already – it’s at and 200,000 in the UK already use it).

Modern IT is interpersonal technology – it’s about creating a network of connections between individual points. Whether it is a buyer and seller in the capital markets, or a babysitter looking to barter their services for a spot of legal advice… the internet enables efficient markets. (Remember that the web’s very original application was as a souped up telephone directory). What web 2.0 added is things to do together. These are innovative social formats many of which bear a resemblance to gaming: like Facebook pokes, Flickr crazes (‘cats in sinks’) Twitter feeds, user ratings.

What sustainability needs most right now is breakthrough efficiency and radically new ways of living, not just individually but as a society (for instance sharing our resources). So it’s a good fit. Many exciting recent developments in sustainable living are ideas that have emerged within this domain:

Freecycle is sustainability working with raw interpersonal technology. 4.5 million people have joined a simple community to enable you to pass on goods you might otherwise have thrown away.

Actics (active ethics) allows people to give each other and companies feedback. It is potentially what you could describe as ‘the missing link’ in corporate ethics.

WhatDoIdoWithThis is a site built by people in the building industry. In every building job there are materials left over – tiles, piping, bricks, timber. These were usually thrown on a skip. Now you can sell them on, to others who necessarily large quantities., (the train traveller’s bible) and other information resources like that help you take control of how you travel is a virtual farmers market. It allows you to pick and buy food from individual local farms, who can then combine these orders to share some deliveries. It is the ethic of boxed deliveries combined with the convenience and choice of Ocado.

City Car Clubs uses the latest GPS and database systems to allow you to locate, book and use a car when you need one.

Blogs such as Treehugger, Grist but also the individual and little group of friends’ efforts (like GreenGirlsGlobal) allow people to share information in a rich and digestible form.

Facebook groups (and Yahoo groups before them) make organising a party, demonstration or circle of friends who share things as easy as clicking through a few screens and sending an invite.

Green pledge communities such as Pledgebank, and DoTheGreenThing give individuals the experience of being in a crowd of people all doing something that makes a difference and which therefore adds up to have a significant, visible effect.

Rentmineonline,, the Barter Card and other schemes are addressing the need for all of us to share things (for instance homes) more efficiently. Economists reckon there are many trillions of dollars stranded in non-liquid assets; things that people own but get no value from until they sell them. That may also be the key to living better while using less. Why own a lawnmower? Why not share one with your whole street? Get to know your neighbours in the process.

It’s a diverse list, and it’s probably just the start. Since eBay launched I have been arguing that it’s almost as if consumerism is trying to rebalance itself. We do need a vision of a good life (beyond the American dream) that is also sustainable and - paradoxically - the answer may lie as much with fast routers as slow food?

John Grant is author of The Green Marketing Manifesto (Wiley, 2007)
and his blog is at


heather c said...

Thanks for the mention of PledgeBank here, John. I think websites encouraging action -- especially creative action -- are great. The distinct thing that PledgeBank offers is a way to act in the company of others. I appreciate you mentioning us, and please let me know if I can be helpful. I have some good case studies of success stories, and I'm glad to give more information about how the site works!

John Grant said...

Yes I LOVE Pledgebank and the UK version has been one my of my personal favourite social venture sites (I switched to Ecotricity as part of a pledge there for one thing). How is it going in the US? :J