Growth in e-commerce masks global environmental crisis

The growth in the internet and e-commerce is obscuring the fact that the world is facing a growing environmental crisis, the Worldwatch Institute has warned.


The information economy has created millions of jobs in the US and helped drive the Dow Jones Industrial Average of stocks from less than 3,000 in early 1990 to over 11,000 in 1999. The trend is being repeated throughout the developed world. “Caught up in the growth of the Internet,” says senior author Lester Brown, “we seem to have lost sight of the Earth’s deteriorating health. It would be a mistake to confuse the vibrancy of the virtual world with the increasingly troubled state of the real world.”

Worldwatch launched their series of annual assessments in 1984. The new report, The State of the World 2000 claims that while e-commerce is booming, the threat to forests, soils, water tables, fisheries and biodiversity increases. The earth faces rising temperatures, more destructive storms, dying coral reefs, and melting glaciers.

The book claims that “economic euphoria” encourages many people in the developed world to ignore trends that have the potential to reverse progress in the developing world, such as HIV/AIDS in Africa and falling water tables in India. “As the Dow Jones goes up, the Earth’s health goes down,” Brown says.

Worldwatch calls for the process of global economic policy making to be restructured to incorporate environmental issues. It cites as progress the large demonstrations made in Seattle in December in protest at the World Trade Organisation’s emphasis on economics over environmental, labour, and human rights issues. Worldwatch describes the demonstrations as “a five-day collision between the ecological principles of sustainability and the economic theory of comparative advantage.”

“It remains to be seen what the long-term effect of the demonstrations and the strong public opinion that they represented will be,” said co-author Hilary French. “But one thing is certain: the environment is now on the international trade agenda.”

French does not mention that the mobilisation of the 50,000 people who demonstrated in Seattle could not have been achieved without the internet. Hundreds of protest groups and NGOs used the internet to mount a concerted information campaign and to organise public protest against the WTO. The NGOs’ internet campaign heavily influenced media reporting of the conference, shocked developed countries’ governments and strengthened the arguments of many poor countries opposed to WTO policies.

The internet was used in a similar fashion by groups opposed to the multilateral agreement on investment (MAI). A coalition of several hundred groups spread information and criticised governmental arguments, alerting other protest groups and NGOs. Such campaigns have been dubbed ‘netwars’ by American political analysts.

Martin Baker, editor in chief of Greenpeace International’s website, told edie that he sees the internet as an essential part of Greenpeace’s activities. “As far as we are concerned, the main purpose of the internet is to tie physical networks together, to give people things to do in their own localities. We are trying to push our site further, to get away from using it as simply an outlet for press releases and so on. We want to highlight environmental problems that corporate interests don’t want to be visible and to engage people in the battle via the web, for instance by putting real time accounts of campaigns with audio updates from the field and digital stills on the site.”

Baker is optimistic that the anarchic nature of the internet can survive its increasing commercialisation and provide a forum for dissent. “It’s true that messages to buy will become even more ubiquitous,” he says, “but I think the interesting thing will be what happens to counteract that. The democratic nature of the web means that the strong anti-corporate sites will provide balance. The big battle is over ownership of the web, with mergers like TimeWarner and AOL, but the rebels will still find ways round that.”

Ultimately, for Baker, the internet will encourage people to engage with the real world rather than simply to escape into a virtual world of shopping and entertainment. “The increase in the number of outlets for messages benefits Greenpeace as much as the corporations. Everywhere there is a product or a service offered, we have to be there, we have to look at turning our website into a channel, to pull people in, away from the TimeWarner type sites. The move to real time story telling is a step towards that, we are beginning to target a wider audience. Greenpeace is one of the most recognisable brand names in the world and we have to increasingly look at it that way, a brand name that people trust as a reliable source of information.”

Others are more pessimistic. In The Cult of Information Professor of History at California State University at Hayward, Theodore Roszak warns that computing has created as many problems as it solves. Although he finds hope in new ways in which access to the internet can turn computer technology into a democratic and liberating force, he believes the current internet frenzy masks “utopian techno-idealism” – the belief that science can solve all our problems – along with a tendency to confuse data with knowledge, the erosion of human-centred values and the rise of a digital oligarchy.

“I see little value in the World Wide Web for environmental purposes” Roszak told edie. “Yes, it puts a lot of good people in touch and circulates ideas and warnings … but its major purpose is merchandising – which is one of the big problems we need to solve. Myself, I can’t work up much enthusiasm for an invention whose overwhelming application is as a new way for Americans to shop and a still better way for corporate power to exert control. Anything else the World Wide Web also does is pretty meager in comparison.”

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