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Open Source: A New Tool for the Sustainability Movement

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It occurs to me that I and other climate change activists may be entirely wrong in the way we approach organizing around this issue. Up till now we have envisioned pressuring government to adopt carrot and stick policies (a combination of tax credits and subsidies) that would somehow motivate billions of people to undertake the behavior change necessary to reduce the carbon footprint of the (mainly) developed world. This clearly isn't working. I feel like I'm butting my head against a brick wall.

I have recently stumbled across a website (and some innovative thinkers) who propose quite a different approach one involving far reaching guerrilla-style tactics that don't require government buy-in for success.

The Challenges of Organizing Around Climate Change

Organizing around climate change at the community, national or global level presents three unique challenges. First and foremost is the massive scale of the problem. Climate scientists tell us that that the only way to avert climate catastrophe is for entire population of the developed world (1.2 billion) to drastically reduce consumption to bring down their carbon emissions by 80% and do it by, well like, yesterday.

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The second major hurdle is that multinational corporations which exert virtually totalitarian control over both the world economy and the world's governments don't want 1.2 billion people to reduce their consumption owing to the disastrous effect this would have on profits. Every message climate change activists put out is immediately countered by 100 messages from corporate advertisers pressuring people to increase consumption (and a few denying climate change is happening at all).

The third major hurdle involves the dilemma of the growing middle class in the Third World . As opportunities open up in China and India for their large middle class populations to adopt more comfortable western lifestyles, it's unrealistic to ask them to return to subsistence agriculture to preserve their low carbon footprint. Especially as they, too, are constantly bombarded by corporate messaging to increase consumption.

Approaching Climate Change from an Open Source Perspective

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The website www.worldchanging.com and the book World Changing: a User's Guide for the 21st Century tackles the problem of getting billions of people to drastically change their behavior immediately and simultaneously from a totally new angle. Whereas most climate change activists point the finger at corrupt and unresponsive governments, the innovators who started worldchanging.com see the hang-up over intellectual property rights as the main problem. The problem, in their eyes, is a mindset that holds people back from sharing new ideas and innovations unless money changes hands.

In other words what they feel is lacking in the sustainability movement are vehicles for sharing solutions that already exist for reducing global carbon emissions. They point out that one such "vehicle" already exists in the Open Source movement, a guerrilla movement (which, to my surprise, is nearly as old as computers) built around the premise that monopoly and intellectual property rights stifle innovation (for reasons John Strachey and others identified as far back as 1932 see my Sept 14th blog "How Capitalism Suffocates Intellectual Life" http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2010/09/14/how-capitalism-stifles-intellectual-life/).

Open Source Operating Systems, Software and Information Systems

The Open Source IT movement haas grown like wildfire in the last few decades with the widespread use of Wikipedia, Linux, Firefox, Open Office and other alternatives to the Microscoft monopoly. The basic principle underlying the Open Source IT movement is that society as a whole benefits from sharing technology (rather than restricting its use via monopoly and intellectual property rights), by allowing other innovators to improve and build on it.

As strange as it may sound, switching to Open Source operating systems and software and getting your boss, co-workers, friends and relatives to do so can ultimately reduce carbon emissions more than getting them to change their lightbulbs.

I myself have switched to Firefox (instead of Microsoft Explorer) and Open Office (instead of Microscoft Word) and plan to download Linux soon to replace Windows. As a community organizer for 30+ years, Microsoft has been the bane of my existence. Most of the activists I work with use MS Word (and before that MS Works) to create documents. Predictably Microsoft has come out with a new version of Word that is unreadable by older versions. This is obviously a calculated maneuver to force businesses and other network users to continuously upgrade their Microsoft software.

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Opening Pesky Docx Files

This time, however, I followed the advice of a fellow Green Party member and downloaded Open Office, which Sun Microsystems provides free on the Internet as Open Source software. Thanks to the Open Source movement, every time Microsoft comes out with a new world processing program, Open Office upgrades to enable businesses and individuals who can't afford to spend $150 on new software to continue to communicate with those who can. Not only does it open those pesky docx files, it also opens zip files and probably does a lot of other things I haven't discovered yet.

The other great thing about Open Office is that, like other Open Source software, it runs faster, crashes less and is less likely to have security problems than Microsoft products. For the simple reason that the code that runs Open Office is made freely available for computer users all over the world to improve and build on. Computers aren't like soup. In general the more people who contribute to code, there more likely someone will discover bugs and security problems.

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I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW (which won a NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award) about a 16 year old girl who (more...)

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