When you say “greentech” people usually think of cleantech – new energy technologies like solar and wind, as well as developments in green building and water conservation.  Cleantech answers the crucial question, “How will we learn to live more sustainably?”  But there is another crucial question, one that is seldom asked…”How will we learn to think more sustainably?”

I believe that learning to rethink our relationship with the environment is just as important as learning to better use its resources. Part of the reason we find ourselves in our current environmental and economic tailspin I think can be traced to a perceptual disability. For as long as human civilization has been around we have lacked the ability to truly perceive and understand how singular actions can result in enormous collective consequences. 

It’s hard for us to not see the oceans as a limitless supply of food, the sky an endless container for carbon dioxide, and material waste...what material waste?  Until recently our detritus has been limited to food waste or objects fabricated out of biodegradable materials.

So now, in what chronologically speaking is the bat of an eyelash (about 150 years out of our 200,000 years here on earth), we have an entirely new set of problems that our brains and our planet are just not wired to deal with.  So what is the solution?

Well I propose that we need a new brain.  One that makes up for our limitations of perception and one that is adapted to a world in which even slight impacts (like the decision to buy a plasma TV) can have disasterous effects when compounded by millions of people making the same decision.  The US Dept. of Energy predicts that by 2025 we will need an additional 33 billion kWh’s of energy just to power our TV’s.  That’s about 10 new power plants which would produce about 23 million tons of CO2 per year.  (Fortunately an alternative is coming…read my recent post on Laser TV).

Dr. Henrik Karl-Robert who founded the Natural Step program for sustainable business, calls this the “perceptual gap.”  It is not our fault. Our brains just aren’t designed to comprehend how small local actions can have monumental, and possibly cataclysmic global effects.  So essentially, perception (or the lack of it) is the greatest environmental challenge that we now face.  In other words, we need a new brain.

Internet Brain

It seems like an impossibility, but as noted author and scientists Kevin Kelly has pointed out, the Internet has (as of 2008) essentially reached the equivalence of a human brain. On a given day the internet, just like the human brain, uses 5% of total energy, produces 10 billion clicks (or thoughts) via 55 trillion links (or synapses), and has 1 quadrillion transistors (or neurons). But unlike the human brain, our “internet brain” is doubling in power every 2 years, and could dramatically reshape the way we think and relate to the environment around us.

So how will the “internet brain” help us to overcome the perceptual gap?  This is the central question of a new field of R & D that I’ve coined called “perception tech.”

Perception technology I believe will usher in a new era of environmental awareness by using the radically new methods of creating and distributing content now available on the web (often referred to as Web 2.0).  The web is becoming more video-centric, more three-dimensional, and more interactive, allowing us to access more, better, and richer content that previously possible, content that will help us to better perceive our connection to nature and each other.

For my lecture I did an analysis of over 200 green websites and web applications to come up with my top 30, which demonstrate the four key functions that the Internet will provide:

  • Information – new access to environmental information
  • Inspiration – an emotional connection to the issues
  • Activation – a way to take action quickly and effectively
  • Propagation – an easy means to spread the word
There has been a veritable explosion of amazing websites in the past 2 years, and these are the best of the best.  Here’s my powerpoint slide show:

In my MNN column I will be covering new and cool websites that help us better understand the environment.  If you come across any great websites or widgets please leave a comment below and let me know!


Image: TED

Can the Internet save the planet?
The question I posed in my lecture "Environmentalism 2.0" at the European Communications symposium in Barcelona.