One afternoon last week, I joined seven different environmental communities, signed four petitions, sent letters to both my senators, let hundreds of friends in on a new way to fight climate change, agreed to reduce my family’s carbon output by .94 tons a year, and founded a campaign calling for all electric utilities to get at least 20 percent of their power from renewable sources.

Oh, yeah. I learned a little later that I’d raised a whole penny on behalf of the cause “Stop Global Warming.”

John Muir, eat your heart out.

Muir spent most of his life (which lasted from 1838 to 1914) crusading for wilderness conservation. He climbed peaks above the Yosemite Valley, camped out with Teddy Roosevelt and founded the Sierra Club.

Nowadays, anybody can go to and, in about minute, fire off a personalized letter on one of about 30 environmental issues to his or her congressperson.

My own orgy of activism was prompted by a decision to figure out how to effectively use 50 or so interactive communities and social media websites that focus either exclusively or to a great extent on the environment. I found that the sites can be fun and feel empowering -- in the same way, say, that blazing through an easy crossword puzzle might be exhilarating.

Are they effective at bringing change, though? That question is difficult to answer.

One of my favorite interactive sites is called MakeMeSustainable, whose mission is to do pretty much what the name says. In the process of joining, you’re guided through a questionnaire designed to figure out how much carbon you and your family are responsible for emitting.

Household carbon calculators have been floating around the web for a few years. But MakeMeSustainable’s interface is the niftiest I’ve seen: The design’s clean and questions are detailed enough to give you a sense that it’s evaluating your carbon use accurately. After you complete the survey, you’re taken through a series of tabs that allow you to commit to lifestyle changes. Raising our thermostat by three degrees during the summer, for example, would reduce my family’s carbon output by .43 tons a year.

I’m not sure if MakeMeSustainable should be considered “social media.” It’s more of an interactive application that you join and might get others to join, but you don’t do as part of a community. At the other end of the spectrum is Carrotmob. If MakeMeSustainable is 90 percent cutting-edge web application and 10 percent about interacting with other people, Carrotmob is the exact opposite. (See MNN’s article about Carrotmob.)

In the words of its founders, Carrotmob is all about “harnessing existing economic forces” to do good. A group of people concerned about a problem -- say, garbage -- comes up with a plan to enlist businesses in the solution. And they organize a “mob,” whose purpose is to encourage the businesses to help solve the problem.

They might, for example, announce that they’re looking for the coffee shop that recycles more of its waste than any other. Then, the entire mob will give its business to that coffee shop, so coffee shops all around town will try to outdo each other by recycling. All carrot, no stick.

The Carrotmob site uses pretty basic web tools, like blogs and video, organize mobs. Creativity, smarts and an infectious charm make it irresistible. This video is a good example of that energy:

The variations of sites designed to compel social action is endless. Carbonrally is sort of like MakeMeSustainble, except it lets you turn reducing carbon into a competitive sport. Other sites, such as One Percent for the Planet and Al Gore's We Can Solve It, engage businesses in greening. Green the Block helps neighbors join together to make solar power more affordable. Do Something is a social action site and webzine for do-gooder teenagers. Green for All places an emphasis on connecting minority communities to environmental activism.

Of all of them, may have the broadest mission. After joining, I went straight for the “Stop Global Warming” tab, which links to around 400 “actions,” as well as the site’s excellent blog on climate change, a guide to non-profits, and a directory of 48,000 other members who’ve signed up to “Stop Global Warming.”

This is where this old print journalist starts wondering how reporting and writing can compete for people’s eyeballs. It seems to me that most users will find themselves far more engaged in sites that guide them to take action themselves, rather than to those that just inform them. The articles on are just the appetizer; the interaction and organizing tools are the main course.

It took me a half-hour to create my own “action” in the Stop Global Warming section of I’d been frustrated earlier this summer, when the Senate weakened the American Clean Energy and Security Act that had passed in the House. One Senate amendment reduced the percentage of clean energy that utilities will be required to use by 2020.

My action? “Congress needs to give utilities a tougher clean energy goal.” I’m kind of proud of it. So, please, by all means -- go to, sign my petition, and send a letter to your senators. In fact, you can sign a couple of thousand petitions on And then, like me, and you can create your own action.

All of which brings up an obvious question: John Muir dedicated five decades to fighting for California’s wilderness. It was an uphill, often lonely battle, strewn with heartbreaking defeats. He’s credited with helping to create six national parks, but he died only a year after the federal government allowed a dam to built that flooded his beloved Hetch-Hetchy Valley. Could anything as easy as spending half an hour to create a petition campaign actually be as effective at bringing about change as the old-fashion road of hardship and sacrifice?

The answer is: Only if you put a lot more effort into it than that first half hour., MakeMeSustainable and all the other sites make it easier to join communities and organize. In the end though, change still relies on the commitment of the people who want to bring that change about -- not upon the latest technology.

Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Media Mayhem column for the Mother Nature Network. He blogs about media, pop culture and the environment at

MNN homepage photo: Akirastock/iStockphoto

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