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Just Imagine

Interview: Alex Steffen

  • Story Highlights
  • Enviromental campaigning website devoted to tackling global problems
  • Founder says we have the tools for change but need a new way of thinking
  • Online activism already a powerful force with unlimited potential
  • Change only possible if large numbers of people realize their responsibilities
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(CNN) -- Fairer, greener, technologically advanced: CNN caught up with Alex Steffen to talk the Internet, environment and changing the world.

CNN: Alex, tell us about Worldchanging.com's philosophy.

Alex Steffen: At its very heart, Worldchanging is about using the best of people's new ideas, bringing them together and applying them to the massive problems that we all face.

CNN: What are those problems?

art.story.alexsteffen5.jpg

Alex Steffen: writer, campaigner, environmentalist, futurist

AS: Well, the planet's biggest problems have to do with sustainability, environmental decline, global poverty, disease, conflict and so forth. Really, they're all interconnected -- it's one big problem, which is that the way we're doing things can't go on. It's unsustainable. The biggest challenge that we have is, how do we reorganize the world in such a way that we have a better future ahead of us?

CNN: How do you think we should go about doing that?

AS: We already have many of the technologies and tools that we need to build a sustainable future. What we don't have is a new way of thinking, and that's really the hardest part.

There's no law of physics that says we have to be an unsustainable society -- in fact, quite the opposite. The planet's ready to work with us if we're ready to think differently, but we do have to make that jump and start to do things in new ways.

CNN: How important has the Internet been in what you're trying to achieve?

AS: You couldn't do a project like this without the Internet. We have managed to create a very well-read, very wide-ranging publication online with essentially no money, just real enthusiasm and a very small staff. In days past, just trying to put out a publication on paper would have been very difficult and expensive.

There's also no way you could have gathered together a network of people like this. I trade e-mail every day with people on four or five continents. It's an amazing moment right now: small groups of people with good ideas can find each other and make something happen. We're able to do that on a shoestring, without the permission of the higher authorities. If nothing else, the Internet allows people to put their ideas out there and let the world decide whether they're worth paying attention to. That's a pretty exciting thing.

CNN: The Internet is clearly very important now. How much more important do you think it'll become in the future?

AS: My suspicion is that in the future, the Internet's going to swallow everything else. We already see this incredible merging of print publications and the Internet; of encyclopedias and libraries and the Internet; of retail businesses and the Internet. More and more we're also going to see the Internet swallow radio and television.

But also, as more people start to connect with the Internet over their cell phones -- and hundreds of millions of people in the developing world have gotten cell phones in this decade -- I think we're going to see it become a discussion space for a much larger segment of the human race. That offers tremendously exciting possibilities. We don't even really know right now what happens when you combine six billion Internet users with new tools and technologies and the new demands and problems that we have today.

CNN: Will new technologies like the Internet make the world a fairer place?

AS: The jury's still out on whether technology will make the world a fairer place or not. It depends on what kind of technology we end up embracing. If we end up embracing proprietary technologies, that are meant to profit the few at the expense of the many, we probably won't see fairness emerge out of those technologies.

On the other hand, there are an enormous number of people out there who are creating technologies that are explicitly designed to make the world a fairer, better place. Things like the Creative Commons licence, that lets people share their intellectual property without losing out in the market by doing so, or open source software, or the Open Architecture network or Wikipedia -- they're all about sharing knowledge freely through collaboration. So it really depends on the sort of technology you use.

CNN: Are governments starting to listen to people online? Does online activism work?

AS: I think there's a gigantic generation gap in terms of how people understand the Internet and how much they think technology is an important factor in social change.

If you talk to people who are younger, especially kids who are in college now, they don't understand that there is any other form of activism. The idea of people getting together to lick envelopes and sign petitions seems incredibly outdated to people who are 20 years old. But similarly, if you go and talk with some of the more senior leaders in our communities, people in their 60's, some of them really don't think that anything that happens online is real or important.

We haven't yet reached a point where elected officials, editors of major newspapers and the people who run large businesses and charitable foundations look at the Internet and go, "My gosh, this is absolutely important." It's still regarded a bit like the dog that can walk on its hind legs. It's still got a kind of novelty to it, which is really too bad because actually that perception is 100% wrong. The most powerful work in the world right now is all happening online.

CNN: What do you see happening on that front?

AS: In the very near future, leaders who are unprepared to take the Internet seriously are going to find themselves unprepared and increasingly superfluous. If you're talking about people who are going to lead us into the 21st century and address the challenges we have, you're by necessity going to be talking about people who are eager to use the Internet to talk to many people directly to connect people and mobilize them to create change.

CNN: What are your hopes for the future?

AS: The biggest hope I have is that we wake up quickly enough to avert disaster, that we don't destroy ourselves, that we manage not to destroy the planet's climate, not undermine the health of its ecosystems and its oceans, not to further impoverish billions of people and create even more conflicts in the world.

I think we can do that, but only if my second hope is realized, which is that large numbers of people come to see themselves as the agents of their own destiny. We can dodge the bullet of planetary crisis if people are armed with the tools, models and ideas that will enable them to view their circumstances as something they can change.

If people are given the opportunity to really make a difference in their own lives, their own communities, their own businesses and their own governments, then we can really transform the prospects of life on this planet. We can find ourselves living in a world that is more like the world that I think most of us want to be living in. I think that's something worth hoping for.

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Do you agree with Alex Steffen? Does online campaigning work? Will technology make the world a fairer place? Tell us in the forum -- or read others' thoughts on the future. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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