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Juliana Rotich on the Cloud and environmental change

Juliana Rotich, journalist, activist and innovator, closes the day at Ars Electronica on a solemn note with a talk about the cloud and environmental change. Asking us what problems keep us up at night – global pandemic? educating our youth? – she explains that she’s terrified by environmental degregation. She tells us about feeding grey parrots in her youth in Kenya, where the birds were common. As she grew up, the birds became less common, and they are never seen today – they’ve been displaced by climate change. “You’re hard pressed to find climate change deniers in Africa – it’s a very visceral issue for us.”

She shows us photos of the Mau Forest in Kenya. The forest has historically acted as a “water tower” for a large region of Kenya, where condensation of moisture around trees has led to increased rainfall and expanded water supplies. But the destruction of thousands of acres of forest is leading to Lake Elementita drying up. Droughts in Kenya are becoming so severe that pastoralists are bringing their cows into cities, seeking water. There are now traffic jams in Nairobi from cows crossing the street. She shows us photos of cyclones in Madagascar and the impact of air pollution in African cities.

This is the bad news. The good news is that we’re starting to see strong linkages between environmental activists and online communities. She mentions Corneille Ewango, a former poacher, turned conservationist in the Ituri rain forest, who’s personally responsible for identifying 200 species of lianas and 600 species of trees. In recent years, Corneille has been leveraging online spaces to raise money and awareness, especially around protection of okapi.

We’re starting to see the use of electronic media for on the ground organizing – protests to prevent the sale of the Mabira forest in Uganda to sugarcane companies were organized via mobile phone. In Egypt, Tamer Mabrook used his blog to expose a company that was polluting the Mansala River. (Unfortunately, his activism cost him, as he was sued, successfully, in Egyptian court.) Urban Sprout in South Africa provides information on organic and green products and businesses in South African communities and is gearing up to direct visitors to South Africa for the World Cup to environmentally sustainable businesses.

Juliana pushes back on Evgeny Morozov’s concerns about slacktivism. She wonders whether he’s discounting the value of online activism with ofline impacts, referencing Wildlife Direct, Gorilla.cd and Friends of Lembus Forest, all of which raise money and awareness via online tools.

In the future, Juliana hopes to see a move from static to dynamic environmental data to help people understand what’s changing in the global environment. She’s like to link the sorts of electronic payment systems being pioneered in Africa, like MPesa, to cap and trade systems, allowing people affected by environmental change to participate in markets designed to mitigate these changes. Ultimately, change is going to be both personal and cultural – she closes with examples of campaigns to get people to introduce tree planting as part of life-cycle rituals, a real world activity with the possibility of positive change.