Climate Change discourse actor mapping

What’s in a name? “Climate Change” has become such a polarized phrase in the United States that even uttering it feels like a political nonstarter. The phrase evokes the paradox of Voldemort: say his name and you’re a pariah. But don’t say his name and you’ll never really be directly addressing the real problem at hand.

However we choose to name it, climate change is perhaps the single greatest problem facing current and future generations. To date, humans have failed to take adequate actions to stave off planetary collapse. A UN report issued this week describes a world of food shortages, floods, sea level rise, extreme weather events, wildfires, and massive coral reef die-offs as soon as 2040 if emissions continue at the current rate. The report concedes that while it is technically possible to change courses, it remains politically unlikely that we will do so. This is largely because climate change has become a deeply politicized topic.

So how do we talk about climate change? I am interested in work that restores/hacks/remixes personal narratives about the shared responsibility we have to each other and to the planet. My work seeks to understand how to hack the devices of environment, economy, security, stability, and health in creating a shared vision for the future of the planet. See my previous post on a possible gathering to facilitate this.

Most climate activists focus on economic, policy or technical “solutions” to global warming. However, these solutions are highly politicized; indeed, it seems the left and the right are telling completely different stories about the future of the planet and our role in it. Furthermore, most of these stories as reactionary and oppositional: liberals don’t want coal; conservatives don’t want a carbon tax. I’m interested in hacking these stories to create generative, affirmative, shared stories about the future of the planet. By creating spaces to lay bare current narratives, can we find the seeds of common ground required to generate a shared sense of planetary stewardship?

For example, entrepreneurs could see climate change as a huge business innovation opportunity while conservatives could support renewables as a strategy for energy independence; the military could focus on climate-induced political instability in foreign countries. Laying bare these stories will allow us to “hack” them and engineer connections where none might have previously existed.

There has been a lot of work evaluating how different frames could boost public support for climate policy. However, these efforts are experiments that simply test reactions to frames presented by researchers. The frames are not generated by those the researchers intend to study. In addition, there are some groups attempting to create new frames and unexpected alliances for climate policy, such as the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.  The Frameworks Institute works to frame public discourse around key issues by translating academic research into outreach programs. However, I’m interested in a process of co-designing climate discourse by identifying shared values, wishes, and needs among otherwise divergent stakeholders.


Hacking Stories, Hacking the Climate

Climate change is perhaps the single greatest threat to future generations. To date, humans have failed to take adequate actions to stave off planetary collapse. A UN report issued this week describes a world of food shortages, floods, sea level rise, extreme weather events, wildfires, and massive coral reef die-offs as soon as 2040 if emissions continue at the current rate.

The report concedes that while it is technically possible to change courses, it remains politically unlikely that we will do so. This is largely because climate change has become a deeply politicized topic. I am interested in work that restores our personal narratives about the shared responsibility we have to each other and to the planet. My work seeks to understand what prevents or impedes individuals from sharing a sense of planetary stewardship.


  • We design for people and planet. We consider long-term impacts on human and environmental systems, seeking to minimize threats to both. We believe that work that does not support future habitability of Earth undermines all other human efforts on this planet. We believe humans are part of nature, and reject narratives that material human needs cannot be met without destroying the environment.
  • We listen with radical humility. We actively listen. We ask respectful questions to understand. We interrogate our own assumptions. We believe everyone is doing the best they can, and seek to understand the choices, beliefs, opinions, and relationships that arise from particular instances of this universal condition.
  • We believe the stories we tell today determine the world we create tomorrow. Humans need stories to make sense of themselves, each other, and the natural world. We believe that we create our reality through expectations, intentions and attention. Our designs engage narrative as the key catalyst for social and environmental change.
    1. Corollary: we believe you cannot dismantle old stories without telling new ones. Many of our old stories focus on individualism, consumption, accumulation. These stories have wreaked havoc on our natural ecosystems and climate. However, we cannot dismantle these stories without putting new ones in place that restore our collective responsibility to each other and the planet.
  • We work within a space of ever-widening “us” and an ever larger “now.” Climate change affects all beings on this planet. In this context, there is no room for “us versus them.” Our work honors the diversity of human experience, while situating it against a backdrop of shared planetary responsibility. In addition, we recognize that the actions we take now could affect generations to come. As such, we design for both the present and future.
  • We practice play as a powerful antidote to paralysis. We support playful, generative designs that resist the temptation of despair.


My convening seeks to showcase American’s personal narratives about climate change. Having worked on climate negotiations, I understand how easy it can be to forget that not everyone shares a sense of urgency to cut emissions. Thus, this convening would attempt to bridge the personal divide between those working on climate negotiations and policies with everyday Americans struggling to make ends meet. The convening would have two parts: an exchange that would couple two (willing and voluntary) participants. The convening might take place in a town with a traditionally carbon-intensive economy, such as one in West Virginia. For the exchange, a “climate wonk” (researcher, negotiator, policy-maker, NGO employee, etc) would spend two weeks getting to know a member of the community (teacher, student, waiter, nurse, contractor, etc) by visiting their homes, getting to know the community, and engaging in thoughtful dialogue.* The second portion of the experiment would bring all the pairs together in a workshop facilitated to help the pairs articulate a shared narrative of the future. When writing the story of the future, what can they both agree on? What kind of world do both want, for themselves and future generations? What are the bare minimum features of a healthy human population and planet? Each pair would craft their story of the future of Earth, which they would jointly deliver to the group.

*NB: this would only “work” if both agreed on the basic facts that climate change is happening and humans are causing it.



Food waste, nature deficits, and the loneliness epidemic

Issue 1: How do we reduce food waste? 

According to latest research, the world produces 17% more food than it did 30 years ago, yet almost half of it never reaches our stomachs. In the US alone, 63 million tons of food are wasted each year, and currently accounts for around 21 percent of landfill volume.


Reduce barriers to composting by placing more composting bins in public places and businesses. In concert with education campaigns (below), this might increase rates of composting.
Standardize and simplify food expiration labels terminology. Current food labels use a range of terms form “sell by” “use by” “display until” and “best before.” These labels generate consumer confusion and unnecessary food waste. Selecting one or two common labels and a standardized date format could reduce confusion about when food is safe to eat and when it needs to be thrown out. However, some sort of policy/legal action would likely be required to ensure compliance by companies. 
Redesign kitchen appliances to discourage waste, for example, a fridge that automatically calculates time until expiry by scanning for type of food, expiration label, and monitoring for signs of spoilage (e.g., mold). The fridge would move soon-to-expire foods to the front of the fridge and send reminders to consumers about when their purchases will expire. It might also suggest recipes that utilize soon-to-spoil foods. This would increase the likelihood that foods are consumed before they go bad. 


Introduce educational programs in schools to raise awareness about food expiration and encourage composing. Launch public campaigns that stigmatize food waste (a la “Don’t Mess with Texas”).  


Loosen food quality requirements that focus on appearance, since these rules disqualify perfectly edible but unsightly produce from sales in supermarkets. 
Require companies streamline expiration date labels, as proposed above. 


Marketize “ugly food” by delivering disqualified produce at reduced rates. Though if legal food quality requirements were loosened, as proposed above, the supply of ugly produce would diminish. 

Issue 2: How do we fight the “epidemic of loneliness” in the US?

In a recent survey, nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. Besides being existentially torturous, loneliness kills. In fact, it cuts life expectancy by the same amount as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  It is also associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia. 


(I struggle to approach this issue as a code problem. After all, we are more connected than ever. Generation Z (18-22) reports the highest levels of loneliness, despite being heavy social media users. (And fwiw, social media use is neither strictly positively or negatively correlated with loneliness). Somehow, despite ambient and ubiquitous connection, we miss each other.) 
Design more mixed-use and open spaces in cities. Since living alone is correlated with rates of loneliness, cities could incentive co-living apartments, co-ops and inter-generational housing. Urban planners could encourage traffic-free streets, public squares, parks and other spaces to facilitate interaction. In addition, creation of recreation centers, community centers, and other non-commercial “third spaces” could increase meaningful interaction in cities.
Redesign social media platforms to incentivize getting off of them. (Of course, this is antithetical to their business model of more time -> more ads -> more profit). Provide prompts that encourage meeting up with, calling, or texting friends we interact with frequently on Facebook. Foreground nearby events and meetups on the home screen. Could designs with with rebranding/marketing (i.e. changing norms) promoting the use of social media to coordinate in-person activities. It’s worth noting that Facebook recently began a public campaign with the slogan “The best part of Facebook isn’t on Facebook. It’s when it helps us get together.”


Make long lunch breaks and volunteering cool again. Given that most adult individuals spend most of their waking hours in the workplace, workplace culture could be a target of intervention. For example, allowing longer lunch breaks could facilitate group outings or conversations. Encouraging regular volunteering activities during work hours could foster a sense of shared purpose and connection. 
Teach about the health risks of loneliness and share interpersonal skills that foster connection. Incorporate data on loneliness into school health curriculum, alongside educational programs to foster greater interpersonal skills, conflict resolution, active listening, and other forms of “social intelligence” in students. While this will not cure the loneliness problem, it might teach students to value social interactions and equip them to navigate healthy interpersonal relationships.   


Fight overwork and economic oppression. We might overwork as a cause of loneliness in the US, where 85.8 percent of men and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week. Americans often struggle to make ends meet – working long hours or multiple jobs – let alone to spend free time with family and friends. We might introduce a law setting the maximum length of the work week. (Fwiw, at least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the work week; the U.S. does not.) Let’s shorten the damn work week, raise minimum wage, and provide people a basic level of economic security so they can spend spare time and financial resources on shared connection.


Require doctor support. If we frame loneliness as a “health epidemic,” one can imagine medical interventions to identify and intervene when the problem of loneliness arises.  We could mandate that primary care physicians inquire not just about a patient’s physical health, but mental health, including loneliness. Federal government could mandate better coverage for mental health counseling, since therapists could help patients identify possible paths to overcoming loneliness. 


(As I complete this assignment, I realize more and more that market solutions to social problems is my blindspot…) 

Issue 3: How can US students spend more time outside? 

Exposure to nature benefits children in myriad ways. Studies indicate time in nature is correlated with better school performance, creativity, higher level of fitness, and less depression and hyperactivity. A controversial campaign claims that children now spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. 


Redesign routes to school. Redesign the routes to and from school to increase outdoor exposure outside of class hours. Teachers could lobby municipal officials and urban planners to build sidewalks and bike lanes along common routes to school to encourage greater walking and biking to and from school.
Monitor outdoor time. One can imagine a personal tracking device that measures how much time children spend outdoors (either through UV measurements, or GPS tracking that monitors activity outside known buildings.) This data could be transmitted to parents accompanied by clear metrics about if their children are meeting “outdoor time” targets. These parents will have been targets of educational and health campaigns (see below). These parents might then use this data to lobby schools to change policies around recess (see laws below). However, it is unclear if a “techno-nudge” approach would be effective (since, as we have learned, fitness trackers largely don’t work.) In addition, I could imagine several negative unintended consequences to what ultimately is a technology of juvenile surveillance (which, for brevity’s sake I will not elaborate here). 


Target parents with campaigns about the benefits of nature and play. Perhaps pediatricians could be encouraged to enquire about time outside during children’s visits. These campaigns might encourage efforts to monitor time spent outside, and raise public concern about the issues and civic engagement with current laws that unintentionally threaten recess (see below).


Kill the Common Core. Despite research showing recess boosts academic performance, schools face pressure to reduce time outside in favor of more class time to prepare students for Common Core state exams.  To reduce the “time squeeze” on recess, policy makers could scrap Common Core standards altogether. Or, they could incorporate physical fitness and/or environmental subjects into the Common Core, thus creating incentives for learning to take place outside. Alternately, they could keep Common Core and lengthen the school year in order reduce time pressure and the risk of eliminating recess. 


Honestly, I don’t know. Past market-based efforts to reform schools are fraught with issues, the core of which being that they tend to exacerbate existing inequality in the US by preventing. I am a bit loathe to explore market mechanisms in this case. While several private schools have revolutionized outdoor education — such as the Mountain School, at $28k a semester — they remain inaccessible to the average American.

If a tree falls in the forest…

While I do not have a personal connection to Rainforest Connection, the highly-publicized project provides fertile ground for analysis.

Rainforest Connection (RFCx) has an ambitious mission: stop illegal deforestation, and in doing so, combat climate change. “If we can help people in the forest enforce the rules that are there, we can have an impact,” CEO Topher White explains, “It might be the cheapest, fastest way to fight climate change.”

To achieve their mission, White designed a system of solar-powered cellphones installed deep within the tropical forests of Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and Cameroon. Automated algorithms process audio from these cellphones to detect sounds of chainsaws in real-time and send text messages to local communities to alert them about nearby activity.

Rainforest Foundation frames deforestation as a metaphysical problem: local people just don’t know when and where it’s happening. It [is not] that the rangers [don’t] care; they just [can’t] hear the chainsaw whirring less than a half-mile away,” White claims. After all, we all know the thought experiment: if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

If stopping deforestation were a matter of information asymmetry, we would have solved it long ago.* However, the root problem is much larger in scope: consumer demand for agricultural products like beef, palm oil and soy drive over 70% of deforestation in the tropics. Kit-kat bars destroy orangutan habitat in Borneo; increase demand for precious metals in consumer electronics drive mines into the forests of Congo.Global market forces make the opportunity costs of conservation too high. Simply knowing that it’s happening won’t shift this calculus.

Poverty and urban expansion also threaten forests. Deforestation is upheld as a development strategy in many countries, such as Liberia, PNG, and Myanmar, which experienced wholescale leasing of remaining forests by government to private agribusiness and logging companies. Leading researchers on the topic have found that “powerful actors with a stake in deforestation often figure out how to get their way – whether using the rules to their advantage, or going around them.”

Deforestation is a complex eco-social-economic issue without a quick techno-fix. In this context, acoustic sensors are like smoke alarms without a fire brigade: they can help you know when and where a problem exists, but they can’t help put the fire out, or prevent arsonists from burning down your house in the first place.

Of course we all need fire alarms. But we also need phones to call the fire department – and we need them respond to our pleas, quickly. Based on my experiences working in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Indonesia and Uganda, even when locals know where illegal deforestation might be occurring – and they often do – myriad factors prevent “immediate intervention”: they lack the vehicles and fuel to travel long distances for investigations. They face threats to their livelihoods; in 2017, more than 197 environmental activists and defenders were murdered – a number that has been increasing in recent years. Their reports are ignored by courts and relevant legal authorities. Loggers are never fined; ranchers are never jailed.

A RFCx “theory of change” diagram insinuates that real-time alerts will a priori enable real-time interventions.

No doubt White has good intentions and a laudable goal. However, one smells traces of Courtney Martin’s “Seductive Reductionism of Solving Other People’s problems” in his life trajectory:

It would have seemed absurd for anyone to suggest, back when he was a nerdy kid attending a San Francisco prep school … that Topher White was destined to spend his days traipsing through the trees… He spent his 20s as a peripatetic vagabond, dabbling as a hired hand at various Silicon Valley start-ups, dancing in a touring Neil Young rock opera, and building elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions at Dennis Hopper’s New Mexico estate.

Then, in 2011 … he took a side trip to Borneo to volunteer at a gibbon reserve…. and then baffled when, on a leisure hike, he came across a group of men illegally cutting down a tree.

White is a brilliant technologist doing what technologists do best: deploying gadgets at scale. Western readers love the story of a Silicon-Valley do-gooder, so perhaps it is no surprise that press about RFCx obscures the real agents of change – local people – by focusing on the genius of the creator or the ingenuity of the device. But while the technology itself scales, the complex governance, economic, normative and legal issues driving deforestation manifest locally – and are perhaps best navigated by an Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Brazilian or Cameroonian affected by these dynamics.

Given its simplistic diagnosis of the problem, RFCx makes for easy critique. But, being a relatively new project, RFCx might yet yield results; more data are required to understand its effects and potential unintended consequences over time. But in the absence of more meaningful interventions that address immediate barriers to acting on deforestation, as well as the root economic drivers, I remain skeptical. RFCx is like a very TED-friendly fire alarm, ringing while the house burns down around us.


*NB: my previous project, Global Forest Watch, also frames deforestation as a metaphysical problem: if we just give people real-time deforestation data from satellites, they will act. 

I thought data could save the planet; I was wrong.

Hey folks. I’m Rachael, a research assistant and MS candidate in the Media Lab’s Space Enabled group. Before MIT, I helped launch, grow, and dep. direct Global Forest Watch, an initiative that monitors deforestation in real-time from space. Previous to Global Forest Watch, I spent a year living in remote indigenous communities researching the use of technology to protect local rights, lands and culture. With a background in environmental policy, anthropology, and earth observation, I use tools of ethnography and policy analysis to imagine how global environmental data can enable local conservation action.

Or so it says on my Media Lab profile. The reality is that I’m a jaded environmentalist deeply skeptical of the power of technology to solve wicked collective action problems like climate change and resource management. I am taking this class to indulge my nihilism, perhaps inspire a dash of hope, and to develop analytical frameworks to understand enabling conditions and barriers of technology for social change.

But let’s take a step back.

Satellite data provides a synoptic view of the world’s forests, oceans, freshwater, and cities. My professional career has centered on using earth observation technologies to produce timely, accurate data on the environment. I helped create reports, blogs, guidance, apps, and interactive webmaps to deliver this data to decision-makers, assuming if they saw the scale of the problem, they’d act. After all, “we can’t manage what we don’t measure.”

The reality, I have learned, is that data is necessary but not sufficient to spur environmental action.

Park rangers in Kibale National Park locate deforestation using Forest Watcher. (Credit: World Resources Institute and Jane Goodall Institute)
Members of the NGO HAkA review Forest Watcher data in their Aceh office. (Credit: World Resources Institute)

An example: I spent several years leading a mobile app project called Forest Watcher, developed together with the Jane Goodall Institute and local communities and rangers in Uganda, Peru and Indonesia. The app receives satellite alerts of deforestation in the user’s area. Users navigate to alerts and collect photos, text and GPS points to document the change. Local communities use the resulting data to inform conservation plans, report illegal activities to authorities, and prioritize resources for at-risk areas. The ultimate goal? Reduce deforestation rates in areas with active app use.

The app works; the concept doesn’t.

This is because users face myriad individual, systemic and institutional challenges to reducing deforestation. In Uganda, park rangers didn’t have motorcycles to visit remote deforestation. In Peru, cutting down trees to cultivate coca proved more lucrative than conservation. In Indonesia, corrupt official advance infrastructure projects in protected areas, in direct violation of the law.

The app is sexy; the problems are not. Lines of code can’t overcome governance, corruption, incentives and resources limitations.

I thought data could save the planet, but it can’t. Someone please prove me wrong.