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24 Hours in Cyberspace

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Vice President

Vice President Al Gore

In cyberspace and elsewhere, 24 hours is a day. But in the global environment -- where change is always pressing its foot on the accelerator -- those 1,440 precious minutes can be a lifetime. In the time it takes to complete this first 24 Hours in Cyberspace, 31,507 acres of rain forest will be destroyed, 74 species will vanish, 16 million tons of carbon will be pumped into the air, and people will generate more than 700,000 tons of garbage.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that cyberspace equips us with a new set of tools to respond to these threats. The Internet and other new information technologies cannot turn back the ecological clock, of course. But they can help environmental scientists push back the frontiers of knowledge and help ordinary citizens grasp the urgency of preserving our natural world.

Cyberspace, for instance, is deepening citizens' understanding of the global environment. Through programs like GLOBE -- which President Clinton and I launched two years ago -- students from all over the world are aiding the scientific community by taking environmental measurements in their communities and reporting their findings over the Internet. The kids learn from the experts; the experts learn from the kids.

Indeed, growing numbers of children are now plugging into resources once available only to leading scientists. In classrooms around the country, teachers are employing multi- media presentations to simplify complex environmental and scientific concepts. Some schools, for instance, are using previously classified images from spy satellites that show the extent of environmental degradation in certain portions of the world. Imagine: these extraordinary images have migrated from the government's secret files to the desktops of America's schoolchildren.

The larger consequence is equally significant: information on stewardship of the Earth is no longer limited to the experts. Inhabitants of almost every nation on the planet can get rich, specific, detailed data about the environment. For example, visitors to the U.S. Geological Survey Homepage can monitor deforestation in Amazonia and south east Asia by viewing actual color images beamed from satellites.

In addition to democratizing information, cyberspace enhances the ability of experts to learn from each other. No longer does it take a major international conference to bring the world's leading scientists together to share insights or collaborate on strategies. Online communication allows a group of scientists to work together and exchange data -- even if the men and women of the group are sitting in different countries. Some scholars regularly participate in discussion groups to debate thorny global issues. Using this cost-effective and time efficient approach, researchers can spend more time and resources on finding facts -- and less on exchanging data and travelling from place to place.

Here's an example of this new approach to science: Pat Jellison, a geologist from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, was recently conducting a study on environmental and landscape factors affecting rivers in east and central Africa. Unable to find experts on the issue in Washington, D.C., she submitted a request through the Internet on the Aquatic Conservation Network, an online community of scientists. Within 24 hours she received five responses from researchers in Europe, North America, and northern and southern Africa who were either authorities on east African rivers or were able to provide information on how to contact experts in the region. By reaching out to this emerging virtual world, she was able to secure the information she needed to complete her research.

Such knowledge is important for its own sake, of course. But it is also important, because knowledge is so often the prelude to action. History has shown that people armed with information about their world understand the urgency of protecting it and are more willing to act. After all, it was information -- in the form of Rachel Carson's brilliant Silent Spring -- that helped ignite a generation of environmental action. Cyberspace can have a similar impact. For example, under "right to know" laws -- which require polluters to disclose emissions of toxic chemicals to the public -- a citizen with access to a public library or a home Internet connection can discover if any pollutants are being released into the air or land in their neighborhoods. It's called the toxic release inventory -- or TRI -- and online activists are using it to keep their neighborhoods safe and clean. What's more, this local activism is forging links between citizens who live in different communities -- sometimes even different continents -- but who share common concerns.

Cyberspace is also yielding new techniques for addressing environmental concerns -- for example, natural disasters like the recent flooding on North America's east coast and volcanic eruptions like Mount Pinatubo that disrupt ecosystems and unleash environmental devastation. Or consider Volunteers In Technical Assistance (VITA). This group used satellite communications for an electronic mail system that tracked the spread of the ebola virus in Zaire and across Africa.

At the same time, cyberspace is helping avert environmental problems in the first place. As more people use their computers to work at home, fewer cars rumble across our highways and pollute our air. In the course of these 24 hours, for example, more than a million gallons of gas will be saved because people choose to telecommute instead of drive. The same is true for video-conferencing, which also cuts company costs and reduces community pollution. And offices themselves are reducing the amount of paper they use -- as e-mail replaces paper mail and company "intranets" replace inter-office memorandums. By the end of this day, some 16 million e-mail messages will criss-cross the globe -- and as always, I'll be contributing to that total.

But more than delivering information to scientists, and equipping citizens with new tools to improve their world, and making offices cheaper and more efficient, cyberspace is achieving something even more enduring and profound: it's changing the very way we think. It is extending our reach -- and that is transforming our grasp. Just as the car extended the power of our feet, and the television extended the power of our eyes, new computing and information technologies are extending the power of our brains. We can now cast our minds into previously uncharted waters -- and use modeling and visualization to navigate these seas. And as we explore this larger world, we achieve a new relationship with our natural world. What we consider our environment reaches beyond our back yards, beyond even the immediate realm of our senses.

By enlisting cyberspace to change the way we think, we are creating the conditions for changing the way we act. And that is literally changing our world.

Not bad for a day's work -- even for a day in the life of cyberspace.


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24 Hours in Cyberspace

Rachel Carson

Excerpt from Earth in The Balance

The Internet

The Dangers of Carbon Pollution on the Environment