Monday, August 05, 2019

The Great Hack: Watch It

I've been alarmed anew by the Cambridge Analytica horror story after watching the documentary "The Great Hack" last night on Netflix.

We're all rightly offended by the massive invasion of privacy that occurred in that scandalous period. But what's far more frightening for me after the film is the monumental scope of global democratic disruption.

What Cambridge Analytica did with Facebook's happy help was psychological warfare funded by wealthy people. Carried out on behalf of political parties that the wealthy people resonate with, it targeted carefully selected "persuadibles" chosen for their fear-based, authoritarian-leaning personalities. Everything they needed to know was mined out of Facebook and other social media, via a "fun" little personality quiz developed by an American researcher working at Cambridge University.

And the rest is history, as they say. Brexit. Trump. But so much more, because Cambridge was active all over the world. When authoritarian interests came calling, Cambridge was there.

One of the most unsettling revelations for me was the film's evidence that Cambridge ran a campaign aiming to increase voter apathy among young black adults in the 2010 Trinidad and Tobago election. Cambridge's secret Facebook campaign targeted those who were naturally prone to checking out and showing a low interest in their world with a campaign that encouraged them not to vote.

Parties are known to attract distinct race-based support in that country, so the goal of Cambridge's clients was to see the Indian-based party win by increasing voter apathy among those who supported other parties. The Do So campaign targeted young black adults with a song-and-dance, fun-loving barrage of videos encouraging them not to vote as a symbol of protest.

That is pure evil at work, don't you think?

Hope you'll watch it. Those of us with ethical character can't even imagine the scenarios that those motivated solely by money and power get up to, but it feels important to get a big reminder every now and then, something that gets you reading deep or watching some revelatory documentary that shakes you to the core.

Sure, let's focus on the positive, too. But we wouldn't want to get complacent thinking everything's pretty much OK. The Great Hack reminds us that it most definitely isn't.

Message I was left with: Wake up! Wake up! It's so much bigger than somebody having access to everything on your Facebook account. We're talking an act of war.

Governments are complicit because they want to win. Cambridge Analytica-type firms are complicit because they not only want to grow rich, but get a rush from being disruptors without ethics. Facebook and other social media are complicit because there is so damn much money to be had.

(In her powerful TED talk on this issue, Guardian journalist Carol Cadwalladr asks social-media executives if this is how they want history to remember them, as "handmaidens to authoritarianism.")

Question I was left with: Where the heck was the academic, Alexandr Kogan, who created the infamous personality test that Cambridge used to identify "persuadibles"? He barely got a mention in the film.

He took his field of research and used it commercially to deliberately subvert democracy. He made this whole thing possible. So many people behaving badly, but I definitely have him on my list.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Don't Get Scared, Get Effective: A Linked-Up Guide to Doing Something About Your Personal Carbon Footprint

Copyright:(c) Allexxe |
The frightening realities of the global climate crisis have me looking for ways to reduce my personal impact. For those of you trying to do the same, this one's for you. (And for those of you still denying there's a problem, feel free to stop reading now and fire off an uninformed comment, and I will feel free to not read it.)

I was stunned to learn recently that there's a view out there that people shouldn't have to take personal responsibility for their carbon outputs, because the climate crisis is the fault of corporations and governments and must be left to them to fix.

Seriously? There is absolutely no way to mitigate the effects of climate change without taking personal action. Corporations exist because we feed them. Governments exist because we elect them. This one's all about us - collectively and individually. I am right there in rage with those who are fed up with corporate greed and government paralysis, but it's each and every one of us who has to step up to fix the damaging and damaged society we're becoming. (Did anyone else notice how much Boris Johnson looks like Donald Trump from the back?)

It's pretty damn daunting to even consider how to get a grip on this crisis, I admit. I would love to be able to blame this one on someone, and leave them to clean up the mess. But like that little cartoon possum Pogo used to say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." If you really want to end bad government and hurt evil corporations, then it's about getting a grip on rampant consumerism and electing better people (and with better electoral processes).

Where to begin? The first step is in finding the tools to help us understand our personal carbon footprint so we can take action to reduce what we can and offset what we can't.

Today's Guardian piece on that very subject is a good place to start, though go into this exercise knowing that many people are already trying to figure out how to make money from your privileged North American guilt. (You have to hand it to capitalism - it's always there first.) Do a lot of research before you start donating to a cause promising to use your money on projects aimed at making you feel less guilty about your carbon-heavy lifestyle.

Plus if we're actually going to get serious about reducing our individual footprints, we'll need to put more skin in the game than merely sending money to some random organization promising to plant trees or start a hydro-electric project in our honour. There is so much that we can each do that will have real impact. Take a browse through these telling emission charts to see that while Canada may not be topping the charts globally in our carbon emissions, we are right up there with the United States in our per-capita emissions. We only look good at the global level because we have a small population.

Travel that involves flying gives me particular guilt. Now I see why. Using the handy-dandy flight calculator in that Guardian story, I learned that my flight from Vancouver to London and back this spring meant I personally generated more than 1.3 tonnes of CO2 just from that trip. There are 67 countries where the average person doesn't emit that much in an entire year. Yikes.

Then I tripped on over to the Offsetters site to expand that search (I couldn't get the first search to identify Bucharest as an option, which was our final destination). Their calculator put me at three tonnes for the return trip from Vancouver to Bucharest, with a stopover in London. (You may need to calculate total distances for your flights for some of the sites, so here's a place to do that.)

Seeing as the global goal is to reduce everyone on Earth's average per-capita carbon footprint to 1.8 tonnes by 2050, the extent of the challenge is obvious. I'm well over my annual allowance just from one holiday flight, and I haven't even begun to add in all the other emissions resulting from my day-to-day life.

Fortunately, Columbia University has a calculator to help me calculate those emissions, and a list of 35 simple ways to reduce my carbon footprint. They suggest this site for calculating your footprint.

My partner and I have an bit of an unusual lifestyle in that we live in other people's spaces as permanent housesitters, so we're already doing pretty good on a lot of these. Moving to a new house every 3-4 weeks turns out to be an excellent mechanism for keeping your stuff to a minimum. We live in other people's spaces, which also serves to reduce our impact.

But we do love to travel. We still need to do better in all of these 35 areas if we hope to offset a joy that we aren't prepared to give up.

We adopted a "flexitarian" eating regimen earlier this year that for the most part eliminates meat. That was mostly because we realized we could no longer bear the hypocrisy of eating creatures made to suffer from their earliest days so that we can eat their deeply unhappy flesh and consume their breast milk. I'm happy that it also coincides with efforts to reduce my carbon footprint.

I've talked to a surprising number of people who are really worried about the climate crisis but at the same time kind of shrug their shoulders in a "What can one person do?" way when they talk about it. We can actually do quite a lot, and in fact will have to if we want to steer this Titanic away from the rocks. And it's going to hurt, because humans just don't change until it hurts.

We need to be priced out of our cars. We need to be regulated into improving the energy efficiences of our homes. We need development that accounts for changing climate and the energy efficiences of renovating rather than tearing down and rebuilding. We need to curb our rampant consumption, and quit buying vehicles that look like they're armed for the zombie apocalypse when we're really just driving from Oak Bay to downtown. (Read this strangely radical Globe opinion piece on making do.)

We need every level of government to get its act together and do what's good for the planet rather than take it easy on their electorate in hopes of another victory. We need to quit electing governments that pander to the completely unreasonable beliefs of uninformed people. (Fascinating that "conservative" is now attached to a social ideology that doesn't view climate change as a big concern.)

I was changed forever by a year and a half of doing communications for the University of Victoria. My work introduced me to a lot of climate scientists. What they knew scared the hell out of me, and shook me out of that paralysis that I think so many of us are in on this one.

The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at UVic has some great research here, in accessible language. Through my conversations with climatologist Frances Zwiers at the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, I came to understand the challenges scientists face when trying to determine whether it's climate change or just a weird weather event, but that there's still a lot that can be done to mitigate the issues either way.

Francis also introduced me to this marvelous site, the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. They work on behalf of the insurance industry. I can get lost for hours in their fascinating and well-researched reports.

Good luck to all of us. It won't be easy. But who would you rather be, that person in the disaster movie whose reaction to the terrifying asteroid headed for Earth is to freeze up and do nothing, or the determined one who reaches deep and takes action? The Arctic is melting, for pete's sake. Do your part.