Council Profiles

Harnessing the Power of Technology to Help the Environment

December 12, 2016
Harnessing the Power of Technology to Help the Environment
Chris Thomas discusses nonprofit technology with European NGO experts at a nonprofit meet-up in Berkeley, Calif. Courtesy of Chris Thomas
The Sierra Club’s Chris Thomas, a NationSwell Council member, is doing his part to further conservation efforts by creating ample opportunities for people to take action online.

From a young age, NationSwell Council member Chris Thomas was interested in the way technology affects human behavior. “How does it augment or utterly interrupt our lives?” he wondered. “How does it make life better or worse?” That line of thinking took him to a series of lucrative corporate jobs. But seven years ago, burnt out on the commercial applications of tech, he took a job at Greenpeace and transitioned into advocacy. Now the chief innovation officer at Sierra Club, one of America’s oldest conservation groups, Thomas is building a tech platform to better engage the club’s members. He’s still asking himself similar questions — “How does technology get people to actually change their world?” — but they feel all the more important, as the earth warms and climate skeptics take prominent government positions. NationSwell spoke to Thomas at his office in San Francisco.

People tend to describe the public versus private sector as diametrically opposed: one’s idealistic, the other greedy; one’s slow to act, the other efficient and innovative. Did you have any difficulties in your transition out of the corporate world?
To me, it felt quite seamless. I quickly saw that a lot of what we’re trying to do in nonprofits is similar to the profit-driven world. A lot of it is about educating people, getting them passionate or interested in what you do, then converting them to — for lack of a better word — transactions, whether they’re buying something or taking action. We are idealists, but we’re also very businesslike in the way we employ technology and use data. The history of these movements is very much driven by ideology: showing up, power to the people. Those are all great constants, and they work really well. But to do them at scale and to get into the minds of a more diverse, broader group of people, we have to employ the technology in a similar way that Nike or Apple would market and convert people to buy their products.

In your experience, what’s the most effective way technology can benefit the environmental movement?
Climate change is a really big issue. It’s complex, long-term, and its urgency is hard to grasp. People feel like it’s in the hands of big corporations and governments, and therefore they’re completely disempowered by the scale of the problem. It doesn’t feel like enough to recycle or buy a hybrid car. That’s a challenge for us.

One thing we can do, using tech, is to provide people with a broad array of opportunities to take action. Traditionally, we’ve asked people to show up for meetings or rallies, and that requires a deeper level of investment than doing something online. The key thing we can do here is to turn all those transactions into data, then use that to create meaningful feedback for the user. If we can give content back to them, then that creates a much more empowered feeling: “Me and other people like me are actually moving the needle on this.” You start to close the power gap. Tech removes the vagueness of “I took an action,” “I showed up” or “I gave money.” A great example is recruiting 25 friends from Facebook, and they go out and each recruit three or four more people. We can track the different concentric circles radiating out from that one recruitment that you did, and we can show the impact you’ve had. At the end of the day, maybe you recruited thousands of people.


What’s the next generation of the environmental movement going to look like?
Older organizations, including my own, have always had this model where we’re doing the work on behalf of society, and they support us either by signing petitions or giving us money. What organizations like us need to do now is come down off that hill and actually create communities and empower people. The next generation is less interested with what you represent on some vague emotional level, but more about what you can do to help them engender change, to connect them to solutions. They don’t want to hear the talk; they want to see the action. We know what the solution can be, but we need to create tools for them to access it.

What do you wish someone had told you when you first joined the organization?
If you ask our really passionate grassroots organizers in the field, they don’t quite see how what I’m describing fits with the work that they’re doing. They’re out in the streets and working very directly with people, in a community-oriented way. When you start talking about scale and tech projects, they’re not sure where you’re coming from. And I don’t blame them! We have to figure out how it fits with the legacy models of organizing and movement-building that we’ve employed, in this organization’s case, over 125 years. Where does tech fit with that, and where does it depart from that?

In my approach, as a technologist, I started by laying out our essential problems and then trying to figure out solutions for them. One thing I could have done differently, in retrospect, is getting more familiar, at a deeper level, with organizers, understanding what their direct needs are and what they’re trying to accomplish, rather than coming at it from a top-down executive approach. Getting my hands dirty with them for some months would have been a potentially more helpful way of approaching my projects, and it would have built more connections and trust at that level. That is stuff I’m doing now. But we’re also very far along in the work we’re doing, so I’m having to put things back together: introducing stuff to them and answering questions about why we chose to make it in a certain way.

What are the most pressing environmental issues that the next administration must address
Certainly we need to deliver on the promises of the COP21 that happened in Paris, being part of that accord that every major nation on the planet has signed on to. All the leaders of the world currently believe that climate change is real, and that we have a responsibility to do something about it. Our president-elect, shockingly, does not fit with that. He’s in complete contradiction with the will of the rest of humanity, and that, to us, is really alarming, very dangerous and destructive to the work that we’re trying to do. We’re trying to find a way forward, especially in clean-energy solutions. We think this is a pivotal point for humanity, where we have a world that every year is getting hotter and hotter. We’ve got to do something about it: It’s more urgent now than ever.