Tech Science Interviews

Do you want to be involved in the climate justice movement? This app can help.

Here’s a confession: climate change terrifies me. I know I’m not alone but we rarely have open and honest conversations about the threats posed by a warming planet. This is mostly because the whole thing seems so huge – almost Biblical in its scale of catastrophe – that it is easier to look away.

Unfortunately, looking away for more than three decades is what got us into this mess.

I’m fairly new to the process of reading up on the climate crisis but what I have read so far has offered me a lot of hope. I’ve learned that climate change is not just a threat; it is an opportunity. Tackling the climate crisis offers us a rare chance of bringing people together to radically transform our society.

Around five months ago, I discovered an app that is attempting to do just that.

Joro, a carbon-tracking app, aims to make your environmental footprint as accessible as a Fitbit makes your physical steps. It wants to change the way we eat and live. I was intrigued by Joro and jumped at a chance to talk to the app’s CEO, Harvard and Princeton alum, Sanchali Pal.

I met Pal over Skype in January. She has lived in India, Ethiopia, and the United States, and she has seen first-hand how the most vulnerable communities in the world’s poorest countries are bearing the brunt of a climate crisis that remains mostly invisible to folks in huge urban cities in developed countries. Pal believes that this invisibility is partly the reason around climate inaction of many First World-ers.

“They don’t see them, they don’t understand them,” she told me, referring to those of us with this privilege. “So, part of what I realized when I moved back to the US was that creating a sense of connection between people is going to be a really important part of addressing climate change.”

Joro, Pal animatedly informs me,  is the Goddess Protector of the Earth in ancient Norse mythology. The Joro app works by making users’ carbon consumption apparent to them and anyone they choose to share it with. Pal hopes that sometime in the future it will be as common to track our daily environmental impact as it is to track our calories. That way accountability – and a healthy dose of shame – will help us lead lives protecting the Earth from further destruction.

But I was skeptical. Individual action in the face of a global catastrophe caused by the richest corporations, countries, and militaries has always struck me as unfair and counterproductive. I ask Pal what she would say to critics who think that a fixation on individual action distracts from the mass mobilization needed to hold the biggest polluters accountable.  She explained that Joro isn’t meant to replace mobilization but supplement it. It is all “very interconnected” and Joro can help us see those connections in two primary ways.

“When we vote for our legislators, we don’t say our vote doesn’t count because there are millions of us,” Pal says, and explains that as we participate in democracy via voting, we also participate in capitalism through purchasing. Buying power is, therefore, an important tool in consumers’ arsenal and one we can use to pressure companies into making climate-friendly choices. A platform like Joro can help consumers see their own power. This is the first way it can connect us to climate justice.

The second way deals with mobilization. Pal believes that the reason that corporations are able to have “an outsized impact on climate outcome” is because of their numbers. Most corporations employ thousands of people and control valuable resources like production plants and avenues of transportation. Joro can unite multiple individual consumers under a common goal, functioning very much like a company.

When thousands of people share the same objective and are willing and able to co-ordinate a flow of money, huge corporations will have to take notice. “They’ll make a small change in their supply chain, if we make a small change in our eating habits, for instance,” Pal explains.

All of this requires a lot of data. Joro initially uses information from users’ credit cards to automatically estimate their carbon footprints. Our consumption works as a proxy for our footprints because everything we buy – from food to utilities – has a footprint. The team plans to add other ways to track and estimate carbon footprints from things like food and travel. Pal says most of this information gathering is automated so that manual input isn’t necessary on an on-going basis and what excites her most are the “gamification and social aspects” of the app. These allow you to compare your progress to others and make carbon-tracking rewarding.

But it’s 2019, and it seems there is a new data breach every single day, so I was curious about how Joro plans to keep all these user details safe.

Pal assured me that she takes data security very seriously. Joro spent a lot of time in beta mode, with only small groups of invited users, so that the security aspects could be tested out. Joro is committed to taking the “most conservative approach” when it comes to data privacy. For instance, it uses the same security system for payment as Venmo.

Pal also pointed out that phones and apps are already collecting a massive amount of data on us – location, interests, etc – but we don’t really get anything out of it. Instead, that information is sold so that third parties can sell us things. Pal says part of Joro’s mission is to make the users’ data accessible to them, and not to third parties.

It seems that Joro‘s core philosophy is putting control back into the hands of consumers. The app won’t do much on its own but combined with protests, the electoral process, and a host of other ways the climate crisis is being tackled, it is an excellent way to push companies to be mindful of their carbon footprint, and hold each other accountable when it comes to our lifestyles.

By Saira Mahmood

Saira Mahmood is currently a student of English at the University of Karachi. Her first love is reading, though she has been writing to make sense of the world for a long time. Saira is deeply interested in amplifying the uncensored voices and stories of Muslim women — with all the intricacies of gender, faith, mental health, sexuality, and the like preserved.