Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Tue 6 Jan 09 11:47
#74 Best post yet, Mr. Sterling. You sound more like an entrepreneurial we-can-change-the-world hippie than a derisive cyberpunkster! <When everything is "green," nothing is green.> This gets back to how we frame the debate, e.g. The "green" Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. Yet, global environmental degradation is a fact on the planet. So, whether we call the solutions "green", "sustainable," or "appropriate", The technological apes, collectively, need to behave better, or the earthly Gaian Mind is not going to survive its eco-cancer of the brain. <But we steal the Left's clothes on the all-important energy issue -- because they're congenitally unable to build or sell a damn thing."> Yeah baby! This is where the idealistic hippies of yore do need to grow up. This is where the pragmatics of what they got right with "the-last-whole-earth" ethos needs to hit the ground with market realities. This is where we begin to break out of the old socialist/capitalist paradigm and be part of a new pragmatic synthesis.
(jacob) Tue 6 Jan 09 12:19
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Tue 6 Jan 09 12:30
Interesting. Thanks, <jacob>.
(jacob) Tue 6 Jan 09 12:36
#77 is a side note on the silliness of complaining about the Escalade Hybrid. Environmentalists (among which I count myself) should be looking at incremental engineering solutions. For instance the substitution of natural gas for coal greatly reduces CO2 emissions, but because gas is still a CO2-producing fossil fuel, there hasn't been much green enthusiasm for that change. Even though I am guessing (too lazy to look up the numbers) that it has done more to reduce CO2 output than all the renewables currently online. And that tends to enhance the suspicions of others that the climate change issue is a stalking horse for a blanket opposition to resource extraction. That's a dangerous belief for people to have, because most people see resource extraction as a necessary part of our current technological civilization, and so you start talking about ending extractive industries and they start thinking about how they don't want to live in a yurt.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Tue 6 Jan 09 12:37
OK, Jacob, perhaps the Cadillac Escalade is not the perfect example, but don't miss the point. The big three American automakers have done a piss poor job of addressing where we need to go, mainly because there have been too many consumers willing to buy gas guzzlers, and too little pressure from government forcing them to meet fuel efficiency standards. As 'green' becomes chic and watered down, we think we are being environmentally sensitive when we have so far to go. On the other hand, at least the new popularity of "green" allows for a level of true "green" activism from within the system. I sense that this is what Bruce is recommending in #74. This "greening" is an opportunity that didn't exist a few years ago.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 6 Jan 09 15:44
When the Southeast Asian Tsunami struck, there was no tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean. Over a quarter million people died, over a million were displaced. Scientists understood the potential danger but nobody'd acted on that knowledge. Tilly Smith, a ten-year-old British girl on vacation with her parents, studied tsunamis in school, knew the warning signs, and saved a beachload of people. Where are the Tilly Smiths for global warming? We need a whole army. Emily's right, many adopt reusable bags and are diligent about recycling, and think that's enough. And Scott has a good point about a green that's diluted, not enough "when we have so far to go." Even the most dedicated green activists often haven't reduced their footprint to one earth or less. I don't think we know how to do it, most of us. We need the Tillys, or a bright green version of the Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts/Junior Woodchucks, to earn their merit badges by showing us the way to zero energy, zero waste, low carbon output. Bruce, you didn't say much about the new novel. Sounds like it's closer to pure science fiction than the last couple. What were your sources of inspiration for thie one?
Lisa Harris (lrph) Tue 6 Jan 09 18:18
from Terry Walker Do you see any evidence that intelligentsia in any 1st-world nation are finally realizing that any economy based on an exponential model (money loaned-with-interest into existence, for example) must fail by definition? Do you expect a non-exponential economic system to become a world player in the next decade, or are we doomed to repeat the last century using the same model that's designed to fail? - Terry Walker
(dana) Tue 6 Jan 09 21:45
Frank writes: I'm thoroughly enjoying this, to the point where I thought I'd de-lurk and post a couple of notes. Background: I'm one of those practitioners of the "sorta" science of ecology, and I'd pitch in a quote and a few observations that might be relevant. The non-verbatim quote is from Rackham and Grove's Nature of Mediterranean Europe:An Ecological History, which really should be read by more non-ecologists. Their comment was to the effect that making a farm sustainable was easy. All you have to do is tell the family that owns their farm that they and all their descendants have to make their living off the land, and that they would not be able to sell it or buy more land. This statement might be meant in irony, but it's true. There have been a number of sustainable societies in the past. They had to be sustainable. The alternative was starvation, and since often the children died before their parents, there was a strong incentive for the adults to do the right thing. This applies to discussions about making a sustainable society. Aside from (possibly) Tokugawa Japan, I'm unaware of a society that performed a top-down reorganization along sustainable lines. For those who think they can design a sustainable society, I'd suggest that they need to find examples of societies that have designed themselves into sustainability without the specter of starvation driving them to do it. If such societies exist, we need to learn how they did it. It might not be pretty, either. There are a bunch of other points to be learned from Rackham and Grove. One tidbit I'd throw out is that, in the Mediterranean, there seems to be a roughly 300-year cycle of people coming together in tight cities (often for mutual protection), followed by spreading out into the countryside (to be nearer their farms in expanding populations, and to farm more marginal land). I wonder if such a cycle shows up elsewhere? It would certainly make urban planning easier. It's also worth pointing out that the northern Mediterranean was more populous 100 years ago than it is now, and there are a lot of marginal farmland under brush in the hills of Cypress and elsewhere. The great thing about this book is that it provides a truly long-term perspective on how civilization interacts with nature, and that's something that seems to be missing from discussions right now. Another thing I'd pitch in is an "intro to ecology" exercise that I've been lucky to teach. It's basically about the logistic equation, otherwise known as exponential growth to carrying capacity. The exercise is letting the students tinker with the parameters of the equation to see what happens. And yes, most of them do get bored. However, there is a neat point. Usually, this is a model of population growth. If the population grows too fast, it overshoots its carrying capacity, then falls well below its carrying capacity. If the oscillation is too violent the population goes extinct, and usually a violent oscillation is caused by too-rapid growth. While extrapolation between fields is dangerous, I keep thinking about that classroom exercise when I read about economic bubbles. See, it's really, really hard to determine carrying capacity in advance, at least in ecological systems, and I suspect that's also true in financial systems. Assuming you don't know what the limits are, the sane solution is to *slow down growth rates* because when you hit a limit, the overshoot and crash isn't so severe. Sound like a good idea for financial markets? As I recall, we had a bunch of New Deal-era regulation in place that did just that, and over the last two decades, this legislation has been systematically dismantled. Perhaps this is something we need to think about in our designs for a new society? There's a good reason to keep growth rates fairly low. Comments? I'm really enjoying this, and it's been inspiring to read both the comments and the literature cited. Thanks!
Hugh Watkins (hughw1936uk) Wed 7 Jan 09 02:05
Bruce a 300 year cycle? in that period there could be mini ice ages, plagues, famines and political transformations "All you have to do is tell the family . . ." in other words a command economy like USSR with internal passports . . . which is a proven route to disaster. The chaos of capitalism and the value of bankrupcy as a feed back self regulating mechanism should not be underrated. The fossils of the Burgess Shale suggested to me that the post darwinian theory of evolution is a reduction of diversity, which could also applied to ecology. Major attempts at designing a new society from the top have all ended in tears, it is far better to muddle through. As the sea rises we shall all adopt dutch technology of enclosures and dykes - with motorways running along the tops of the sea walls.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 7 Jan 09 06:36
So much of history describes a world without an Internet, or if you've read Teilhard et al, you might say a world without a noosphere. We're connected in ways we couldn't connect before, and while the state and degree of connection doesn't necessarily change human nature, the social infrastructure or ecology is so transformed that I think it's hard to generalize from past behaviors of relatively isolated individuals and communities. My colleagues and I have been discussing the relationship of social media to sustainability. David Armistead notes that, in the industrial economy, we made money by extracting resources and applying labor to materials. We assumed the resources were abundant. In a cradle to cradle sustainability economy, we'll make money by applying knowledge, engineering solutions that get maximum performance and maximum efficiency from any resource. So a sustainability economy depends on knowledge and innovation, and the value of knowledge is enhanced by interaction... the role of social media. (It's never just that simple, but that's a high-level view of what we've been thinking.) What happens when Frank's farm family, or those folks in the Mediterranean, are wired - globally connected, with many feedback channels, and many opportunities to gain and share knowledge within their community, but also globally? (I haven't read _Hot, Flat, and Crowded_, but I think Friedman is on this track.)
Teneo, Ergo Dubito (robertflink) Wed 7 Jan 09 08:53
If hubris has a role in human affairs, do we expect it to increase or decrease in 2009? The financial meltdown would suggest that hubris has been somewhat of a problem recently. Would a bit of humility help or hurt us in the future? Will any achievement(?) of general humility be done in by the next boom? Perhaps we can brazen it through. ;-)
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 7 Jan 09 11:05
"This applies to discussions about making a sustainable society. Aside from (possibly) Tokugawa Japan, I'm unaware of a society that performed a top-down reorganization along sustainable lines." *A look at Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE might help here. One dares to hope for a nifty sequel called UNCOLLAPSEABLE.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 7 Jan 09 11:16
"Do you see any evidence that intelligentsia in any 1st-world nation are finally realizing that any economy based on an exponential model (money loaned-with-interest into existence, for example) must fail by definition? "Do you expect a non-exponential economic system to become a world player in the next decade, or are we doomed to repeat the last century using the same model that's designed to fail?" *Well, I'm not an enthusiast for economic systems designed from first principles by first-world intelligentsia. I mean, let 'em design something small and harmless first -- like a decent faculty lounge, run by intelligentsia. *As for global-scale players, yeah -- I don't want to hammer away at this, but "commons-based peer production" (we could wish for a shorter term) is global. It also kinda works in a local-barnraising regional way, but I suspect it works best in the framework of what some people (cue Jamais Cascio) call a "translocal community." Also, if you knock off work when your software project forks, the code just sits there. Whereas if you try that with an Amish barn the cows will freeze. Clearly is nice when the "commons" being constructed is abstract and sitting around in the dusty corners of a bunch of servers somewhere. Or when it can fit in your pocket. *It is a new means of industrial production and potentially a different economic order; maybe there's less to it than meets the eye, but it's new, so, as a futurist, I'm necessarily interested. If I were a guy who was in earnest about "fighting market capitalism," I don't think I'd throw any bricks at the cops. I think I'd be devoting my efforts to removing the market price from goods and services, and the commons offers methods for that.
Emily J. Gertz (emilyg) Wed 7 Jan 09 11:35
Starting with you. So: leave journalism. Stop preaching to the green choir. Be brave. Suffer. Leave your big green groups. Go into big business or big governance. ---- Funny -- Last year a a good-works oriented friend bought me lunch and picked my brain on getting a job in the clean power sector. I suggested she go work for GE for 2 or 3 or 5 years; not only would she be able to sock money away against lean years later on with a venture-funded start-up, but she'd get experience that such a company might really value enough to hire someone who has it. Funny, she didn't seem to like this advice. (Journalist, heal thyself.)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 7 Jan 09 11:40
I'm also seeing more modest businesses targeting other modest businesses, people more committed to doing something cool than making a million bucks. And instead of investing in hard infrastructure, more new companies are showing up in coworking spaces, where they rub shoulders with other coworking adherents and create new creative synergies in a context that's already a new way of doing things. A bunch of guys in Austin decided there should be a coworking company, so they rented a big house on East 7th, set it up with a wifi network and plenty of caffeine, plus whatever else you might need for your business to incubate. They call it Conjunctured, and it's part of a network of coworking facilities, as well as looser coworking groups that meet in coffeeshops, that are popping up across the U.S. I know more and more people how never hire anybody, they just build a team of dependable contractors and get to work. And they all want to figure out how to make money, but they're not thinking about funding houses in the suburbs and multicar families. The world our parents knew, and we knew, is fading, and they can see that. And they'd rather have freedom than stuff. (Emily slipped in. Emily, I've been hanging around clean tech industry types, and I'm thinking they're just oilmen with computers instead of drills.)
(jacob) Wed 7 Jan 09 12:17
Hmm, I'm all for coworking and new ways of getting things done, but I sure want a house in the suburbs and a multicar family. Well, I already have those things, so what I really mean is that I'd like to continue to have them. Living in the city center is great when you can live in a couple of hundred sq ft, when you're young and single, but if you want a garage-workshop and >1000 sq ft, you really need to be a millionaire to do that in San Francisco. That's the problem with fantasies of new creative urbanism - it attracts business types like flies, and those people do tend to be very motivated by money, which means they can outbid the non-money-motivated types for housing. Eventually this process kills the golden goose, at least for a while - San Francisco I think just went through one of those cycles. Anyway, I'm not a millionaire, so I live in the suburbs. But I actually think the older streetcar suburbs are well-suited to this pattern of work too, being dense enough to make commutes very short and public transit practical, with plenty of commercial space available at much lower rents than the city centers. There's a reason why HP, Microsoft and Apple started in suburban garages rather than city center lofts. I think it's good to look at cities as a continuum of densities rather than making a sharp urban/suburban split. That whole "we're urban! we hate the suburbs!" thing isn't very useful. Cities provide lots of services to suburbs: financial concentration, high-end retail, major hospitals, urban universities - but the suburbs play a part too: sprawling university campuses, garbage transfer stations, warehouses and transhipment facilities, and modern manufacturing industries, not to mention massive amounts of housing. Cities need both to survive. Denser suburbs are an important part of the metropolitan ecology, not least for relieving the pressure on housing prices. And even some of the newer subdivisions look like they could be adapted to a more livable pattern. We may mock the identical boxes crammed in close to one another, but at least they're dense. There's potential there. Now, exurbs, McMansions, 1/4 acre lots, those I'm not such a fan of. The motivation for buying those is almost always conspicuous consumption, which isn't even fun for the person doing it. The urge to show off through overconsumption is a pathological drive. But I do agree that it's less present in the younger generation, though hardly absent.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 7 Jan 09 12:58
Yes, I get it - affordable hip urbanism might mean living somewhere other than San Francisco (or NYC or LA). Austin's explosive creativity of the moment will probably go gray as the cost of living spirals upward. Choosing not to live in a suburban house with a few cars and kids != "we hate the suburbs," necessarily, it's just a different choice. I'm a greybeard who did the suburban multicar thing, and it wasn't a bad life, though it wasn't very energy efficient. Part of the argument for a "new urbanism" is that it's supposedly more sustainable. You have a great point - we don't have to build surburban neighborhoods inefficiently, new patterns can and should evolve. Better mass transit would help. When I was living in Boulder, you could hop a bus to Denver - mass transit in that part of the world is Amazing, compared to the Austin area, where buses are empty and bus routes are extremely, even laughably, inconvenient. (We do have wifi on some buses, at least). Collaborative urban planning here has give us some pretty interesting neighborhoods; I expect to see significant change in local urban design over the next decade. The urge to show of through overconsumption may dwindle when it's more of a struggle to put bread on the table. Let's see how the economy plays out. Remember Ernest Callenbach's _Living Poor with Style_? Is that possible today. (If I had more time, I would add another paragraph or two about Buddhist Economics and Voluntary Simplicity...) Bruce, what's life like in Torino?
(dana) Wed 7 Jan 09 14:38
It would be nice if Obama would give William McDonough Detroit, New Orleans, and a bucket of cash and let him demonstrate his C2C principles in those blighted US cities. I'd also like to see that sort of thing in some of the burbs around California, and likely other states as well.
(dana) Wed 7 Jan 09 14:38
Yannis S. writes: re: hubris Check this little essay on hubris's scary dark twin (by Brian Eno, of all people -- not usually one to turn to for previsions of calamity): http://www.edge.org/q2009/q09_10.html#eno
(dana) Wed 7 Jan 09 14:40
George Mokray writes: Back in the day, my Clamshell Alliance affinity group had a meeting with the John Birch Society. We thought that since they were all about states rights and local control that they might be amenable to opposing the Federal push for nuclear power in NH and other places. Wasn't a productive meeting. However, I have your right-wing infiltration slogan right here: Solar IS Civil Defense I even have stickers and buttons if anyone's interested. By civil defense, I mean flashlight, radio, cell phone, and an extra set of batteries all solar powered with a possible hand crank or bike pedaled dynamo for back up. That's a reliable source of low voltage DC electricity day or night by sunlight or muscle power. In fact, we've distributed close to one million solar/dynamo am/fm/sw radios in Afghanistan since before the invasion. Each one could be modified to charge AA and other dry cell batteries to provide auxiliary battery power. Been trying for the last couple of years to interest somebody in NATO, the Pentagon, or my Congresscritters in the idea. They don't seem to understand it. Too small I guess. Solar as an anti-terror or at least anti-Taliban tactic, that could be pretty cool. More at http://solarray.blogspot.com/2008/05/solar-is-civil-defense-illustrated.html
la brujaja (zorca) Wed 7 Jan 09 16:41
the trick, for me at least, is not getting discouraged. which can sometimes be a challenge. i worry that with the worsening economy, incentives for greening are going to wither. obama will be hard-pressed to tax fuels or police emissions, at least for the first couple of years. u.s. auto makers are unlikely to retool to greener vehicles with whatever bailout monies they manage to win. add to this lower gas prices and middle-class tax rebates and you have consumer demand for the same old gas guzzlers. meanwhile, the history channel launches the new year with a week-long 'countdown to armageddon' fear fest that's bound to leave many with a 'why bother' aftertaste. it's all well and good to use recycled bags, but meanwhile, hell:handbasket. so i'm glad bruce comes here once a year. i always walk away amused, enthused, and oddly recharged. thanks, bruce. can't wait to read the new novel.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 7 Jan 09 17:43
From Frank, again.... @Bruce: Yes, I actually got the Tokugawa example from Jared Diamond's Collapse, thanks. What I find fascinating is that what I wrote got taken completely out of context, in some fascinating ways. One basic point is that with the one exception, I don't know of anyone who went sustainable without facing the threat of starvation. The thing about starvation is that it happens slowly enough that it's a great motivator, especially if you have hungry kids who are begging you to feed them. Unfortunately, starvation also weeds out everyone who gets it wrong. Given our track record, I think it's unlikely that we will make a sustainable society without dealing with mass global starvation. The one ray of light is the Tokugawa, who used a command and control approach (ahem!) to make Japan sustainable for a few centuries. If this doesn't scare you, just think about it: starvation and dictatorship seem to be the only proven ways to make people go sustainable. I hope there's a third way. Fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh ways would be nice too, just in case. I'd suggest that we spend some time looking to see if other people have found other ways. It's nice to have models to work from. As for my Mediterranean farmers, this is a great example of mutual incomprehension. Basically, I'm quoting an ecologist who says that, when something forces people to make a living off of a plot of land forever, they quickly learn to manage it sustainably. This has nothing to do with politics, old-style economics, or the historical lack of the internet. This was an observation by a really good ecologist (better than I am), about what it takes to force people to live sustainably. Moreover, it is no more and no less than the state that the human species finds itself in. We have to make a living off of planet Earth, forever. We are that Mediterranean farm family, and we can't avoid the problem by changing our political system, nor by getting work blogging on the InterStellarNet to get food from friends at Tau Ceti C. I'd also point out to Mr. Watkins (#84), that, unfortunately for all political theorists, we live in something very much like a command and control universe. The commands are the laws of physics, and the controls are the amounts of energy and elements we get to play with on our planet. While human representation of physical laws is imperfect, no sane person denies them. You simply can't break the law of gravity. Similarly, there's only so much fresh water in the world, and while you can make water potable, that costs energy and materials, both of which are limited. The basic point is that to be sustainable, you have to be able to work within the limits to make a living, whatever sets those limits. I understand that the example of a Mediterranean farmer sounds very much like something a stupid feudal lord would do (and oddly enough, that is what happened in some places), but nature pulls the same trick on all of us in the absence of stupid overlords. Anyway, this is pulling the discussion away from interesting questions about designing a society. I thought I'd better clear this up.
Jamais Cascio (cascio) Wed 7 Jan 09 21:15
>*As for global-scale players, yeah -- I don't want to hammer away at this, but "commons-based peer production" (we could wish for a shorter term) is global. It also kinda works in a local-barnraising regional way, but I suspect it works best in the framework of what some people (cue Jamais Cascio) call a "translocal community."< "Think locally, act globally." Intelligentsia-designed political structures don't seem to manifest in ways that would be recognizable to the designers. Novel political and political- economic structures tend instead to be emergent, then described later.
Hugh Watkins (hughw1936uk) Thu 8 Jan 09 00:13
My whole point is designing a society is as hopeless a task as designing the english language by a self appointed academy The "laws of physics" are like the descriptions of "God", a wonderful human invention notnecessarily true in detail. If you remember the great breakthrough in the history of the invention of the radio amplifiern was "Negative feedback counteracts the positive feedback in valve circuits. " (Wiki) in an effective mixed economy - partly capitalist and partly socialist - bankrupcy and politics have that effect Rising tides will inspire solutions, but when eg Bangledesh is submerged where will the refugees go?
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Thu 8 Jan 09 01:34
re: "And instead of investing in hard infrastructure, more new companies are showing up in coworking spaces, where they rub shoulders with other coworking adherents and create new creative synergies in a context that's already a new way of doing things. A bunch of guys in Austin decided there should be a coworking company, so they rented a big house [...]" But the hard infrastructure is still there; someone's the landlord for that house. And if you meet in coffee shops, that means more coffee shops and the people who run them, not to mention electricity and laptops and cell phones and cell phone towers. It's more fun and probably more efficient, but someone still has to keep the infrastructure going, and they still get paid. So you get a different division of labor with small networked capitalism running in an environment maintained by someone else, with a lot of routine transactions acting as the glue.
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