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Posts tagged: Environment

Mutation Vectors: Worst Case Scenarios Edition

Klint Finley

Nomad from Hardware

Status Update

Taking a week off work.

Browsing

 Uncivilization festival

After posting about Warren Ellis’ extinction aesthetic thing on Monday, I figured I should look into the Dark Mountain Project a bit more. I figured the New York Times Magazine profile of Paul Kingsnorth would be as good a place to start as any.

Reading this led me to wonder what the current worst case scenarios for climate change, ocean acidification and peak soil are, which led me to a long piece from The Nation that, if I understand it correctly, reports that we could see a 3.5 Celsius increase in global temperatures as early as 2035. An increase of 3.5C would kill off the earth’s remaining plankton, which are already dying quickly thanks to ocean acidification, which would kick off a series of events leading to the death of most of our food sources.

In other words, we could be facing human extinction in just 21 years.

Actually, I imagine it would take at least a few more years after 2035 for the human species to actually go extinct. Maybe we’ll discover that some people can live on smaller amounts of food, or but it doesn’t sound like things will be pretty for the survivors.

And if we don’t hit those numbers by 2035, there’s a ticking time bomb of methane stored in arctic permafrosted soil, and that’s going to be thawing out sooner or later. And when that happens, temperatures are likely to go out of control fast.

Even if we make it to 2050, current projections estimate that our soil will only be able to produce about 30 percent of the amount of food we do today. That’s particularly bad news because new population projections predict that instead of peaking peaking at nine billion around 2050, we’re going to hit 11 billion by 2100 and keep growing (unless of course we all starve to death decades before we ever reach that point).

The good news is that these are just the worst case scenarios. Many scientists still think we can turn this around, at least somewhat. The bad news is that the worst case scenarios keep getting worse.

Other cheery subjects:

Good news: stop and frisk is all but gone in New York City and violent crime is still dropping. Bad news:

The police remain a visible presence in the borough’s Brownsville neighborhood, where the vast and violent expanse of public housing had made the neighborhood a proving ground for the department’s use of the tactics as a way to curb gun violence. As part of a new strategy called Omnipresence, the officers now stand on street corners like sentries, only rarely confronting young men and patting them down for weapons. But the residents of Brownsville, conditioned by the years of the stop-and-frisk tactics, still view these officers warily.

Elsewhere: Deb Chachra revisits Betsy Haibel’s article on the the tech industry’s consent problem and finds many more examples.

Watching

Wilson from Utopia

This week I watched Hardware, not realizing that human sterilization and population control were subplots. And finished watching the second season of Utopia (the British drama, not the U.S. reality show). I seem unable to escape the themes of human extinction and involuntary sterilization.

(You can read the first few issues free online)

Reading

Stray Bullets issue 3 "The Party" cover

Stray Bullets: Uber Alles Edition, which is the sort of thing that makes you think that humans deserve to go extinct.

Listening

The Bug: Angels & Devils

GOD: Possessions

The Internet of Things Could Be Bad for the Environment

Klint Finley

pollution-getty

A bit more contrarianism from me at Wired today:

The pitch is that the Internet of Things will make our world a greener place. Environmental sensors can detect pollution, the voices say. Smart thermostats can help us save money on our electric bills. A new breed of agriculture tech can save water by giving crops exactly the amount they need and no more.

But this vast network of new online devices could also end up harming the environment. Manufacturing all those gadgets means expending both energy and raw materials. In many cases, they will replace an older breed of devices, which will need to be disposed of (so long, non-smart thermostat). And eventually, every IoT device you buy–and people are predicting there will be hundreds of thousands–will need to be retired too. Since all these devices will connect to the net, we should even consider the energy used by the data centers that drive them.

Full Story: Wired: The Internet of Things Could Drown Our Environment in Gadgets

Previously: The Dark Side of the Internet of Things

Why the Solar Roadways Project on Indiegogo is Actually Really Silly

Klint Finley

Solar Roadways

Joel Anderson says the Solar Roadways that raised over $1.5 million is visionary but extremely impractical:

But why NOT use our roads? I mean, roofs, roads, who cares, right? Well, in short, because we drive our cars there. Our big, metal, heavy cars. There’s currently a virtually endless supply of places you could install solar panels that DON’T have cars driving over them and, as such, don’t require fancy high-tech glass covering them. Or, for that matter, don’t mean you have to worry about the long term wear-and-tear of millions of tons of steel and rubber driving over them at high speed every year.

This, I’m guessing, is why the question of cost doesn’t come up at any point in either the IndieGoGo video OR the couple’s website. It’s why their idea doesn’t actually make any sense. This is basically just a pitch for a new way to install solar capacity that would cost a lot more than the ways we currently have for installing solar capacity. Which might make sense if we had already exhausted our options for places we could build solar panels on the cheap (we haven’t).

Full Story: Equities: Why the Solar Roadways Project on Indiegogo is Actually Really Silly

(via GlobalInfoWatch)

Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat by Military Researchers

Klint Finley

The New York Times reports:

The accelerating rate of climate change poses a severe risk to national security and acts as a catalyst for global political conflict, a report published Tuesday by a leading government-funded military research organization concluded.

The CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board found that climate change-induced drought in the Middle East and Africa is leading to conflicts over food and water and escalating longstanding regional and ethnic tensions into violent clashes. The report also found that rising sea levels are putting people and food supplies in vulnerable coastal regions like eastern India, Bangladesh and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam at risk and could lead to a new wave of refugees.

In addition, the report predicted that an increase in catastrophic weather events around the world will create more demand for American troops, even as flooding and extreme weather events at home could damage naval ports and military bases.

Full Story: The New York Times: Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat by Military Researchers

See also: Pentagon Bracing for Public Dissent Over Climate and Energy Shocks

Reminds me that Bruce Sterling wrote in 2009:

If I wanted to be politically effective, rather than visionary, I’d disguise myself as a right-wing Green, probably some kind of hunting-shooting NASCAR “conservationist,” and I’d infiltrate the Republicans this year. […]

So we publicly recognize the climate crisis: just as if we suddenly discovered it ourselves. And we don’t downplay the climate crisis: we OVERPLAY the crisis.

“Then we blame the crisis on foreigners. We’re not liberal weak sisters ‘negotiating Kyoto agreements.’ We’re assembling a Coalition of the Willing tp threaten polluters.

“We’re certainly not bowing the knee to the damn Chinese — they own our Treasury, unfortunately, but we completely change the terms of that debate. When the Chinese open a coal mine and threaten the world’s children with asthma, we will take out that threat with a cruise missile!

That’s our new negotiating position on the climate crisis: we’re the military, macho hard line.

An Open Source Kit for Growing Edible Insects

Klint Finley

My latest for Wired:

The world’s population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, according to a World Resources Institute report published last year, and that means we’ll need to increase food production about 60 percent in the coming decades — a task made all the more difficult by expected shortages in water, fuel, fertilizer, and arable land. One solution could be entomophagy. Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggested that insects could be an increasingly important and sustainable food source in the future, and Imrie-Situnayake agrees. Insects are high in protein. They require little space to raise. And they don’t produce much methane or other greenhouse gases.

Two million people around the world already eat insects on a regular basis, and many consider them a delicacy. But here in the West, the situation is very different. Entomophagy is largely taboo, and our culture just isn’t geared towards finding and raising insects for food. That’s why Imrie-Situnayake and Tiny Farms have created what they call Open Bug Farm — a high-tech kit for raising your own edible insects. They’re trying to hack the Western agriculture world, and in true hacker fashion, they plan on open sourcing the kit’s basic design, so that anyone can build their own for free.

Full Story: Wired: Out in the Open: Raise Your Own Edible Insects With This Free Kit

NASA Study: Industrial Civilization Headed for Collapse

Klint Finley

Nafeez Ahmed writes:

A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”

The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharri of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

Full Story: The Guardian: Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?

(via Eleanor)

I haven’t had a look at the study yet, but it’s here. It sounds a lot like Peter Turchin’s Cliodynamics research.

See also: Ahmed on peak soil.

On Gaia tests whether the hypothesis holds up to scientific scrutiny

Klint Finley

Scott K. Johnson reviews On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship Between Life and Earth by Toby Tyrrell:

Spiritual groups that hope to attract your interest may exhort you to “Be a part of something bigger than yourself!” But James Lovelock would tell you that you can already check that off your to-do list.

In the early 1970s, Lovelock—with the help of Lynn Margulis—developed the Gaia Hypothesis, which views the Earth and its ecosystems as resembling a sort of superorganism. Lovelock was working for NASA at the time, developing instruments that would aid the Viking landers in looking for signs of life on Mars, so he was thinking about how life interacts with its environment on a planetary scale. And Margulis was famed for her ideas about symbiosis.

This intellectual background led to the idea that organisms are not just passive inhabitants riding a big rock that determined whether they lived or died. Organisms were active participants in the molding of their environment, tweaking and improving conditions as part of a massive, self-regulating system.

In On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship Between Life and Earth, University of Southampton Professor Toby Tyrrell sets out to comprehensively put the Gaia Hypothesis to the test, using everything we’ve learned about life and its history on our planet.

Full Story: Ars Technica: On Gaia tests whether the hypothesis holds up to scientific scrutiny

See also:

Creator of the Gaia hypothesis says “enjoy life while you can”

Manuel DeLanda: “Don’t call me Gaia”

How Stewart Brand Helped Kickstart the De-extinction Movement

Klint Finley

Nathaniel Rich’s article on the de-extinction movement includes this letter by Stewart Brand to George Church and Edward O. Wilson:

Dear Ed and George …

The death of the last passenger pigeon in 1914 was an event that broke the public’s heart and persuaded everyone that extinction is the core of humanity’s relation with nature.

George, could we bring the bird back through genetic techniques? I recall chatting with Ed in front of a stuffed passenger pigeon at the Comparative Zoology Museum [at Harvard, where Wilson is a faculty emeritus], and I know of other stuffed birds at the Smithsonian and in Toronto, presumably replete with the requisite genes. Surely it would be easier than reviving the woolly mammoth, which you have espoused.

The environmental and conservation movements have mired themselves in a tragic view of life. The return of the passenger pigeon could shake them out of it — and invite them to embrace prudent biotechnology as a Green tool instead of menace in this century… . I would gladly set up a nonprofit to fund the passenger pigeon revival… .

Full Story: The New York Times: The Mammoth Cometh

The details of how it de-extinction would actually work are fascinating, and if you stick with the article long enough, it does include some criticism from mainstream biologists. For one thing, this isn’t really bringing back an old species so much as it easy creating a new species that is very close to the old. In fact, one environmental lawyer has already suggested that such species could be patentable.

Reign of the Crazy Ants

Klint Finley

crazy-ants

It sounds like something out of a horror movie, but it’s real:

Outside, dead ants began pooling around the base of the house in heaps so high that they looked like discarded coffee grounds. (It’s common in Texas these days for a person who is shown one of these heaps of dead ants to take several seconds to realize that the solid surface he or she is scanning for ants actually is the ants.) Mike laid out poison, generating more heaps of dead ants. But new ants merely used those dead ants as a bridge over the poison and kept streaming inside.

“They literally come in waves of just millions,” Mike told me. (One Texas A&M entomologist confessed, “You figure these stories are laced with hyperbole, but when you get in there, it’s unreal.”) People don’t want to visit the Foshees anymore, and if they do, they leave quickly, before the ants can stow away in their cars and accompany them home. This summer, Mike had to cancel Therapy Through the Outdoors. Recently, he and his wife were sitting outside, watching a pair of bald eagles settle into a pecan tree for the evening, when Mike looked down and saw one of his bare feet overtaken by ants. He remembers thinking, No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, running inside and running back out with his AR-15, the assault rifle he uses to take out hogs. He was about to open fire on the ants until his wife chuckled and he realized how ridiculous the situation had become.

“The distressing part,” he told me, “is having the feeling of something always crawling on you. Like, if you get around somebody who has lice, and now you’re always itching because you know they have lice.”

“So it’s psychological,” I said.

“It’s psychological,” he said. “And yet, you actually do have them on you.”

He tried leaving different foods on his floor overnight, to figure out how he might bait and kill the ants, as he did with the feral hogs. He tried doughnuts, crushed-up Cheerios, bread crumbs — “anything a normal ant would be attracted to,” he told me. He claims they touched none of it.

He can’t fathom what the ants want — why they’ve come. They are frightening because they make no sense, because of the utter disarray of their existence. “They run around the floors like they’re on crack, and then they die,” he said. “They’re freakin’ crazy, man.”

Full Story: New York Times: There’s a Reason They Call Them ‘Crazy Ants’

(via Tim Maly)

Prada Revolutionaries: Confessions of a Recovering Solutionist

Klint Finley

prada3

This essay is part of 5 Viridian Years, a series of reflections on the Viridian Design movement.

Revolution is depressing.

The U.S. turned deep red after the 2002 mid-term elections. Any hope of a Democratic rebound after George W. Bush’s contentious inauguration vanished. Not that the Democrats were any better. Only one senator had voted against the Patriot Act, and in 2003 congress approved the invasion of Iraq despite worldwide protest — some of the biggest in history. Meanwhile, poverty was on the rise and the Kyoto Protocol was going nowhere.

On a personal level, the a local homeless shelter was on the verge of being pushed out of downtown Olympia, WA out to the outskirts of town. The campaign to save it, which I had volunteered for, was going badly.

It was hard to take the idea of meaningful political change seriously. Things were fucked up at every level of government. Nor could I take seriously the right-wing punk, “fuck-up the system from the inside” idea. Writer Grant Morrison put it this way: “For every McDonald’s you blow up, ‘they’ will build two. Instead of slapping a wad of Semtex between the Happy Meals and the plastic tray, work your way up through the ranks, take over the board of Directors and turn the company into an international laughing stock.”

Sounds nice in theory. But I knew corporations were more resilient than that. Sabotaging the system from inside was as much a pipe dream as changing it through politics and protest.

Outnumbered and out-gunned, armed insurrection seemed pointless. The only viable solution seemed to be outsmarting the enemy.

In early 2003, not long after the start of the Iraq War, I read The Headmap Manifesto, a document written by Ben Russell and first published in 1999. Russell described a future filled with location aware mobile internet devices, augmented reality, reputation systems and digital payment systems. He anticipated nearly every major mobile and geolocative innovation of the following decade, but the heart of the text was a vision of a new society that these technologies could bring about. He called the social economic system that would emerge from these technologies “augmented capitalism.” Today we might call it the “sharing economy.”

I started reading more blogs about mobile technology, social software and design. Back then we talked about designers like they were rock stars — sort of the way we talk about developers and startup people today. Celebrities like Brad Pitt and Lenny Kravitz dabbled in design. Bruce Sterling declared that design magazine Metropolis was the new Wired. It was the thing at the time, so I started reading lots of design blogs, and started following people like Dan Hill, Matt Jones, Adam Greenfield, Josh Ellis and Abe Burmeister. All smart people who continue to do good work.

Most importantly, I discovered Margin Walker, a now defunct web community founded by Adam and Josh and featured contributions by many of the designers I was already following. Metafilter heralded its launch with the headline “The revolutionaries will wear Prada,” because of the community’s peculiar obsession with that brand. Topics ranged from dead malls to micropayments to nomadism.

A few months later the green tech and social enterprise blog WorldChanging launched with the mission of spreading the message of the “bright green” movement, a design movement closely aligned with Sterling’s Viridian Design concept. “The world needs a new, unnatural, seductive, mediated, glamorous Green,” Sterling announced in the movement’s manifesto. “A Viridian Green, if you will. The best chance for progress is to convince the twenty-first century that the twentieth century’s industrial base was crass, gauche, and filthy.”

In other words, maybe we instead of protesting McDonalds, or joining the board, we could convince people that it was just really uncool to eat there.

Discovering Headmap, Margin Walker and WorldChanging was for me what discovering The Whole Earth Catalog or Mondo 2000 must have been like for previous generations. These were the people I was looking for, and the vision I was seeking. An alternative to both the hopeless outsiderdom of left-wing activism and the nihilism of yuppiedom. A glimmer of hope that I could spend my post-college career making money and making a difference.

Looking back it all seems hopelessly naive.

Last year I saw Twitter co-founder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey give a talk at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. Dorsey, who got his start in tech by writing taxi dispatch software just for fun and still name drops Hakim Bey, is the most “Headmap” tech executive out there. I don’t know if he lurked on Margin Walker or the Geowankers mailing list, but he would have fit right in. He was “one of us.” And there he was at this major tech conference, dressed in a Prada suit, talking about “revolution” while homeless people slept under the bridge right across the street. I guess it could have been either a dream come true or a disillusionment had those particular dreams not already rotted in my heart.

Today we have garbage continents and ocean acidification. The latest ICC report tells us that even if we do manage to gouge our emissions, we’re still in for some rough climate change. And cutting emissions still looks as unlikely as it did to me in 2003 and as it did to Sterling in 1998.

Any sane person would look at the evidence and say the Virdian/Bright Green movement failed miserably. But here’s the thing: The Viridian Design movement may have failed in its goals, but accomplished its objectives.

Green is hip. Green is sexy. And the more affluent you are the greener — and therefore hipper — you can afford to be. “The task of this avant-garde is to design a stable and sustainable physical economy in which the wealthy and powerful will prefer to live,” Sterling wrote.

Virdians eschewed politics. “CO2 emission is not centrally a political or economic problem,” Sterling wrote. “It is a design and engineering problem. It is a cultural problem and a problem of artistic sensibility.”

In other words, it was a “solutionist” movement, meaning that it tried to “route around” politics and provide purely technical solutions to hard problems. The term has been popularized by Evgeny Morozov in the context of tech pundits who, but its origins are, appropriately enough, in architecture.

But in a capitalist society, an aesthetic movement is ultimately a consumerist movement. That’s why punk ended up as a lifestyle you can buy at the mall. It’s why the sharing economy is anything but. And just as the personal computer business became just another consumer electronics industry and the internet became an ad network with an NSA backdoor, Bright Green became just another way to move product. Worse, it became an excuse to use consumption as an alternative to politics and self-discipline. It’s the forfeiture of environmentalism to the market.

This bastardized version of Virdian was best stated by Arnold Vinick, told the world the fictional presidential candidate on The West Wing: “In L.A. now, the coolest thing you can drive is a hybrid. Well, if that’s what the free market can do in the most car-crazed culture on Earth, then I trust the free market to solve our energy problems.”

But as it turns out, 15 years on, that the environment is political problem after all. We need global emissions treaties. We need federal funding for research. We need to adjust our lifestyles and expectations, but we don’t want to. Down shifting is for “hair shirts.” Bright Green has become the left’s version of right-wing transhumanism: an excuse to not solve today’s problems, because tomorrow’s technology will fix them for us.

That’s not to say many of the people involved in those communities didn’t end up doing important work. And to be fair, Margin Walker was always more political and more skeptical than certain other “social responsible design” communities (if that’s even what Margin Walker was). And of course this green washed consumerism isn’t what Sterling, Alex Steffan and company had in mind in the early days. But even the political strains of that era — the so-called “emergent democracy” movement — have been co-opted by commercial forces.

Hopefully there’s a lesson in there somewhere for the next generation of activists, designers and social entrepreneurs. Don’t give up on the political, and don’t be so smug as to think you can route around it.

Photo by japanese_craft_construction