The positive energy of counterfactuals: a rejected essay for Howies

Navarro Redwoods, CA

I was asked to write something for Howies‘ Autumn catalogue on the theme of “Positive Energy”.

I was in a particularly punchy mood as I wrote I think, and the backdrop of a summer thunderstorm tipped me in a direction that… Well, let’s just say I wasn’t exactly surprised when it wasn’t printed – it’s not quite ‘on-brand” for them – but it’ll fit in just fine round here. So – remembering that although I’ve added some links, it’s written for print, not the web – here’s what I turned in:

Positive Energy / for Howies / Matt Jones / 871 words. 7.7.09

As I write this there’s a thunderstorm over my head.

It’s a cracking one too, literally. The thunderclaps are ear-splitting and it’s blowing the rubbish around on the dilapidated flat roof our studio windows over look.

The energy released by an average thunderstorm, according to wikipedia amounts to about the equivalent of a 20-kiloton nuclear warhead going off. A large, severe thunderstorm might be 10 to 100 times more energetic.

In a digital window in front of me, I’m reading the twitter posts of a friend (Gavin Starks, @agentgav, founder of carbon calculator who’s attending the “World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment” with luminaries such as Lord Brown, former head of BP, Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientist and Mr Inconvenient Truth himself, former vice-president Al Gore. It’s an impressive line-up to be sure. But some of the most impressive things he’s recounting are coming from a delegation from China.

For instance, this from Dr Christine Loh (1), of Civic Exchange, China: “China believe they’ve cracked thin-film solar for domestic use” To explain it very simplistically: thin-film solar technology brings the price of renewable energy of the sun into the same ball-park as non-renewable sources such as oil and coal. That China, the factory of the world, is going to start cranking this stuff out could be game-changing, and biosphere-saving.

That China could become the world’s number one economic superpower has been received wisdom for a while now. What’s new is the suspicion they might be able to turn around their rapid ascent to claiming the top polluter crown from the USA. In fact, they might take the lead in clean, green technology from the West.

Gavin also reported this factoid from Al Gore: “China now plants twice the number of trees than the rest of the world put together. Every citizen must plant three”

Not should, not encouraged – MUST. And of course that’s part of the inconvenient truth about China – that their political system and attitudes to individual freedom are very different to those we hold dear in ‘The West’.

But – what if that’s what it takes to survive?

Al Gore again: “We must connect the soil to the energy to the built environment, to our population and to our politics”. We’re in a highly individualistic democratic society. Do we have something positive and captivating enough as a vision to get us there?

We’ve done it before. Over the last month I’ve been watching the commemorative programmes on the telly marking the 40th anniversary of the manned landings on the moon. Not only were they the product of the NASA Apollo space programme – more broadly speaking, they were the product of an ideological battle between the USA and USSR in the cold war.

And it got me thinking strange thoughts: would it have been better for the long term future if McCain and Palin had got in? If America were seized by a new ideological battle – frustrated and bruised from a prolonged, controversial war on an abstract noun, nationalist fervour was directed into a technological crusade to make sure China doesn’t reign supreme in green.

Instead of a space race, an earth race…

Technology isn’t the answer to everything – but hair-shirt green thinking isn’t either. Back-to-the-land doesn’t scale when there’s going to be 10 billion of us on it, and that’s even without the now-almost-inevitable changes in the climate. It’s certainly not the route China’s going to take.

Now, wondering whether GM food or nuclear power might have to gain widespread acceptance, or whether freedom is compatible with survival, or that Obama’s not going to push the US and the West far enough away from legacy thinking is pretty challenging to my personal politics. But, thinking through these kind of ‘counter-factual’ scenarios can throw up interesting possibilities. When we’re ready to think about throwing away the things that we hold most precious, we can see new ways to hold on to them.

Another friend, Sascha Pohflepp, just graduated from the Royal College of Art with a fascinating project illustrating a counter-factual history where Jimmy Carter won against Ronald Reagan, and gave us a 1980s where the arms race was transmuted into an energy race; where a fictional government agency – “The Golden Institute” (2), turns Nevada into a weather lab and Vegas into an array of gaudy lightning catchers that supply the USA with power; where the kiloton energies of thunderstorms are engineered with silver-iodide balloons, and giant gyroscopes near the North Pole harness the world’s rotation to keep the lights on in the West, while slowing down the Earth just enough to make the days longer in the USA than Russia…

Fantastic, crazy, impossible stuff – imagined with the scale and scope and audacity and sacrifice and ruthlessness that got us to the moon. That showed us the Earth. That might keep us here.

That China might be ready for.

Where’s our vision of a bright green future?

There’s the thunder again.


From punctuated futures to permafuture

Etech09: Chris Luebkeman of Arup

At the Long Now London meeting yesterday (my rough notes here) I asked Stuart Candy a question about the language he was using.

I was intrigued that he was interrogating what ‘Future’ meant to people as part of his practice of exposing them to scenarios and futures in the hope of encouraging more habitual longer-term thinking. He said that he was interested in reclaiming the word “Future” from the more corporate and financial associations it’s had during late-capitalism.

My question was prompted by the fact that Candy’s fellow futurist and friend-of-this-show Jamais Cascio has recently stated that he’s going to stop using the term “long-term”, swapping it out for “multi-generational”.

It’s a subtle but important substitution:

When we talk about the long-term, the corresponding structure of language — and thinking — tends to bias us towards a kind of punctuated futurism, pushing us to look ahead to the end of the era in question while leaping over the intervening years. This skews our perspective. “In the long run, we are all dead” John Maynard Keynes famously said — but over that same long run, we will all have lived our lives, too.

I’m increasingly convinced that, when looking ahead, the focus should be less on the destination than on how we get there. Yet that’s not how we discuss long-term issues. When we describe climate change as a long-term problem, for example, we inevitably end up talking about what it would look like down the road, after some “tipping point” perhaps, or at a particular calendar demarcation (2050 or 2100). Although there’s no explicit denial that climate change is something with implications for every year between now and then, our attention — our foresight gaze, as we might think of it — is drawn to that distant end-point, not to the path.

This has made me think about the rhetoric of ‘futures‘, written, spoken – and as I mainly deal with – the visual and designed. The ‘punctuated futures’ we often imagine and illustrate.

I’ve also recently been thinking about the ‘permaculture‘ movements that have been rehabilitated in recent times from their hey-day in the 60s and 70s.

Permaculture thinking – looking for closed loops of living systems that have the fewest negative impacts as possible on the health and longevity of the systems that they are in turn embedded within – has often been characterised as at-odds with technology. As being anti-futurity perhaps.

But it seems to me that recent trends in emerging technology, as illustrated at Etech ’09 (have a look at Phil Gyford’s notes over at Overmorgen) last week – personal and product informatics, the spimeworld, low-cost rapid fabrication, biomimicry, new materials, cradle-to-cradle thinking, eco-urbanism – understood and deployed in linked and learning systems thinking manner at small scales – say, through a more technologically-oriented approach to the transition towns concept might to address this.

They would seem to be promising technologies of the multi-generational task ahead.

Of the path, not the punctuated end-point.

They could be forging Bionic Permacultures.


Time to start illustrating them.

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Stuart Candy on Ambient Futures at Long Now London

Very rough notes from Stuart’s talk:

Long Now London
stuart candy

designs on a longer now

q: what drew you into the long now?

(the hope is) this group is a group of early adopters of an idea which can get into the broader culture eventually?

stewart brand: why haven’t we seen a picture of the whole earth yet?

made a hundreds of badges the next day with this on
echoing bucky: people don’t think about their impact on the whole earth as a system as they cannot see it

Apollo program picture ‘blue marble’ had the mainstream impact needed for this

Long now is trying to do the equivalent for time as the blue marble did for space

a cultural change in attitudes towards time

(shows protos of the LN clock and mt washington in nevada where the clock is to be built)

but – it’s not really the clock that is the central object – it’s designing culture around the clock… the clock is a catalyst for that.

manifesting futures in the present: ‘found futures’

why: because physiologically, neurally, culturally we all programmed for continuity while living through discontinuity (accelerating change)

building bridges across this] experiential gulf

project: hawaii2050: workshopping with 600 ppl, 4 different versions (scenario) of 2050
continued growth / discipline / collapse / transformation

project: art objects from a 2108 Hawaii: found objects from a future scenario

problem: not everyone you want to reach is attending these things (self-selecting)

solution?: guerilla futures : ad-hoc incursions into futures.
manifest futures in the present whether people have requested it or not

project: postcards from different scenarios printed and sent to the most powerful people in the state of Hawaii at their home addresses one a day without explanation

project: simulated urban gentrification takeover : used vacant lots and filled them with fake posters of multinational brands moving into a chinatown. ‘save chinatown’ group went out and lobbied passers by. unintended consequence: ppl annoyed that they had been ‘hoaxed’

projects: scenario where relationship between Hawaii and china supplants that of the usa, and a bird flu scenario of 2016, played out in wall plaques and street signs (backwards)

Future Shock-therapy

bruce sterling asked: what would happen if you changed ‘guerilla’ interventions into a regular standing army?

got candy thinking: a 2nd strategy: ‘ambient foresight’

foresight as an emergent capacity – instead of being deliberately disorienting and interventionist – it’s more subtle and day-to-day. implicit, incidental

‘what kind of practice do we need to be thinking about the future day to day, for it to be woven into culture’

cf. paul hawken: ‘sustainability should be as easy as falling off a log’

ambient foresight examples: lung pictures on cigarette packets? nutrition facts (!)

carbon/energy facts: jamais’s cheeseburger footprint

aim: ‘social capacity for foresight’ (richard slaughter)