Wild ideas: Ban advertising

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At its most altruistic, advertising helps people find products or services that can improve their lives. In reality, advertising generates dissatisfaction in people so they will try to fill an imagined void with the thing the advertiser is selling.

Researchers have found that the amount of money spent in a country on advertising is inversely proportional to the happiness citizens report in that same country. While dividing by zero is inappropriate, it seems that eliminating advertising is a simple way to increase the happiness of many people. I think the characters in Walkaway by Cory Doctorow said it best:

“Is there really abundance? If the whole world went walkaway tomorrow would there be enough?”
“By definition,” she said. “Because enough is whatever you make it. Maybe you want to have 30 kids. ‘Enough’ for you is more than ‘enough’ for me… Depending on how you look at it, there’ll never be enough, or there’ll always be plenty.”

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

The first step to banning ads seems to be the billboard ban. A few states in the US have such bans, and São Paolo, Brazil drew a lot of press when they instituted their “Clean City Law in 2006. Despite predictions of economic collapse brought on by the lack of outdoor advertising, citizens overwhelmingly supported the move and the change brought many previously hidden civic issues to light. Given the rollout of “smart billboards” that bring the pervasive tracking you know and love from the internet to the real world, getting rid of billboards everywhere else can’t happen soon enough.

Current advertising practices promote carbon-intensive lifestyle goods like SUVs that increase global carbon emissions. We should significantly limit, if not totally eliminate, all advertising if we want to hit the Paris Accord targets. We’ve built an economy based on growth for growth’s sake, and capitalism treats natural resources as infinite when it’s clear they aren’t. Banning advertisement is the first step in reducing consumption. Remember, it’s Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The recycle is last for a reason.

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One group that’s been working to curb advertising is Fairplay, a nonprofit that runs the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. While their efforts are focused on a specific demographic, it seems that they have been working in the space the longest. As a new parent, I’m especially interested in their work. Growing our next generation of citizens outside of the consumer mindset would be an excellent place to start banning ads.

As a small business owner, I’d love to see an end to ads. While I have run ads to drive traffic to my Etsy shops, I feel that it isn’t something I like spending time on or feel adds a lot of value to the end product. Maybe selling on Etsy isn’t the best idea since I abhor sales, but I really like making things and don’t have enough room to keep all of my projects around. While I need people to find the things I make, I don’t like hunting customers around the internet like a predatory car salesperson.

Finally, if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to install an ad-blocker and/or tracker blocker software. I use uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger, Canvas Blocker, and Decentraleyes on my own Firefox installation, but everyone has their own favorites. This software lets you regain a little bit of privacy as well as block a fair amount of the ad traffic directed toward your eyeballs. It’s not foolproof, but it can help you regain a small modicum of sanity in this ad-saturated world.

Do you love ads and think this is a terrible plan? Have you seen any clever ideas to circumvent ads? Let us know below.

Solarpunk Creator Opportunities – October 2021

Solarpunk creators, listen up! There are several projects that warrant your attention coming up: Solarpunk Magazine, Solarpunk Sunscapes, a Solarpunk Art Contest, and the XR Wordsmiths Solarpunk Story Contest.

First, if you want something to read right now, Grist’s Fix just announced the winners of their Imagine 2200 contest. If you want to read the stories, you can do so on the Grist website for free.

Solarpunk Magazine is launching their Kickstarter campaign October 2, 2021 to launch a speculative fiction magazine based on solarpunk. Once they’re going they’ll be accepting “short stories, flash fiction, and poetry that imagines a better and more harmonious world through.” For the Kickstarter, they have announced some pretty neat rewards from authors including Starhawk, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Alaya Dawn Johnson. Solarpunk Magazine will be launching in January 2022, and their podcast has already released its first two episodes.

Solarpunk Sunscapes is accepting submissions between 500 and 7,500 words until November 1, 2021. Editor Justine Norton-Kertson says they’re “always looking for stories with great character development, and stories with compelling conflict and tension even amidst a better and more utopian world.” If you think you have something that would be a great fit, check out the submission guidelines on their page.

Also accepting submissions until November 1, 2021 is the Solarpunk Art Contest by Yishan Wong. From Wong: “To bring about this [solarpunk] future we require not only science and technology and better politics, but a new aesthetic. We need art and music and film and even advertising that paints the picture for us of what our future can be, if only we are willing to work together and build it. That’s what this contest is about. If you believe as I do, I invite you to join me.”

Extinction Rebellion’s Wordsmiths (XR Wordsmiths) are running a Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase competition with entries closing October 11, 2021. There will be three different age categories for the contest (11 and under, 12-18, and 19+), so this could be a great opportunity for younger authors. For submissions: “With your vision for the planetary future in mind, please write a short story of up to 2,500 words and send it as an email (or email attachment) to XR Wordsmiths (xr-writers@protonmail.com) with the subject line ‘XR Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase Submission’.”

Are you an author, poet, or artist? What other opportunities are out there for solarpunk creators right now?

A Better Way to Tell Time – Solarpunk Chronometry

A photo of several vintage clocks lined up in rows.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Our modern methods of timekeeping have changed our relationship with the world around us, giving us more precise measurements for science, but also abstracting us further from the natural world. I think it’s time we looked at how a solarpunk future can incorporate a saner method of chronometry.

Our neolithic ancestors lived and moved according to the cycle of seasons and the rising and setting of the sun. Before the widespread adoption of the clock, we slept in segments, instead of all the way through the night. With the rise of the train, time zones and kept people on track to their destinations. Now, some people have suggested returning to local time based on solar noon and setting any meeting times based on Universal Coordinated Time (UTC). After a year of online meetings that were held in various time zones around the world, I really see the appeal of UTC so I wouldn’t have had to run calculations to figure out when the meetings were in my own time zone. Don’t even get me started on my feelings toward Daylight Savings Time.

An image of Stonehenge. Clouds hang over the monumental stones and the grass is green.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

On the calendar front, there have been several attempts at calendar reform to oust the Gregorian Calendar, including the French Revolutionary Calendar, the World Season Calendar, and the International Fixed Calendar (IFC). The IFC has 13 months of 28 days resulting in a weekly layout that is the same each month. This leaves one or two extra days depending on if it’s a leap year that go into Year Day and Leap Day. I really like the IFC, and one of the oft-cited drawbacks, constant Friday the 13ths, is easily remedied by changing the first day of the month to Monday according to ISO standards. Kodak even used the IFC for more than 60 years since George Eastman thought it was so elegant.


My version of the International Fixed Calendar (all months are the same)

What do you think? Would changing the calendar and time zones be more trouble than it’s worth? Let us know below!

My RadRunner Plus Kickstand Broke!

There were some comments back and forth regarding Rad Power Bikes customer service in my last video, so I wanted to address my own personal experience with them. This is just one perspective, so your mileage may vary.

I was sitting in my living room on a windy day and heard a crash outside the window. I had my RadRunner Plus locked to itself out front since I was going to ride it later, and saw it had fallen over. I complained in my first impressions video about how the kickstand was wimpy, and have had the bike fall over several times because of this.

I figured this was the same deal, but when I got outside I found the kickstand was on the sidewalk and the bike was on the ground! The thing had sheared through. After locking the bike to a pole, I sent RadPower an email about the problem and included a photo.

RadPower got back to me and said they’d send a replacement. I asked, just for grins, if the original RadRunner kickstand would fit the Plus, but they told me it wouldn’t.

Once the new kickstand got here, it was a simple matter of pulling the two screws out and putting them back in. I did the replacement back several months ago and haven’t had any new issues. I still don’t think the kickstand design is very sturdy, but RadPower did get me a replacement in a reasonable amount of time. That said, I’m looking at alternatives as I’m hoping to get riding soon with my son, and I don’t want to trust that flimsy kickstand with my child’s life. If you know of some solid replacement options, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, let me know.

At the end of the day, Rad’s service seems inconsistent in quality. It may depend on the customer service person you get. My understanding is that the Covid bike boom did really stress the bike industry as a whole, so I guess we’ll see how it goes as things return to “normal.” Feel free to sound off with your own experiences in the comments.

Plastics – A Tidalpunk Antagonist

A plastic bottle and some other detritus are very close to the camera and litter the shore. There are sticks mixed with the litter, and the ocean and some mountains are in the background, but out of focus.
Photo by Catherine Sheila on Pexels.com

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to ocean life. While images of chairs and tires on the seafloor can get a visceral reaction, it’s the small stuff that will cause the biggest problems. Plastics don’t truly degrade, but break into smaller and smaller pieces until they become microplastics or microfibers. The chemical additives in these plastics negatively impact ocean life and human health as they’re eaten and move through the food chain. A tidalpunk future will have to deal with this legacy of waste.

Microfibers are fibers smaller than human hair shed when cloth wears down. While all microfibers can have potential hazards, plastic microfibers like polyester have the added threats of never breaking down and leaching chemicals like endocrine disruptors. At the Mid-Atlantic Marine Debris Summit in July scientists presented work on microplastics and and other sources of human trash in the ocean. I was surprised to learn that dryers, and not just washing machines can be a source of microfibers. There are now some microfiber filters available like the Cora Ball, Guppyfriend bag, or Lint LUV-R for catching microfibers from the wash.

Microplastics come from many sources, but single-use plastic packaging is especially prolific. Some scientists have called for a global ban on virgin plastic since plastic is an inexpensive byproduct of fossil fuel extraction and there is no incentive for the material to return to the technical nutrient cycle. Moving forward, we need to drastically reduce the use of plastic to prevent further proliferation of microplastics. Holly Grounds’s dissolving ramen packet is a great example of rethinking packaging design. Another promising development is plastics that can actually biodegrade outside of a high temperature composting operation.

Hands reach into a bin full of soda bottle caps.
Photo by Krizjohn Rosales on Pexels.com

Plastic wasn’t always a throwaway material, and Precious Plastic designs open source machines for processing and reforming waste plastics into durable goods. Communities in the developing world are finding ways to repurpose the waste dumped on their countries by the rest of the world. You can check out organizations like Surfrider or Plastic Oceans for other ways to help.

YES! did their entire summer issue on the plastic crisis, so I’d encourage you to check out their coverage. If you want to learn more about the current lifecycle and impacts of plastic, I’d suggest The Story of Plastic as an introduction and the longer and NSFW This Week Tonight piece on plastics as a good follow up.

While you can reduce your own use of plastic to some extent, unless you are dedicated to going zero waste, plastic is almost unavoidable in everyday western life. This is a big issue, and I feel that it’s something we’ll be dealing with for generations, even if we stopped using all plastics now.

How can we build a plastic-free future? Share your ideas below!


This is Part 4 in our feature on tidalpunk for August. See Part 1: Can Maritime Shipping Go Tidalpunk?, Part 2: Tidalpunk Food – Fishing and Farming the Sea, and Part 3: Tidalpunk Energy – Offshore Wind in the US.

Tidalpunk Energy – Offshore Wind in the US

Greater Gabbard Wind Farm in the UK – photo by SSE via a CC BY-ND 2.0 license

Offshore wind is gearing up in the United States. The federal government has announced a goal of 30GW of offshore wind generation by 2030 and 110GW by 2050. For reference, the current largest wind turbine available generates 15MW, so it would take 2,000 of these turbines to reach the 2030 goal if that were the only turbine type used.

One bottleneck for getting these projects started is Wind Turbine Installation Vessels (WTIVs). The first European offshore wind installations started in the 90s, but existing European ships can’t be used because of the Jones Act which stipulates that vessels operating in US seas must be built, owned, and operated by US citizens or corporations. Dominion Energy’s Charybdis WTIV is under construction in New Orleans and should be operational in 2023.

Charybdis will first get to work here in Virginia building the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project. Hampton Roads, Virginia has been billing itself as a hub for the offshore wind turbine industry. There’s a long history of maritime industry on the Virginia coast, so it’s great to see these communities able to transition with the winds of change.

The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project isn’t the only offshore wind farm to be in development here in the US. After the failure of the Cape Wind Project in Massachussetts, offshore wind’s future was murky in the US. However, Maine appears to be the only state explicitly rejecting offshore wind, with new projects being planned on both coasts including New Jersey and California.

A pile of one dollar bills spread across the frame.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As mentioned previously, one problem I see with a lot of developments in tidalpunk-related tech is that so much of it is big money, high technology equipment that is difficult to build and procure without large governments and corporations. For instance, Dominion Energy has had a stranglehold on the state legislature in Virginia for decades due to their shady business and political practices. Offshore wind offers a big opportunity for cutting carbon emissions in the grid, but I’m wary of the lack of community control over these generation resources.

As I live in the US, this blog tends toward developments here. Do you have offshore wind in your area? Let us know about it in the comments!


This is Part 3 in our feature on tidalpunk for August. See Part 1: Can Maritime Shipping Go Tidalpunk?, Part 2: Tidalpunk Food – Fishing and Farming the Sea, and Part 4: Plastics – A Tidalpunk Antagonist.

Tidalpunk Food – Fishing and Farming the Sea

The camera looks up at a school of fish from below. They appear to be swimming in a circle around the center of the image.
Photo by Harrison Haines on Pexels.com

Dr. Sylvia Earl says we need to stop commercial fishing if we want to keep our oceans healthy. Over-fishing and pollution are driving many species to the brink, not to mention the harm of increased ocean temperatures and acidity brought on by climate change. For those of us not in societies where fishing provides subsistence, is there a better way to get our fix of fish?

On the horizon, and already on some store shelves, plant-based seafood could prove to be a way to get that taste of the sea without the environmental and human toll. This is good news since beyond the environmental toll, industrial seafood also has more than its share of human rights abuses. Current faux fish focuses on staples that are more about what you do with them than the underlying flavor of the meat. Crab cakes, shrimp, and canned tuna substitutes are the leaders of the pack here. While lab-grown seafood is getting a lot of investment, it is still nascent at best like lab-grown meats. Unsurprisingly, it takes a lot of work to grow cells outside of a living organism.

A diagram showing a boat on the surface of the ocean over seaweed on a line and oyster, mussel, scallop, and clam cages.

The image describes the advantages of this "polyculture farming system:"
-High yields of shellfish and seaweed
-Small footprint
-Low barrier to entry
-20 acres, a boat, and $20-50k
-Carbon and nitrogen sink
-Zero inputs: no fresh water, fertilizers, or feed
-Storm surge protection
-Rebuilds marine ecosystems
GreenWave’s Aquacultural Model

The real rock star when it comes to aquaculture and sustainability is seaweed. Able to sequester carbon, serve as a protein source, reduce emissions from cattle, and provide oil for biofuels, kelp is truly the wonder algae. One of the best primers on the potential of seaweed to help in the climate fight is the two-part podcast on kelp farming from “How To Save a Planet.” These episodes center on the efforts of GreenWave, a non-profit developing a 3D “polyculture” system for growing kelp and shellfish in the ocean. Since kelp and shellfish don’t require agricultural inputs (fertilizer, fresh water, etc.), this form of aquaculture is both eco-friendly and economical. Plus, with all the co-benefits to shoreline and marine communities, this is a great example of multi-solving.

Unfortunately, a lot of the ocean-related technologies being developed right now are from big governments or big corporations. GreenWave is focused on building a network of small holding ocean farms instead of replicating terrestrial agriculture’s industrial model though. They’re putting the punk in tidalpunk!

If you have ideas on how to bring these emerging technologies into the commons, let us know below!


This is Part 2 in our feature on tidalpunk for August. See Part 1: Can Maritime Shipping Go Tidalpunk?, Part 3: Tidalpunk Energy – Offshore Wind in the US, and Part 4: Plastics – A Tidalpunk Antagonist.

Can Maritime Shipping Go Tidalpunk?

A cargo ship sails down a channel next to a tug boat. A series of cranes dot the sides and background.
Photo by Martin Damboldt on Pexels.com

Since summertime is beach time here in Virginia, this month we’ll be taking a look at some developments toward our tidalpunk future. Today, we’ll be looking at how the maritime shipping industry is working to clean up its act.

While at sea, the majority of cargo ships use high sulfur fuel oil, the most polluting fuel in use today. With a global target to reduce maritime shipping emissions by half by 2050, however, the shipping industry is looking at its biggest change since switching from coal to diesel 100 years ago. While diesel won’t be going away soon, a mix of new and old technologies are receiving interest to replace fossil fuels in shipping.

The most exciting development in my mind, is the interest in bringing back sailing vessels for cargo transport. While a handful of clippers are still operating as cargo vessels, new ships in development like the EcoClipper500 could pave the way for a retro-futuristic tidalpunk future. As we’ve discussed before, the best way to clean up shipping emissions would be to exercise the first R and reduce the amount of stuff being shipped around the world in the first place. A combination of sailing vessels and distributed manufacturing of goods could make a big difference in carbon emissions and material waste.

A sailing ship with a white hull sails along a mountainous background. It has three large masts that are only partially rigged, presumably to keep speeds low for maneuverability.
Photo by Inge Wallumru00f8d on Pexels.com

In port, those diesel fumes can add up to some gnarly local air pollution for these communities. Oslo, Norway intends to be the world’s first zero emission port by investing in electrification of ferries and installing shore power so visiting boats can cut their engines while docked. Cleaning up the air is good for humans and wildlife that live near these industrial hubs, so cleaning up ports is an important piece of environmental justice work. Other ports are cleaning up their acts around the world including Los Angeles, Auckland, and Valencia showing this trend isn’t isolated to Scandinavia.

Despite their questionable environmental cred, cargo ships can still be a less carbon intensive option for long passenger journeys when compared to flying. According to Will Vibert, a cargo ship passenger, they can also feel surprisingly luxurious. “As I soon came to understand, the luxury of being at sea is not about fine food or a plush mattress; rather, life at sea itself – the tranquil pace and intoxicating sense of adventure – is the true luxury.” Later in the article they relate a similar luxury in the time-consuming, but languid process of North American train travel as I have experienced myself.

Do you have any thoughts regarding the maritime shipping industry and tidalpunk? Have you seen any cool initiatives at a port near you? Let us know in the comments below!


This is Part 1 in our feature on tidalpunk for August. See Part 2: Tidalpunk Food – Fishing and Farming the Sea, Part 3: Tidalpunk Energy – Offshore Wind in the US, and Part 4: Plastics – A Tidalpunk Antagonist.

Institutions Are the AIs Your Mother Warned You About

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If you pick up a book or movie about Artificial Intelligence (AI), there’s a good chance you’ll find a story where robots or AI have subjugated humanity. The Terminator, the robots in The Matrix, and the Borg all strike fear into our hearts because they lack humanity. The cold, calculating logic by which they see the universe makes them alien and incapable of the things that define human experience like compassion or love. The thing is, the AIs your mother warned you about are already here. We call them institutions. 

In Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novel Oathbringer, Nale, the Herald of Justice, says, “The purpose of the law is so we do not have to choose. So our native sentimentality will not harm us.” In modern times, we say the law is blind, but recent protests over racially-motivated violence committed in the name of the law show that removing human choice from the equation just creates an algorithm for oppression. We’ve given the appearance of impartiality to a process that is biased because of who wrote the laws and when they were written.

For example, computer AIs developed to help with criminal sentencing calculate recidivism probabilities based on historical policing data. The “impartial” AI looks benevolent, but when the data it is fed derives from hundreds of years of racist policing practices, it’s not hard to see why the AI is more likely to suggest a light sentence for a white defendant than a person of color. In January 2020, the increasing reliance of law enforcement on AI-driven facial recognition systems led to the first known wrongful arrest based on the inability of facial recognition systems to distinguish between people who aren’t white men. Modern law enforcement has been investing in tools that entrench racism behind a steel and plastic veneer of impartiality. The subjugation of parts of humanity is already in progress, and it’s grounded in the biases of programmers—who are all too human. One of the most basic thought experiments of AI gone wrong is Nick Bostrom’s proposed paperclip maximizer. Because it only has one goal, it will execute that function without taking other consequences into account. As the AI ramps up its production of paperclips, the planet it’s on is consumed by iron mines and paperclip factories until those who originally programmed the AI are consumed for their raw materials. While this example may seem ridiculous, it’s the logical conclusion to business models that are designed to maximize financial growth.

Corporations are single-minded AIs programmed to make a profit. Since corporations exist in large part to separate legal liability for the corporation’s actions from its members, there are few truly effective checks on a company’s behavior. With these inputs, it should come as no surprise that the corporations of the world have done irreparable harm to our biosphere. The board of directors and shareholders are still human, but as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

While the AIs in The Matrix at least leave humans the illusion that they are not slaves, the Belters who work in the outposts of the solar system in the The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey are at risk of losing their very air and water if they do not comply with the demands of interplanetary corporations. Even when a discovery is made that would change the very nature of human existence, the Protogen company seeks to profit by starting a war between Earth and its former colony, Mars. The corporation’s pursuit of profit manages to oppress humankind without a single sentient computer. 

We don’t need to look to a dystopian future to find artificial intelligences bent on human domination. They’re already here. The first step to creating a world with AIs we can work with is disarming the dangerous ones. Congress has started the process of fighting corporations with its recent Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets Report coming after years of effort from groups like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, small businesses, and cooperatives. At the same time, The Movement for Black Lives has been steadily growing to point out the flaws in the current legal system. Overcoming systemic racism and corporate power are the major battles we have against malicious AIs right here and now. We should be developing better ways to make humans part of the AI feedback loop, as Douglas Rushkoff suggests, so that when the computer-based generalized AIs come, we’ll be able to work alongside someone like Data instead of under the gaze of Skynet.

This article originally appeared on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) blog in March of 2021.

Why Solarpunk Matters

A flag with split diagonally between green on the upper left and black on the lower right. An 8-rayed sun symbol is overlayed at the center with a black upper left and green lower right.
One of many solarpunk flags

As we enter a new decade, it can be hard to remain upbeat about the future. While I previously addressed some of the things I think define solarpunk, I think the most crucial piece is hope. I won’t get into the distinctions between hopepunk, solarpunk, and their related subgenres (tidalpunk, lunarpunk, etc.), but suffice it to say, in the face of the acceleration of the climate crisis, the pandemic, and decades of dystopian stories in fiction, it’s time for some positive possible futures.

Dystopias have their place in fiction warning against the perils of certain trends in society or potentially dangerous technologies. They can be great foils to techno-optimism, but when all you get are dystopias, it can become difficult to imagine your way out of a crisis. This is no more apparent than what is happening with the current climate crisis.

After decades of dismissal or denial, people are waking up to the fact that the carbon has hit the fan and we don’t have a lot of time left to act if we want to avoid the worst effects of global warming. We’re at a decision point, and after only hearing depressing news from the media and watching movies based on dystopian futures like the Hunger Games or Handmaid’s Tale, it’s no wonder that many are ready to just give up trying to fight what feels like an inexorable foe.

Now, more than ever, we need stories that paint a positive future. People have been bludgeoned to numbness by threats of rising sea levels, increasingly unpredictable weather, and the extinction of many of the other species on the planet. We need to show people that there is hope for the future and that we can still beat this thing. Is it too late for some species? Yes. We’re not going to come out of this unscathed, but if we don’t start acting now we might not come out of the other side at all.

Positive news about efforts in various parts of the world that are actually moving the needle on carbon emissions and other environmental issues is critical. Stories that show how the future could be so much better with clean energy and equitable distribution of materials is a much easier sell than saying certain behaviors or items should be banned. “Theft of Enjoyment” featured as the boogeyman when Republicans incorrectly claimed that the Green New Deal would make hamburgers illegal. As icky as advertising can be, only fitness companies make money by telling people what they shouldn’t have. Showing how much better our possible futures could be will have people running toward something instead of fighting tooth and nail to preserve what they already have, even if it isn’t good for them.

Cover of the Sunvault solarpunk anthology. The full title says SUNVAULT: Stories of solarpunk and eco-speculation and it is set on a colorful picture of a city with a river and lots of vegetation.
Sunvault – A solarpunk anthology

As the near future foil to cyberpunk, solarpunk is here to show us the world we want to have, not the one we’re afraid is coming. Does that mean that solarpunk is free of conflict or struggle? No. Solarpunk isn’t a perfect world, but it is a better, more equitable one. Solarpunk is giving people something worth fighting for which is much more powerful than asking for people to fight against something. In the face of the climate emergency, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, but solarpunk is what keeps me from giving up in the face of imposing odds. As Miguel de Cervantes said, “Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

How do you maintain your mental health in the face of climate catastrophe? Has solarpunk helped you weather the storm to your psyche as it has me? Let us know below.


Theseus’ Laptop

A 15" MacBook Pro Laptop. It is aluminum with black keys on the keyboard. It is sitting on a floral print bench near a window.
My 2010 MacBook Pro

At the risk of jinxing things like the failure of my Pebble shortly after extolling its retro-tech virtues, I thought I’d write a bit about my laptop after reading this piece in Low Tech Magazine about why Kris De Decker won’t buy another new laptop. While we have several computers in the household, my daily driver is a 2010 Macbook Pro.

At this point, I have replaced many of the parts of this notebook, and I’m starting to have questions along the line of Theseus’ Ship. After replacing the logic board, keyboard, trackpad cable, battery, hard drive, RAM, power supply, and soon a speaker, is this the same laptop I bought secondhand in 2013 off of Craigslist? It doesn’t really matter as long as it still runs, I suppose, but it is a curious thought.

When I bought the laptop, I had finished my university studies and wanted to switch away from a Windows tablet to something that could handle CAD and video work. When a wine-damaged MBP showed up on Craigslist that would still work plugged into an external keyboard, mouse, and monitor, I decided to take a chance. After a failed attempt to repair the video issue on the logic board and replacing the keyboard via a laborious process involving lots of teeny-tiny screws, I had a functioning laptop.

One of the last Macbooks before Apple started soldering everything onto the logic board, this machine has served me well for writing, running our Etsy shops, doing simple CAD and vector drawings, answering emails, and connecting via video chat with folks. I can’t operate very long away from a power outlet, but otherwise this computer does everything I need it to.

A screenshot of my current desktop and device info. The laptop is a Core i7 620 with 4 cores at 2.67GHz. I apparently need to get the drivers squared away for the video card still.
My Debian Desktop and Computer Info

Every so often, I see a new, shiny computer and am tempted to retire this one, but it’s hard to beat the economic and environmental advantages of using a computer you already have. I switched over to Debian for my daily OS since I suspect we’ll be running out of updates for OSX High Sierra very soon and OSX has been mysteriously crashing since late last year when doing simple tasks.

I’ve tried switching this computer to Linux a few different times over the years I’ve had it, but it’s always been an unsatisfying experience for one reason or another. Imagine my surprise when this time Debian worked so well! Like any Linux install, there’s a bit of minor configuration to get everything working properly, but at least it will work properly instead of some of the very strange issues I’ve had in the past.

Do you have an older computer that suits your workload too? Tell us about it below!

Smart(er) switch

A white touch switch mounted next to a traditional white toggle switch.
My new(ish) living room smart switch

I bought a smart switch to help with the somewhat weird layout of our living room at the time. I had intended to reflash it with Open Source Software so I wasn’t sending data to some nameless company with remote servers that would render my switch useless if I lost connection to them. I had used the Tasmota firmware on another cord-based switch before and it proved simple and reliable.

There are a handful of different chips in these inexpensive smart wall switches. Some use the maker-favorite ESP chip, and others use a chip from a company called Tuya. The ESPs are usually easy enough to reflash after adding a programming header, but the Tuya chips require connecting directly to the pins on the chip. Someone designed a 3d printed jig to help with this, but I wasn’t able to print one that was usable which led to the long break between purchase and use.

In December, I found the switch again and decided to give it another go. I found that there was now a tool called Tuya Convert that allows you to change the firmware over your home WiFi network. With things approximately 1000x simpler, I was able to get the switch working with the Tasmota firmware in just an evening.

A screenshot of the “timers” part of the Tasmota firmware

The firmware includes an option to turn the light on or off at a particular time, including a set number of minutes before or after sunrise/sunset. The device does need a little extra configuration to know its time and location, but it has been working reliably since the initial setup.

One of the reasons I prefer switches to smart bulbs is that everyone already knows how to use a wall switch. When I first installed the firmware, the physical switch function didn’t work, so I had to ask Alexa to turn it on or off instead of being able to do it myself. After some digging around on the Tasmota list of supported devices, I got it working by modifying a profile from a switch that was actually supported. I strongly support going with a supported switch to save yourself the headache. I saw they even had some options now with Tasmota from the factory, which is probably the best option. As the project is Open Source, I was able to suggest an update to the database with the settings I found working for this particular switch in case anyone comes across it again in the future.

I’m happy with the switch since I can turn it on or off from other parts of the house or turn the light on or off while I’ve got my hands full. Our kitchen and living room are attached, so it’s especially helpful when I’m cooking or doing dishes.

Do you have any smart appliances or lighting in your home? Do you find it helpful, or are smart IOT gadgets just something that’s unnecessary to solarpunk life? Let us know below!

Rocking a Pebble in 2020

My beausage-rich Pebble smartwatch

I’ve mentioned before how my Pebble smartwatch is one of my favorite devices, but I thought I’d detail how the device is helping my sanity in 2020, four years after Pebble company shut down.

Pebble was one of the first successful smartwatches, and raised $10M on Kickstarter, making it the most successful crowdfunding campaign to date when it closed in 2012. Watches started shipping in 2013, and even seven years later, the Pebble is one of the best smartwatches available.

In 2017, I joined the smartwatch crowd with a used, original Pebble. Smartwatches aren’t a required part of modern society, but my Pebble lets me triage incoming smartphone notifications and send simple replies. I set my phone to silent and receive a gentle vibration on my wrist whenever a notification comes in for one of the apps I’ve allowed to notify me. When I unlock my phone later, I can see any low priority notifications, but I really enjoy not having the mental clutter of seeing or hearing every single notification as it comes in. My Pebble makes my smartphone experience significantly more pleasant and offers me a small bit of mental clarity I wouldn’t get otherwise.

Earlier this year, my Pebble had started dropping it’s connection to my phone and experiencing some strange issues. Afraid it was dying, I put it in airplane mode and used it as a regular watch for a couple months. After digging around online, I decided the most likely culprit was the battery, so I ordered a replacement. Then, I kept using the Pebble as a regular watch for another month since I was so intimidated about cracking it open to replace the battery.

Internals of a first generation Pebble smartwatch

I eventually worked up the courage to do the battery replacement, and I am so glad I did. I’d forgotten how much calmer my mind feels without the incessant chimes and dings of my phone’s notification system. The new battery is slightly bigger so the watch back isn’t flush anymore which hampers its water resistance, and I cracked the backlight guide which gives a slight line down the middle of the display, but I’m just going to call that beausage and move on. It’s only visible when the backlight is on anyway, so it’s exceedingly minor.

One downside of having a watch from a defunct company is that not all of the watch apps work anymore. Luckily, the back end for many services is now maintained by the Rebble community, so if you have a fancy newer Pebble Time, you can still use voice dictation, and the app store is still there even if not all the apps work 100% anymore.

The Pebble isn’t perfect by any means, but a smartwatch that still works seven years after its debut seems pretty solarpunk to me. When Android Wear and Apple watches get relegated to obsolescence by Google and Apple, Pebbles will still be telling time and making life subtly better. Like any electronic device, I can see where the watch may eventually break down, but I’ll probably try to find another Pebble unless someone comes out with a similarly simple smartwatch. I would suggest upgrading to the Pebble Steel though since the plastic casing seems to be the most fragile part of the whole watch.

Do you think smartwatches are an unnecessary extravagance, or something that can help deal with information overload? Let us know in the comments!

Solarpunk News Roundup – October 2020

Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

As we’re closing out October, I thought I’d try a new feature, a monthly news roundup of interesting articles I found on the internet. These might be actual news from the month or just articles that were new to me about environmental justice, energy, or other solarpunk themes.

This is an older article, and I’ve referenced in before, but it bears repeating here. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson wrote in June about how “Racism derails our attempts to save the planet.” It’s an excellent explanation of how confronting racism is a necessary component of fighting climate change.

Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist, was interviewed by euronews and discussed how “the global south is not on the front page, but it is on the front line” of climate change. It’s a good look at climate activism from a different lens than the US or eurocentric viewpoint.

Brand new research has resulted in the world’s first room temperature superconductor! Before you jump for joy though, it requires extremely high pressures to make and operate the material. It is a promising step forward toward lossless electrical transmission and storage, however.

A new fusion plant design has been announced by AL_A and General Fusion. It looks to use a hydraulic hammer to compress hydrogen plasma inside a sphere of molten metal to initiate the fusion process.

Vox’s David Robert’s continues his in-depth coverage of the energy sector with a deep dive on geothermal power and its potential as an always-on baseload for renewable power. While I think we should keep our current nuclear plants running as long as possible to keep carbon emissions down, transitioning baseload power to geothermal makes so much sense.

Grist has put together a list of no regrets changes the US could make to change it from a climate laggard to a climate leader. These include electrifying everything, building more robust public transit, and investing in climate resilience programs.

As a damper on clean energy progress, Investigate West and Grist have recently uncovered suppression of research from the US Department of Energy by the current administration. If we want to move forward on climate action, we can’t be ignoring or silencing researchers. I realize y’all already know this, but it’s still some impressive reporting and I thought you might find it interesting.

A new study shows that Just 10% of Covid Recovery Funds could be enough to meet the Paris Climate Accord goals. This is a promising rebuttal to the common refrain that climate action costs too much.

New research indicates the “Great Dying,” the biggest extinction event in Earth’s history, was caused by an increase in atmospheric CO2 from volcanic activity. Ocean acidification, the bane of tidalpunks, and global warming resulted in the death of most of the life on Earth at the time. It is of note that there was more CO2 generated by the volcanic activity, a Siberian supervolcano, than that from anthropogenic causes in our current time. It does provide a sobering reminder that our levels of CO2 must be carefully managed.

The Harvard Business Review has and article from 2018 discussing the advantages of a six hour workday vs the eight hour day that is now common in the United States.

Have you seen any interesting articles related to solarpunk lately? Let us know below!

Listen

Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

There’s been a lot going on in the world this year, and while some people find it unexpected, many of the issues facing us in 2020 are a confluence of problems that have their roots in the power dynamics of western culture. I find myself wavering between anger, sadness, and shock at some of the things going on right now.

For those of you going out into the streets, stay safe, and thank you for speaking up. For those of you getting upset about the people protesting, I ask that you interrogate that feeling, and see why you feel that way. Are you genuinely frightened, or are you letting the for-profit media apparatus whip you into a frenzy? Don’t jump to a judgement about the protestors or your feelings yet – listen.

Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

Listen to what the protestors are saying in their own words, not what the news says they’re doing. How the media portrays the protests can influence your opinion on events. I’ve had several family members ask me about riots or looting, when 93% of protests have been peaceful. I’m not saying people don’t have a reason to riot, but it is a misrepresentation of reality.

As Epicetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” I’d encourage you to find resources from protestors, like the Movement for Black Lives or climate protests. Listen to the stories and solutions proposed. Think on what you learn, and then enter a dialogue in good faith. Right now there’s too much bickering without substance, and I feel that listening to each other would help us find how we can move together toward a more just society.

Solarpunk isn’t just about sustainability, it’s core is environmental justice. If you need a starting point to see how addressing the climate crisis requires addressing systemic racism, I urge you to read Alana Elizabeth Johnson’s piece in the Washington Post from earlier this year, “I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.”

I know I’ve learned a lot, just in the last year by listening to others, especially those who don’t look like me. Have you had an experience that shook you because you took the time to listen?

What I’ve Been Reading – Summer 2020

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Hey all, just thought I’d do a quick post about some of the books I read this summer since we’re just passing the Fall Equinox. Today, I’m partway through Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction from Arizona State University. At this point I’ve read several different explicitly solarpunk anthologies, and I think the main difference from cli-fi (climate science fiction) is that solarpunk takes an optimistic tact. This anthology seems like a mixed bag of optimistic and dystopian visions of the future. I think it’s good to keep in mind that things could go badly, but I find I’m dwelling in negative outcomes enough to really want a whole lot of that in my fiction.

Some of the other books I finished recently were Rewiring America by Saul Griffith, Sam Calisch, and Laura Fraser, Walkaway by Cory Doctorow, and Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson.

I reviewed Rewiring America on the blog, if you want a more in-depth look at it. In short, it’s a detailed plan on how to decarbonize the vast majority of the US economy by 2035. I think it would make a good subset of the Green New Deal, if we ever get one, but it largely sidesteps issues of environmental justice and corporate concentration in favor of being politically palatable.

I’m hoping to write a piece about Walkaway soon, but I think the most succinct way to describe it is as Atlas Shrugged but written by someone who has discovered that capitalism and state-based communism are both bad news. Shrugging and going walkaway both are in response to a government and society that are hostile to the protagonists, leaving them the option to opt out of the default society. For those of you who have read Atlas Shrugged, there is no 100 page philosophical speech or significant narrative left turn in the back third of Walkaway. The time jumps between sections of the book were queued well, so I wasn’t left confused like I have been in some books that used this technique.

Altered Traits was recommended to me since I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to build a habit of meditating. It details the scientific research into meditation and the effects it has on the brain. As someone with a scientific background, it’s always nice to see that there are measurable data to back up the anecdotal evidence that a particular thing is beneficial. Biological systems tend to be messy, so there are bigger error bars than you might see in physics, but the trends back up the general consensus that more meditative practice means more mental health benefits. Some of the effects even start kicking in pretty early for some practices. The book did a great job of describing how different types of meditation exercise different parts of your brain, so now I have a better idea of what kind of meditation to do if I want to boost concentration or combat negative feelings associated with depression. If you are interested in meditation or neurology, I’d definitely recommend giving it a read.

On the audiobook front, I have been relistening to The Stormlight Archive books by Brandon Sanderson. The fourth book in the series, Rhythm of War is coming out in November, so it’s a good time to catch up on what’s happened so far. These books are epic fantasy, so the first three clock in at 42, 48, and 55 hours of audio! I also was listening along with the Year of Dresden reread this year, and the newest book, Battle Ground, just came out on Tuesday! The Dresden Files is urban fantasy if you haven’t run across it before, so it’s a little lighter fare than the doorstoppers Sanderson writes. If you’re looking for a noire-esque wizard detective trying to get by in the modern world, you should give them a try!

If you want to get a free audiobook, I did recently get a referral code for Libro.fm, which is an audiobook merchant that works with local bookstores so they aren’t cut out of the audiobook market like they are with Audible. If you want to support Cory Doctorow’s work to fight DRM and Audible’s overwhelming market power in the audiobook industry, I suggest you checkout the Kickstarter for his upcoming book, Attack Surface. The Kickstarter ends on Thursday, October 8, 2020 at midnight.

What have you been reading/listening to lately? Anything that seemed particularly solarpunk, or just some good old fashioned escapism?


FYI – There are some affiliate links in the article there, so I may get a small referral fee if you purchase something through them.

Rewiring America – A review

Saul Griffith wants to point out something that we in the science and engineering community have known for awhile: we already have the technology to solve climate change, we just lack the political will. Griffith’s new book, Rewiring America, is a deep dive into one course of action that would eliminate most fossil fuels from the American economy by 2035 and save households bundles of cash in the process.

I started engineering school in 2005, and while there was a growing amount of research into alternative energy at the time, we already had a pretty good idea of what would be needed to transition our economy away from carbon-heavy resources: electrify everything. Fifteen years later, the costs of solar, wind, and electric vehicle technologies have fallen exponentially. The best time to start investing in electrifying everything was during the 70s oil crisis. The next best time is now. As atmospheric carbon concentrations grow, we need to accelerate our efforts to decarbonize. Griffith and OtherLab‘s extensive analysis of US energy distribution shows the gains that can be made quickly by electrification.

One thing often ignored by opponents of climate action, but thoroughly explored in Rewiring America, is that electric motors and generation systems have a much higher overall efficiency than systems dependent on fossil fuels. Just by switching our current lifestyle to all electric, our overall energy consumption would drop by half in the United States.

An old meme from The Onion

Most of my quibbles with this book are because I’m not the target audience of the book. I don’t need convincing that climate change is serious and that we have to do something about it. I’m incredulous about Griffith’s claims that we don’t have to change our lifestyle or his handwaving with regard to the availability of certain critical materials, but Griffith is trying to reach out to the people on the fence who’ve been told by deniers that climate change is either a hoax or is too expensive to tackle. These climate delayers are a bigger problem than climate deniers, since the vehement denial of climate change is coming from a very small segment of the population. Most people agree that there is a problem, but don’t want to take action because they don’t believe it will affect them personally. Griffith skirts around equity and monopoly power while pouring on a heavy coating of patriotism to appeal to this audience that is on the fence about taking action on climate change.

One of the least appealing parts of the book was the incessant call for a war effort and lauding American exceptionalism. Griffith certainly isn’t the first to use this language, but it is getting a little old, not just for me. The book is US-centric, with only occasional references to what could happen worldwide, but we’re also the only country with a major political party that denies the science of climate change. We need this book more than anyone else right now.

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0
Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Most people want the same basic things, but in the current polarized political environment we don’t even speak the same language. I think Griffith is doing a good job of trying to bridge this gap by focusing on the no-compromises parts of the energy transition: cleaner air, quieter cities, and more comfortable living. As a solarpunk, I don’t think we can ignore the equity or the structural problems that lead to the climate crisis to begin with, but Griffith’s plan gives us a starting point to have an honest conversation about climate action.

Have you read Rewiring America? Do you think it has the potential to kick people off the sidelines of climate action?

Radrunner Plus First Impressions

A silver bike sitting on a trail in a wooded area.
My new ebike on a trail in Charlottesville

As you may have noticed, I’m a big fan of bikes. That said, I haven’t ridden much in recent years, which has been a bit of a bummer and something I’ve been intending to change.

Due to an unexpected windfall earlier this year, I was finally able to buy an ebike, and gave a quick set of first impressions in an attempt at video for Solarpunk Station. You can check it out here on Diode Zone.

Let me know what you think about doing more videos in the future!

Rest

A trail in Pen Park (Charlottesville, VA)

So, it’s been a bit since I’ve posted. With everything going on in the world, I really needed to give my brain some space to stretch. So, if you were looking for a sign to take a break yourself, this is it.

Even if it’s only for ten minutes, let your mind unwind and take a breather. Whatever work or troubles you have will still be there when you get back, but giving yourself a break can help put things in a new light. Maybe you’ll see a solution you didn’t before.

The world wants us to be going full throttle all the time, but humans didn’t evolve that way. Give yourself some space and time; have some compassion for yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in self-deprecation and thinking you’re not good enough, particularly if you suffer from depression like me.

I want you to know that it’s OK to take a little break to catch your breath. When you’re done, you’ll be able to tackle whatever your troubles are with renewed energy. There’s no denying that there’s a lot going wrong in the world right now, but we’ll get through it together.

I was fortunate enough to go on a walk on some nature trails here in town recently. What are some of the best ways for you to take a mental break? Do you like to hike or meditate? Let us know in the comments!

More on malls

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Bellevue Square Mall courtesy of Debs (ò‿ó)♪

I’ve written previously about how malls could provide the bones of solarpunk co-housing, and Grist recently produced a video about how some communities, most notably Seattle, are re-purposing their old malls as community hubs, as they were originally intended. Ellen Dunham-Jones from the Georgia Institute of Technology gave a more in-depth look at retrofitting malls in her 2010 TED Talk and in this interview with WIRED. As malls everywhere experience hard times due to the “retail apocalypse,” is this our chance to reorient these monuments to capitalism into something more community-minded?

FashionSquare

An old map of Fashion Square Mall

Here in Charlottesville, Fashion Square Mall has been emptying out like so many others. Sears left in March 2019 and nothing has come to replace it. Instead of letting it sit vacant, you could retrofit apartments in the main store and put a makerspace in the old auto shop. I couldn’t find a square footage estimate of the store, but if we assume it’s around 50,000 square feet (~4600 square meters) and 10,000 square feet are set aside for the makerspace and community areas, it seems reasonable that you could still fit 50 to 60 apartments in the 40,000 square feet remaining.  With a mix of sizes from micro-apartments to three bedrooms, you could make some decently affordable housing for single people, families, and elders.

With the old store now affordably housing 100 or more people, people could start new businesses in empty store fronts like a food co-op or local restaurant. As the actual people in the mall slowly take over from the fleeing corporate interests, perhaps enough capital could be raised to purchase the mall from its current owners and turn it into a collectively-owned property.

Fashion Square Mall on the map

Fashion Square Mall on the map

Further development could include depaving some of the parking lots, adding rooftop solar panels, and building more housing in the former parking areas. Since a solarpunk future has a reduced dependence on personal automobiles, an improved frequency of bus service to the mall as well as improving connections to the local Rivanna Trail system would be critical. A car sharing station could round out the transportation options for our little collective.

None of these changes are particularly earth-shattering on their own, but each little adjustment to bad zoning and land use decisions inherited from the last century gets us a step further on the road to a sustainable future.

Is there a property in your area that could be turned to more positive uses? Let us know below!