Category Archives: Politics

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.

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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.


Solarpunk News Roundup – October 2020

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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

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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?

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?

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!

 

COVID-19 links

COVID-19 is taking the bulk of people’s mindshare right now, and I wanted to put some of the links I’m finding useful, interesting, or hopeful in one spot. I’ll be updating this as things progress and hopefully be getting it more organized.

Just to be clear, while emissions have fallen due to reduced travel during the crisis, we should be doing everything we can to help our fellow human beings right now. Some people are saying that the crisis is an opportunity to “thin the herd” or some other nonsense. Coronavirus is not the way to a brighter future for everyone.

fashion man people sign

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

MUTUAL AID

MAKER RESOURCES

RENT STRIKE RESOURCES

MICROMOBILITY

PUBLIC TRANSIT

FREE STUFF

OTHER

 

Last Updated: 4/3/2020 @ 10 pm

Agile City Development

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An apartment building in Charlottesville

Last month, I talked about how seeing the city as an ecosystem is an important element of urban planning. Treating every project that happens in the city as an isolated event doesn’t take into account possible interactions with other existing or future work. We can’t reasonably account for every interaction, but we should try to maximize the number of synergistic interactions and minimize unintended consequences.

 

agile-work-horizon-of-predictability

The Horizon of Predictability from Agile Advice

As a project grows larger and its timescale increases, it grows more difficult to predict its interactions with the surrounding environment. One way to keep projects within a “horizon of predictability” is to take “small bets,” as advised by Strong Towns, instead of always pursuing that next multi-million dollar development project.

If we take an Agile Development approach, then we can start with what identifying issues within a particular area, ranking them in order of impact, and selecting the one or two that would have the biggest impact that we could accomplish in a short time frame.

A city’s sidewalk network is one place we could apply this technique. In 2015, Charlottesville published it’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. The plan identified major corridors for walking and biking in the city and prioritized areas in need of improvement. Looking at the 2019 update of the Master Plan, however, it becomes clear that there hasn’t been a lot of progress on most of these projects.

Where the sidewalk ends

Where the sidewalk ends

There are plenty of places where our sidewalks cut out for a few yards or even a few blocks. Pedestrians are forced to walk in the road or across someone’s lawn. This isn’t ideal, and it’s much worse if you need to find a route with a wheelchair or crutches. If we started by identifying areas where there is a lot of foot traffic, we might find places where a small investment in concrete could make great improvements to pedestrian safety.

The traditional approach to development in cities can result in incomplete buildings or infrastructure that are actually worse than if you hadn’t started the project at all. The obvious example of this for Charlottesville residents would be the Landmark/Dewberry Hotel on the downtown mall. Construction began shortly before the Great Recession hit, and ten years later, its partially completed skeleton still looms over the most expensive part of town.

I’d really like to see the city move toward small, incremental projects that slowly fix problems we see. This allows us to expend fewer resources at a given time toward solving a problem, as well as allowing us to test different approaches and course correct as we implement plans. One refrain I’ve heard several times since moving here is that the city has “analysis paralysis.” We expend millions of dollars toward study after study, but the citizens just don’t see anything come from it. People in city government then get frustrated when there’s a lack of engagement from the community. It’s hard to get buy-in when the past has shown that the city lacks follow through.

I think future work should include more small area plans that bring neighbors together to shape how their neighborhoods will look in the future. There should probably be some oversight to make sure that these small area plans are welcoming, not exclusionary, but people from the neighborhood will be closer to the ground truth of what small actions might create the biggest effects in people’s day-to-day life.

At the end of the day, we all want our communities to be a better place. By coming together and figuring out what small changes we can make, we can get started right away. We don’t need to wait on the next four year plan to make things better.

City Council held a work session on zoning, and city staff made recommendations on how to make it easier for residents to build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) or split existing homes into duplexes, triplexes, or quadraplexes. These small changes to the existing zoning code are happening independently of the larger zoning rewrite that is part of the Comprehensive Planning process. These changes aren’t going to solve our housing crisis, but they will make a dent. This small zoning change to allow small increases in density by allowing more small development is the perfect example of how many small steps can add up to a big one.

I hope that this new City Council will be open to more small bets in the future. If they are, I think we’ll make progress more quickly by taking a lot of small steps than taking big steps that might not always land on solid ground.

Are there people in your town working on small bets with or without your local government? Let us know below!

Cities as ecosystems

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

With the start of the new Comprehensive Plan here in Charlottesville, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big picture of the city. I’ve been involved with bicycle advocacy here in town for awhile now, and I’ve felt that was definitely something worth fighting for since cycling, walking, and other active forms of transportation benefit both the environment and human health. Also, when you look at bicycling in the US, you have a bimodal distribution of users — people who have to cycle and people who choose to ride. Bike advocates have traditionally been from the latter group due to middle class people having more spare time to be active in local politics.

The more I’ve worked in transportation, the more I see that we need to seek synergies when fighting for equitable, sustainable, solarpunk futures. Poverty and homelessness are often portrayed as the fault of the poor, the result of laziness or bad luck. The truth is that the systems built into our society and built environment put up barriers to certain groups of people that are easy to overlook from a privileged perspective. How can we start to see things as systems, and not a collection of isolated parts?

We have a template to draw from in nature. In a natural ecosystem, there is no waste, just an endless flow of energy and material from one organism to the next. What if we started to look at our cities as ecosystems? How could we build synergistic effects between parts of our built environment?

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Garden courtesy of cuprikorn

Take a city park as an example. In traditional design, you’d select a plot of land, stick some trees and grass there, and call it a day. You might go so far as to add some playground equipment if you were putting it in a residential area.

Approaching a park from an ecosystem perspective, however, would allow for a much more vibrant community experience. We have a park here in Charlottesville that isn’t reaching its full potential because while it borders two different neighborhoods, a busy street separates one neighborhood from the park. Parents don’t feel safe crossing with their kids, so they don’t go to the park. If we took the whole ecosystem into account, safe crossing to and from the park would have been an integral part of its design. As discussed extensively in The Nature Fix, exposure to nature is immensely beneficial for mental and physical health. Poor design has a tangible, detrimental effect on equity.

Taking things a step further, the green space of parks also affords an opportunity to work on sustainability. Charlottesville is in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and has an important role to play in reducing pollution that flows into the Bay. In addition, stormwater management is becoming an increasingly important aspect of urban design as climate change makes storms more variable and rainfall less predictable. As a way of integrating ecological density, we could add native plantings to encourage pollinators as well as rain gardens and permeable pavement for managing stormwater.

By taking some additional steps in the design phase of a project, we enhance the equity, sustainability, and beauty of the city all at once instead of requiring separate projects to achieve a less resilient and integrated design. The same approach could be used when approaching transportation or housing. Taking the system as a whole into account when making planning decisions will allow us to more carefully shepherd our resources and do the most good with our limited community resources.

What opportunities for ecological systems thinking are there in your area? Let us know below!

Questioning capitalism

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Since the heyday of McCarthyism, any suggestion that capitalism is flawed has been met with overt hostility. In the United States, capitalism has become more a religion than an economic system.

There’s recently been much ado about millennials preferring socialism to capitalism, but what many commentators are overlooking is that people aren’t railing against markets, they’re sick of living with “cancer as the model of our social system.” You can wrangle definitions, but at the end of the day capitalism isn’t the only way to have a market.

Citizens from all over the political map see problems with increasing economic disparity but are laying the problems at the feet of different political scapegoats. The left blames the rich, and the right targets government as the source of their woes. If we take a step back and look at the situation, a clearer picture emerges. The collusion of big government and big business has formed one of the strongest corporatist government/economic hybrids the world has ever seen, excluding perhaps the Dutch East India Company.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can't read the signature, so if it's yours I can take it down if you don't like it here.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can’t read the signature, so if it’s yours I can take it down if you don’t like it here.

In the richest country the world has ever known, why are there people dying because they can’t afford their medicine while billionaires have so much money they don’t know what to do with it all? I don’t believe that taxing the rich is the answer. Rethinking our economic system is. As one person said, “If you’re talking about wealth redistribution, you’re already too late.”*

Capitalism as it’s currently practiced in the United States, where “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” is reaching a breaking point. Cutting back federal programs could allow subsidiarity to guide more tailor-made policies crafted at a local level. Even environmental protection can be carried out as compacts between states as has been done with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Our current reliance on the federal government for regulations has led to a regulatory monoculture that allows national and international megacorps to grow out of control. This would be a lot less likely if companies had to meet 50 different sets of business regulations or even more in state’s that don’t restrict municipal regulations through use of the Dillon Rule.

group of people near wall

Photo by Jopwell on Pexels.com

In 1888, Benjamin Tucker defined two forms of socialism: state socialism, and what is today known as anarcho-socialism. His essay reads as a prophecy of the horrors committed by the USSR in it’s pursuit of “equality.” It also shows that even 130 years ago, socialism didn’t have one “correct” definition. A lot of the tension in US politics right now is from people using the same words to mean different things. In a living language such as English, this isn’t unexpected. If we spent a little more time listening before opening our own mouths, we might find we have more in common than we think.

As someone who grew up as a devotee of free market capitalism, I’ve grown more and more suspicious that any one economic ideology is really suited for something as complex as human society. Maybe capitalism can be reformed, but dismissing alternatives out of hand is not a responsible way forward when we’re discussing something that so greatly influences the outcomes of people’s lives. No one is suggesting Soviet-style socialism, so conservatives should stop using the USSR as a bogeyman to distract from good-faith conversations regarding postcapitalism. Capitalism served us well for a time, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of economic evolution. As they say, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Capitalism as it is has failed marginalized groups as it was designed for wealthy white people. This is evident in prison slavery and the continued existence of tipping for service work in the United States. I think we can do better for a solarpunk future.

Are you critical of capitalism? Do you still believe that markets are an effective tool for managing scarce resources, or have you seen something else that could help us manage those things that still can’t be produced in abundance? Let us know below!


* I heard this attributed to the CEO of Mondragon, but can’t seem to find it anywhere, so consider it apocryphal for the time being. It might originally be in Spanish or Basque, so if anyone out there has seen the original, let me know and I’ll update this article.

Bikes for a better tomorrow

gray commuter bike parked on road beside sea

Photo by Adam Dubec on Pexels.com

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know I have a special place in my heart for the bicycle. I wasn’t really into biking as a kid since I grew up on a hilly farm without any safe paved areas nearby, but in college my roommate got me hooked when I joined him and a couple friends on a bike tour of the Katy Trail in Missouri.

I don’t tour anymore, but I do still use my bicycle for transportation, and it’s one of the reasons I moved close to downtown even though it required a bit of downsizing. Being able to run errands on foot or bike is a big plus for me, although I’ll admit that still having a car means I don’t bike or walk as much as I’d like.

For me, a solarpunk future is one where people have what they need a short walk or bike ride away. Biking, walking, and other forms of active transportation are a surefire way to reduce road congestion, clean the air, and reduce carbon emissions in our cities. There will likely be a place for the private automobile in rural areas for the foreseeable future, but the American Dream of suburbia is hopefully coming to a close. Don’t get me wrong, automobiles are a really impressive piece of technology, but as Peter Walker says in How Cycling Can Save the World, “they’re used far too often and frequently for the wrong sort of trips.”

This spring, I joined the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee to see what could be done to improve “alternative” modes of transport in the city. This lets me use all the years of reading transportation and urban planning blogs in a place where it might actually have an effect. While some cities like NYC push for lower speed limits and more protected bike lanes, most cities in the United States are still deep in the throes of car culture, a modern day death cult. The first step is to remove parking minimums from zoning codes. Donald Shoup estimates free parking amounts to a $500 billion subsidy for car owners, or 50 cents of public money for every dollar spent by the individual car owner. While some local business owners say that removing parking will kill their business, in most cases, better bicycling and pedestrian facilities actually are better for local businesses. If the parking doesn’t go in to begin with, then you don’t have to worry about the inevitable battle to remove it later.

photo of smiling woman in white dress and brown boots posing in multicolored glass house

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com

Solarpunk is about building a truly equitable and sustainable future. Much of the current environmental conversation is about what you can’t do to make a sustainable future – you can’t drive a personal vehicle, you can’t take long showers, etc. For me, solarpunk paints a picture of what we gain when we do the right thing. Being more connected to your community and taking time to enjoy the little nooks and crannies that make our cities so interesting may sound quaint, but it can bring real happiness. Being trapped in a metal box breathing the noxious fumes while at a standstill does not spark joy.

In addition, the design choices that making cycling and walking better also improve accessibility for disabled individuals when coupled with ADA guidelines. A well designed sidewalk is pleasant to walk down but is also a lot better for someone in a wheelchair to navigate than the side of the road with a gravel or grass shoulder. There’s no shortage of concern trolls who crop up when people start suggesting that the current dominance of cars on the streets isn’t the natural order of things. There are people with some disabilities for whom personal automobiles are a great blessing. Many disabled individuals do cycle or catch a ride on a bike, and organizations like Wheels for Wellbeing or Cycling Without Age help cycling reach groups that are often disenfranchised by current transportation options. Moving people out of their cars and onto bikes can only help those who are dependent on vehicles for mobility.

At first, I assumed that even if we eliminated the need for private automobiles in city centers, we’d surely still need delivery trucks for goods. Surely we need to buy things, and all those things must be moved by a big truck! With the realization that many of the fatal vehicle/cyclist crashes in the last year have involved supposedly-professional drivers, I’m a lot less convinced. While some people think drones will be the delivery service of the future, I’m betting on the e-cargo bike. There’s still the potential for crashes, yes, but when the cargo bike is 10x lighter than a box truck and going at a lower speed, physics dictates you’ll have a lot fewer injuries and deaths from a cargo bike wreck. As anyone who bikes knows, UPS and FedEx are already used to being in the bike lane, so it will be a small adjustment for their drivers anyway. There’s also the possibility that there will be less consumption in a solarpunk future which would reduce the overall amount of deliveries necessary.

FedEx in the Bike Lane

FedEx truck parked in bike lane in Philadelphia by Phila. Bikes via a CC BY-SA 2.0

So, in the end, how do we get more people on bikes and reduce the number of single occupancy vehicle trips in our cities? One idea is to pay people to bike. This might seem weird at first, but when you take into account the public health benefits and cuts to both road maintenance and congestion created by pulling people out of cars it starts making sense. For something with precedent in the US, the government could offer tax credits for ebikes instead of electric cars. Ebikes have all the benefits of a regular bike, and for that $7,500 tax credit electric car buyers are getting, you could buy several entire ebikes. I suspect a lot of car owners would opt to use an ebike for the 48% of trips that are less than 3 miles when they see how much more fun it is to bike than drive. Long term, denser multiuse zoning and land use would do a great deal to make neighborhoods more walkable and bikeable.

Active transportation isn’t just better for your health and for reducing congestion in the city, it also helps improve the social fabric. It’s a lot easier to stop and talk to a friend or check out a new coffee shop when you’re on a bike or walking. I can recommend reading Just Ride for tips on the essentials of cycling for transport (hint – it’s not spandex). The more people riding, the safer the streets get for those of us using “alternate” transportation.

For more on bikes and urbanism, I’d suggest the War on Cars podcast and the book, Bikenomics. Bikenomics a really good book for interfacing with local business and government officials since economics is a more important driver of policy than human safety or happiness.

Do you cycle or walk for transportation? How does your area handle bicycle, pedestrian, and micromobility users?


Disclaimer: I may receive a small commission from affiliate links to books on this site.

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

Something you might not notice right away in the solarpunk future is the lack of noise pollution. One of the reasons for this is, of course, the electrification of transport, but the second will be the significantly reduced dependence on personal automobiles for mobility.

From http://bcnecologia.net/sites/default/files/annex_5_charter_for_designing_new_urban_developments.pdf

Road Hierarchy in the new Superblock Model by BCN Ecologia

When Salvador Rueda first started studying how to reduce noise levels in his home of Barcelona, he quickly found that high-speed automobile traffic was responsible for the bulk of the noise pollution in his city. When you take into account that cars are responsible for the majority of child deaths in the US it becomes clear that designing cities for automobiles hasn’t left a lot of room for the humans that live there. Barcelona’s “superblock” program aims to restrict through traffic to a limited number of arteries and keep neighborhood traffic to a human scale 10 kph (6 mph) in shared streetscapes.

Continued pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in cities committed to Vision Zero has resulted in a call to ban cars from city centers. When coupled with the climate impacts of personal automobiles, regardless of their power source, it seems logical to restrict the usage of automobiles to city edges and rural areas.

Better public transit with reasonable service levels and level boarding like that seen in some street car projects would be a boon for residents while micromobility options like scooters, bicycles, and Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) could provide solutions for the “last mile.” Some NEVs have been designed specifically with wheelchair users in mind; however, it seems that they never quite made it to market. Introduction of these vehicles along with more prevalent accessible cycles can help us build a transportation system that is for people instead of cars.

To extend this human-scale vision of the city further, we may one day not need roads at all. Paolo Soleri felt roads separated people and designed his living laboratory in the Sonoran Desert to exclude them. Arcosanti is the world’s first arcology, or architecture designed around the idea that a city is it’s own ecological system. Passive energy management and high density mean that residents can spend more time living instead of working to cover mundane expenses like unnecessarily large heating or cooling bills. As a prototype, Arcosanti doesn’t seem particularly accessible, but I believe future arcologies or acology-minded developments should be able to incorporate the appropriate infrastructure without issue.

Despite decades of poor planning and squandered resources, I have hope that our public transit and transportation infrastructure are on the cusp of a renaissance. Even here in Charlottesville, we’re taking a serious look at building complete streets and revitalizing our public transit system. As we deal with rolling back the poor planning decisions of the 20th Century, we can build a more inclusive, healthier, and more pleasant transportation experience for our cities. One of the key components of this will be relegating the automobile to a support role in our society instead of the star of the show.

Is your locality implementing any changes to improve transportation for humans over personal vehicles? Do you have a shiny new streetcar or are you a resident of one of the few enclaves of car free life left in the world? Let us know below!

 

 

 

 

A Better Way to Pay

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As Adam Flynn said back in 2014, solarpunk takes infrastructure as a form of resistance. One of the biggest pieces of infrastructure that people interact with on a daily basis is payment systems. Payments aren’t as visible roads, or as tangible as housing, but decentralized, democratic payments are an important part of ensuring a brighter future.

We’re at a turning point for money. Since the middle ages, money has been controlled by the nation-state through fiat currency. The first experiments with digital-first money started in the 1980s, and we have seen an explosion in the availability of cryptocurrencies since the Bitcoin whitepaper was released in 2009. While Bitcoin hasn’t lived up to its original goal of being a replacement for fiat currency, it did revolt against the idea that only the state can create money.

Nation-states are now looking into developing crypto-fiat hybrids, and large corporate actors like Facebook are developing their own cryptocurrencies as well. The additional pressure of countries considering bans on cryptocurrencies that shield user identities makes me feel that governments see the danger that a truly decentralized monetary system would pose to their monopoly on power.

Brett Scott at Roar wrote about gentrification of payments from centralized issuers, “Put bluntly, digital payment facilitates a vast new frontier of financial surveillance and control, while also exposing users to new risks not present in the cash infrastructure.” He points out that the current trend for countries to emphasize digital (fiat) money over cash puts people’s finances increasingly into the hands of a small number of banks and state actors.

four assorted cryptocurrency coins

Photo by Worldspectrum on Pexels.com

I’ve previously touched on the subject of designing appropriate incentives into a monetary system, but for now I’m going to focus on how true digital cash could work. Bitcoin is the opposite of private since every transaction ever made with Bitcoin is recorded to its public ledger. Privacy coins allow for transactions to remain private by being recorded to the blockchain with the details obfuscated to all but those who performed the transaction. This has major benefits, particularly for the fungibility of a currency, which is a fancy way of saying that every unit of the money is created equal. For completely public blockchains like Bitcoin, certain Bitcoins may become “stained” due to their use in criminal activities in the past, meaning they may become harder to trade or spend than a “clean” Bitcoin. There is no such distinction between the status of a specific unit of Monero, for instance, since its past is unknown. The MimbleWimble protocol is a new blockchain which greatly simplifies the privacy aspects of a blockchain resulting in less power and data consumption.

The problem with most cryptocurrencies right now, however, is that they typically use what is called Proof of Work to verify transactions on the chain. Proof of Work burns large amounts of energy in an effort to “prove” the validity of the blockchain. Various other schemes have been developed to secure blockchain networks including Proof of Stake, Delegated Proof of Stake, and Proof of Cooperation. Proof of Cooperation was developed for FairCoin to enable a less energy-intensive verification method for blockchains. I think that a Proof of Cooperation-based MimbleWimble coin could provide the privacy and lower energy consumption that would be desirable for digital cash.

business bank chip credit card

Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com

This digital cash would restore the peer-to-peer nature of cash and avoid the data-mining perils of current digital payment companies like Visa or PayPal. It is still dependent on computing technology to work, which makes me feel like it would be less inclusive than actual cash. In an increasingly digital-first world, however, thoughtfully-designed cryptocurrencies will be more inclusive than the options designed by corporations or governments. For more on the subject of post-capitalist money, check out In each other we trust: coining alternatives to capitalism by Jerome Roos.

Money is often considered a taboo subject, but feel free to let us know your thoughts below. How do you think a separation of money and state could be liberating?

Discussions on Urban Planing

Solarpunk is a movement largely focused on how changes in our local environment can result in wide-ranging impacts for the world, so I’m hoping to bring you more stories that give you a zoomed-in view of one community’s journey into the future. Urban design is one of the big levers we can pull in the fight against climate change, and it’s something we’re thinking about here in Charlottesville.

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A decorative tree on a street in Charlottesville.

At a recent Charlottesville PLACE Design Task Force meeting, rezoning and density took center stage. According to a recent report by Partners for Economic Solutions, Cville needs ~3,300 more units of affordable housing in the city. The main concern expressed at the meeting was how to balance the needs of a rapidly growing population with concerns about gentrification and destruction of neighborhood character.

One approach would be to allow light densification of what is currently only single family zoning. Cville already allows Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in single family zoning areas, but lots that allow 6000-8000 square foot buildings aren’t allowed to have duplexes or triplexes except where they were built before the zoning regulations were in place. This means most new development in these areas results in expensive McMansions instead of more affordable multiplex homes. Facing a similar situation, Minneapolis recently passed a significant rezoning effort in their Minneapolis 2040 plan. While any effort here would be shaped by our local needs, it is inspiring to see other cities making bold progress in what is often a very wonky area of municipal policy.

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

The other approach discussed was to have special zones developed for high density apartments and condos in places that are already well-served by transit and bike/ped infrastructure. This might be a way to increase density with fewer individual projects, but it also feels like a concession to residents who don’t want new people moving into their neighborhoods. Housing is one of the key issues in the 2019 city council race here, so we’ll see what comes of these discussions.

Unsurprisingly, the current problems with zoning in Charlottesville are due to historical baggage. To quote Thomas Jefferson*, “‘The earth belongs in usufruct to the living;’ that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” What was once decided to be best for the development of the city may not be best for it anymore. Changing zoning ordinances can be an uphill battle, but if we don’t fight it then Tolkien will be right about zoning:

At the PLACE meeting, I learned that zoning in Cville mostly changed in phases. The first was the introduction of zoning in the 1920s, and the second was the rezoning of predominantly white neighborhoods into single family during the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1990s, single family housing zoning was expanded to be more inclusive of historically black neighborhoods. Now that the city is growing quickly, we’re running out of places for people to live which is driving costs up and density down. It’s time to change the rules once more.

Every city is unique, with Houston not having any zoning, and Barcelona working on their “superblocks.” What’s the housing situation in your area? Is your town also facing a housing crisis? Are there any people actively working to combat it? Let us know below!


*Nothing in Cville can be discussed without first consulting Thomas Jefferson’s ghost. This seems to be a custom stronger than law.

Keeping the end in sight

adult background ball shaped blur

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I previously mentioned that I sometimes struggle with over-researching a topic, and I found myself doing that again this week with political theory. I keep seeing memes attacking people who critique capitalism or who think that socialism might be the answer, and I got bogged down reading dozens of articles from a variety of political angles on the subject arguing semantics about “correct” definitions of capitalism or socialism.

I rewrote a political theory post from this research several times, and still doesn’t quite sit right with me. I think this is because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. All the arguments over this or that political theory don’t really have much impact on real life. One of the critiques that is repeatedly leveled at solarpunk is that it isn’t practical, and navel-gazing about political theory certainly doesn’t have much real world impact. I’m not going to say that any academic pursuit is a waste of time, but for me, I have spent far too much time in headspace and not enough in the real world.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can't read the signature, so if it's yours I can take it down if you don't like it here.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can’t read the signature, so if it’s yours I can take it down if you don’t like it here.

People from all over the political spectrum recognize that there are significant problems with most of Western society. I’m particularly focused on the US because that’s where I live, but I suspect many of these issues exist to some extent in other countries as well. Why are people dying because they can’t afford medication in the same country that has people so rich they don’t know what to do with their money? People want their families to be safe, to have enough food to eat, and to have some leisure time. I think this is something everyone can agree on, but the details can be an understandable point of contention. The problem becomes when we start identifying people by labels instead of other human beings. It’s not acceptable to compromise with “those people,” but if we just would pack these increasingly meaningless labels away we might actually make some progress on the problems that face us.

People aren’t happy with the state of healthcare in the US. No one wants to see their parks full of trash and pollution. Anyone will balk at a pipeline if it’s going to be going through their own property. It’s time we stop getting hung up on labels and work together on solutions. If nothing else, let’s decide to table the debate on a national level and help states be the “Laboratories for Democracy” and let them try different approaches without trying to force everyone to do the same thing.

The reticence of the federal government to make a firm decision that would guide the lives of 327 million people is understandable, so it’s time to flex the 10th Amendment and give the states some of their money back to tackle the problems on their own terms. I think that’s something we can all agree on.


For my part, I’m trying to become more active in my own community by joining the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Council (BPAC) to be a part of the decision making process with regards to making Charlottesville more friendly to non-auto forms of transit.

Some more resources to check out if you think there should be more experimentation with public policy include Symbiosis, Vox’s The Impact podcast, Strong Towns, and The Institute for Local Self-Reliance. What are some of the other ways we can make change real instead of just talking about it? Let us know below!

What is energy democracy?

At first glance, energy democracy is a funny term. Are we worried about a coalition of coal and natural gas blocking amendments to a bill from wind and solar? Is nuclear over in the corner putting forth reasonable proposals while everyone backs away slowly because of rumors regarding her volatile temper?

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Energy democracy is actually about bringing self-determination of communities back to energy generation, storage, and distribution. Not that long ago, most of society ran on locally-sourced energy. The bulk of this was in the form of windmills, water wheels, and wood-burning fires. As fossil fuels took the stage during the industrial revolution, energy supply and demand became estranged. Economies of scale for fossil fuel-based energy generation led to the creation of large power plants that supply power over an interconnected grid.

The 21st Century has seen the return of distributed energy sources. While solar and wind get the headlines, small modular reactors (SMRs), in-stream hydro, tidal, geothermal, and other distributed energy sources are showing promise as well. While the growth of these distributed generation technologies is good for decentralized solarpunk communities, it creates a point of friction with the existing centralized power grid. This is why when incumbent utilities do support renewables, they still want to build large, utility-scale projects. Nevada has had the most public battle over net metering in recent years, but many utilities have tried to suppress energy decentralization by pressuring legislators. In states like Virginia, where two companies have a monopoly on 80% of the energy market, it’s easy to see where problems might arise.

panoramic shot of sky

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are some technical problems with energy decentralization which stem from the centralized past of the grid. As David Roberts explains at Vox, the grid was designed for one-way power flows from generation to distribution to end user. Solar, wind, and other distributed energy sources upend this model, sending power from the end-of-the-line back into the grid. There are several possible ways to overcome these difficulties ranging from going off-grid completely to piping every single generation source back into one giant grid managed by a central authority. For a solarpunk future, one possible option is the “decentralized, layered-decomposition optimization structure.” In this arrangement, the responsibilities of generation sources are held locally, but communities can still exchange power on an overarching, interconnected grid.

In some communities, such as Boulder, CO, the people have decided to municipalize their energy grid. Putting the grid into public hands makes it easier to align incentives between homeowners with rooftop solar, community-based generation projects, and the needs of all the users on the grid. Utility monopolies have to maximize profit and maintain the status quo. Energy democracy brings the power to the people, who can build a grid that uses distributed generation for a more robust, environmentally friendly, and healthy grid. The most extreme example of calls for energy democracy at the moment is the suggestion of a public takeover of PG&E. For more on areas that are flexing their energy democracy muscles, check out the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Power Map.

Do you have any energy democracy projects in your area? Let us know how your communities are fighting monopoly power and bringing clean, distributed power to the people.

Symbiosis

Decentralization of power, both political and electrical, is one of the core tenets of solarpunk. As the meme says, we’ve had the technology to transition to a decentralized, clean economy for a long time. Centralization of political power controlled by centralized corporate interests has been the chief hurdle to climate action.

Symbiosis logo - it looks like a spindly sea creature (anenome?) with the word "symbiosis" written next to it

Symbiosis is a new grassroots organization in the United States dedicated to building direct democracy to address climate change and social inequities. As an offshoot of the Social Ecology Institute, the underlying philosophy of the movement is that the broken nature of human interaction has let to our broken environment.

In order to make a concerted effort against the established corporate and federal concentrations of power, Symbiosis is positioning itself as an umbrella organization to help coordinate action between municipalists, environmentalists, and post-capitalists across North America.

As has become increasingly apparent, single-issue action has been ineffective at moving the needle toward a climate solution. Only when we build a coalition of our allies can we challenge the status quo.

There is a congress in the works for September 2019 to bring everyone together to begin the work of building communities and systems for the post-capitalist future. For more information about Symbiosis, visit https://www.symbiosis-revolution.org/.


Disclaimer: I am involved with Symbiosis, but do not speak for them in any capacity. This is my interpretation of the group based on a short time of involvement.