Tag Archives: technology

Recycling Rant – Mixed Materials

I know that recycling shouldn’t be our first line of defense to handle our waste streams, but it is something that can help divert materials from the landfill once they already have been created. But you wanna know what really grinds my gears? Mixed material food packaging. Sure, China’s National Sword cut a great big hole through US recycling efforts, but we can still recycle #1 and #2 plastics in most municipalities, and #5 if there’s a Whole Foods somewhere in your area.

If we want to encourage recycling though, we need it to be easy. People are busy, making their waste stream pretty low on their priority list. So, why on Earth would you make a dairy container out of #5 plastic and put a #2 lid on it? You took the time to make sure the two plastics looked identical for cohesive branding, but the only visual difference to the consumer is if they look at the little recycle triangle on BOTH parts of the package. Is this easy? NO! Store bought icing is even worse with its #5 or #2 body and #4 lid. Where the heck am I supposed to recycle a #4 that isn’t a plastic film like a bread bag?

man wearing teal long sleeved shirt

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As engineers, I know we want to find the optimal solution for every component of a design, but for single-use containers, end-of-life needs to be high on that priority list. I’m not a food packaging engineer, but my hierarchy of design would go something like safety/preservation of food, taste impact, mechanical stability, and end-of-life. I’ll grant you that you can’t package in something that will impact taste or safety, but is that #2 lid really making enough of a difference in your product that it’s worth confusing people so you get #2 and #5 plastics mixed up in each other waste streams?

If you ARE a food packaging engineer, I’m begging you to please consider end of life when designing your products. We are on a finite planet, and because plastic is such a useful material, I would really love it if we could easily reclaim it for future use. Whether it’s particularly safe for contact with food or whether we really need so much of it is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. For today, please think through your material choices and try to find ways to make recycling easier.

Moving toward a zero waste, solarpunk, circular economy is high on my wish list for the world, and there’s plenty of research that shows that unless you make something easier than the alternative, people just don’t have the bandwidth. The onus is on the designer, not the consumer for this. We can do better – please do!

Is there anything you’ve run across that was packaged ridiculously? Let us know below!

A Better Way to Pay

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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

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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

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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?

MapJam – Sharing in the city

adult book business cactus

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Shareable is a great resource for following advances in the “sharing economy,” with an emphasis on platform cooperatives and other community ownership models that you probably won’t see from the other outlets that focus on the space. One of the more interesting projects they’re working on is their Community Maps. Generated by local residents in a given region, these maps detail where you can find sharing services in the community.

The data for the maps is generated by MapJams, collaborative mapping parties where people can get together and map out as many sharing services as possible in their city. Charlottesville has a Shareable Community Map, but it is sparse and based on proprietary mapping software. I contacted Shareable about the mapping tools, and they said that new MapJams use the Open Street Map-based uMap system. uMap is an easy to use framework that allows anyone to make a custom Open Street Map and then embed it into any website.

I’m hoping to coordinate a new MapJam for Cville in the near future, so if you’re in the area, please reach out and let me know if you can help. Suggestions for places that should be on the map or help with coordinating the MapJam itself would be greatly appreciated!

Does your city have a Shareable Community Map? Are there any sharing services in your city that deserve a shout out? Let us know below!

Why speculative fiction matters

woman reading a book

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When facing existential crises, it can be hard to see the point of things that aren’t directly related to the problem at hand. One thing that often comes under fire in times like these is fiction, both in books and other media. Even within fiction, scifi and fantasy have long been disparaged by “serious” academics since these realms of speculative fiction deal with fantastical elements that don’t exist. What these critics overlook, however, is the difference between truth and reality.

While elements of the political landscape are dedicated to obfuscating the truth, this isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m referring to the ability of stories to separate all of our social and cultural baggage from important issues. Star Trek, for example, is known for holding up a mirror to the human condition and such important issues as racism, death, and war.

The other benefit of speculative fiction is stretching the imagination. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.” Fiction lets us see problems in a different light, whether they be social or technological in nature. Love it or hate it, the cellphone has its roots in science fiction, along with innumerable other technologies that now make up the fabric of daily life.

Most engineers and scientists I’ve met trace their interest in the sciences to scifi or fantasy. One of the main reasons I became an engineer was growing up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dinotopia, and other works of fiction. Asking ourselves “What if…” is the underlying principle of the scientific method, and it feeds our innate human curiosity about the world around us. Something doesn’t have to be “real” to help us explore what is true. So, even though the world is burning, take this as an invitation to think differently about the problem. The solutions to climate change just might be a fictional account away.

Is there a book or other story that influenced how you think about the world? Let us know below!

Riding the rails

Picture of an Amtrak train car; single deck; number 25051

One of the coach cars from the Cardinal

I recently went on a trip to Missouri, and since flying or riding the train would cost the same amount, I decided to do the solarpunk thing and try train. I’d only ever gone on short, touristy train rides before, so this was my first time evaluating rail as a long-distance travel option. While the exact values will vary based on model, train travel is typically regarded as less carbon intensive than flying or taking a single-occupant passenger car.

Any readers from Europe will likely be appalled at the poor state of rail travel in the US, but I think that for anyone with the time, rail travel is much nicer than taking a plane. Sure it takes a lot longer, but the seats are much bigger, the luggage restrictions are very generous, and you avoid federal employees invading your personal space.

An abandoned train - An engine from the New York Central line and two passenger cars

An abandoned train on a siding we passed

I rode two different lines, The Cardinal and The Southwest Chief. The Cardinal was a lot smaller train, but the overhead bins were larger than those on The Southwest Chief. This was likely because the Southwest Chief’s double-decker cars had a large baggage area on the lower level of the train. There is a smaller baggage area at the back of the coach cars on The Cardinal.

The interior of an Amtrak observation car. Sideways seats face large floor-to-ceiling windows

An Amtrak observation car featuring large windows

There was a cafe car on both trains, and the Southwest Chief also had observation and dining cars. Since I’m cheap, I brought my own snacks and water, but the food is there if you don’t bring your own. The ride is sometimes bumpy, but you don’t have to worry about your drink or food flying up unexpectedly like you might with a flight.

There are some downsides, of course. Number one is that you still have small, airplane-style bathrooms and you’ll almost certainly have to visit them if you’re going any appreciable distance. There’s also a relative dearth of destinations when compared to air travel. As most people fly to get from place to place these days, Amtrak can only support so many routes. If I were writing this article fifty years ago, then I would likely have a different story to tell.

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car; windows dot the top deck of the car while the bottom features an entry hatch and ventillation grates

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car

Another con is the occasional smoke breaks where people can get off the train and get their fix. The ventilation aboard the trains seems sufficient, but in the first few minutes following a smoke break I was wishing I could crack the window. Luckily, I wasn’t seated too closely to any smoking passengers, and the smell quickly dissipated.

Photo showing the large, open Grand Hall of Chicago's Union Station including two golden, greco-roman statues guarding the entrance to the train departure area

Chicago’s Union Station is fancy

I don’t know if traveling via rail rises to the level of luxurious (it might in the sleeping cars, which are available on both trains I took), but it is certainly more pleasurable than any of my previous travels by plane. For shorter trips (KC to Chicago for example) it can even be faster than driving since you avoid all that mucking about in city traffic. If you are planning a trip in the future, consider seeing if the train can get you there. It’s not an option we think of here in the States, but I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Have you traveled by rail in the US or abroad? What’s the train like in your area?

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

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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.

Making it real…

As you may recall, I want to find ways to bring more practical solarpunk into my life and into the world. To that end, I purchased a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ kit made by Canakit. I’m hoping to explore some of the ideas I discussed regarding solarpunk phones and communications during the last few weeks. I’m not an electronics savant by any means, so we’ll see if my hobbyist level skills can cobble anything interesting together out of the kit.

Box containing a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ and breadboard for electronics experiments

On a related note, I also just ordered a new wifi-enabled wall switch to control the lights in our main living area. While that isn’t particularly solarpunk, I think reflashing the electronics to not be dependent on a third party service is. As sold, the switch requires downloading and using an app that sends data out to the web through servers owned by Samsung and then back to my apartment to control my lights. This is both creepy and seems silly since the lights are right above the voice assistant I’m using to control them. Why do I need servers hundreds of miles away involved in this conversation?

I’ve had good luck with the Sonoff-Tasmota firmware from GitHub for other smart home devices, and will be using the information from their wiki to attempt to reflash this new switch. Since it’s a totally different piece of equipment, I’m a little nervously optimistic about the results. If all goes well, the switch will only talk to my local network and the only connection to the outside world will be through Alexa.

Wifi-enabled smart switch with front cover removed. Green circuit board is exposed showing a TYWE3S wifi chip. Other components are hidden from view as they're on the back side of the board.

At some point, I’m hoping to switch to a more privacy-centric voice assistant like Mycroft or Snips, but getting all of my smart home devices other than my voice assistant to be local only should make the transition simpler once I do get that setup. The Raspberry Pi will be an important part of this transition as I’m hoping to begin testing Mycroft and/or Snips once I’ve gotten some of the basic input/output bits of the Pi figured out.

Raspberry Pi 3 B+ in transluscent plastic case

If all goes well, then I’ll try building a mobile voice assistant that can kick result data to a simple linked smartwatch like a Pebble. I sketched out a highly detailed schematic for your pleasure below.

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I’m not sure how hard the communication with a watch will be, but the first step will be getting the voice assistant going on the Raspberry Pi. After deciding which AI is better to work with then I’ll try adding battery power and watch communications.

What are some of the ways you are making solarpunk real? Let us know below!

Energy: A Human History – Review

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Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes chronicles the development of industrial power sources with a focus on the innovators and scientists who developed the technologies. Starting in Elizabethan England with none other than William Shakespeare, Rhodes weaves a compelling tale of the western world’s energy sources starting with the transition from wood to coal in 1600s Britain.

The book paints the picture of the industrialists we now love to hate as human beings with hopes, dreams, and failings. It can be hard to remember after so long that James Watt and Henry Ford were once actual, living beings, and that they had hoped to make the world a better place with their inventions.

Drawing from many primary sources, Rhodes has lifted many gems of what the people of the time found concerning about these new technologies. With references to coal as “the devil’s excrement,” and many other such epithets, one might wonder why such dirty fuels ever became predominant. As Rhodes points out in the book though, industrialization with coal and other fossil fuels led to a near doubling of human life span and a higher standard of living. Rhodes does devote a fair bit of the book to the work that various towns and nations did to combat the air quality problems associated with the use of fossil fuels to varying degrees of success.

Concerns were not just constrained to air quality. Safety of steam engines, locomotives, and automobiles were a great concern of the time. As to cars, we have definitely come out on the wrong end of that technology with many US cities being designed for cars instead of people, but some of the concerns for trains seem amusing now as this quote Rhodes found shows.

“What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked a reviewer for London’s Quarterly Review who favored a plan for a railway to Woolwich, “than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s… rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate… We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

If you are firmly anti-nuclear, the end of the book will not be to your liking. As a cautiously optimistic person regarding nuclear energy, I feel the author may be a bit nuke-happy. Many of his points in favor of nuclear base loads are legitimate, however. Current nuclear generation technologies have been shown by IPCC and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) analysts to have a carbon footprint similar to wind and solar. With many cities and states looking at 100% renewable commitments, including nuclear as a base load to counter the intermittency of renewable sources seems reasonable in geologically stable areas. Unfortunately, when states set “renewable” goals for their energy goals, they sometimes include waste incineration, which is both gross and bad for local air quality.

Beside its overly-western focus, the other main shortcoming of the book is its relatively light treatment of renewable technologies. There was very little regarding solar, hydro, and wind, and I’m not sure if geothermal was mentioned at all. I suspect that this was due to a desire of the author to focus on the technologies that were the primary drivers of industrialization. Regardless, I think this is a good treatment of the subject of modern industrial energy sources and the people who brought them to fruition.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about energy generation or transmission? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 4: Magic

woman reading a book

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[This is Part 4 of a series of posts. Here are links to Part 1: Repair, Part 2: Decentralize, and Part 3: Design.]

Despite marketing jargon, I don’t think that we’ve yet reached the point where our technology is “magical.” A cave person might feel differently, but smartphones, computers, and televisions are clearly tools in my eye. There are a few exceptions, but I want devices that more elegantly flow with our lives instead of us molding our behavior around the device.

In stories, magic feels more like an extension of the being wielding the power. Even when the power source isn’t from within the individual, magic is still channeled through the magic user, so they must be in tune with it, but not consumed by it.

Technology that “just works” is a step in the right direction, since few things are as un-magical as having to reinstall drivers. I think we can go farther though. For me, at least, it’s easy to get lost in the technology itself and lose sight of the end goal of the tech. To be truly magical, I think the device and interface need to melt away so we can focus on the real reason we’re using it. At their core, smartphones are devices for communication. How do we make meaningful communication with those we care about easier?

color conceptual creativity education

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Take the pencil. As long as it’s sharp, most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how much it weighs or how thin it is. It gets the job done and you don’t have to think much about the object itself. There are certainly applications like art where the hardness of the graphite is an important consideration, but for the majority of situations, the pencil is incidental to the outcome of wanting words or doodles on the page. The pencil is an extraordinary piece of technology because it works so well that we pay it barely any heed.

A few devices approach this simplicity: e-readers, Pebble smartwatches, smartpens, the Beeline bike navigator, the Typified weather poster, voice assistants, and most calculators. Maybe I just don’t have the headspace for multi-function gadgets, but for me, the more functionality you cram into a device, the more unwieldy it becomes. Perhaps some brilliant UI/UX designer will come up with a way to make the multi-function nature of the smartphone more seamless, but as of now, I find smartphones to be amazing but kludgy.

The people working on the Skychaser solarpunk comic are doing a great job of thinking of magical technologies. You should definitely check them out if this is something that appeals to you.

I don’t have the answers for finding the right balance of functionality and magic but wanted to explore some of the questions with you. Maybe you have some ideas of how to make technology a little more magical. If you do and want to share, please post something below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 3: Rethinking Design

[This is Part 3 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here are links to Part 1: Repair and Part 2: Decentralize.]

There are essentially two extremes to technological design: the all-in-one device or the single-tasker. Take, for example, the knife. There are lots of single purpose knives – paring, cleaver, steak, etc. There are also several different types of multi-function knives, the best known being the Swiss Army knife. Depending on what task you have at hand, you would select the best knife for the job. Out and about, sometimes the best way to go is to carry the Swiss Army knife, but since it’s a multi-function device, it isn’t usually the best tool for the job, even though a lot of the time it is pretty decent at several different things. Unfortunately, the more functions you cram into a Swiss Army knife, the less useful it becomes at any single task. There’s a certain break-even point where it just gets ridiculous.

Image shows 8 Swiss Army knives from left to right with an increasinly large number of functions.

Victorinox pocket knives by quattroman76 under a CC BY-ND 2.0

While smartphones can do a great many things, since they aren’t really designed to do one specific task, they end up sacrificing the ability to do any one thing really well. I wonder if we’ve lost something by trying to unify all of our devices. Our mobile technology has become a monoculture compared to the wide variety of form factors of phones before a single slate of glass became the norm.

Before the consolidation of iPhone-esque design hit the scene, some people thought the future would be a cloud of wearable devices, the Personal Area Network (PAN). While carrying a number of single-focus gadgets on a common network may not be the best solution for everyone, it could be game changing for some. Also, broader acceptance of PANs might lead to more innovation in the smartphone space with regards to form factor. While there are rumblings of foldable phones, I can’t help but think those are merely an evolution of the current iPhone-centric design school.

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Random sketches I made of different hubs/accessories for a PAN-based device

Modular, open source electronics architectures would be a step in the right direction, allowing designers to select off-the-shelf components for inclusion in many different types of devices. The closest things I’ve seen on the market would be the Fairphone, which we’ve mentioned before, and the RePhone Kit, which is an Arduino-compatible phone kit from Seeed Studio. It’s a neat little phone hacking platform that lets people build their own phones. Unfortunately, Rephone is only 2G data capable, meaning no data connection in the US. Motorola gets an honorable mention for the Moto-mods system that lets you add different features to your phone through a special port on the back of their Z-series phones.

Of course it isn’t solarpunk if we aren’t designing with the impact of the device in mind from the beginning. Dominic Muren’s  Skin, Skeleton, and Guts model for product design is one approach to this design problem. When coupled with the Cradle to Cradle idea of separate biological and technical nutrient cycles, I can imagine future devices where the skin of the device is a compostable fabric that can be changed to suit the style of the user, while the metal skeleton and modular, electronic “guts” could be reused in further technical cycles.

TL;DR

In short, when approaching the design of a solarpunk phone, I would want modular components to be at the core to allow for more diversity of form factors like there once was in the mobile space. Also, devices should be designed for the circular economy using safe and reusable/recyclable materials.

Do you have any ideas for what should go into a solarpunk smarphone? Would a PAN be too cumbersome, or do you find that the “Jack of all trades, master of none” nature of the smartphone isn’t worth the trade-offs? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 2: Decentralize

antique broken cell phone communication

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[This is Part 2 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here’s a link to Part 1: Repair and Part 3: Design.]

Humans have an amazing capacity for cognitive dissonance. Even though we may know something is bad for us or has significant negative consequences, we’ll still trudge ahead, even if the benefit to an action is small. As Steven Szpajda from This Week in Law is fond of saying, people will give up large amounts of privacy and security for a very small perceived benefit.

Solarpunk Druid had a recent post to this effect, “It’s the events stupid: Why FB is the hardest media to quit” discussing the titular quandary. As we have with fossil fuels, we’ve become reliant on systems whose existence is at cross-purposes with our own.

For this second part of my exploration of what a solarpunk communication device might look like, I want you to consider your relationship with your carrier and web service providers — Verizon, Facebook, etc.

antenna clouds equipment frequency

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Most of us have become comfortable, complacent even, with the idea that the companies that control our communications know everything about our habits. What might be surprising though, is that the information they collect isn’t just available to other multi-national megacorporations, but that private citizens can easily get access to the location of customers of at least AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile in the US.

Solarpunk, as a subgenre of speculative fiction is all about “what-if,” so what if we weren’t beholding to megacorps for our communications? What if we decentralized our cellphone and internet access? With the increasing presence of AI subservient to known bad actors, it’s time we start examining how to wean ourselves off of the corporations that feed our information addictions. While taking a break from technology can be beneficial for our mental well-being, I don’t think it’s practical to completely give it up either.

Solarpunk is also about making the “what-if” into a concrete reality, so what technologies exist to help us break free and decentralize our digital lives?

Mesh Networks

Mesh networking, which we’ve mentioned before, allows various parts of a network to communicate without a single central node, like a cellphone tower, controlling all of the traffic. If everyone in a given geographic area had a smartphone that worked on a mesh network, they wouldn’t need a carrier to contact their friends in that area. This has been touted as a potentially life-saving measure for natural disasters, and is also a powerful tool for people protesting authoritarian regimes. Mesh networks are still in the early stages of development, but they point toward a possibile future of decentralized communication where the users themselves are the network, not some centralized authority that could leave users in the dark either intentionally or because of a cyber attack. Some current implementations include the mesh network going up in Detroit, the Serval Project, GoTenna, and the Althea Mesh.

three person holding smartphones

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Leaving for greener social pastures

Between the shuttering of GeoCities a decade ago and recent major changes to Tumblr and Flikr, denizens of the internet have witnessed great swaths of the web be deleted at the whim of a single entity. At the same time, data breaches like Equifax and direct manipulation of users by Facebook and their partners has made it more clear than ever that you’re the product for these companies.

The Open Source Community has been experimenting with alternative social networks for some time, and with the W3C ActivityPub standard, we’re seeing the emergence of an interconnected, social media Fediverse. What’s really cool about the Fediverse is that people on different platforms can follow each other without having to sign up for a different network. If the current behemoths had started this way, then you could follow your friend on Twitter from your Facebook account without having a Twitter account yourself. Since these platforms are Open Source, anyone can start their own instance, so there are communities built up around common interests (like solarpunk) but you can still hang out online with your friends from a different instance. There are a number of different platforms modeled off existing networks like FB and Twitter, but I’m sure we’ll see new concepts emerge as well. There are even some beta plugins to allow WordPress websites to be federated with ActivityPub, so maybe you’ll see Solarpunk Station in the Fediverse soon!

The Fediverse isn’t the only decentralized social networking solution out there either. Other clients like Scuttlebutt and Steemit have also cropped up in recent years. Scuttlebutt has a large solarpunk contingent already as seen in the partial graph of the network below, while Steemit skews heavily toward the cryptocurrency crowd as it is itself based on the blockchain. Scuttlebutt has some really cool features like being designed around intermittent connections. There’s a lot more information and a fun intro video on their website.

Have you tried any of these new social media sites or built a mesh network? Let us know how it went below!

 

Solarpunk Phones Part 1 : Repair

A cardboard box with a stylized art deco hand holding a wrench. Inside the box is a replacement screen kit for an iPhone 5.

My repair kit from iFixit

[This is Part 1 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here’s a link to Part 2: Decentralize, Part 3: Design, and Part 4: Magic.]

Smartphones are a major source of e-waste when disposed, and they have been one of the worst offenders when it comes to planned obsolescence, particularly after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 propelled the smartphone to widespread popularity. It seems that we may be entering a new phase of ennui in regards to new phone features, however, with 11 million iPhone users opting for battery replacements instead of new phones in 2018. Is it finally time for the Fixer Movement to takeover cellphones?

Why repair?

combination wrench screw bolt and pointed top hammer

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

I grew up in a fixer household. My dad is a biomed tech who fixes the medical equipment at a hospital, and my mom has furniture repair and sewing skills. Up until recently, all of our cars were bought as salvage and a lot of the furniture and home electronics came to us in various states of disrepair. This was just how we did things because we could fix things and didn’t see the point in paying full price if we could get it a lot cheaper because of a minor problem.

When you start looking at the exploitation taking place both in the raw materials needed for smartphones as well as in their disposal, it quickly becomes clear that the true cost of electronics is not being taken into account when you can buy a cell phone for $25. The hidden costs of goods, or externalities as economists would say, are one of the main arguments for a carbon tax, as well as many other measures industry would call “over-regulation.”

Between the environmental, moral, and economic downsides of not repairing a mobile device, keeping the phone you have for as long as possible starts to look a lot more palatable. This is especially true as the most important functions of the smartphone have reached a point of technological maturity.

This week I’m embarking on my fourth smartphone repair. All of these have been screen replacements, as it is easily the most fragile part of the phone. Of the three phones I’ve repaired, I only had one where I successfully replaced just the glass and was able to reuse the screen underneath. Some of that might be my relative inexperience, and some of that is because the phones aren’t designed to be repaired. If you are planning on repair a phone, I would suggest checking out iFixit as they have a lot of different parts available as well as the most extensive repair database around. Youtube also has a lot of repair videos for things that aren’t in iFixit yet.

If you aren’t comfortable doing a repair yourself, there are a lot of smartphone repair places that have popped up around the country in response to the commonality of shattered screens. In some locales, there may still be repair shops for other goods as well, particularly sewing machines, vacuums, and shoes.

Many towns have Repair Cafes or Fix It Clinics that are run by volunteers on a varying basis. Boulder, CO has a very active repair community, and there is a periodic Repair Cafe run by the Time Bank here in Charlottesville, VA.

The future

While many current smartphones require a lot of time and “the knack” to repair, there is some hope that this won’t always be the case. The easiest way to make sure that smartphones are easy to repair is to design them that way to begin with.

One area where there has been a lot of interest, but not a lot of development is in the modular smartphone space. Google’s Project Ara, the Phonebloks project, and many others have shown concepts of LEGO-like modular phones with parts that the end user can swap out to customize or repair their phone. The only true contender in this space is the Fairphone. Designed with repairability and transparency in mind, the Fairphone was designed to do for electronics what Fair Trade has done for food and clothing. By evaluating every part of their supply chain and making the phone easily repairable by the end user with modular components, the Fairphone is the most ethically-sourced and repairable mobile device on the planet.

While the Fairphone is an impressive achievement, the fact that it is the only phone built to what should be basic-human-decency standards is telling of the state of the mobile device industry. As smartphones peak and differentiation wanes between vendors, hopefully we’ll see an emergence of a modular standard with many vendors making parts that are interoperable on a similar mobile platform. This was the original vision of Project Ara before its cancellation in 2016. The only ecosystems that approach this ideal in my mind are the desktop PC market and Raspberry Pi.

The Runcible, a round smartphone concept is shown with its circular wooden back removed exposing the circular circuit board and camera module.

The Runcible with its wooden back removed (from their Indiegogo campaign page)

One other interesting, but also unreleased, concept of a repairable phone was Runcible. Envisioned as an anti-smartphone, Runcible was designed to be a repairable, digital heirloom that would be a piece of tech you would want to grow old with. While its Indiegogo campaign was successful, as with many crowdfunded projects, the creators have gone dark without any backers getting their hardware. Some people might cry foul, but I think the problem with crowdfunded hardware is that making hardware devices is a lot harder than it looks.

In any case, I think that electronic devices built for a solarpunk future will need to be modular, repairable, and ethically-sourced as a first step. This is the first post in a series prompted by Solarpunk Druid’s “The Solarpunk Phone,” so I will be linking subsequent parts as they’re added.

Do you have any thoughts on what’s important for solarpunk electronics? Are there any features that current phones don’t have that would make your life easier? Let us know below!

Cradle to Cradle – A review

Book cover for Cradle to Cradle - blue top and green bottom with mirrored vehicle silhouettes

Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is about envisioning a better way to manage human interactions with the natural world. The authors ask,

“What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?”

Starting from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, they analyze the design decisions that led capitalist society to the environmental crossroads it faces today. While things weren’t quite so dire in 2002 when the book was written, its analyses of the pitfalls of rampant industrialization are thorough and thought provoking.

The most refreshing part of this book though is it isn’t just a list of where capitalism went wrong and why we’re all doomed. Cradle to Cradle outlines ways in which designers, engineers, and scientists can work together to deconstruct the current way we make things and redesign our material lives to benefit the natural world. The main idea, which I find to be very solarpunk, is to look at how in nature there is no waste. Everything serves a purpose in the environment. The fruit of the cherry tree feeds birds and animals while those animals spread the seeds of the tree. The droppings of those birds and animals fertilize the ground where the cherry tree and its offspring grow so that they can offer more food. Everything has its place in the cycle.

In one project, a shampoo was redesigned from scratch to only have positive effects by carefully selecting every chemical going into it, including the bottle. Herman Miller had a new factory designed including natural lighting, more ventilation, and a “street” with plants inside to bring nature closer to the workers. As we saw with the Nature Fix, bringing humans and nature together has positive benefits for human health, and by bringing the outdoors in, Herman Miller was able to bring its new focus on environmental sustainability to the forefront.

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Photo by Luka Siemionov on Pexels.com

The book isn’t just anecdotes and feel-good aphorisms, it also includes a framework for how to approach design to ensure maximum good. One of the ongoing themes in the book is that so far, most industry has tried to do less bad to the environment when it cares at all, but it’s time to go a step further and see how we can take industry and make it improve the world around us.

A success story in this vein tells of a textile factory in Europe that worked to make a better upholstery fabric for office chairs. When the regulators came to check the factory’s wastewater (effluent), they were confused as the water coming out of the plant was cleaner than that going in.

The equipment was working fine; it was simply that by most parameters the water coming out of the factory was as clean as — or even cleaner than — the water going in. When a factory’s effluent is cleaner than its influent, it might well prefer to use its effluent as influent. Being designed into the manufacturing process, this dividend is free and requires no enforcement to continue or to exploit. Not only did our new design process bypass the traditional responses to environmental problems (reduce, reuse, recycle), it also eliminated the need for regulation, something that any businessperson will appreciate as extremely valuable.

One of the things I’m hoping to investigate further in 2019 is the circular economy, and I think the design strategies outlined in Cradle to Cradle are a good first step in this direction. I found there is a followup book called The Upcycle written in 2013 that I will be checking out from the library soon.

Have you read Cradle to Cradle or have thoughts on the circular economy? Let us know below!

Solarpunk winters

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Photo by Tobias Bjørkli on Pexels.com

As we observe the winter solstice, my thoughts have turned to how solarpunks approach winter. As the days turn dark and cold, how does a society dependent on the sun continue to prosper?

Finland

If anyone knows about how to approach long nights, it’s the people who live at the poles. Finland, which was recently rated the world’s happiest country, has no shortage of darkness given it’s proximity to the Earth’s North Pole. In the northernmost parts of the country, the sun doesn’t rise for 51 days in the winter. Why are they so happy then? A stable government with minimal corruption is probably a contributing factor, along with free healthcare and college programs. In the Nature Fix, author Florence Williams suggests it’s the access to nature. Provided you don’t cut down anyone’s trees or damage their property, there’s no such thing as trespassing in Finland. Unlike in the United States where fences and no trespassing signs prohibit free passage, you can hike from one end of Finland to another without running afoul of the law. Also, the combination of low population density and relatively late urbanization, most of Finland’s population is only minutes away from a Nordic walk in the woods or one of the many wintertime diversions available to residents such as ice skating or cross country skiing. For more, check out this Buzzfeed article that is a nice summary of how Fins stay happy, no matter the weather.

white sheep on farm

Photo by kailash kumar on Pexels.com

Wool

While the vegans in the audience will groan, I feel wool is one of the best resources we have when it comes to staying warm in the wintertime. Since wool is a material that can be harvested without harming the sheep, it seems like a win-win to me. It’s important to look at how you’re sourcing the wool when you get it, but wool from a well-treated sheep will keep you warm at the expense of them getting a haircut. Is wool cheap? No. But, it mother nature has taken millions of years plus a few hundred of human intervention to develop a fabric that breathes well, is the bomb at temperature regulation, and like all natural fibers, is biodegradable. That last part is important since so much of the microplastics in the ocean are coming from washing our synthetic fabrics. REI has a great article about sustainable clothing and textile choices for more info on wool and other options to stay warm in the winter/

Geothermal heat pumps

One way to make sure things stay toasty is with geothermal, or ground source, heat pumps. Often overlooked as a source of clean power, geothermal electricity generation isn’t something that works in all areas. Geothermal heat pumps work just about anywhere though to help keep things nice and warm inside with a minimal investiture of electrical power. In short, geothermal heat pumps replace the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system of a building and use the Earth as a heat sink. Since the ground is roughly 18 Celsius in most places, you can cool in the summer and heat in the winter with little energy expenditure. According to Wikipedia, these systems offer a 44-75% increase in efficiency over more traditional heating systems. The US Department of Energy has a good overview of the technology.

Solar fluid

In an interesting development announced last month, scientists at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have developed a fluid that can store solar energy for up to  18 years. So, excess capacity in the summer could be stored into the winter from your solar array and retrieved when needed. Since the system is heat storage, it can be converted to electricity, or could be used as a means of storing summer’s warmth to heat your home in the winter. The original paper can be found here in Energy and Environmental Science.

Person wearing a black, white, and crimson cape patterned like moth wings. Cape is wider than armspan in width, makeing the wearer appear to have moth wings.

Moth Wings Cape by CostureoReal on Etsy

Lunarpunks

I would be remiss to not mention our lunarpunk cousins here when talking about the darkest time of the year. Lunarpunks are the night dwellers of solarpunk society. They are a subculture within our subculture, favoring the night. Biomimmicry of bioluminescent creatures, moth-themed cloaks, and gossamer fabrics fluttering in the night breeze are some of the aesthetic influences here. Winter would be the lunarpunk’s time to be more active, hosting all kinds of events in the cooler nights from art displays to street festivals.


Do you have any thoughts on what solarpunk winters might be like? Let us know below, or consider submitting a story to World Weaver Press’s call for stories for their Solarpunk Winters anthology which opens in January!

What is Solarpunk, anyway?

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

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com

The first thing you need to acknowledge when looking at solarpunk is that the world is on fire. The last few centuries of human development have taken a growth-at-all-costs approach to building up human society, and unfortunately, the bill is due. Solarpunk began as an attempt to imagine a brighter future wherein humans managed to transcend our current predicament and come out better for it on the other side. What began as a smattering of neat drawings and inspirational ideals is slowly coalescing into a movement to take back the Earth from the powers that would see it smolder.

Where is the punk in solarpunk? It’s in direct action to oppose ICE and police violence. It’s in the community energy coop putting solar panels on their roofs to save money. It’s the guerrilla gardeners throwing seed bombs into fenced-off abandoned properties. It’s in the schools where transgender students are welcome in the bathroom of their choice. It’s in the makerspace where people are finding ways to repurpose waste into useful and beautiful items. It’s remaking society into that hopeful future. The punk of solarpunk is in the now. The solarpunk future won’t happen without a concerted effort by a lot of people to fight the status quo and the powers keeping things that way.

Solarpunk doesn’t have one encompassing political or aesthetic vision. I think the most cohesive elements though are equity, environment, and appropriate technology. Equity is more complicated than simple equality, as it requires us to make sure everyone has what they need, which may not be the same exact thing as demanded by equality. For example, living with disabilities is more expensive and results in most disabled individuals having poor economic outcomes. While the exact method of providing an equitable society is something that will need experimentation, that goal is one of the central tenets of solarpunk.

Keeping the environment in mind as a stakeholder in all decision-making processes is another important theme in solarpunk. From the name, you can tell that solarpunk prefers a renewably-powered future, but reducing plastic waste, air and noise pollution, and waste are also environmentally-motivated goals of the solarpunk community. We’ve only got the one planet, so let’s make sure to keep Mother Earth in good shape. She doesn’t need us, but we need her desperately.

Appropriate technology is the idea that we don’t necessarily need “smart” everything in our lives. While solarpunk doesn’t eschew technology like some primitivists, solarpunk is interested in only using the appropriate level of technology for the task at hand and not making technology for technology’s sake alone.

If you’re concerned about climate change or the growing march of fascism across the globe, you might already be a solarpunk and not know it. To learn more check out the Scuttlebutt social network or look for #solarpunk on Mastadon or Tumblr. If you have any questions feel free to use the contact form on this website or comment below.

Bicycle Innovations

red cruiser bike parked on metal bike stand

Photo by Jodie DS on Pexels.com

While cars have continued to iterate convenient features like cup holders and hill holding assist, bicycles haven’t really changed much since the safety bicycle was introduced in 1876. While some of that is because the diamond frame bike is actually a pretty cool design, it feels like unless it’s something to make a racer on the Tour de France go faster, the bicycle industry has ignored it.

As a solarpunk, I feel that bikes are a really great option for low carbon transportation for the able-bodied. What about people who need adaptive solutions? Luckily, one of the areas that there has been innovation in the bicycle industry is in adaptive bicycles. I didn’t really know much about them, but I stopped by a bike shop in Vienna, VA where they told me about some of the models they stock.

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Hase TRETS trike (image from Hase’s website)

Accessible bikes are available with electric assist and other adaptive technologies to make riding fun for people who might not be able to ride a more traditional bicycle. Handcycles are available for people who can’t use their legs to pedal, and Hase makes a popular recumbent/upright tandem that can accommodate a wide level of abilities. I was able to test ride the tandem, and while I think the handling would take some getting used to, it’s a very well-built machine.

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Hase Pino tandem (image from Hase’s website)

The rise of cargo and urban bikes will hopefully help with adoption of bicycles as a transportation method. This article at Bike Shop Girl, “What If Bicycles Were Designed Like Cars?” discusses how most cars are designed around the normal user, but bikes have been designed around racers for a long time. Ron George over at the Cozy Beehive has an article titled “Brainstorming Bicycle Design Ideas with an Example” further discussing the lack of innovation in the bicycle space.

When looking for practical bicycles, my wishlist would be:

  • Internally geared hub
    • Internal hubs are available from 3 to 14 speeds and pretty much eliminate all that mucking about with drive-train maintenance required with a regular set of gears (bonus points if it has a belt drive!)
  • Step through design
    • Nobody wants to have to swing their leg over the back of their bike or the center bar to get onto their ride.
  • Electric assist
    • While I don’t yet have electric assist for my bike, I’ve heard it makes a great difference in your ability to carry heavy loads (including other humans) or ride up hills. Being sweaty on arrival is a big turn off for many aspiring riders, so I think this is a good piece of tech to get more butts on bikes.
  • Racks and fenders
    • You should be able to carry stuff and not get splashed if it’s wet out.
  • Lights
    • Ideally charged via a dynamo or connected to your electric assist battery. They don’t sell cars without headlights, so why are they extra on a bike?

Granted, I’m a privileged person who doesn’t have any major physical problems. I really think tooling around town on a bike is super fun, so hopefully accessible bikes (and trikes) will be easier to find with time. I don’t think we should be forcing people to ride bikes to get around in a solarpunk society, but I think we should make it a lot better option. Investing in biking infrastructure and making bikes easier to adopt for newbies are the two main barriers to adoption here in the US. I’ve been riding for over a decade now, and I still find bike shops intimidating, so I think there’s a lot of room to grow. If you want to know more about making bicycling more inviting, be sure to check out Bike Shop Girl’s Shift Up Podcast.

Do you ride a bike? If not, what would make you feel more comfortable doing so?

 

The Nature Fix – A Book Review

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Do you feel more relaxed after going for a walk in the woods? Does the scent of conifers make you think of happy times? The Nature Fix by Florence Williams investigates the connection between nature and human well-being, physical and mental.

As a scientist, I’m always excited to bury myself nose-deep in a new area of investigation, and I’ve found that popular science books are one of the best ways to acquaint yourself with something you’ve never studied before. Instead of getting bogged down in equations and minutia, you can dive right in and see what the science has to do with your life. Williams has done a brilliant job in The Nature Fix connecting the dots between how you feel during your day and how much exposure to nature you get.

silhouette of mountain hill with pine trees under white cloud blue sky

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

While skimming photos of mountains and trees on Instagram might help you relax, it turns out that your other senses play an important role in your well-being. For instance, researchers in Korea have found that the smell of cypress trees have health benefits and some of the compounds the trees produce may even deter cancer.

Other researchers Williams talked to have found that sound plays an important role in our health. Bird song can have a positive effect, while many human-made noises such as jet aircraft can overstimulate the fight-or-flight aspects of our brains. One example from the book is that the “World Health Organization attributes thousands of deaths per year in Europe to heart attack and stroke caused by high levels of background noise.”

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Williams goes into biology, evolution, neuroscience, and sociology to really see what it is about nature that is so compelling. To really improve your mood and health, some Finnish researchers interviewed suggested a minimum of five hours of nature per month. As this can be difficult for the increasingly large proportion of people who live in cities, she points to examples like Singapore that endeavor to be a city in a garden. This really appeals to my solarpunk tendencies as cities that are full of lush, native plant life and provide physical and mental stimulation to their residents are my ideal.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Nature Fix to anyone who is interested in nature, even the tiniest amount. I would also suggest that all health professionals should read it regardless of their interest in the outdoors. I got my copy from my local library, but you can also find it through IndieBound here.

Have you read The Nature Fix? What did you think of it?

Genetic algorithms for awesome architecture

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Optimized for access to windows and optimized traffic flow

Joel Simon’s “Evolving Floorplans” was a project to run buildings through a genetic algorithm to design spaces that can more effectively carry out their mission. The floor plans that resulted from the algorithm have a pleasing, organic look that will surely set a solarpunk’s heart aflutter.

Several different outlets have covered the project at this point, but one of the most interesting was this tweet comparing these organic, computer-generated designs and the layout of traditional, older cities. It’s possible our forbears weren’t just flailing about when they organically designed the strange serpentine patterns of the ancient cities of the world. Grid-based cities are great for cars and the Post Office, but maybe we should think about applying genetic algorithms to urban planning and design.

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The original floorplan

 

Why we can do better

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I recently went on a gold mine tour in Virginia’s Lake Anna State Park. At one of the stops, the ranger was talking about the various technologies people in the area had used to extract gold from the river. When she started talking about the steam-driven stamp mills, she said that a miner would have about 60 days of operating the machine before they went completely deaf. One of the children in the audience asked, “Why did they make the machine if it would make the miners go deaf?”

My first reaction was to think this was a silly question, since obviously the people who ran the mine would want to extract the most gold for the least cost regardless of what that meant for workers. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that this was a really good question. Is gold really so important that people should be risking their lives or their well-being for it? The ranger also told us that all of the gold mines in the United States had been shut down during the world wars since gold wasn’t a strategic material.

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What things are really so important that people should risk their life and limb to obtain them? Any animal needs water, food, shelter, and space for their habitat. It would make sense that these are the things we should focus our efforts on and be willing to sacrifice to ensure. These are the things afforded travelers by the guest rights present in many ancient cultures.

At our current place in history, it seems we’ve forgotten these basics. We send people into dangerous mines for minerals that could be reclaimed (often at great monetary cost) as corporate capitalism makes human life less worthwhile than inexpensive resource extraction. I don’t suggest we go back to the Dark Ages, but I am suggesting we rethink what we value. If a job is important enough that it needs doing, we should be setting a living wage for the people doing it.

Putting people above profits will give us a more equitable world, one of the most important parts of a solarpunk society. To truly have a free market, you have to take as many variables into account as possible. Externalities like pollution and loss of human life should be factored into doing business and not just laid at the feet of the government or individual citizens. That’s not a free economy. That’s corporate welfare.

What other externalities concern you? What do we need to consider when designing our economies?

Unformation

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Like many people, I worry about how much time I spend consuming information: social media, news, TV, video games, etc. I don’t think any of these are bad in their own right, but the trouble is flooding my puny human brain with far more data than it evolved to take in.

So much of our economy is based on consuming things, and that makes it hard to create or to just be. As someone who was called a “walking encyclopedia” as a kid, I naturally want to intake as much information as I possibly can. It’s hard to slow down and absorb everything when I have a fire hose of knowledge a mouse click away.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve been reading The Nature Fix and think that getting back outside might be where I can find the unformation I need to process the world around me. It’s hard to disconnect from the info tap, but I am going to try to get away a little more so I can give my brain some time to breathe.

What do you do to disconnect and reorient your mind?