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Bruce Sterling: The planet *is* an ark
Jon Lebkowsky, 27 Oct 05

alex-bruce.jpgWith heavy weather upon us and even boring, established news conduits like CNN talking apocalypse, we consulted the Viridian Pope-Emperor, WorldChanging ally #1 Bruce Sterling, to get his take as he was leaving for Europe and Art Futura.

With Arctic ice melting and the worst hurricane season in recorded history, are we past the point where mitigation of global climate change is going to have much of an effect?

The climate crimes we've already committed aren't much compared to what's coming down the pipe. It's pretty cynical to write off mitigation when we haven't as yet even tried it. It may well be that the roof is on fire, but that doesn't make it good policy to chop up the walls and floors and add them to the blaze.

Should we be building an ark or two?

The planet IS an ark.

Where do you propose to hide or construct such a thing? There's no place to hide from the sky.

This might be a great time to make backups of your data and scatter 'em all over the planet. If you're in Tornado Alley it wouldn't kill you to clean out the storm shelter. But there's no particular safe haven where one is sure to go untroubled by weather. People went to Florida because they liked the weather. Los Angeles has great weather and it's very imperilled. Everybody and everywhere is at risk. Trent Lott lost his house and the oil industry took a major hit from Katrina. I've personally seen a minor hurricane rip limbs from trees in the White House lawn.

Arks are mere Biblical legend. Nobody who isn't mythical has ever thrived in a stupid ark. This is sheer Marxist accumulation. When real mayhem breaks out, it makes no sense for some tiny group, sci-fi movie style, to retreat to some survivalist enclave and sit on a stack of gold bars. You don't survive that way. If you're unlucky enough to be situated in serious Disorder, the smartest thing to do is retreat in whatever area of order seems handy, and regroup. Await a change in circumstances and prepare to resettle the mess.

Visionary in residence.In getting certain world leaders to be responsive to the increasingly obvious, we can't seem to get past legacy issues (e.g. George W. Bush ignoring Kyoto because it would "cost jobs.") What should the average person, or at least the citizen change agent, be doing at this point to support both mitigation and adaptation?

I don't want to be a big cynic about this, but really, at this point, who WANTS George W Bush to get all interested in climate change? Sooner or later, that guy poisons everything he touches. He'd probably start a highly secretive and utterly disorganized "Department of Greenhouse Security," where Bechtel apparatchiks took over abandoned army bases to install leaky nuclear power plants in dead of night with extraordinarily-rendered, off-the-books, union-busting labor. Would that help? If he fought the Greenhouse in utter sincerity and with all his might, would he win?

George Bush doesn't care about Kyoto and "jobs." The American right's loathing for Kyoto is strictly a nationalist, anti-globalist, unilateralist power issue. They don't want Kyoto inspectors dropping by to double-check Exxon-Mobil's emissions; they figure they'd show up in black helicopters, with handcuffs and guns. Because that's exactly how they themselves would behave, if they had the chance.

I don't believe in "average people" doing anything. People ought to support mitigation and adaptation within their own line of work, no matter how un-average that is. I mean: if you're butcher, baker, ballerina, banker, or a plumber, envision yourself as the post-fossil-fuel version of yourself, and get right after it. We'd be best off struggling to create some kind of Solidarnosc-style entirely alternate society, for a 1989-sized across-the-board upheaval. So, just, well, stop co-operating with the status quo. Stop collaborating. Stop being afraid and stop feeling helpless. Just stop all that and start living by entirely other means.

Be glad for any scrap of choice you're offered. The UN expects 50 million people to have their lives entirely uprooted by environmental mayhem -- EVERY YEAR. That could be you or me. You're worried that a hybrid car costs more money? People in Key West are standing on the roofs of drowned cars.

Our best hope is to "collapse upwards."

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Boccaccio's Decameron showed us that the best way to weather the storm (or the bubonic plague or H5N1), is to get together with your wealthy aristocratic friends, retreat to a luxury villa on a mountain, drink wine all day, tell stories, laugh at the dieing people down in the valley, and return when the corpses are buried.
This is no "marxist accumulation", this is capitalist "accumulation". It definitely works. The white people from New Orleans who fled to their upland villas and hotels had a great time watching the black people die, down in the valley.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 27 Oct 05

History just keeps on repeating itself. As these disasters show, a purely capitalistic system is the worst type if you want to create a stable society that can withstand economic or environmental disasters. Nations that make public investments in education, health, energy and research create the sorts of networks that allow for a safety net to form. Over the decades, our dear USA has suffered increasing losses in these areas, creating the conditions for what we have witnessed recently.

Posted by: Xavier on 27 Oct 05

People are terrible at spotting unforseen consequences. For centuries, we've had some of the brightest minds on the planet try and guess what's in store for us with very mixed success. Despite a mountain of accumulated science fiction and futurist pontifications we still get surprised by how it all really turns out.

But that sure as heck doesn't mean we should stop. I believe that people's obssession with future, and you find this everywhere on the planet not just countries with a space program, is really the only way we can survive. Lurid speculations may be wildly inaccurate but they at least make us pay attention. If you have to shout the sky is falling (And it may really be falling.), you have to keep changing the message to keep people interested in it.

Even the denialists can't ignore artifical climate change anymore. The mere fact the debate get's framed by it, means, to some extent, that they acknowledge that *something* is going on. Set and match.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 27 Oct 05

Bull its not a capitlsitic system its not a marxist system its a human system.

Everyone is devided into groups and some groups are mobile and run when trouble brews and others are immobile and hunker down when trouble brews. Its been that way since man first made a town.

What happened in new orleans is both black and white hunkerers lost the life bet and both black and white fleers won the life bet.

It just happend to be the case that most europenas who came to america way back were fleerers and ever since have stayed in true form ready to take flight whenever needed.

Posted by: wintermane on 28 Oct 05

We've combined the two parts of the Bruce Sterling Interview in one post, so here are comments made so far on part two:

Man, you out-cynical'd me.
Posted by odograph at October 27, 2005 11:11 AM

Posted by Tones at October 27, 2005 11:13 AM

My backpack has two solar lights on it - flashing red and steady white LEDS - right next to my home-made "Solar Is Civil Defense" and mail order "Impeach Bush" buttons. Once in a while, somebody asks me about them and I demonstrate solar technology on the street level.

Been calling around to the state and city officials and local utility to get speakers for a forum on the prospects for the coming heating season and emergency planning in case of a blizzard. The forum is part of the monthly activities of the local solar association ( It's been surprisingly hard even to get a call back from such people. I have one city emergency planner and will continue to try to get a state and utility person but don't expect much now. In any case, I keep on trying.

Lastly, I've been distributing WWII-era posters to friends and associates. The information on them is the best I've ever seen and the images are strong. These guys got it. Go to and search on "fuel" to see what I mean. Could be very useful, again on the street level.

Yes, Solidarity organizing. Do it yourself to save your own money and life. Help your neighbors and friends do the same. Don't wait for the government or the major media. Enough people do it themselves and they'll follow, loudly proclaiming their "leadership."

BTW, Lech Walesa was once asked how Solidarity started. He answered, "By talking loud at the bus stops."
Posted by gmoke at October 27, 2005 12:35 PM

"By talking loud at the bus stops."

[Funny, but not a joke]
Ah. No wonder the right wing hates public transportation.
[/Funny, but not a joke]
Posted by Stefan Jones at October 27, 2005 04:20 PM

Is it me or are more and more people actually going into this "collapse upwards" lifestyle? Is it all hype about voluntary simplicity, new urbanism, green is chic, take-one-for-the-team thing?

We all roll our eyes as governments and corporations stumble, pontificate and spin and then we quietly get back to getting ready for the new world.

--Buying used furniture, buying bicycles, buying solar powered anything, buying hybrid vehicles, telecommuting, insulating our homes, having fewer or no kids, read the scientific press for more news, and on and on. In these small ways, the world over, we'll muddle through. If we make it through this, it will definitely be through bottom-up change.

I've noticed this among my friends, maybe it's spreading.
Posted by Pace Arko at October 27, 2005 09:28 PM

I can see how having less children might help the situation in many thirld world countries, provided the change came gradually. A quick drop of the number of children born might prove disastrous down the road, as the entire population gets older and less able to work etc.

In europe, the US and Canada however, I dont really see the need. Here in Sweden for example we already have problems with a larger and larger part of our population in retirement. At the same time less children are being born. So in the end less people are supporting more people. This problem cannot be solved by having even less children. What is needed is imigration of workforce and more children being born.

Some things that would make a far greater differece would be taking away the subsidies on european farms. Stoping the dumping of grain on third world markets. Taking away import tolls between the west and the rest of the world.

This would allow ordinary people owning farms etc. to support themselves and in the end their countries on their work. Sure, our own farmers might have some difficulty in the beginning. But they should be able to pull through. After all only about 2% of the western workforce is employed in agricuture.

We have to stop protecting ourselves against the developing coutries and instead see the great opportunities they present.

--I just wish there was some clear easy way to get this into politicians and companyowners heads.
Posted by Michael Dundee at October 28, 2005 03:41 AM

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 28 Oct 05

@Michael Dundee: The growing share of elderly is primarily a problem of wealth distribution, not one of lack of working people: I am not aware of any country where the rise in productivity (usually 1-3%, ~1.6% for Germany these days) is lower than the decline of working people. The production is there, it's just not yet distributed optimally.

And even if this may be untrue: Why not just let some million people from 'developing' countries in?

Posted by: Mattes on 28 Oct 05

Weather ... no change over here ... it's always around zero in Finland, or so it feels out there ... inside it's comfortable warm, always, even when it's -20C outside and northwind blowing ... infrastructure and city architecture build on arctical survive ... stable rock-solid ground, no earthquakes hurricanes or storms, except occasional type-of-snow ... no heating costs to pay, unlimited amounts of hot water supply included, cheap electricity, world's best school system ... 100 mbit/s broadband. As Linus Torvals put it "no other things to do except write software". But I still miss the streetlife aspect :-)

Posted by: Pekka Tolonen on 28 Oct 05

I mentioned the kids thing because every kid in the post-industrial world consumes at least 20 times the resources of kids in the developing world. Cutting back on fertility is not just a "third world" thing. It matters everywhere.

Also I'm not very worried about not enough larval workers paying into retirement stipends. There are a few things that make me think this way:

1) Raise the stipend payout age. We have definite evidence that older people are healthier than they used to be and many of them want to work and be useful. Keep everyone working longer and paying in longer.

2) Immigration. This is controversial but my guess is that it will be politically expedient to support retirement stipends with immigrant workers.

3) Medical advances, assuming most people can afford them (A big if!), might make many of us very chipper ancient codgers indeed. Or maybe not. Number three is not essential to save social security.

This sort of takes us back into the subject at hand: knowledgable people entering a mode of quiet preperation without waiting for clueless governments or corporations to figure it out.

There might be some negative consequences to this "expect the worst and don't wait to prepare for it" mentality though. In some ways it strikes me as a kind of paradoxically luxurious attitude to have. What about the working poor who can't afford to downshift or voluntary simplicity? What do we do raise those in the developing world up?

Posted by: Pace Arko on 28 Oct 05

The problem with raising the age cap is of course you have to do it in such a way people dont all of a sudden have thier retiremen ripped out from under them.

The basic problem with too few young workers and too many older farts is sooner or later the younguns will just LEAVE. Or worse they will kill off all the old farts.

Posted by: wintermane on 29 Oct 05

I wish you Americans would remember your wonderful (late) countryman the inventor scientist Buckminster Fuller who introduced into the world many ideas to make the whole world work. His ideas are still valid and needed now more than ever.
Bucky proposed a radical new economic system for the world where electricity would be the currency. The idea is to capture vast amounts of solar energy, turn it into electricity, and then give every person an equal share of this energy income. As an electrical engineer I know the idea is possible.

Posted by: Malcolm Green on 30 Oct 05



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