Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

This is part of an ongoing series annotating Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.

While generally considered an “optimistic” writer, and sometimes even Utopian, in MftF KSR leans heavily into the truism that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

The original Fredric Jameson quote is — “[it is] easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism,” found in The Seeds of Time (1994).

Jameson repurposed the quote several times in his writing. The current iteration — “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism” — was popularized by Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism. Fisher also found an antecedent for the quote in Slavoj Zizek.

Ursula Le Guin even jumped on the bandwagon in her acceptance speech for a National Book Foundation’s medal, repurposing the quote as —

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

In MftF KSR plants many seeds for dreaming about a post-capitalist world, but in an effort to “keep it real” he imagines that such a world is not in the forseeable future.

It’s a captivating quote, but ultimately sophomoric. The end of the world is easy. It’s one thing. A meteor, a disease, zombies, etc. The end of capitalism is everthing. It touches on every single part of our lives and how our lives are structured. No wonder it’s easier to imagine one thing than the other.

Regardless, it highlights just how entrenched we are in the capitalist system, and for some, will prompt imagining what other kinds of lives are possible.

This post is part of a Ministry for the Future annotation project. Some of the ideas/concepts/terms used by Kim Stanley Robinson in MftF I want to incorporate into the the next edition of the Green New Deal book I published with Hillsborough River Press.

Solar Radiation Management

This is part of an ongoing series annotating Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.

I remember the first time I heard Stewart Brand advocate for increasing reliance on nuclear power. It was disconcerting to hear someone whose thinking I generally respect advocate for something I generally oppose. I was not (and am not) on board with increasing humanity’s reliance on nuclear power, but after listening I understood his argument. It’s not the worst solution to the problems we face.

I felt the same way when reading KSR recommending large-scale geo-engineering projects. It’s a shock because I don’t think it’s a good idea, and after listening to his argument, I’m not sure I’m totally convinced, but concede it’s not the worst solution to the problems we face.

In MftF there are several examples of solar radiation management.

Solar radiation management is pretty much just as it sounds. A way to manage solar radiation. On an individual level we do this with sunscreen, or UV protection sunglasses.

For a large-scale project, you have to affect huge chunks of the sky or sea if it’s going to make any notable difference. In Ministry KSR deploys three major geoengineering strategies for managing solar radiation, one in the sky, one in the sea, and one on land.

Early in the novel India seeds the sky over their nation with sulphur-dioxide. KSR uses the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo as a reference/measurment. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the effects of that eruption on the atmosphere.

The effects of the 1991 eruption were felt worldwide. It ejected roughly 10 billion tonnes (1.1×1010 short tons) or 10 km3 (2.4 cu mi) of magma, and 20 million tonnes (22 million short tons) of SO2, bringing vast quantities of minerals and toxic metals to the surface environment. It injected more particulate into the stratosphere than any eruption since Krakatoa in 1883. Over the following months, the aerosols formed a global layer of sulfuric acid haze. Global temperatures dropped by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F) in the years 1991–1993, and ozone depletion temporarily saw a substantial increase.

In interviews KSR pushes back against the kneejerk rejection to major geo-engineering projects. Geo-engineering solutions should be on the table, he argues, because the fear is unwarranted (for some proposals). Plus, we have gone too far not to consider large-scale geoengineering projects.

Wikipedia also give us background on stratospheric aerosol injection, the solar radiation management stategy Indian employs in MftF.

I suppose my objections, speaking as someone who is not an expert in the subject, are the potential for unexpected consequences, and the ethics of an elite group imposing this solution on a global population.

Something like spreading sulphur-dioxide in the atmosphere will likely negatively affect the ozone layer (as mentioned in the un-bolded portion of the Wikipedia excerpt), it will affect plant life in uncertain (and perhaps unpredictable) ways, and, if it works, it may become a crutch that’s trotted out every five years or so, while the substantial changes that need to happen are kicked down the road.

The global elite making a decision that affects every person on earth smacks too much of colonialism (as well as many other manifestations of power imbalance).

KSR argues that modelling atmospheric particulate dispersion on volcanic eruption provides us with an understanding of what the opportunities and threats look like. And, even if it’s a bad idea, the effects will mostly vanish after half a decade. It’s an emergency solution for emergency times.

Mentioned in passing later in the novel we learn that the arctic ocean has been died yellow to reflect more sunlight away from the ocean and reduce ocean warming. The most SFnal geo-engineering method is a method of reducing glacial slide. These I’ll discuss in future posts.

(NOTE: As I was editing this to post, the following article popped up in my feed: The U.S. Is One Step Closer to Establishing a Research Program to Block the Sun.)

“[A report from the National Academies of Sciences] chronicles three of the most common ideas to hack the sky, which includes injecting tiny reflective particles into the stratosphere, brighten marine clouds also using tiny particles, and thinning cirrus clouds.”

This post is part of a Ministry for the Future annotation project. Some of the ideas/concepts/terms used by Kim Stanley Robinson in MftF I want to incorporate into the the next edition of the Green New Deal book I published with Hillsborough River Press.

Paris Agreement

This is part of an ongoing series annotating Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.

We will end up in Paris and with the agreement, but I want to take a bit of a leisurely detour.

Let’s start in London in the summer of 1967 at the BBC studios. Reflecting the sense that the world is increasingly interconnected, the BBC has planned the first “worldwide” programming event, a special episode of a series titled Our World. The London studio intends to switch between 14 different nations and broadcast to twenty-four. 1967 is five years after Marshall McLuhan coined the term ‘global village’ and a decade after Sputnik launched the Cold War space race.

The BBC commissioned a song from the Beatles and asked that it be simple and provide a message of hope. The Beatles premiered the song “All You Need is Love” which helped give the name to the Summer of Love.

To conclude the program the camera pulls back, seeming to pull all the way to space, where it shows a claymation image of a rotating earth. No single picture of the entire planet exists.

A few minutes of background on the Beatles “All You Need is Love” performance.

By the time Elvis performs to a global audience in 1973’s “Live From Hawaii,” these sorts of ‘world’ media events are becoming commonplace.

The span between these two global performances sees quite a few charismatic pollution events. For this blog post I’m focusing on US events, but US news is broadcast around the world, and developed countries can see their future in the growing pollution crisis in the states. If it hasn’t arrived already.

  • In October of 1967 an analysis of a dramatic smog event in NYC in 1966 indicated that 168 people likely perished from choking on the city air.
  • In 1967 the first endangered species list is released and the American bald eagle is at the top of the list. This seems somehow a metaphor for industrial hubris.
  • In 1969 California experiences one of the largest oil spills in history off the coast of Santa Barbara.
  • In 1969 the Cuyahoga River catches fire. This isn’t the first time a river had burned, but this one catches the attention of the nation.

Pollution in the developed nations was clearly a problem in the 1960s. Urban areas were poisonous environments, with cars pumping the exhaust of leaded gas into the air, and little regulation to control abundant industrial poisons used in construction. Any nation who aspired to US-level wealth could see that it might also come with health hazards associated with air and water pollution.

Rivers were gross oil slicks. Perhaps your grandparents might have fished in that river, but children of the 1960s were warned that falling into the water meant a trip to the hospital.

This culminated in the first Earth Day celebration in the US on April 22, 1970.

The United Nations, by its nature as a global deliberative body, necessarily moves slow. In 1972 the United Nations held its first Conference on the Environment in Stockholm. This was the first world conference addressing the environment. On the agenda as the most pressing global environmental problems: nuclear weapons testing, human population growth, wildlife conservation, and, perhaps stepping slightly outside their portfolio, advocating for the end of apartheid.

“We see around us growing evidence of man-made harm in many regions of the earth: dangerous levels of pollution in water, air, earth and living beings; major and undesirable disturbances to the ecological balance of the biosphere; destruction and depletion of irreplaceable resources; and gross deficiences, harmful to the physical, mental and social health of man, in the man-made environment, particularly in the living and working environment.”

Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment

The Stockholm conference recommended the formation of the United Nations Environment Programme. From then to now the United Nations has been the key space (though not the only one) for negotiating international agreements on global pollution and climate change.

Not long after this first conference scientists started to notice how some types of air pollution damaged the ozone layer.

In 1987 the United Nations passed Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This agreement affected nearly every nation on earth, and was agreed to by 196 nations plus the European Union. This agreement substantially changed industies across the globe, reshaped how materials were packaged and shipped globally, and changed they way we used air conditioning in buildings and cars.

Since the passage of the Montreal Protocol the ozone layer is by some measures improving, and by others leveling off. Most indices agree, at least, that it is not getting substantially worse.

The Montreal Protocol worked, and provided a blueprint for the future. When nations agree to cooperate they can radically reshape global industry for the benefit of the biosphere.

A few years later, in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was launched under the auspices of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The conference was held in 1992 to recognize the 20th anniversary of the first Conference on the Environment in Stockholm.

In 2016, 191 nations, including the United States, agreed to the Paris Agreement, which grew out of the decades of cooperation that grew from the UNFCCC.

It’s easy enough to find the aims of the Paris Agreement, but I wanted to take a deeper dive into why KSR argues in Ministry for the Future that it is such an important agreement.

The Paris Agreement didn’t spring from nowhere. It is rooted in nearly a half century of global cooperation on the environment. There have been many failures along the way. But there have also been substantial successes. Successes that can only come from international cooperation on a large scale.

The Paris Agreement is, as KSR notes, a thin reed on which to hang our hopes, but it is perhaps sturdier than it looks.

In 1972, moved by a grassroots campaign started by Stewart Brand, NASA release the first image of the whole planet.

The Blue Marble by the crew of Apollo 17 (1972)

This post is part of a Ministry for the Future annotation project. Some of the ideas/concepts/terms used by Kim Stanley Robinson in MftF I want to incorporate into the the next edition of the Green New Deal book I published with Hillsborough River Press.

Wet-Bulb Temperature

If you’re hot, you sweat. Sweat is one way your body controls its temperature. The evaporating sweat cools your body.

Evaporation relies on the surrounding air not already being saturated. If the humidity is high, the surrounding air can’t absorb much more moisture. If it’s too humid your sweat doesn’t evaporate, and your body loses one of its key methods for regulating temperature. If you can’t sweat you can’t cool yourself, and so lower temperatures than you might expect can be deadly if the humidity is high.

When it comes to the dangers of climate change, we not only have to worry about high temperatures, we also have to worry about high temperatures combined with high humidity, aka high wet-bulb temperatures.

We already know a version of this as the “heat index,” which calculates for shady areas. Wet-bulb temperature focuses on direct sunlight temperatures.

“The WetBulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) is a measure of the heat stress in direct sunlight, which takes into account: temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover (solar radiation). This differs from the heat index, which takes into consideration temperature and humidity and is calculated for shady areas. If you work or exercise in direct sunlight, this is a good element to monitor. Military agencies, OSHA and many nations use the WBGT as a guide to managing workload in direct sunlight.”

National Weather Service- WetBulb Globe Temperature

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future starts with a heat wave in Uttar Pradesh, India, made catastrophic due to a high wet-bulb temperature. There is no way to escape for most of the population. There is no reprieve from the weather. The combination of high heat and high humidity kills millions.

Unfortunately, as in much of the book, KSR isn’t really stretching his forecasting muscles here. We’ve already seen multiple high wet-bulb temperature events, and are guaranteed to see more.

The first time I remember hearing about this was in the 1990s during the 1995 Chicago heat wave. Over 700 people died in that combination of heat and humidity. A younger, more naive, and optimistic version of me presumed that such an event would really capture the nation’s attention and people would start taking climate change seriously. LOL.

Robinson may have had a more recent event in mind when writing MftF. 2015 saw about 4,000 people die in India and Pakistan due to high hot-bulb temperatures.

Heat waves by themselves can be catastrophic climate events. High wet-bulb temperatures are just one more way a screwed up biosphere will harm humanity.

One reason the nation didn’t take deaths in Chicago in 1995 more seriously is because it was mostly old, impoverished people who died. Robinson makes this point in MftF. Because the catastrophic climate event he describes in the first chapter overwhelmingly affects the poor (many of the most wealthy were able to flee), it is quickly forgotten by most of the world (but not India, which is an imporant element of the unfolding plot).

For more about wet-bulb temperature affects on humans, see the following: Raymond, Colin, Tom Matthews, and Radley M. Horton. “The Emergence of Heat and Humidity too Severe for Human Tolerance.” Science Advances 6, no. 19 (2020): eaaw1838.

This post is part of a Ministry for the Future annotation project. Some of the ideas/concepts/terms used by Kim Stanley Robinson in MftF I want to incorporate into the the next edition of the Green New Deal book I published with Hillsborough River Press.

Annotating Ministry for the Future

I finished reading Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson not too long ago, and as I read I kept thinking “I need to add that to the next edition of the Green New Deal book.”

So, for the foreseeable future, I’ll be pulling out a bunch of ideas KSR drops in MftF and expanding on them here. Ultimately, some of these blog posts will be pureed and poured into the next edition of GND.

I’ll add the following notice, and categorize these posts as MftF.

“This post is part of a Ministry for the Future annotation project. Some of the ideas/concepts/terms used by Kim Stanley Robinson in MftF I want to incorporate into the the next edition of the Green New Deal book I published with Hillsborough River Press.”

What did I think of the book?

KSR is super-smart and does his homework, hence my wanting to draw from this work of fiction as if it’s a nonfiction work.

Science fiction appealed to me when I was young because of the riot of ideas. I had then an insatiable appetite for novelty and the unexpected. I still love that about SF, but I’ve come to appreciate stories that are tempered with insight to the human condition. I feel my humanity much more as a middle-aged man than I did as a self-centered teen.

KSR puts a little more effort into character development than most of his predecessors, but I still find them a little flat.

KSR also has pretty much one voice. While MftF strives to slice and dice the future so we can see it from many different perspectives, it all comes across as lecture from a moderately hip professor. It’s a really cool and interesting lecture, and I’m deeply committed to paying attention, but I never feel swept up into the story or the world like I do with some other writers.

If anyone were ever to actually institute a Ministry for the Future, they could do a lot worse than put KSR in charge.

New Moon, Y’all

In my ongoing effort to be more aware of the natural world and its rhythms (and less entangled with the digital world) I’ve taken to recognizing the new moon when it rolls around.

If we were on a lunar calendar, the start of the month would be around now. The Hebrew month of Adar starts tomorrow, and the Muslim month of Rajab starts on Feb. 13. And tomorrow is the Chinese New Year, the year of the Ox.

Today’s a good day to start new projects, or to get back on track on projects that have fallen by the wayside. For me, this means today is a good day to dust off the files of the weird west story. I locked in the end of the story on my walk this morning, and now just need to paint in a bunch of detail (with words!).

General Update Because It’s Been a While

On my morning walk I did a little Marie Kondo-ing of the creative carhole in my brain, and decided to shutter Grinders (maybe not completely close it down, but place it on the back-burner). I think I’m trying to make it too realistic? I keep running into the following dramatic pickle —

What should the protag do? (I ask myself.) What would a real person do? (I respond.) Contact their attorney. (I conclude.)

And so I have waaayyyy too many pages of conversations with attorneys. Not particularly exciting. Due to this dullness I’ve found myself only writing on it once a week or so. I’m sure I’ll keep pecking away at it, but it’s getting de-prioritized in my writing queue. It’s always frustrating to be in a position where a project might not be completed (especially with the sunk costs!), but all this writing stuff is supposed to be fun and engaging, not boring and a chore.

Which means I’m moving on to the weird west piece that’s been languishing. Arriving at this conclusion put a spring in my step. I’ve been doing more timed writings this year as creative writing exercises, and I think I’ll be able to focus some of these on aspects of the weird west story (tentatively titled, “Three Chickens, Texas”).

I’ve also decided on the next 1HRRead. I’m going to write a long essay/short book about luck. Researching these is always fun. I look forward to learning more about probability and more about the power of talismans.

I finished reading The Ministry for the Future this weekend and decided to annotate it. There’s lots of terms/ideas/concepts I want to incorporate into the next edition of the Green New Deal 1HRRead. I’m going to post these annotations here.

It took five weeks into the new year to feel excited about any new writing projects, but it feels like these projects might have traction.

New Year’s Resolution 2021

My resolution for 2021 is to continue reducing my screen time/time on the internet.

Before Covid I’d already carved out the first hour of every day to be free of screens. M/W/F I walk through the neighborhood first thing in the morning, and that eats up more than an hour.

The other days I’ll read some fiction, or water the garden; maybe do a few chores until at least one hour passes.

This is partially to stop being beholden to the internet every waking moment, and partially to give my eyes a fucking break. They’re getting older and need more care.

A little over a month ago I started timing my screen time while at work. I use an online timer and set it to go off every 20 or 25 minutes (depending on how much work I have to do that day). This reminds me to look away from the screen for a few minutes.

In 2021 I intend to stop using my computer (and internet) after 7pm. 7pm is a more-or-less randomly selected, to allow time if there’s anything I want to accomplish after the work day. I think most days my internet use will stop around 5:30 or 6.

I have a vague memory of being more creatively productive back in the analog-era. My hope is that without the internet to distract me in the evening I’ll spend more time doodling cartoons and making notes in my notebook. I hope some of those notes will translate into some flash fiction as the year progresses.

And, of course, there are the evergreens — not really resolutions because they are the constant aspirations in my life — get more exercise, eat better, be a kinder person, be less judgy, love more, write more, read more, listen better, give more, be better about helping those in my community, tend my garden, and keep that heart chakra open.

Here’s to 2021 being much, much better than 2020. Cheers!

Roundup 09Dec20

Make better Mexican food.

MEXICAN COOKING CRASH COURSE

“This free Crash Course is the quickest way to get your home kitchen pumping out the best Mexican food in town. There are 27 authentic recipes spread out over 8 Modules in the Course table below. Your job is to make one recipe from each Module — do that and your home kitchen will be forever transformed!”

I’ll never understand why migas are not on every diner breakfast menu in the world, and why we don’t have a truck on every corner selling breakfast tacos.

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The introduction to Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past by Merlin Coverley. — Nice. A book about hauntology. The link goes to the introduction.

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Let me see if I understand this – there is a non-trivial core of conservatives in the US who believe by simply stating that black lives matter, or that you oppose fascism, you are a terrorist threat to the US. And, the best way to deal with this existential threat to American freedom and liberty is to declare martial law, suspend the constitution, and have the US military oversee a brand new, national election.

And the majority of conservative leaders keep their mouth shut, neither condemning nor supporting.

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I’ve noticed a few times now that presumptive Biden nominees are the ‘czar’ of something in new headlines. It feels like no Trump nominees were ever the ‘czar’ of anything, but Obama nominees were. Can that be right? If so, what is up with that?

Ah, Wikipedia has a page about that – List of U.S. executive branch czars.

It’s true that it was used a lot with Obama, and never with Trump. But it was also used frequently for officials in the Bush administration.

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Work once again gets in the way of writing. Work annoys me.

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I love how all these felt organs have little eyeballs. I wouldn’t mind a whole happy world made of felt.

Lucy Sparrow

The U.K.-based artist [Lucy Sparrow] set up shop with The Bourdon Street Chemist, a fully-stocked, woolen pharmacy that’ll open its doors on January 18, 2021, at London’s Lyndsey Ingram.”

Roundup 19Nov20

This is a very sound to-do list.

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How ‘The Karate Kid’ Ruined The Modern World

So, people bail on diets. Not just because they’re harder than they expected, but because they’re so much harder it seems unfair, almost criminally unjust. You can’t shake the bitter thought that, “This amount of effort should result in me looking like a panty model.”

It applies to everything. America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, ‘If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don’t have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (the government, illegal immigrants, my wife, my boss, my bad luck, etc).‘”

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“The Centre for Applied Eschatology is a transdisciplinary research center dedicated to ending the world. We connect professionals from the public sector, private industry, and academia to develop new knowledge and apply existing research to curtail the world’s long-term future.”

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ooohhhh, pretty pictures.

International Landscape Photographer of the Year Award 2020

Magical Night in Tromsø, Norway / Kelvin Yuen /
International Landscape Photographer of the Year

The Atlantic has a bunch for you to look at.

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I decided I needed something to remind me to take a break from looking at the screen during the workday. After years and years of screen-staring, I want to give my poor eyes a break.

I started using Tomato-Timer, an easy-to-use web app that will countdown and give me a audible alert when a certain amount of time has passed.

You can adjust the time and it has a few sound options to choose from. It’s web-based so there’s nothing to download. I run it in a tab while I do my work.

It’s meant for those using the Pomodoro technique for productivity. I’m not much for productivity hacks, but I must admit that chunking my work seems to be paying off. Since I’ve started I don’t feel as tired at the end of the day, and my eyes don’t feel as strained.

Here’s a random article about the Pomodoro Technique: I divided my work day into precise 25-minute chunks — and it was the key to staying disciplined while working from home.

For many, the point is to be productive, but it works for me as a method for being mindful about eyestrain.