Carbon negativity

While I was cooking my lunch earlier, I watched Hank Green's most recent episode of SciShow like five times.  It's about climate change, and it's scary.

Now, I believe in climate change.  (I feel weird that I even have to say that.)  But I also believe that we're unlikely to convince a significant portion of the American public that climate change is a real thing -- I especially think we'll fail to convince enough people to force meaningful change on corporations or convert away from fossil fuels before it's absolutely necessary.

So it occurs to me that the best way to deal with that social problem is for people who do think climate change is a real thing to try to go carbon negative, finding ways not just to minimize their carbon output but to actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere in their daily lives.

Of course, I have no clue, whatsoever, if this is possible.  The extent of my knowledge about carbon negativity is that, on a large scale, things like huge forests act as carbon sinks, sucking up the extra carbon, which, yes, does reinforce my favorite solution for all the world's problems (put everyone in giant cities with vertical farms and let most of the world go back to wilderness) but doesn't really help me pursue lower net carbon in my daily life.

So I hereby resolve to try and learn more about my carbon consumption.  Where I can, I'll cut down on my carbon intake.  If I can, I'll start doing things that actively reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.  And as much as I can, I will endeavor to resist losing the world as we know it to one of the above-outlined apocalyptic scenarios.

Some more thoughts on infrastructure

I said I was going to expand on these points, and so here I am. It seems obvious to me, and apparently to very nearly no one else, that to meet the demands of the coming centuries we need to undertake a project of scrapping the whole of our infrastructure and reworking from scratch.  I don't think this is as big a deal as most people make it out to be -- better for one generation to suffer a burden of meaningful hardship, well-distributed, and leave the world more comfortable for it, than for generations onward to continue to suffer meaningless hardship, distributed to whoever's parents were too poor to get them into what will be increasingly necessary restricted spheres of education, and even more importantly, the comfort and security in early life to acclimate oneself naturally to technology.

And with that, I think we need to keep an eye towards the priorities of the future, rather than of the present or of the past.  The principles which immediately spring to mind as vital in this pursuit are sustainability, education, minimizing scarcity and promoting happiness.

That last one, I think, is particularly important, because while I think most people would tend to agree that a happy species is the end goal of society, it's an easy one to lose sight of, and I think it should be laid out explicitly.

To the points of sustainability and promoting happiness, I think that any development towards a sustainable future for humanity that's worth sustaining would have to focus, a lot more than our current society focuses, on cities.

We would need to get almost the whole of the population into cities.  Population density is important, because if we continue to spread out we're going to fill up the space left far too quickly and spread ourselves entirely too thin.  Apart form that, maximizing the possible utility of public transportation, minimizing the need for massive shipping of goods, and maximizing the incentive and cost-effectiveness of maintaining a fair and even infrastructure, are all hugely desirable in terms of neutralizing our environmental impact.

To that end, cities should be designed to be highly desirable places in which to live.  It's difficult to say how exactly to accomplish this -- I think, building from scratch would be the easiest route, but the trouble is all the best places to put cities already have cities in them.  Deconstructing an existing city to rebuild would be a massive and difficult project, fraught with sociological drama.  If you were to take apart and reassemble New York, which buildings do you leave?  The Empire State Building is an obvious starting point for the kind of things that should survive, but the more historically significant a space is, the less likely it's going to be valuable as a present-day space in a post-industrial city.  The newer a building, meanwhile, the easier it would be to remove without sociological drama, but the more likely it'd be relatively better to retrofit.  (Though given the economic climate to date, I suspect we'd be better off tearing down anything built in the last thirty years just to be on the safe side.)

I want to keep talking about this, but that's all I'm going to write for now.  If you have thoughts, please voice them in the comments.  (They may not show up right away -- I've had a lot of spam lately, and had to turn the filters back on.)

Some hasty thoughts on infrastructure

At a club meeting at my school this week, Current Affairs, we were discussing the infrastructure of the United States.  One of the points made was that a comprehensive system of high-speed (real high-speed) rails is unrealistic because we couldn't retro fit our current infrastructure to support it. This argument annoys me.

I don't advocate for retrofitting.  I think we're past that point.  I think it's time for an infrastructural revolution.

We're still living in an infrastructure designed in the Renaissance and retrofitted for the Industrial Era.  We're already two eras behind, and the naysayers about the future of society are promoting a self-fulfilling prophecy in their refusal to acknowledge that what we as a civilization, as a world, need is a total reworking of our basic living systems.

I will expand on this point later.

Small Spaces

Talk to me for long about the future and you'll find my optimistic vision of the future involves the overwhelming majority (upwards of 95%) of people live in cities.  One of the frequent complaints people tend to make to me about this point is that living in the city means living in a much smaller space.  The suburbs,  people argue, offer the luxuries of a yard and a house with lots of rooms, for far less money than could possibly be practical in the city. I think this point is nonsense, for a few reasons.  One, a public park offers virtually all the advantages of a private yard, with the added benefit that it's less likely to go unused almost all of the time, and you don't have to keep up the part-time job of maintaining it.  Two, who really needs to be a 45 minute drive away from the nearest hub of civilization? If you're reclusive and antisocial, sure, it might be easier to rationalize if you live far away from stuff.  But you can stay at home in a city just as easily as you can in a town or a suburb.

The space one, though, I think is an arguably good point.  To move almost all of earth's population into cities, people would have to take up less space.

But I think this involves less a genuine sacrifice than a re-evaluation of priorities.  After all, who in a suburb can really say that they're using all the space in their house to the best possible effect?  I know the house I live in (my parents',) has two very large spaces, the attic and the basement, that are used primarily for keeping things we would otherwise have thrown away and not missed.

Which brings me to my point:

(via Boing Boing)

Small spaces, like the apartment in the above video, can be used to extraordinary effect.  A lot of people living in the suburbs right now could probably get by on a fifth of the space they currently take up, and find they don't miss it, if the space was properly organized.

I don't deny that there are definitely circumstances which demand a larger amount of dedicated space.  A sculptor, for example, might need a studio where her statue could remain even when she's not working on it.  But in a lot of those cases, shared public space is possible, and perhaps even preferrable.

There may be rare cases when an individual really does need a space much larger than a studio apartment, but I think those are probably few enough that their needs could easily be met.

The biggest block I see in the way of this move, for most people, is the status symbol of a big house.  In our culture, one of the markers for how successful you are is how much space you take up.  And I don't think that's likely to ever really go away, but I think it could be scaled down pretty intensely.  With houses that use space as efficiently as these apartments do, the size of a normal suburban house could easily retain the functionality of a mansion.

The other significant conceivable problem I see is kids.  No matter how you cut it, every additional person living in a space increases the demands on that space, and in many ways that demand can't be overlapped.

Still, I think the average middle-class family could easily take up half the amount of space afforded by the size of suburban house they might otherwise use.


Cities in Art

This meandering post was inspired by browsing through the excellent tumblr, "The Art of Animation."  All pictures are from there.

In 2010, about 82% of the American population lived in cities.  about 90% in the UK.  [source] An overwhelming majority of the developed world lives in cities -- they're a fairly important part of the human environment.  They're often characterized as being smoggy, smelly, unpleasantly cramped and dehumanizing places -- which is something of a problem, if they're where most of the people live.

It's reflected in the art -- not just in contemporary mainstream art, but in (what I find to be much more interesting) speculative art.

And there are a few different trends, that I find highly illustrative and encouraging.

There's the obvious, the dystopic depictions of cities we're used to in Sci Fi, somewhat ambiguously in Steampunk (where the pervading modernist philosophy might not be outright rejected, and the cast and tone of the work might accept or embrace their sometimes oppressive-seeming environment, as in Benjamin Carré's piece at the top of the post) and occasionally in Fantasy.

To me, these dark, dreary images of cityscape come off as more cautionary than descriptive or predictive.  That is to say, there may be some cities that look something like these dystopic visions, and perhaps some that are heading in that direction.  But I see a lot of room for optimism.

Most of these pictures, after all, show us something visibly alive in them.  The sense is strong that a city is a place where things live.  It's an environment, like any other.

And there are a few kinds of optimism that get reflected.  There's the evident fact that, artistically, we as a culture are aware of the influence our cityscape can have on our experience of our lives, and that we're aware there are risks that that cityscape could go places we don't want it to go.  Speculative art of cities reflects not only an acceptance of the premise that there are right and wrong answers about city construction, but demonstrates that, at least artistically, we're willing to put forward ideas of which is which.

And what I find to be some of the most beautiful and inspiring cityscape art is the art that embraces the natural environment as a valued and necessary component in the structure of the city.

Of course, not all speculative art is optimistic that we can strike a comfortable balance.

Altogether I think the artistic climate of speculative art points to a serious appreciation for the importance of cities in human experience, and a consensus on roughly what better and worse cities look like -- if not necessarily a consistently optimistic view.

I leave you with this adorable picture:

All images link to their page on The Art of Animation tumblr.