Category Archives: Books

Bikes for a better tomorrow

gray commuter bike parked on road beside sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FedEx in the Bike Lane

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

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

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

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

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


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

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!

The Upcycle — A Review

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The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is the followup to Cradle to Cradle. Written in 2013, it brings a decade’s worth of new information and experience to the concept of Cradle to Cradle design thinking.

If you’re interested in the circular economy and can only read one book – this is it. There is a short section at the front that recaps the underlying principles of Cradle to Cradle systems in case you haven’t read the first book. While Cradle to Cradle was groundbreaking for the concept that we should design human industry to be a positive good for the environment, The Upcycle contains many more specific examples of projects where the authors were able to achieve these ends.

For example, in the book there is a story of Dan Juhl who pairs farmers with investors for building renewables on their land. The investors get a guaranteed return on their investment for ten years, and the energy generation equipment reverts to the farmers after this period. More renewables end up on the grid, and families get an additional source of income by owning the means of energy production.

The physical book itself is a nice counterpoint to the design of Cradle to Cradle. While Cradle to Cradle was designed to be reusable in technical nutrient cycles, The Upcycle is designed with biodegradable inks and paper so that it can become a biological nutrient again. One of the main ideas of Cradle to Cradle design is that things should be delineated into two separate nutrient streams: biological and technical. Wood, paper, and things of this nature can be reused as they would be in nature by returning to the land while technical materials like plastics and metals should be reclaimed for infinite technical cycles. Preventing the creation of “monstrous hybrids” is an important goal of the Cradle to Cradle design process. These materials are amalgamations of material that are difficult, if not impossible to separate and reuse. This is particularly harmful if the materials in these hybrids are toxic in nature. The book quotes McDonough, “Let’s put the filters in our heads and not at the end of pipes.”

The Upcycle is a breath of fresh air. McDonough and Braungart show how we can rethink the way we design everyday objects to fit into the constant cycles of Mother Nature and end the insanity of cradle-to-grave mentality. Cradle-to-Cradle design is definitely the way we should be thinking  when we design technologies and objects for our solarpunk future.

Do you use any Cradle to Cradle products in your life? What has your experience been? 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!

 

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.

photo of pile of ripped carton

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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

aurora borealis

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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

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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!

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

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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?