Category Archives: Work

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!

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The Green New Deal and Solarpunk

If you’ve been following US Politics, you may have heard rumblings of a Green New Deal. My first encounter with the term was during the 2012 Presidential Election when Jill Stein noted the necessity of mobilizing the nation to combat climate change and improve the economy at the same time. Seven years later, the US has made little progress at the federal level in addressing climate change. The few exceptions to this are being contested by the Trump administration including CAFE standard improvements and the Clean Power Plan. With the IPCC’s October 2018 report saying we have 12 years to get our act together, it’s time to declare war on climate change.

For a very in-depth look at the Green New Deal, check out David Roberts’ piece at Vox. There are three main criteria for the GND as outlined by Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and reiterated by Sunrise Movement on Twitter:

As a solarpunk, it’s hard to argue with the goals of the Green New Deal. As a pragmatist, it’s hard to see much happening in the current political climate in regards to real climate action at the scale of the Green New Deal. It isn’t all gloom and doom though, as there does seem to be a glimmer of hope for the two biggest policy changes that I think will bring us closer to a solarpunk future: a price on carbon, and term limits for Congress.

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Pricing Carbon

As Sara E. Murphy points out in her piece at Green Biz, while the Green New Deal is the attention-getting piece of legislation, we’re likely to see significant push-back from the Republicans in Congress. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme is starting to see some traction on both sides of the aisle, however, such as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2018 with it’s mix of Republican and Democratic sponsors. Putting a price on carbon is the most straightforward way to get the private sector reducing emissions of carbon dioxide here in the US. Even many Libertarians see the logic in accounting for externalities, particularly when they impact people’s rights to the commons of the atmosphere.

While the federal government in the US has fallen behind in climate leadership, California has already enacted a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions, and there are many state and local initiatives working to stay on track with emissions targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. One that is particularly exciting is the United States Climate Alliance, which will be adding even more members following the 2018 midterm elections.

Term limits for US Congress

Why am I including a possible Amendment to the US Constitution as something to help us reach a solarpunk future? This video from Term Limits for US Congress is a more detailed answer, but the long and short of it is that Congress no longer represents the people. With some recent polls showing that even the majority of Republicans support environmental protection and climate action, it’s increasingly clear that the old guard on Capitol Hill is out of touch with the majority of Americans. The newest members of Congress are a closer match to the actual demographics of the country, but we still have a long way to go to having true representation in DC.

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There are two mechanisms for passing a Constitutional Amendment in the United States. The first requires both the House and the Senate to approve the Amendment by a supermajority, at which point the Amendment must be ratified by 38 of the 50 states. Senator Ted Cruz has proposed a Constitutional Amendment that would limit Senators to two terms and Representatives to three terms, but getting career politicians on The Hill to fire themselves seems like a tough sell.

The second way to pass an Amendment, as laid out in Article 5 of the US Constitution, is for 34 states to call for a convention regarding a specific topic where they hammer out the proposed Amendment. Once ratified by 38 of the 50 states, it becomes part of the Constitution just like any of the other Amendments that have been enacted.

My wish list for 2019 would be that we get a price on carbon and term limits for Congress. It might be a tall order, but solarpunks are an optimistic lot, so there is still hope in the face of the strong institutional opposition to climate action.

Do you have any thoughts on what legislative pressure points might be best for affecting climate action in your area? Sound off below!

 

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?

Designing money for a solarpunk society

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Money is a social construct, but it is a very useful means of exchange between parties without the need of troublesome conversion rates like how many chickens a smartphone costs. One of the best things about social constructs is that they are mutable. Despite the fact that the government would like you to believe that the money they issue is the only way to exchange goods and services, the rise of cryptocurrencies has shown that the true power of money rests with the people. In fact, trust of the public is the #1 reason government-issued currencies work at all. While a government can debase it’s money through overprinting and other abuses, the fact is that money doesn’t work unless everyone believes in its value.

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Hypothetical cryptocurrency

Let’s say I’m in charge of a small municipality. While I think people should be able to earn more money if they make awesome contributions to society through some sort of market, I don’t think they should do that at the expense of people dying in the streets or because they can’t pay for medicine. How do I design my money to have the appropriate incentives to make sure everyone is taken care of?

One option is Universal Basic Income (UBI), so let’s bake that in from the beginning. We’ll need to generate the money for the UBI somehow, and the land value tax or the Fair Tax are the top two candidates for simple and fair taxation. Since I also want to disincentive sprawl, we’ll go with the land value tax in this example. In short, the land value tax charges someone a tax based on the amount of land they own. I’ve seen this likened to a rent paid to The People if one assumes all land belongs to the citizens of a given region and that private use is a lease of that land from the true owners.

When someone pays their land tax it goes in a big piggy bank along with all the other landholders. Then, every month each citizen gets a UBI check deposited into their personal account to pay bills, get food, and buy whatever other things they need.

Globle

I’m not affiliated with Globle, but they have an interesting approach to the incentives issue of the current corporate capitalism system we have. Their approach combines UBI, venture capital, and Kickstarter into a sort of corporations by the people model. As a holder of Globle cryptocurrency, people can vote on what companies and/or products they want to see in the market. Then, based on how those companies perform, part of the company’s profits go to the investors and part goes back into a UBI fund for everyone. It’s hard to say how it will play out, but I do think it’s a novel approach to funding UBI that would also help companies and people work together better since their well-beings are more intrinsically intertwined.

What sort of incentives do you think would bring us closer to a solarpunk society? Let us know in the comments below.

Solarpunk: A decentralized society

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 “Ginko tree” by tree-species via a Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 license

Decentralization

One of the most important things for solarpunk society is decentralization. Most major complaints about society can be traced to over-centralization of power. In the United States, I’m feeling especially conscious of how our country was founded on the belief that power should be distributed among the people, not concentrated into the hands of the elite.

To continue this dream of protecting people’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the best protection against overly-powerful central governments and corporations is decentralization. Recent developments in decentralization include blockchain, mesh networks, platform cooperatives, decentralized social media, and the growth of grassroots democracy.

Blockchain

Blockchain has opened up the door for decentralization of many different services. The most obvious example is cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, but other projects include data storage (FileCoin, Storj), computer processing time (Golem), genetic data management (Nebula), and global UBI. If you’re interested in learning more about blockchain, check out this Blockchain 101 episode of Unchained with Laura Shin.

Mesh Networks

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NetworkTopology-Mesh by Foobaz

Mesh networks work by connecting people to each other in a non-hierarchical way. Mesh networks are more robust since they are not dependent on a single central device such as a cell tower to connect all of the devices in the network. This allows for increased redundancy during natural disasters as well as communications in areas that don’t have any infrastructure like National Parks or developing countries. Current implementations include the mesh network going up in Detroit, Serval and GoTenna for cell phones, and the Althea Mesh for building decentralized ISPs.

Platform cooperatives

Platform cooperatives are what the sharing economy was supposed to be before Uber and AirBNB ate everything. Governed by the actual service providers (hosts, drivers, etc.) the rules and profits are determined more equitably. The P2P Foundation and the New School’s Platform Cooperativism are good starting points for more information. If you prefer audio, Team Human has episodes with both Stacco Troncoso of the P2P foundation and Juho Makkonen of Sharetribe. Robin Chase’s Peers INC is a great book on the power of platform cooperatives.

If you are ready to start you own platform cooperative, Sharetribe makes an open source platform designed to help get things up and running. Forbes and Yes! Magazine have both covered platform cooperatives and Shareable covers them along with the more traditional “sharing economy” companies. Some platform cooperatives in the wild include Open Bazaar (shopping/commerce), LibreTaxi (transportation), Stocksy (stock photos), and your local credit unions. More services can be found at the Platform Cooperativism Directory.

Decentralized Social media

If you’re concerned about how Twitter, Facebook, and other social media companies handle your data, Scuttlebutt and Mastodon are two options that are not controlled by any one entity. Their user bases are much smaller at the moment, but it costs nothing to join the party. In The Mesh, a decentralization news site, has more here.

Grassroots democracy

Grassroots democracy is a group of political ideologies based on the idea that decision making should be left as local as possible since the people impacted by policies should be the ones who vote on their implementation. Subsidiarity, which is practiced by the European Union, is one example wherein the EU may only pass laws when an issue comes up that can’t be adequately addressed by separate legislation in its member countries. ROAR Magazine, a great resource for grassroots democracy news, has an excellent piece about how municipalism empowers women and others typically left out of the political process.

What do you think? Is centralization the enemy of democracy and free agency? Leave your thoughts below!

 

 

Seizing the means of production – What does 3D printing mean for solarpunk?

Solarpunk Station is the proud owner of a new 3D printer! I am hoping to use it to produce useful objects as well as provide insights on how distributed manufacturing relates to solarpunk. This should be the first of many articles related to additive manufacturing.

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TL;DR: 3D printers have a lot of promise to disrupt manufacturing of household goods, but don’t get one yet if you’re not ready to tinker.

Most consumer 3D printers are basically a hot glue gun that uses plastic filament instead of glue sticks. A nozzle is suspended above a platform and computer-generated files are fed to the machine where it deposits plastic layer by layer to form a 3D object. There are other types of 3D printers that use UV light and/or lasers to form objects layer by layer from vats of goo or powder, but the basic idea is the same.

The main advantage of 3D printing is how it changes people’s mindset in relation to goods. If you spend some time on Thingiverse or Youmagine you’ll see people openly sharing things they’ve designed with each other. There are also some marketplaces like Cults3D that include a section for designs for sale, but the bulk of current design work is open. We’re moving from distributed, open software development like Linux and Firefox to distributed and open development of physical items.

Pineapple-inspired bowl (orange) with green leaves surrounding the edge. Only five of the 10 leaves are finished.

The orange part of the bowl took 30 hours to print. The leaves each took about an hour, so there’s ~35 hours of print time here. Total time was over 40 hours once all 10 leaves were finished.

Remixes take the open nature of 3D printable designs to the next level. People can adapt a previous design to a different device, or take a part and make it better, stronger, or faster to print. Since so many files are open source you’re free to adapt an item to your needs. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought that something I’d purchased was pretty cool except for one issue that I repeatedly turned over in my head. Without an easy way to make a replacement part, I was stuck with it. Now with a 3D printer, I can download a design, change anything I don’t like and upload my remix for others to find. While watching a part print can feel excruciatingly slow at times (the pineapple bowl took almost two days at 130% size), making something and being able to iterate on the design is still much faster than with most other methods.

These remixes extend to things you already own too. While I can’t print a replacement saucepan yet, I can repair or improve a lot of objects around the house. There’s a great subreddit for functional prints with lots of cool ideas, and Thingiverse has a pretty big section for replacement parts. DeskGrown is a new company that sells parts that can’t be printed for their designs and gives away the printable files for free. They have a clock and a set of headphones so far. I think we’ll see more of this hybrid model popping up since desktop 3D printers are limited to plastics at the moment.

While to some extent, 3D printing is over-hyped, I think it will be one of the critically enabling technologies for a solarpunk world. Not everything can be 3D printed, but a lot of everyday objects can be, meaning you can ship 1 kg of filament to your house and make several things for the same amount of packaging, cost, and environmental waste you would have for one item before.

The two main drawbacks of 3D printing are the learning curve and generation of plastic waste. As a beginner, I have had several failed prints. I believe the number of failed prints will go down considerably as I get more experience with the printer, but 3D printing is still not a zero waste manufacturing process. I am keeping failed prints and other scraps in a bag in hopes that I will be able to reprocess it into fresh filament in the future.

Failed cat ball toy print looks more like spaghetti...

This doesn’t look like a cat ball…

The plastic I have been printing is PLA (polylactic acid) which is a bioplastic made from various plant-based sources. It is biodegradable and can be recycled in a closed loop back to virgin material standards, making it one of the few Cradle-to-Cradle plastics available. Many other materials are available for 3D printers including ABS (often used in car parts), PET (soda/water bottle plastic), wax for metal casting molds, and TPU (flexible/rubbery plastic). With such a wide variety of materials available, it’s difficult to determine the exact environmental cost of 3D printing. If PLA were able to sate everyone’s needs, then we wouldn’t have the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but every material has it’s strengths and weaknesses, so that isn’t the case. On a bright note, PLA is one of the easier plastics to print with, so it has one of the highest adoption rates in the community.

We’re a long way away from the ease of use of the replicator in Star Trek. Using a 3D printer requires a lot of fine tuning and trial-and-error. I imagine the off-the-shelf solutions are better than kits, but 3D printers are still a large time investment. We’ll probably get to the point where you can buy one that just works, but as of now, a 3D printer requires a lot of time to get really good results.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to build your own computers or work on bicycles and really know what’s going on with the machines you’re using then I definitely recommend getting a kit. Otherwise, you’re probably better off finding someone locally with a printer on Make XYZ, 3D Hubs, or getting a design printed straight from Thingiverse or Shapeways. In fact, you may want to reach out to local 3D printer folk even if you do want to get a printer yourself. Most people who are 3D printing are glad to share their opinions on different models as well as tips and tricks to get better results. There may even be a Meetup in your area.

3D printers will play a role in distributed manufacturing along with CNCs, laser cutters, and other machine tools. We’re a long way away from asking Alexa to make “Tea, Earl Grey, hot,” but we may get there eventually. The space has moved very quickly over the last ten years, and I expect the next ten will be equally exciting.

Do you have a 3D printer or know someone who does? Are there any solarpunk ideas that are particularly well suited to 3D printing you’d like to see us explore? Sound off below!

The Rules: Capitalism, UBI, and the Blockchain

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The Rules Blog recently posted an excellent piece about the relationship between extractive capitalism, universal basic income (UBI), and blockchain technologies. Climate change, pollution, and exploitation of the workforce are largely a function of the incentives baked into the current version of centralized currency and capitalism that we have today. Blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies offer a beacon of hope that by wresting control of money away from centralized governments and big banks we can remake the economy in a way that serves the people instead of the current system where people serve the economy.

While governments dicker about the merits of UBI and small-scale experiments are starting in some jurisdictions, the blockchain community is already developing some cryptocurrencies with UBI built in. The people writing at the Rules Blog have connections to one of the solutions, Circles, but many others exist such as Manna* and UBU. A short list can be found in this Reddit post.

As I mentioned before, the best chance for UBI in the United States is the FairTax. I think that circumventing the ponderous bureaucracy of government will probably result in a more expedient and fair system than anything we would get from Washington. The other advantage of blockchain-based systems is that they will be truly international and not locked down by the draconian laws of any one given government.

What do you think? Is blockchain over-hyped? Is it the next big thing? Sound off below, and thanks for visiting!


*Affiliate link – I may receive extra Manna if you sign up for the Manna UBI project through this link