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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Solarpunk Phones Part 4: Magic

woman reading a book

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[This is Part 4 of a series of posts. Here are links to Part 1: Repair, Part 2: Decentralize, and Part 3: Design.]

Despite marketing jargon, I don’t think that we’ve yet reached the point where our technology is “magical.” A cave person might feel differently, but smartphones, computers, and televisions are clearly tools in my eye. There are a few exceptions, but I want devices that more elegantly flow with our lives instead of us molding our behavior around the device.

In stories, magic feels more like an extension of the being wielding the power. Even when the power source isn’t from within the individual, magic is still channeled through the magic user, so they must be in tune with it, but not consumed by it.

Technology that “just works” is a step in the right direction, since few things are as un-magical as having to reinstall drivers. I think we can go farther though. For me, at least, it’s easy to get lost in the technology itself and lose sight of the end goal of the tech. To be truly magical, I think the device and interface need to melt away so we can focus on the real reason we’re using it. At their core, smartphones are devices for communication. How do we make meaningful communication with those we care about easier?

color conceptual creativity education

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Take the pencil. As long as it’s sharp, most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how much it weighs or how thin it is. It gets the job done and you don’t have to think much about the object itself. There are certainly applications like art where the hardness of the graphite is an important consideration, but for the majority of situations, the pencil is incidental to the outcome of wanting words or doodles on the page. The pencil is an extraordinary piece of technology because it works so well that we pay it barely any heed.

A few devices approach this simplicity: e-readers, Pebble smartwatches, smartpens, the Beeline bike navigator, the Typified weather poster, voice assistants, and most calculators. Maybe I just don’t have the headspace for multi-function gadgets, but for me, the more functionality you cram into a device, the more unwieldy it becomes. Perhaps some brilliant UI/UX designer will come up with a way to make the multi-function nature of the smartphone more seamless, but as of now, I find smartphones to be amazing but kludgy.

The people working on the Skychaser solarpunk comic are doing a great job of thinking of magical technologies. You should definitely check them out if this is something that appeals to you.

I don’t have the answers for finding the right balance of functionality and magic but wanted to explore some of the questions with you. Maybe you have some ideas of how to make technology a little more magical. If you do and want to share, please post something below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 3: Rethinking Design

[This is Part 3 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here are links to Part 1: Repair and Part 2: Decentralize.]

There are essentially two extremes to technological design: the all-in-one device or the single-tasker. Take, for example, the knife. There are lots of single purpose knives – paring, cleaver, steak, etc. There are also several different types of multi-function knives, the best known being the Swiss Army knife. Depending on what task you have at hand, you would select the best knife for the job. Out and about, sometimes the best way to go is to carry the Swiss Army knife, but since it’s a multi-function device, it isn’t usually the best tool for the job, even though a lot of the time it is pretty decent at several different things. Unfortunately, the more functions you cram into a Swiss Army knife, the less useful it becomes at any single task. There’s a certain break-even point where it just gets ridiculous.

Image shows 8 Swiss Army knives from left to right with an increasinly large number of functions.

Victorinox pocket knives by quattroman76 under a CC BY-ND 2.0

While smartphones can do a great many things, since they aren’t really designed to do one specific task, they end up sacrificing the ability to do any one thing really well. I wonder if we’ve lost something by trying to unify all of our devices. Our mobile technology has become a monoculture compared to the wide variety of form factors of phones before a single slate of glass became the norm.

Before the consolidation of iPhone-esque design hit the scene, some people thought the future would be a cloud of wearable devices, the Personal Area Network (PAN). While carrying a number of single-focus gadgets on a common network may not be the best solution for everyone, it could be game changing for some. Also, broader acceptance of PANs might lead to more innovation in the smartphone space with regards to form factor. While there are rumblings of foldable phones, I can’t help but think those are merely an evolution of the current iPhone-centric design school.

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Random sketches I made of different hubs/accessories for a PAN-based device

Modular, open source electronics architectures would be a step in the right direction, allowing designers to select off-the-shelf components for inclusion in many different types of devices. The closest things I’ve seen on the market would be the Fairphone, which we’ve mentioned before, and the RePhone Kit, which is an Arduino-compatible phone kit from Seeed Studio. It’s a neat little phone hacking platform that lets people build their own phones. Unfortunately, Rephone is only 2G data capable, meaning no data connection in the US. Motorola gets an honorable mention for the Moto-mods system that lets you add different features to your phone through a special port on the back of their Z-series phones.

Of course it isn’t solarpunk if we aren’t designing with the impact of the device in mind from the beginning. Dominic Muren’s  Skin, Skeleton, and Guts model for product design is one approach to this design problem. When coupled with the Cradle to Cradle idea of separate biological and technical nutrient cycles, I can imagine future devices where the skin of the device is a compostable fabric that can be changed to suit the style of the user, while the metal skeleton and modular, electronic “guts” could be reused in further technical cycles.

TL;DR

In short, when approaching the design of a solarpunk phone, I would want modular components to be at the core to allow for more diversity of form factors like there once was in the mobile space. Also, devices should be designed for the circular economy using safe and reusable/recyclable materials.

Do you have any ideas for what should go into a solarpunk smarphone? Would a PAN be too cumbersome, or do you find that the “Jack of all trades, master of none” nature of the smartphone isn’t worth the trade-offs? 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!

 

Solarpunk Phones Part 1 : Repair

A cardboard box with a stylized art deco hand holding a wrench. Inside the box is a replacement screen kit for an iPhone 5.

My repair kit from iFixit

[This is Part 1 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here’s a link to Part 2: Decentralize and Part 3: Design.]

Smartphones are a major source of e-waste when disposed, and they have been one of the worst offenders when it comes to planned obsolescence, particularly after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 propelled the smartphone to widespread popularity. It seems that we may be entering a new phase of ennui in regards to new phone features, however, with 11 million iPhone users opting for battery replacements instead of new phones in 2018. Is it finally time for the Fixer Movement to takeover cellphones?

Why repair?

combination wrench screw bolt and pointed top hammer

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I grew up in a fixer household. My dad is a biomed tech who fixes the medical equipment at a hospital, and my mom has furniture repair and sewing skills. Up until recently, all of our cars were bought as salvage and a lot of the furniture and home electronics came to us in various states of disrepair. This was just how we did things because we could fix things and didn’t see the point in paying full price if we could get it a lot cheaper because of a minor problem.

When you start looking at the exploitation taking place both in the raw materials needed for smartphones as well as in their disposal, it quickly becomes clear that the true cost of electronics is not being taken into account when you can buy a cell phone for $25. The hidden costs of goods, or externalities as economists would say, are one of the main arguments for a carbon tax, as well as many other measures industry would call “over-regulation.”

Between the environmental, moral, and economic downsides of not repairing a mobile device, keeping the phone you have for as long as possible starts to look a lot more palatable. This is especially true as the most important functions of the smartphone have reached a point of technological maturity.

This week I’m embarking on my fourth smartphone repair. All of these have been screen replacements, as it is easily the most fragile part of the phone. Of the three phones I’ve repaired, I only had one where I successfully replaced just the glass and was able to reuse the screen underneath. Some of that might be my relative inexperience, and some of that is because the phones aren’t designed to be repaired. If you are planning on repair a phone, I would suggest checking out iFixit as they have a lot of different parts available as well as the most extensive repair database around. Youtube also has a lot of repair videos for things that aren’t in iFixit yet.

If you aren’t comfortable doing a repair yourself, there are a lot of smartphone repair places that have popped up around the country in response to the commonality of shattered screens. In some locales, there may still be repair shops for other goods as well, particularly sewing machines, vacuums, and shoes.

Many towns have Repair Cafes or Fix It Clinics that are run by volunteers on a varying basis. Boulder, CO has a very active repair community, and there is a periodic Repair Cafe run by the Time Bank here in Charlottesville, VA.

The future

While many current smartphones require a lot of time and “the knack” to repair, there is some hope that this won’t always be the case. The easiest way to make sure that smartphones are easy to repair is to design them that way to begin with.

One area where there has been a lot of interest, but not a lot of development is in the modular smartphone space. Google’s Project Ara, the Phonebloks project, and many others have shown concepts of LEGO-like modular phones with parts that the end user can swap out to customize or repair their phone. The only true contender in this space is the Fairphone. Designed with repairability and transparency in mind, the Fairphone was designed to do for electronics what Fair Trade has done for food and clothing. By evaluating every part of their supply chain and making the phone easily repairable by the end user with modular components, the Fairphone is the most ethically-sourced and repairable mobile device on the planet.

While the Fairphone is an impressive achievement, the fact that it is the only phone built to what should be basic-human-decency standards is telling of the state of the mobile device industry. As smartphones peak and differentiation wanes between vendors, hopefully we’ll see an emergence of a modular standard with many vendors making parts that are interoperable on a similar mobile platform. This was the original vision of Project Ara before its cancellation in 2016. The only ecosystems that approach this ideal in my mind are the desktop PC market and Raspberry Pi.

The Runcible, a round smartphone concept is shown with its circular wooden back removed exposing the circular circuit board and camera module.

The Runcible with its wooden back removed (from their Indiegogo campaign page)

One other interesting, but also unreleased, concept of a repairable phone was Runcible. Envisioned as an anti-smartphone, Runcible was designed to be a repairable, digital heirloom that would be a piece of tech you would want to grow old with. While its Indiegogo campaign was successful, as with many crowdfunded projects, the creators have gone dark without any backers getting their hardware. Some people might cry foul, but I think the problem with crowdfunded hardware is that making hardware devices is a lot harder than it looks.

In any case, I think that electronic devices built for a solarpunk future will need to be modular, repairable, and ethically-sourced as a first step. This is the first post in a series prompted by Solarpunk Druid’s “The Solarpunk Phone,” so I will be linking subsequent parts as they’re added.

Do you have any thoughts on what’s important for solarpunk electronics? Are there any features that current phones don’t have that would make your life easier? Let us know below!

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.

panoramic shot of sky

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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.

architecture bright building capitol

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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!

 

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!