Digital Minimalism – A Review

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I picked up Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport from my local library expecting to read more of the same information I’d seen before: social media companies use slot machine psychology to hook users; in-person communication is higher quality; spending so much time on our phones is hurting our relationships. This was all in there, but beyond the facts of the matter, Newport opened my mind to new ways of thinking about my relationship with technology and how it’s designed.

Minimalism at its core isn’t based on asceticism, where one denies earthly pleasures for the sake of austerity. I often find myself strongly trying to resist any emotional impulse to make purchases. I think this self-imposed austerity may have been causing undue stress by saying “you can’t have that,” instead of the healthier question of “is this something that could bring value to my life?”

In respect to technology, and apps in particular, Newport revisits calls by friends to join social media because it might be useful. He counters by saying that any tool should have a clear benefit to warrant your time. It’s not that any of these tools are bad per se, but since you only have so much time and attention, do you really want to spend it on something that might be useful, when there are so many other things that definitely would be?

three person holding smartphones

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I’ve mentioned before how I struggle to balance my thirst for new information and time to be creative and thoughtful. It’s something I feel I still haven’t worked out, but Digital Minimalism helped me find some new tools to use in this quest.

Digital Minimalism also deals with some of the more sweeping issues resulting from the unique types of distraction available in the 21st Century. There have always been more things to do than time in the day, so distraction is nothing new. We have reached a point, however, with the introduction of the smartphone, where corporations vying for your attention via the “attention economy” have unfettered access to your eyeballs. Even our work is becoming more fractured and distracting with the advent of the gig economy.

Even after the advent of the internet, people were relatively alone in their own heads when they were mobile. Sure, you could listen to a personal soundtrack on your Walkman. With a computer in your pocket, you’re only a quick tap away from whatever information you seek. The end of the bar bet was also the end of pondering.

The book doesn’t preach throwing away your smartphone, although it does suggest methods of using digital tools so they help you achieve your aims instead of those of the advertising companies. For some people, that might mean going back to a phone that only supports calling and texting. For many others, removing social media apps from your phone will suffice. The key is knowing yourself and what you want to accomplish with theses tools.

Digital Minimalism wasn’t what I expected. While it did have some of the same information I had read before regarding the distracting nature of digital technologies, it was neither alarmist nor placating. It presented a well-reasoned and tested set of tools for using digital technologies in a reasonable way that can help you feel a little less discombobulated in this distracting world.

Do you have any thoughts on practices to keep technology from distracting you from what’s important? Do you find it ironic I wrote this post predominantly on my phone? Sound off below!


Disclaimer:  This review is my honest opinion of the book, but I may get financial reimbursement through the affiliate link in this article.

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

Something you might not notice right away in the solarpunk future is the lack of noise pollution. One of the reasons for this is, of course, the electrification of transport, but the second will be the significantly reduced dependence on personal automobiles for mobility.

From http://bcnecologia.net/sites/default/files/annex_5_charter_for_designing_new_urban_developments.pdf

Road Hierarchy in the new Superblock Model by BCN Ecologia

When Salvador Rueda first started studying how to reduce noise levels in his home of Barcelona, he quickly found that high-speed automobile traffic was responsible for the bulk of the noise pollution in his city. When you take into account that cars are responsible for the majority of child deaths in the US it becomes clear that designing cities for automobiles hasn’t left a lot of room for the humans that live there. Barcelona’s “superblock” program aims to restrict through traffic to a limited number of arteries and keep neighborhood traffic to a human scale 10 kph (6 mph) in shared streetscapes.

Continued pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in cities committed to Vision Zero has resulted in a call to ban cars from city centers. When coupled with the climate impacts of personal automobiles, regardless of their power source, it seems logical to restrict the usage of automobiles to city edges and rural areas.

Better public transit with reasonable service levels and level boarding like that seen in some street car projects would be a boon for residents while micromobility options like scooters, bicycles, and Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) could provide solutions for the “last mile.” Some NEVs have been designed specifically with wheelchair users in mind; however, it seems that they never quite made it to market. Introduction of these vehicles along with more prevalent accessible cycles can help us build a transportation system that is for people instead of cars.

To extend this human-scale vision of the city further, we may one day not need roads at all. Paolo Soleri felt roads separated people and designed his living laboratory in the Sonoran Desert to exclude them. Arcosanti is the world’s first arcology, or architecture designed around the idea that a city is it’s own ecological system. Passive energy management and high density mean that residents can spend more time living instead of working to cover mundane expenses like unnecessarily large heating or cooling bills. As a prototype, Arcosanti doesn’t seem particularly accessible, but I believe future arcologies or acology-minded developments should be able to incorporate the appropriate infrastructure without issue.

Despite decades of poor planning and squandered resources, I have hope that our public transit and transportation infrastructure are on the cusp of a renaissance. Even here in Charlottesville, we’re taking a serious look at building complete streets and revitalizing our public transit system. As we deal with rolling back the poor planning decisions of the 20th Century, we can build a more inclusive, healthier, and more pleasant transportation experience for our cities. One of the key components of this will be relegating the automobile to a support role in our society instead of the star of the show.

Is your locality implementing any changes to improve transportation for humans over personal vehicles? Do you have a shiny new streetcar or are you a resident of one of the few enclaves of car free life left in the world? Let us know below!

 

 

 

 

Recycling Rant – Mixed Materials

I know that recycling shouldn’t be our first line of defense to handle our waste streams, but it is something that can help divert materials from the landfill once they already have been created. But you wanna know what really grinds my gears? Mixed material food packaging. Sure, China’s National Sword cut a great big hole through US recycling efforts, but we can still recycle #1 and #2 plastics in most municipalities, and #5 if there’s a Whole Foods somewhere in your area.

If we want to encourage recycling though, we need it to be easy. People are busy, making their waste stream pretty low on their priority list. So, why on Earth would you make a dairy container out of #5 plastic and put a #2 lid on it? You took the time to make sure the two plastics looked identical for cohesive branding, but the only visual difference to the consumer is if they look at the little recycle triangle on BOTH parts of the package. Is this easy? NO! Store bought icing is even worse with its #5 or #2 body and #4 lid. Where the heck am I supposed to recycle a #4 that isn’t a plastic film like a bread bag?

man wearing teal long sleeved shirt

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As engineers, I know we want to find the optimal solution for every component of a design, but for single-use containers, end-of-life needs to be high on that priority list. I’m not a food packaging engineer, but my hierarchy of design would go something like safety/preservation of food, taste impact, mechanical stability, and end-of-life. I’ll grant you that you can’t package in something that will impact taste or safety, but is that #2 lid really making enough of a difference in your product that it’s worth confusing people so you get #2 and #5 plastics mixed up in each other waste streams?

If you ARE a food packaging engineer, I’m begging you to please consider end of life when designing your products. We are on a finite planet, and because plastic is such a useful material, I would really love it if we could easily reclaim it for future use. Whether it’s particularly safe for contact with food or whether we really need so much of it is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. For today, please think through your material choices and try to find ways to make recycling easier.

Moving toward a zero waste, solarpunk, circular economy is high on my wish list for the world, and there’s plenty of research that shows that unless you make something easier than the alternative, people just don’t have the bandwidth. The onus is on the designer, not the consumer for this. We can do better – please do!

Is there anything you’ve run across that was packaged ridiculously? Let us know below!

A Better Way to Pay

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As Adam Flynn said back in 2014, solarpunk takes infrastructure as a form of resistance. One of the biggest pieces of infrastructure that people interact with on a daily basis is payment systems. Payments aren’t as visible roads, or as tangible as housing, but decentralized, democratic payments are an important part of ensuring a brighter future.

We’re at a turning point for money. Since the middle ages, money has been controlled by the nation-state through fiat currency. The first experiments with digital-first money started in the 1980s, and we have seen an explosion in the availability of cryptocurrencies since the Bitcoin whitepaper was released in 2009. While Bitcoin hasn’t lived up to its original goal of being a replacement for fiat currency, it did revolt against the idea that only the state can create money.

Nation-states are now looking into developing crypto-fiat hybrids, and large corporate actors like Facebook are developing their own cryptocurrencies as well. The additional pressure of countries considering bans on cryptocurrencies that shield user identities makes me feel that governments see the danger that a truly decentralized monetary system would pose to their monopoly on power.

Brett Scott at Roar wrote about gentrification of payments from centralized issuers, “Put bluntly, digital payment facilitates a vast new frontier of financial surveillance and control, while also exposing users to new risks not present in the cash infrastructure.” He points out that the current trend for countries to emphasize digital (fiat) money over cash puts people’s finances increasingly into the hands of a small number of banks and state actors.

four assorted cryptocurrency coins

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I’ve previously touched on the subject of designing appropriate incentives into a monetary system, but for now I’m going to focus on how true digital cash could work. Bitcoin is the opposite of private since every transaction ever made with Bitcoin is recorded to its public ledger. Privacy coins allow for transactions to remain private by being recorded to the blockchain with the details obfuscated to all but those who performed the transaction. This has major benefits, particularly for the fungibility of a currency, which is a fancy way of saying that every unit of the money is created equal. For completely public blockchains like Bitcoin, certain Bitcoins may become “stained” due to their use in criminal activities in the past, meaning they may become harder to trade or spend than a “clean” Bitcoin. There is no such distinction between the status of a specific unit of Monero, for instance, since its past is unknown. The MimbleWimble protocol is a new blockchain which greatly simplifies the privacy aspects of a blockchain resulting in less power and data consumption.

The problem with most cryptocurrencies right now, however, is that they typically use what is called Proof of Work to verify transactions on the chain. Proof of Work burns large amounts of energy in an effort to “prove” the validity of the blockchain. Various other schemes have been developed to secure blockchain networks including Proof of Stake, Delegated Proof of Stake, and Proof of Cooperation. Proof of Cooperation was developed for FairCoin to enable a less energy-intensive verification method for blockchains. I think that a Proof of Cooperation-based MimbleWimble coin could provide the privacy and lower energy consumption that would be desirable for digital cash.

business bank chip credit card

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This digital cash would restore the peer-to-peer nature of cash and avoid the data-mining perils of current digital payment companies like Visa or PayPal. It is still dependent on computing technology to work, which makes me feel like it would be less inclusive than actual cash. In an increasingly digital-first world, however, thoughtfully-designed cryptocurrencies will be more inclusive than the options designed by corporations or governments. For more on the subject of post-capitalist money, check out In each other we trust: coining alternatives to capitalism by Jerome Roos.

Money is often considered a taboo subject, but feel free to let us know your thoughts below. How do you think a separation of money and state could be liberating?

Tidalpunk, logistics, and degrowth

Grist recently ran an article about a Costa Rican project to build a carbon neutral shipping fleet using traditional wooden boat building techniques including sails as the primary means of propulsion. Maria Gallucci writes that the worldwide commercial shipping industry moves 10.7 billion tonnes of material every year, predominantly by diesel powered megaships.

This seems particularly problematic when we look at the 262 million tonnes of municipal waste generated in the US alone every year. The article about the Costa Rican fleet said sailing vessels wouldn’t be able to make up a large proportion of the shipping fleet, but the question I had was, “Do we really need to be shipping this much stuff?”

While capitalism is based on unending, cancerous growth, there is a growing community of people around the world investigating how dialing back the economy could be better for people and the planet. When coupled with a circular economy, the degrowth movement points toward a brighter, greener future like that envisioned in solarpunk. Decentralized, local production of goods using recycled technical and biological nutrients would lead to a more resilient and less energy-intensive supply chain.

Some front-line communities are already leading the charge against climate change by developing solutions that are much more relevant to their local environment than the one-size-fits-all techno-solutionism often argued for in the US and other western countries.

What do you think? Should we just find “sustainable” ways to keep consumption at it’s current levels, or should we reevaluate our relationships with material goods? Let us know below!

MapJam – Sharing in the city

adult book business cactus

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Shareable is a great resource for following advances in the “sharing economy,” with an emphasis on platform cooperatives and other community ownership models that you probably won’t see from the other outlets that focus on the space. One of the more interesting projects they’re working on is their Community Maps. Generated by local residents in a given region, these maps detail where you can find sharing services in the community.

The data for the maps is generated by MapJams, collaborative mapping parties where people can get together and map out as many sharing services as possible in their city. Charlottesville has a Shareable Community Map, but it is sparse and based on proprietary mapping software. I contacted Shareable about the mapping tools, and they said that new MapJams use the Open Street Map-based uMap system. uMap is an easy to use framework that allows anyone to make a custom Open Street Map and then embed it into any website.

I’m hoping to coordinate a new MapJam for Cville in the near future, so if you’re in the area, please reach out and let me know if you can help. Suggestions for places that should be on the map or help with coordinating the MapJam itself would be greatly appreciated!

Does your city have a Shareable Community Map? Are there any sharing services in your city that deserve a shout out? Let us know below!

Discussions on Urban Planing

Solarpunk is a movement largely focused on how changes in our local environment can result in wide-ranging impacts for the world, so I’m hoping to bring you more stories that give you a zoomed-in view of one community’s journey into the future. Urban design is one of the big levers we can pull in the fight against climate change, and it’s something we’re thinking about here in Charlottesville.

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A decorative tree on a street in Charlottesville.

At a recent Charlottesville PLACE Design Task Force meeting, rezoning and density took center stage. According to a recent report by Partners for Economic Solutions, Cville needs ~3,300 more units of affordable housing in the city. The main concern expressed at the meeting was how to balance the needs of a rapidly growing population with concerns about gentrification and destruction of neighborhood character.

One approach would be to allow light densification of what is currently only single family zoning. Cville already allows Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in single family zoning areas, but lots that allow 6000-8000 square foot buildings aren’t allowed to have duplexes or triplexes except where they were built before the zoning regulations were in place. This means most new development in these areas results in expensive McMansions instead of more affordable multiplex homes. Facing a similar situation, Minneapolis recently passed a significant rezoning effort in their Minneapolis 2040 plan. While any effort here would be shaped by our local needs, it is inspiring to see other cities making bold progress in what is often a very wonky area of municipal policy.

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

The other approach discussed was to have special zones developed for high density apartments and condos in places that are already well-served by transit and bike/ped infrastructure. This might be a way to increase density with fewer individual projects, but it also feels like a concession to residents who don’t want new people moving into their neighborhoods. Housing is one of the key issues in the 2019 city council race here, so we’ll see what comes of these discussions.

Unsurprisingly, the current problems with zoning in Charlottesville are due to historical baggage. To quote Thomas Jefferson*, “‘The earth belongs in usufruct to the living;’ that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” What was once decided to be best for the development of the city may not be best for it anymore. Changing zoning ordinances can be an uphill battle, but if we don’t fight it then Tolkien will be right about zoning:

At the PLACE meeting, I learned that zoning in Cville mostly changed in phases. The first was the introduction of zoning in the 1920s, and the second was the rezoning of predominantly white neighborhoods into single family during the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1990s, single family housing zoning was expanded to be more inclusive of historically black neighborhoods. Now that the city is growing quickly, we’re running out of places for people to live which is driving costs up and density down. It’s time to change the rules once more.

Every city is unique, with Houston not having any zoning, and Barcelona working on their “superblocks.” What’s the housing situation in your area? Is your town also facing a housing crisis? Are there any people actively working to combat it? Let us know below!


*Nothing in Cville can be discussed without first consulting Thomas Jefferson’s ghost. This seems to be a custom stronger than law.

Rethinking batteries

close up photo of batteries

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As an engineer, I’m always thinking of how to make the objects around me work better. After rereading Cradle to Cradle this year, I’ve also been considering how to balance the needs of the present and the end of an object’s life.

When I was an undergrad, I did research in energy materials, so my interest was piqued when I saw the Volta Battery concept by Koraldo Kajanaku that won the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge. Designed to be easily disassembled and made with materials that can easily be returned to technical or biological cycles, the battery is an excellent example of everyday objects that could be made better through thoughtful design.

The current ways in which we build batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines can’t get us all the way to a 100% renewable, solarpunk future. Elements such as the lithium used in cellphone batteries are rare and have some hurdles to true recyclability. Lead acid batteries, while more easily recycled, contain materials that are very hazardous to human health when not properly contained. Lithium batteries are an amazing technology, but we should be finding more readily recyclable alternatives for applications that don’t absolutely require the high energy density that a lithium chemistry affords. Aluminum, iron, nickel, and zinc could use a little more love when it comes to research and development. Nickel iron cells, for example, are likely the most robust chemistry available. They are quite heavy at the moment, but they might be one of the best options for grid backups since they don’t require the coddling that other technologies do. For the tidalpunks out there, you might want to check out ocean batteries.

More diversity of battery chemistries could lead to more energy democracy in energy storage. Communities could build the chemistry that uses the most local resources to back up their renewables. When paired with more sustainably designed windmills or solar thermal plants, we could do a lot more with a lot fewer rare earth minerals. Mechanical approaches to energy storage are also an attractive option. As is often the refrain with sustainable design, there is no silver bullet, we need many different solutions to fit the many different use-cases in existence. The 20th century was concerned with trying to shoehorn all our problems into a fossil fuel-shaped hole. The 21st will be defined by a diverse and beautiful ecosystem of solutions.

Is there an everyday object that you wish was designed more thoughtfully? Let us know below!

Keeping the end in sight

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I previously mentioned that I sometimes struggle with over-researching a topic, and I found myself doing that again this week with political theory. I keep seeing memes attacking people who critique capitalism or who think that socialism might be the answer, and I got bogged down reading dozens of articles from a variety of political angles on the subject arguing semantics about “correct” definitions of capitalism or socialism.

I rewrote a political theory post from this research several times, and still doesn’t quite sit right with me. I think this is because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. All the arguments over this or that political theory don’t really have much impact on real life. One of the critiques that is repeatedly leveled at solarpunk is that it isn’t practical, and navel-gazing about political theory certainly doesn’t have much real world impact. I’m not going to say that any academic pursuit is a waste of time, but for me, I have spent far too much time in headspace and not enough in the real world.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can't read the signature, so if it's yours I can take it down if you don't like it here.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can’t read the signature, so if it’s yours I can take it down if you don’t like it here.

People from all over the political spectrum recognize that there are significant problems with most of Western society. I’m particularly focused on the US because that’s where I live, but I suspect many of these issues exist to some extent in other countries as well. Why are people dying because they can’t afford medication in the same country that has people so rich they don’t know what to do with their money? People want their families to be safe, to have enough food to eat, and to have some leisure time. I think this is something everyone can agree on, but the details can be an understandable point of contention. The problem becomes when we start identifying people by labels instead of other human beings. It’s not acceptable to compromise with “those people,” but if we just would pack these increasingly meaningless labels away we might actually make some progress on the problems that face us.

People aren’t happy with the state of healthcare in the US. No one wants to see their parks full of trash and pollution. Anyone will balk at a pipeline if it’s going to be going through their own property. It’s time we stop getting hung up on labels and work together on solutions. If nothing else, let’s decide to table the debate on a national level and help states be the “Laboratories for Democracy” and let them try different approaches without trying to force everyone to do the same thing.

The reticence of the federal government to make a firm decision that would guide the lives of 327 million people is understandable, so it’s time to flex the 10th Amendment and give the states some of their money back to tackle the problems on their own terms. I think that’s something we can all agree on.


For my part, I’m trying to become more active in my own community by joining the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Council (BPAC) to be a part of the decision making process with regards to making Charlottesville more friendly to non-auto forms of transit.

Some more resources to check out if you think there should be more experimentation with public policy include Symbiosis, Vox’s The Impact podcast, Strong Towns, and The Institute for Local Self-Reliance. What are some of the other ways we can make change real instead of just talking about it? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Wallflowers

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I’m an introvert. I work from home, so beside running errands, I rarely leave my apartment. I’m slowly coming to the realization, however, that I need to be around people to maintain my mental well-being. Humans evolved as social creatures, despite what social Darwinists think, so even introverts need some human interaction. Despite all the technology devoted to communication, we still experience loneliness which can have severe impacts on our quality of life.

Reading Susan Cain’s Quiet made me wonder about all the ways the extrovert ideal espoused by western society is what has driven a lot of the problems we currently see with society. Every person as a salesperson is an alliance of extroversion and capitalism that leaves the rest of us behind. If you want to get ahead, especially in America, you’re expected to extrovert up or fake it.

To be fair, in some ways it’s easier than ever to be an introverted, highly sensitive, or shy person. There are remote work opportunities, home delivery of practically anything you need, and a plethora of ways to contact other humans. The problem is that all of these new methods of communication and the high-productivity mindset of the world can just as readily cause us to be overstimulated.

Community is a theme that appears throughout solarpunk, but how do we balance the opposing needs of social interaction and “me” time? Can we build communities with strong social networks while still respecting the personal space of those most sensitive to overstimulation?

In Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, there are vegetated nooks and crannies of the megalopolis, Palmares Tres, where the characters are able to take a respite from the book’s action. Some of these are private gardens of the more well-to-do, and others are more or less micro-parks scattered throughout the city’s multistory structure.

I think this approach of having personal space at home, and quiet zones scattered throughout a community seems to offer a chance for people to get away from overstimulating situations while still allowing us to interact with the world.

A poll of introversion/extroversion

A poll from solarpunks on Sunbeam City about their preferences for human interaction

I suspect that even true extroverts would benefit from a little “me time,” and most humans probably fall into the ambivert category anyway. A super-scientific poll of solarpunks on Sunbeam City shows a strong preference for being with other people, but only some of the time. One thing I see come up again and again in discussions of communities is the need for people to be free to interact with others (or not) on their own terms. While social isolation is a serious issue in western society today, we should seek a happy medium, not race toward another extreme of no personal time or space.

How might a society carve out both communal and personal spaces? Here are just a few ideas. Feel free to comment with your own after the article!

  • Co-housing
    • Baugruppe and other forms of co-housing allow people to come together to build residential communities where some of the infrastructure or social load is distributed to the group. There’s no one form of co-housing, but I like to think of it like fancy dorms for grown-ups (this is a gross over-simplification).
  • Superblocks
    • Barcelona is currently implementing a plan to bring streets back to the people. This will increase safety for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as help rebuild the social fabric of neighborhoods.
  • Secret gardens
    • Having small parks or gardens distributed throughout a city could help give people safe spaces to duck into when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

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!

Riding the rails

Picture of an Amtrak train car; single deck; number 25051

One of the coach cars from the Cardinal

I recently went on a trip to Missouri, and since flying or riding the train would cost the same amount, I decided to do the solarpunk thing and try train. I’d only ever gone on short, touristy train rides before, so this was my first time evaluating rail as a long-distance travel option. While the exact values will vary based on model, train travel is typically regarded as less carbon intensive than flying or taking a single-occupant passenger car.

Any readers from Europe will likely be appalled at the poor state of rail travel in the US, but I think that for anyone with the time, rail travel is much nicer than taking a plane. Sure it takes a lot longer, but the seats are much bigger, the luggage restrictions are very generous, and you avoid federal employees invading your personal space.

An abandoned train - An engine from the New York Central line and two passenger cars

An abandoned train on a siding we passed

I rode two different lines, The Cardinal and The Southwest Chief. The Cardinal was a lot smaller train, but the overhead bins were larger than those on The Southwest Chief. This was likely because the Southwest Chief’s double-decker cars had a large baggage area on the lower level of the train. There is a smaller baggage area at the back of the coach cars on The Cardinal.

The interior of an Amtrak observation car. Sideways seats face large floor-to-ceiling windows

An Amtrak observation car featuring large windows

There was a cafe car on both trains, and the Southwest Chief also had observation and dining cars. Since I’m cheap, I brought my own snacks and water, but the food is there if you don’t bring your own. The ride is sometimes bumpy, but you don’t have to worry about your drink or food flying up unexpectedly like you might with a flight.

There are some downsides, of course. Number one is that you still have small, airplane-style bathrooms and you’ll almost certainly have to visit them if you’re going any appreciable distance. There’s also a relative dearth of destinations when compared to air travel. As most people fly to get from place to place these days, Amtrak can only support so many routes. If I were writing this article fifty years ago, then I would likely have a different story to tell.

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car; windows dot the top deck of the car while the bottom features an entry hatch and ventillation grates

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car

Another con is the occasional smoke breaks where people can get off the train and get their fix. The ventilation aboard the trains seems sufficient, but in the first few minutes following a smoke break I was wishing I could crack the window. Luckily, I wasn’t seated too closely to any smoking passengers, and the smell quickly dissipated.

Photo showing the large, open Grand Hall of Chicago's Union Station including two golden, greco-roman statues guarding the entrance to the train departure area

Chicago’s Union Station is fancy

I don’t know if traveling via rail rises to the level of luxurious (it might in the sleeping cars, which are available on both trains I took), but it is certainly more pleasurable than any of my previous travels by plane. For shorter trips (KC to Chicago for example) it can even be faster than driving since you avoid all that mucking about in city traffic. If you are planning a trip in the future, consider seeing if the train can get you there. It’s not an option we think of here in the States, but I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Have you traveled by rail in the US or abroad? What’s the train like in your area?

What is energy democracy?

At first glance, energy democracy is a funny term. Are we worried about a coalition of coal and natural gas blocking amendments to a bill from wind and solar? Is nuclear over in the corner putting forth reasonable proposals while everyone backs away slowly because of rumors regarding her volatile temper?

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Energy democracy is actually about bringing self-determination of communities back to energy generation, storage, and distribution. Not that long ago, most of society ran on locally-sourced energy. The bulk of this was in the form of windmills, water wheels, and wood-burning fires. As fossil fuels took the stage during the industrial revolution, energy supply and demand became estranged. Economies of scale for fossil fuel-based energy generation led to the creation of large power plants that supply power over an interconnected grid.

The 21st Century has seen the return of distributed energy sources. While solar and wind get the headlines, small modular reactors (SMRs), in-stream hydro, tidal, geothermal, and other distributed energy sources are showing promise as well. While the growth of these distributed generation technologies is good for decentralized solarpunk communities, it creates a point of friction with the existing centralized power grid. This is why when incumbent utilities do support renewables, they still want to build large, utility-scale projects. Nevada has had the most public battle over net metering in recent years, but many utilities have tried to suppress energy decentralization by pressuring legislators. In states like Virginia, where two companies have a monopoly on 80% of the energy market, it’s easy to see where problems might arise.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are some technical problems with energy decentralization which stem from the centralized past of the grid. As David Roberts explains at Vox, the grid was designed for one-way power flows from generation to distribution to end user. Solar, wind, and other distributed energy sources upend this model, sending power from the end-of-the-line back into the grid. There are several possible ways to overcome these difficulties ranging from going off-grid completely to piping every single generation source back into one giant grid managed by a central authority. For a solarpunk future, one possible option is the “decentralized, layered-decomposition optimization structure.” In this arrangement, the responsibilities of generation sources are held locally, but communities can still exchange power on an overarching, interconnected grid.

In some communities, such as Boulder, CO, the people have decided to municipalize their energy grid. Putting the grid into public hands makes it easier to align incentives between homeowners with rooftop solar, community-based generation projects, and the needs of all the users on the grid. Utility monopolies have to maximize profit and maintain the status quo. Energy democracy brings the power to the people, who can build a grid that uses distributed generation for a more robust, environmentally friendly, and healthy grid. The most extreme example of calls for energy democracy at the moment is the suggestion of a public takeover of PG&E. For more on areas that are flexing their energy democracy muscles, check out the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Power Map.

Do you have any energy democracy projects in your area? Let us know how your communities are fighting monopoly power and bringing clean, distributed power to the people.

Symbiosis

Decentralization of power, both political and electrical, is one of the core tenets of solarpunk. As the meme says, we’ve had the technology to transition to a decentralized, clean economy for a long time. Centralization of political power controlled by centralized corporate interests has been the chief hurdle to climate action.

Symbiosis logo - it looks like a spindly sea creature (anenome?) with the word "symbiosis" written next to it

Symbiosis is a new grassroots organization in the United States dedicated to building direct democracy to address climate change and social inequities. As an offshoot of the Social Ecology Institute, the underlying philosophy of the movement is that the broken nature of human interaction has let to our broken environment.

In order to make a concerted effort against the established corporate and federal concentrations of power, Symbiosis is positioning itself as an umbrella organization to help coordinate action between municipalists, environmentalists, and post-capitalists across North America.

As has become increasingly apparent, single-issue action has been ineffective at moving the needle toward a climate solution. Only when we build a coalition of our allies can we challenge the status quo.

There is a congress in the works for September 2019 to bring everyone together to begin the work of building communities and systems for the post-capitalist future. For more information about Symbiosis, visit https://www.symbiosis-revolution.org/.


Disclaimer: I am involved with Symbiosis, but do not speak for them in any capacity. This is my interpretation of the group based on a short time of involvement.

Tidalpunk: Come Home to the Sea

A picture of a green-blue bay against a blue sky with whispy clouds. Above the bay is a rocky cliff with houses of various colors ascending the hill above it.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Many think life on Earth started in the oceans, and while there is scientific debate on that front, there’s no denying that humans have been drawn to the water since before we built the first city on the banks of the Euphrates. With an estimated 80% of the world’s population living within 100 km (~60 mi) of a coastline, it’s no surprise that solarpunk has a sibling that brings this love of the water front and center – tidalpunk.

Tidalpunk takes the environmental consciousness and appropriate technology of solarpunk to the high seas. Sailing ships, autonomous seasteads, and cities flooded by the rising waters of climate change populate visions of a tidalpunk future. I suspect that due to the Moon’s influence on the tides, tidalpunk and lunarpunk will find some interesting synergies.

Return of the Sail

boat classic clouds cruise

Photo by Inge Wallumrød on Pexels.com

The shipping industry currently accounts for 2.3% of carbon emissions, and the industry is targeting a 50% reduction in emissions by 2050. Most cargo ships run on diesel now, but we once sailed the seas using the renewable power of the wind. While having a backup propulsion method available would be prudent, when the wind is blowing, cargo could move without the use of fossil fuels. Low Tech Magazine has written several articles about the potential of bringing back sailing ships as cargo vessels. Our current cargo fleet could even be retrofitted with tethered, kite-like sails.

Seasteading

An artificial island in a rough c-shape. It is covered in grass and has several berths for boats.
Proposed artificial Island in French Polynesia by Blue Frontiers

Seasteading covers a variety of concepts for humans to make their home in the sea. Proponents of seasteading point to overcrowding and a lack of social innovation on land as reasons to move seaward. Some projects that could be considered under this umbrella are Sealand, various underwater habitats, and aircraft carriers.

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A member of Project Entropy demonstrating a delta-style 3D printer

Project Entropy is a solarpunk makerspace flotilla with the aim to address plastic waste in the ocean and convert it into useful objects. The self-described micronation is also experimenting with distributed governance while it expands the frontiers of distributed manufacturing. While the Seasteading Institute and Blue Frontiers have interesting visions of the future, Project Entropy is making it real right now. Another project already on the water is the Flipiflopi, a boat built entirely from plastic recovered from the ocean and roadsides in Kenya.

A muli-colored sailboat sits in shallow water just off a white, sandy beach. Many people are on the boat and the shore. A Kenyan flag flies high above the solar panel on the boat.

The Flipiflopi recycled boat

The SeaOrbiter science vessel is one of the most exciting projects happening in the space. Planned as a full-time, ocean-going science vessel, the SeaOrbiter will have on-board laboratories and allow extended observation of the ocean. Parts of the ship will be kept at higher pressure to allow scientists to dive more often than would be possible from a surface vessel due to decompression issues like the bends.

A profile view of the SeaOrbiter science vessel. It has a large mast which pokes 27 m above the waterline. Another 31 m of the vessel are below the waterline. The vessel has various living quarters, laboratories, and is powered by wind and solar.

A profile view of the SeaOrbiter

Flooded Cities

boat near to dock

Photo by Daniel Frank on Pexels.com

Venice is the most well known flooded city in the world, but rising seas will soon give the world a number of similar locales. Even Venice is preparing for rising floodwaters with the MOSE Project, a giant flood gate designed to mitigate the worst tides from the Adriatic. NOAA has built an Interactive Sea Level Rise Map to show what areas will be most impacted by different sea level rise scenarios. In the US, Miami is particularly vulnerable since it’s geology precludes a flood gate or wall system like MOSE.

Where to Start

If tidalpunk sounds like something you’d like to investigate further, here are some resources to check out:

Do you have any experiences with tidalpunk? Let us know below or send us a comment on Sunbeam City. Thanks for coming aboard!

Saving the world, one apple core at a time

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The compostable bag from our recycling center.

I don’t have a green thumb. I’m trying a garden again this year, but despite my grandparents cultivating a host of vegetables right next door to me growing up, it wasn’t ever something I really learned how to do. My fear of dirt and the outdoors as a child was a contributing factor.

One thing I’ve associated with gardening that I find extra intimidating is composting. This year, I’m going to give it a shot through the local recycling center. I picked up a little green bag when I was taking our recycling into the center, so I’ll be feeding it with food waste and plant clippings.

I really hate wasting food, but even I have my limits to how far past an expiration date I’m willing to eat something. As ILSR notes in “How Community Composting Disrupts Big Waste,” composting can create jobs, reduce food waste, and fight climate change.

Are you a composter? Do you compost at home or through your community?

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!

Getting my hands dirty

Last Saturday, we decided to get our solarpunk gardener on and planted some herbs and flowers. We’re in Zone 7 here in Charlottesville, so we’re trying some snapdragons and petunias outside and starting a kitchen herb garden as well. Later on we’ll be starting some peppers.

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Getting dirty

The green germination trays were printed last year in a not-so-successful attempt at growing flowers, so hopefully we’ll have better luck this year. The white bags are wrapped around small plastic pots that go into a holder that is supposed to help the herbs not get over-watered. This is a particularly big concern here in Charlottesville as we’ve noticed everything molds quite quickly due to the humidity.

8 herb packets arranged in two rows and four columns. The herbs include basil, rosemary, oregano, parsley, cilantro, thyme, dill, and sage.

Herb packets

We had to stay away from some herbs since we have cats and not all are cat-safe. The ASPCA has a good database for plant toxicity for cats, dogs, and horses. Now that everything is planted all we have to do is wait.

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Everything in its place

Do you garden? Are there any plants that you love to grow?

Making it real…

As you may recall, I want to find ways to bring more practical solarpunk into my life and into the world. To that end, I purchased a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ kit made by Canakit. I’m hoping to explore some of the ideas I discussed regarding solarpunk phones and communications during the last few weeks. I’m not an electronics savant by any means, so we’ll see if my hobbyist level skills can cobble anything interesting together out of the kit.

Box containing a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ and breadboard for electronics experiments

On a related note, I also just ordered a new wifi-enabled wall switch to control the lights in our main living area. While that isn’t particularly solarpunk, I think reflashing the electronics to not be dependent on a third party service is. As sold, the switch requires downloading and using an app that sends data out to the web through servers owned by Samsung and then back to my apartment to control my lights. This is both creepy and seems silly since the lights are right above the voice assistant I’m using to control them. Why do I need servers hundreds of miles away involved in this conversation?

I’ve had good luck with the Sonoff-Tasmota firmware from GitHub for other smart home devices, and will be using the information from their wiki to attempt to reflash this new switch. Since it’s a totally different piece of equipment, I’m a little nervously optimistic about the results. If all goes well, the switch will only talk to my local network and the only connection to the outside world will be through Alexa.

Wifi-enabled smart switch with front cover removed. Green circuit board is exposed showing a TYWE3S wifi chip. Other components are hidden from view as they're on the back side of the board.

At some point, I’m hoping to switch to a more privacy-centric voice assistant like Mycroft or Snips, but getting all of my smart home devices other than my voice assistant to be local only should make the transition simpler once I do get that setup. The Raspberry Pi will be an important part of this transition as I’m hoping to begin testing Mycroft and/or Snips once I’ve gotten some of the basic input/output bits of the Pi figured out.

Raspberry Pi 3 B+ in transluscent plastic case

If all goes well, then I’ll try building a mobile voice assistant that can kick result data to a simple linked smartwatch like a Pebble. I sketched out a highly detailed schematic for your pleasure below.

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I’m not sure how hard the communication with a watch will be, but the first step will be getting the voice assistant going on the Raspberry Pi. After deciding which AI is better to work with then I’ll try adding battery power and watch communications.

What are some of the ways you are making solarpunk real? Let us know below!

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!