Tag Archives: Jobs

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?

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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.

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!

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?

Urban Ore – What the future of Zero Waste looks like

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The Institute for Local Self Reliance podcast recently chatted with the founders of Urban Ore in Berkley about how they divert waste from the landfill and are able to make a living from the old adage: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

While a lot of what Urban Ore sells is architectural salvage, they also have clothing, books, sporting goods, and many other items. Urban Ore mostly gets their salvage from the municipal waste stream in Berkley, so it’s an interesting case study in better ways to manage garbage in an urban environment. It makes a true Zero Waste future not seem so crazy after all for us solarpunks.

Urban Ore also has a really interesting employment compensation structure where everyone, including the owners, gets an hourly wage. The base wage depends on the job employee does, but they make more on top of that based on sales pro-rated to how much they were working that week. No specific commissions are given, just a profit sharing bonus tabulated each week. I think this is a good company to look at for ways to plan equitable compensation for solarpunk jobs.

For other interesting podcasts, check out the Resources page.

Have you heard of any other groups or companies doing similar work? Sound off in the comments!

Re-purposing malls as solarpunk co-housing

One of the best ideas for solarpunk co-housing I’ve seen is Bluelightning42’s post about re-purposing malls on Tumblr. While there has been the mixed use redevelopment of the Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island, and NewLab, an incubator+housing in Brooklyn, I’ve seen little else done in regards to this concept.

bBellevue Square Mall courtesy of Debs (ò‿ó)♪

Business Insider ran a story last year as part of it’s “Death of Suburbia” series talking about the roughly 25% of shopping malls in the US at risk of closing. I think the main issue is that most malls aren’t in particularly easy to access areas, but with a large enough community, I think you could get a public transit stop (if there isn’t one already) and car-sharing to provide off-site transportation. If you want to see the really cool architecture in some of these malls, Seph Lawless has been getting amazing photos of abandoned malls.

Rezoning the mall (where needed) as mixed-use would allow some small stores on-site for groceries and other small items. I know that I would love to be able to just walk down the hall to grab some Swedish fish out of a bulk bin in the middle of the night (I’m so healthy). You could leave the food court going too with shared communal kitchens and restaurants run by the people living there.

13714826875_1c9fed839b_kGarden courtesy of cuprikorn

Most of the parking lots could be reclaimed as greenspace, leaving a small area for car-sharing vehicles and the bus stop. A community garden could spring up where there was once only asphalt. Depending on the bike infrastructure in your city, you might also be able to build spur trails from the mall to other interesting parts of town.

Most malls have some natural lighting, so why not make some of the skylights stained glass to keep up the solarpunk vibe? With the huge roofing area of a mall, you could generate power for residents by adding solar panels and small wind turbines. There might be enough area that you would qualify as a small-scale renewable power plant. I would want to update the HVAC system to heat/cool with a geothermal heat pump to maximize the efficiency of the building along with the other requisite insulation and lighting efficiency upgrades.

3181390371_4015ff71df_bStained glass in Kaohsiung City courtesy of MiNe

So, do you have any ideas about how a repurposed mall could be a great place to live? Are there any concerns that you have regarding the idea? Sound of in the comments and let us know!


Photos are from Flikr users under a Creative Commons License

  1. Prettyy!! Want! {Nature/ 1 of 3} by Debs (ò‿ó)♪
  2. MiNe-KissX_103-0082RG by MiNe
  3. Garden by Cuprikorn (this picture is under a different license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Solarpunk, taxation, and universal basic income

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Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one of the big ideas I’ve seen floating around the solarpunk community. To learn more, I read some of the more scintillating chapters of Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economyand apparently there haven’t been any studies big enough to see what the true impact of a basic income would be on society. The authors suggested that a good starting place would be a baby step toward UBI where everyone got a small stipend.

The Adam Smith Institute recently published a paper on the market case for UBI and outlined the reasons why people should be supporting a move toward UBI. One of the main reasons is mounting concerns over technological unemployment with the rapid rise of automation and AI-driven production. For instance, truck and taxi operators are expected to be displaced by autonomous vehicles in coming years. Many other jobs will be at risk as well as computer systems get better at taking over tasks once performed by humans.

One proposal that I’ve been following that was mentioned in the book was the Fair Tax (HR 25) which eliminates the Federal Income Tax and replaces it with a Federal Sales tax. Where this gets interesting is that as a function of switching to a Federal Sales Tax, everyone in the country is given a “prebate” to account for income disparity at the lower end. This could be considered a sort of light UBI as everyone in the country will get the same “prebate” regardless of their income.

Another bonus of the Fair Tax is that it is only implemented once on an item. Used items are not taxed meaning that we can incentivize conserving resources while giving us a nationwide test of how to implement a full-scale UBI.

Perhaps the best part is that the Fair Tax eliminates the IRS and the current loophole-ridden Federal Income Tax system. I think we all know that the current system has more than its fair share of problems. Every time a new tax “reform” bill is brought up in Congress, we see how much of a losing game the income tax system is.

The Fair Tax is not perfect, but it seems like a workable solution with widespread existing support in the US Congress. More information is available about the Fair Tax at http://fairtax.org/faq.

Sound off in the comments if you think UBI is the way of the future or if you have any thoughts on the Fair Tax. Thanks for stopping by!


Some of the text for this article is recycled from my Tumblr post on the subject: https://solarpunk-gnome.tumblr.com/post/163921938517/taxation-and-solarpunk-a-few-thoughts

Image is “Taxes” by 401kcalculator.org via a Creative Commons license.