From Dashboard.Earth to Cli-Fi - how do we break through our cultural complacency over climate change, collapse, breakdown?
This week, the D.A. is very much in the shade of the IPCC report on the urgent challenge of climate change (see Tuesday blog) - which people have been suggesting itself needs a rename (climate breakdown, climate collapse, climate emergency, climate catastrophe, even climate genocide are the suggestions we’ve picked up on so far).
No matter what we call it, the report - usually taken as a conservative estimate of the real situation - has set out to ring the alarm bell very loudly. If you read New York magazine’s David Wallace Wells and his response to the IPCC - he terrified the world a year ago with his predictions of the levels of civilisational chaos tied to each degree of global warming - you may feel the need to be very radical, very quickly.
We’re thinking anew about what this all might mean for the practices and emphases of A/UK (which has always had sustainability and environment at the core). In the meantime, it’s reasonable to keep an ear out for ways to change the emotions and values that sit behind our carbon-generating behaviours.
What change in our hearts and intentions is needed to fuel the kind of radical lifestyle shifts (see our Tuesday blog) that even the best-case scenarios of the IPCC report implies? What can jolt us, cut through the consumer trance?
Two small possibilities today, from technology and the arts:
From our friends at Atlas of the Future, news of a fascinating tech platform that braids together many contemporary practices - smartphone use, cryptocurrency and blockchain, and lifestyle militancy. It’s called Dashboard.Earth, and here’s the summary:
Dashboard.earth is an open source platform that crowdsources the limitless number of climate actions from local government, environmental groups and individuals and turns them into actions we can all do, from tree-planting and rideshares to used goods and composting. Then it rewards every action with a crypto-‘climate currency’ – a coin that is redeemable in real life for eco-products, services and donations sourced from city and public utility incentivisation schemes, and NGO and foundation campaign budgets.
“Climate has permeated every sector of society to become one of the largest social movements in human history,” explains Gaya. “With the solutions available today, we can reverse the climate crisis. But systemic change requires citizen engagement, and the environmental movement has been perhaps the worst communication effort in the history of ‘save the world’ campaigns!”
Right now there is no system in place to incentivise citizen action or software that shows people how we’re doing visually when it comes to the bigger picture. That’s what this team of developers, cryptocurrency architects, designers and data visualization experts are planning to change.
Gaya and Stephen have always been focused on our planet. Gaya has worked for over 20 years in the field of deep ecology – on agriculture, architecture, water and the climate crisis solutions with indigenous communities on every continent as well as figureheads like Prince Charles, Paul Hawken and Deepak Chopra. Stephen is a Sundance award-winning director focused on war zones and conflict resolution (as well as controversial music videos for Beastie Boys, Eminem and 50 Cent). He switched from rap to tech in 2012 with the Silicon Valley-funded ora.systems. The cutting edge startup explores complex medical and climate change data in an actionable way – proving data is the new cool.
When it comes to climate, often citizens feel disempowered and disengaged. Gaya explains that this is the problem that dashboard.earth is designed to solve: “We will not meet the requirements set out by the Paris Agreement unless unless we involve and empower those whose activities drive the carbon-intensive economy. It is an issue of behavioural modification at the global level. We need a sustaining solution to climate that is not totally dependent on philanthropists and volunteers.”
Sustainably-minded corporations can struggle to communicate their initiatives in a meaningful way. But on dashboard.earth advertising spots become like creative pitches – to engage people in a ‘verified’ action which has calculable economic rewards. “This lets brands put money in the pockets of consumers for saving their city.”
The underlying technology is ora.system’s HALO, which was created with 3D computational artist, geneticist and ‘data-friendly Elvis’ Peter Crnokrak and visionary director GMUNK. The data visualisation software represents you as a physical being, a multi-dimensional creature that moves and changes shape based on your data. Using sensors, like those on an Apple watch, you can be represented digitally. Instead of using a bar graph to show how many steps you’ve gone in a day, you have your HALO growing over time – like a sea anemone Tamagotchi.
On dashboard.earth HALO plays the central role of visualising the balance between impacts and offsets to allow the user to understand carbon footprint net losses and gains in daily decision-making. It can determine whether a person is walking to work and the frequency of flights through movement acceleration data and geopositioning. (See video above).
(There’s no doubt a pun in Halo on Hal3000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey…) But nevertheless, Dashboard.Earth seems a very well thought-through synthesis of current behaviours and structures. The obvious glitch is the amount of computing power - and thus electrical supply - that blockchain habitually requires (though our friends at Holochain seem to have cracked this). And there is momentum for using a combination of blockchain and internet of things to solve many environmental challenges, like tracking material throughput with precision. But how to insert it into everyday hands? Systems, apps and designs like this may be an answer.
France 24 brings news of a term new to us which is “cli-fi” (or climate-fiction). Think of it as science fiction that takes climate-whatever - utopian or dystopian - as its core topic. From the report:
"Climate change is slow-moving and intensely place-based," said US literary expert Elizabeth Rush, a lecturer at Brown University. "It is difficult for us to notice these things in our day-to-day lives”.
But with climate fiction, "you can imagine being a person whom flood or drought displaces, and with that imaginative stance can come radical empathy."
For Norwegian novelist Maja Lunde it started with a documentary about colony collapse disorder, the mysterious die-off of bees that has sparked international concern. "I had an epiphany: this is what I want to write about," Lunde told us.
“The History of Bees", which conjures up a world without bees where humans have to hand-pollinate trees, became a global bestseller, shifting over a million copies and translated into more than 30 languages.
Sensing that she "wasn't done yet with this topic", Lunde has set out to write a quartet of climate change novels. The second book, "Blue" deals with a shortage of water and was published in Norway last year.
Lunde will discuss her novels at this week's Frankfurt book fair, the world's largest publishing event where climate change fiction is expected to feature prominently. "I think we will see more of these books in the years to come," Lunde said.
We’ve covered solarpunk here before - which as this Quartzy article says, “sits across the table from cli-fi”. Solarpunk has more optimism in it:
The most basic definition of solarpunk—offered by musician and photographer Jay Springett—is that it is a movement in speculative fiction, art, fashion and activism “that seeks to answer and embody the question ‘what does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?’”
Solarpunk’s future imaginings do not fit neatly with current political regimes or economic systems. Self-described “researcher-at-large” Adam Flynn argues that the movement begins with “infrastructure as a form of resistance.” Solarpunks are in the business of dreaming a totally different system of energy delivery, essential services and transport. Quite different to behemoth of roads and coal-fired power plants we live amongst today.
In other words, Solarpunks resist the present by imagining a future that requires radical societal change. Radical, perhaps, but not radically impossible. Indeed, many of the technologies and practices that solarpunks draw into their imaginings already exist: solar and other renewable energy, urban agriculture, or organic architecture and design. Like sci-fi authors, solarpunks remix the present to produce an alternative future.
In a fictional sense, solarpunk sits across the table from “cli-fi” (a riff on “climate fiction”). In recent years, the term cli-fi has moved from a fringe concept to a marketable genre of fiction. Coined in the first instance by Dan Bloom, it has grown so big that scholarly researchers are able to produce studies of the conventions. New novels and short story collections are now published in this category each year.
Cli-fi, in both film and fiction, tends towards dystopia. For film, watch The Day After Tomorrow, in which New York is flooded and frozen in climate mayhem, and Snowpiercer, where efforts to control climate change go dramatically awry. For text, look for Paolo Baciagalupi’s The Water Knife, in which drought has devastated the south western US. These are stories of failure, disaster, and social collapse. Crucially they represent the apocalypse as catalyzed in some way by climatic or environmental change: wave, snowstorm, drought. Cli-fi has really just replaced earlier anxieties (such as nuclear war) with new ones (such as out-of-control geoengineering).
Seems to us, in this moment, we need both cli-fi and solar-punk. That is, narratives that have a clear-eyed understanding of the environmental damage we’ve already banked, and the utter chaos if we don’t respond to even limit that. AND stories that “grapple with the links between culture and energy", as Quartzy writer Jennifer Hamilton puts it, in which “solarpunks ask ‘what kind of world will emerge when we finally transition to renewables?’”
Fear is readily available; but hope might inspire us to actually dispel it, through positive actions.