Solar Ricardo

Solar Ricardo

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Detournement and Re-Wilding: A Discussion with Karl Schoeder

During the early part of summer 2010, I stumbled across an announcement for a Science Fiction Convention at a local hotel. Although I'm a life long reader of Sci-Fi and full-fledged geek (yes, I even used to work at Forbidden Planet, NYC's largest comic book and sci-fi store), I rarely venture out to “Cons” these days. Something on the schedule caught my eye, though. Special guest author, Canadian Karl Schroeder was slotted to do a panel on “The Politics of Climate Change”. This should be interesting, I thought- Can a room full of people dressed as Klingons, pie-eyed gamers and Aspersers sufferers have a coherent conversation about the ultimate reality?
    Although the turnout for the session was small, it was perhaps the most thoughtful discussions I have ever heard among lay-people. The group included one hard-core denier, but even he had relevant points, and minds were open on both sides of the argument.
    As for Schoeder, he lead the discussion with the deft hand of someone who understood his audience and a Canadian's perspective on what is possible when a nation is not ruled by a coporatocracy.
    Having watched a Youtube video of Schoeder at OSCON (the O'Reilly Media shindig) talking about his ideas of “re-wilding”  I was anxious to sit down with the author and talk about his ideas.  Karl was kind enough to oblige. Upon describing the theme of “Obsolete Magazine, we immediately dove into a discussion of “Detournement” the situationist idea of reuse of elements and William Gibson's early cyberpunk novels like Count Zero and Neuromancer, in which Schoeder points out that “... the characters are constantly cobbling things together out of stuff the street has abandoned- there is a tradition of that in science fiction going back at least that far and before...”

R: You come from a tradition of science fiction that is heavily influenced by the “Science”. Are there instances where sci-fi has had an effect on science?

K: Science fiction can't make things come true, so it may not have had a huge influence on science, but it has had a huge impact on making people want to become scientists.  I often hear people say that reading science fiction as kids got them into science. The line between science and technology gets blurred a lot- many people went into computer engineering with the expressed intention of making their science fiction fantasies a reality. Gibson's vision of cyberspace is the prime example- computer engineers have been frantically trying to construct since that book came out. I don't think you could find anyone in silicone valley that doesn't read science fiction.

R: In the review of Ventus,  Cory Doctorow refers to you as an autodidact. Do you see yourself that way?

K: In the strictest terms I am an autodidact in that I'm a high school dropout. I've taught myself essentially everything I needed to know about the science and technologies I write about. I firmly believe that if you know how to learn, all doors are open to you. At this point though, I'm pursuing a masters degree in “Strategic Foresight and Innovation”... which, when I tell people that, causes them to stare at me blankly. It's a new program, but not a new idea.  The idea of “Foresight” goes back to the Rand Corporation in the 50's, and even prior to that. It's not about predicting the future, but it is about minimizing surprises. For me, it dovetails nicely with writing science fiction. In writing science fiction, I can be as outrageous in my predictions as I want.  Now, I'm getting the tools to look at the future in a more sophisticated way.

R: Do you think that your educational background or lack thereof sets you apart from your colleagues in the program?  Are they at all burdened by pre-conceptions that you might have? I'm thinking of Buckminster Fuller, who was kicked out of college several times before he went on to be one of the greatest big-picture thinkers of the 20th Century.  He always said that his best education came from being a supply officer in the Navy.

K: I've deliberately avoided becoming a specialist, because with that comes a specialists perspective. I always wanted to be a well-rounded generalist, because of what I wanted to write. This program at the Ontario College of Art and Design is a generalists program. The other students come from a wide range of backgrounds from advertising to medical technology to government policy. They share the characteristic of wanting to have that big picture view of things. The courses in the program cast an extremely wide net to broaden the toolset for understanding the world.

R: I have heard you talk about the idea about “re-wilding”...

K: I want to write a novel laying out these ideas.  I use “re-wilding” as a metaphor for what we need to control in the world around us and things we can let go of, because we better understand the world around us. In the past we tried to control everything in the environment around us in order to survive because we didn't understand how the world worked. Hopefully, we understand the environment well enough now to let go of some of the systems of control that we've developed over the centuries.

R: You mentioned the “re-sanctification” of the natural world, and I found that a strangely spiritual idea in a pretty technical discussion...

K: It's not if you understand the metaphor I'm working with here. There is the “re-wilding” of the physical world, where we selectively un-build those parts of our industrial infrastructure that we no longer need and restore as much of the natural systems around us as we can, but there is a psychological and possibly even spiritual component that comes from the great revolutionary science of the 20th century, which is cognitive science- understanding ourselves gives us the opportunity for the first time to reassert a natural and healthy relationship with the world around us as people.

R: You are sort of talking about pushing past technology. How do you think that differs from the people who originally coined the phrase “re-wilding” who are the sort of Earth First!,  Primitivist types... The Unabomber comes to mind- these people think that we need to go back to nature, not forward to nature through technology....

K: There is no going back. The project that we are engaged in has no reverse setting. But what it can have is a fulfillment.  It's like water filtration plants and wetlands... when you don't understand wetlands you have to build the water filtration plant. When you understand wetlands and integrate it into your urban setting and use it... that is not stepping back from technology...that is the highest technology- the full culmination of technology.

R:  It makes me think of John Todd and the New Alchemist Institute and  “Living Machines”...

K: There is always a role for stewardship, but what we need to do is find our role as equals in nature, and not fight it as an antagonist.

R: You talk about Ecosystem services and assigning monetary value to those.  How does this relate to carbon trading?  In the aftermath of the collapse of the derivatives market, it seems that carbon trading is falling out of favor as people see it as another dubious “financial instrument”...

K: In systems theory, you can map out the inter-relationships between the parts of the system. One of the things you have to do is draw a boundary and say, “This is the edge of the system”. That boundary is often drawn arbitrarily. In business, we call things outside of that boundary “externalities”- what we are really talking about is a reform of accounting practices.  There are a lot of ways to do that.  We need to account for the cost of the toxic stuff that you have been dumping for the last 25 years- we used to be able to dump it over our neighbors fence- we need a system that doesn't allow that anymore.

R: We are in a market system that internalizes profit and externalizes risk- what sort of societal change do you see happening that will allow for this new way of accounting?  Why should they want to pick up their trash if they aren't required to?

K:  There is a new profession known as a garbage designer. It's the person that designs the output of an industrial process- or tunes it- in such a way that it can be sold as an input into another industry. Industries can generate an income stream from what was considered waste.

R: You talked about relinquishing control in your talk as well... about moving ahead to letting go of our control over nature.  In the short term, that's going to leave a kind of void- are we designing these systems and setting them free, or are they overseen by a government agency?  Are they a private endeavor? This gets into the politics – is this a sort of Green/Anarchist endeavor? What is our model?

K: I wanted to give a new name to what I've been talking about because it doesn't fit with the traditional themes of the modern environmental movement, or the Greens. I don't see a clear distinction between natural and artificial systems. I think it's increasingly important not to make such distinctions, particularly in a highly political and moral sense. By taking a moralistic stance toward nature, we are basically condescending to it and imposing our own prejudices on it. There have been a number of people in recent years that have been trying to get beyond the rhetoric of environmentalism. Bruno Latour, a French philosopher, wrote books like We Were Never Modern, and other books like Ecology Without Nature. They dovetail well with what I'm talking about. 20th century environmentalism is one of the things we need to get past to save the planet and save ourselves. It creates too awkward of a dichotomy between us and them, humanity and the natural world.

R: Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame has a new book out that embraces nuclear power and genetic engineering as the solutions to the problem. It's a very iconoclastic approach and he is pissing off a lot of old fans that grew up with the “Deep Green” idea. Patrick Moore, who founded Greenpeace, is another one who now supports nuclear, because carbon reduction is what we are after. It seems like there is an “either/or” thing happening, either you are on this team or on that team.  People are forced into making black and white binary choices. You talk about a lot of the shades of grey...

K:  That's absolutely right. If you want to preserve the environment, the best place to do it is in a high-rise. We can't go back to making our clothing out of all-natural fiber and hunting and gardening for our food. Imagine nine billion people trying to do that. It fails on the simple basis of scale.  We need intensive industrial systems to maintain human life, at this point. If that is the case, we need to optimize them.

R: I always love to read John Zerzan – love his ideas about primitivism, but of course, I read about them on his website...

K: Yes, the only way we could go to some sort of neo-primitivist society would be if we reduced our population by 99%.

R: According to a friend of a friend who does environmental analysis for the CIA, they think that   a likely climate change scenario is exactly that- a pandemic will probably occur which will reduce our numbers and our emissions significantly.  The planet will self-regulate.

K: I have spent the last three months studying strategies for intervention and negation of climate change. I've identified three points of intervention. I haven't really heard the discussion framed this way before, but you can intervene at the origin of the CO2, you can intervene by removing the CO2 from the atmosphere, or you can reduce the temperature change itself, through geo-engineering activities. I'm currently working on the idea of carbon/air capture, which involves sequestration (through plants) but also removing the carbon directly from the air. It's a scrubbing technology that pulls the CO2 out of the ambient air and drives it into deep strata. Obviously reforestation is one way to do it, but it's a slow process. I'm looking at industrial processes that can take advantage of the infrastructure we already have in place.  I think an industrial-scale capture process is the only way we can reduce CO2 levels to a pre-industrial level in a timely way.

R: Are there companies engaged in this process now?

K:  There are researchers working on it, and companies in Canada and the US being formed- it's still a stealth technology- Al Gore doesn't mention this as an option in his new book, but it is one of the 3 pillars of climate mitigation, and one we should be working on it more.

R: There is a lot of talk in this country, and in the Midwest in particular about using perennial grasses to create a “carbon sink”.

K: There is a lot of potential there, but it would have to be done on a global scale. We also need to increase our food production, and you can't tear down one part of the biosphere to prop up another.

R: What about the idea of vertical farming? Even here in the middle of farm country, the majority of our actual food is shipped in from California or even Central America. We grow animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup. Is the idea of vertical farming something we should be looking at?

K: Vertical farming is an idea that has been championed by a guy named Dickson Despommier. He has a website called I don't claim to be an expert in that area, but by using hydroponic technology you can increase production by 4-20%. The least efficient thing you can farm is cattle. By stacking your acreage- in a tall building, making it mostly self-sufficient for water and protecting it from outside environmental effects like frost and pests, then you get further multiplying effects.  One projection that Despommier's group makes is that using one block square, 47-story building could feed 50,000 people on an ongoing basis.

R: It also reduces the transport costs and energy use...We are working here on increasing the efficiency of local food systems by looking at making farmers trips to market more than just a delivery- we (Feral Technology Institute) are working on a system that would have a someone from the farm delivering produce and picking up waste grease and food to return to the farm for composting, biodiesel and biogas production...

K: That goes back to the idea of a garbage designer-

R: Hey, I think I'm a garbage designer!

K: Yes! In science fiction, Samuel R. Delaney uses the idea in a novel called “Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand” which was published in the mid 80's- he treats a city as an ecosystem in which the most valued members of society are the garbage collectors, called “Tracers” who literally trace the flow of materials through the system.

R:  I can't let you go without asking you to talk about your concept of “Thalience” – the idea of science being done outside the sphere of human influence.

K: My ideas have evolved a lot in the 10 years since I came up with the idea of Thalience. The question was whether computers and other technology just mirror human's view of the world or if they can develop their own.  What those ideas have evolved into is my concept of re-wilding- giving natural systems intelligence through a network of sensor nets, Internet connections and legal instruments.  For instance, the new constitution of Paraguay gives rights to nature, and allows individuals to litigate on behalf of natural systems.

R: So maybe we should be willing to do for nature what we have done for corporations? Create a legal persona?

K: Exactly.  If a corporation can be a legal person, there is no reason that a natural system can't also be a person.  I'm writing a story about that right now.

R:  So is the original idea of Thalience still relevant in the real world?

K: It is, but it revolves more around arguments having to do with artificial intelligence. I hasten to add that I am doing a mashup between AI and environmentalism in my work right now.  On one hand, treating natural systems as potentially intelligent legal entities and on the other hand, trying to see the natural or the non-conscious in human nature and the systems we create. If I could describe these ideas in a few words I would, but sometimes you have to spread out the argument over many, many pages.

R: Do you think that AI and technology is reaching a point that it can start creating itself?  I guess the other vision of that scenario is “Skynet” in the Terminator movies...

K: Our traditional vision of computers is the Terminator model of intelligent machines taking over.  What I'm talking about is natural systems that have been augmented with technology. So it's not robots that are taking over, but your local aqua fir.

R: Genetic engineering is one nightmare vision of technology escaping into nature- I'm much more excited about artificial intelligence escaping into nature...

K:  That's what Thalience was about...and my idea of re-wilding is that there is no distinction between nature and technology.  If we replace nature with technology, technology is our natural world. It will evolve on it's own because things do evolve on their own. To a great extent, control is an illusion.

R: We had an ice storm here two years ago and lost power for six days- it really illustrated how much of an illusion that control is!

K: Events like that are more catastrophic when you are trying to maintain a state of direct control.  When your systems are optimized to coexist with nature, events like that are not nearly so catastrophic. When you don't need to control the system, you don't care what breaks down.

Karl Schoeder is the author of nine novels, including the “Virga” series, as well as co-author with Cory Doctorow of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Science Fiction.