Going Analog: Part 1

That’s it, folks: a couple months ago I made decision to go analog with my art, and in a few more years, I hope to be free from the shackles of Adobe, and therefore the shackles of expensive and bulky (Windows) computer set-ups that can sufficiently run the bloated behemoth that is Photoshop.

Why? Well, for a number of reasons – many of which I explain in detail here. (No, the cloud is not a green or eco-friendly alternative to real product. It’s just a form NIMBYism.)

For those of you who aren’t aware and who don’t want to read that first link, the jist is this: Adobe has, by most definitions, a monopoly on the digital arts market. They’ve spent the last 15 years slowly buying up their competitors and then shelving their software so that users had no choice but to start using Adobe products. PSD, PDF and many other Adobe files are standard filetypes several industries over, and now Adobe has ended their sale of perpetual licensing, forcing all of their customers into the position of renting their software.

This is really the endgame of planned obsolescence. So long as someone owns a product, they can always tinker with it, fix it, and keep it long past its prescribed expiration date. This is bad for companies who make their bread through the sale of yearly or monthly (or whatever) release cycles, and who rely on the novelty of newness itself to move product that is, by all accounts, barely better than the previous product that people just bought.

In the film The Light Bulb Conspiracy (which I totally forgot to include on my list!), the history of the light bulb is explored, as it is arguably where the notion of planned obsolescence was born. Early models of incandescent light bulbs were commonly designed to last in excess of tens of thousands, even 100 thousand, hours. But manufacturers soon realized that they’d be driven out of (growth-based) business if they kept making such good-quality light bulbs, and so standardized an industry-wide 5,000-hour limit which we only just recently decided to start ignoring.

What if the light bulb manufacturers had decided that 5,000 hours wasn’t good enough either, and to make sure that people didn’t resort to candle or gas light for any length of time when their bulbs went out, they decided to simply lease bulbs to every home in the US for a flat, monthly rate per bulb?

That would have been a plot so appallingly preposterous as to belong squarely in the pages of Detective Comics to pre-war Americans. But not anymore – not only do the vast majority of us accept this coming era of non-ownership, but some of us even welcome it in the name of “convenience”.

Well I, for one, do not. And in preparing for my hard-earned copy of CS5.5 to one day stop being supported or compatible with whatever hardware I’m running, leaving me with no other option than to prostrate myself before the fat cats at Adobe, I’m making the transition to go analog. Though that’s not to say there aren’t impeccable, and in some respects, even better free and open-source alternatives to Photoshop on the market, like GIMP or Krita, but I’m doing this for other reasons too.

For one, I grew up using and honing my skills using traditional media, and didn’t start preferring digital until college, when I suddenly had access to all this fancy, expensive equipment. I dabbled with PS7 a little through high school, but didn’t really make anything that could be called “art” until I started making comics in my freshman year. Being a disciple of color, though, I couldn’t think in black and white like a lot of the old cartooning masters often did (thanks to pre-digital printing costs and constraints), and so almost all of my inspirational material was digital. Coloring, lettering, and formatting digitally just seemed to be The Thing To Do. I didn’t take to drawing digitally however, and I never did; for some reason my brain just ceases to understand any sense of scale when it comes to working on a screen. I “lost” myself in digitally drawn pages too easily, and unless I had some kind of real frame of reference, like panel borders I’d drawn by hand and scanned in, it was rare that I could intuitively make heads or tails of what I was looking at. That’s one of the reasons that I still do my lines by hand – I can manipulate those all day without a problem, but as soon as I try to construct a page from the ground up on the computer, I’m lost.

Secondly, the occasions where I do draw digitally (usually quick commissioned illustrations that aren’t meant to be printed out), I rely very heavily on CTRL+Z, and also on the collage-like nature of layers to piece together art. For some people this works fine, but for me, I’ve noticed that I’m barely half the draftsman that I used to be and that I can no longer create pieces from start to finish on paper so easily. This is incredibly frustrating, and as an artist, it’s really a matter of pride. If I can’t take a pen to paper and wind up with a finished product that doesn’t need doctoring up in Photoshop, then what the hell kind of artist am I? There’s a weird undercurrent in contemporary art that has this implication that artists and their works can transcend media. But that’s not true. Art is as much a medium as we are our bodies: that is, fully. 

Thirdly, digital art values speed and efficiency above all else, and the world of commercial art that has built itself on a foundation of digital software values this foremost too. Lightning-fast turnaround times, ever-increasing shortcuts taken at the expense of visual complexity by self-employed artists simply to stay afloat, and entire art forms dedicated to showcasing ideas expressed as quickly as possible (speedpainting) are celebrated as progress. We are outsourcing more and more of our creative labor to expensive machines and esoteric algorithms in exactly the same way that US manufacturers have outsourced manual labor to sweatshops overseas. At some point, it’s going to come back to bite us in the ass… if it hasn’t already.

I am all about slow these days. I do my laundry by hand; I sew by hand (more on that in another post!); I don’t own a car; I make my own pantry staples and condiments; I plan on living in a house that I have built by hand. The next logical step is to take the speed and cold efficiency out of my art-making, and re-learn the art of making art, you might say. I want to rediscover how to enjoy the process as much as the finished product.

This is going to take time, though. I may do lines by hand still, but I will have to revisit hand lettering again, I’ll have to relearn the art of penciling (with Photoshop, you can draw in colored pencils, ink right over them, and not even bother erasing because you can very easily eliminate the color after scanning) and perhaps more daunting of all, coloring. I’ll probably go the watercolor/pigmented inks route for that.

I can’t think of a single artist who works this way anymore, beyond maybe some aging European master whose work I’d recognize but name I don’t know. It’s hideously slow and inefficient work – I might spend 10+ on a page that, using Photoshop, might have taken me half that – but it’s better for me mentally, artistically, and I will be beholden to no one’s bottom line to get my work done. I will also have all my materials physically occupying space with my in the studio. There will be no question of what sorts of resources I’m using up to make my art, and no delusion of where any of it came from and how much I need. It’s a more intimate relationship grounded in reality, I think.

I’d actually started off intending to write a post about the fountain pen I’d bought recently, and how it was going to mark my return to inking with ink and nib in lieu of expensive and short-lived pens like Copic multiliners. But I realized the “why” portion is just as important as the “how”, so I’ll save the actual shop talk for a future post and hopefully share with you the progress I’m making on my transition away from dependence on Adobe and Wacom over the next few years.

Please do read the Archdruid Report piece linked above, though. I’ll leave you with something very important he says that is no longer obvious to many folks. It’s about the internet, but I wager that it’s relevant to all industries that rely on the internet to function, as Adobe does now.

It’s a source of wry amusement to me that so many people seem to have forgotten that the internet doesn’t actually do very much that’s new. Long before the internet, people were reading the news, publishing essays and stories, navigating through unfamiliar neighborhoods, sharing photos of kittens with their friends, ordering products from faraway stores for home delivery, looking at pictures of people with their clothes off, sending anonymous hate-filled messages to unsuspecting recipients, and doing pretty much everything else that they do on the internet today. For the moment, doing these things on the internet is cheaper and more convenient than the alternatives, and that’s what makes the internet so popular. If that changes—if the internet becomes more costly and less convenient than other options—its current popularity is unlikely to last.

 

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Interview: “Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century”

This is a podcast episode from the New Books Network, which is a series of podcasts that interview authors of interesting new books in just about every field imaginable.

The featured book in this episode, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century, is about something that the vast majority of western environmentalists (yo, zero wasters, you’re very guilty here too) are either willingly or unwittingly ignorant of: the historical relationship between monied western countries and those in the developing world in terms of the 20th century environmentalist push.

Just to sort of set the scene for this history, the modern environmentalist movement, and even the World Wildlife Fund, was founded by a prominent eugenicist and colonialist. 

So if you’re interested in “””sustainability””” or whatever, please for the love of kale, listen to the podcast. Or better, get the book.

Today, sustainability is all the rage.  But when and why did the idea of sustainable development emerge, and how has its meaning changed over time?

Stephen Macekura’s new book, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2015) explores this question by connecting three of the most important aspects of the twentieth century: decolonization, the rise of environmentalism, and the pursuit of economic development and modernization in the Third World.  Macekura, who is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Indiana University, demonstrates how environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attempted to promote environmental protection in the post-colonial world, then, after failing to do so, challenged the economic development approaches of the United States, World Bank, and United Nations.  The book reveals how environmental activists initially conceived of “sustainable development” as a way to link environmental protection with Third World concerns about equality and justice in the global economy, but how, over time, the phrase’s meaning moved far away from this initial conception.

In addition to exploring the idea of “sustainable development,” Macekura also examines the growth and limits of the environmental movement’s power. He pays close attention to how international political disputes have scuttled major global treaties over issues such as climate change; he also documents the evolution of international development politics and policy since 1945. In sum, Of Limits and Growth offers a new history of sustainability by elucidating the global origins of environmental activism, the ways in which environmental activists challenged development approaches worldwide, and how environmental non-state actors reshaped the United States’ and World Bank’s development policies.

The Zero-Waste Case for Littering

You see the title of this post and probably think to yourself: “That’s it, they’ve finally lost their marbles. How could anyone, let alone an anti-trash advocate, endorse littering?? The transporter must’ve glitched!”

I haven’t grown an evil beard– I can assure you that this isn’t the mirror universe.

Being pro-litter is actually highly logical, as I will soon argue; even a Vulcan couldn’t disagree by the end of this post. Why? Well, it comes down to two things: one, the history of litter laws in the West (specifically the US), and two, a concept called direct action.

The History of Litter Laws in the West (Specifically the US)

Littering, like most everything else, wasn’t always criminalized. In fact, for the vast majority of human history, there was no need for it: litter was, up until very recently, almost always biodegradable natural waste, and in the case of tough-to-decompose materials like bones and ash, some of it was even saleable. But the sea change happened at a very important part of US and world history. What else was going on at the time? Well, WW2 had ended, for one thing. Plastics were being mass-produced for the first time, and the concept of disposability was just entering into the social consciousness; the USian public had 20 years of pinched pockets after the stock market crash of ’29, and during WW2, they had strict rationing. It’s little wonder how the allure of cheap and disposable goods captured the imaginations of so many as soon as the opportunity arose.

In 1953, Keep America Beautiful was founded in response to the trash accumulating along the roads of the country’s brand-spankin’-new interstate highway system. In 1955, Britain had its own campaign: Keep Britain Tidy. Australia founded Keep Australia Beautiful in 1968. Other countries have similar initiatives, though not usually on a national scale; for instance, in Canada, it appears most anti-littering organizations operate on the provincial or municipal level, and very few of these smaller movements go back further than the 90’s.

But those campaigns are good, you might be saying. They are, it could be argued, on paper. In reality, Keep America Beautiful, obviously the first and most influential of the anti-littering movements, was founded by a group of key players in the beverage industry, who were beginning to see bad publicity when their products were turning up on roadsides and in ditches all over the country. Some of these names you might recognize: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch, and Phillip Morris. From Bottle Bill Toolkit’s history of Keep America Beautiful:

In the aftermath of magazine ads promoting beverage cans as “throwaways”, Keep America Beautiful (KAB) was founded in 1953 by a group of businessmen from the beverage and packaging industries. Their purported interest was to curb the growing problem of litter. Coincidently, 1953 was the year Vermont passed the nation’s first bottle bill, banning the sale of beer in non-refillable bottles.

Litter was a visible problem nationwide and the bottlers and packagers were concerned that government would make them responsible for solving the litter problem by regulating their industries. That concern was the catalyst for founding KAB. The organization launched its first campaign theme, “Every Litter Bit Hurts” and the most visible environmental organizations joined KAB’s war on litter.

So like any good capitalist, these businessmen sought to hand the responsibility over to the unwitting public, rather than deal with the repercussions of their manufacturing practices, or–god forbid–face government regulation. According to them, “People start pollution, [and] people can stop it.”

Surely Keep America Beautiful has gotten better since then; after all, the goal is admirable, right? Again, it only sounds great on paper. From the previous link:

In 1972 Oregon and Vermont enacted the nation’s first bottle bills requiring a 5-cent deposit on beer and soft drink containers. By 1974, when the California legislature began to debate whether to enact a container deposit law, KAB made a strategic decision to publicly oppose the bottle bill. Roger Powers, President of KAB testified against the California bottle bill before the state legislature in Sacramento. […]

The final blow to environmentalists was dealt during a speech at a July 1976 KAB Board of Directors meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, when American Can Company chairman William F. May labeled bottle bill proponents “Communists” and called for a total KAB mobilization against the four bottle bill referenda on the ballot in November. Present during the speech were KAB’s Advisory Committee members, many of whom were the subject of May’s attack.

The story was picked up by Jack Anderson and aired on his national television show. On August 12, 1976, the EPA resigned from KAB’s board and by October 1976 more than a dozen environmental and citizen groups, including National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, League of Women Voters and Sierra Club disaffiliated from KAB. In November of that year voters approved bottle bills in Michigan and Maine. […]

In the 1990’s, KAB adopted yet another campaign slogan – “Let’s not waste the 1990’s” – which stressed the need to encourage citizens, municipal officials and civic leaders to “re-examine recycling’s capabilities and limitations.” The new campaign presented a 5-pronged solution to solving the problem of solid waste – source reduction, recycling, composting, incineration and sanitary landfilling.

KAB’s 1990’s slogan was new, but the message had changed little since Iron Eyes Cody warned that “People Start Pollution – People Can Stop It.” The promotional materials made no mention of policies such as recycled content requirements, mandatory recycling rates, bottle bills or other measurers that shift the burden of waste management and waste reduction from government to the producers of waste. […]

In an article in Biocycle , Former President of NRC and Manager of Market Development for Weyerhaeuser Recycling, Pete Grogan, wrote, “I find myself questioning the agenda behind the [$400k report funded by KAB which reached the conclusion that recycling and composting aren’t effective waste management methods]. . . The report reminds us that it is ‘cheaper’ to send solid waste to the landfill. Well, I can easily argue that tossing solid waste in the river is even cheaper.”

Keep America Beautiful may have little clout these days (though it is still affiliated with Waste Management, a company that owns and operates many of the country’s landfills), but the bulk of the damage has already been done. KAB is responsible for inventing and disseminating the picture of an all-powerful consumer in whose hands alone rests the health and future of the biosphere, and it’s been working at maintaining this fabrication for more than 60 years with the help of many an anti-environmental corporate sponsor. The image of Iron Eyes Cody shedding a single tear has been widely recognized by marketers and historians alike as one of the most successful ad campaigns ever conceived. We are living in the aftermath of this great lie.

Whether we like it or not, Keep America Beautiful was the beginning of modern conscious consumerism, eco-friendliness, and greenwashing. This is the heritage of the Zero Waste lifestyle movement. It’s founded on a NIMBY moral aesthetic where beautiful = good and ugly = bad. We gotta get away from this childish and reactionary way of thinking; it’s getting us nowhere fast. This brings us to the next part.

Direct Action

Direct action can be loosely defined as a political act that doesn’t rely on any outside system or institution to direct and sponsor it, and whose goal is more than just “raising awareness”. For instance, planting a community garden can be a direct action; so can smashing in the windows of a bank branch.

Martin Luther King Jr. can be quoted as having a definition:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

– Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Wikipedia has a less poetic and broader definition:

Direct action occurs when a group takes an action which is intended to reveal an existing problem, highlight an alternative, or demonstrate a possible solution to a social issue. This can include nonviolent and less often violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the direct action participants. Examples of non-violent direct action (also known as nonviolent resistance or civil resistance) can include sit-ins, strikes,workplace occupations, blockades, hacktivism, etc., while violent direct action may include political violence, sabotage, property destruction, assaults, etc. By contrast, electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation, and arbitrationare not usually described as direct action, as they are politically mediated. Non-violent actions are sometimes a form of civil disobedience, and may involve a degree of intentional law-breaking where persons place themselves in arrestable situations in order to make a political statement but other actions (such as strikes) may not violate criminal law.

The aim of direct action is to either obstruct another political agent or political organization from performing some practice to which the activists object; or to solve perceived problems which traditional societal institutions (governments, religious organizations or established trade unions) are not addressing to the satisfaction of the direct action participants.

Non-violent direct action has historically been an assertive regular feature of the tactics employed by social movements, including Mohandas Gandhi’s Indian Independence Movement and the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

In other words, direct action is necessarily confrontational.

The question is this: do we, as zero waste advocates, recognize the injustices of pollution, waste, and consumerism as being enough to warrant confrontation? Personally, I think so.

Littering as Direct Action

I argue that littering is a legitimate form of resistance against misguided litter laws, the influence of the waste and landfill lobby, and industrial-consumer-capitalism itself, which created this whole mess to begin with.

First of all, litter laws have only ever been about one thing: appearances. Maintaining the appearance of a clean and healthy world for those who can afford to live in areas where these laws are enforced, and where waste and recycling services and facilities exist; and maintaining the appearance of pollution being a problem perpetuated entirely by irresponsible consumers rather than the capitalist system that produces and pushes these products. I suggest that littering, by making trash and pollution visible, instead of hiding it in landfills, developing nations, Superfund sites, and the ocean’s gyres, we can ensure that it becomes more and more difficult for the average Westerner to ignore the problem. We can ensure that the elephant in the room is harder to forget.

If cloud computing is really just storing files and accessing them from someone else’s computer, then capitalist waste disposal methods are simply a form of “cloud” trash management: storing them on someone else’s land and polluting someone else’s ecosystem. Don’t make the mistake of believing that there is less polluting going on– it’s just harder to see.

So I say let every discarded coffee cup be like a gravestone: a reminder of all the casualties in this battle we’re waging against the natural world and our own health. Let plastic wrappers and crumpled foil be reminders that these artifacts exist, that it’s only a matter of where they will exist. Inspire a conversation not about where the trash ought to go, but why it was made in the first place; who sold it to us; whether it was truly useful or not; and what might it take to keep this from happening altogether.

Because cleaning up here means just putting the mess someplace else. And that’s not right.

A Zero-Waste Case Against Proprietary Software and Surveillance

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A Google data center in Iowa. Flickr

For a long time, I wasn’t sure how to feel when I read about self-professed minimalists and zero-wasters talk of decluttering their life thanks to the cloud. In a more or less direct way, these authors and lifestyle gurus were singing the praises of companies like Netflix and Google, Spotify and Pintrest. And at first it might make sense, right? Think of all the DVDs or CDs that won’t end up in the landfill thanks to streaming services. All the magazines and books that wont be taking up room on your shelves. All the burned fossil fuels saved by avoiding shipping them to the local big box store where you would have bought them.

What you, and honestly most people, don’t realize, though, is just how fundamentally dirty proprietary software, cloud services, and the associated information-gathering, really are. Let’s start with the most obvious: server farms and data centers.

What does over one billion monthly active users look like when projected onto material reality? Almost 50 thousand Google searches per second? How much physical space and energy do our online activities require? According to Paul Wallbank, who was asked to research this for an ABC radio show way back in 2012, one can only guess:

Figuring out how much data is saved in computer systems is a daunting task in itself and in 2011 scientists estimated there were 295 exabytes stored on the Internet, desktop hard drives, tape backup and other systems in 2007.

2007? That’s ancient history as far as technology is concerned. We’ve likely quadrupled that amount since. He goes on:

In 2009 it was reported Google was planning to have ten million servers and an exabyte of information. It’s almost certain that point has been passed, particularly given the volume of data being uploaded to YouTube which alone has 72 hours worth of video uploaded every minute.

Facebook is struggling with similar growth and it’s reported that the social media service is having to rewrite its database. Last year it was reported Facebook users were uploading six billion photos a month and at the time of the float on the US stock market the company claimed to have over a 100 petabytes of photos and video.

According to one of Microsoft’s blogs, Hotmail has over a billion mailboxes and “hundreds of petabytes of data”.

For Amazon details are harder to find, in June 2012 Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos announced their S3 cloud storage service was now hosting a billion ‘objects’. If we assume the ‘objects’ – which could be anything from a picture to a database running on Amazon’s service – have an average size of a megabyte then that’s a exabyte of storage.

The amount of storage is only one part of the equation, we have to be able to do something with the data we’ve collected so we also have to look at processing power. This comes down to the number of computer chips or CPUs – Central Processing Units – being used to crunch the information.

Probably the most impressive data cruncher of all is the Google search engine that processes phenomenal amounts of data every time somebody does a search on the web. Google have put together an infographic that illustrates how they manage to answer over a billion queries a day in an average time of less than quarter of a second.

Google is reported to own 2% of the world’s servers and they are very secretive about the numbers, estimates based on power usage in 2011 put the number of servers the company uses at around 900,000. Given Google invests about 2.5 billion US dollars a year on new data centres, it’s safe to say they have probably passed the one million mark.

How much electricity all of this equipment uses is a valid question. According to Jonathan Koomey of Stanford University, US data centres use around 2% of the nation’s power supply and globally these facilities use around 1.5%.

The numbers involved in answering the question of how much data is stored by web services are mind boggling and they are growing exponentially. One of the problems with researching a topic like this is how quickly the source data becomes outdated.

It’s easy to overlook the complexity and size of the technologies that run social media, cloud computing or web searches. Asking questions on how these services work is essential to understanding the things we now take for granted.

Facebook users were uploading six billion photos per month back in 2011. How many photo albums, how much film, would that translate to? Ah, but it would never be a direct equivocation; according to the Jevons Paradox, that number only exists because it’s so easy to deal with photographs in this way, compared to the relative “inefficiency” of dealing with film and photo paper of the pre-digital era.

In other words, the amount of photos taken and developed by the average person in 1990 is surely a tiny fraction of the amount of photos taken and shared by the average person now.

Okay, so, 2% of US energy goes directly to processing search queries, broadcasting tweets, and generally keeping the internet alive 24/7. According to The New York Times, that 1.5% worldwide 2012 figure is equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants. According to that same article:

A yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed that this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.

Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found.

To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations, documents show. In Silicon Valley, many data centers appear on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a roster of the area’s top stationary diesel polluters.

Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants, according to estimates industry experts compiled for The Times. Data centers in the United States account for one-quarter to one-third of that load, the estimates show.

“Its staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems,” said Peter Gross, who helped design hundreds of data centers. “A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.”

Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analysed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations.

[…]

“This is an industry dirty secret, and no one wants to be the first to say mea culpa,” said a senior industry executive who asked not to be identified to protect his company’s reputation. “If we were a manufacturing industry, we’d be out of business straightaway.”

There you have it, folks, and straight from the horse’s mouth. Data centers, from the coal fueling their substations to the rare earth metals in their equipment, are downright toxic operations, and no amount of green-washing can change that. It is the nature of the digital beast.

“That’s all very interesting,” you might be thinking to yourself. “But what does this all have to do with proprietary software and surveillance?”

Good question! Now that I’ve established that data centers, the powerhouses behind our social media, our search engines, and our entire modern online existence, are fundamentally antagonistic to an environmentalist way of living, we can start talking about the ways that those data centers are used and identify the myriad ways that they are misused from an eco-justice perspective. Fasten your seat belts.

The title of this post names the two biggest problems in the centralized world of technology that the vast majority of us currently live: namely proprietary software and surveillance. Proprietary software can be defined as any kind of program that runs on any kind of electronic device that is not open-source. Opensource.com describes open-source products as “something that can be modified because its design is publicly accessible”.

While it originated in the context of computer software development, today the term “open source” designates a set of values—what we call the open source way. Open source projects, products, or initiatives are those that embrace and celebrate open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community development.

[…]

What’s the difference between open source software and other types of software?

Some software has source code that cannot be modified by anyone but the person, team, or organization who created it and maintains exclusive control over it. This kind of software is frequently called “proprietary software” or “closed source” software, because its source code is the property of its original authors, who are the only ones legally allowed to copy or modify it. Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop are examples of proprietary software. In order to use proprietary software, computer users must agree (usually by signing a license displayed the first time they run this software) that they will not do anything with the software that the software’s authors have not expressly permitted.

“Computer users must agree that they will not do anything with the software that the software’s authors have not expressly permitted.”

To most people, this is a given. After all, if you rent a car from a rental company, there’s a reason you have to sign a contract outlining all the ways in which you won’t abuse this vehicle you’re borrowing. The car is not yours, after all; the car’s owner, the rental company, gets to make the rules, and if you don’t like it, then tough. But software isn’t actually anything like a rental car– or anything else that you can physically own that has restrictions put on it. In fact, it’s not even like a car that you bought and paid for yourself and that you own outright.

Cracked.com used a similar analogy to explain a disturbing trend in video game publishing and distribution. This was back in 2011, but things are still on this path:

Imagine if every time you drove your car, you had to first check in with the car manufacturer to confirm that it’s you behind the wheel. Let’s say that this relies on an Internet connection, and if the connection is down, you can’t drive.

With a car, you can paint it, swap out parts, and fix it yourself all you want. You’re even allowed to take off the maker’s mark. You can’t do that with proprietary software, even if you did pay full price for it and own a physical copy. It’s against the law. Why is this?

Well, it’s the same argument against digital piracy. Firstly, digital media piracy is a misnomer– traditionally, a pirate was someone that committed theft and violent crime at sea, stealing physical goods and inflicting physical harm against victims. But associating the term with those who violate copyright laws has been in practice since before there even were copyright laws; since at least the early 1600’s, and modern copyright-holders have been quick to jump on the bandwagon when it comes to describing peer-to-peer sharing. This practice of equating copyright infringement with theft and piracy hasn’t been permitted in US courts since the mid-80’s.

So if software isn’t comparable to a physical product, but is something that you are forced to purchase in order to “own”, then why are there restrictions on what you can do with that product, who you can give it to, how you can give it? Even though there isn’t even a physical, material original of the thing that can be stolen, gifted, and generally moved from one place to another instead of reproduced indefinitely with no harm done to the original? If you’re not allowed to modify your car, or let someone borrow it, or in some cases, even look under the hood, would you say that you truly owned that car? Probably not.

Richard Stallman, creator of the first open-source computer operating system, GNU/Linux, recalls the history of software since the 80’s to describe why this is a problem:

In 1983, the software field had become dominated by proprietary (ie nonfree) programs, and users were forbidden to change or redistribute them. I developed the GNU operating system, which is often called Linux, to escape and end that injustice. But proprietary developers in the 1980s still had some ethical standards: they sincerely tried to make programs serve their users, even while denying users control over how they would be served.

Does anyone remember Ello? It was that new, hip, social network that was supposed to be a Facebook-killer. It was in the spotlight for about 2 months late last year and I haven’t heard from it since… maybe that’s because I left Facebook at the time and headed for Diaspora* instead, and most of the discussion about Ello was happening there. Or maybe, it’s because Ello was doomed from day one, and has already fallen into obscurity. The thing about Ello was that it was trying to be Facebook… except without all the stuff everyone hates about Facebook; its selling point was that it was going to be the “first” ad-free social network out there, that its users weren’t a product to be sold to advertisers. But advertising is only just one of the problems with Facebook–and indeed all centralized social media platforms–and this was an uphill battle for the burgeoning website. In other words, they were trying to make a new kind of fire that only burns slightly less hot than normal fire, and brand it as safe to touch.

How would Ello make money, people asked. Servers don’t run on social capital and positive mentions on twitter, programmers and designers don’t get paid and venture capitalists don’t get rich off of an adoring userbase alone. So amid the vocal criticisms taking over the blogosphere, Ello announced that it had finalized a manifesto. Ah, yes, a manifesto! Because we know that companies always keep their promises. Not.

Stallman continues (oh and hey, here’s more for that car analogy):

How far things have sunk. Developers today shamelessly mistreat users; when caught, they claim that fine print in EULAs (end user licence agreements) makes it ethical. (That might, at most, make it lawful, which is different.) So many cases of proprietary malware have been reported, that we must consider any proprietary program suspect and dangerous. In the 21st century, proprietary software is computing for suckers.

What sorts of wrongs are found in malware? Some programs are designed to snoop on the user. Some are designed to shackle users, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM). Some have back doors for doing remote mischief. Some even impose censorship. Some developers explicitly sabotage their users.

What kinds of programs constitute malware? Operating systems, first of all. Windows snoops on users, shackles users and, on mobiles, censors apps; it also has a universal back door that allows Microsoft to remotely impose software changes. Microsoft sabotages Windows users by showing security holes to the NSA before fixing them.

Apple systems are malware too: MacOS snoops and shackles; iOS snoops, shackles, censors apps and has a back door. Even Android contains malware in a nonfree component: a back door for remote forcible installation or deinstallation of any app.

What about nonfree apps? Plenty of malware there. Even humble flashlight apps for phones were found to be reporting data to companies. A recent study found that QR code scanner apps also snoop.

Apps for streaming services tend to be the worst, since they are designed to shackle users against saving a copy of the data that they receive, as well as making users identify themselves so their viewing and listening habits can be tracked.

The Free Software Foundation reports on many more cases of proprietary malware.

What about other digital products? We know about the smart TV and the Barbie doll that transmit conversations remotely. Proprietary software in cars that stops those we used to call “car owners” from fixing “their” cars. If the car itself does not report everywhere you drive, an insurance company may charge you extra to go without a separate tracker. Meanwhile, some GPS navigators save up where you have gone in order to report back when connected to update the maps.

Amazon’s Kindle e-reader reports what page of what book is being read, plus all notes and underlining the user enters; it shackles the user against sharing or even freely giving away or lending the book, and has an Orwellian back door for erasing books.

What’s to stop these proprietary developers from encroaching on our privacy and freedom even more than this? Well, nothing, really. Nothing except the resources necessary to take these guys to court and compel a judge or jury to side with the user. And even then, it would be too little too late: the whole reason proprietary software exists is so that its code can’t be audited. And if it can’t be audited, then you have no control over what happens to you and your data when you use that service, let alone know what’s happening to it.

But wait, there’s more!

Closed-source software is protected by copyright law the world over, and many components of software falls under the category of intellectual property. (And these laws are getting tighter and tighter with every new international trade agreement that gets passed.) So unauthorized distribution and modification are prohibited. An incomplete answer to this has been the Creative Commons, which allows content producers to specify a custom license for their works that may permit modification, derivation, redistribution, etc. Having those options spelled out in easy-to-understand language is helpful, sure, but I argue that all unfree creative works, and in this case, unfree, closed-source software, is bad.

Above, it’s already been proven that un-auditable software creates an environment that is at best ambivalent to, and at worst encourages, abuses of users by both the companies themselves and third-party exploiters. But proprietary software also undermines the integrity of:

Creativity and Innovation

The legal structures that allow proprietary software to exist, patent and copyright law, do much more to stifle creativity and innovation than they do to encourage it. Thanks to these practices, Apple has ownership over rounded corners on phones, for instance. Many hurdles in the history of the electric car can be blamed on patent misuse as well. But as one user on Opensource.com points out, when it comes to software:

Software is mathematics. Mathematics is not patentable. The whole current process is irrational because the lawyers and judges and legislators WANT software to be patentable and so they keep trying to argue that some mathematics is mathematics and other mathematics is not mathematics. It is inherently contradictory and the current disaster is what we have.

Protection

Who does proprietary software, copyright law, and patent law protect? In theory, it’s supposed to level the playing field for everyone, but in practice, it accomplishes quite the opposite. Large companies can go out of their way to put their smaller competitors on the defensive, and in some cases, acquire their patents once they’ve got them facing bankruptcy.  The innovations that might have changed the industry for the better, and put the bigger company out of business, get buried.

Or what about the case of individuals who have come up with a creative work, a piece of art or software, only to later find out that a larger company had appropriated their work and are now making money from it on a mass scale? This has been the case with the development of large, highly-visible projects like Minecraft, and happens all the time with hobbyist artists across the web as they go to war against entities that run the gamut from random Chinese Etsy stores to Urban Outfitters. Many of these creators are young, low-income-earners, and sometimes even minors; none of these people have the ability to shut down all instances of “art theft”, or even any of them. Sometimes all they can afford to do is send emails. Going to court is completely out of reach, and most of the time, the bullying company in question would be able to spend circles around their nobody prosecutors in court and legal fees anyways. In other words, there is often no recourse for the very people copyright and patent law is supposedly designed to protect the most.

I’m imagining it right now: “What in the heck does this all have to do with the environment? With zero waste??” you must be thinking. I know, I’ve been covering a lot of ground that looks irrelevant, but don’t worry! I’m just about there. But let’s summarize first:

  • The physical infrastructure of digital goods and services is a disaster for the environment
  • The legal infrastructure of digital goods and services is disastrous for humans’ natural inclination to be creative and innovate
  • The principle of prioritizing complete control over digital goods and services is disastrous for the needs and safety of users
  • Proprietary = surveillance

Let’s revisit the legal thing again.

Take a moment to think about the legal process, the machine, that allows proprietary software to exist: patent and copyright laws; intellectual property laws; private property laws; the judicial system to rule on these laws; the police and FBI to enforce these laws; the prison-industrial complex to deal with those who break any of these laws with sufficient frequency or severity; lawyer fees; court fees; consulting fees; resources to issue DMCAs and takedown requests; resources to file patents and copyrights; resources to file lawsuits; resources to defend against lawsuits; the physical and human infrastructure required to process all of that filing, all of that suing, all of that patenting.

Now, imagine what life could be like without copyright and patent laws. Okay, let me revise that; imagine a life without copyright laws and patent laws in a world with no profit motive. People would make things for the sheer joy of making things, just like how we all did when we were children. Somewhere along the way, though, we started being told not to copy other people, to produce things that were useful and not “frivolous”, to be happy with what we get when it comes to proprietary innovations and products that other people make.

But no. We live in a world where smart phones are put together using glue instead of screws because planned obsolescence is more lucrative than creating a product that’s built to last and easy to fix.

It’s wasteful.

Enforcing laws that protect private property, that protect profits, are wasteful. This system eats up unimaginable amounts of paper, energy, e-waste, fossil fuels. It squanders the creative drives of individuals who are yoked, willing and unwilling, to the pursuit of profit. It punishes innovations that don’t please the right people at the right time, and paves the way for what some argue to be a grand, digital, plan. With so many casualties in this war for the “right” to spy on users, the “right” to shackle users to toxic software, and the “right” to abuse users, all with impunity, shouldn’t we start seeking out alternatives? And if there’s one thing I know zero-wasters are really good at, it’s finding alternatives for wasteful products.

So where do we start?

Well, the first obvious solution is to make the switch to as much free and open-source software (FOSS) as possible. Use Diaspora* instead of Facebook and Twitter; use VLC instead of iTunes or Windows Media Player; use Libre Office and Etherpad instead of MS Office and Google Docs; use Firefox and Tor instead of Chrome, IE, and Safari; use Calibre to manage your e-book collection; use Thunderbird to manage your emails; use Amaya or KompoZer to manage your websites; use Pidgin/Adium for instant messenging; use Jitsi for VoIP voice and video calling; use DuckDuckGo for your browser searches.

And so on. Simply by removing yourself from the ecosystem of profit-driven software and technology, even if just a little, you’ve reduced your footprint. Surveillance tech and data miners have one less opportunity to log information about you to store on some server farm someplace. One less opportunity to sell you something or sell you to someone else. One less opportunity to bully you using a rigged legal and judicial system if you fall out of line.

It’s useful to think about the future that I want, I believe; to think about that future in vivid, painstaking, technicolor detail.

I imagine it because I have to. I owe it not just to myself, but to the world around me, the ecosystems and species we’ve crippled, and my brown and black neighbors living on far-flung continents. I owe it to their children, too. Because if I can’t imagine the world that I want to live in, then I definitely can’t work toward it, and if I can’t work toward it, it will never become a reality.

Does that world involve the internet, though? Honestly, I don’t know. Without an oil industry, I’m not sure if there’d be enough motivation to keep manufacturing plastics and silicone. Who would want to mine and refine coltan without a warlord holding their village hostage? I know I wouldn’t. I’ve got a million other things I’d rather do than dig pits looking for gray rock so that I could give that gray rock to someone else, who will give it to someone else, who will give it to someone else, who will eventually give it to someone who could then make a smartphone out of it?

It may surprise you to hear that my ideal world doesn’t really have any need for smart phones. Or server farms.

It may also surprise you to hear that the internet doesn’t need either of those things to survive. (That is, if it’s meant to survive.) The key concept here is decentralization.

A decentralized system is always more resilient than a centralized one. As an example, look to biology. A human is a very complex organism; we have a brain, the command center, that controls the rest of the body with exacting detail. If something goes wrong with that brain, say, head trauma, then the rest of the system can suffer tremendously… or be lost altogether. A head injury can easily be fatal, even if the rest of the system is perfectly healthy and undamaged. A tree, on the other hand, is tremendously resilient in terms of damage. Lopping off the crown or any individual branch will rarely ever spell death for a strong tree. In many species, cutting down an entire specimen may not even be permanently fatal as the roots will often send up new leaves around the stump.

Of course, trees aren’t quite as complex as human bodies are. But who said complexity is a good thing? Trees are remarkably good at what they do; that is, communicate between its different parts, make and distribute nutrients, and figure out the best way to survive given its location.

Shouldn’t that be what the internet does? Or rather, shouldn’t that be all the internet needs to do in an ideal world? Using the word “should” is always tricky when you’re an anti-authoritarian, but I do have to draw the line where the environment is concerned. Right now, the internet looks a lot more like a human body than a tree, and that needs to change if the internet is to survive in the future as a tool with a neutral carbon footprint. It has to be easily disassembled, easily fixed, lightweight (in terms of code), and less complex. Unfortunately that complexity currently manifests as cloud computing, as streaming services, as proprietary software that pulls strings from inside black boxes. Sorry, Netflix fans. I don’t think there’s any way to make your smart TV carbon-neutral.

When I do my imagining of that ideal future, the most technologically “advanced” communities look a lot like that of post-civilizationist thinkers. Computers and video games made with 100% reclaimed materials, powered with maybe reliable, maybe not, renewable energy from local wind turbines and water wheels. I imagine a society where the internet is used more like a telephone or ham radio; that is, intermittently, peer-to-peer, and only when needed. Maybe it’ll resemble the newsgroups and message boards of the early days of “internet 1.0”. Maybe it won’t. Maybe we’ll have figured out how to fit much more meaningful information and communication into a smaller, simpler network of servers and terminals, winking on and off the map as the sky gets cloudy or the wind picks up, depending on where you are and what time of year it is.

Mostly, though? I long for a future where computers aren’t necessary, where internet access isn’t the only way to be truly present in your community. Pretty funny to hear this coming from a millennial who worked in video games for a while, huh? I honestly think that disconnection is the neurosis of the digital age. We’re disconnected from ourselves, from the people in our immediate communities, from our bioregion, from the plights of others far away.

We need that immediacy and presence back in our lives; our brains and bodies evolved to thrive on it, hundreds of thousands of years before the first drive wrote the first bit. The internet, as a concept broader than most folks, techies and laymen alike, care to imagine, isn’t wholly incompatible with that reality. I believe that there is hope for an internet divorced of industrial infrastructures and resource extraction. But the internet as it exists is for now, sadly, mired in it.

 “When somebody says ‘I’m going to store something in the cloud, we don’t need disk drives anymore,’ — the cloud is disk drives,” Mr. Victoria [a professor of electrical engineering at at the University of Minnesota]. “We get them one way or another. We just don’t know it.”

Whatever happens within the companies, it is clear that among consumers, what are now settled expectations largely drive the need for such a formidable infrastructure.

“That’s what’s driving the massive growth — the end-user expectation of anything, anytime, anywhere,” said David Cappuccio, a managing vice president and chief of research at Gartner, the technology research firm. “We’re what’s causing the problem.”

Further Reading

The Cost of Paying Attention

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

A FEW years ago, in a supermarket, I swiped my bank card to pay for groceries. I watched the little screen, waiting for its prompts. During the intervals between swiping my card, confirming the amount and entering my PIN, I was shown advertisements. Clearly some genius had realized that a person in this situation is a captive audience.

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.

What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.

[…]

Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I heard only the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. I saw no advertisements on the walls. This silence, more than any other feature, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows, your neck muscles relax; after 20 minutes you no longer feel exhausted.

Outside, in the peon section, is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.

[…]

I think we need to sharpen the conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed. This would apply not, of course, to those who address me face to face as individuals, but to those who never show their faces, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested.

Read the rest from the NYT.

I’ve been privvy, in some way or another, to this for years. I grew up in a second or third-generation suburb where everything was quiet, businesses were very small, and billboards far between. On top of having hypersensitive hearing, I just liked the quietude. But then I got the bright idea to go to college in New York City. In many ways, it was a big mistake.

I moved back home 5 years later, cherishing every tiny drop of delicious silence I could get. I sit and listen to the birds now, and to my cats’ faint snoring as they nap. I can hear the gardener raking leaves on the other side of the condo complex. But I consider all this rehabilitation, and it’s a slow process: 3 years I’ve been at this, healing the physical and psychological damage that living in such a loud, fast-paced, personal-space-deprived city caused me. I’m in the middle of healing my adrenal glands, shot from stressing out over too much overstimulation for too long.

And in the culture I, as a USian, live in, it’s an uphill battle. We are a country where TV commercials are louder than the programming, where we print advertisements on our goddamn eggs. It’s hard to find silence anymore, to find a space where you can get away from “being addressed”, as the article’s author so aptly defines it.

While boycotts are not a great tactic for broad, lasting change, I think it’s definitely viable as a method of staying sane. Boycott marketing, inasmuch as you can figure out how to do that. Reclaim your time. Turn off the TV, use ad-blocking software on your computer (Disconnect, a favorite of mine, develops software to make you invisible to ads that track your movements online, among others that accomplish similar and important things), pay in cash whenever possible so analytics algorithms can’t track your spending habits, and just, y’know, try to avoid centers of high density marketing and consumerism whenever possible. You never know what kinds of tracking technology any given space is equipped with, anyway.

How do you avoid advertising and media overload?

My Father, the Boomer

Photo courtesy of Scripted.com

My dad’s an interesting guy. I like him for the most part, but we’ve had our rough spots over the years as any kid would with their folks. But sometimes we end up talking politics (I know, I know); sometimes he initiates, sometimes I do, sometimes it just happens as I try to make small talk about my future as a person who was never issued bootstraps to pick themselves up by. (The Gen X-ers got the last of ’em.)

He doesn’t see this as small talk, though, which is really the fundamental difference between our generations, I think. For a Millennial, chatting about unemployment and being up to our eyeballs in debt is normal and casual conversation. To a Boomer, it’s TMI. I either get pity (instead of sympathy) or I get unwanted advice (often incredulous).

These two broad categories of reactions are expressions of the fundamental experience of being a Boomer. Namely, that they are both extremely hierarchical ways of looking at people and at problems. Pity and sympathy do not mean the same things. I like this explanation from english.stackexchange.com in response to someone wondering what the difference is:

Sympathy and pity have a synonymous convergence, but also diverge in some respects.

In addition to its meaning of pitysympathy can refer to a special kind of understanding that two or more people share.

“I had a special sympathy for Martha’s desire to excel in math, since I too loved math and wanted to see someone from our family do well.”

See? No pity involved. The word actually comes from the Greek for “with feeling”. It means to resonate emotionally with someone else. It can also be an acoustic term. Push down the sostenuto pedal on a piano and make a loud shout, preferably singing. You will hear the piano strings resonate faintly. This is called “sympathetic vibration.” That is a direct physical analogue to the emotional resonance I’m talking about.

That resonance, that quality of similarity and understanding, is key to what sets sympathy and pity apart. You can’t sympathize with someone regarding an experience of theirs that you have never had, but you can definitely pity them for it.

The unwanted advice is, to me, more straightforward. First off, giving advice when it’s not being asked for is just plain rude, especially if someone’s venting to you about their frustrations. What you, in effect, are doing there is disregarding their feelings and focusing on the circumstances of their situation that you position yourself as being better equipped to fix and seeking to validate that feeling. In other words, it’s a self-important reaction to have when someone’s just trying to talk to you as an equal. The uncomfortable stratification this creates is even further emphasized when the advisor is older, more monied, or just benefits from more privileges than the advisee. (F’ex, a white person trying to give a black person advice on how to cope with racism. Not cool, right?) In my case, it’s my extremely financially stable father trying to tell me how easy it is to find work; the implication here is that his assessment of the job market is correct and mine is wrong, so I need to do something different… i.e. not be lazy.

But it’s when we start talking about economics and the environment (they’re completely interdependent, remember?) is when things get kind of funny. And I sometimes find myself, well, pitying him.

Being a Boomer and a conservative (most Boomers are, anyway), he is fully on-board with the “greed is good” doctrine. Yes, he’s a fan of Ayn Rand. To him, a financial system without greed isn’t just impossible, but he literally cannot wrap his head around how such a thing would work even in theory. Greed (monetary gain, to be more specific), as far as he’s concerned, is the only thing that has ever motivated any human being to do anything.

“But people do things for no money all the time.”

He never knows how to respond to this. It’s such an obvious part of existence–doing things because its the ethical thing to do, the pleasurable thing to do, the healthy thing to do, etc–and yet he can’t see it when it’s shoved in his face. Entire non-profit and volunteer organizations cease to exist when he starts talking about this fantasy Rand-land of his. His hobby, too, ceases to exist– after all, nobody pays him to hike up mountains and yet he still does it for some reason?

Greed, by its very nature, stratifies. It positions the self at the top and everyone else at the bottom. End of. I tried talking to him about the feasibility of small-scale horizontally structured societies of the like that anarcho-syndicalists talk about, but he was promptly distracted by a strawman. He can’t even imagine a world where there is no top and bottom. It’s a logical fallacy to him, and a debate can’t continue unless this concept ceases to exist even hypothetically.

We talked about developing countries, too, and the worldwide rate of open defecation, which is something close to 50%. “Can you imagine having to poop on the ground outside all the time?” he asked, eyes wide as though he were asking me to imagine something actually fantastical like elves and dragons.

You can tell when someone is completely unequipped to talk about the reality of the near-future where energy is due to become scarce again, like it has been for the vast majority of human history. When you can’t imagine yourself without constant access to running, potable water? I’m sorry, but you’re fucked. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t normalize it. If you can’t normalize it, you’re going to go your whole life trying to stay as far away from it as possible, always to be the reality for someone else. It’s not “no one should have to live like that”, it’s “aren’t we so lucky we aren’t them?” And should you suddenly find yourself to become that someone else, that “them”, it’s a crisis of tremendous magnitude. Not a fact of life.

He kept conflating anarchism with communism, which was very silly, but I asked him what he thought of Revolutionary Catalonia anyways, and he didn’t have an answer. He’d never heard of it.

“It’s just outright collective lunacy to me to think that we could have infinite growth on a finite planet.”

“What do you mean by “infinite growth”?”

“GDP? Debt? Credit? Fiat currency? Inflation?”

“Those things have always been around.” His use of the word “always” here is an obvious misnomer.

“Oh come on. Capitalism as we understand it has been around for barely a century or two. All the world’s previous economies were understood to be made up primarily of goods, not assets.”

He got distracted by a strawman again at that point.

But he also contradicted himself, I can see now. He claimed that the environmental, governmental, and financial problems the world is beginning to run into have always been around; that they are a product of natural societal cycles. But at the same time, he fails to recognize that civilization collapse was also part of those cycles, and somehow believes that capitalism, which has not always existed, is capable of saving us from such a thing. So are we, or are we not, just going ’round the wheel here?

I told him, too, that I want to get to a point in my life where I’m living debt-free. I want to get out of the system, and I want to stay out. I want to see how far cash can take me in life. He couldn’t understand this either, trying to convince me that investing and gambling and making my money “grow” was just the logical, natural, 100% free-range, organic thing to do. I just want to pay off the debt I have right now and never be in over my head ever again, I said. He looked at me like I’d grown another head. Fuck credit, I thought to myself.

That’s my dad, though. Completely unable to comprehend a society without hierarchy, without class, without poverty and crippling debt. After all, somebody’s gotta be in charge, right? And somebody’s gotta be there at the bottom who the rest of us can exploit, right?

I read a blog post the other day, while searching for a little information about the existence and production of organic bananas, written by someone who is ardently anti-organic and pro-big ag. Reading the author’s reasons for avoiding organic produce and hormone-free animal products was like being transported to a dream-world where up is down and 2+2 is 5.  Logic like “America is the best country on earth”, “pesticides are a good thing”, and “rBST is natural”. Who the hell is this person? The daughter of a Kansas cattle rancher, indoctrinated since birth to trust the the government, the GMO lobby, and the beef industry like a blind person with a service dog. The offspring of a midwest conservative Boomer. Point out to me where it says in the bible that God made greed and saw that it was good?

What people like my dad and this random blogger have in common is one very important thing: they are the average USian. Their opinions reflect a starling majority, shaped by decades of propaganda, “rugged individualism”, and blissful apathy. Born in the early 1900’s, they would have been right at home. But it’s 2015, and now they’re just that Looney Tunes character who has run off a cliff, held aloft only by the power of their ignorance.

Maybe someday soon they’ll be forced to look down at the air under their feet and only then will they start to fall.

DIY Rain Barrel

Tutorial courtesy of Hey!Tanks LA:

Reduce your water bill and help the envi­ron­ment in a weekend

Look­ing for a great week­end project for the entire fam­ily? Mak­ing your own rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing bar­rel is an inex­pen­sive, safe and reli­able start to get a rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing sys­tem in place.

SUP­PLIES YOU WILL NEED

  1. 55gal. plas­tic food barrel
  2. 3/4” spigot
  3. 1/2” hose
  4. screen
  5. 6” diam­e­ter plas­tic flowerpot
  6. 1/2” hose barb
  7. 90′ 1/2” hose barb

TOOLS YOU WILL NEED

  1. marker
  2. tin snips
  3. 5/8” & 7/8” pad­dle bit
  4. jig saw
  5. drill
  6. mea­sur­ing tape
  7. wrench
  8. 1/2” & 3/4” tap

MAK­ING THE INLET

Turn flower pot upside down and set it on top of the bar­rel. Place the pot equal dis­tance between the two white caps and approx­i­mately 1/3 over the seam line. With a Sharpie, trace around the flowerpot.

With the cir­cle you just traced as a guide, draw another cir­cle inside the first. Make it about 1/4” smaller; this will be your pattern.

Cut out the smaller cir­cle with a jig saw or hand saw. To get this started, you can drill the ini­tial hole with a pad­dle bit.

With snips or heavy-duty scis­sors, cut a square piece of wire mesh to approx­i­mately the size of the bot­tom of the pot. Fold the cor­ners and place the mesh at the bot­tom of the flow­er­pot. Make sure not to leave any open spaces or gaps. Next, fill about 1/3rd of the pot with 3/4” gravel. This “fil­ter” will set in the hole you made in the bar­rel top.

PLACE­MENT

Water weighs about eight pounds a gal­lon (A full 55 gal­lon bar­rel will weigh over 400 pounds!). It’s impor­tant to set the bar­rel level upon a hard sur­face. In most cases, dirt will turn into sink­ing mud when it gets wet. Build­ing a “sand­box” out of treated lum­ber (reclaimed is prefer­able and often locally avail­able) is a good way to rem­edy this. Fill the box with aggre­gate, gravel, or some other hard mate­r­ial that doesn’t absorb water. Besides keep­ing the bar­rel from sink­ing or tip­ping, the sand­box raises your water supply.

MAK­ING THE OUTLET

Draw a mark on the front of the bar­rel, 4” from the bot­tom. Do this in the cen­ter, on the side where the large, top hole, over­laps the least. This is where the spigot will go. With your mark­ing as a guide, drill a hole with a 7/8” pad­dle bit.

Tap the hole with a ¾” tap. It is impor­tant to only give this-only a few turns, once it catches. Also, try to make your “tap” as straight as pos­si­ble. It’s best to lay the bar­rel hor­i­zon­tally, while drilling and tapping.

Screw the spigot into the hole you just tapped. Use a large wrench to tighten. Tighten until the spigot is snug. When you notice the out­side o ring begin to “squish”- Stop!

MAK­ING THE OVERFLOW

With a 5/8” pad­dle bit, drill a hole about 2” from the top of the bar­rel and fol­low with a 1/2” tap. Screw the 1/2” hose barb into the hole. Slip a few feet of hose onto the barb.

CON­NECT­ING YOUR RAIN BAR­RELS: THE DAISY CHAIN

If you wish to “daisy chain” your bar­rel, choose a spot approx­i­mately the same height as the spigot and drill a hole with a 5/8 pad­dle bit, fol­lowed by a 1/2” tap. Screw in a 1/2” hose barb and con­nect appro­pri­ate size hose length (gar­den hose and poly tub­ing for drip irri­ga­tion work well). If needed, you can plug this con­nec­tor with an end cap.

DIRECT­ING THE DOWN­SPOUT TO THE INLET OF THE BARREL

There are many options here. Use your knowl­edge, intu­ition, and skills. Try to chal­lenge your­self to use as few resources as pos­si­ble and re-use mate­ri­als where you can. Often the sim­plest sys­tem works the best. Like my musi­cian friend says: “play with what you got”

ADDI­TIONAL RESOURCES

There are many great rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing resources on the web. Amer­i­can Rain­wa­ter Catch­ment Asso­ci­a­tion www.arcsa.org and TreeP­eo­ple TreeP­eo­ple are good places to start.

You can call us toll free 1(877) 648‑2657 to order the do-it-yourself-kit.

I’m SO making one of these for my mom when she moves into a house (hopefully) this spring. With California and the rest of the Southwest in a 1000-year drought, it makes no sense why ANY homeowner or home-renter wouldn’t have one or three of these in their yard.

Remember victory gardens? We need to get a head-start on some “victory reservoirs” before we start hurting any more than we currently do.

I’m Removing “Sustainability” from My Vocabulary

I’ve seen a few criticisms of the word and concept floating around recently, but this is the passage that’s officially made me put the term to rest:

Then there’s this idea of sustainability. What exactly does sustainable even mean?

In breaking down the word “sustainability” to try to flesh out what it really entails, Toby Hemenway’s lecture How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and The Planet, but not Civilization, illuminates the conversation. What he posits is that sustainability is, in fact, a bit of a misnomer. It’s not really something that relates to a healthy ecology, but rather survival amidst destruction. For example, so-called sustainable logging may not directly affect the logging of other forests outside of designated sustainable logging coup, but it doesn’t help heal any of the destruction that has been, will be, and is currently waged on these forests. So Hemenway places sustainability as a halfway point between what he refers to as degenerative and regenerative practice. The former relates to actions that facilitate the degradation of ecosystems (i.e. everything the dominant culture does), whilst the latter facilitates ecosystem healing (i.e. everything the dominant culture doesn’t do). It’s an interesting point, and in fact helps break down the façade that claims that this buzzword, sustainability, is helping to save the planet. It’s greenwashing again, trying to excuse our destructive lifestyles. So in permaculture, regenerative practice attempts to mimic natural ecological functions that help repair the different types of damage that have been inflicted by civilisation. The message is clear; ceasing civilisation’s damage to the earth and being “sustainable,” will not save the earth. Until you find me a solar panel that doesn’t require mining, the damage is still being done.

From Uncivilizing Permaculture: An Anti-Civilization And Anti-Colonial Critique Of “Sustainable Agriculture”

Realized that I haven’t written an intro post for permaculture yet. I’ll do that soon.

#NoJusticeNoProfit

I’ve been kind of discombobulated over the past week for a number of reasons, but I really do want to kick myself for forgetting to write up a post about this.

Assuming that you’re rightly angered by the injustice of Darren Wilson’s GJ non-indictment, and the continuing police brutality in response to protests, then you might be interesting to know that Black Friday boycott could have been an act of solidarity with the movement, who asked that #NotOneDime be spent last friday, and IF you couldn’t help yourself, that you spend that dime at a black-owned business.

Many others called for boycotting the entire weekend, including Cyber Monday, and some even asked that none of the rest of your holiday shopping be done at a big box store or the likes of Amazon.

Why, though? What does Walmart or the local shopping mall have to do with justice for Mike Brown? And what does it have to do with environmentalism and the zero waste ethic?

First of all, consumerism has a helluva lot to do with racism in America. The same machine that would rather destroy excess product that a store can’t sell instead of giving it to the needy is the same machine that builds for-profit prisons, is the same machine that instates racial profiling and racist stop-and-frisk policies, is the same machine that will let white (rich) people off the hook for the same crime that a black or brown person is put away for years for, is the same machine that benefits from selling poor communities of color toxic, disposable goods because it’s not profitable to put good quality reusables into their hands, is the same machine that relocates good jobs out of those communities and replaces them with Walmart jobs and SNAP benefits.

It is the same machine that prioritizes profits over people. And if manufacturing garbage (metaphorical and literal) is what makes money, then by god there will be garbage.

And as for environmentalism, poverty is bad for your health, sure, but the corporate leviathan that enables poverty is what generates the most toxic waste. When was the last time you saw someone from the lower or working class driving a Prius or a Tesla? When figuring out how to feed their family on a SNAP budget, can you really expect a poor parent to shell out for organic apples at $3/lb when you can get your kids twice the calories for the same price if you bought them something unhealthy, processed, and littered with GMO ingredients? Sure, a salad is obviously the better option– but if you have to choose between eating healthy and not going to bed hungry, I think you know which one you’d choose. There is also something called environmental racism (which I’ll touch on in the next post), which is more or less the systemic, historical discrimination that has resulted in more than half of the communities of color in the US to be located near a chemically hazardous area (or a “cancer alley”) that has a tremendous negative impact on both the environment around that community and the health of its residents.

According to my zero waste ethic, no person, no identity, no community should be considered “a waste”, and no environment or region should be allowed to be used as a dumping ground for anybody, no matter how remote or economically weak that region is. Likewise, the prison-industrial complex, which is akin to modern-day slavery and targets a tremendously disproportionate number of black and brown people, destroys communities and wreaks havoc on the lives of the people it swallows up. The prison-industrial complex is incredibly wasteful and cares only about profits. The last of my 5 R’s, too, is Reclaim: this isn’t about just reclaiming poor soil, or turning scraps into more food via chickens or compost or what have you, but it is about reclaiming neighborhoods from wasteful policing, reclaiming identities and livelihoods from ruthless corporatism that seeks to commodify our self-esteem and our happiness, reclaiming our government from wasteful bureaucracy, and reclaiming ourselves from consumerist, profiteering, and capitalist values.

Beyond Civilized and Primitive: Some Favorite Quotes

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this post-civilization anarchist theory stuff lately, and I’m really, really impressed by what I’m finding. It’s a newer philosophy of anarchism so there’s not too much out there on the subject yet, but here are some favorite quotes from a piece called Beyond Civilized and Primitive.

Americans think freedom means no restraint. So I’m free to start a big company and rule ten thousand wage laborers, and if they don’t like it they’re free to go on strike, and I’m free to hire thugs to crack their heads, and they’re free to quit, and I’m free to buy politicans to cut off support for the unemployed, so now they’re free to either starve and die, or accept the job on my terms and use their freedom of speech to impotently complain.

We like hot baths and sailing ships and recorded music and the internet, but we worry that we can’t have them without exterminating half the species on Earth, or exploiting Asian sweatshop workers, or dumping so many toxins that we all get cancer, or overextending our system so far that it crashes and we get eaten by roving gangs.

I think the root of civilization, and a major source of human evil, is simply that we became clever enough to extend our power beyond our empathy. It’s like the famous Twilight Zone episode where there’s a box with a button, and if you push it, you get a million dollars and someone you don’t know dies. We have countless “boxes” that do basically the same thing. Some of them are physical, like cruise missiles or ocean-killing fertilizers, or even junk food where your mouth gets a million dollars and your heart dies. Others are social, like subsidies that make junk food affordable, or the corporation, which by definition does any harm it can get away with that will bring profit to the shareholders. I’m guessing it all started when our mental and physical tools combined to enable positive feedback in personal wealth. Anyway, as soon as you have something that does more harm than good, but that appears to the decision makers to do more good than harm, the decision makers will decide to do more and more of it, and before long you have a whole society built around obvious benefits that do hidden harm.

I have a wild speculation about the origin of complex societies. The Great Pyramid of Giza is superior in every way to the two pyramids next to it — yet the Great Pyramid was the first of the three to be built. It’s like Egyptian civilization appeared out of nowhere at full strength, and immediately began declining. My thought is: the first pyramid was not built by slaves. It was built by an explosion of human enthusiasm channeled into a massive cooperative effort. But then, as we’ve seen in pretty much every large system in history, this pattern of human action hardened, leaders became rulers, inspired actions became chores, and workers became slaves.

Click here to read Beyond Civilized and Primitive.

And here’s a list of other articles written on post-civ theory: http://theanarchistlibrary.org/topics/post-civ