“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind.” -Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.
My lover and I are the dirty, scrappy type of nerdling and when it comes to romance our eyes light up at the thought of pitching a tent in the woods rather than heading off to a fancy hotel room. It’s all about getting sweaty, uncomfortable, and nights so full of stars you think the sky will fall down on you like the collapsed roof blanket in a proper pillow fort. We recently took a most excellent backpacking trip to a former ghost town.
I call it a former ghost town because no buildings remain. The railroad tracks that once pulled up by the dozen mines in the area are long gone. The 5 townsites can only be spotted with geographic echolocation and evidence dowsing. There, the mine waste piled near a collapsed entrance and 50 yards over there is the obvious sign of a creek bed and non-native Olive and Walnut trees planted in such a way the human intention is obvious if you’re quiet and listen to the land. Over 4 million tons of coal were ripped out of the land. In a space that holds 65 miles of hiking trails today there are at least 150 miles of underground tunnel snaking through the hills.
How long did this land remain under the protection of Bay Miwok Tribes? A thousand years? More? At least three known tribes united under a common tongue shared the space without leaving scars and craters. The area was colonized at the end of the 1700s and by 1806 a measles epidemic killed a quarter of all Bay Area tribes and even more when you consider how long the ravages of an epidemic trickle over human lives. I’m astounded by how little time it took to carve out 150 miles of mine and to collect 4 million tons of coal by utilizing the labor of immigrants and their children.
The furnace of human industry is always fueled more by blood. After the coal mines became too unstable, the accidents too frequent, and the payout too little (for mine owners) a new venture of sand mining came to the area for a short burst of time. 1.8 million tons of sand came out into the sunlight and sent to a glass factory just when the Enigma Machines were starting to get into stride. Though a tone of righteousness might rankle some, my own cognitive dissonance (the space between my beliefs and my actions) is evident in my use of a desktop computer, a laptop computer, and an iPhone despite the fact that there are bloody fingerprints left all over my gadgets from the mining, the labor, and the unfair distribution of these resources.
The space still has the old miner cemetery and the bodies of 200 people who lived throughout the 5 townsites. It was the kind of thing I wanted to walk Jenny McCarthy through while holding her hand gently to point out just how many children died before the age of 5 of diseases we can now innoculate against. I would also point out the number of women who died during childbirth. When your children have better statistical odds of living until puberty, then you don’t have to experience pregnancy and childbirth over and over and over so as to pass on your genes. The cemetery has mine accident victims, some of whom were buried in clusters together. One grave contains a father holding his 1 day old infant with no cause of death listed. Mining wasn’t good for the land, it wasn’t good for the miners, its customer base has always been limited, but it’s always the CEO’s and suits that benefit the most. Where are their graves, I wonder? It was a company town so all residents built houses and paid rent to their mining companies. The groceries were deducted from pay checks. If there are restless souls left behind to wander the earth, I hope they haunt the profiteers.
It’s all so fucking-fucked it’s impossible to know what to do about any of it before those bruises on your brain and heart start to inhibit overall functioning. Teddy Roosevelt, an asshole with a great command of rhetoric (like so many men who have broken my heart over the years) said that you, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
We came to a strenuous uphill climb to cross a ridge. We huffed and puffed with red faces sweat-sticky backs but like a broken fever we finally hit the peak and stopped a moment to savor the view and the blood pressure rush on top of granite cutting through the dusty trail and creating a perfect view of the valley. From where we stood we could see the small lonely trail off to the cemetery with its ritual layout and sacred trees. We could see piles of mine waste still sitting next to collapsed mine entrances and down below us was the sand mine.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: here lies an energy source I could not trust.
But! Off in the distance there was the San Joaquin River surrounded by tall wind turbines collecting speed and generating power. The penumbra of the future was a comfort, considering the theatrical composition of this vista. What is our vision of the future?
There are all kinds of people looking at how to power their needs with what they can, with what they have, and where they are. Some of them are scientists, some are think tanks, some are academics and theorists, some are hipsters, and a lot are just people without any clear affiliation to any group just doing what seems natural to help them survive and hopefully thrive. Sustainability is a loaded game because from a lot of angles, sustainability is billed as a hobby of the rich and powerful. If you’re lacking in resources a lot of the “Green Game” is bullshit posturing without anything behind it but the Jones’ good regard.
The idea of “solarpunk” has been proposed by a smattering people across the globe. Without intending to be knee-jerk rival, I’m more inclined to examine Hydropunk. Solar punk seems to be largely constructing a holistic paradigm change of generating and expending energy. We do need to be critical of what we have taken for granted and where it’s leading us. This is of vital concern. With all the talk of futurism and micro-computing and digital/analog dance-offs I can’t help but hear the archetypal mythology whispering to me of another axis to the story of earth and its universe: the water.
Water is going to be a thing. It’s going to be a serious thing. We have climate change to contend with and the many ways it impacts ocean water and rainfall. We also have to contend with private companies literally buying sources of freshwater in the US and all over the world. Sometimes, outside interests come to foreign lands and decide the build dams to generate power or to make more soda without considering those who depend on the water source both bi- and quadrupedal alike. What’s going to happen to the food supply if we cannot cultivate crops? What’s going to happen to us if we cannot quench our thirst? What’s a world with water prices that escalate like oil prices going to look like?
Solar Punk is working on illuminating its many dimensions. What are its local and global components? What are its immediate and long term effects? All paradigm changes mean first conceiving of things as multidimensional. It’s seeing something on a page and placing it within a matrix of understanding inside the mind of the individual and the collective. How do we cultivate a culture of change on the eve of destruction?
Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. Hydropunk is not unrelated to Solar Punk because that’s simply not possible. It does look at other concerns from a different vantage point. I am deeply compelled by Solar Punk because we must find sustainable sources of energy and we must re-conceive computing without abolishing it. Computing allows us to access a collected body of knowledge and this is why our growth is moving exponentially. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we can access and cross-compare many different designs and focus our attention on identifying the specificity of our needs. It is not computers that are bad. It is the way we build, use, and distribute computers that is tragically flawed. From what I’ve tasted of desire I stand with those who favor fire.
But if I had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice… Regardless of what we implement with technology changes now, this may not matter because the ice is already beginning to melt. I know that change is so hard on a large level and a lot of people with a lot of power are simply not going to let go easily. We use what is in our known contexts. We make tools and tools become ingrained in our perception of reality. On a fundamental level on the brain, we actually begin to think of our commonly used tools as an extension of ourselves. A great example of this is the way a driver of a tall car will duck their heads when entering a tight garage. It’s not just vehicular animism. If a human uses a pole to reach something every single day, their brain integrates the length of the pole into the process of the task.
Mathematically, when we have a task to accomplish our brain has to figure out how to accomplish the task. At first, we have to consciously think about each individual step of the process. Gradually the steps of our mental arithmetic drop off one by one. It’s the difference between learning long hand division step by step and then the day when it seems like you can “intuit” the result without doing it all by hand. Unconscious competence is that exciting moment when it’s a perfected skill. In its love of novelty, the brain often begins to innovate on this task. One innovation might be a tool to reduce the overall time it takes to get something done.
Then, the process begins again: how does the tool work by itself, how does it work in our hands, and how does it relate to my precise task at hand? (My Hands)+(Tool)=How To Solve This Task. When we’ve learned, we don’t distinguish between our bodies and our tools. We just consider them in unison as how you get your shit done.
Right now, we consider our tools as we know them and use them as parts of our humanity rather than the tools we’re using, with a certain order of operations (action recipes), to get our shit done. …is also great and would suffice. Modernity thinks that it is always looking at new ways to thrive as a species but we cannot forget the base component of survival. We need water, food, air, shelter, novelty, and pleasure. We need all of these. In our quest to thrive we might very well have kicked out our foundation of survival. We have to go back to the basics and consider thought experiments and re-imagine our now in order to secure our futures.
Solar v. hydro is a false dichotomy. It does not exist. There can be no competition there must be only collaboration. This takes us back to the archetypal mythology. Fire, water, earth, and air: it’s fucking impossible to take one in isolation although their distinction as related thought clusters helps us understand them in and of themselves and in collaboration with one another. The utterance of solar punk hearkens back to something that humans have been talking about for as long as humans have been talking; our vulnerability and our reliance on our context and one another for survival. Who are solarpunks? Who are hydropunks? Who are the earth and air punks? Who is upsetting the status quo with new visions of our source and our future?
Maybe the psycho-social Freudian thing we all have to acknowledge is our death drive and that our fascination with “post-apocalyptic living” and designing the future after everything has been wiped out stems from the fact that–on the morbid subconscious level of our death drives–we all want the bombs to go off. We have to stop praying for the rapture. We have to get to fucking work. We have to stop staring at the cemetery for answers.