A black-and-white photograph of a huge gear sandwiched between two plates of metal. The gear is caked with old oil and dirt.

Other Decisions Can be Made

Five Futures: Volume 2, Issue 7

A little bit less Azeem Azhar this time, and a little bit more Patrick Tanguay. Mostly, this is a function of me actually jotting down some notes and quotes from each article as I read them. Doing this made the entire process of compiling this edition of Five Futures a lot easier, and also made it feel feasible to include some podcast and video links, which I haven’t previously done.

Fewer links but more context. Five futures, if you will.


🍼 The Problem With All the Plastic That’s Leaching Into Your Food

I strongly suspect that in a thousand years people are going to look back on how we use plastic with the same sense of bemused horror with which we consider the Roman’s wide-spread use of lead.

Reviews of the literature on the human health effects of chemicals in plastics have demonstrated links between exposures to BPA, phthalates, and other plastics additives and reduced fertility, reduced male sexual function and sperm quality, blunted immune function, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. In fetuses, BPA exposure was correlated with an increased risk of miscarriage, low birth weight, and childhood obesity.

There are also potential cognitive effects. “Particularly strong are the associations between early BPA exposure and altered behavior and disrupted neurodevelopment in children, as well as increased probability of childhood wheeze and asthma,” the author of one of the reviews wrote. Indeed, children are at particular risk of health effects from these chemicals, AAP said: “Hormones act on all parts of the body, and even small disruptions at key moments in development can have permanent and lifelong consequences.”

A 2015 systematic review of children’s neurodevelopment and phthalate exposure concluded that prenatal exposure to phthalates was associated with “cognitive and behavioral outcomes in children, including lower IQ, and problems with attention, hyperactivity, and poorer social communication.”

🐝 Popular Weed Killer May Be Responsible for Global Bee Deaths

As if we needed another reason to be concerned about the widespread use of Roundup, it turns out that the popular herbicide may be contributing to bee colony collapse.

A popular ingredient in weed killers may be wiping out honey bees by attacking their gut, scientists claim.

The chemical glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, a potent herbicide sold by Monsanto, and other similar products. A new study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that it destroys bees’ specialized gut bacteria, exposing them to infection by deadly bacteria.

Glyphosate is the world’s best-selling herbicide, despite its links to cancer in humans. It works by targeting an enzyme in plants and some microorganisms known as EPSPS, or 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase. According to the study, bee gut bacteria also contains this enzyme, which helps to ward off infections and regulate overall health.

When the scientists exposed bees to the Roundup ingredient, the bees’ healthy bacteria decreased, disrupting their microbiome – a mini-ecosystem of gut microbes responsible for all manner of tasks, such as blocking pathogenic invaders and processing food.

🗽 Climate Deniers Are More Likely to Hate Democracy

In the West acceptance of climate change is closely tied to the liberal/conservative political divide. But in the world at large that turns out to be an aberration.

Previous studies have tended to focus on public opinion in the US and other Western democracies. That research shows that in English-speaking Western countries, views about climate change are heavily skewed by party political ideology. For the most part, conservatives tend to reject environmentalism, while liberals tend to see climate change as a serious concern.

While it’s often assumed that this pattern can be extrapolated to the rest of the world, the new study finds that outside the Western bubble, political ideology has little to do with concern about the climate.

Rather, the overwhelming connection is support for democratic values, described by the study as “the most important predictor of climate change concern everywhere except the English-speaking Western democracies.”

🏭 Trump Administration Sees a 7-Degree Rise in Global Temperatures by 2100

Internally, the Trump administration seems to have accepted worst-case global warming projections, and is in fact using them as an argument for not cutting US CO2 emissions.

Last month, deep in a 500-page environmental impact statement, the Trump administration made a startling assumption: On its current course, the planet will warm a disastrous seven degrees by the end of this century.

A rise of seven degrees Fahrenheit, or about four degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels would be catastrophic, according to scientists. Many coral reefs would dissolve in increasingly acidic oceans. Parts of Manhattan and Miami would be underwater without costly coastal defenses. Extreme heat waves would routinely smother large parts of the globe.

But the administration did not offer this dire forecast, premised on the idea that the world will fail to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, as part of an argument to combat climate change. Just the opposite: The analysis assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed.

The Washington Post goes on to make the case that “[t]he statement is the latest evidence of deep contradictions in the Trump administration’s approach to climate change,” but I suspect that reports like this and the EPA’s recent analysis that its own CO2 rule changes will kill people are actually part of a darker pattern.

Here’s the thing: Baring black swan technological break-throughs, there are four broad scenarios for addressing climate change (the scenarios for addressing other environmental crises are similar):

  1. Moderate emission cuts and a concerted effort to increase efficiency without any significant global economic adjustment. This is basically the “consensus” political choice. It’s also obviously not what’s happening, nor does it seem to be compatible with our current best understanding of climate dynamics. Attempting to more-or-less preserved the existing social/political/economic order would have been in the cards if we began seriously pursuing decarbonization in the 1970s or 1980s, instead of… The 2020s? Never?

  2. Major emission cuts coupled with significant adjustments in the global economy. This is what many climate and environmental activists argue for, though I don’t think the more moderate among them really grasp the magnitude of the social and economic changes required. Cutting emissions fast enough in an already warming world means globally reconfiguring how we generate power, how we handle the construction of cities and transportation networks, and how we approach farming and the management of natural resources. Again, had we started serious pursuing this approach in the 1990s or 2000s it’s likely the existing order could have been largely preserved. But now the only way forward is for the western nations to begin taking the challenge seriously internally while at the same time transferring significant technology and wealth to developing countries to enable them to “leapfrog” current developmental patterns. Consequently, actually cutting emissions fast enough to avoid worst-case scenarios will likely also significantly narrow the global wealth gap.

  3. Do nothing significant. What we actually seem to be doing. Unlike many, I don’t think that this is an existential choice, but I do think that while wealthy nations and individuals will use the resources at their disposal to adapt, everyone else will… Not be so lucky. And because global environmental crises compound with time, the cycle of delay followed by diversion of resources by the wealthy for their own adaptation needs will result in an ever worsening situation for ever greater numbers of people. This is William Gibson’s “jackpot” by way of Lazarus. A lot of people will die, but it will take a long time, and along the way those that make it will be able to preserve a certain level of plausible moral deniability.

  4. Global genocide. The environmental crises we face are basically all due to saturated “waste sinks”, and since we don’t know how to increase the capacity of these sinks, the only other solution is to reduce our waste stream significantly. We can do this using social and technological levers (scenarios (1) and (2)), or we can do it by reducing the number of humans (scenarios (3) and (4)). The more quickly we reduce the waste flows, the better off the survivors will be. The dark counterpart of scenario (2), where we reduce the number of survivors slowly, is thus “solving” ecological crises by purposefully killing billions of people. Fortunately, even the most monstrous among us don’t seem to have a commitment to this course of action, but I worry that it will become progressively easier for scenario (3) to slide into this scenario as global environmental stressors worsen.

I think what we’re seeing in the Trump administration is an all-but-explicit commitment by US elites to scenario (3) and the preservation (if not enhancement) of the current elite’s relative power… Even if that ultimately means a far more diminished world, in just about every sense, for us all.


💀 Why Facebook is Losing the War on Hate Speech in Myanmar

Facebook’s panglossian incompetence in managing its community has made it all but complicit in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

For many people in this emerging economy, Facebook is the internet: It’s so dominant, it’s the only site they use online. Yet, the company ignored repeated warnings as far back as 2013 that it faced trouble.

Researchers and human rights activists say they cautioned Facebook for years that its platform was being used in Myanmar to promote racism and hatred of Muslims, in particular the Rohingya.

“They were warned so many times,” said David Madden, a tech entrepreneur who worked in Myanmar. He said he told Facebook officials in 2015 that its platform was being exploited to foment hatred in a talk he gave at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California. About a dozen Facebook people attended the meeting in person, including Mia Garlick, now the company’s director of Asia Pacific policy, he said. Others joined via video. “It couldn’t have been presented to them more clearly, and they didn’t take the necessary steps,” Madden said.

👤 Facebook Is Giving Advertisers Access to Your Shadow Contact Information

If you keep tabs on the world of surveillance capitalism, then it will come as no surprise that Facebook holds a lot of data on you that it gathers from other sources, and you can’t see or delete. Facebook has periodically dodged and denied the existence of these “shadow profiles”, but has now been caught in the act by a team of clever researchers.

They found that when a user gives Facebook a phone number for two-factor authentication or in order to receive alerts about new log-ins to a user’s account, that phone number became targetable by an advertiser within a couple of weeks. So users who want their accounts to be more secure are forced to make a privacy trade-off and allow advertisers to more easily find them on the social network. When asked about this, a Facebook spokesperson said that “we use the information people provide to offer a more personalized experience, including showing more relevant ads.” She said users bothered by this can set up two-factor authentication without using their phone numbers; Facebook stopped making a phone number mandatory for two-factor authentication four months ago.

The researchers also found that if User A, whom we’ll call Anna, shares her contacts with Facebook, including a previously unknown phone number for User B, whom we’ll call Ben, advertisers will be able to target Ben with an ad using that phone number, which I call “shadow contact information,” about a month later. Ben can’t access his shadow contact information, because that would violate Anna’s privacy, according to Facebook, so he can’t see it or delete it, and he can’t keep advertisers from using it either.

I’m not a privacy hawk, but harvesting information folks’ provide to enhance their security for advertising purposes is deeply alarming. People beginning to forgo security features out of concern that they will be used to invade their privacy is the worst of all possible outcomes. It’s also likely to be exactly what happens because of practices like this.

👥 The Facebook Security Meltdown Exposes Way More Sites Than Facebook

Facebook also dumped on Friday that attackers had gained access to approximately 50 million user accounts using a chain of bugs that eventually allowed them to “log in” as affected users. An additional 40 million accounts could also be impacted. While this is only 2% - 4% of Facebook’s user base, the attackers were basically able to gain complete access to affected accounts, potentially including any applications and websites that those users logged in to with Facebook.

Beyond the impact on Facebook accounts themselves, the company confirmed that breach impacted Facebook’s implementation of Single Sign-On, the practice that lets you use one account to log into others. The idea is to use a trusted service – like Facebook Google, Twitter, and so on – to log into sites and services across the web, rather than create a unique profile for each one. That saves time, and ensures you’re logging in through an entity you trust. In this case, it also appears to have potentially made Facebook’s breach an internet-wide calamity, at least for those impacted.

“The access token enables someone to use the account as if they were the account holder themselves. This does mean they could access other third-party apps using Facebook login,” Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of product, said in a call with reporters Friday. “Developers who used Facebook login will be able to detect those access tokens have been reset.”

It’s unclear how long those third-party sites will accept the stolen access tokens, or how difficult it would be for an attacker to use an access token to get into a third-party site.

💣 Facebook is Weaponizing Security to Erode Privacy

A long, and good, analysis of the way Facebook uses and abuses security concerns to justify its data collection.

In recent years multiple major data misuse scandals have undoubtedly raised consumer awareness about privacy, and put greater emphasis on the value of robustly securing personal data. Scandals that even seem to have begun to impact how some Facebook users Facebook. So the risks for its business are clear.

Part of its strategic response, then, looks like an attempt to collapse the distinction between security and privacy – by using security concerns to shield privacy hostile practices from critical scrutiny, specifically by chain-linking its data-harvesting activities to some vaguely invoked “security purposes”, whether that’s security for all Facebook users against malicious non-users trying to hack them; or, wider still, for every engaged citizen who wants democracy to be protected from fake accounts spreading malicious propaganda.

So the game Facebook is here playing is to use security as a very broad-brush to try to defang legislation that could radically shrink its access to people’s data.

That all said, there are legitimate reasons why Facebook might want to build “trust profiles” of its users: If you know how someone normally acts, then you can use that information to better flag unusual behavior that may represent an attempted account compromise. A simple example of this would be using location data to help determine suspicious logins. The idea is that if someone always logs in from Boise, Idaho, but then suddenly logs in from Cape Town, South Africa, then then you might rightly regard the South African login with some suspicion. Now, there’s many reasons why that location change might be legitimate – for example, maybe the user turned on (or off) a VPN – so you don’t necessarily want to deny these sorts of unusual logins. But you might want to force the user to re-authenticate, or shoot them an alert email, or something similar.

However, it’s hard to imagine how keeping profiles of people who are not yet using your service serves this goal. Facebook maintains that they need to build “shadow profiles” of non-users to prevent scraping, but this is such an obvious pretext that it’s impossible to take seriously (most scraping tools are automated and are unlikely to use the same browser connection as day-to-day usage).

Facebook is setting up privacy and security as opposing values, when really they’re more independent-but-interrelated properties for which context matters. There’s generally not a one-to-one privacy/security trade-off, but rather questions of implementation, control, and whose interests are privileged. Facebook is attempting to gloss-over this conversation, and we should consequently view their claims with some skepticism.

💪 A Life Insurance Company Wants to Track Your Fitness Data

At some point Fitbits and other personal health devices were going to become too tempting of a data source for insurance companies to ignore. It looks like that time is now.

John Hancock, a US life insurance company, announced on Wednesday [September 19th] that all policies will now give incentives for people to send the company fitness tracker and other wellness data.

The company “will stop underwriting traditional life insurance and instead sell only interactive policies that track fitness and health data through wearable devices and smartphones,” according to Reuters.

What could possibly go wrong?


🔮 Democrats Should Worry About All Their Close Special Election Losses

The expected “blue wave” of Democrat-supporting voters in the 2018 US mid-term elections may not be enough to push many candidates over the top.

But there is a dark side to those promising omens: Democrats have also fallen short in several special elections that were teed up as the kind of race they would need to win to take back the House majority. In the Georgia Sixth to replace Tom Price and the Ohio 12th to replace Pat Tiberi in particular, Democrats outperformed the district’s partisan lean and its Republican voting history but still couldn’t find quite enough votes to win.

For every Pennsylvania 18th, the site of Conor Lamb’s stunning win in a district Donald Trump had won by 18 points, there is an Arizona Eighth. Democrat Hiral Tipirneni came within 3 points of beating Republican Debbie Lesko in a district Trump won by 23.

So Democrats came much closer than you’d think to winning a coveted House seat. But they still lost. They’ve actually lost a lot over the past two years, including in the Ohio 12th special election last month. Of course, Republicans haven’t really been impressive either, as they scrape by in what were supposed to be solid GOP districts.

But to state the overly obvious, you have to actually win in close elections to take at least 218 seats and control of the House. While these special elections are often held up as proof that a blue wave is building, they remind us exactly how big that wave has to be. Republicans have successfully gerrymandered House districts across the country expressly for this purpose: surviving a year of strong Democratic enthusiasm.

2018 is going to be the test of the GOP’s strategy of gerrymandered districts and voter suppression.

📺 The Rise of YouTube’s Reactionary Right

Ezra Klein’s discussion of the emergence of the “reactionary right” online seems more-or-less spot-on to me.

If you spend much time listening to the reactionary right, you find that line cuts across social justice issues. You can hold a lot of different opinions on the economy, on Trump, on same-sex marriage, on atheism, and still be part of this community. It’s much more accepting of differing views on health care, the role of the state, and taxation than the modern Republican Party. But you can’t be in sympathy with the SJWs.

On the left, the reverse is increasingly true. The unbridgeable divides today, the ones that seem to define which side you’re really on, revolve around issues of race, gender, identity, and equality. While I see a lot of angry arguments about deficits within the Democratic coalition, I don’t know of any congressional Democrats who are against same-sex marriage, vocally skeptical of Black Lives Matter, and in favor of tight restrictions on immigration – even though those were common positions among elected Democrats in the aughts.

Trump is also a manifestation of this shift. In 2012, the Republican Party wanted to compromise on culture and immigration to win on economics; Trump dominated the primary by insisting on the opposite formulation. He cares little about entitlement spending but deeply about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

Back in April, I interviewed Lilliana Mason, a political scientist who specializes in identity formation. “Our party divisions have always been moving,” she said. “Sometimes we fight over economics, sometimes we fight over culture, but the line is always moving.” And right now, she continued, “there could be a real new partisan cleavage we are trying to organize around.” Perhaps, she suggested, the next political cleavage “is a social justice cleavage.”

I think she’s right, and one place you see it is on YouTube, where tomorrow’s politics are emerging today.

💉 Russian Trolls “Spreading Discord” Over Vaccine Safety Online

It turns out that Russian trolls have been working to weaponize unfounded concerns over vaccine safety as part of their broader effort create a tribal, chaotic information space.

Scientists at George Washington University, in Washington DC, made the discovery while trying to improve social media communications for public health workers, researchers said. Instead, they found trolls and bots skewing online debate and upending consensus about vaccine safety.

The study discovered several accounts, now known to belong to the same Russian trolls who interfered in the US election, as well as marketing and malware bots, tweeting about vaccines.

Russian trolls played both sides, the researchers said, tweeting pro- and anti-vaccine content in a politically charged context.

“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” Mark Dredze, a team member and professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, which was also involved in the study, said.

This isn’t a long term strategy to contain political rivals. This is recklessness on a global scale.

Patrick Deneen Says Liberalism Has Failed

[Podcast] An interesting argument that classical liberalism has not worked out as well for society as we commonly believe. Deneen is obviously arguing from a socially conservative perspective, but if you can get past that I think that there’s some merit to his arguments. Though Deneen’s focus on individual happiness/fulfillment/purpose seems a very… classically liberal… justification for his critique of classical liberalism.

💡 Why Our Minds Weren’t Built for Truth, and How We Can Change That

[Video] This talk by Julia Galef is a great discussion about how we reason and what we can do to make ourselves more open to better evidence. In particular, I think that Galef’s focus on creating better incentive structures, rather than the common refrain that what we need is more “education”, is really important.


🚀 Doctor Who Official Trailer

[Video] I’m optimistic about the new season of Doctor Who.

🏫 Many Ways to Be a Girl, But One Way to Be a Boy

These days, young women perceive a wide range of behaviors and futures open to them; for young men, the options seem much narrower. These different self-conceptions collide in exactly the way you would expect.

Girls have been told they can be anything they want to be, and it shows. They are seizing opportunities closed to previous generations – in science, math, sports and leadership.

But they’re also getting another message: What they look like matters more than any of that.

Boys seem to have been largely left out of the conversation about gender equality. Even as girls’ options have opened up, boys’ lives are still constricted by traditional gender norms: being strong, athletic and stoic.

The survey results, and the stories in the article, align well with my own observations.

👩 A Feminist Makes the Case Against Feminism

I think Jessa Crispin’s torturing the definition of “patriarchy” a bit here, but I agree with the thrust of her argument.

This idea emerged that if we just put a lot more women in positions of power, somehow that would defeat the patriarchy, not understanding that the patriarchy has nothing to do with men. If women in power behave like men do, that is not a defeat of the patriarchy. That’s just patriarchy with women in it. And patriarchy is one of those really dissatisfying words because everybody uses it and there’s not a general understanding, a shared understanding of what the word means other than anything that is keeping you down.

[…]

My working definition of patriarchy is a society that’s structured by hierarchy. So unless that is reformed, unless we reform society so there are no hierarchies, because the hierarchy used to be white, property-owning men at the top of the hierarchy and everybody else in varying positions underneath that, and now it’s just money and power. So women can easily attain a high position on the hierarchy, but that’s not the end of patriarchy.

Unless we get rid of the hierarchy and stop structuring our society around it, the patriarchy is not defeated.


📱 Lasts Longer

Apple’s September iPhone release event included a hidden bombshell: Moving forward, the company will be pushing to keep their products in circulation longer, in direct opposition to the upgrade treadmill that hardware companies (like Apple!) have relied on to remain profitable.

To emphasize the second point [Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives] said Apple now strives to design and build durable products that last as long as possible. That means long-lasting hardware coupled with long-lasting software. She pointed out that iOS 12 runs even on iPhone 5S, now five years old. Because iPhones last longer, you can keep using them or pass them on to someone who will continue to use them after you upgrade.

She said that “keeping iPhones in use” is the best thing for the planet.

Ars Technica’s tests of iOS 12 suggest that Apple is already working to fulfill this promise.

💻 Mmm… Pi-hole…

Troy Hunt describes how he uses a Raspberry Pi to block ads on his home network.

Whoa! That’s an 80% reduction in network requests and an 82% reduction in the number of bytes transferred. I’d talk about the reduction in load time too except it’s really hard to measure because as you can see from the waterfall diagrams, with no Pi-hole it just keeps going and going and, well, it all gets a bit silly.

How to Build a Low-tech Website

If you ever wanted to read about the intersection of modern website design and energy de-intensification, this is the article for you.

Our new web design addresses both these issues. Thanks to a low-tech web design, we managed to decrease the average page size of the blog by a factor of five compared to the old design – all while making the website visually more attractive (and mobile-friendly). Secondly, our new website runs 100% on solar power, not just in words, but in reality: it has its own energy storage and will go off-line during longer periods of cloudy weather.

The Internet is not an autonomous being. Its growing energy use is the consequence of actual decisions made by software developers, web designers, marketing departments, publishers and internet users. With a lightweight, off-the-grid solar-powered website, we want to show that other decisions can be made.

I find it annoying that the discussion about renewable energy generation and storage early on forgets that just because fossil fuels are integral to manufacturing now does not mean that they will always be so, but this is a quibble on my part. The overall design considerations Low←Tech Magazine highlights here are important, and it’s worth noting that they make the website not only vastly more energy efficient, but also more accessible to folks with disabilities, and usable on poor internet connections. Even if internet-driven energy usage isn’t something you care about, these are worthwhile goals in and of themselves.

Now I want to redesign Delphi Foresight Strategy’s website

🔋 Stacking Concrete Blocks Is a Surprisingly Efficient Way to Store Energy

When I tell people that the future will be weirder than they think, this is the kind of thing I mean.

The science underlying Energy Vault’s technology is simple. When you lift something against gravity, you store energy in it. When you later let it fall, you can retrieve that energy. Because concrete is a lot denser than water, lifting a block of concrete requires – and can, therefore, store – a lot more energy than an equal-sized tank of water.

Bill Gross, a long-time US entrepreneur, and Andrea Pedretti, a serial Swiss inventor, developed the Energy Vault system that applies this science. Here’s how it works: A 120-meter (nearly 400-foot) tall, six-armed crane stands in the middle. In the discharged state, concrete cylinders weighing 35 metric tons each are neatly stacked around the crane far below the crane arms. When there is excess solar or wind power, a computer algorithm directs one or more crane arms to locate a concrete block, with the help of a camera attached to the crane arm’s trolley.

[…]

The system is “fully charged” when the crane has created a tower of concrete blocks around it. The total energy that can be stored in the tower is 20 megawatt-hours (MWh), enough to power 2,000 Swiss homes for a whole day.

When the grid is running low, the motors spring back into action – except now, instead of consuming electricity, the motor is driven in reverse by the gravitational energy, and thus generates electricity.

The article is bearish on the technology’s prospects for significant deployment, but I have a sneaking suspicion that clever re-imaginings of “primitive” technologies are going to be more important over the next few hundred years than anyone now thinks.

🎶 Star Wars in Ancient Greece

[Video] The theme from Star Wars, arranged for instruments that existed in ancient Greece.

A panorama over the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park. Nothing but undulating sand and clear blue skies can be seen.

Where Homo Sapiens is Headed

Five Futures: Volume 2, Issue 6

~ Prologue ~

Another huge gap in newsletters, another change in format. The last iteration of Five Futures was an ambitious attempt to push me to write something more original. I still like the idea of doing serialized essays, and will probably attempt it again at some point. But right now I just need to write, to get something out there. And that something needs to be relatively easy to put together, because the day job isn’t helping in the time-management department right now.

So here’s a bit of an experiment… Shorter takes (occassionally paired with emoji, Azeem Azhar style), arranged into five broad narrative arcs. Each arc is less a story of the future, and more a sense, a feeling, of a current in the present. Less Pythia in the Temple of Apollo, and more Ozymandias and his wall of TVs.

Anyway, that’s the idea at least. Let’s see how well it works.


🐳 Whales. Why are they so big?

More evidence that the Amazon basin was densely populated before European arrival, and that the “primeval” rain forest that exists today is actually nothing of the sort.

🌾 Modern industrial agriculture has drastically decreased the price of food. It’s also made it less nutritious.

🚜 Industrial agriculture has also been a significant factor in the hollowing out of small-town America.

💧 The Colorado River has been over-used for a long time, and the tensions between the states that depend on it are starting to boil over.

❄ Both the Eastern and Western Antarctic ice sheets are now shrinking, and the physics of melting ice means that it’s the East Coast of the United States that will be hardest hit.

The chances of the world keeping global warming below 1.5°C is, at this point, vanishingly small… But it’s not yet zero.

🏭 Burning fossil fuels does more than warm the planet, however – it also impacts human health in a variety of other ways. The new EPA “clean power” plan ignores these effects, and by their own estimates will cause thousands of premature deaths.

🏦 At least Bank of the West is divesting from fossil fuels. Wyoming is not happy about it.

The political case for restricting fossil fuel extraction.

California governor Jerry Brown is one of the US’s indisputable leaders in the fight to stop global warming. He’s also not doing nearly enough.

Ozone-destroying CFCs emissions have spiked in recent years, after decades of decline. The culprit appears to be China’s barely-regulated construction industry.

🐜 Across Europe, insect populations are crashing. It’s hard to imagine a more ominous omen.

A newly discovered section from The Epic of Gilgamesh gives the story a surprisingly ecological twist.


💻 The definitive timeline of Russia’s hacking of the DNC, the Clinton presidential campaign, and local governments is a useful “birds-eye” view of the 2016 information operations. If you work in politics these are now the baseline threats you need to be guarding against.

So far Russian information operations related to the 2018 US mid-terms seem to be relatively quiet. But “relatively quiet” is not the same as absent.

One place where Russia is still active is in organizing protests. But that doesn’t mean that the protests are “fake”.

The story of misinformation on social media isn’t just about Russian trolls, however. It’s ordinary people who make “fake news” and conspiracy theories go viral.

📺 You know what’s also spreading conspiracy theories? YouTube Kids.

📰 Revitalizing local news has been seen by some as a way of innoculating US society against weaponized misinformation. After all, the reasoning goes, Americans trust local news more than national news… Which is something the Russians realize too.

Another proposed solution to the spread of misinformation on social media is the promotion of “media literacy”. But simply encouraging a critical approach to the media could actually make things worse.

Tribalism has played a major role in 20th Century conflicts around the world. The economic dynamics of the US in the 21st Century are making tribal conflicts more likely here as well.

Cultural identity is a more important factor in political alignment on the right than the left, at least within the US.

🎥 Deep fakes, the mythic film Shazaam, and the collapse of consensus reality.

Italian politics has always looked weird to outsiders. Is the country’s most recent government just another example of Italy being Italy, or a portent of things to come?


Diversity increases conflict and makes people uncomfortable… And that’s a good thing.

It might be even better, except that white men all but sabotage their coworkers when women or non-whites are their boss.

🏡 Think that white flight is a thing of the past? Think again.

📞 In New York City, “quality of life” complaints are a weapon of gentrification.

🚗 Parking requirements in many US cities are making housing less affordable.

💲 #Occupy made the idea of class warfare fashionable again. But if you look at the numbers, it’s less about the top 1% vs. the bottom 99%, but rather the top 10% vs. the bottom 90%. And that extra 9.9% holds a lot of people who like to think of themselves as “middle class”.

📉 It turns out that US manufacturing really is imploding, but the way we aggregate economic data has hidden the decline.

You know it’s bad when Vox is calling out centrist Democrats and intellectually bankrupt.

⛪ The modern GOP is a party that melds corporate interests with conservative Christianity. It’s a political match that was largely masterminded by a single radical clergyman.

Hobby Lobby as both exemplar and driver of white evangelical cultural identity.

🔫 In the US, just 3% of the population owns half of the nation’s guns. An that 3% fits a very specific profile.

The old are more likely to be Republicans and the young Democrats, but that has less to do with how our opinions change with age and more to do with the fact that Democrats die young.

Intergenerational conflict is beginning to fracture the US environmental movement..


🚅 A brief dive into the design of Japanese train stations.

We implement automation to establish regular systems, avoid mistakes, and reduce friction. This is not always a good thing.

🏥 What affects are computer algorithms having on state governance? So far, their record in health care isn’t so great.

🚦 How traffic lights subtly disadvantage pedestrians.

The age of pre-crime has arrived, courtesy of the LAPD and Palantir.

👮 “Predictive policing” software likes to sell itself as “broken windows policing” for the 21st Century. Which is probably a more accurate analogy than its supporters would care to admit.

Believe in that gun ownership is important? Angry at government over-reach? Written an inflammatory Facebook post in the heat of the moment? Then the FBI might be getting ready to bust you as a domestic terrorist… But only if you’re black.

Violence traumatizes not just those involved and their families, but also their entire community. Unsurprisingly, this remains true when that violence is inflicted by representatives of the state.

Many on the left were disturbed and enraged when the Trump Administration began separating children of undocumented immigrants from their parents. But the same thing has been happening for decades to US citizens as well.

🏫 Normally when we talk about the “school-to-prison pipeline”, we’re referring to the increasing entaglement of schools with their local police departments, and the way that this law enforcement presence is predominantly focused on non-white children. Sometimes this process can be shockingly explicit.

US prisons are cutting back on in-person visitations. Inmates and their families are paying the price.


For most insects, an infection with cordyceps fungi means gradually slipping into a zombie-like state followed by a gruesome Aliens-like death. But for cicadas, cordyceps is what keeps them alive.

Should a spider’s web be considered part of its mind?

👽 The most famous back-of-the-envelope method of estimating how many other intelligent species exist is called the Drake Equation, and even plugging conservative numbers into it suggests that the universe should be filled with alien civilizations. This has lead to the “Fermi Paradox” – if alien civilizations are so common, then why have we seen no evidence for them? It turns out, however, that treating the Drake Equation probabilisticly dissolves the Fermi Paradox: We are likely to be alone in our galaxy, and there’s a good chance that we are in fact the only intelligent species in the entire observable universe.

The only good online fandom left is Dune.

Mediocrity is evolutionary slack.


~ Epilogue ~

Originally I was going to write something longer and more conteplative here, but it’s been almost exactly a week since I started writing this and I’m basically out of steam right now. Mind you, I haven’t added any new articles to this list during that time – it just took me that long to review, sort, and trim down the list of interesting links I accumulated over the last six months. I’m going to experiment on building up future newsletters slowly over the course of a week or two, a little bit each day, and see how that works.

Until next time…

A lone juniper tree growing on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The tree's trunk has grown in a distinctive spiral, with all of its branches concentrated in a hemispherical crown.

Something of Adaptive Value to Human Life

Five Futures: Volume 2, Issue 5

THE STORY SO FAR…

The day job continues to intervene.

When I sat down to write this edition of Five Futures, I knew that I was probably going to be light on links again. But it was only after I opened up my reading log that I realized how little I’d read this past week that was actually interesting. So, only two links for Elsewhen this time.

But there is always the final installment of The Radical Futures of Growth. :-)

I know there are people who manage to work 60 hours a week, keep up with world events, and put together interesting side projects. As much as I like to imagine otherwise, it’s pretty obvious at this point that I am not one of those people.


SOME OBSERVATIONS…

Three weeks ago I began The Radical Futures of Growth by talking about why both the modern notion of unlimited growth and the idea that a zero growth economy is a desirable alternative are problematic. Last week I followed this up by outlining an alternative I called “long growth” which attempts to replace a human-centric conception of growth with one that’s grounded in both deep time/history and a larger ecological awareness.

While the concept of long growth solves the resource problems of unlimited growth and the rigidity and allocation issues inherent in the idea of zero growth, it does not (directly) provide a solution for the more human-scale problems zero growth brings with it – what I’ve been calling “anti-leveling”.

The Radical Futures of Growth, Part 3

There is a long pattern in history of the powerful hoarding resources to the detriment of masses of humanity. So long as the resource pie is always expanding (well, expanding as fast or faster than new resources can be hoarded), then it’s possible for the rising tide of riches to raise all boats. Sure, maybe the rich get richer, but so too can you and your family and your community. Take away the expanding pie, however, and the zero growth world that remains is easily seen to also be zero sum – a world in which efforts to improve my security or standard of living must invariably lead to declines in your security or standard of living.

This would be a serious problem even if we could somehow create a zero growth society ex nihilo, but unfortunately we must start with the world we have, and that means a world where power, and thus access to resources, is deeply and unevenly divided. To move toward a zero growth world from such a starting point means that those with the means to hoard resources will cause far more harm than they currently do. Moreover, the growing hoards of the powerful will mean ever fewer resources available to those without, creating a “double” barrier to those with less power who attempt to fight back.

While long growth does not imagine a world where resource constraints are (functionally) fixed, (non-temporary) growth occurs only over the time-span of thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of years. So while a world of long growth is one whose resource pie can be expand, it is extremely doubtful that it will grow as fast as individuals can effectively monopolize this growth. When it comes to the problem of resource hoarding, a log growth future is functionally identical to a zero growth future.

A Manifesto for Modern Levellers

It’s important to remember here that resource hoarding isn’t just some personality defect of the rich and powerful – rather, it’s a very human behavior that often comes from the best of places. Much, in fact, springs from our desire to do what’s best for our children; we make sure they go to the best schools we can afford, we help support them well into adulthood, we give them what wealth we have accumulated when we pass on, and we support laws and policies that encourage and enable these behaviors. We do this not out of greed, but out of love… And yet it drives us to attempt to accumulate wealth beyond what we’d otherwise require, and plays a central role in perpetuating inequalities of power.

In a world of unlimited growth, where the quantity of resources available to society is growing faster than any one person or family can hoard it, the negative externalities of our desire to provide the best possible lives for our children are perhaps forgivable. In a world in which the resources available are highly constrained, even behaviors guided by love can become the social equivalent of the tragedy of the commons.

Whether it’s the insatiable desire for power and control, or simply the desire to do what’s best for those we care about, there are strong human behavioral attractors that lead us to hoard resources. In a low-or-zero growth world, such tendencies will lead to worsening inequalities in security, standards of living, and power. Without growth, to say the future looks medieval is perhaps too kind… At least under feudalism there was some sense of obligation between the lord and his vassals. There is little reason to think that in a world of ever increasing automation even this rarefied sense of social responsibility would re-emerge.

There’s no obvious way to short-circuit the behaviors that lead to resource hoarding and concentration, though there are some intriguing hints in the egalitarian societies of the few remaining hunter-gatherers. Absent a clear understanding of how, or even if, these behaviors could be generalized to a settled, more technologically integrated/dependent society like our own, the best we can do right now is to think about the issue from a policy perspective.

There are two obvious prongs to a policy approach towards resource hoarding. The first is to attack resource hoarding directly, which has traditionally been done through taxation. Taxation can cover one of three broad areas – income, wealth, and consumption – each of which has its own trade-offs. Income taxes are popular in the US, but quickly become complicated when you attempt to account for all of the different ways that (often non-monetary) resources can be transferred between individuals. Consumption taxes, particularly value-added taxes (VATs), are simple to track and administer, but are also regressive because of the higher relative spending of the poor as compared to the rich. Finally, wealth taxes are conceptually the “right tool for the job” (breaking up resource hoards), but are difficult to track and administer.

Given these failings, there’s probably no perfect tax system for discouraging resource hoarding. But there are a few general things we can say with some confidence about such a system.

  • Marginal tax rates would need to be high, probably on the order of 70% - 80%.

  • When possible the taxation of wealth (because that’s what we care about) and consumption (because it’s easier to get right, and that’s where many of the negative externalities currently lie) should be prioritized over income.

  • The easiest way to tax wealth is probably via a combination of taxing identifiable assets (financial instruments, land, etc.) and a large (possibly 100%) inheritance tax.

Wealth and income taxes should be primarily driven by the need to prevent power accumulation (and thus the ability to monopolize resources), while consumption taxes would be driven by larger environmental (both social and ecological) factors. Both of these can be thought of as ways of internalizing the negative social and ecological externalities of our behaviors. (In a long growth world this accounting would include not just humans, but also other members of our ecologies).

The second policy prong for addressing resource hoarding involves reducing the factors that encourage this behavior to begin with.

  • We need to make sure that children have as even a playing field to start out as possible. This means, above all else, a significant investment in (and equalization of) universal, public education and the elimination of exclusive schools whenever possible. There is also a growing body of evidence that access to basic health care and adequate nutrition have a profound impact over the first few years of life; currently, the US primarily uses public schools to provide these services, but the most critical years are likely before most children enter the public school system. Finding a way to ensure that all children have their basic needs are met, at least through early elementary school, is critical.

  • Outside of our desire to provide for our children, hedging against uncertainty (both for ourselves and others) is probably the next most significant incentive to hoard resources for most people. Strong access to basic health care, adequate nutrition, and some form of guaranteed shelter would substantially mitigate the most basic uncertainties we face. In many countries these policies take the form of a some sort of regulated or single-payer health care system and a strong social safety net. Some advocates of universal basic income have proposed that direct transfer payments could be used as substitutes as well.

These can be expensive programs, though it’s worth noting that over a multi-decade period programs that target children almost always wind up having significant positive externalities (sometimes to such an extent that they more than pay for themselves). The rigorous system of taxation suggested above should make it possible to fund these social programs; such a combination has the virtue of providing a synergistic “one-two” punch that both makes it more difficult (hopefully impossible) to sustain multi-generational resource hoarding while simultaneously reducing the individual incentives for most of us to even begin indulging in such behavior.

The strategy outlined above is not without its implementational problems (setting aside the problem of even getting it off the ground in most countries). In particular, how do we prevent these taxes and programs from gradually being gutted by the powerful (who are the only ones who arguably “loose out” in this scenario)? How do we ensure that such programs are effectively administered and kept up-to-date? That tax rates are adjusted in a timely fashion and in accordance with the best evidence we currently have?

These questions highlight how issues of good governance, transparency, and accountability must be considered fundamental aspects of either zero growth or long growth futures. These are tough problems in and of themselves, but may actually be more important to address than a timely transition to a zero-or-long growth future itself: It will almost certainly be easier to transition to a zero-or-long growth future from a world that has already established a robust, transparent, and accountable system of governance than to attempt to establish such a system of good governance after a transition away from unlimited (and unsustainable) growth. Indeed, in the absence of growth it may not be possible to implement such a system of good governance at all.

Time Scales Matter (A Brief Aside)

Dealing with the problem of resource hoarding is at least theoretically possible in a long growth future, as such a future avoids the hard resource limits implied by a zero growth world. But even if you’re a firm believer in the desirability of unlimited, unrestrained growth, the systems of taxation and programs outlined above would still be desirable.

Despite the impassioned pleas for positive-sum thinking, the truth is that even in a world of win-win scenarios our day-to-day experience as individuals is zero-sum. The improvements economic growth brings with it are often spread out over decades, and is quickly normalized (along with the social and technological change that accompanies it) as “just the way things are”. We are often unaware of how much our lives have been changed by growth. Moreover, while growth over years and decades matters to academics and policy makers, it doesn’t matter much to us individually in the right now. For example, there’s a great deal of evidence that immigration improves a nation’s economic system. But if both an immigrant and I are applying for a job, a second opening is not going to magically appear so that both of us are happy – one of us is going to get the job, and the other one is going to have to keep looking.

No matter how far-sighted we try to be, day-to-day many of our life decisions are zero-sum. It should therefore be unsurprising that many of us generalize this zero-sum thinking into our broader consideration of possible futures. As a practical matter, advocates of unlimited growth (at least in democracies) should want to minimize this kind of thinking as a way of realizing better policy support. And the most reliable way to minimize zero-sum thinking is to work towards minimizing the uncertainties that make us afraid of risk and uncertainty. If we know we can keep “playing the game”, then cooperative, non-zero sum strategies can become dominant.

Far from being an “extreme” program, the approach outlined above may very well be a way to save capitalism from the demagogues of the Anthropocene.

Study Life Always

It’s worth being honest here… Unless you think that a program of unlimited growth is sustainable, then there are only a limited number of possible futures:

  • Technological collapse, bloody resource wars, or rapid depopulation driven by environmental degradation and resource depletion.

  • A transition to a zero growth world that is almost certain to eventually become increasingly authoritarian.

  • A transition to a long growth world that attempts to re-integrate our technological society with our broader ecological context.

The first two paths wind end, at best, in a depopulated world that looks a lot like William Gibson’s “Jackpot”, and at worst in a sort of neo-feudal state (which may or may not retain a relatively high level of technology). The third path, the one I have described here, seems to me the least likely… But also the most promising. It’s the future worth fighting for, the future where humanity, where life itself, can continue to grow and evolve in ways we have yet to imagine.

“Study death always,” Seneca once advised his friend. Humanity has followed this maxim, one way or another, and often without fully understanding it, for at least six thousand years. We have tried to understand death, to escape it, to accept it. Our society’s relationship with growth – our concepts of unlimited growth, of collapse, of zero growth – parallel our understanding of our own ends. We have learned much, but all journeys end.

It is time we study life.

Next Time

I’m going to take a short break from Some Observations to compile The Radical Futures of Growth into a single coherent essay. After that I want to explore a few side-ideas I’ve touched during this series before returning to the concept of growth and explaining why I think that one particular family of arguments against the modern notion of unlimited growth may actually be doing more harm than good.

Thoughts? Critiques? Suggested readings? Drop me a line!


ELSEWHEN…

Deep Pasts

  • Nothing this edition.

Near Pasts

Presents

  • Nothing this edition.

Near Futures

Deep Futures

  • Nothing this edition.

OUTRO…

Finding dark skies around the world.

Have an interesting article that deserves inclusion in Elsewhen? Run into an interesting website that deserves to be an Outro? Let me know!

Looking down Swamp Canyon in Bryce Canyon National Park. The floor of the canyon is green with life, but the trees are all blackened and dead, killed by a fire the previous year.

Surprise Must Hide in Secret Worlds

Five Futures: Volume 2, Issue 4

THE STORY SO FAR…

So much for getting one of these out every week. I blame the day job and an unexpected bought of no-it’s-not-actually-Spring-yet cleaning. Despite this, and despite having a shorter Some Observations planned and fewer items in the queue for Elsewhen, this edition has somehow ended up at about the same length as the last one.

At least I have my brevity. (Ha!)


SOME OBSERVATIONS…

Last time I talked about why growth as we know it must one day end and why that day is probably sooner than we would like to think. I also explored some of the reasons why the sort of static zero growth world often championed within the environmental movement is likely to be at best unpleasant, and at worst so rigid as to be unable to cope with even foreseeable catastrophe.

But what is the alternative?

The Radical Futures of Growth, Part 2

Before we discuss how to get out of this bind, it’s useful to understand why we’re here in the first place. While the failure modes of a world of unlimited growth may seem very different from one of zero growth, I contend that advocates of both futures are making the same fundamental mistake: They believe that a meaningful separation exists between the human and non-human worlds. In doing so, they reduce the non-human world to a passive backdrop for history rather than understanding it as an active participant whose fate is tightly coupled to our own.

To be Both in and of the World

The tendency of modern, technologically dominant societies to function as if humanity was somehow apart from nature is, to the best of my knowledge, essentially universal. In the Abrahamic traditions this conceit is reinforced by the Biblical creation narrative, which explicitly places humanity in a superior station to other life. But even in cultures that lack such strong anthropocentric creation narratives, the spread of Western science and technology has brought with it a dualistic distinction between observer and observed, actor and acted upon, that functionally leads to much the same place. Humans alone are considered to have agency, and thus be worthy of ethical consideration and capable of playing an active role in history.

Ethically separating the human from the non-human makes it easy to ignore the needs of the non-human. If humans consume so many resources as to drive other communities to extinction, this is regrettable only in so far as it impacts the ecosystem services we enjoy or the beauty we experience. In a sense, all modern human societies are libertarian, with a right to “swing their ecological fist” so long as it does not harm another (human).

The most technologically optimistic imagine a world in which even ecosystem services can be supplemented or replaced with human ingenuity, and perhaps even (immediate) resource limitations can be overcome (by mining asteroids, colonizing other planets, and so on and so forth). In doing so, such optimists reduce the ethical weight of the non-human world to the purely aesthetic. If you could even marginally improve the lives of many people by burning the Mona Lisa, would there not be a strong argument for destroying the painting despite its aesthetic and historic significance? And compared to the Mona Lisa, what value is a mountain, or even an entire mountain range?

To believe in unlimited growth is thus to believe that the non-human no ethical weight in and of itself.

“Mainstream” advocates of zero growth can be thought of as technological pessimists rather than optimists: Ecosystem services cannot be meaningfully supplemented or replaced, in their view, and unsustainable resource extraction ultimately reduces human well-being. We must therefore leave enough “space” for the non-human world in order to avoid human suffering.

The more “radical” zero growth arguments I am aware of do assert that the non-human world has an ethical weight of its own. In this view, even if unlimited growth were possible it would be undesirable because eventually the negative impact of that growth on the non-human world would exceed the positive effects of that growth on the human world. There is thus an ethical duty to preserve room for the non-human world beyond what is required simply to avoid human suffering. Often this preservation of space is linked to a preservation of “wilderness” that has somehow remained “untouched” by the human world, or can otherwise be returned to a “natural” state “free” of human influences.

The problem with all of these arguments is that you can’t actually separate the human from the non-human world.

When we think of “the environment”, we think of oceans or mountains or forests or plains… The world “beyond” our cities and towns. And yet these same cities and towns are an environment as well, as much as a termite mound or bee hive. Termite mounds help sustain the modern African savanna, and while human cities have existed for a much shorter time other animals have already begun to find a home in this new habitat. Perhaps you’re inclined to dismiss coyotes and rats as “opportunistic pests”… But can you say the same about native bees that have learned how to use our plastic waste to reinforce their nests – and help their offspring better survive?

Moreover, humans have been having an effect on their environments for far longer than modern cities have existed. The current composition of the Amazon rain forest may be directly attributable to human intervention. Humans and birds work together to find honey in Africa, and in Brazil human fishermen and wild dolphins cooperatively fish. In the US, the Cherokee peoples changed the distribution of trees in ways that have persisted for hundreds of years. To dismiss these as just examples of “non-Western cultures also exploiting their environment” is facile. Mutualism is widespread in nature, and to believe that human relationships are only intentional and exploitative is to give too little credit both to our non-human mutualists and to these human societies that have formed these relationships.

What is the difference between the relationships forged between other plants and animals and their environment, and those forged between humanity and our environment? If you believe that there is a firm dualism between the human and non-human worlds, where do you draw that line? And if there is no such line, then how can we possibly assert ethical primacy to either the (arbitrarily divided) human and non-human worlds?

To believe that the human world can grow without bound is to deny that humanity is embedded in the world as surely as any other animal. But to believe that humanity can somehow withdraw from the world in a zero growth bubble is to make the same mistake. And in a universe full of existential planetary dangers, from asteroids to gamma-ray bursts to the eventual destruction of our world by the Sun itself, there is no future for life without a technological civilization (eventually capable of interstellar travel).

Moreover, if we are part of our ecology, if we are an ecology, then to believe that growth is impossible is to deny the dynamism and evolutionary potential all around us.

The only question is one of time.

Beyond the End of History

We can now see the outlines of an alternative to both the modern conception of unlimited growth and of the zero growth reaction: It would be a human world that embraced the dynamism and evolutionary potential of the ecologies it was part of. It would be a world of some limits, yes, but not because those limits were necessary for human survival, or even because they were required of us to meet our ethical obligations to our fellows, but because such limits would preserve the potential for the system as a whole to grow. It would be a world that grew and changed along and within its ecological context, in which human foresight and technological ingenuity was put towards the betterment of entire ecologies, and not just a single species within that ecology. Most importantly, it is a world that preserves its capacity to grow and build when such growth and building is needed… And to step back to rest and heal when rest and healing is needed.

I call this alternative long growth, because it requires thinking about growth not in business cycles, or even human lives, but in ecological and evolutionary time. Calling it “long growth” is also a deliberate riff on The Long Now Foundation, which is dedicated towards expanding the scope of human thinking into the next 10,000 years… Which seems a good start to me.

Long growth is not the same as centrally managed growth; limits should not in general be “hard” (you can only use so much), but rather attempt to account for the impact of our choices, both positive and negative, on the ecologies we’re part of. Economists talk of “internalizing the externalities”, and if there is one central thesis of the idea of long growth, it’s that it is critical that we do so for all members of the ecologies we inhabit, not just for humans.

To say that this is a massive undertaking, a journey that we are at but the start of, would be an understatement. But it is not an inconceivable journey, and in fact we have already taken the first steps along this path. Over time, we will understand the consequences of our actions better, though for now it seems wisest to build in generous margins for error to account for our current limited understanding.

A “long growth future” is obviously beneficial when compared to current conceptions of unlimited growth, and in fact is not opposed to the idea of “unlimited growth” in the abstract. Instead, long growth decenters both humanity and the present moment, demanding that growth occur in a way that is a net benefit to all of us, human and non-human, present and future. Growth must occur on time scales and in ways that are sustainable; because such growth must ultimately come from the reconfiguration of entire ecosystems, it must invariable occur on ecological and evolutionary, rather than human, timescales.

By allowing for growth, we allow for sustainable changes in consumption that are driven by changes in technology, society, and population. By pricing in both human and non-human externalities, we eliminate the rigidity of current conceptions of zero growth by allowing for economic and social reconfiguration while still maintaining appropriate buffers to human resource utilization to ensure that our broader ecologies remain healthy.

Most importantly, long growth leaves open the possibility that we can temporarily exceed the current “limits” should the need arise. In the event of a significant regional or global disaster, a long growth world could make the choice to over-utilize resources in order to meet the challenge (in fact, properly pricing in the externalities of inaction would demand it). After the crisis had past, it might enter an extended period of quiescence as it worked to heal the broader ecology. Such a period need not be “contractionary” from an economic point of view – the difference between a “time of healing” and “business as usual” is more about changing the focus of human ingenuity rather than reducing resource consumption significantly “below normal” (though, depending upon the nature of the disaster and extent of the response, some reduction may be necessary).

Long growth is thus the situation of human foresight and technology as part of, rather than apart from, the ecological and evolutionary process.

There are some significant challenges here, not the least of which is that a long growth future requires human institutions capable of operating at timescales beyond anything we have historic context for. Without historical antecedents, it’s essentially impossible to map out what these institutions might look like and what the necessary cultural antecedents might be. Despite this, I think it is possible to outline a general “direction” in which such institutions are more likely to be found. This is a task for a later series, however, as there is much groundwork that needs to be laid first.

A more immediate issue with a (somewhat) more concrete set of solutions is the question of anti-leveling – the same dystopian concern that bedevils zero growth futures. Because while a long growth world can grow, it will generally not do so on human timescales. Thus, the question of how we can prevent resource concentration and the capture of political institutions by unaccountable elites remains pressing.

Next Week

Next week we’ll finish out this first series by discussing how we might counter the dystopic tendencies of both zero growth and long growth futures, how the idea of long growth makes (some of) these problems more tractable, and why it makes sense to advocate for policies addressing these concerns even if you believe that the limits of growth will never be reached.


ELSEWHEN…

Deep Pasts

Near Pasts

  • Nothing this edition.

Presents

Near Futures

Deep Futures


OUTRO…

Cutting a bagel into two linked halves.

Have thoughts about something I’ve written? Run into an interesting website that deserves to be an Outro? Just want to say hello? Drop me a line!

A picture of a debris pile near a construction site at night. Car-sized pieces of styrofoam, almost crystalline in appearance, dominate the center of the frame.

The Last Remaining Hominin

Five Futures: Volume 2, Issue 3

THE STORY SO FAR…

I’ve decided to play around with format a bit this week. Headings are a little more prominent to sign-post sections folks may find interesting, and I’ve dropped the Current Projects section since it’s not… Very interesting. It was a fun idea, but frankly I think that Warren Ellis is the only bloke who can actually pull it off.

You are reading Warren’s newsletter, right?

You’ll notice that I’m not using this leading section to house random thoughts, like I promised last week. That’s because I’ve decided to break that off as its own section, Some Observations, which you’ll find immediately below. If you’re just interested in the normal link dump, check out Elsewhen.

Have thoughts about something I’ve written? Run into an interesting website that deserves to be an Outro? Just want to say hello? Drop me a line!


SOME OBSERVATIONS…

I want to kick off Some Observations by using it to (slowly) write down a constellation of ideas I’ve been circling around for the last couple of years. I currently have notes dividing my thoughts into five loosely-connected essays that build towards what (I think) may be a new way of conceptualizing politics and our ethical obligations within society. I say “may” here because my own thinking has certainly been influenced by a variety of sources, and I suspect that it’s entirely possible that what I have is less “new” than a re-packaging of something that already exists.

In which case I hope someone clues me in, because I’d definitely be interested in finding antecedents.

I want to start off this journey by talking about the concept of economic “growth”, why neither the traditional notion of unbounded growth nor the increasingly popular notion of a “zero” growth society are likely to improve (or even sustain) human welfare and happiness, how we might be able to resolve this dilemma, and finally what challenges present themselves to realizing this resolution.

I think I can do this in 3 - 4 shorter parts. After I complete this sequence, I’ll compile and re-edit what I’ve written, incorporate any feedback I’ve received, and post a finished version on the Delphi Foresight Strategy homepage.

The Radical Futures of Growth, Part 1

The concept of “growth” – the business of sustained material improvement in the human condition, primarily via the production of new physical things and services, and the provision of these things and services to ever greater portions of the population – is something that modern societies are positively obsessed with. Technocratic politics is obsessed with measuring growth, typically in the form of GDP. Our personal lives are driven by the desire to reliably secure our access to ever increasing quantities and complexities of these goods and services (a desire rooted in simple survival for the poorest among us, and base status signaling for the more well-to-do).

There’s good reason for this obsession. Most of human history is characterized by only slowly changing economic systems that provided only a precarious existence for most of humanity. New technology made our lives better by allowing us to more effectively apply our energy and skills, which in turn helped us to more easily secure food and shelter for ourselves and our communities. The explosion of productivity in the 18th and 19th Centuries provided so much abundance that those at the top of the social hierarchy were unable to absorb the gains; for the first time in human history, pursuits of pleasure and the mind became something that you didn’t have to be insanely rich to indulge in.

Growth is what enables us to have time to read. Growth provided the space that allowed people to consider both their own condition and that of their compatriots, leading to an increasing pace of social change (the abolition of slavery, the success of women’s rights, the ongoing fight for sexual freedom, etc.) in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. Growth, accelerating around the world, began to deliver a markedly better, more secure life to us all.

It’s hard to argue with that.

The Trouble With Growth

Reality has a way of ruining the best parties.

The material stuff that powers rising global prosperity doesn’t just appear. It must be grown, mined, refined, combined, transported, sold. Many of these steps involve extracting energy and raw materials out of the Earth in the form of metals, minerals, rock, and fossil fuels. Some of these resources – fossil fuels – are permanently destroyed. Metal and rock could in theory be recycled, but are often incorporated into their final goods in a way that makes this difficult. Even those things that should regenerate themselves – wood, food, and other biologic materials – are harvested in quantities and manners that gradually destroy their ability to regenerate.

Worse yet, the waste products generated as we convert these raw materials into finished goods and transport them around the globe are serving to gradually alter and erode the broader natural systems of the Earth. The climate is changing, becoming less hospitable to human civilization. Pollution and intensive farming is gradually destroying the land that feeds us. As more of the Earth is altered by human activity, our fellow cohabitants suffer and die with consequences we are just beginning to grasp.

Even if materials were incorporated into goods in a way that allowed them to be extracted and recycled later, even if all of our energy production came from renewable sources, even if farming and aquaculture was practiced sustainably, even if we reversed the environmental degradation our past growth has wrought… Even then, we would still not be able to sustain growth indefinitely. There is only so much accessible metal, only so much land, only so much available energy on this world.

The argument that growth can be continued indefinitely, that there are no material and energetic limits, typically fall into two categories.

The first of these is that human ingenuity will overcome any limits. Frequently the Green Revolution is cited as an example of this, as advances in agricultural technology allowed us to escape what was widely believed to be an inevitable Malthusian trap. However, even the Green Revolution’s most ardent proponents did not subscribe to this view, instead seeing the advances of the early 20th Century as only a temporary reprieve, and the fertilizers and pest control championed during that time have since proven to be a potent source of environmental degradation. Human ingenuity is indeed a powerful resource, but those who are counting on it are confusing probability with destiny.

The second argument that indefinite growth can be sustained is to deny that resource limitations exist at all. When pushed, proponents of this view almost invariably fall back to the proposition that the colonization and exploitation of outer space is humanity’s “ace in the hole”. The first counter-argument to this assertion is that space travel still presents significant technological challenges, while the looming threats of environmental degredation and resource depletion are all but imminent. To attempt to outrun these threats using given the space technology we now have is, to be generous, a civilizational hail mary. More fundamentally however, colonizing the Solar System only substitutes one limit (the resources available on Earth) for another (the resources available in the Solar System). While the latter is a much higher limit, it is again not infinite. Barring the unlikely discovery of low-energy faster-than-light travel, growth must still ultimately be bounded.

The most generous possible future is one in which blind luck allows us to outrun planetary limits and colonize the Solar System. This scenario pushes out the limits of growth substantially, but does not remove them. It is also, given our current technology, an extremely improbable outcome. The smart money is that we will confront the physical limits of Earth far before large-scale space colonization become feasible. If we are to colonize the Solar System, we will do so after learning how to construct a zero-growth civilization… Or not at all.

The Zero Growth Dystopia

The alternative to a would of unbounded growth is typically conceptualized of as a world of “zero” (net) growth. Resource flows will become closed-loop, either directly by way of recycling or indirectly by designing goods that are easily broken down and reincorporated into the Earth’s biosphere once they are discarded. Global population growth would need to cease in order to maintain a basic standard of living.

Given the state of the world right now, that may sound like a pretty big lift. It’s even bigger when you consider how the unequal distribution of global wealth. A world of zero growth will either be one of large, permanent global inequality, or one in which the global rich see their wealth and income percipitously fall.

But let’s say that we can overcome these issues. If we do, we’ll still be confronted with two deeper challenges,either one of which is sufficient to transform a zero growth future into a bleak, dystopian world.

The first challenge is that a zero growth world is rigid. Unless reproduction is strictly policed, fluctuations in population will cause corresponding fluctuations in living standards. Obviously, a growing population in a zero (economic) growth world will lead to declining standards of living, and depending on how close such a world is to carrying capacity may cause permanent damage to the Earth’s biosphere (thus reducing the overall human carrying capacity). Unless automation completely replaces human labor, a falling population can also lead to declining living standards as fewer and fewer adults now must maintain the same level of goods and services as before.

More worryingly, there is no capacity in a zero growth world to quickly ramp up production should the need arise. Such a society would be unable to deal with global emergencies such as a pandemic or imminent asteroid impact. While it’s tempting to say that “extra capacity” just needs to be available in these circumstances, how then do we prevent the individuals in such a society from using that extra capacity to “better” their lives? To build in such extra capacity requires a level of centralized social control that makes the reproductive regulation just discussed seem positively permissive in comparison.

A second troubling aspect of a zero growth world is it’s “anti-leveling” tendency. In post-Neolithic Revolution societies, those higher up in the social hierarchies have universally used their power to hoard available resources. Historically, the powerful have been able to monopolize wealth as fast or faster than low-growth societies were able to produce it, further reinforcing social stratification. The growth boom of the last two hundred-ish years temporarily reversed this situation, and has arguably been the primary factor allowing for the emergence of modern, relatively egalitarian societies. Ending growth means that the powerful will once again be able to monopolize wealth and resources. Taken to its logical conclusion, at best such a world is less a great and glorious tomorrow and more a return to the bad old days. A zero growth future with a high degree of automation allows for even darker possibilities: If labor is unnecessary, then what is to stop the powerful from completely monopolizing global resources, vastly improving their own standards of living at the expense of the very lives of everyone else?

Next Week

Next week I’ll outline an alternative to a “zero growth” world that, I think, largely mitigates the (first) challenge of system rigidity. That should be a lot shorter than what I just wrote, and will set us up for a discussion of how we might deal with the anti-leveling tendencies that have been up until now masked by growth.


ELSEWHEN…

Deep Pasts

  • Nothing this week.

Near Pasts

Presents

Near Futures

Deep Futures


OUTRO…

Classic, beautifully proofed ebooks that are free for you to download in a variety of formats.

Sunset over the American Midwest as seen from a plane.

Everything Was Stripped Away

Five Futures: Volume 2, Issue 2

Conditions: Partly cloudy and 8° C.

Coordinates: unless.gain.books

The story so far… I was originally going to use the week’s edition of Five Futures to begin considering some of the trickier aspects of the notion of “growth”, and why I think that proponents of a “zero growth” world are proposing something significantly more radical than most of them actually realize.

But then the federal government here in the U.S. went into shutdown, and some observations seem warranted.

The first is, of course, that a government shutdown doesn’t mean that everything stops, even at the federal level. The military’s still out there doing it’s thing, Social Security checks still get cut, Robert Mueller will continue his investigation. But while a set of “essential” services continue, the bureaucratic neural tissue of the government has now been largely anesthetized, with the result that the beast will now shamble on like a slowly decaying, half-alive zombie until a deal between the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate is reached. For most folks this is just political theater right now, but if the process of resolving the current impasse lasts much more than a few days then people are going to start to notice that something’s actually up. After a few weeks things will really start to fall apart.

But I don’t think that the current “impasse” will last all that long, and the reason for this is also the reason I think this little bit of local news is worth commenting on.

Just this past weekend, I remember talking to my mother and worrying out loud that the Democratic Party was beginning to evolve in a similar way as the Republican Party during the Obama Administration – basically, becoming a Party that was defined not by a set of ideas, or even interest groups, but rather purely in opposition to the (current) President. This was a strategy that seemed to work well for Republicans at the time, but has served them poorly once they regained power: Without an enemy to rally against, party discipline broke down and we learned that the better part of a decade without ideas beyond “whatever the opposite is of the black guy in the Oval Office” has effectively pithed the intellectual capacity of the GOP. Once back in power, the Republican Party has proven itself essentially incapable of actual governance. The Democrats have likewise begun to play the role of the “Party of No” during the first year of the Trump Administration, not that it’s mattered much until recently, as Republican ineptitude has left them with very little to do at the federal level.

The proximate cause of the current crisis is President Trump’s cancellation of the Obama-era DACA program that shielded people who had been brought to the U.S. as children without going through the proper channels from deportation. DACA was always a bit of a band-aid, and so everyone seemed to agree that Congress needed to come up with an immigration bill that would actually fix the situation DACA was intended to address. The only problem is that in the months since Trump canceled DACA have been filled with an almost Herculean level of goal-post moving that means that nobody is quite sure what Trump is actually willing to sign into law. This has lead Democrats to insist that some sort of immigration deal needs to be part of the present budget bill, which the Republicans aren’t willing to give them, probably because it’s a contentious internal issue for them with an unclear payoff, and they don’t have the party discipline anymore to actually line up the votes on.

Instead, the Republicans have offered a budget bill that includes re-authorization for a different program the Democrats favor, CHIP, which provides health care for poor children. Now, keeping the federal government running is pretty important, and I’d honestly expect people to vote on any budget bill that kept the lights on so long as it didn’t have some kind of absolutely terrible rider on it. So in my mind the expectation is that the Democrats (hell, everyone) should vote for the current “continuing resolution” even is the only thing it did was keep the federal government’s lights on, and the fact that the Republicans were nervous enough to give Democrats one of their priorities as part of the deal should be considered a free win.

Instead, we have a federal government shutdown, as far as I can tell for the sole reason that Democrats can hold the Republicans’ collective feet to the fire right now, and have thus decided that they must do so, and damn the consequences.

Which is why I don’t think this impasse will last that long: The Democrats don’t have a good reason not to vote for this bill, and I expect that there will be enough defectors (or threats of defection) to get a short-term spending bill passed by the end of the week at the latest, and probably by the end of the weekend. I would be very surprised if there’s anything extracted beyond a “promise” to consider immigration legislation in the near future.

(Of course, Trump could come out with some kind of inflammatory statement that makes everyone feel like they have to dig in their heels, but I’m really hoping that he’s too focused on golfing right now.)

Even if the current shutdown doesn’t last very long, it strikes me as an important milestone in hollowing out of the Democratic Party into a tribal “anti-Republican” vehicle, similar to how the Republican Party was hollowed out during the Obama era. That I happen to largely agree with the Democratic Party’s priorities gives me little solace here, as ultimately the reason that governments and societies continue to function has more to do with the strength of their institutions rather than the relative merits of their ideas. Should the Democratic Party truly become a mirror-image of the modern Republican Party, I fear the worst when it comes to the fate of the Republic.


The Deep Past

The Near Past

  • 20% of trees in the modern Amazon rain forest appear to be the result of human domestication.

  • There are (vertical!) windmills in Nashtifan, Iran that were built over a thousand years ago, and are still used to grind grain today. The windmills have been maintained by generations of custodians, but the last custodian has been unable to find an apprentice, leaving the future of the windmills in doubt.

  • The New Yorker reviews a suite of new books that suggests that question the benefits of modern agriculture and ask if we can recapture the egalitarian spirit that seems to allow some cultures to live a life of “affluence without abundance”. The answer is a tentative “yes”, but suggests that doing this would require a significant social shift in how we construct hierarchies. But perhaps we are already seeing the beginnings of such a change?

The Present

The Near Future

The Deep Future


Current projects… Got knocked out by some kind of weird not-a-flu this week, and consequently basically spent my time keeping my head above water rather than advancing project goals. Though I’m going to try to make some progress on the final phase of KLONDIKE right after I fire off this week’s missive. Wish me luck!

  • EPIPHYTE: A hardware infrastructure project.
  • DRAGOON: A corporate foresight project.
  • MANTA: A “bread-and-butter” documentation project.
  • KLONDIKE: A cloud infrastructure project.
  • MEMENTO: An ongoing writing project.
  • QUANTUM: A cloud infrastructure project.
  • CORONA: An ongoing public education project.
  • DELPHI: An as-yet-unspecified future venture.

Outro… A city becomes poetry.

A spherical orrery made out of polished steal and stone at The Interval in San Francisco. Behind it are two floors of bookshelves and a spiral iron staircase.

An Error of Scale

Five Futures: Volume 2, Issue 1

Conditions: Partly cloudy and 14° C.

Coordinates: volunteered.cities.owners

The story so far… It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Almost exactly 13 months since the last of these newsletters. I bet you thought you were rid of me.

The last year has been a weird mix of being both swamped with work and making very little progress on the things that mattered. Most of the big projects at my day job stalled out as the day-to-day grind of just maintaining the systems I was trying to build set in. Trump’s election, while less shocking to me than to many, still managed to shatter my attention. Between the two, I found it hard to think about anything particularly interesting or helpful.

I might finally be getting things back on track now though. I’ve spent the last couple of months figuring out how to unplug from Twitter, which over the last year has remained a constant stream of outrage and distraction, while still maintaining a good stream of inputs using a combination of Nuzzel and Feedly. I have notes written up for an “arc” of about half a dozen essays that bring together some of the more important things I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of years. And projects at the day job, particularly KLONDIKE, have finally regained momentum.

So, time to restart the newsletter, right?

I came up with the the name Five Futures as an allusion to my desire to situate my thinking about the future within a broader historic context. “The future” isn’t just made up of the latest gee-whiz technology, social changes, or environmental catastrophes. Rather, every moment in time is an expression of a multitude of trends, long term and short term, some with roots in the present but many with roots in our deep past. To only lightly paraphrase Utah Phillips, “the past didn’t go anywhere”. What I was endeavoring to do with Five Futures was to pick out articles I’d recently read that spoke to these trends – from the deep past, to the more human past, present, and future, and finally to the deep future – in an attempt to begin building a narrative about the future that didn’t situate it as a destination, but rather as just another way-point on a journey far longer than any one life.

But it was difficult to find enough variety in my reading over just a week to cover all five temporal realms, and moreover I don’t feel that my bandwidth has recovered enough for me to spend quite as much time on Five Futures as I used to. So after much thought, I’ve decided to scale back my ambitions to something closer to the weekly link-dump that’s relatively common in the newsletter space. I’m also not going to skip a week just because I don’t have enough links to flesh out all “five futures”. Ideally Five Futures will continue to have five central sections, but many times it won’t. I’m going to make peace with that.

In the future, I’ll use this intro section as a place to randomly dump whatever I’ve been thinking about during the last week (even if it’s only half-baked), and will confine project news to the end.

And now, on to the links!


The Deep Past

  • Nautilus asks “Which Comes First, Big Cities or Big Gods?”, and comes down tentatively on the side of big cities. In fact, there’s hints here that “big gods” may only be one way in which the beliefs necessary for large scale social cohesion manifest – really what we need is a way to make the fact that our actions have consequences far beyond ourselves personal. The idea of divine punishment in monotheistic religions is one way to do this, but it’s not the only way. I’ve always found the placement of monotheism at the “top” of the “pyramid” of social complexity a bit self-serving; the work described here seems like the beginning of a necessary corrective.

The Near Past

The Present

The Near Future

The Deep Future


Current projects… As I mentioned in the intro, 2018 was pretty much a wash. All of the projects that were on the list for the last newsletter are still here, except for VELOCIRAPTOR, which I’ve scrapped due to lack of interest from both myself and potential collaborators.

  • EPIPHYTE: A hardware infrastructure project.
  • DRAGOON: A corporate foresight project.
  • MANTA: A “bread-and-butter” documentation project.
  • KLONDIKE: A cloud infrastructure project.
  • MEMENTO: An ongoing writing project.
  • QUANTUM: A cloud infrastructure project.
  • CORONA: An ongoing public education project.
  • DELPHI: An as-yet-unspecified future venture.

Outro… Pre-colonization native territories in North America and Australia.

The valley just south of Aspen Peak on a gray, snowy day.

And We Will Know Him for a Thousand Years

Five Futures: Volume 1, Issue 8

Conditions: Clear and -13° C.

The story so far… It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

I blame part of my absence on the fact that I’ve been extraordinarily busy these last two months. Project GIBRALTAR is essentially finished, but in its place I’ve added four new projects: QUANTUM, CORONA, VELOCIRAPTOR, and DELPHI. (The last of these isn’t all that secret, as sharp readers will notice some re-branding of this newsletter and my “personal” email address. But don’t get too excited – DELPHI is a slow burn, and I don’t expect that much will happen with it for 3 - 4 years.) Most of my attention right now is focused on EPIPHYTE and KLONDIKE. Both projects are likely to continue to dominate my life for the next couple of months.

And then there was the whole US election…

Truth be told, the main reason for the pause in Five Futures was that my reading list had become so Trump-heavy that it was getting difficult to put these missives together. “Fine,” I thought, “I’ll just wait until after November 9th, and then the whole Trump thing will be behind us.”

Like everyone else, I sure did call that one wrong.

If you’ve been following along, then you know that while I thought Clinton was going to win, I expected it to be tight, and for the GOP to retain control of the House and Senate. Pollsters are going to be doing a lot of soul-searching over the next few years about where their models and methodology went wrong. For my own part, I think I missed two things:

  1. While I expected (white) men to break towards Trump more strongly than the polls predicted, I also expected (white) women to break towards Clinton – not out of some sense of feminine solidarity, but rather as a reaction to the frighteningly misogynistic tone of the election. Basically, I did not expect Trump to pull a Romney-style electoral map for any demographic of women.

    I was wrong. Not only did Trump win white women, but he did so by nearly the same margin as Romney. For me this was the biggest surprise of the election, as I’ve generally thought that sexism was a far more fundamental prejudice than the man-made specter of racism. To be honest, I’m still processing what I think this means for how I think about society and the future… But as Damon Young wrote shortly after the election, I will never underestimate white people’s need to preserve whiteness again.

  2. I also significantly underestimated the effectiveness of voter disenfranchisement. (More on this in a bit.)

As you can probably guess, I expect little good to come of either set of factors.

But before we get into that, some historical perspective. To take the edge off the present.


Deep history… Two issues ago we discussed how Aboriginal Australian tales appear to accurately record over 7,000 years of coastal changes. Now researchers and Aboriginal elders have re-identified what appears to be an ancient solar observatory that may date back 11,000 years. Observatories of this type are unknown amongst hunter-gatherer peoples, but are common in early agricultural civilizations. Indeed:

Custodian Reg Abrahams said the region around the observatory seemed to have once had semi-permanent villages with evidence of early fishing and farming practices.

“If you’re going to have a stone arrangement where you mark off the seasons throughout the year with the solstices and equinoxes, it kind of makes sense if you’re at least most of the year in one specific location to do that,” he said.

“So if that’s the case, it would make sense if you’re near permanent food and water sources.”

He said there were areas where eel traps would have been set up and even signs of “gilgies”, or terraces used in farming.

And yet intensive agriculture never caught on in Australia to the extent it did elsewhere. Why? Or was the observatory constructed by a people who were still nomadic?

The more we learn about Aboriginal Australian history and culture, the more mind-blowingly complex it appears. There seems to have been nothing else quite like it on Earth, and understanding how such complexity and memory were maintained for so long strikes me as important if we are to successfully meet the challenges of the next few thousand years.


The empty land… Native American culture is also deeper than most of us learn in school. Before the arrival Europeans, North America was already occupied by a variety of nations. Cities were built, land was farmed, animals were domesticated, and complex trade networks were maintained. Ironically, as Charlie Loyd points out in the October edition of 6,88, these trade networks led to catastrophe when European diseases began to spread. The resulting social collapse helped Europeans conceptualize of North America as a “primitive” and “empty” place, when in reality it was neither.

… Almost wherever European American people went, they saw Native American people in collapsed societies, because trade had already carried European diseases.

[…]

So European American explorers tended to perceive social formlessness and emptiness wherever they went for two interlocking reasons: first, racism, and second, that the societies they encountered were often in the middle of the equivalent of Europe’s Black Death or worse. The white people, generally, missed that huge parts of America were under agricultural management ranging from casual wildcrafting to intensive farming. They wrote these notes to each other about how oddly fertile and hospitable American land was, and how useful it would be once the local people were gone. It was as if to visit Berkshire and write home that it was full of naturally occurring dairies that would be very useful once all the damnable dairy farmers, milkmaids, and vets were killed. It was a massive failure of humanity, but also of basic observational skills.

While Loyd takes some pains to try to absolve the European legal concepts of res nullius and terra nulllius in principle, I’m not so sure that you can separate the principles from their historic use. And when you begin to consider that animals may have some sense of human-like agency, these concepts really become problematic. Was anything really ever res nullius?

When I talk about one of our central cultural challenges being how to conceptualize of people who are not people, these are exactly the sorts of deep-seated principles whose legitimacy I believe needs to be challenged.


The subtle knife… We discussed in the introduction how the behavior of white women as a voting bloc in this past election took me by surprise. I also mentioned that the effectiveness of current voter disenfranchisement efforts surprised me. This is not to say that I thought disenfranchisement wasn’t going to have an effect on the election, but rather that I thought it would take at least one more census/electoral cycle (i.e., 2022) for the effects to become sever. I seem to have seriously underestimated how bad the situation has already become.

… 27,000 votes currently separate Trump and Clinton in Wisconsin, where 300,000 registered voters, according to a federal court, lacked strict forms of voter ID. Voter turnout in Wisconsin was at its lowest levels in 20 years and decreased 13 percent in Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s African-American population lives, according to Daniel Nichanian of the University of Chicago.

[…]

How many people were turned away from the polls? How many others didn’t bother to show up in the first place? These are questions we need to take far more seriously. In 2014, a study by Rice University and the University of Houston of Texas’s 23rd Congressional District found that 12.8 percent of registered voters who didn’t vote in the election cited lack of required photo ID as a reason they didn’t cast a ballot, even though only 2.7 percent of registered voters actually lacked an acceptable ID. Texas’s strict voter-ID law blocked some voters from the polls while having an ever larger deterrent effect on others. Eighty percent of these voters were Latino and strongly preferred Democratic candidates.

On Election Day, there were 868 fewer polling places in states with a long history of voting discrimination, like Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina. These changes impacted hundreds of thousands of voters, yet received almost no coverage. In North Carolina, as my colleague Joan Walsh reported, black turnout decreased 16 percent during the first week of early voting because “in 40 heavily black counties, there were 158 fewer early polling places.” Even if these restrictions had no outcome on the election, it’s fundamentally immoral to keep people from voting in a democracy. The media devoted hours and hours to Trump’s absurd claim that the election was rigged against him, while spending precious little time on the real threat that voters faced.

Previously I’ve mostly focused on the effects of gerrymandering, and as such I’m happy to see efforts being made to address the issue. But it now seems clear that more “subtle” methods of disenfranchisement – “exact match” voter registration, trivial methods for removing voters from the rolls, recount eligibility rules that frankly fly in the face of why you’d want a recount in the first place, and, of course, felon disenfranchisement – may be more significant factors distorting the US electoral process. Given that the GOP now has a lock on two branches of the federal government (and probably soon, all three), I expect it to become increasingly difficult to ensure that the franchise is practically available to all of our fellow citizens.


Things change… Trump’s campaign went out with a bang that was just shy of Fascism 2.0, and his post-election cabinet picks and advisers have ranged from run-of-the-mill kleptocrats, to dangerous proto-authoritarians, to borderline Nazis. The only silver lining to the situation appear to be that career Republicans, largely excluded from Trump’s nascent administration, are beginning to push back… But even this opposition seems at best half-hearted. Meanwhile, Democrats appear to be contemplating some level of cooperation with the incoming administration, a strategy that would make political sense only if one honestly believed Trump had any respect for the democratic and bureaucratic processes upon which our country is based – a position for which there seems to be diminishing evidence.

The entire situation has a distinctly Weimar-y vibe to it.

The best-case scenario at this point may be a (temporary?) descent into autocracy of the type envisioned by Sarah Kendzior. But with white ethnonationalism resurgent and a population increasingly receptive to military rule, now is probably a good time to begin imagining the unimaginable.


And we will know him for a thousand years… At its worst, the Trump administration may represent the end of the republic. At it’s best, it may just be an episode of unprecedented level of kleptocracy and kakistocracy. Either of which would be bad enough. Unfortunately, the consequences of Trump’s presidency are unlikely to end with his administration.

Trump’s election represents a decisive route in the fight against climate change and global environmental degradation. Which is not to say that further efforts are futile. It can always get worse, and the need to address these issues is not going to diminish. But the world now seems destined for dislocating, terrible changes. We need to accept this. Mitigate what we can still change. Prepare for what we cannot.

Acceptance, mitigation, and preparation are not on deck in Trump’s administration.

I am not sure that I agree that Trump is the first demagogue of the Anthropocene (I think there are other good candidates), but his actions will certainly enable many more. And while Trump’s name may eventually be forgotten, the consequences of our acquiescence to predatory delay will continue to reverberate for a thousand years.


Current project code names… I may be a little black rain cloud, but at least I’m a busy little black rain cloud.

  • EPIPHYTE: A hardware infrastructure project.
  • DRAGOON: A corporate foresight project.
  • MANTA: A “bread-and-butter” documentation project.
  • KLONDIKE: A cloud infrastructure project.
  • MEMENTO: An ongoing writing project.
  • QUANTUM: A cloud infrastructure project.
  • CORONA: An ongoing public education project.
  • VELOCIRAPTOR: An ongoing writing project.
  • DELPHI: An as-yet-unspecified future venture.

Outro… Existential risk and the end of civilization: The video game.

Pervasive and Obligatory Features

Five Futures: Volume 1, Issue 7

Conditions: Clear and 11° C.

Coordinates: rock.afford.lots

The story so far… And now we are ten! And this despite the fact that I can’t actually seem to reliably swing a weekly schedule yet.

The problem is that right now my reading list is basically “all US elections, all the time.”

Part of this is because I’m honestly just fascinated by the entire thing. I mean, how often do you get to watch a polity lose its collective mind in real time? That I, you know, live here adds a certain level of extra investment for me as well.

Politics also happens to be my day job (in a somewhat askew way). So I’m busy trying to read the tea leaves and figure out what the hell I’m going to be telling people on November 9th.

But as much as I may be preoccupied with the current electoral cycle, it just doesn’t give me enough material to write a whole issue of Five Futures. On top of that GIBRALTAR is rapidly nearing completion, and both EPIPHYTE and KLONDIKE have entered critical periods.

I’ve finally amassed enough stories to do a new issue, though. There’s not as much narrative cohesion here as I’d like, and it’s a bit heavy on US politics, but it will have to do.

(Also! It turns out that I’ll be able to publish some of the material I’m writing for project MEMENTO, stripped of certain details of course. You can read my first public essay related to this project on Medium.)


Empire-building first, sex later… DNA studies are upending yet another established narrative, this time about the colonization of the Pacific by the Polynesians. We’ve known for a while that modern Polynesians have a pretty diverse ancestry. The standard story has been that the relevant ethnic mixing occurred before they began expanding into the wider Pacific.

Now it appears that story is exactly backwards. The ancient Polynesians spread out into the Pacific first; the sex came later.

The big surprise was that there was almost no hint of Papuan ancestors. Instead, all the DNA was most closely related to populations in East Asia — as you’d expect for a population that originated in Taiwan. The immediate ancestral population, however, seems to have intermixed with a variety of other groups in East Asia since, so there’s no clear source of the Polynesians left in Asia.

If the Lapitan people didn’t have any Papuan DNA, how did it end up in modern Polynesians? The authors looked for hints by examining how long the stretches of Papuan DNA are in the modern populations. While the stretches would originally have consisted of entire chromosomes, exchanges of DNA between pairs of chromosomes would gradually break those stretches up into smaller pieces. By examining their current length, the authors conclude that the Papuan DNA was introduced into the ancestors of modern Polynesians between 50 and 80 generations ago.

That works out to be 1,500 to 2,300 years in the past, which also happens to be part of the period when the Polynesian trade networks were likely to be flourishing. And as the authors point out, this was a period when inter-island warfare was a regular event, which could have led to population displacement.

“Population displacement” is such a bloodless term for war and captivity. But then again, DNA records of such violence is hardly unique.


A rupture of cultural narrative… And now, a few pieces of light reading presented with minimal commentary. Take some time to read through these (a few appeared in previous editions of Five Futures), and then come back for my (brief) thoughts.

A lot of people have called Trump a fascist, or at least (as I have) a proto-fascist. But I’m starting to think that fascism isn’t what’s going on here. Rather, a set of diverse trends — filter bubbles, the culture of “safe spaces”, increasingly fact-free elections — may be causing our sense of shared cultural narrative to collapse.

Now, not all of these trends are, by themselves, bad things. Filter bubbles emerge because search engines are trying to provide us with the most relevant results. Safe spaces are a reaction to the fact that words have real life consequences and a sizable number of us are, unfortunately, dicks. The dominant cultural narrative throughout the West has historically been shaped by and for wealthy white men. Trying to address these problems is, on the whole, a good thing.

But there’s a dark side to this: As our cultural narrative becomes ever more atomized, it also becomes more difficult to find shared principles upon which to base cooperative, deliberative systems. Eventually “facts” themselves become a matter of dispute. It’s impossible for us to verify everything we hear experientially, and thus any complex argument about the real world is ultimately based upon accepted cultural authority. Without shared narrative who determines what a “fact” even is comes into dispute.

For the cultural left, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The same cannot be said for the right, which seems to have adopted a sort of “fog of war” created by contradictory political statements and an overt rejection of experienced reality. Because the process on the right has been more intentional, it’s also much further along and more dangerous than similar trends on the left. While the rupture of narrative on the right has allowed ethnic nationalism to re-emerge as a political force, it’s not fascist per se. Rather, Trump and other leaders in the GOP are simply assembling a set of groups with divergent, often conflicting, worldviews into a collation and attempting to ride the resulting wave into power. Which would just be “how democracy works,” except that rather than unifying their base(s) with a shared narrative they’ve instead professed allegiance to all narratives simultaneously. Their words literally have no meaning. And because they have no meaning, everyone hears exactly what they want to hear.

In a world with no shared cultural narratives, “facts” are replace with group identification and allegiance. What we call “fascism” may just have been the most primitive manifestation of this loss of cultural cohesion.


The banality of information warfare… Jezebel may have just broken one of the most important stories of the year, but damn did they bury the lead. It seems that a number of sites (including Jezebel) have fallen victim to an elaborate SEO scam involving wholly fictitious writers and stories. The case they cover in-depth concerns the fake author “Rachel Brewson.”

… Rachel’s main creator [is] marketing consultant Kenny Hyder … [who] … came to [the website used to monetize the character’s stores] Review Weekly through his friendship with Sheri “Charlie” Katz, an Israeli entrepreneur who runs a company called Equate Media. …

[…]

“The funny thing is we do this all the time,” he told me. “You guys just found one.”

Review Weekly, he explained, was “a content site that we did to run affiliate programs through.” The concept is called arbitrage: “You pay for traffic and then monetize it and try to turn a profit. But because of my background in SEO, it was natural to start some content and try to get some free traffic as well.”

Okay, how does this qualify as the biggest story of the year?

And then Brewson and [her equally fictitious ex-boyfriend] Todd were invited to appear on Nightline, where [the actors who played them] argued in a manner that seemed, even to a casual observer, to be staged.

So, the SEO scam managed to dupe a respected, mainstream news show. And then the other shoe really drops.

… But otherwise he claims the process of launching a fake person into TV fame was surprisingly easy, even with the picture discrepancy. I asked if anything about it felt unethical, and he said no, pointing out that no one at ABC or Nightline ever asked for ID or any other kind of verification.

“How is it unethical?” he added. “They wanted to interview her about this story that went viral and it was a story. You know what I mean? TV is all made up anyway. Why not join the fun? That’s the state of our reporting in this country.”

Besides, he says, “It’s not the first time for me, having a fake author get invited to go on TV.” He estimates that he has created “thousands” of fake characters over the years, and that seven or eight were as detailed as Rachel Brewson. (He didn’t want to tell me about any of the more detailed characters he said he’d helped create or where they appeared, saying it could hurt his livelihood.) He claims that “Rachel” isn’t even their most successful character: “She isn’t the biggest. That side of Equate was so minor, such a minor blip.” …

“It’s really funny because there’s stuff on TV all the time, people that are not real people,” he added, chuckling. “No one even knows, but us internet marketers just laugh.”

In a presidential campaign season awash with stories of international information warfare, the Brewson affair is something else again. Not because it appears extraordinary, but rather because it appears to be so completely banal. If we’re to believe Hyder (and it’s not entirely clear we should), these sorts of SEO-driven misinformation campaigns not only go on all the time, but are remarkably successful.

That the media is not to be trusted has long been the refrain of the paranoid and cynical. Certainly, mistakes happen and reporters are often biased. But to retreat entirely from the mainstream is to either withdraw from society completely or to discard any semblance of shared cultural narrative. In either case, the result is to amplify the centrifugal forces already pulling us apart.


Demographic trends won’t save you… One thing you frequently hear in more liberal circles is that demographics are on “our” side. While the trends are powerful, I think this belief makes people more sanguine than they should be about Democratic prospects. It’s unclear that an increasingly nativist GOP will be content to either temper its policies or accept political oblivion. And I think there’s a high likelihood that the GOP will seize both the federal Legislative and Executive branches in 2024 – even if its current rightwards slide continues.

The reason for my pessimism is that the GOP currently has a lock on 23 state governments (Democrats only have a lock on 7, two of which are exactly the ones you’d expect). The states control polling, voter registration, and most importantly how legistlative districts are redrawn after the decennial census. Control of the state governments thus allows the GOP to maintain control of the House of Representatives and biases Senate and presidential races. President Obama and former attorney general Eric Holder have recently launched an effort to combat this lock, but if the GOP is savvy they’ll be pushing just as much, if not more, money into the 2018 and 2020 state races.

US trifectas before the 2016 presidential election.

Demographic changes can’t be held off indefinitely under the current system… But unless Democrats invest heavily in the 2018 and 2020 state races (and I’m hoping that, given Obama and Holder’s new effort, they will), it seems likely that a combination of gerrymandering and increasingly subtle voter suppression measures will tile the 2022 – and more importantly, the 2024 – election cycles increasingly in the GOP’s favor. Should a radical nativist party come to control both the Executive and Legislative branches at the federal level, it’s not hard to imagine the demographic shifts so many seem to be placing their hope in being put on hold indefinitely.


Kim Stanley Robinson on the future… Well, that’s all been awfully dark, and unfortunately I don’t have any thoughts about more distant horizons to offer as a chaser. Instead I’ll let noted science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson have (more-or-less) the last word.

We should take the political and aesthetic baggage out of the term utopia. I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms. People tend to think of utopia as a perfect end-stage, which is, by definition, impossible and maybe even bad for us. And so maybe it’s better to use a word like permaculture, which not only includes permanent but also permutation. Permaculture suggests a certain kind of obvious human goal, which is that future generations will have at least as good a place to live as what we have now.

It’s almost as if a science fiction writer’s job is to represent the unborn humanity that will inherit this place – you’re speaking from the future and for the future. And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse – but you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.

You can read the entire interview over at BLDBLG.


Current project code names…

  • EPIPHYTE: A hardware infrastructure project.
  • GIBRALTAR: An ethnographic research project.
  • DRAGOON: A corporate foresight project.
  • KLONDIKE: A cloud infrastructure project.
  • MANTA: A “bread-and-butter” documentation project.
  • MEMENTO: An ongoing writing project.

Outro… Weird Sun Twitter.

A view of the Pacific Ocean from near the Golden Gate Bridge. In the distance, a flying bird.

When the Sea Came in and Covered the Land

Five Futures: Volume 1, Issue 6

Conditions: Clear and 25° C.

Coordinates: yoga.skin.shovels

The story so far… Perhaps Five Futures is a bi-weekly newsletter? I’m not quite willing to give up on weekly installments just yet, but I think I have to admit that the last few weeks have not been auspicious in this regard.

My excuse for the last week was that both KLONDIKE and EPIPHYTE both took a lot more time than I’d anticipated. Which is personally annoying, but not something particularly interesting for anyone who isn’t me.

I spent the week after the last issue of Five Futures in San Francisco though, which was a bit more interesting. It was my first time in the Bay Area as an adult, so rather than sight-seeing I spent most of my time keeping KLONDIKE, EPIPHYTE, and GIBRALTAR moving forward. I did get a chance to see the Golden Gate Bridge though, and managed to take some of my best photographs yet there. You might notice a few scattered around this week’s missive, though not in any way that relates to the surrounding content.

The main purpose of the trip was to catch the kick-off of Alex Steffen’s new project, The Heroic Future. The first two nights were a solid overview of the historical, political, and social dimensions of global climate change. The final night covered some of the more creative approaches to adaptation and mitigation being done right now, and finished up with a pitch for The Heroic Future itself. Steffen calls his new project “anticipatory journalism:” Bruce Sterling-esque design fiction with a participatory edge. If you’re curious to see where The Heroic Future goes you can sign up to be part of the project now.


Place as memory… Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest chronicle earthquakes and tsunamis from at least 300 years ago. Aboriginal stories recount over 7,000 years of changes to Australia’s coastline. Oral traditions, it turns out, are not only remarkably accurate, but often extraordinarily long-lived.

But how does a society without writing hand down memories with such fidelity for so long? It turns out that Aboriginal Australians have been using the environment itself as an inter-generational memory palace, anchoring their history to physical features in the landscape. Moreover, many ancient built structures (such as Stonehenge) exhibit similar characteristics as the natural locations used by the Aborigines, suggesting that they too may have been used to encode inter-generational memories.

If this hypothesis is born out, then the widespread nature of this technique may indicate that it was part of the culture shared by the first modern humans to leave Africa 50,000 years ago.


The far travelers of ancient times… Ethnically homogenous fantasies are often defended as “historically accurate”, but as sites like Medieval People of Color (now People of Color in European Art History) have documented so well, Medieval Europe (which so much high fantasy uses as its jumping-off point) was actually a pretty diverse place.

This pattern turns out to hold up no matter how far back in time you go. Ancient peoples were surprisingly well traveled. Almost 2,000 years ago Roman coinage could be found as far afield as Japan, and now we know that at least a few Chinese adventurers made it all the way to Britain at around the same time.

Modern technology may have made it easier to travel, but wanderlust, it would seem, has always been with us.


US electoral prognostications… Normally I have a specific story or two I want to highlight in each of the main sections of Five Futures. I don’t have one story I want to highlight about the upcoming US election for this issue though. Rather, I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently about where the US political landscape is going, and I want to write up my thoughts a bit more formally. Think of the following as an exercise in accountability: I’m going to lay out some predictions about the Trump/Clinton contest and what may happen next so that interested parties (including my future self) can reality-check circa 2016 me. Assuming we don’t all die in nuclear hellfire or annihilate the internet in the meantime.

First things first: I don’t think it’s likely that Trump will win the presidency – his poll numbers are just too far behind Clinton in too many key states. There are two things that I think could change this:

  1. An “October surprise,” probably courtesy of Putin, would almost certainly put Trump in the White House. I suspect this would take the form of a major military incident that (at least temporarily) moves the world to the brink of war. A major terrorist attack on US soil would also do the trick, but seems less likely to be engineered specifically for the election. I don’t think this scenario is very likely though, as it’s pretty hard to provoke a war in a controlled fashion – such incidents tend to spiral out of control pretty quickly. Putin is many things, but stupid is not one of them.

  2. The other wildcard is what the people currently polling for Gary Johnson do. As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight is projecting that Johnson will win 7.2% of the popular vote, which is currently triple the gap in they’re predicting in the popular vote between Trump and Clinton (44.5% and 46.9%, respectively). Do these voters ultimately cast their ballot for Johnson? Do they choose not to vote in the presidential election at all? Or do they break in the end for either Clinton or Trump? (And if so, are they spread out in a way that can change the distribution of actual electors?)

    My guess is that most Johnson voters will either stick with their choice or break for Trump. However, I don’t (based on my own anecdotal evidence) think that they’re distributed in a way that will change the actual electoral map. Johnson voters will make this a closer election than it currently looks though, and may even lead to a situation where Trump wins the popular vote but loses the Electoral College.

While I think sexism is going to play a larger role in the final distribution of votes than most people I’ve talked to, I also think that the effect is going to be a wash: The number of women who poll for Trump but secretly plan to vote for Clinton is probably about the same as the number of men who poll for Clinton but secretly plan to vote for Trump.

What happens if Trump does win? I agree with one of my close friends that there are three likely scenarios in this case, all of which hinge on the power of the US military and the deep state:

  1. Trump doesn’t actually follow through on many (or any) of his campaign rhetoric. This may indicate that Trump is a lot savvier than everyone’s given him credit for, but it’s more likely that what it means is that the deep state is actually the primary driver behind US policy. In this scenario, “democracy” ended in the US a long time ago, but we’re only now going to find out about it.

  2. Trump is deposed by a military coup. Others have outlined how this might happen, and multiple retired representatives of the military and the US national security apparatus have hinted at this possibility. Fortunately, the US military has a strong devotion to the Constitution, so seems likely that at least some semblance of democracy would be quickly restored. I’d hardly call this a “win” though. The long-term social and political impact of a coup are difficult to fathom, but almost certainly not very good.

  3. Trump doesn’t change one bit, and proceeds to govern more-or-less as he’s said he would. At this point the US probably remains a “democracy” in name, but keep in mind that so was Nazi Germany for a little while. On the plus side, this scenario indicates that the deep state was never as powerful as many feared. On the minus side, this scenario indicates that the deep state was never as powerful as many feared. This is definitely not the future you want to live in.

So, a Trump presidency is bad. But what about a Clinton win?

In the short term, I think Clinton will be constrained by Congressional obstructionism in the same way that Obama has been. The Republicans will probably lose seats this electoral cycle, but they won’t lose their most extreme seats or fall below 40 seats. I thus expect the 2017 and 2018 Congress to remain gridlocked, and given that mid-term elections typically swing conservative, I don’t think this will improve in 2019 or 2020. Scalia’s1 seat on the Supreme Court will thus remain vacant. Ginsburg’s seat will also probably open up during the time; I expect it will also remain vacant. Clinton could still do a lot of good work via executive order, but in doing so will further strengthen the imperial presidency.

There’s no sign that Republican control over the states is weakening, and I expect the GOP will refocus their resources there during a Clinton administration. With another census coming up in 2020, state elections in 2018 and 2020 will be critical to determining the 2024 electoral map. I have no idea what will happen in the 2020 presidential race, but a combination of gerrymandering and increasingly subtle voter suppression laws at the state level will make it virtually impossible for a Democrat to win the presidency in 2024. The GOP is likely to be increasingly drawn towards its fascistic fringe, which will be increasingly augmented by Neo-Reactionary forces emerging from Silicon Valley. The 2024 Republican presidential candidate is thus not only a shoe-in, but also probably more reactionary than Trump. So we basically wind up with the “Trump wins” scenarios above, but with a much more powerful executive.

That’s a pretty depressing analysis, but it assumes that everything continues more-or-less as it has been. There are many points of potential departure… Perhaps Clinton is more effective in the hostile legislative environment she’s likely to face than I expect. Perhaps there’s a black swan event that significantly changes the cultural or political landscape (such as a major, undeniable climate catastrophe). Perhaps the broader “left” in the US finally gets serious about state-level politics.

Of these, I think the last is most important. Even if Clinton is a radically effective president and utterly committed to her campaign promises, there’s only so much she can do. The US electoral system needs reform, and ultimately that reform must begin at the state level. That, in turn, will require the Democratic party and the rest of the US “left” to get serious about committing money and time to state-level races. I don’t get a sense that the left is seriously having that conversation right now. But a Clinton victory gives us time to build the necessary consensus.

If Trump wins, then we will know that our time has already run out.


People who are not people… What political system comes after democracy? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that over the last few years. While I don’t have an answer yet, I do think I know what the central question is that motivates the creation of a successor to democracy. To whit, “how do we incorporate the interests of people who are not people into our decision-making processes?”

In other words, how do we recognize the interests of – and our responsibilities to – non-human, trans-human, and not-yet-human entities? A lot of things fall under this broad class of entities: Future (unborn) generations, human ethnic groups and communities, plants and animals, ecosystems. Some of these are humans (who are yet to be). Some of these are made of humans (either wholly or partially). And some of these may not contain humans at all.

There are two motivations for choosing this question:

  1. At a practical level, human interests often depend on entities like these in ways that are currently difficult to integrate into our political and legal systems.

  2. At a philosophical level, thinking about the issue in these terms is a way to recognize that our sphere of moral responsibility extends (far) beyond the purely human realm most of our conversations are currently restricted to.

Answering this question is tricky. At one level, I do think that we need to start thinking of these entities as “people” in a legal sense. As it turns out, we already have a class of “people who are not people” in law – corporations. While the system for dealing with corporations is flawed, it does provide us a framework for thinking about our relationships with other entities like this (and their relationships with each other).

But this example also lets us get at the second sense of the word “people” – as a synonym for “human being”. And corporations (or communities, or animals, or ecosystems) are not human beings. Again, however flawed it may be, we do manage to navigate this difference. We talk about corporations have a “right to free speech” in one breath, but also acknowledge that they don’t have a “right to vote” with the next. Corporations are “people” in a legal sense, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we treat them exactly the same as we would a human being.

Now, there’s a key difference between corporations and the other entities I think we need to be considering: Corporations are made of people who are contractually bound together within a clearly delineated legal scope. That’s a big difference, so I think it’s important not to push the analogy I’m making between corporations and, say, ecosystems, too far. But I still think the example is useful, if just to show that we can successfully handle these sorts of things.

There’s been some interesting work in extending this idea over the last few years. Here in the US, the rights of future generations are currently the subject of a lawsuit by Our Children’s Trust, which charges that our refusal to effectively address global climate change is a violation of our children’s constitutional rights. Ecuador has gone a step further, enshrining the concept of the “rights of nature” into its constitution.

Most interestingly, in 2014 New Zealand granted one of its national parks, Te Urewera, the status of “legal person”. For some reason this didn’t get wider international attention until quite recently, probably because a similar change of status is now pending for the Whanganui River. My introduction to Te Urewera was via a Facebook video posted by The Guardian, which turns out to do a terrible job actually explaining how “legal personhood” works in this context. Because of this my initial reaction was quite skeptical, but now that I’ve learned more the situation I have a much more favorable opinion. While Te Urewera is now considered a “person” under the law (for the most part – mineral rights are an interesting exception), it is not treated as someone who has the capacity to act or take responsibility for itself. The land is instead represented and maintained by the Te Urewera Board, which basically functions as its legal guardian. The composition of the Te Urewera Board is, in turn, designed to ensure both that all interested parties are represented to some degree, and that the interests of those who have the closest relationship with the land (the Ngāi Tūhoe, a Māori tribe) are given the most weight.

While I have concerns about how well the interests of an ecosystem can be represented within the arbitrary boundaries of a (former) national park, I think that New Zealand’s approach to representing Te Urewera’s interests is well thought-out and potentially powerful model.


This Garden Earth… The spread of humanity across the globe has been a pretty raw deal for most ecosystems. Human settlements impact the surrounding ecosystems more than significant nuclear disasters, and it now looks like global warming may cause a similar level of disruption all by itself. While it’s tempting to see this as a modern problem, it turns out that our ancestors didn’t tread lightly on the land either.

One way to deal with this impact is by working to restore the species and ecosystems that were lost during humanity’s diaspora, a process known as “rewilding.” It turns out that just re-introducing a key species to an ecosystem can have extraordinary results (apex predators seem particularly important). And while extinction can complicate this effort (unless you believe in cloning passenger pigeons and wooly mammoths), it turns out that transplanting a related species with a similar ecological niche may be just as good.

Global warming presents an additional challenge: As species migrate in response to climate shifts they will often find their progress blocked by natural barriers or human development. We may thus have to rely on assisted migration, where species are physically relocated to new areas, bypassing the barriers that they would otherwise face.

Both rewilding and assisted migration are not without their problems, but both will probably be necessary if we’re to mitigate the worst impacts of global climate change and reverse human-caused environmental degradation. The result will be a planet that is both more wild and more heavily managed than the world we live in now, a garden of both love and necessity.


Current project code names…

  • EPIPHYTE: A hardware infrastructure project.
  • GIBRALTAR: An ethnographic research project.
  • DRAGOON: A corporate foresight project.
  • KLONDIKE: A cloud infrastructure project.
  • MANTA: A “bread-and-butter” documentation project.
  • MEMENTO: An ongoing writing project.

Outro… Fish sing at dawn off the Australian coast.


  1. Updated October 2, 2016: The original version of this essay incorrectly stated that Justice Alito’s seat is currently vacant. Alito is still very much alive, however; it is Justice Scalia’s seat that is currently vacant.

Enough Behavioral Flexibility to Persist in a Disturbed Landscape

Five Futures: Volume 1, Issue 5

Conditions: Clear and 17° C.

Coordinates: snail.hunter.member

The story so far… Well, I thought I’d be able to get another issue of Five Futures out last weekend. But then my job took a lot more time and mental energy over the next two weeks than I anticipated. The intervening weekend was full of chores that all took a little bit longer than I planned. And, well, here we are: Two weeks late again.

Except this time I haven’t even had the chance to read enough to put together a double issue, and I’m not all that pleased with what I do have. But I’ll be damned if I let three weeks elapse between issues 4 and 5.

So, what’s been taking up so much head space over the last two weeks that I haven’t even been able to do that much reading?

Before I answer that question, let’s back up for a moment and talk about my trip to Las Vegas. Or rather, let’s talk about me talking about it. Because, oh boy, was that ever a mess of cryptic, convoluted sentences!

Here’s the thing… None of my current projects are hush-hush, but I suspect at least some things I do in the future will be. So it makes sense to me to be a bit circumspect about things from the beginning. But some of my projects are interesting, or at least lead to interesting things happening to me. I need to provide you with a little bit of context, or nothing I lead Five Futures off with is going to make sense!

To resolve this, I’m going to take a page from Warren Ellis’ newsletter, Orbital Operations, and give all my projects code names. With that in mind, here’s a list of my current projects, with the code names I’ll be using for them.

  • EPIPHYTE is a hardware upgrade project. It’s also my oldest active project, predating my current position by a good nine months. Despite a dramatic expansion in scope, I still think I’ll finish up EPIPHYTE before the end of the year.

  • GIBRALTAR is a corporate ethnographic research project, which sounds a lot sexier than it actually is. It’s also what I’ve been spending all my time on over the last two weeks, but things are winding down now. Unless something really wacky happens, GIBRALTAR should be in the bag by the end of the month.

  • DRAGOON is a corporate foresight project, and what I probably should be working on right now instead of GIBRALTAR. It turned out to be a much larger undertaking than I anticipated though, so right now I’m aggressive avoiding working on it.

  • KLONDIKE is a major, if pedestrian, cloud infrastructure project. It’s one of those things that will change everything, assuming it works out. The goal is to have the bulk of KLONDIKE done by mid-January, though the entire project will probably take until early next summer. (KLONDIKE is the reason for the trip to Las Vegas I talked about last time.)

  • MANTA is a “bread-and-butter” documentation project. It’s currently in hibernation mode, as both DRAGOON and KLONDIKE need to be further along than they currently are for me to start it. MANTA is currently scheduled for completion in July 2017.

  • Finally, MEMENTO is a new ongoing writing project. MEMENTO is a minor project right now, but it has the potential to be a far bigger deal than even KLONDIKE, at least for me. It’s also by far the most fun project on this list, and something I’m excited to just be part of.

I’ll include an appendix of current project code names in each issue of Five Futures from here on out.

Anyways, enough about me! I may not have as coherent a tale to tell about the future as I usual do, but there’s still a signal or five to discuss…


Sex is a disaster recovery plan… “While the benefits of sexual reproduction tend to be subtle and become evident only over many generations,” Jill Neimark observes in a recent issue of Nautilus, “its costs are heavy and immediate.” Sex is a pretty complicated thing even for single-celled protozoa. Why should the earliest eukaryotes have invested energy in a behavior that provided no immediate advantage over the decidedly non-sexual bacteria and archaea?

It turns out that the origins of eukaryotic life may have been something of a Faustian bargain. Sex, it would seem, is less about out-competing your neighbors, and more about staying one step ahead of the devil within


The surprising instability of gender norms… The ever wonderful Atlas Obscura has a fascinating mini-biography up of Chevalier d’Eon, “who left France as a male spy and returned as a Christian woman”. What makes d’Eon’s story remarkable is that it is set in the waning days of the 18th Century, more than 200 years ago.

Despite its relative modernity, there are important points of departure in d’Eon’s story from contemporary conceptions of individual autonomy and social progress. d’Eon’s transition appears to have been equal parts radical ethical statement and palace intrigue. Christianity is used as an argument for proto-feminist principles and gender fluidity. d’Eon’s gender is publicly reassigned by royal degree… And then people just seem to accept this (imagine something similar occurring today).

Modern conceptions of gender tend to view it as either innate or socially constructed. Both viewpoints are, I think, incomplete (though I’m certainly more sympathetic to the second). Yes, the vast majority of gender’s context is social, but some is not. Different phenotypes provide individuals with different (and far less mutable) biological contexts. But human phenotypic differences are small (and have gotten smaller over time), so for us social contexts dominate.

d’Eon’s very public transition is an important to reminder that gender’s social context is a moving target. Even a few hundred years can produce a surprising amount of drift.


Data, politics, and storytelling… Over the past month, Native American tribes and their allies have been working to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a project perhaps best described as “Keystone XL v2.0”. While the pipeline has not yet been stopped, the tribes won a significant victory recently when the Obama administration temporarily halted its construction.

Within the federal government, the #NoDAPL fight pitted the EPA against the Army Corps of Engineers. The key point of contention between the two agencies was the question of how to best determine DAPL’s environmental impact. The Corps used county-by-county and state-by-state data, while the EPA believed that finer-grained data from “census block groups or census tracts” was more appropriate. By assessing DAPL’s impact over larger areas, the Army Corps of Engineers obscured its effects on the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

1) You need to read @mckennapr's piece on the Dakota Access pipeline. And there's one spot in particular to notice. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/30082016/dakota-access-pipeline-standing-rock-sioux-army-corps-engineers-approval-environment

2) Army Corps says Dakota Access has no environmental justice probs. EPA disagrees. Why? Because they're using different measures

3) @mckennapr points out that Army Corps enviro justice analysis was county-by-county or state-by-state. EPA looks for 'census block groups'

4) Basically, Army Corps says no enviro justice problem on Dakota Access bc they looked at demographics in way that diluted Native presence

5) This is what I mean by 'numbers aren't objective'. Numbers come from a story. If you don't know the story, you don't really know numbers.

6) Army Corps numbers say Dakota Access doesn't disproportionately impact Native Americans. But that's only bc of way they measure.

Subtle changes in how data is gathered and aggregated can lead to huge differences in the story that data tells. Unfortunately, there remain significant gaps between those telling our stories and those writing them.


Algorithmic propaganda… It turns out that Google has been algorithmically identifying potential ISIS recruits and manipulating their search results to surface “deradicalizing” content. Now that program is set to be deployed against right-wing extremists within the US.

Now, I’m happy to see non-violent approaches to dealing with potential terrorist threats. But sanctioning corporations to manipulate our information environment for political ends gives me pause.

What other programs like this are out there? Who decides which populations are targeted? Who decides what information they should be “nudged” towards? How do we hold programs like this accountable?

And perhaps most importantly, can we hold programs like this accountable at all?


Humans are an ecosystem service… Hermit crabs in Okinawa have begun using trash generated by the island’s human population for their homes. Which might seem terrible at first, except that solitary bees in Canada are doing something similar, and may actually be finding the new building materials beneficial.

Something that I think many in the environmental movement still struggle with is the idea that humanity is part of, not apart from, “nature”. The cities we build, the waste we produce, the landscapes we change… For many of our fellow travelers on Earth, human civilization is an unmitigated catastrophe.

But for others, our cities and waste are just another ecosystem service.


Current project code names…

  • EPIPHYTE: A hardware infrastructure project.
  • GIBRALTAR: An ethnographic research project.
  • DRAGOON: A corporate foresight project.
  • KLONDIKE: A cloud infrastructure project.
  • MANTA: A “bread-and-butter” documentation project.
  • MEMENTO: An ongoing writing project.

Outro… A visualization of anticipated species migration driven by climate change.

A panoramic view of the Malad River Gorge in Idaho. A wind farm can just be seen in the distance.

A Matter of Intense But Mostly Theoretical Debate

Five Futures: Volume 1, Issue 4

Conditions: Clear and 32° C.

Coordinates: hotels.harsh.villa

The story so far… When I wrote the last issue of Five Futures, I was anticipating the next issue coming out on Monday the 29th, or perhaps Tuesday the 30th. My final weekend in Idaho was looking busy, but how intense could a vendor conference really be? It was basically just going to be three days of marketing, right?

I had no idea how wrong I was.

The vendor conference was probably the most mentally and physically demanding conference I’ve ever been to. The days were long, or late, or both, and the sessions were far more informative (and not just about the vendor’s products, but also about the state of IT and security in general) and mentally demanding than I’d anticipated. Because of that, it was all I could do to keep up with a minimum of my responsibilities at work, let alone find the time to organize this newsletter.

So now I’m two weeks late.

By way of compensation, this is a double issue of Five Futures, cover ten topics rather than the customary five. A couple of these stories are a bit older, as despite having two weeks worth of material I’ve had to delve into my archive a bit to maintain the structure I committed to when I began this project. Sometimes the structure of the stories we tell is more important than the words themselves, and Five Futures is, I think, one of those stories.


The ever more distant origins of life… One of the more exciting developments of the last week has been the discovery of probable stromatolite fossils in Greenland. Stromatolites are structures accreted by various microorganisms, typically cyanobacteria, though who knows what accreted the Greenland fossils (the earliest evidence for the existence of cyanobacteria doesn’t show up until almost a billion years after these fossils). The find pushes back the earliest known evidence of life by 220 million years, to 3.7 billion years ago.

What’s most remarkable about these fossils is that they indicate that life must have already been well established on Earth during the Eoarchean, and thus must have arisen essentially as soon as the Late Heavy Bombardment ended and the Earth’s crust solidified. This is roughly in line with the estimated 3.8 billion-year-old last universal common ancestor (LUCA). It apparently didn’t take long for the “half alive” LUCA to become sufficiently complex to expand beyond the hydrothermal vents it probably emerged near and begin leaving an indelible mark on the young planet – a hundred million years at most. Probably less.

The apparent rapidity of LUCA’s advancement from deep-sea chemical process to mound-building bacteria has significant exobiologic implications (see the last story in this letter).


Lichens get weird(er)… Lichens are already fairly unusual… Things. They’re not “species”, at least as we generally think about “species”, as they’re composed of a fungus and one or more algae or cyanobacteria, each of which can successfully grow and reproduce outside of its “lichenized” form. The same fungi can produce wildly different lichen if combined with a different partner species. They may, in fact, represent almost entirely self-contained miniature ecosystems. And no one’s quite sure when lichen first evolved – the best range we have is somewhere between 400 million (the earliest undisputed fossils) and 2.2 billion (the earliest evidence of lichen component species) years ago.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to postulate that lichen represent a completely different approach to multicellular life than is found in more familiar organisms.

Despite the fact that the species that make up lichens can be cultured independently, attempts to combine them in a laboratory setting and “recreate” a lichen have so far failed. It turns out that this may be because our understanding of lichens has been too simple (!!!), and that at least some are composed not of two distinct species, but rather three. This third species is another, unrelated, fungus, and appears to reside almost entirely within the lichen’s outermost layers, embedded within thick scaffold of sugar. Their exact function within the colony (ecosystem?) remains unclear, however.


Women at the beginnings of art… The first indisputable human art (though it’s impossible to say what its creators thought of it) are cave paintings found throughout Europe and Asia. The earliest example is in modern-day Indonesia, but the best preserved sites are in Spain and France. These paintings typically feature local (at the time) animal species, and occasionally images that appear to depict hunting. Often hand stencils were left behind, presumably the mark of the painter.

Up until now, the typical narrative has been that these were painted by male hunters or shaman. But a recent analysis has up-ended this story, as it appears that three quarters of the hand prints were made by women. Even more interestingly, the amount of sexual dimorphism exhibited in these stencils was significantly higher than in modern humans.

That this work both counters the typical male-centric narrative we have imposed upon ancient peoples, while at the same time suggesting that there was greater sexual dimorphism (and thus, presumably, gender differences) in those societies, seems on the face of it almost contradictory. The lesson here may be that gender roles in human society – and their relationship to our species’ secondary sexual characteristics – are far more fluid than we’re generally comfortable acknowledging.

And that gives me a significant degree of hope for the future.


Multi-generational Iron Age engineering… Scattered across Asia are giant artifacts known as “desert kites”, low structures composed of piled rock that form geometric patterns that can stretch for up to a kilometer. These structures appear to have been massive “nets” designed to capture migrating animal herds, funneling them into shallow pits where they were easily slaughtered. If the discarded antelope bones near these kill pits are any indication, these massive traps probably decimated the great ungulate herds that had previously roamed from the Middle East to Uzbekistan.

But the kites were not some sudden innovation: Rather “the sites appear to have been built over a span of more than a thousand years” by “pastoral tribes related to the Scythians who roamed the steppes in the fifth century B.C.” How these tribes managed to continue the project for so long is particularly interesting to me, as the projects our civilization has begun to contend with – from repairing the Earth’s ecosystems to traveling beyond the solar system – are likely to require similar timescales to complete. That the kites provided their builders and maintainers with a concrete benefit, in the form of a regular food source, was probably a significant factor here… But one doesn’t have to look far to find examples of humans squandering similar opportunities. What allowed the kite builders to continue their work for a thousand years, while so many other societies failed to coordinate over much shorter time scales?


The unfortunate history of Zika mosquito eradication in the United States… Atlas Obscura has posted an interesting history of efforts to eradicate the invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries yellow fever and the Zika virus, from the Americas.

The general take-away is that it’s possible to eliminate the mosquitoes like A. aegypti, but only with truly heroic (and authoritarian) efforts. While Atlas Obscura is careful to note that such an eradication program would probably have been politically impossible in the United States, it also doesn’t help that at the same time Brazil was working to eradicate the mosquito the US army was busy breeding and releasing hundreds of thousands of them in an effort to determine their effectiveness as a biological weapon.

Unfortunately, US “national security” interests continue to trump public health efforts, so chalk this up as yet another lesson not learned.


The global proto-fascist moment… Those of you who know me know that I’m no fan of Hillary Clinton. But her “alt-right” speech on August 25th was an excellent (if surface-level) overview of the movement and the Trump campaign’s increasing dependence on it.

For me, what was most notable about the speech was Clinton’s refusal to frame Trump’s relationship with Putin in the “puppet and puppet-master” terms that have been implicit in many of the stories about the DNC email breach. Rather, she draws parallels between Trump, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, and Putin, placing them all within the context of the same global movement.

Just yesterday, one of Britain’s most prominent right-wing leaders, a man named Nigel Farage, who stoked anti-immigrant sentiments to win the referendum to have Britain leave the European Union, campaigned with Donald Trump in Mississippi.

Farage has called for a bar on the children of legal immigrants from public schools and health services, has said women are and I quote “worth less” than men, and supports scrapping laws that prevent employers from discriminating based on race – that’s who Donald Trump wants by his side when he is addressing an audience of American voters.

And the grand godfather of this global brand of extreme nationalism is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

I think that this is exactly right. The whole “Trump is Putin’s puppet” frame has always rung a bit hollow to me, and the idea that ideologically similar political leaders would ally themselves across national boundaries is not without historic precedent. Clinton calls the present alliance one based upon “extreme nationalism”, but I think that Sarah Kendzior is closer to the mark when she observes that Putin, like Trump, has shown remarkable appeal within the multinational white supremacist movement.

Certainly we do seem to be having a global moment here, one that Putin, Trump, and Farage are all close to the nexus of. Nationalist. White supremacist. One might almost say “proto-fascist”.


Capitalism and the hollowing of politics… I finally got around to reading Emmett Rensin’s massive essay on the smug style in American liberalism, and… I didn’t find it as compelling as many of the folks on my Twitter feed seemed to find it. But Rensin’s description of the performative character of American liberalism put me in mind of another essay that i recently read, The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump.

It’s hard to sum up Peter Gordon’s argument in The Authoritarian Personality Revisited, so I’m just going to suggest that you go read it now. And then go read Rensin’s piece, because, oh boy, do they go together. The performative, hollowed out of politics that Adorno places at the root of fascist society (I won’t call it a “movement” or “personality”, for reasons that reading Gordon’s essay should make clear) are spookily similar to the social impulses Rensin decries in American liberalism.

This is “liberal fascism”, but not of the ahistorical Jonah Goldberg variety. Rather, it seems to me that the adherents of both American liberalism and conservatism may have been politically “hollowed out” by the same social process; that one movement has come to more closely parallel historic fascism is less an issue, then, than the process by which both have come to represent a reflexive acting of identity. That Adorno saw this as a natural outgrowth of late capitalism is, I think, telling.

I’m not sure where it goes from here. Adorno himself seems to have been pretty pessimistic about the entire situation… But then again capitalism now seems intent on committing suicide by automation, so I don’t know. Perhaps this historic moment too shall pass, and with it the fascist dissolution of politics and identity.


Transparent wood… On a less depressing note, what’s stronger than steel, has better thermal insulation than glass, and you can see through? It’s not transparent aluminum (sorry Star Trek fans); rather, researchers at the University of Maryland have figured out how to create transparent wood by replacing the wood’s lignin with an epoxy.

The properties of transparent wood make it interesting in a variety of building contexts. I’m curious what the carbon footprint of producing the material is – without knowing more I’d expect it to be less than more conventional building materials like concrete and glass. Further out, it would be interesting to see if trees could be genetically engineered to produce transparent wood (or something similar).

Perhaps one day we will find ourselves growing, rather than mining, the raw materials for our civilization.


The Anthropocene gets a start date… The concept of the “Anthropocene” got its start in the 1980s as a way of putting the magnitude of humanity’s impact on the Earth in perspective. It has since gained rapid acceptance among environmental activists and writers, and despite its apparently self-aggrandizing name, is generally used as a warning: The global changes that humanity is making are unplanned and uncontrollable, and are negatively impacting both ourselves and many of our fellow species. The Anthropocene is not a place of honor.

This past month, a working group tasked with studying the geologic relevancy of the Anthropocene returned its verdict: The modern world is likely to leave a lasting geologic mark in the form of radioactive fallout from atomic testing and significant fossil-fuel-related carbon deposits. The Anthropocene should be recognized as a new geologic epoch, beginning sometime shortly after World War II.

I have to admit to being somewhat ambivalent about this recommendation myself. The concept of the Anthropocene has significant utility, but I worry about the hubris of elevating our current crises to the level of geologic event. The human world is changing rapidly right now, and it’s unclear to me that there will not be even “better” indicators of humanity’s global impact in the future.

To define the Anthropocene now seems to imply a belief that humanity is on track to resolve the crises that ushered it in… A belief for which there seems, at the present moment, little evidence.


The (next) closest “Earth” we’ll ever get… Astronomers have announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting within the “habitable zone” of Poxima Centauri. It’s pretty unclear how “habitable” this new planet actually is: While only slightly larger than our own world and orbiting within the region that liquid water would exist, the world is also almost certainly tidally locked towards Poxima Centauri and is frequently buffeted by intense X-ray flares.

Still… There is no star closer to Earth than Proxima Centauri, and so far no extra-solar planet yet discovered that more closely resembles our own than this one. This is as “good” as it gets.

What we don’t yet know, and we likely won’t know for at least another forty years, is how “good” that actually is.


Outro… A visualization of global shipping traffic circa 2012.

I'm Not Saying It's Aliens...

Five Futures: Volume 1, Issue 3

Conditions: Clear skies and 32° C.

Location: The ancient shore of Laurentia.

The Story So Far… And now we are eight. Welcome, subscribers new and old, to this week’s edition of Five Futures.

I’ve been back at work this week, and what reading time I have is currently severely curtailed by a review of various IT security frameworks (hello NIST Special Publication 800-53, my old friend)… A process that I suspect is going to dominate my time for the next couple of months.

It’s probably a good thing that I’m in read-only mode (heh) right now, as I’ve got two more trips coming up in rapid succession. First up is a week in Idaho on family business, followed immediately by three days in Vegas for a conference. Right now I don’t think any of that should interfere with our regularly scheduled programming, but if the next newsletter is late, now you know what happened.


Crossing Beringia… The conventional narrative concerning human arrival in the Americas posits that ancient peoples entered North America 13,500 year ago, give-or-take, by walking across Beringia, a low, flat grassland between Siberia and Alaska that was exposed at the end of the last glacial maximum (and would subsequently be re-submerged as all of that ice melted). This tidy narrative has been slowly falling apart over the last few years though, and now a detailed reconstruction of Beringia’s environment has revealed that the area was inhospitable until 12,600 years ago.

People were living in the Americas before that date though, so how did they get here? That’s a bit of a mystery, though a popular hypothesis seems to be that they came down the Pacific coast instead (this is consistent with a recent find on Calvert Island in Canada). So far everyone is being very careful not to talk about boats (probably because the earliest known boat dates from thousands of years after this period), but circumstantial evidence for boat use tens, and perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of years before the colonization of the Americas is becoming quite compelling. Certainly boats would be consistent with how rapidly people appear to have spread along the Americas’ western seaboard.


15th Century Armor… Armored knights from the Late Middle Ages were surprisingly agile.


The Dark Enlightenment… Last week I spent a good chunk of the newsletter considering the ramifications of the Journal of American Greatness and its impact on modern (US) conservative thought. In particular, I was struck by a number of similarities between the writing in the Journal and that found within Dark Enlightenment circles.

While I was aware at the time that the Journal had shuttered its doors, I was not aware that in doing so its contributors had announced that it was all a joke. Sort of.

The Journal of American Greatness began some months ago, to a large extent anyway, as an inside joke. At a certain point its audience expanded beyond any of our expectations. It also ceased to be a joke. Thus it no longer makes sense to continue it in its current form. No journal is meant to last forever, and this one won’t try to. We’ve decided to call it a day.

The inspiration for this journal was a profound discomfort with the mode of thought that has come to dominate political discourse — an ideological mode that makes nonsense of the reality of American life. The unanticipated recognition that we have received, however, also makes clear that many others similarly felt the desirability of breaking out of conservatism’s self-imposed intellectual stagnation. Should any such market for our ideas exist in the future, we may participate in it. But we will do so in a different way.

Color me… Confused? Unconvinced? While the Journal’s authors start out by calling it an “inside joke”, the rest of their farewell note certainly doesn’t make it sound like they were joking. And even if it was all an elaborate hoax, it appears to have had a very real effect on US conservative thought.

I honestly don’t know what to make of this.


Gawker and Peter Thiel… The fight between Gawker and Peter Thiel by way of Hulk Hogan has been one of those situations where you’re really not sure who to root for… Do I want to line up behind the salacious pseudo-tabloid? Or would I rather ally myself with a multi-billionaire with delusions of vampirism? Oh, the choices!

Honestly, I can’t muster any tears for the demise Gawker… While Gawker Media bought a number of web properties, like io9, that I’m quite fond of, their central business was composed of the worst kind of titillating, paparazzi bullshit. The world will probably be better off without them.

But… But… But… The way this has happened is profoundly troubling. The constant need to produce content and plummeting budgets have made it all but impossible for modern news outlets to double-check every piece with their lawyers, which makes them particularly vulnerable to walking grudges with deep pockets. And now that Peter Thiel has shown the way, it’s hard to imagine even the largest organizations not taking a second look at any stories that might threaten or offend the powerful.

Of course, this is less of a new development than a re-development, as similar dynamics existed during the Gilded Age. (Though at that time many newspapers were just out-right owned by the eliteOh, wait.) So perhaps this is more a reversion to the mean when it comes to the role of the news media? I can’t say that I find that thought very comforting either…


Tabby’s Star… Tabby’s Star continues to get weirder, and at this point the only explanations we seem to be left with are

  1. Some sort of bizarre configuration of multiple improbably astronomical events and objects,
  2. Some kind of new physics, or
  3. Aliens.

Of course, nobody wants to say aliens. It would be an extraordinary claim, and one with no other evidence than the star’s epically strange behavior. But as a number of less cautious folks have pointed out, it sure does look like what you’d expect to see during a species’ transition to a Type II civilization

I kind of hope that the more prosaic explanations win out, however. Tabby’s Star is less than 1500 light years away, and here’s no reason to think that a civilization capable of modifying its home star is going to have much difficulty with such distances. If the behavior of Tabby’s Star is caused by an emerging Type II civilization, then I hope they follow some version of the Prime Directive, as the alternatives are profoundly dark


That’s all for this week. Obviously still experimenting with formatting and approach.

If you like what Five Futures is doing, why not let your friends know about it? If you don’t, then just click the unsubscribe link below and you’ll be free of this torment. Though don’t blame me if after doing so you find yourself with an unfillable emptiness in your life where this newsletter once lived.

A Slow Rate of Reproduction

Five Futures: Volume 1, Issue 2

Conditions: Overcast and 27° C.

Location: Back home on the ancient shore of Laurentia.

The story so far… Hello, my six loyal subscribers! Welcome to the sophomore outing of Five Futures. Still playing around with formatting over here (this is probably more noticeable for those of you reading this on Tiny Letter, rather than Medium), as there were a few things about the way last week’s letter looked that I didn’t quite like. Let me know if you see anything weird with the characters or layout this week.

Last week I also spent a lot longer writing up Five Futures than I’d intended. I’m aiming to write this one in about a quarter of the time I took last week. Hopefully that will translate to a shorter, tighter, but still informative, read.


The once and future king… A massive complex dating from the British Dark Ages has been discovered at Tintagel in Cornwall. That may not sound like much at first, but it turns out to have a spooky mytho-historic resonance:

Archaeologists have discovered the impressive remains of a probable Dark Age royal palace at Tintagel in Cornwall. It is likely that the one-metre thick walls being unearthed are those of the main residence of the 6th century rulers of an ancient south-west British kingdom, known as Dumnonia.

[…]

…[T]he discovery by English Heritage-funded archaeologists … will certainly trigger debate in Arthurian studies circles – because, in medieval tradition, Arthur was said to have been conceived at Tintagel as a result of an illicit union between a British King and the beautiful wife of a local ruler.

The discovery is not just interesting because of its apparent links to Arthurian legend, but also because it provides further evidence of how connected the world was in the past, and remained even during periods that many of us (wrongly) view as times of local isolation.

The people who lived in these well-constructed buildings appear to have been of elite status. The archaeological evidence – scores of fragments of pottery and glass – show that they were enjoying wine from what is now western Turkey and olive oil from the Greek Aegean and what is now Tunisia. What’s more, they ate their food from fine bowls and plates imported from western Turkey and North Africa, while they drank their wine from the very finest, beautifully painted French-made glass cups.

The world has been flat for a lot longer than is popularly supposed.


When instinct becomes culture… We like to think of animals like deer as running on more-or-less pure instinct. But it turns out that young fauns also learn from their mother, which can lead to large-scale regional behaviors that can only be described as “culture”.

… At the height of the Cold War, a high electric fence, barbed wire and machine-gun-carrying guards cut off Eastern Europe from the Western world. The barriers severed the herds of deer on the two sides as well.

The fence is long gone, and the no-man’s land where it stood now is part of Europe’s biggest nature preserve. The once-deadly border area is alive with songbirds nesting in crumbling watchtowers, foxes hiding in weedy fortifications and animals not seen here for years, such as elk and lynx.

But one species is boycotting the reunified animal kingdom: red deer. Herds of them roam both sides of the old NATO-Warsaw Pact border here but mysteriously turn around when they approach it. This although the deer alive today have no memory of the ominous fence.

[…]

In the seven years since wildlife biologists began tracking the deer, only two, a German stag named Florian and a Czech stag incongruously called Izabel, have crossed the border to stay. Lately, some young males have begun to explore the pastures on the other side, but they always come back. Females don’t set foot in the once-forbidden area.

If deer had stories, I wonder what tales they would tell to explain their continued avoidance of a danger that vanished almost overnight generations (for deer, at least) ago.


The rise of the Dark Enlightenment… The Atlantic is asking this month, “Why Are Some Conservative Thinkers Falling for Trump?” The piece spends a lot of time playing up the personal ambition of those supporting Trump:

Read the intellectuals who are supporting Trump — or are open to supporting Trump — and you notice a few themes. First, they admire his campaign’s raw, unbridled energy. The Trump movement, according to the Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, radiates “dynamism.” His supporters “are just about the only cheerful people in politics … They’re having a good time.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an even more unabashed Trump booster, explains, “There is no model here … It is a Donald Trump unique, extraordinary experience. And you have to relax and take it for that kind of a unique experience.”

Next, pro-Trump intellectuals chastise political elites for disrespecting his exuberant, impassioned followers. “Those who oppose Mr. Trump should do it seriously and with respect for his supporters,” Noonan writes. “No one at this point needs your snotty potshots.” In fact, Trump’s intellectuals argue, elites have, due to their own incompetence and corruption, lost all grounds to lecture Trump supporters about individual rights and the rule of law. In his relationship to the Washington “establishmentarians,” says Gingrich, Trump is “like the boy who says the emperor has no clothing.”

But I find what motivates Gingrich and Noonan to be less interesting than what they seem to be reading these days…

… Masugi directs readers desiring amplification to something called the “Journal of American Greatness.” Noonan does too. She calls the journal “a sophisticated, rather brilliant and anonymous website that is using this Trumpian moment to break out of the enforced conservative orthodoxy of the past 15 years.”

That’s one way of describing it. During its four months of life, the “Journal of American Greatness” — which featured a collection of writers with classical pseudonyms and an affinity for the German American political theorist Leo Strauss — made a highbrow case for overthrowing America’s existing political order and replacing it with the raw, dynamic, intoxicating energy of Donald Trump. The journal shuttered itself in June after some of its contributors grew worried that their identities would be exposed. But the conservative author Steven Hayward, who knows several of its authors, predicts that they will continue publishing in other venues. Already, he says, they have received several offers for book contracts.

The “Journal of American Greatness” makes explicit what Noonan, Hanson, and Gingrich imply: that America’s current system of government is illegitimate. One article declares, “The digits of one hand suffice to count all of the truly committed defenders of American sovereignty, liberty, and nationhood in Congress.” A second asserts that the United States is “post-Constitutional.” A third accuses Washington conservatives of a “decadence so deep that it would take some Oliver Cromwell to puncture.”

[…]

… The writers at the “Journal of American Greatness,” however, do not believe America’s political system can be remedied. They want it overthrown by a candidate who truly represents the popular will.

To explain how that might work, “Decius,” one of the journal’s most prolific contributors, employs a Straussian distinction between “tyranny” and “Caesarism.” A tyrant, Strauss argues, takes absolute power by overthrowing a constitutional republic. A Caesar also takes absolute power, but only when a constitutional republic has already collapsed on its own.

Decius says Trump probably isn’t a Caesar, because “he will serve no more than his Constitutionally permissible two terms.” But if he is a Caesar, it might serve America right. “Have we not degenerated to the point that we are ready for Caesar?,” Decius writes. “Caesarism is not tyranny. It is rather a sub-species of absolute monarchy, in which the monarch is not an unjust usurper but the savior of a country with a decayed republican order that can no longer function.” By overthrowing a depraved and unaccountable elite, Trump would reassert “the people’s sovereignty” and “their natural right to rule themselves.”

The classical pseudonyms… The not-all-that-hidden contempt for democracy… The elevation of tyrants… This reminds me a bit too much of the loose constellation of reactionary thinkers who call themselves the “Dark Enlightenment”.

[Mencius Moldbug’s] devotees, many of whom are also bloggers, describe themselves as the “neoreactionary” vanguard of a “Dark Enlightenment.” They oppose popular suffrage, egalitarianism and pluralism. Some are atheists, while others affect obscure orthodox beliefs, but most are youngish white males embittered by “political correctness.” As best I can tell, their ideal society best resembles Blade Runner, but without all those Asian people cluttering up the streets. Neoreactionaries like to see themselves as the heroes of another sci-fi movie, in fact, sometimes boasting that they have been “redpilled,” like Keanu Reeves’s character in The Matrix—a movie Moldbug regards as “genius.”

[…]

[Moldbug]’s most toxic arguments come snugly wrapped in purple prose and coded language. (For instance, “The Cathedral” is Moldbuggian for the oppressive nexus of liberal newspapers, universities and the State Department, where his father worked after getting a PhD in philosophy from Brown.) By so doing, Moldbug has been able to an attract an audience that welcomes the usual teeth-gnashing white supremacists who haunt the web while also leaving room for a more socially acceptable assortment of “men’s rights” advocates, gun nuts, transhumanist libertarians, disillusioned Occupiers and well-credentialed Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

These guys sound sad and mostly harmless, right? Except, you know, that one of their more prominent backers is Peter Thiel. Peter Thiel, the multi-billionaire whose fingerprints are all over some of the most prominent companies to emerge from Silicon Valley. Peter Thiel, who secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker with the express purpose of destroying them for reporting on his personal life. Peter Thiel, who Donald Trump prominently invited to address the RNC.

So yeah. The movement crystallizing around Donald Trump is starting to look like it may have a longer shelf life, and be a lot more dangerous, than I’d previously believed.


Halting states… In related news, evidence mounts that growth in the world’s most advanced economies has slowed to a virtual stand-still.

… In the United States, per-person gross domestic product rose by an average of 2.2 percent a year from 1947 through 2000 — but starting in 2001 has averaged only 0.9 percent. The economies of Western Europe and Japan have done worse than that.

Over long periods, that shift implies a radically slower improvement in living standards. In the year 2000, per-person G.D.P. — which generally tracks with the average American’s income — was about $45,000. But if growth in the second half of the 20th century had been as weak as it has been since then, that number would have been only about $20,000.

To make matters worse, fewer and fewer people are seeing the spoils of what growth there is. According to a new analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute, 81 percent of the United States population is in an income bracket with flat or declining income over the last decade. That number was 97 percent in Italy, 70 percent in Britain, and 63 percent in France.

Like most things in economics, the slowdown boils down to supply and demand: the ability of the global economy to produce goods and services, and the desire of consumers and businesses to buy them. What’s worrisome is that weakness in global supply and demand seems to be pushing each other in a vicious circle.

This is the secular stagnation Paul Krugman and Larry Summers have been warning about, with a healthy dose of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century thrown in. And it’s entirely possible that it is the end state of technological achievement within a capitalist system.

So, where to from here?


Long is their time in the world… Two and a half years ago we learned that bowhead whales could live over 200 years. But it turns out that the lifespan of whales pales in comparison to that of some sharks.

Scientists examined 28 female sharks — all acquired as bycatch from commercial fisheries — to find that many seemed to have lived longer than two centuries. (Scientists discarded the youngest animals, because they showed signs of radiocarbon released by Cold War-era nuclear bomb testing.) The biggest shark of this group, which measured about 16.5 feet, was believed to be 392 years old — placing her in the era of astronomer Galileo Galilei. Yet Greenland sharks are known to grow well over 20 feet, meaning many are likely even older.

This is impressive. It also has serious implications when it comes to repairing the damage we’ve done to the planet’s biosphere.

Matching the sharks’ ages to their sizes produced another insight. Because previous studies have revealed that females become sexually mature only when they exceed lengths of 400 centimeters, it now appears the sharks don’t reach reproductive maturity until they are 156 years old. From a conservation standpoint, that’s concerning: Such a slow rate of reproduction means that each individual shark may be far more important to the species as a whole than scientists previously realized.

Let that sink in for a moment. If an individual shark is taking more than 150 years to reach maturity, then restoring the ecosystem that these creature are part of is likely to take in excess of a thousand years. Assuming that it can be done at all.

I don’t think many within the environmental movement truly appreciate the magnitude of the task they’ve set before our species, though there are some outside of it who seem to see the outlines of what may yet be to come…


That’s all for now. I’ll see you again next week, unless of course you click on the unsubscribe link, in which case I wish you safe travels.

Whatever your journey, keep your feet planted firmly in the present even as you look past the horizon, and always remember that your map is not the territory you travel.

Looking out over the Atlantic Ocean from a rocky Maine beach. A lighthouse can barely be seen in the distance near the center of the frame; behind it, on the horizon, rain.

Camp Century

Five Futures: Volume 1, Issue 1

Conditions: Clear skies and 26° C.

Current Location: Overlooking the Iapetus.

The story so far… Ten years ago, it felt like everyone had their own blog. Some of these were pretty shallow affairs, while others offered a such a steady stream of mostly long form work that you wondered how their authors had time to hold down an actual job. Of course, for some of them their blog became their job, which I suspect managed to be simultaneously awesome and anxiety-inducing for the lucky few who found themselves in that space.

And then came Myspace and Facebook and Twitter, and we all got older and settled down and started wanting bougie things like decent beds and health care and a way to start paying off our student loans. And so now we post short links and photos of our vacations on our social network of choice, and that as they say is that.

But I miss the old days. Over the last five years “writing” has meant comments on friend’s Facebook walls and terse proposals for work, and I feel like some muscle has atrophied in my mind. It’s not just that I think my writing has suffered; I feel that I can’t think as carefully as I used to either.

And I hear that email newsletters are a thing now.

Five Futures is an experiment. I want to see if I have enough discipline to write something thematic and vaguely analytical every week. I want to see if this whole “thinking about the future thing” is something I’m actually any good at (and something that I actually want to do), and if it is I want to start building up a portfolio of sorts. But most importantly, I want to start exercising that muscle again.

So, with that introduction, let’s consider some futures from the past week.


Whale tales… The Earth is full of complex societies, each with its own language and culture. Some of these are human, but many (most?) are not. Every now and then we get a glimpse of this complexity, and it’s often at once both beautiful…

Hundreds of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) swam to and fro, their huge bodies elegantly twirling and twisting through the water as they socialized. Bumping, jostling, and rubbing themselves against one another, they were exuberantly tactile, their behavior appeared almost euphoric. I felt like a gatecrasher at a wedding, so obvious was their delight in each other’s company.

As my eyes took in this secret spectacle, my ears were assaulted by a cacophony of excited whale chatter. Creaking and crackling, clicks, buzzes, and pops permeated the water as the whales pinged one another with sound. Pulsating rhythms pregnant with meaning penetrated my body. I “felt” the connection between the congregated cetaceans as powerfully as I heard it.

…and utterly alien…

Watching carefully, I noticed that two other activities added to the commotion: sloughing of skin and defecation. Like other whales, sperm whales shed skin on a regular basis. This may be a mechanism to reduce the risk of infection and to rid the animals of external parasites. As the whales rubbed against one another, the physical contact dislodged flakes, sometimes entire sheets, of skin, which floated in the water like a blizzard of translucent dandruff.

Group defecation also seemed to play a prominent role. When a dozen or more whales defecated simultaneously, it created a cloud of poop that engulfed the ensemble, obscuring them from view and turning the seawater into an oily soup.

So that’s what sperm whales do when they get together. This is all fascinating (and visually incredible — if you didn’t click on the link, be sure to do so now and take a look at the accompanying photos!), but it’s easy to write this off as “weird things animals do”.

What’s harder to write off is humpback whales undertaking a multi-decade, global campaign that appears to be designed to frustrate orca hunts. It’s certainly possible to ascribe this sort of behavior to the sort of mindless rationality we like to project onto non-humans these days…

Orcas have been witnessed hunting humpback whale calves in much the same way that they hunt gray whale calves. So, by proactively foiling orca hunts, perhaps the humpbacks are hoping to make them think twice about messing with their own calves.

Explanations like this feel lacking though, especially given the world-wide nature of the humpbacks’ behavior. In any human context we’d call this sort of thing “cultural”, and probably “coordinated”.


One war, two bows… Six months ago, Bruce Schneier highlighted a paper exploring the adoption of longbows vs. crossbows at the end of the European Middle Ages.

For over a century the longbow reigned as undisputed king of medieval European missile weapons. Yet only England used the longbow as a mainstay in its military arsenal; France and Scotland clung to the technologically inferior crossbow. This longbow puzzle has perplexed historians for decades. We resolve it by developing a theory of institutionally constrained technology adoption. Unlike the crossbow, the longbow was cheap and easy to make and required rulers who adopted the weapon to train large numbers of citizens in its use. These features enabled usurping nobles whose rulers adopted the longbow to potentially organize effective rebellions against them. Rulers choosing between missile technologies thus confronted a trade-off with respect to internal and external security. England alone in late medieval Europe was sufficiently politically stable to allow its rulers the first-best technology option. In France and Scotland political instability prevailed, constraining rulers in these nations to the crossbow.

Here’s a direct link to the paper itself (PDF); it’s short (the PDF’s 33 pages, but the formatting places remarkably little text on each page) and very readable (there’s four pages of algebra-level mathematics in the middle, but if you’re at all math-phobic it’s possible to skip over these without loosing very much). The authors frame the problem of longbow adoption in terms of trade-offs motivated by institutional constraints, but another way to look at the problem is as an example of historical path dependence, where previous decisions by a set of historic actors (in this case, the social and legal conventions constraining the English, French, and Scottish kings and nobility) limit their ability to navigate other, seemingly unrelated, problems (the adoption of a particular military technology).


Politics is petty… Its easy to let the concept of path dependence lull one into an unthinking acceptance of historical determinism. The antidote to this is to remember that history is made of people, and people often make important decisions for the pettiest of reasons.

Much has been written over the last two weeks about Wikileaks’ release of internal DNC emails and the likelihood that Russian intelligence was ultimately behind the dump. A lot of this discussion essentially posits that Wikileaks has become the passive tool of Putin’s, but this neglects both the US’s own role in destroying Wikileaks’ capacity to handle large data dumps like this in a “journalistic” fashion and Julian Assange’s very personal vendetta against Clinton for her role in this.

Most of the discussion about the where and whyfor of the leak assumes it is all about Russia’s interest (assuming, of course, that this was a Russian state hack). But consider why Wikileaks might want to leak in this way and at this time.

Hillary was, of course, Secretary of State when Wikileaks leaked the State department cables and pushed aggressively for Chelsea Manning’s prosecution (as Charlie Savage wrote in a piece published just before I finished this, this is a point Assange made when he discussed the emails 6 weeks ago). She has, since then, been found to treat information claimed to be far more sensitive in careless fashion (as has the State Department generally).

Very importantly, State worked closely with DOJ as it investigated Wikileaks. There is very good reason to believe that as part of that investigation, DOJ mapped out Wikileaks’ supporters and, possibly, financial contributors — that is, precisely the kind of people, to the DNC, that Wikileaks just doxxed. That’s arguably a violation of Section 215, which includes First Amendment protections.

(The Intercept has a similar take on the situation.) Assange appears to be increasingly motivated by (and vulnerable to) his hostility towards the US government. Living in a closet for four years will do that to someone. The more interesting story here though is how the current situation resembles nothing so much as a layer cake of irrational animosity: The US for Russia, Russia for the US, Obama for Wikileaks, Assange for Clinton, Sanders supporters for the Democratic Party machine… Any one of which was pretty justifiable when it started, but all of which appear to have spiraled beyond the control of any one participant.

Out of such animal passions is history made.


Breaking norms… If you live in the US, then your media diet is probably dominated right now by the upcoming presidential election. Which is kind of odd, actually, given how lopsided the entire affair is. Now, I’m no fan of Clinton, but there is absolutely, positively, no conceivable world in which she doesn’t win. So this entire election season should be pretty uninteresting, except that the Republican party’s strategy over the last fifty years has been to carefully cultivate ethnic animosity, and their presidential candidate seems to be just fine with moving that animosity from theory into practice.

Trump has no use for norms. He violates them at will, from relatively trivial transgressions such as his personal attacks on other presidential candidates (“Little Marco,” “low-energy” Jeb), to the worrying ones such as his habit of spreading conspiracy theories (e.g., the charge that Ted Cruz’s father helped assassinate John F. Kennedy), to the serious ones such as his calls for religious tests, his tolerance of white supremacists, and his exploitation (and occasional use) of explicit racism.

Trump’s contempt for norms has only gotten worse in the past few days, as he reacts to the Democratic National Convention — and his subsequent collapse in the polls — with rage and anger. And on Monday, he crossed one of the brightest lines in American politics, the one that deals directly with our tradition of peaceful transfer of power.

“I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” he said to a crowd in Columbus, Ohio. He followed up on this in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “I’m telling you, November 8th, we’d better be careful because that election is going to be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely, or it’s going to be taken away from us.”

Bouie goes on to note just how profound an erosion of democratic norms this represents. While US politicians have occasionally questioned the legitimacy of elections,

[t]his world we’re in, in which a major party campaign maligns the election as rigged well before the fact and promises a proverbial “bloodbath” in the event of defeat, is a new one.

Do I expect that Trump’s prophecy will come to pass? No, if just because his followers are unorganized, and Trump himself appears to have little interest in providing them with the structure that would be necessary to make good on his threats. But Trump himself is at this point less worrying than who may come after him. As Sarah Kendzior notes, Trump’s campaign is laying the groundwork for

…a charismatic successor [who] will come along … [and] … maintain Trump’s political positions but behave in a more emotionally controlled way. This successor would presumably run for office, as Trump did, but learn from Trump’s mistakes and gain a broader base of support. Given that part of Trump’s appeal rests on an “anti-establishment” persona, this individual will likely not come from within the GOP, but from the fringe movements that Trump has helped push closer to the mainstream. It could be Donald Trump Jr, who could ride the wave of the Trump brand. Or it could be a popular and polished white supremacist, someone like Matthew Heimbach, who has attracted a large following with more explicitly racist rhetoric than Trump’s. Whoever it is will likely be younger than Trump and will tap into the youthful and bigoted “alt-right,” which has supported Trump throughout his campaign.

Rather than being America’s Mussolini, Trump may simply be That Which Comes Before.


The future hates us already… Speaking of horrible things, the globe is warming, the Arctic is thawing, and that means we’re starting to find out just how much the ice and permafrost were protecting us from. If you thought that zombie anthrax was bad, just wait until old military bases start to thaw out of the ice and slide into the ocean.

When the U.S. military abandoned Camp Century, a complex of tunnels dug into the ice of northwest Greenland, in the mid-1960s, they left behind thousands of tons of waste, including hazardous radioactive and chemical materials. They expected the detritus would be safely entombed in the ice sheet for tens of thousands of years, buried ever deeper under accumulating layers of snow and ice.

But a new study suggests that because of warming temperatures that are driving substantial melting of the ice, that material could be exposed much, much sooner — possibly even by the end of this century — posing a threat to vulnerable local ecosystems.

And we’re really talking about radioactive and highly toxic waste here. Camp Century was powered by a nuclear reactor, and while the US government was good enough to disassemble that when they closed up shop, they left behind just about everything else: “[B]uildings and railways, to tanks of diesel fuel, radioactive coolant, and likely an unknown amount of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).”

We can’t actually clean up Camp Century now, because it’s covered by too much ice. And it’s not like it will be easy to clean up once it does thaw out a bit more — a thawing ice sheet is a treacherous place.

It seems darkly appropriate that Camp Century’s name so appropriately matches the timescale for its cleanup.


And with that we’ve reached the end of Five Futures’ freshman outing. If you’ve liked what you read, tell a friend. If you didn’t, well, the unsubscribe link should be hanging out down there somewhere.

Until next time.