All posts by Ben Sibelman

Ben Sibelman is a Shaper of Earthseed and a contributing member of the SolSeed Movement, as well as an environmental activist, amateur graphic artist, writer, and programmer.

Early progress on Buckleberry and Auberge Paradis

This is the first of what will hopefully be a long series in which SolSeed members report on each other’s progress on our projects.

Buckleberry trail, water and treesEric’s work on building a hobbit-style bed and breakfast at his Buckleberry forest property is off to a strong start, with a new entrance to the property under construction. Eric has narrowed his search for the property’s first “residential structure” to a couple of options, a used trailer or RV that would provide living space to people visiting the land while more permanent structures are under construction.

As for what to build, Eric has some solid design ideas for the hobbit holes and a green-roofed parking garage, which I helped him flesh out and expand at the Shiny Green Acorn Festival last weekend. However, before making final decisions about where everything goes, Eric needs to make a thorough survey of the topography he’ll be building on. (On, not under, because the design actually calls for the hobbit holes to be built on stilts to let water flow freely to the tree roots beneath them!) The survey may also include selection of the best trees in which to build treehouse dwellings linked to the hobbit holes with spiral stairs, an exciting new concept I contributed to the design process.

Joist for kayak storageMeanwhile, work has accelerated on the test bed for the Saumurs’ ideas about running a bed and breakfast for nature aficionados: their new home on the edge of Gatineau Park, which Michelle christened Auberge Paradis (Paradise Inn). Job one is to get the house organized after the move. Eric and Patrick have been working on renovations including a new kayak-storage loft in the garage, which will get the Saumurs’ two kayaks out of the way and free up garage space for storing other stuff. Some new storage shelves in the basement will contribute to this purpose as well. Eric is also working on organizing the family’s collection of seven bicycles, at least some of which will be available for rental when Auberge Paradis opens for business.

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Change the Course: Write your own story of the year 2050

Change the Course small“All organizing is science fiction. Organizers and activists dedicate their lives to creating and envisioning another world, or many other worlds–so what better venue for organizers to explore their work than science fiction stories?”

– Walidah Imarisha, introduction to Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements

The Rainforest Action Network’s new Change the Course visioning process begins with a guided meditation, asking us to imagine a day in the year 2050 when people come together in a “beautiful park” to celebrate “an announcement made this morning that, thanks to deep emissions cuts, we have successfully stabilized the climate.” Then it gives you a series of prompts so you can write the rest of the story. This exercise was very well put together and provides a beautiful way to imagine a future worth fighting for. I highly recommend you try it.

Here are my responses to the prompts, which alternate between multiple choice and essay questions. You might want to wait to read them until after you’ve gone through the exercise yourself, so you can experience it without any preconceptions about the questions or possible answers.


My initial impressions of the year 2050:
The park is on a hill surrounded by water. The streets are canals; every coastal city is now Venice. People walk on floating sidewalks that rise and fall with the tide. The tall buildings are partially submerged. My friend’s home is underwater, an inverted aquarium whose exterior is partly covered by an artificial reef.

On how communities adapted to climate change in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We adopted climate-resilient building and construction standards, and created things like floating homes.”

On the most important change to the political system in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We abolished corporate personhood.”

On traveling around our communities in 2050:
Rebuilding cities on higher ground was generally too expensive, so we retrofitted existing ones to welcome the sea. Electric cars and buses are now amphibious, easily transforming into boats to traverse flooded areas. A network of sidewalks modeled on floating piers, with occasional drawbridges over the canals, enables pedestrian and bicycle access.
On Long-Distance Transportation in 2050 (multiple choice):
“I take advantages of new aerospace technologies that significantly reduce plane emissions and fossil fuel usage. What carbon I do release into the atmosphere, I compensate for by fighting climate change in other ways.”
More on traveling long distances in 2050:
Of course I only fly when I have to—because it usually takes so long! The new suborbital spaceplanes are few and super-expensive, but zeppelins have made a comeback, and advanced technology makes them just as fast as the freeway used to be—but no faster. Too bad those high-speed trains didn’t work out.

On community in 2050 (multiple choice):
“I live in the heart of a bustling city and cities have become more dense, as people have moved to efficient urban centers.”
More on community:
There are three choices for where to live inside city limits: in the apartment and condo towers, on a houseboat, or underwater in one of the new glass-and-bioplastic-sealed aquarium homes (a few of which were built long ago as regular houses, and converted before the sea got to them). All of the choices are expensive, so cohousing has become nearly ubiquitous as a way of sharing the cost. This has had a transformational impact on the formerly alienated and unfriendly urban life of my city.
On home in 2050 (multiple choice):
“I live in a co-housing community where people share resources like community social spaces, kitchens, outdoor spaces and a power grid.”
More on how home has changed:
Cohousing means we still have some private space, but we have to get along. We can’t let hidden conflicts fester until they explode, so we use the ZEGG Forum process to keep our important feelings in the open. We also have lots of fun together, playing all kinds of games from cards and Scrabble to virtual-reality adventures.

On how we changed our energy mix in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We banned coal, oil and natural gas and met our energy needs through small ‘local-scale’ renewable energy, such as rooftop solar, wind power and significant energy efficiency measures.”
More on home’s energy:
Wind power is now the largest single source of electricity in the world. We buy power from our city’s local grid, which is largely powered by the rows of eggbeater-like vertical-axis wind turbines sticking up from the middle of the canals between the tall buildings downtown. Those concrete canyons sure do funnel the wind nicely.
More about how we changed our energy mix:
Let me tell you, those big fossil-fuel companies did not go down without a fight! After we finally revoked their corporate personhood rights, they tried to muscle into the exploding renewable energy markets and push a bunch of crazy centralized megaprojects like paving the Sahara Desert with some kind of plastic solar panels made from—surprise—all their stranded oil reserves. Once city-scale grids proved resilient enough, we finally shut that nonsense down for good.

On where our water comes from in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Desalination plant”
More about water systems:
Desalination used to be thought of as just another giant industrial solution, but the Slingshot, Living Machines, and other related small-scale water treatment devices—many of which rely on internal ecologies to filter water the way Nature intended—ensured that we could each wield the power of transforming seawater into tap water and back again. Almost every large building has its own desalination and wastewater treatment systems built right in, and the underwater houses share neighborhood-scale facilities.

On food production in 2050 (multiple choice):
“My food is grown on small-scale farms close to my city or town, and I buy it directly from the farmers or at markets that stock local produce.”
More about how food is produced:
We have a few of those fancy farm towers nowadays, producing food right here in the city, but most of it comes from the land just like it always has. We even get some delicacies by zeppelin from faraway lands, but basic staples are grown right next door. Sadly the farmers are still fairly poor—many of them live out there because they can’t afford the city—but most of them love their work, and their polyculture fields are works of art, with curving rows of different crops spiraling around and through each other. And of course the harvester bots have put an end to the inhumanity of making people work all day picking produce in the middle of our brutal summers.
On how our diets have changed in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We eat a balanced diet of plants, grains and a little meat.”
More about food consumption:
Look, I know meat used to be a hugely divisive issue, but these days people have found a balance and don’t have to think about it much anymore. What livestock we have is carefully grazed in ways that mimic natural herds and help rebuild soil, drawing down a significant amount of the excess carbon in the air, though not nearly as much as Dr. Savory thought. We rarely eat carnivorous fish, but herbivores are farmed alongside water-based crops in aquaculture systems—some of which double as wastewater treatment (yes, that idea does take some getting used to). And the trend of eating insects seems to be taking off, though I’m still not sure whether it will turn out to be just a fad.

On how people consume goods in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Recognizing that many base their purchasing decisions on costs, we found ways of reducing the cost of more sustainable goods & accurately reflecting the cost of non-sustainable goods.”
More on how people consume goods in 2050:
“Make doing the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard” was the battle cry of the Tax Shifter Movement, which really took off once that whole corporate personhood nonsense was out of the way. It’s simple: we tax products more if they harm people or other living things, and use the money to subsidize the good stuff, like organic produce and new computers made 100% from the materials in old computers. It all works much better since we started requiring that all retailers take back their worn-out products for refurbishment or recycling, and since the Circular Economy Act of 2047, they even have to pay people for turning in those old products.

On workplace and enterprise decision-making in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Where you spend your money, workers are given agency to make decisions about the business as a whole whether through small- or large-scale organization.”
More on workplace and enterprise decision-making:
You could say it’s the Spanish Empire all over again, but in my opinion, the wave of cooperatives that popped up across the country after that anti-corporate-personhood amendment, mostly modeled on Mondragon, really is the best thing that’s happened to the economy in decades, maybe centuries. It’s taking a while, but even the biggest surviving corporate behemoths from the twentieth century are slowly converting to cooperatives as more and more of their employees threaten to desert.
On worker compensation in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Workers are given more agency in their own employment to set their own wages.”
More about worker compensation:
I guess it used to be taboo to talk about salaries, but when the employees own the company, that really has to change. At my co-op we have a salary board that keeps track of the overall compensation picture and gently dissuades anyone who tries to write him/herself a pay raise that doesn’t make sense.

On economic policy change in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We raised taxes on corporations and the wealthy, closed tax loopholes, and eliminated fossil fuel subsidies.”
More about economic policy changes:
I know I’m sounding like a broken record here, but really everything came down to corporate personhood. As long as those giant private economic entities were able to hold our government hostage by declaring that any move to limit their power violated their Constitutional rights, we just couldn’t make the changes society and the climate so desperately needed.

On social programs in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Free higher education for everyone.”
More about social programs:
This modern world is crazy complicated for us primates, and our brains haven’t evolved enough yet to keep up on their own, unless you count those crazy new cyborg brain implants as a form of evolution. At least for the vast majority who aren’t interested in being that kind of early adopter, college education is really a basic necessity, and I’m thrilled the government finally realized that. I wish it weren’t so common these days to take all your classes from home, but I guess most of those huge campuses really did need to be converted to farmland.

On politics and decions-making in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Our government is a representative democracy as it is now, but there are more mechanisms in place to ensure representatives take into account the voices of the people.”
More about politics and decision-making:
Sorry, it’s getting late, but if you want a good overview of some of the best new decision-making tools, check out the short story “Degrees of Freedom” by Karl Schroeder, in the collection Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. We’re a small-group species; it’s taken a lot of creative software design to get that large-group decision-making problem under control, and we’re still a long way from perfect.

On racial equity in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We eliminated racial caste systems such as the U.S. criminal justice system and the war on drugs.”
More about racial equity in 2050:
Aside from abolishing corporate personhood, the most important law in the last 35 years was the one requiring police forces to replace officers faster in places where arrest rates were most disproportionate to demographics, e.g. fraction of those arrested being black men as compared to fraction of the general population. In the American South, for a while it was standard for cities to hire a whole new force every couple of years, and I guess the unconscious bias trainings finally got through to people. Coming in third in importance, probably, would be the law that abolished prison time as punishment for nonviolent offenses.

On how the climate movement built power and won in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We built a powerful coalition for climate justice and social justice, with organized labor, civil rights groups, immigration reform groups, economic justice groups, and other movements working for justice.”
More about how the climate movement built power and won:
It was a lot of hard work and diplomacy. All the different advocacy groups wanted similar things but the disagreements to be ironed out were endless. Again the ZEGG Forum process was a big help, among several other techniques, including the ones from “Degrees of Freedom.”

On front-line climate adaption in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We changed unfair trade and structural adjustment practices, and abolished debt to developing countries.”
More about front-line climate adaptation:
Since 2008, everyone has known that we had to do something about the big banks driving the rest of the world deeper and deeper into debt. After abolishing corporate personhood, we finally did something about it, something big: we abolished compound interest for any financial institution doing business in America, and held a Jubilee to celebrate in which all unpayable debts to U.S. interests were revoked. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

On climate displacement in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We opened our doors to climate refugees, and put in place just immigration reforms.”
More about dealing with climate displacement:
Yeah, you know those poor farmers I told you about? Most of them are immigrants, same as always. But at least they have citizenship now. It’s looking likely that we’ll elect our second Latino president this year—sorry, Latina—and she’s got some big ideas for improvements, but the fact is that these huge population flows are a hard problem with no easy solutions.

On how we stopped deforestation and the Sixth Great Extinction in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We declared public lands off-limits for logging, mining, and dirty energy development”’
More on nature:
Technically a lot of public lands were already off limits, but the government kept writing new loopholes until we cut their ties with the resource-extraction cartels by, you guessed it, abolishing corporate personhood. Similar political shifts in Brazil and Indonesia solved the bulk of the deforestation problem. As for extinctions, the new Rights of Nature amendments in Constitutions around the world are helping finally put teeth in all those Environmental Impact Assessments, which used to be basically just rubber stamps for developers.

On the social or cultural change most pivotal to making the world just and sustainable in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We saw ourselves as a part of nature and not separate from or above nature.”
More about the social or cultural shift that contributed to climate stability:
There are so many people better qualified than me to talk about this: Joanna Macy, David Korten, the Pachamama Alliance, Planetary Collective, the list goes on. The New Sacred Story of interconnectedness and interdependence was already beginning to go mainstream in 2015.

On fighting climate change in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We eliminated fossil fuel subsidies and passed carbon tax bills to force the market to take into account the true costs of fossil fuels, which gave renewable energy the chance to beat out fossil fuels.”
More about the single most important thing we did to stop climate change:
The military always says “you go to war with the army you have.” The most powerful tool we had in 2015 was the global market. People argued that market signals would never be enough—and they were right at first. The carbon taxes stayed too low to make a big enough difference, until we fixed our democracy and voters across our drought-stricken, wildfire-charred, and hurricane-ravaged nation finally demanded sufficient action.

Interstellar and the spaceflight zeitgeist

2013 was the Year of the Space Blockbuster. You’d think all those big-budget films featuring space travel and colonization ought to have thrilled people like us who believe in those goals, but the pessimistic tone of most of those movies rather undercuts their value from that perspective. Oblivion and After Earth portray the aftermath of planetary disasters that wiped out civilization on our home planet, while Ender’s Game, like 2009’s Avatar, describes a human spacefleet bent on the destruction of someone else’s homeworld. In Elysium, the eponymous space colony serves as a means for the super-rich to set themselves apart from an overpopulated, impoverished Earth sorely in need of a new Occupy movement. Gravity dramatizes an all-too-realistic space-debris catastrophe that wipes out everything we’ve built in low Earth orbit. The indie film Europa Report tells an inspiring tale of scientific discovery, but like Gravity, it also focuses on the deadly dangers of space travel. Even Star Trek, the venerable utopian franchise, was taken Into Darkness, with a Starfleet admiral trying to lie us into war with the Klingons and a starship crashing into San Francisco.

If the future is so bleak, as Hollywood has been telling us for years, then why the sudden focus on spaceflight, which used to be a source of such great hope and optimism? Today, seen through the lens of recent events, we could read the whole thing in two diametrically opposed ways. Perhaps these films, like the real-life disasters recently suffered by Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic, are warning us away from a renewed focus on an enterprise whose risks could outweigh its benefits. Or perhaps, like the breathtaking achievement of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta/Philae comet mission (which has its own short sci-fi film), the wondrous imagery in each of these movies asks us to accept the risks as a reasonable price for the glorious prospect of getting out there and seeing the universe.

Christopher Nolan’s new movie Interstellar falls squarely in the latter camp. Its context is a run-up to a planetary disaster on Earth, and like Gravity and Europa Report, it’s honest about the lethal risks of traveling across the vacuum and exploring worlds that lack the necessary conditions for human life. But Interstellar firmly agrees with Europa Report that the risk is worth taking.

And if that were the film’s only message, we in the SolSeed Movement wouldn’t hesitate to support it. But Interstellar has two big problems. One is the typical Hollywood doom and gloom mentioned above. Cooper, the main character, is a firm believer in human ingenuity, but he never questions the assumption that there’s no way we can stop the “Blight” from destroying the world. It’s not healthy for a culture to be so fixated on apocalyptic visions like this, which reduce spaceflight to an escape fantasy equivalent to the Christian Rapture.

The other problem is that the movie’s obsessive focus on the idea of humans taking flight, saving ourselves through the power of our technology, tells viewers that the rest of life on Earth doesn’t really matter. A scientist describes the planetary crisis in strictly human terms, referring to Cooper’s beloved daughter Murphy when he explains that “the last generation to starve will be the first to suffocate,” but neglecting to mention that the loss of Earth’s oxygen supply will spell doom for most other species as well. The Earthly landscapes we see in the film are purely man-made: fields of corn, a reservoir, a town whose streets are choked with dust. Given his experience of crop failures and frequent dust storms, the main character is surprised to learn that one of his fellow astronauts doesn’t believe nature can be “evil.”

We hope this film doesn’t signal a reversal in the decades-long trend of rising environmental consciousness, epitomized by movies like Avatar. As utopian sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson says, we don’t want to pivot from a sense of Earth as cherished home to one where “Earth is humanity’s cradle” and therefore “of only momentary importance, a thing to be used in infancy and then discarded.”* The slogan on some Interstellar movie posters, “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here,” seems a clear allusion to the “cradle” concept, first articulated by space pioneer and mechanistic philosopher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky over a century ago.

So where would we want the spaceflight zeitgeist to go instead? Well, the dramatic conflict I’m setting up here, between this idea and the more humble perspective of helping life expand beyond our home planet without abandoning it, would itself make for a great story. On one side you’d have the doom-and-gloom people, convinced that Earth’s current ecological crises either can’t be solved, or require a space-baced technical fix that no one will agree to (e.g. space-based solar arrays that beam huge amounts of energy to Earth using possibly-weaponizable microwave lasers). Their space colony would resemble Elysium or the cylindrical worldlet portrayed toward the end of Interstellar, filled with big houses, lawns and sports fields, monoculture crops, and not much else. It would exist as a “backup for civilization’s hard drive,” hoping to survive long enough to repopulate the Earth after the supposedly inevitable collapse.

On the other side would be a strange alliance between space enthusiasts and environmental activists, who insist that we can transform society in the direction of harmony with the rest of nature, partly by setting up experimental new societies in space. Such experiments require us to grow wild ecosystems inside a space colony, following the Biosphere 2 model. The idea is that if we can learn to coexist with those ecosystems in such a constrained and risk-filled environment, we’ll certainly be able to do so back on Earth—and that if we screw up and the ecological balance in the colony breaks down, it won’t contribute to Earth’s admittedly massive problems. To keep people motivated to succeed, the colony would eschew mechanical life-support systems and rely entirely on plants, microbes, snails, and fish to recycle air and wastewater. It would also grow all of its food using a polyculture system, which emphasizes diversity and is therefore more robust over the long term than the other colony’s simplified industrial farming model.

But why go to the expense of doing all this in space rather than, say, building a bigger and better version of Biosphere 2 here on Earth? Well, the alliance would have a quasi-religious justification based on Gaia theory, well articulated in the recent philosophical novel The Obligation by Steven Wolfe: If Earth can be viewed as a single living organism four billion years old, isn’t it about time for her to develop the power to reproduce? As my fictional alliance (and the SolSeed Movement) sees it, self-sustaining ecosystems in space and on other worlds will be Gaia’s children, and it’s our job to build the shelters, plant the seeds, and help those ecosystems to adapt to their new environments—while simultaneously modifying those environments to suit themselves, as life has always done.

Speaking of children: At one point toward the end of Interstellar, Cooper, referring to some helpful five-dimensional beings that enabled his interstellar mission by creating a wormhole, says wonderingly that “They didn’t choose me. They chose her!” The “her” in question is his daughter back on Earth, who, thanks to relativistic time dilation, is now old enough to be his mother, and whose genius for physics turns out to play a crucial role in saving humanity.

Perhaps there’s an unexpected lesson here about how we relate to “Mother Earth.” We could blast off into space like a runaway child, only to come crawling back when we realize we don’t really know how to support ourselves long-term without her help. Or we could keep exhorting each other to “protect Mother Earth” as if we were her nurturing mother, which doesn’t make much sense either.

Instead, maybe humans need to see that we are part of the life that makes up the Gaia superorganism, and find our role within that context, as cells within her body. And if that makes us feel insignificant, like tiny cogs in a giant living machine—well, it turns out humans don’t have to be just any old cells. We can be neurons, contributing ideas to the global discourse that in some ways acts like a giant brain. We can be immune-system cells, seeking out damage and healing it, and fighting off attackers like killer asteroids.

And finally, one day, when our understanding of ecology has matured enough, we can become the most unique and special cells of all: egg cells.

*Quote from the book Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, p. 254

Author

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Ben Sibelman is a contributing member of the SolSeed Movement, as well as an environmental activist, amateur graphic artist, writer, and programmer. He is working on a sci-fi novel set in a hollow-asteroid colony in the 25th century.