A while back I posted a video by Vinay Gupta about economic change that got pretty scary. In light of the whole NSA Prism thing, Gupta’s writing has gotten even scarier. Suddenly, being enamored with strong crypto doesn’t make me feel like a delusional paranoid like it used to.
Gupta’s recent blog post links to a Guardian article that ought to scare the bajeezus out of you. It touches on the idea that climate change, energy security, and the economy could be stitched together. According to the article, all of this surveillance state crap is our military-industrial complex attempting to reign in a kind of activist uprising against events pertaining to climate, energy, and the economy:
Since the 2008 economic crash, security agencies have increasingly spied on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests. This activity is linked to the last decade of US defence planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis – or all three.
This reads kind of like an extension of The Master Meme that I have mentioned here before: the US cannot maintain its current way of life and our corporate overlords are pushing the government to abuse its military might in order to prop it up, despite the toll that it has taken on our climate, our energy stores, and the global economy:
FBI documents confirmed “a strategic partnership between the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the private sector” designed to produce intelligence on behalf of “the corporate security community.” A PCJF spokesperson remarked that the documents show “federal agencies functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America.”
Before you dismiss this as a conspiracy theory, consider the fact that this sort of thing has been happening since at least the mid 80’s via events like the Private Sector Bust. Also, consider the tremendous lengths that the film and music industries have gone to, in order to combat what they believe to be the threat of piracy, when they are really fighting against the end of an age. Film and music were profitable as large scale industries due to a 70-odd year fluke of production and distribution technologies. Once consumer technology evolved to enable cheaper production and distribution, those big industries become outdated and inefficient. The same may be true for post WWII America: the 100 year fluke that was the industrial revolution – cheap energy directly translating into economic growth with few if any ecological consequences – may well be at an end.
The threats of climate events, energy shocks, and economic crises are scary enough on their own, so the idea that they could become (or may already be) a unified front, an axis of upheaval if you will, ought to ratchet the fear up at least another notch.
In my mind, the fear associated with energy and climate being stitched to the economy is that each individual issue is very polarizing from a social and political standpoint. To a casual observer, these issues all sort of scream for progressives or conservatives to take action, which just isn’t a solution any more in this age of political partisanship and crony capitalism. Conservatives can’t fix the problem because progressives will violently oppose any solution proposed or backed by a conservative ideologue. The reverse is also true, progressives can’t fix anything because conservatives will fight to the death to stop anything proposed or backed by a progressive. What’s worse, is that these sociopolitical philosophies are not even the right tools for the job. The state of our nation is such that there isn’t anything left to conserve (so tax cuts won’t help), and there isn’t anything left to progress toward (so government programs won’t help). Even worse, both political approaches have contributed, in whole or at least in part, to these problems. I liken it to watching two sports teams tackle/scrum over a ball that has been moved to an empty field. If you take that political gridlock, and put it up against the three issues bundled together, the situation goes from bleak to apocalyptic.
Bruce Sterling describes our political and business leaders as “cheer leaders, not leaders” meaning that political leaders like Barack Obama, and business leaders like Steve Jobs have put themselves at the center of all discussion, but are unwilling or incapable of actually creating any actual infrastructure. Really, the answer to the triple threat of climate, energy, and economy is an overhaul of the American Dream to require significantly less infrastructure: less energy, less money, and having less ecological impact. Unfortunately, despite massive deficit spending by our government, the only new infrastructure that has been created is a military-industrial surveillance state aimed at propping up the great suburban ponzi scheme
Instead of being fearful, however, we should do what hackers do best and really dig into the problem in spite of the challenge it poses, in order to spite those who are making these problems worse. As in, we should be building the necessary infrastructure ourselves in a deliberate act of defiance. Gupta talks about the cipher-punk response to the surveillance state, and I think is a good first step to get “regular” people thinking and acting outside of the corporate/government/media machine. The cypher-punk response is only a start. The long term hack should be to get people to understand and embrace a life of civil disobedience by needing and using less centralized infrastructure. Decentralizing, economizing, and building new infrastructure without support from government institutions, and with minimal support from large corporations and mass media. It means living a life with a much smaller foot print, not just on the environment, but also on the global economy and your local energy grid and watershed.
I think that the main reason for enforcing this Master Meme with such vigor is that Joe and Jane Undecided Voter are likely to see a zero-growth/small-footprint/super-urban lifestyle as reduction in their quality of life. This is where we as hackers can really shine: by making the small-footprint-lifestyle look edgy and rebellious. We have already convinced people that computers and networks are edgy and cool and that greedy 20th century industries like record labels, big box retailers, and newspapers deserve to wither away. We’ve done such a good job of this that people are carrying computers around in their pockets in order to update their own webpages. People are even considering wearing computers. We made compute power and data distribution sexy, it’s time to make low impact life sexy as well.
I see the small footprint world as something like Bruce Sterling describes in his Reboot 11 talk (from 2009 no less):
I wish I could sum up the important points, but I really think it would be faster to just watch the video. The first half of the video is a bit of the doom and gloom that Gupta and Kunstler talk about, but the second half is some life-altering advice for how to fix the environment, the energy situation, and the economy by shifting our lifestyles away from consumerism and toward something more like real meaning. He wants us to stop buying tons of cheap crap and start buying small amounts of high quality things made by real craftspeople. Sterling wants us to prune the physical and metaphorical clutter from our lives, and in doing so, we can reduce the amount of light, heat, and space that the American lifestyle calls for.
Sterling also mentions that the wreckage of the unsustainable is our only heritage. I think that this is a tremendously important idea. As institutions of the 20th century continue to collapse over the next decade, their remains will hopefully serve as the raw materials for a new age. I liken it to the way a sunken ship can serve as the foundation for a new coral reef, or how bees can chew up wood and plaster to make the paper for their hives.
This is where elements of the Internet of Things and IR2 come into play. It will mostly be retrofitting our new low-impact infrastructure into the skeletal remains of the 20th century, but it could also mean enhancing those efforts with smart designs and new technology with an eye for sustainability. Hopefully one of the smart technology enhancements will be building strong crypto in the roots of everything, because I can’t imagine a 20th century institutions like oil and telecommunications companies (and by proxy their government enforcers) would let this sort of thing happen without a very dirty fight.