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March 30, 2007

Expanding My Footprint

ouchcarbon.jpgAir travel is the persistent dilemma facing a climate-conscious consultant. Plane flights are particularly nasty sources of greenhouse gases, in part because of the direct emissions, and in part because of where the gases are emitted. One round-trip between San Francisco and London puts out nearly as much carbon as a year's worth of driving my Honda Civic Hybrid.

Or, um, eating a bit more than 300 cheeseburgers (@ 6kg per burger).

Nonetheless, on Saturday evening I'm heading to the UK, on a project for the Open University. I'll have a very brief time to see some good friends, but it's primarily a work trip. Accordingly, blogging is likely to be spotty at best for a bit.

March 29, 2007

Christian Science Monitor on the Ethics of Geoengineering

Today's Christian Science Monitor has a thoughtful article on the morality of geoengineering as an option for confronting climate disaster. It's a decent overview of the current thinking on the subject, although it doesn't mention a couple of topics I think are worth calling out, namely, the use of bioengineering as a way of boosting carbon uptake in the ecosystem, especially with regards to methane, and Richard Branson's Climate Challenge, which is the first blatant geoengineering competition. I also get a couple of quotes in the piece.

(I spoke with the article author, Moises Velasquez-Manoff, for over an hour; the two quotes he used represent a very small part of the conversation. I think I come across as a bit more of an advocate of geoengineering in the article than I really am, but by and large I think I'm represented reasonably well.)

The most interesting comment comes at the end, from Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University:

"You could imagine some kind of arms race of geoengineering, where one country is trying to cool the planet and another is trying to warm the planet."

That possibility is another reason why the development of geoengineering technologies is essentially inevitable. No nation that sees itself as a great power is going to be willing to risk having its climate and environment completely in the hands of another nation. Research into methodologies for geoengineering will happen simply out of self-preservation -- after all, nobody wants to fall victim to a "terraforming gap."

It's hardly a good reason to pursue geoengineering, but it's a powerful one, and further underscores the absolute need for people who see responsibility and precaution as paramount to be part of the conversation.

March 28, 2007

The Future Feels a Little Bit Closer

3dPrint.jpgI write often enough about 3D printing systems and "desktop fabrication" that when something that I shouldn't be startled by just how fast this industry is advancing. And yet: the ZPrinter 450 looks just amazing. The promotional video is almost surreal -- and if somebody had sent it to me as an example of an "artifact from the future," I would have believed them. This is a giant, sparkly, screaming harbinger of what the next decade will hold.

It's not quite desktop fabbing just yet, but it's oh so very close: it's about a single order of magnitude off in price ($40K) and speed ("output models in hours, not days") from being consumer-friendly, and needs to be about half of its current size. That'll happen, probably by the end of this decade (if not sooner). With the "high-performance composite" polymers used as base stock, it looks like dumb objects would be pretty easy to make. The big leap in capability will happen when they can start printing out objects using truly complex polymers as core materials, particularly electroactive polymers (which can move) and organic-electronic polymers (which can compute).

March 27, 2007

Rehearsing the Future

stopdisaster.jpgNever underestimate the power of a "do-over."

Video gamers know exactly what I'm talking about: the ability to face a challenge over and over again, in most cases with a "reset" of the environment to the initial conditions of the fight (or trap, or puzzle, etc.). With a consistent situation and setting, the player is able to experiment with different strategies. Typically, the player will find the approach that works, succeed, then move on to the next challenge; occasionally, the player will try different winning strategies in order to find the one with the best results, putting the player in a better position to meet the next obstacle.

Real life, of course, doesn't have do-overs. But one of the fascinating results of the increasing sophistication of virtual world and game environments is their ability to serve as proxies for the real world, allowing users to practice tasks and ideas in a sufficiently realistic setting that the results provide useful real life lessons. This capability is based upon virtual worlds being interactive systems, where one's actions have consequences; these consequences, in turn, require new choices. The utility of the virtual world as a rehearsal system is dependent upon the plausibility of the underlying model of reality, but even simplified systems can elicit new insights.

The classic example of this is Sim City (which I've written about at length before), but with the so-called "serious games" movement, we're seeing the overlap of gaming and rehearsal become increasingly common.

The latest example is particularly interesting to me. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction group has teamed up with the UK game design studio Playerthree to create the Flash-based "Stop Disasters" game. The goal of the game is to reduce the harmful results of catastrophic natural events -- the disaster that gets stopped isn't the event itself, but its impact on human life.

The game mechanisms are fairly straightforward. The player chooses what kind of disaster is to be faced (earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, wildfire or flood), then has a limited amount of time to prepare for the inevitable. The player can build new buildings, retrofit or demolish old ones, install appropriate defensive infrastructure (such as mangroves along tsunami-prone shorelines or firebreaks around water towers), institute preparedness training, install sirens and evacuation signs, and so forth -- all with a limited budget, and with ancillary goals that must be met for success, such as building schools and hospitals for community development, or bringing in hotels for local economic support.

Once the money is spent (or the time runs out), the preordained disaster strikes, and the player gets to see whether his or her choices were the right ones. At the easy level, there's generally enough money to protect the small map and limited population; at the harder levels, the player must make difficult choices about who and what to save. The overall complexity reminds me of the very first version of Sim City, but don't take that as a criticism: the first Sim City arguably offered the clearest demonstration of urban complexity of the four versions, in large measure because of its spartan interface and simplicity.

Stop Disasters is billed as a children's game, and it's true that the folks at Architecture for Humanity aren't going to use it for planning purposes. That's not the goal, of course. This isn't a rehearsal tool for the people who have to plan for disasters, but for the people who have to live with that planning -- and those people who will choose to help their communities during large-scale emergencies.

I suspect that there would be an audience for a more complex version of Stop Disasters, one which puts more demands on the player to accommodate citizen needs. It's a bit too easy to simply demolish old buildings rather than retrofit them in the UN/ISDR game, for example, and I would love to see more economic tools. I'd also like to see a wider array of disasters, beyond the short, sharp, shock events of quakes and storms. What would a Stop Disaster global warming scenario look like, for example -- not trying to prevent climate change, but to deal with its consequences?

If we really want to get our hands dirty, we'd need to build up Stop Disasters scenarios for the advent of molecular manufacturing, self-aware artificial intelligence, global pandemic, peak oil and asteroid strikes.

Not because such games would tell us what we should do, but because they'd help us see how our choices could play out -- and, more importantly, they'd remind us that our choices matter.

March 22, 2007

Thursday Topsight, March 22, 2007

orthomovie_20040703.gif• Mapping the Present, Seeing the Future: Wired's Danger Room blog noted late last month the emergence of a fun little mashup map site called GlobalIncidentMap.com. Global Incident Map smooshes data about a wide array of suspicious events onto a Google Map page. It's not the first or the only site to do this, but it does so in a way that nicely maximizes visitor anxiety.

But I thought of it again when I saw this pair of reports: the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has opened up its CarbonTracker website, offering high-quality maps and animations of carbon dioxide levels for both North America and the globe; and the European Space Agency has now released its SCIAMACHY maps and data, showing the global flux of both atmospheric CO2 and methane. In neither case is the mapping real-time (the ESA data goes through 2005, while the NOAA maps go through 2006), but that will change.

My question, though: Why can't we have a Global Incident Map type site for the environment? Combing through news reports, NASA/ESA/NOAA data, even user submissions to put together an anxiety-inducing map of where the world is going environmentally. It should be possible...

• Wargaming Pandemic: Set aside the images of a 1980s teen-action movie or generals with plastic tanks -- wargames are one of our best tools for figuring out adaptive responses to complex problems. A wargame is, at its core, an interactive simulation of a high-cost, high-uncertainty environment. While that environment is, historically, usually a battlefield, it doesn't have to be. Case in point: the wargame played in Washington last week, bringing together undersecretaries and health agency directors from Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, along with people from the UN and WHO. The topic? H5N1 flu.

Participating nations also sent officials from their ministries of foreign affairs, agriculture, tourism and internal security, as well... Their participation was essential, [Terrence Taylor, director of biological programs at the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative] said, because the kind of influenza pandemic envisaged by the exercise scenario, with millions infected and survival rates low, would be much more than just a health crisis.

"If you're going to deal with this properly, you have to address questions of population movement, border controls, of how to quarantine a population that feels threatened," he said.[...]

Using techniques similar to those in modern war-gaming, the tabletop exercise envisaged a three-stage pandemic influenza emergency unfolding over a six month period after the mutation of the deadly bird flu virus H5N1 enabled it to be transmitted easily between humans.

Unlike a policy paper or a conference, a wargame requires the participants to make decisions predicated on the consequences of earlier choices. It's not just "if-then," it's "if-then-then-then-then..."

Wargames have fairly broad strategic application. In experience, they can be useful follow-ons to scenario exercises, giving strategists and planners an opportunity to test out competing approaches in the context of a changing environment.

• Please, Not A Twitter Entry: Before SXSW, I'd never heard of Twitter, a "microblogging" app that lets you send quick updates via text message (IM or SMS) to people who care about the very latest cute thing your cat did. After SXSW, I'd be happy never to hear the word again. The program went through an entire invisible except to people in the know -->fringetech that wows the geekerati -->what do you mean you don't use it? -->ubi-"we're thinking of calling it twitter-by-south-twitter next year"-quitous -->"twitter? that's so over" cycle in 4 days.

Still, this is kind of cool: near-real-time earthquake alerts via twitter. Just add sfearthquakes as a friend.

• Can't Wait for this Book: Design guru Don Norman -- author of the iconic Design of Everyday Things, among others -- is working on his next guide: The Design of Future Things. Due out in November of this year (maybe), DoFT is Norman's attempt to sketch out design rules for the era when the stuff around us is smarter than we are.

The first chapter and the afterward are now available in draft PDF form.

March 20, 2007

Crescent Moon from Earth's Orbit

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day picture.

March 19, 2007

The Lost Hegemon (pt 1)

Rolling Stone assembled a round-table discussion with Richard Clarke, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bob Graham, Juan Cole and others (from the military, diplomatic and intelligence services) about three scenarios for the end of the US involvement in the Iraq conflict (note I didn't say the end of the conflict itself). These are no wild-haired radicals; for the most part, they're conservative, traditional DC players. And what they see is grim.

Best Case: "Civil War in Iraq and a Stronger Al Qaeda."

Scheuer [former CIA head of the bin Laden unit]: No matter what happens now, the Islamists will have beaten both of the superpowers -- first the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and now the United States in the heart of Islam. The impact of that in Islamic civilization is going to be enormous. We have made bin Laden a prophet: His organizing concept for Al Qaeda was "The Russians are a lot tougher than the Americans. If we can beat the Russians, then we can eventually beat the Americans." Even more important, Al Qaeda will have contiguous territory on the Arab peninsula to attack from.

Most-Likely Case: "Years of Ethnic Cleansing and War with Iran."

McPeak [former member, US Joint Chiefs of Staff]: We're going to see a full-scale intercommunal war that may not burn out until one side is all dead, all gone. The Kurds would like to sit on the sidelines, but I don't see how they stay out, especially up in the Kirkuk area, where they sit on a lot of oil. This is going to be ethnic cleansing like we had in Kosovo or Bosnia -- but written big, in capital letters. And we can't stop it.

Worst Case: "World War III."

Freeman [former ambassador to Saudi Arabia]: This could become the Islamic equivalent of the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics in Europe in the 1600s -- a religious schism that blossoms into overt mayhem and murder and massacres and warfare. The various Iraqi factions will obtain the backing of other Middle Eastern states as they conduct their ideological and ethnic struggles. It will be a free-for-all that spreads beyond the anarchic zone of Iraq.

The American presence at the top of the international heap couldn't last forever, but the decline need not have been this fast and this devastating to the planet. It's clear that the Bush administration has so weakened American international power -- military, economic, moral -- that there are few plausible scenarios for American hegemony continuing much longer. We're moving into what may be the most dangerous period in world history, with the confluence of accelerating climate disaster, super-empowered "global guerillas," the likely emergence of singularity-grade material technologies by the end of the next decade, and (of course) the global repercussions of the Iraq catastrophe. But we'll enter this period without any broadly-recognized, broadly-respected international leadership.

Does that make things all the worse?

Or does that give us an unexpected opportunity to adopt unconventional strategies?

March 18, 2007

Information, Context and Change

88mpg_annotated_sm.jpgI've long been a proponent of the core Viridian argument that "making the invisible visible" (MTIV) -- illuminating the processes and systems that are normally too subtle, complex or elusive to apprehend -- is a fundamental tool for enabling behavioral change. When you can see the results of your actions, you're better able to change your actions to achieve the results you'd prefer. I've come to understand, however, that it's not enough to make the invisible visible; you also have to make it meaningful.

The canonical example of how MTIV works is the mileage readout standard in hybrid cars. Almost invariably, hybrid owners see a gradual but noticeable improvement in miles-per-gallon over the first month or so of hybrid vehicle ownership. This isn't so much the car being "broken in," but the driver: because of the mileage readout, the hybrid driver can see what driving patterns achieve the best results.

A growing number of non-hybrid cars now include miles-per-gallon readouts; will we see similar improvements in driver behavior as a result?

Possibly, but not likely. The hybrid miles-per-gallon readout comes in two forms: an average mileage, whether calculated for the current tank or the total vehicle miles; and a real-time, current mileage display, which will fluctuate significantly while one drives. As far as I have found, the non-hybrids with mileage readouts only include the average mileage display, not the real-time display. (Update: Howard notes in the comments a few makes of non-hybrid cars that do have both the average and real-time displays. I would be very interested in an examination of driver behavior -- and possible changes in behavior -- for those cars.)

This is useful information, to be sure; it's good to know what kind of mileage a vehicle gets in real-world use. But as a means of MTIV, it's not terribly helpful, because it breaks the connection between the action and the result. After the first few dozen miles of a given tank of gas, the average mileage readout changes very slowly, and only with sustained greater-than-average or less-than-average mileage driving. Small variations get lost in the noise. This means that minor changes in driving behavior can't be mapped to minor changes in miles-per-gallon. Without that connection between "I did this" and "I got that," drivers can't as easily learn to drive in a more efficient way. The driver needs to be able to compare behaviors and results to learn what works best. Both forms of display are necessary. The average mileage is the context for the momentary changes, and it's the comparison between the two that provides meaning.

This dilemma isn't just an issue for cars.

carbonlabelLate last month, the UK's environment secretary, David Milbrand, proposed putting ecological impact labels on all food products sold in UK stores. These labels would focus on the amount of carbon emitted as the result of the production of the food item. In this, the UK government is playing catch-up with some of its businesses, as the grocery chain Tesco announced in late January that it would be adding carbon labels to the products it sold. And now the Carbon Trust, a UK non-profit that works with businesses to reduce their greenhouse impacts, has embarked on an effort to build a labeling standard for adoption across industries. (It should come as no surprise that I'm very much in favor of this sort of labeling!)

So let's say this works out, and soon every bag of crisps you buy has a little label on it showing how many grams of carbon resulted from that bag's production. Now you can compare it to other snacks, and try to eat only the goodies with smaller numbers in the label. But while that level of comparison is helpful, it doesn't offer the larger context necessary to make the comparison meaningful. You still don't know whether both the (e.g.) 100g of carbon resulting from the production of a bag of crisps and the (e.g.) 50g of carbon resulting from the production of a bag of carrots are outrageously high, ridiculously low, or vanishingly irrelevant.

In order for any carbon labeling endeavor to work -- in order for it to usefully make the invisible visible -- it needs to offer a way for people to understand the impact of their choices. This could be as simple as a "recommended daily allowance" of food-related carbon, a target amount that a good green consumer should try to treat as a ceiling. This daily allowance doesn't need to be a mandatory quota, just a point of comparison, making individual food choices more meaningful.

The food carbon labels without the recommended amounts is roughly like the real-time mileage readout on a hybrid: useful data about one's immediate actions, but without any way of measuring overall results. Similarly, the recommended allowances without abundant carbon labels is akin to the average mileage display: a way of seeing overall goals, without any way of directly connecting action and result. Both the individual data and the broader context are necessary.

This is a pattern we're likely to see again and again as we move into the new world of carbon footprint awareness. We'll need to know the granular results of actions, in as immediate a form as possible, as well as our own broader, longer-term targets and averages. This is certainly not a surprising observation. We're still early enough in the carbon awareness era, however, that even the obvious steps are useful to note.

March 15, 2007

Home Is Where I Want To Be

Just a very quick update: I am home from Austin, but am suffering the effects of a nasty flu virus picked up in that fair city. Nonetheless, thanks a ton to Jon & Marsha Lebkowsky for the hospitality, conversation and orange juice, and to Jerry Paffendorf, for putting me on his panel and getting me invited. I just wish I had been able to meet up with more of the folks I had intended to (and I'm especially sorry that we never got a chance to sit down, Julian!).

March 11, 2007

User Creation Panel, SXSW2007

Mark Wallace at 3pointD.com has a pretty darn complete recap of the panel I was on today at South-by-Southwest.

Most interesting line, from Raph Koster:

The number one use of user-created content in virtual spaces is the screenshot.

(Update:) Another recap of the panel from Tony Walsh at Clickable Culture.

March 10, 2007

In Austin. It's My Birthday.


Getting ready to go out to dinner with some friends.

Jerry Paffendorf said that he thought I was about ten years younger than I really am. I'll accept that.

March 8, 2007

South by Southwest

Leaving for Austin tomorrow. If you see me there, say hi!

My panel is on Sunday (sadly, at the same time as Violet's panel).

On the Edge of Independent User-Creation in Gamespace

Room 9C
Sunday, March 11th
5:00 pm - 6:00 pm

We've got the participatory web, Web 2.0, whatever you want to call it. Millions of amateurs now routinely use the web to create and distribute their own movies, mash-ups, blogs, custom widgets, interfaces, and the like. This wave of user-created content is swelling towards video games and virtual worlds. PC games can be modded and customized, console systems are really just powerfully networked computers in the process of opening up, and virtual world platforms are emerging that allow you to create completely personalized identities and environments. More and more the means of content creation are being offloaded from traditional top-down gaming companies to independent teams and individuals for self-expression, personal projects and profit. This panel will examine the trend towards user-creation in gamespace and focus on new opportunities exemplified by virtual world platforms like Second Life and Multiverse, software developer kits for the next-gen console systems (Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and PlayStation 3), 3D map and modeling platforms like Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, and the surrounding content creation tools, both currently available and on the horizon. If you've ever wanted into the game or virtual world space on your own terms, whether it's running around Halo looking like your real life self or getting your own vision for a virtual experience off the ground, the doors are beginning to open, you don't need a badge to get to work, and this panel is for you.

Moderator: Jerry Paffendorf, The Electric Sheep Company

Jerry Paffendorf The Electric Sheep Company
John Bacus Prod Mgr, Google
Jamais Cascio World-Builder-in-Chief, Open the Future
Raph Koster Pres, Areae Inc

March 5, 2007

Monday Topsight, March 5, 2007

• Pope-Emperor Declares Victory to Washington Officialdom: Mr. Sterling gets a Washington Post opinion page platform!

It's the Net vs. the 20th-century fossil order in a fight that the cybergreens are winning. Why? Because they're not about spiritual potential, human decency, small is beautiful, peace, justice or anything else unattainable. The cybergreens are about stuff people want, such as health, sex, glamour, hot products, awesome bandwidth, tech innovation and tons of money.

We're gonna glam, spend and consume our way into planetary survival.

A welcome companion to the more DC-friendly, muscular Geo-Greens and post-hippie Glowing-Greens.

• Rob Carlson's "Thoughts on Open Biology": One of the founding thinkers of "open source biology," Carlson here argues that simply "open biology" is a better way to approach the concept -- and notes that there's still much to do before open biology makes its mark:

As in 2000, I remain today most interested in maintaining, and enhancing, the ability to innovate. In particular, I feel that safe and secure innovation is likely to be best achieved through distributed research and through distributed biological manufacturing. By "Open Biology" I mean access to the tools and skills necessary to participate in that innovation and distributed economy.

"Open source biology" and "open source biotechnology" are catchy phrases, but they have little if any content for the moment. As various non-profits get up and running (e.g., CAMBIA and the BioBrick Foundation), some of the vagaries will be defined, and at least we will have some structure to talk about and test in the real world. When there is a real license a la the GPL, or the Lesser License, and when it is finally tested in court we will have some sense of how this will all work out.

This is an important essay, and it deserves more attention than I'm giving it here. I hope to circle back to it when I'm home from SXSW.

• Happy Celebrate Our Monkey Ancestors Day!: A piece I wrote awhile back noting that "no religion" is the third-most-popular "faith" in the US illuminated something about the country that few people in media or politics really want to acknowledge: increasingly, we're just not very religious. Over the last 15 years, the population of the US has grown by about 15%; in that same period, the number of US adults who do not attend church has nearly doubled, from 39 million to 75 million. Blogger and analyst Bill Scher, commenting during the Conservative Political Action Conference this last week, argued that, rather than liberals having a "religion problem," the more accurate analysis would be that conservatives have a "secular problem" -- and a pretty big one, too.

Democrats crushed Republicans among secular voters, broadly defined as those who attend church seldom (favoring Democrats 60% to 38%) or never (67% to 30%). Republicans retained strong support among those who attend church more than weekly. But among those who only go weekly -- the larger portion of the religious vote -- the Republican lead shrunk from 15 points to 7.

Just another data point showing that, especially when it comes to cultural traditions and beliefs, established narratives hold more sway over media and political representations of reality than do the facts -- but we shouldn't build our scenarios and models based on what we assume to be true...

• A Good Idea: ARPA-E, an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, in order to fund cutting-edge, low-probability/high-payoff energy research. Proposed last year, but still not implemented. (via)

• Tattle-Dust: Hitachi demoed a new RFID tag that measures 0.002 x 0.002 inches, yet has capabilities equivalent to Hitachi's current smallest RFID, which measures a whopping 0.016 inches square. Not yet in production, and a Hitachi rep claims that they are "not imagining" any nefarious uses.


• Upcoming Travel: Post-SXSW, I'm now looking at the UK (London), Switzerland (Lucerne), New York City, and Nebraska. (Sing it with me: "One of these things is not like the others...")

March 1, 2007

Obsolescent Heresies

sb.jpgI like Stewart Brand, and he and I seem to get along pretty well. I first met him at GBN a decade ago, and I run into him fairly often at a variety of SF-area futures-oriented events.

But I found myself grumpy and frustrated after reading "An Early Environmentalist, Embracing New ‘Heresies’" in Sunday's New York Times, a profile of Stewart and what he calls his "environmental heresies."

Stewart Brand has become a heretic to environmentalism, a movement he helped found, but he doesn’t plan to be isolated for long. He expects that environmentalists will soon share his affection for nuclear power. They’ll lose their fear of population growth and start appreciating sprawling megacities. They’ll stop worrying about “frankenfoods” and embrace genetic engineering.

Brand seems to retain an image of environmentalism that may have been appropriate in the 1970s, but has diminishing credibility today: the anti-technology, back-to-nature hippie. Today's environmental movement is urban, techie, and far less likely to refer to any assertion as "heresy" (although, in the case of the handful of people who still try to deny the existence of global warming, we're happy to use the term "stupidity"). Stewart Brand is nailing his environmental heresies on the door of a church that was long ago abandoned... or, at the very least, taken over by Unitarians.

This isn't to say that the Bright Green types have fully embraced Stewart's views. There's little support for aggressive nuclear power production among the new environmentalists, and the various positions concerning biotech are complex, to say the least. There's little disagreement with his love of cities, but in this case, Brand is almost a latecomer. Ultimately, the positions that Stewart stakes out appear more to be arguments against his own past beliefs than against the claims of modern eco-advocates.

David Roberts, over at Gristmill, dissects the nuclear argument exceedingly well, and rather than reiterate what he wrote, I'll just point you to it. The short version, in my phrasing: the Bright Green reluctance about nuclear power has far more to do with it being centralized infrastructure and dated technology than with any fear or loathing of atoms. The environmental situation in which we find ourselves demands a fast-learning, fast-iterating, distributed and collaborative technological capacity, not a system that bleeds out investment dollars and leaves us stuck with technologies already on the verge of obsolescence.

If we're looking for resilience, flexibility and innovation, the nuclear industry is not a good place to start.

With regards to biotechnology, resilience, flexibility and innovation are definitely possible, at least in the years to come. Brand argues that genetic engineering has the potential to be a major tool for dealing with global warming's effects, and he's not the only one making claims of the sort. There's no consensus Bright Green position on environmental biotech, but there are plenty of voices calling for the responsible use of biotech (and nanotech) as a way of combatting climate and ecosystem disruption; moreover, most people arguing for holding off on bioengineering do so out of concern that we still have more to learn before we can undertake such solutions responsibly, not out of a flat opposition to the technology.

Stewart asks, "where are the green biotech hackers?" Rob Carlson -- one of the original open-source bio thinkers, now a leading expert in synthetic biology -- has an answer: they're here, but they're still working under the radar.

We're coming, Stewart. It's just that we're still on the slow part of the curves. [...] At the moment, synthesis of a long gene takes about four weeks at a commercial DNA foundry, with a bacterial genome still requiring many months at best, though the longest reported contiguous synthesis job to date is still less than 50 kilobases. And at a buck a base, hacking any kind of interesting new circuit is still expensive. [...] So, Mr. Brand, it will be a few years before green hackers, at least those who aren't support by Vinod Khosla or Kleiner Perkins, really start to have an impact.

Green biotech hacking is still in the punch-card era, and as Stewart himself could tell you, computer hacker culture really didn't take off until you got past punch-cards into time-sharing, where the cost in time and money was low enough that mistakes were something to learn from, not dread.

As for cities, I'm not sure I could find many modern enviros still clinging to the notion that, on the whole, rural life is intrinsically better than urban life. There are plenty of individual examples of terrific rural homes and awful urban homes, of course, but in the aggregate, there's no question that communities in dense, urban settings have a smaller footprint than communities of the same size in suburban and rural settings. And the notion that population size is still at the top of the environmental hit list is seriously out of date; all signs point to a global population peak of below 10 billion, and possibly no more than 8 billion -- of concern to the extent that more people means more consumption, but by no means a panic-inducing Malthusian threat.

The conventional meaning of "heretic" is one who goes against dogma, and the positions that Stewart takes here just don't meet that requirement. There's no doubt that it would be possible to find self-described environmentalists who fit the stereotype that Stewart is responding to, but one of the hallmarks of the modern environmental movement -- and the reason why the "heresy" model is arguably obsolete -- is that, when it comes to solutions, nothing is a priori off the table. All solution options can be considered, but they must be able to stand up to competing ideas. Even if some of us believe that some of the solutions he advocates don't stand up to the competition, we aren't going to try to claim that Stewart Brand somehow isn't an environmentalist. As long as he recognizes that the Earth's geophysical systems are under extraordinary duress, and that business-as-usual is driving us headlong into disaster, he's one of us -- even if the ways we want to avoid that disaster vary.

Jamais Cascio

Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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