Thursday 21 June 2018

What science fiction ought to be

One simpler world: 2009's The Road, based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel of the same name. 

Sorry for the light posting lately -- I'll be on holiday in the USA for the next two weeks. If any readers live in the St. Louis area and want to meet, e-mail me. 

Science fiction has become the dominant genre of the last four decades – the biggest film of the year has been sci-fi almost every year in my lifetime. Of those, some are simply swashbuckler fantasies set in space, like Star Wars, while others are the very entertaining superhero fantasies that have become as ubiquitous as Westerns or musicals once were. Each year, however, brings a new wave of dystopian post-apocalyptic films – in the last year we’ve had Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One, War for the Planet of the Apes, Geostorm, and later this year we can expect Alita and Mortal Engines.

Another simpler world: All Creatures Great and Small
I say “dystopian,” because science fiction used to be creating utopian futures in which mankind had solved most of its problems – Star Trek being one of the only survivors of that age. In the time that science fiction has dominated our culture, though, it has been about something else: telling us how hopeless our future is, and how we’re all doomed.

They have a point; we have created a society that runs on coal and oil, which won’t last forever. Even the amount we’ve burned so far has changed the air so much that it is literally changing the weather around the world, creating more intense storms, harsher droughts, and greater extremes of heat and cold. Anyone who walks along the Irish shoreline can see the other main product of our civilisation, the plastic and other rubbish that now clutters the world’s seas, or piles up in landfills that have become the largest man-made structures on Earth.

Yet apocalyptic stories assume that our modern car-driving, computer-using culture will collapse overnight in some catastrophe, whether a robot Armageddon, climate disaster or Rapture – and the fact that we make entertainment about such horrors means that they are not really our fears, but our fantasies. And they offer the worst possible model for how to handle the realistic difficulties we might face in the future. Paranoid survivalists do not help build a delicate web of trust among neighbours, and millenarians will not help build lasting infrastructure for the next stage of history. The more people are convinced that we face a violent and despairing future, the more likely such a future becomes.

In the decades to come, as we have to cope with more difficult economic times, energy crunches and unexpected weather, more of us will have to grow more food ourselves, learn to use less energy from different sources, and buy more products made to be fixed and re-used rather than thrown away. It might be a reduction of our energy wealth by 10 percent, or 50 percent, or 90 percent – depending on your time and place -- but it’s literally not the end of the world, and we shouldn’t confuse the two.
And it will require more of us to form carpools, shopping co-ops, allotment clubs, medical co-ops, home-schooling networks and other such ad hoc organisations, and to cheerfully work with our neighbours to create new relationships – something people can and often do in a crisis, and exactly the opposite of what most science fiction depicts. 

Movies and television programmes could easily help people imagine a more realistic future, and there are many models they could use. 1950s America, Irish village life, post-war Britain, modern-day Mexico or India – since people in every time and place used and wasted less than we do today, almost any such model would probably look more like our future than the latest Zombie Apocalypse movie.

For example, picture a gentle television comedy series set in a modern suburban housing estate, but with the lawns turned into gardens, and bean vines crawling up the sides of every house. Most homes hold extended families of mothers, grandparents and children, some of whom had to move in with cousins and in-laws from what used to be the coast. Picture each home having masonry stoves for the cold and Arab ventilation shafts for the heat, coops and hutches outside for animals, and neighbours pooling their money to help each other out.    

I can picture storylines involving elderly people, who grew up during the boom years, having arguments with their more practical children and grandchildren, or feuding with other elders over culture-war issues that have long been rendered moot. Other storylines might involve the young men of the community taking turns patrolling the homes against local gangs, making life difficult for secret cigarette addicts and covert teenage lovers and leading to all manner of comic misunderstandings and hijinks.

Some episodes might involve the same sort of bucolic charm one might find in All Creatures Great and Small, Last of the Sumer Wine or other British series, or in Irish films like War of the Buttons. Perhaps residents gear up for the annual vegetable awards, and get a little carried away with the competition, spying on each other with binoculars and sending children to spy on their neighbours for pocket change.

Perhaps other stories involve the neighbours learning old-fashioned ways – when the water turns out to have heavy metals, they learn how to create a slow sand filter and charcoal filter. Or the creek is flooding the neighbourhood, and everyone has to pitch in to dig a channel or an overflow field full of willow trees. I could see it being like one of my favourite films, 1934’s Our Daily Bread, in which a group of down-and-out people during the Depression have to learn to run a farm together.

Other storylines might be more dramatic; perhaps one of the residents gets an eviction notice, and the neighbourhood bands together to stand against the police. The matter is resolved without violence when the police fall in love with Granny Madison’s blueberry pies, and agree not to evict in exchange for a pie once a week.

I could see a story involving an elderly resident keeps to himself, and is the subject of much gossip among the neighbourhood children, who peek in his windows and frighten each other with stories about him. When one boy sneaks into the house on a dare, however, he finds the old man has a fascinating history, and the two become friends. The episode ends with the boy leading the old man out to meet his neighbours for the first time.

Another episode, perhaps, could revolve around a group of unemployed men struggling with family stress and poverty, who decide to pool their money and skills and build a small wind farm together out of boards and car alternators. They hope to generate enough electricity to get the Internet coming to their homes again, enabling them to keep in touch look for jobs, download self-sufficiency courses and – closest to their hearts – play video games with old buddies on the other side of the world.

Make up your own examples of what your neighbourhood or family might look like if weather and the economy became more difficult, and yet life went on. Write a short story, a comic book, or a
fairy tale for your children. The point is that few people read scientific papers or specialist web sites, but we all watch or read stories. If you think there is hope for a decent future -- and I do -- then make that future come alive for your family and friends. I ask only two things: it show a realistic future, and that it be fun.

Friday 8 June 2018

The Future of Pavement

Originally published in 2011. 

One of Ireland’s most iconic images, seen in many postcards and calendar panoramas, is the mosaic of green fields divided by stone walls. Those walls, so common in the west of our island, look even more interesting up close, for the stones are loose, irregular and often lain without mortar. They look as unstable as a card pyramid, yet many have lasted centuries. They demonstrate how insoluble problems can be combined into simple solutions, as farmers here turned an obstacle – the stones that broke their ploughs – into a barrier that would protect their livestock.

Such bucolic scenes seem a world away from, say, suburban USA, where rivers of asphalt and concrete flow through landscapes of strip-malls and housing estates. But there people actually have a similar problem as those farmers, and might learn from their solutions.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, most farmers had some knowledge of how to make walls out of the soil’s round stones, but I’m told specialists went from farm to farm to help with repairs. To build such walls you must select stones of the right size and shapes to fill the spaces formed by the ones around it, like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. When laid properly, the gravity of the stones keep each other in place, like the segments of an archway.

Crafters made their walls in straight lines by hammering posts into the ground some metres apart along the path the wall was to follow, and stretching a rope tautly between them. They did not need to transport materials, as the stones were pulled from the fields around the wall itself – and stones have always been Ireland’s biggest crop.

The resulting walls seemed to grow organically out of the land, and with their crevices could be scaled by humans but made an effective barrier for livestock. Their crevices, meanwhile, provide a home for many forms of smaller wildlife we need for the larger ones to stay alive – the base of the food pyramid, as it were. Seeds eventually make their way to the crevices and sprout, and plants wind their roots and woody stems through the interstices until they become part of the structure, and the wall can barely be seen under the greenery. Eventually some of them become, effectively, hedgerows, and in some hedgerows you can still see their rocky foundation.

Smooth stones fill the earth here because a slow flood of ice scoured this land only ten millennia ago, ripping rock from mountain ranges and suspending it, up to a kilometre above the ground, for perhaps tens of thousands of years. When the ice melted, all the rubble suspended for a kilometre above any patch of land would have slowly tumbled to earth, some of it smoothed by millennia in an icy rock tumbler. Each new ice age would have added a new layer of till, until the soil was thick with it.

One other, more tragic factor might have accelerated the spread of stone walls, especially in the west where they take over from the hedgerows you see in our area. Humans began felling trees as soon as they reached this cold rainforest, but Ireland still had vast forested areas when it was conquered. Then the remaining trees fell to become much of Britain’s navy, until the land was the most deforested in Europe, as Ugo Bardi notes in his 2008 essay “A Distant Mirror.” 

Trees hold soil in place; without them it washes away quickly, especially in a rainy country. Bardi notes that erosion seems to have been most severe in the west, and that the thinning soil exposed stones that were brought to the surface; even today, the further west you go, the more barren the land appears, and the more stone walls replace the hedgerows of our region. The diminishing soil, single-crop agriculture, high population and political oppression created an extremely unstable situation, which came, of course, in the form of the potato blight. Over the next few decades, the resulting Famine cut the population in half. 

I study old crafts and traditions here to understand how people could live, and sometimes live well, in a truly durable way – and where they did not, to avoid their mistakes. In the modern West – and especially in my native USA – we have thousands of times the wealth that the Irish of 150 years ago, as well as devices they would consider miraculous. Our countries, however, face some of the same problems they did. Many of the forests have been felled, especially around populated areas. We rely heavily on single crops – much of the American diet now consists of corn, in the form of starch, sweetener and meat. More and more people are feeling an economic pinch, and while they have nowhere near the poverty of Ireland 150 or even 50 years ago, neither do they have any experience with the basic self-reliant skills that allowed many people then to survive.

Most of all, Americans specifically and Westerners in general have a problem very like that of the early Irish farmers – their topsoil is blocked by rock. Much of our land been locked away under cement and asphalt, and the more people live in an area, the more of their land is paved. Nor is the problem exclusively urban; suburban and rural Americans, for example, must live with mega-mall moonscapes of concrete and asphalt lining hundreds of thousands of miles of highway.

Such materials require a massive infusion of cheap energy to function, and as energy prices rose in the last decade, the cost of road surfaces soared. Such materials only last a couple of decades, and many roads are reaching the end of their lives. Rural governments in my native USA struggle to cover even rudimentary costs, and several localities are tearing up their roads for more cost-effective gravel. As other areas follow suit, they might find it advantageous to tear down berms, bridges, sidewalks, parking lots and strip malls. That would, however, leave those communities with thousands of tonnes of rubble.

Even residents who have scraps of land they could use for crops – say, suburban homeowners – often dig through their lawn and find thin, depleted soil filled with the debris from the original construction of the neighbourhood. One way or another, they will have to find some use for irregular chunks of concrete and asphalt.

At the same time, many American homes and businesses have chain-link fences for boundaries, which were only invented in the last century and whose cost will increase in the years ahead. How, then, do you discourage intruders or enclose livestock?

In an earlier article I mentioned hedgerows, which provide a thick barrier, a home for wildlife and a seasonal resource of shoots and berries. Many people with sufficient soil, a temperate climate and a bit of space could grow a hedgerow to surround and eventually supplant their existing fences. Hedgerows, however, have a few limitations. For one thing, they take time; even in a moist climate a row of willow saplings would take a few years to become a proper hedge. For another, they must have enough soil to put down roots – a problem for people with concrete or thin soil.

For many people, then, the best solution might be the same ones the Irish farmers used, to let these two problems solve each other. Chunks of rubble can be stacked into walls, and more easily than glacial till, as former pieces of road or parking lot are likely to have at least one flat side. They can keep livestock enclosed, perhaps in a single suburban block whose residents decided to tear down their chain-link fences and keep pigs together. They can break up the wind, shade lambs and piglets from strong sun, provide a home for the miniature wildlife that larger animals eat, and for the flowers that often grow in crevices.

If you think chunks of concrete and asphalt would look ugly, you could try finely chopping moss and mixing it with yogurt and beer, and painting the resulting smoothie on your rocks – I haven’t tried it myself, but I’m told it rapidly creates a moss covering. Alternately, you could plant ivy-leaved toadflax or some other flowers in the crevices, providing food for bees.

Given enough time, plants might wind their roots or stems through the gaps and you might get a proper hedgerow growing out of your wall, their fallen leaves and the animals’ waste slowly building back the soil.

Given enough time, that moonscape of parking lots could look like that green mosaic of our postcards.