Unexpected twist

Life is taking an interesting and unexpected turn of late.  It all started with reading the “Optimists Tour of the Future” and meeting the author, Mark, leading me to visions of the engineered utopian or dystopian future we are accelerating exponentially towards.  Then I visited a Fab Lab, under construction, and have seen first-hand how near that future is becoming.  And how dangerously easy it would be for me to jump on that bandwagon and race off into the reddening sunset.

A Fab Lab is basically a workshop for geeks and entrepreneurs alike to get to grips with automated, small scale manufacture of gadgets and gizmos, using a variety of burgeoning technologies such as desktop laser-cutters and 3D printers.  The important part is that use of the facility is free, within limits.  There are hundreds of the blighters appearing all over the world, including potentially one being put in place by a couple of friends here in Berkhamsted.  The one I checked out was in the Enginuity museum-like-place in Ironbridge, which we visited on Tall’s birthday last week while on a break with the in-laws.  The man behind it, Phil, was very enthusiastic and willing to tell me all about it after I asked for a back-stage pass to nose around.

Fab LabBoom.  Whizz.  Bang.  Brain goes off with inspiration and ideas blasting out of every neuron, as I saw Pixar-quality free 3D design software, printed scanned busts of the staff, laser etched key fobs of photos.  I heard stories of 3D printed houses in China          , business cards with videos activated when you look at the card, and everything created by ordinary people on a shoe-string, not requiring the deep pockets of government or corporations.  Collaboration by the likes of you and me.

On the drive home the following day, fuelled by caffeine, the possibilities thrummed through my mind.  I allowed myself to get drawn further into the intoxicating science fiction come real.  With the M54 rolling past, I designed two new 3D printers, with high resolution and colour (my designs are unworkable, I’m sure – and already done for a mere £200K).  How about an online playing field for ordinary people to evolve computer brains with artificial intelligence, building on each other’s ideas and programs?  Why stop there: with the Fab Labs ordinary people can design, share and build any sort of technology, linking together different components to create larger objects.

Mind racing.  Combined with plentiful supplies of local, community owned renewable electricity and fuel generation, there would be no reliance on central facilities for power.  (That might help sort climate change.  Oh, yeah, climate change).

There would need to be some cataloguing mechanism so the latest breakthroughs are easy to find, not hidden by competitors or left on the workbench due to poor advertising.  I parked that, brain not letting me rest on any one thought before moving me on to the next.

Which was about money.  With the idea of sharing technologies and breakthroughs widely, then how would the army of inventors support themselves back in the real world?  How about some reputation system, so useful contributions are recognised?  Food.

We’d need to eat.  When’s lunch?

It was only when I let myself slow down that I started to think through the consequences.  Where would the materials come from?  Maybe centralised manufacture, while putting the power in the hands of a few, does use resources more efficiently.  Unless the resources required are readily available almost everywhere, such as carbon, air and water.  It feels as though this new world will make it more difficult for people or groups to monopolise power and influence, and level the global playing field regarding living standards.  But what about the environment?  Who would look after that?  There isn’t much nature left in science fiction, other than in distant space.

So, both the potential and the excitement and enthusiasm I felt mean that this could be the start of a story about the future that might galvanise society into a move towards renewable energy.  The question is: How to tell it and move towards it responsibly?

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

PS – this short movie shows what is possible with the free 3D software and with a collaborative, open project.  If you have 15 mins to watch it, it also has a moral message about the dangers of pursuing a goal without thought as to the consequences.

The geek shall inherit the Earth

After the third Ashlyns Conversation on Wednesday night, I can’t help but wonder whether there was some mis-translation early on when the Bible was being compiled.  “The meek shall inherit the Earth” has been an eye-catching and thought provoking phrase for me.  I’m wondering whether the “m” was a mistake and it should have been a “g”.

I’ve read Mark Stevenson’s book, and while feeling out of place in a hip pub in London Mark he did take me through his go-to slide presentation.  While there were adaptations in the talk he gave last night to what I’d read and heard before, it was largely similar.  It didn’t stop me letting out involuntary gasps of astonishment as I sat in Berkhamsted Town Hall while he rattled through his bewildering torrent slides, taking the 70 attendees through already existing technologies such as Star-Wars-like thought controlled robotic hands with sensitive touch, to reversing the aging process using telomerase; from successful competitions to find businesses that can make money by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (without government incentives), to the meteoric rise of renewable energy and algae creating petrol from carbon dioxide and water.

Optimist's Tour of the Future

After the talk I gave a lift to Jean to get her home and save her knees, and worked into the evening to prepare for a client meeting today.  A short night’s sleep later and I’m on a train to Derby, thinking.  What I heard last night changes everything for me.  And at the same time it changes nothing.

It changes everything in that I have to admit that I’m much more optimistic about the potential for us defeating climate change.  Technologies are on the way, and they will come sooner or later whether governments get on board or not.  It changes nothing in that the steps I need to take now are to orient myself in moral philosophy, and help to build and inclusive, collaborative and fair community, starting within myself and working out to my family, friends, neighbours, street and town.

I now have renewed insight and belief that the work of the Transition movement is all the more fundamentally important and pressing.  Climate change will knock us to the floor unless we reduce our individual, local, national and global carbon footprint – we need to give ourselves another decade or two to allow these technologies to come through and help repair our battered planet.  Our humanity, our understanding of our place in the universe and our moral outlook need to keep pace with the onset of the world-shifting technologies.  That can only happen if we get to know the Blaneys next door and the Yarkers across the road, talk about the important things in life and yes, dare I say it, love one another.

The world just around the corner (ooh, I like that phrase) isn’t going to wait for our lumbering political systems and unresponsive behemoths of corporations.  Either through Mother Nature showing her hand or through Fred building a self-replicating 3D nano-printer in his bedroom, government and big business are going to get caught napping.  So we need to be there to help smooth the transition and ride the wave of change rather than get swept aside.

The new insights Mark gave change everything in that the destination I now imagine looks very different from the one I had in mind, with just as much nature and collaboration, but a few more gizmos and a lot more algae.

It changes nothing in that we are still at a crossroads in the history of the human race.  Will we race unthinking into that future, use a shiny new monofilament graphite saw too cut off the branch upon which we are sitting.  Or will we allow our humanity to transcend our animal instincts for competition, to move with self-aware assuredness into a collaborative and equitable paradise.

I’ll probably aim for the paradise option, hope that most of us go the same way, and build a bolt-hole in case those that go for the fast lane try to wipe me out.

A massive thank you to Bex in particular, plus Emma, Phillipa and Ivan for organising the talk, and to Mark for delivering such a profound message to us all.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

My name is John, and I’m a denier

Everyone is. You are. I think this is really important.

I am in denial about the inevitability of climate change disaster. The good news is that realising I am in denial might just allow me to come to terms with the apocalypse and find my way through.

It seems that the natural human way to deal with any change, not just a bereavement, is roughly the same. Firstly, there is brief shock, then denial. Ignore the facts, and we cope. As we accept the facts, we move through anger, bargaining and inevitably depression. Only when after dealing with those emotions can we move on to acceptance and positively learning our way beyond. We can stay in any of those phases for long periods, and can yo-yo between them.Phases of accepting change

I went through these stages with climate change, just as I am going through them again with our ability to avoid its worst effects. With climate change, for years I was aware of the problem, but avoided thinking about it. Then I remember watching the climate change denial documentary “The Great Climate Change Swindle” and grasping on to every word with hope. It was of course gibberish, but I wanted to believe. I’ve written about the anger I have felt. My experience now makes sense, with an understanding of the stages of accepting change.

I am ever hopeful that we will avoid catastrophic climate change, but I now accept the need to prepare for the worst. We have put a defibrillator to the beating heart of the planet, and are fiddling around trying to reduce the current rather than taking the paddles off. Emissions are increasing, targets are being watered down, and there is no sign of us making the connection between the destruction of the planetary life systems and our own wanton consumption.

When it comes down to it, I’m denying to myself is that there is a half-decent future out there for us, even if we are laggardly in lowering our carbon dioxide emissions. I am reluctant for some reason to think through what that future would mean. I have a painful vision of defending my family homestead from hungry marauders, like a scene from 28 Days Later. Maybe a better version would be the world working together to survive, long enough for us to stabilise the climate once more over a few hundred years? We’d unlikely be able to do it more quickly than that – there are 7 billion of us spending every waking moment burning as much fossil fuel as we can, what hope of doing the same in reverse?28-Weeks-Later-28-weeks-later-26663151-1499-996

So, what next? I’ll have to get depressed for a bit, I suppose. Then I can get on with designing my future in a Cretaceous world.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

PS – does that mean that in the meantime I can happily stop worrying about reducing my own carbon emissions? Can I fly again? Oh, no. That would be immoral. Climate change kills, and will kill. Contributing to it makes me as guilty of manslaughter as a parent smoking in the family home or car.

Dear Maddie, Emily & James

Dear Maddie, Emily and James

I am writing this letter in 2013, when you are 7 years old, 4 and a baby respectively.  You are too young to appreciate what I have to say at the moment, so I am writing the letter to your older selves, when you yourselves have children of your own.
Kids
I am sorry.  I am so sorry.

I don’t know what has happened between 2013 and now, when you are reading this, but I have a pretty good idea.

We have already irreparably damaged the climate.  It will not return to its natural state on human timescales.  I dare not think about it, but fear that by the time you read this that what is known now as “catastrophic” climate change is locked in, unavoidable.  People, animals and plants around the planet will be desperately trying to adapt to the violent and volatile weather, the loss of the regular weather patterns such as the monsoons, upon which our comfort and the survival of vast populations rely.  I hope beyond hope that war has not been the result, that the people of the planet have pulled together to help each other and the natural world to cope.  I am doing what I can to try to change this course, but I am not sure I will be able to.
James
I hope you are alright.

I am doing what I can for our family not to be part of the problem, but it is almost impossible to avoid, not without a general changing of attitudes and policies in the UK at least.  We’ve got solar panels, I’m avoiding commuting, the car sits on the drive almost all the time, we’re getting our food locally as much as we can – you are only vaguely aware of this at the moment.

Whether I am right in my prediction of the future or I am wrong, I am sorry for all the jibes you will inevitably receive from your peers about your crazy father and for any disappointment you have felt due to the lack of flights abroad or new gadgets.  I’m sorry for all the times over the years that we have fallen out as a result.  Know that I have always acted for your future, out of the deepest love for all three of you.

As I write, the issue of the changing climate is on the backburner in the press and public opinion.  Many of my friends and some of your family carry on with their carbon-intensive lives as if there were no tomorrow.  They apologise to me for the worst of their excesses, knowing I am trying to make a difference.  To avoid conflict with those with whom I care, I have resisted the temptation to tell them to not worry about apologising to me, but to go and find their own children and apologise to them.Emily

At the same time there is a ground-swell of activity starting across the planet as we start to take on the vested interests and bloody mindedness that currently has the upper hand.  I am part of that, and hope that we are successful to the point that my worst fears are not realised.

I love you very much, both as my little children and as the adults you have become (you’re “gwowm-ups” now).

Daddy (or Grandpa by now, I suppose),

Ordinary bloke