We are living in a time of great change, a time when we are surrounded by unexpected and generous opportunity, and also by danger. This is an important time to talk amongst ourselves so that we can share, see, and understand the promise and peril of our times. And even more importantly, so that we can create a future full of health, opportunity, and options.
Really, that’s the basic reason I’m a futurist.
Here’s what I do about it:
Obviously, first and foremost, I’m a science fiction writer. Yes, that is a futurist task – not for every story or even every book, but often. Many of our true visionaries have been science fiction writers. Ursula LeGuin. Jules Verne. George Orwell. Ray Bradbury. David Brin. Arthur C. Clark. I could expand this list easily. Yes, I want to be as good as they are! I write fiction almost every day, and I’m up to forty or fifty published stories and six novels. One of my favorite places to write for is Nature Magazine. They publish short shorts on the last page of the magazine. Here are links to my stories there:
I’ve been talking with, learning from, and writing for noted futurist Glen Hiemstra for over a decade. I admire Glen because he is both positive and realistic. Consider dropping by Futurist.com to learn more about Glen’s work.
I’m a member of the Futurist Board at the LifeBoat Foundation, which seeks to assure that we survive as a species. It is a wild and crazy place full of brilliant people. I won’t pretend to agree with them all for even a moment, but I’m often learning by association.
There are a number of ways I work to contribute to the public dialogue about the future. I keynote business events and talk to schools. I only do a few talks a year, solely because of time, although I can regularly be found at science fiction conventions talking about the future on panels. Some of my next appearances will be at the World Science Fiction Convention in Texas and at Orycon in Orgeon. The next place you can catch me giving a solo talk about the future in a public forum will be at the World Future Society meeting in Chicago in the summer of 2013.
If you’d like to find out if I’m available for a specific event, please use the contact form.
Lastly, I am a technology professional. That is also a tangentially futurist profession. I work for the City of Kirkland as the CIO, which means that I spend some time looking forward at how technology can help citizens.
I’m currently at the 100 Year Starship Symposium. This symposium was started by DARPA and is now run by Mae Jemison, who was the first black female astronaut to go into space. At the moment, I’m hearing about the 1400 planets that have been found. That’s only in the last twenty years – it was roughly twenty years ago that we found the first one. Once more, what a lovely time to be alive.
I’ve been to a lot of conferences about space. This one is different in a few important ways:
Most importantly, that audience (the few hundred scientists and enthusiasts and sci fi writers and students) is focused on one thing — getting out into the solar system in a human-powered ship in such a way that the journey is for everyone in humanity. In other words, rather than being about defense or war or even pure science, they are interested in peaceful, inclusive exploration and expansion. Here is the exact statement from them:
We exist to make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years. We unreservedly dedicate ourselves to identifying and pushing the radical leaps in knowledge and technology needed to achieve interstellar flight, while pioneering and transforming breakthrough applications that enhance the quality of life for all on Earth. We actively seek to include the broadest swath of people and human experience in understanding, shaping and implementing this global aspiration.
How do I know they mean it? Usually the audience at a conference with similar slides on the dais would be 80% white male. Not here. The single largest group of people in the audience is white males, but if I added all the rest of us up, one would have to actually count to determine whether or not the numbers (collectively) of people of any-color-or-type-other-than-white-male is greater. But it might be. This is, in fact, very unusual.
This is a very cool place to be. None of us in this room are likely to be on this starship when it is created. But in many ways this place and time represents the early generations of this multi-generation starship.
I’m currently at the the World Future Society meeting in San Francisco, and one of the highlights will be getting to ask science fiction author Ramez Naam some questions tomorrow afternoon. I just finished the last book in his trilogy (Nexus, Crux, and Apex) on the plane on the way down. I was really just blown away, not just by Apex but by the whole series.
Ramez has taken one of the core questions that interests me – what might a transhumanist future look like – and he’s pushed the boundaries both on exactly how wrong and how right such a future could be for the humans involved. Many transhumanist stories are songs of risk and warning, and this series does that, but it also flies high and clear. As I read, I glimpsed a fabulous future that I want to be part of, and a way to solve some of our myriad problems that’s deeper than technological Nirvana alone.
Most importantly to me, the series includes science, spirit, and politics. In SF, we usually only look at two of those. When we leave off the spiritual dimension, we sell ourselves short.
For the best reading experience, enjoy all three together, back to back. Even though I mentioned that these books include spirit (in this case primarily via buddhist monks in Thailand), make no mistake; these books are thrillers. You might be up late turning pages.
I spent the last week vacationing in the Mexican Riviera Maya, which runs from Cancun west along the Caribbean sea. The first time I came here, in 1998, a long somewhat sleepy highway ran along the coast and hand-made signs led to beach locations. We stayed in a small hotel, the Blue Parrot Inn in Playa Del Carmen. There was only one large resort in Playa, and another under construction at that time, and the tourist road, 5th avenue, was somewhat sleepy. The population of Playa was under 40,000 people. Playa has since grown so that it resembles a smaller and lower version of Cancun, which is a nightmare of a place where humans ruined a beautiful, ecologically critical location by scattering bits of Las Vegas across a pristine beach. In Playa there is some city planning and locals are proud of the three story height limit. Today there over 150,000 residents. That’s almost 200% growth in less than twenty years. Almost all of this growth is fed by the tourist industry.
On this trip, I stayed in the Princess Riviera Maya, which is one of a long string of resorts that follows the coast, as if someone had taken a hundred cruise ships or more, split them open, and folded them out flat. Huge busses show up in lines every morning and take people to Mayan theme parks, snorkeling locations, and ruins like Chitzen Itza and Tulum.
One of my best memories from the first trip was when my son (who turned eighteen that year) and I went snorkeling in Akumal. At the time, it was a sleepy seaside Mexican town only a little swelled by ex-pats and dive shops. I remember that it had a large tourist hotel. Essentially, we simply drove up near the beach, parked, and walked across blazing white sand to the ocean. We were immediately surrounded by huge sparkling schools of multicolored fish, so many that it looked like a river of fins. The reef below us was full of purple and red and orange and brown. Colorful life blossomed and swam and moved everywhere we looked. Sea turtles and angelfish and parrotfish, barracuda and a hundred other species we had no names for. The ocean was full to bursting. We were enchanted.
I believe there were no more than about ten others snorkeling the beach the day we were there.
I didn’t get to Akumal on our middle trip, but I went there on this trip, with our family eighteen-year-old for whom I am a handy extra adult. The large schools of glittering fish were gone. Most of the color had faded, at least if my memory serves me at all. The quiet was certainly gone…the entire bay is ringed with high-end resorts and tourist shopping and restaurants. Most Mexicans can no longer afford to live there. We did see a number of turtles, a single barracuda (very big!), two rays, and some squid. I spotted one parrotfish, a few yellow angels, and a number of smaller and less distinctive fish. The coral was almost all brown and white, with a few pale purple colors.
We shared the water with hundreds of people. Hundreds. I would bet a thousand people snorkeled there the day we did.
It has become wholly unrecognizable as the place which enchanted David and I almost two decades ago. The picture above is what happens to sea turtles when one is spotted: snorkelers float nearby and watch for up to two minutes, being careful not to come too close to the turtles. Our guide made sure we were careful. In spite of that, I felt intrusive. This must happen to each turtle something like a fifty times a day.
Our guide, Gil, grew up in Akumal. He now lives on the other side of the large, busy highway and yet he can still be found on the Akumal beaches almost every day. He is part of a collective working to save the bay, and to save the turtles. The collective works together to take snorkeling trips out, to monitor people’s behavior and make sure they resect the coral and the turtles. They share any money they make evenly between all of the guides in the collective.
According to Gil, the bay was even worse a few years ago, and it is now rebounding. We watched for turtles who had not yet been tagged – which meant that they were new young ones who appear as juveniles (apparently there is a specific set of juvenile years that the turtles spend in Akumal eating a specific sea grass). We saw at least two, maybe three untagged turtles. Gil reported that the turtle population last year was about fifty-five and that now it may be sixty or more. He is very proud of the work that he and his collective are doing, much of which seems to be managing tourists in such a way as to create a win-win situation. Others in Akumal protect nesting sites, herd baby turtles to the beach, and help educate the tourists.
In spite of how the differences in the reef saddened me, this was a real and unexpected “Backing in Eden” moment for me. The entire bay is known and mapped. Almost every turtle is tagged, and they get a yearly doctor’s visit. A fragile and nearly–destroyed ecosystem is beginning to bounce back. The locals are in on the preservation efforts, and my be driving them. The turtle’s chances of survival are increasing.
As always, more links for you to follow. Fewer than usual since the connectivity down here is nasty and I didn’t need to go the Internet for the lesson. The one came to me in person.
Centro Ecologico Akumal: https://www.facebook.com/CEA.AKUMAL
A great tale of the work being done in Akumal http://www.sac-be.com/a_day_of_sea_turtle_conservation.shtml
Interesting because it talks about conservation and the reviews, of course, are written by tourists. http://www.tripadvisor.ca/Attraction_Review-g499445-d2522660-Reviews-Centro_Ecologico_Akumal-Akumal_Yucatan_Peninsula.html#REVIEWS
The tour company I went with, Local Quickies, which seems reasonably ecologically conscious. http://www.localquickies.com/index.html
I spent Wednesday – Friday of last week working on a far brighter side of gaming than gamergate. In support of its mission to eradicate poverty, the World Bank has been deploying a game called Evoke, which is designed to engage young adults in developing countries with social good issues. They used a hackathon to start the next round of game stories. The Bank gathered science fiction writers, topical experts, curriculum designers, and artists around grey industrial tables with power cords hanging overhead, a maker space right next door, and plentiful moderately bad coffee.
Each team worked on a topical “big” issue from conservation through nuclear disarmament (Remember the nukes? Some of us do. Viscerally. But millennials may not).
The hackathon designers drew authors from the Hieroglyph anthology inspired by Seattle superpower Neal Stephenson, with the apt addition of Kim Stanley Robinson. Participants included Kathryn Cramer and Ed Finn (the editors), Kathleen Ann Goonan, Karl Schroeder, James Cambias, and me. Academics and experts came from multiple Universities and from the Bank itself. Every table had an artist; they might have been the most amazing people there. Worlds and characters were drawn into life very quickly.
Each team produced about 8 pages worth of graphic story, and a number of tasks to accompany it. Some groups proposed linking the game to the player’s real world.
Will these games work?
That’s tough to say. But they very well might. It seems that the linkage to the real world will matter. For example, if someone gaming about literacy can read to someone else, there could be an extra win.
Another trick will be creating engaging experiences. Each table might have benefitted from one more person: an actual game designer from a commercially successful game. Perhaps designers from Zynga, Bungee, and Valve.
Some episodes of Evoke are already in use. If the game continues to get better and grow its base, the payoff could be fabulous. Many target players are in countries with broken education systems. Interactive games could provide a window into a world where players can connect with the global community and global mentors so that they become armed with new knowledge and skills, as well as a feeling of empowerment.
It’s hard to create compelling entertainment with an agenda. But it’s possible. I’m very pleased that the World Bank did this, and that they invited me to play a small part. I wish them all the success in the world.
I’ve been off discussing the future at the World Future Society this month. It’s a topic I engage in fairly regularly online and other places. This is the most important conversation we can have a society. Perhaps telling your family that you love them or walking your dog and chatting with neighbors is more important on some daily soul-building level. But I believe that dinner and water cooler and political conversations should be at least partly consumed by the tsunami of change we’re riding. Yet, I’m amazed at how often I am finding mistaken thinking or lack of thought around our future (including, I’m sure, in myself). I hear us carrying our own false knowledge forward or falling into sound-bite land. When I catch myself doing this, its usually because I haven’t taken time to stop, talk, and think.
We’re living in a decade when the rate of change is increasing quickly, and as we climb the curves of this change, the things we know become outdated really fast. Things we “know” become untrue a few years after they were the best truth we had available. For example, I was just talking to a friend about desalination, and she mentioned that it was very difficult to figure out what to do with the extra salt. I did some research and in fact, the leftover brine has been (and in some cases is) a problem. But plants in Tampa have figured out how to return it to the ocean safely, and others have suggested ways to perhaps use that salt on roads in the winter. This is a rather pedestrian example, but in many cases things that were problems have been turned to opportunity, or had acceptable workarounds created for them. It’s important to assume our knowledge at any given point is wrong, and to go proof it. The knowledge we thought we owned may no longer be true. It’s not new math, it’s a new world.
We spend a lot of time on the Internet, which means we’re bombarded by misinformation constantly. Depending on where we spend that time, the signal to noise ratio can be pretty awful. I’ve always tried to avoid commercial television because the commercials are created by people who spend a lot of money (a LOT of money) to influence my thinking. There’s no reason to assume I’m immune to that. The Internet appears to have MORE advertising than a typical half-hour TV show used to have. So it’s even more dangerous. Add the polarized political atmosphere and corporate money flowing into politics like an engorged river of lies, and we probably intake more junk than real information. Let’s take a non-pedestrian example this time. People have conflated a single company’s business practices (much of which I disagree with, but which aren’t actually as evil as they’re made out to be) with a whole technology, and have turned GMO foods and animals into evil, no matter who created them or for what. Yet we’re almost certainly going to need this tool in the fast-changing adjustable climate-dominated world of tomorrow. The vitriol, hover, is so thick that it’s nearly impossible to have a rational conversation even in places where the audience is generally rational and thoughtful. On the internet, lies abound, and truths get picked up and exaggerated until they become lies.
Knowledge itself is changing and lies are regularly presented to as facts. There isn’t much we can do about that – it’s an external reality. But we can stop and think and talk. We can take quiet meditative time. We can make ourselves read whole essays and articles instead of skimming them for titles. I started this post yesterday, partly in reaction to a sound-bite of mine which has been getting retweeted (“What we grow up knowing and what we will die knowing will be different.”) Yesterday morning, I read an excellent essay in the New York Times, “No Time to Think,” by Kate Murphy. She did a nice job of expanding on something that disturbs me. Often it feels like I get up, give myself half an hour to read or FaceBook over coffee, and then I’m off and running with no real stops until I pass out for the night. On a good day, I get in an hour of dog walking, which is good thinking time. Many days, even that is rushed.
The best thing we can do for the the future is to spend some time with it, either in quiet contemplation or in thoughtful conversation. We have big problems to solve, and running around distracted by someone else’s soundbites isn’t going to solve them. Stopping and thinking clearly is more likely to help.
Somewhere around a dozen years ago, I was sitting in a bar in Eastern Washington. It could have been Lake Chelan or Yakima. I really don’t remember. But I do remember meeting two cowboys. Real cowboys (we still have them in the west). They weren’t talking about herds of cows over their beers. They were talking about fires. I still remember the older of the two describing a fire he’d worked the previous season where the ground had been torched so thoroughly and with so much heat that the the grass wouldn’t re-seed. They explained to me how they had to bring in bales of hay and scatter the hay across acres and acres of seared ground in order to restore the badly-needed grass. Without it, the burnt hills would have washed away during the winter.
I asked him why that fire was so bad.
Now, recall that this man is not a Seattle-area liberal. He’s wearing jeans worn smooth by saddle-leather on the inside of the thighs, he’s chewing tobacco, and if he doesn’t have a gun on him, he almost certainly has one in his truck. He says, “It’s climate change.”
At this point, I was just becoming interested in the topic, and I wanted to know how he came to that conclusion.
“Why, it’s pine beetles. Now that the winters are warmer, they’ve taken to infesting trees that they didn’t used to bother. The trees die, and a forest of dead trees makes a hot fire.”
How did he know it was about climate change? He’d spent every year working the same large farm. He knew change when he saw it, and he knew the difference between a bad year and change that settles in and stays.
I suppose part of why I remember that conversation so clearly is because my son is a wildland firefighter. A fire hot enough to sear the seed from the ground is frightening. It could sear people easily, and take houses and farms.
Multiple recent studies have backed up the cowboys’ story. A Seattle Times article from May of this year reported on the National Climate Assessment. The article said, “Warmer and drier conditions are already blamed for insect infestations and an increase in the number and ferocity of wildfires across the West since the 1970s. By 2080, the amount of forestland that burns every year in the Northwest is expected to quadruple, to 2 million acres.” Just last month, the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, suggested that the extreme wildfires that his state has experienced recently are caused by climate change. In 2013, Super-hot fires raced through Tasmania and New South Wales, Australia, fueled by the hottest and longest heat wave on record. Valparaiso, Chile, was almost completely razed by wind-whipped forest fire earlier this year.
Climate change is not the only cause of fire activity. Many ecosystems such as our own in the Pacific Northwest, and California chaparral, benefit from regular fires. The cycle of burn/renewal can be disrupted when we fight wildfire so effectively that fuel builds up. Conscious fire management is going to be very important as we work toward a sustainable world.
Fire has always been with us, and without it much of modern human life might not have been possible. Our close relationship with fire has not historically extended to wildfire, but in the more controlled and gardened world of our future we may have to become masters of wildfire, both to adopt healthy wildfire as our friend and to mange the incidence of fire so hot that the seeds are seared from the soil.
As always, here are some links:
The World Future Society took a short parable of mine as an article for The Futurist Magazine. It was an interesting process to create it – they asked for what I interpreted as a more serious article, but this is what wanted to come out and play. I usually have more control of the tone of my writing than this, but they must have liked it since it showed up in their magazine and on their website. It may morph into the beginning of the Backing into Eden book which I hope to get to right after I finish Edge of Dark (my next novel).
I often do book recommendations. Seemed like time for a bit of a travel recommendation. This one is especially for science fiction writers and fans. The World Future Society’s annual meeting this year is themed “What if?” – a core question for science fiction fans, and certainly the starting question for many science fiction books and stories.
I’ve been helping them some with organizing the a science fiction symposium within the convention, and the speakers are fabulous.
In addition to the symposium, many of us will also be speaking in the other tracks of the conference. I’ll be there talking about my Backing into Eden concept blog, with a particular focus on ethics and GM animals.
So what happens when a techno-philospher, a volcano surfer, and a CIO walk into a bar…come to the World Future Society Science Fiction Symposium and you might just find out.
The conference is in Orlando in July, and registration is open. There’s even a discount if you sign up by the end of April. Join me for some of the best conversations of the year.
I live in Washington State, and all the news for the last two weeks has been the unthinkable Oso mudslide. Slides are not unusual here, although I have never heard of one with this much destructive force. It got me reflecting about the relationship between earth and water.
The desert near my parent’s home in Mesa, Arizona can do well with very little water while parched farmland turns into a spiderweb of empty cracks with the same amount of rainfall.
As the climate changes, soil changes. When the balance transforms dramatically, we can get flood or drought, and the soil – described by the World Wildlife foundation as, “the fragile skin of the Earth,” can change consistency or place and richness. It can become incapable of sustaining the same life that it was once in balance with.
Soil is complex. It’s made of eroded rocks, silt, sand, dead plants, living organisms, water and air. Soil composition varies from place to place, but always the basic elements are in a dance and the points of balance matter.
This series is about gardening the Earth, and if there is anything gardeners know, it’s to tend to the soil.
The US Department of Natural Resources suggests that we change our way of thinking, and begin to treat soil as an organism, that we imagine it as something that can experience health and disease, as something that can be nurtured. Something living. This is directly in line with the concept of humans as caretakers of the environment. So let’s explore some ways to do that:
Soil is critical. So is learning more about the world we walk on. Doing research for this blog series and general research on fracking, I’ve learned that there are living organisms far below the surface, some as far as two miles below the surface. We know almost nothing about these organisms, but to me they seem to be yet more proof of the tenacity of life. Perhaps they are the type of life that we will find on Mars some day, or even living on the moon. Perhaps they perform functions we need in order to have the right balance in the soil on the slopes above our houses.
Climate change management is about the air that we breathe, but it’s also about water and land, about the soil on which we walk and on which we depend for food. It’s about the earth we live on, and the land that we don’t want to have thundering down onto our heads and turning our houses to splinters.
Every year, we science fiction fans are given the opportunity to vote on a host city for a future World Science Fiction convention. This year, the vote will be between Kansas City and Shanghai. I’m certain that I’ll be voting for Kansas City. I’d LOVE to see the Great Wall, but I’ve seen pictures of the air in China lately, and my instincts suggest I may not want to take the health risks associated with a visit. I’ve read that some of China’s elite are leaving for health reasons. China is also beginning to have a hard time convincing people from western countries to work there. Other places have even worse air. A recent Guardian article wonders if Kathmandu is actually “unlivable” because of poor air quality. India is only ranked slightly ahead of Kathmandu at 174th out of 178, based on the Yale Environmental Performance Index. There are plenty of other pain points in air quality:
There’s more, but that’s enough bad news to convince almost anyone that as much as we need to pay attention to water, we also need to focus on air.
The elephant in the room is the collection of pollution that is damaging the atmosphere and leading to climate change. Carbon is the most talked about part of this elephant. Programs to reduce carbon in the atmosphere are being developed and implemented in many places, but the amount of carbon is still rising dangerously.
The problem is complex, but nonetheless there are three primary sources of air pollution. These are fossil fuel use (from coal plants to gasoline cars), deforestation, and the release of methane. If we focus on those three items, we can make a significant difference.
We can directly affect the amount of carbon released by personal transportation. “Alternative transportation” includes walking, bicycles, electric cars, subways, trains, shared cars, bus rapid transit, and more. Most have a carbon cost, but they are all better choices than gas-powered cars with single occupancy drivers.
For the coal plants, we need regulation with teeth, and to capture that carbon at the source. There is technology for that now, and we should be using it. MIT keeps a page with a list carbon capture projects worldwide, and it appears that there is a lot more planning than implementation happening at the moment. Mostly, we need to move away from coal, but to do that while maintaining a healthy economy we may need to spend a few decades in ‘capture and sequester’ phase.
Deforestation has a lot of causes. One simple way to look at it is deforestation is a result of the inability to express and move value around. The value to the world of a plot of healthy rainforest is far greater than corporation or individual farmers get from the land after they burn the forest off. But we don’t have any way to recognize that. Even though some programs are trying to do just that, in general the hungry farmer can’t use conservation to feed his or her family. This is changeable.
We’re back to another root I’m seeing. Cattle. Cattle-ranching drives a lot of the deforestation. Eating beef, of course, drives cattle-ranching. The vast water-cost of feeding cows came up in last week’s blog about water, and cattle come up again in this blog under the topic of methane. I didn’t set out to write about becoming vegetarian, but it’s beginning to look important. More on that topic in a future whole chapter.
Deforestation fills the atmosphere with black carbon, or soot. In addition to deforestation, soot is released from diesel engines, from fires (including household fireplaces and cooking fires), and from some industrial processes. Soot absorbs solar radiation, and interacts in complex ways with forces for both warming and cooling. Scientific sentiment is beginning to suggest that reduction in soot worldwide may slow global warming significantly.
In the United States, we are reducing black carbon emissions through more controls on diesel fuels and other methods. Since soot is not as persistent in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, reductions in the release of soot can have a fairly quick payoff.
Methane is another abundant greenhouse gas. There are a number of natural reasons for this, but there are also anthropogenic causes. Coal and coal plants and even natural gas production, transportation, and use release methane. And for a nearly comical source of even more methane? Cows. One more reason we should seriously consider shifting our sources of protein.
Air pollution comes from a lot of sources, and the intricacies of our atmosphere are not completely understood yet. I suspect that before we made the air dirty enough to see after the industrial revolution, humanity simply took it from granted that air was free and clean. We need to both act now on the things we do understand (it can be done; California’s air is far cleaner than it used to be) and to do a lot more basic research.
We breathe each other’s air. The wind mixes our air together and blows it across political boundaries. Chinese air affects the United States, and our air affects China. Even more than water, the same air flows across all of us, and it is up to all of us to work together to clean it up and keep it clean. Think of it as housekeeping 101.
As always, here are a few links to follow if you are interested in diving any deeper:
I am a writer, public speaker, and a futurist. I’m interested in how new technologies might change us and our world, particularly for the better.
I’m excited about my most recent book series, a duology called “Ruby’s Song” which includes the books The Creative Fire and The Diamond Deep, both published by Pyr. I’m also doing a non-fiction blog series, Backing into Eden, which comes out roughly twice a month and explores ways to care for the world, now and in the future.