I spent two weeks in August at Planetary Futures, a summer school at Concordia University in Montreal organised by Orit Halpern, Marie-Pier Boucher, and Pierre Louis Patoine, and hosted at Milieux, the centre for art, technology, and culture at Concordia. The course made links between planetary scale catastrophe and the Anthropocene, and histories of infrastructure, colonialism, and investigated design and fiction as vehicles of speculation about the future(s). It brought
“together the disciplines of the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences to collectively investigate this question of how we shall inhabit the world in the face of the current ecological crisis and to rethink concepts and practices of environment, ecology, difference, and technology to envision, and create, a more just, sustainable, and diverse planet. The course will include field visits to extraction sites, energy infrastructures, earth science installations, and speculative architecture and design projects.”
Our group of twenty-odd PhD students from North America and Europe made some interesting journeys, from an open pit gold mine, the largest in Canada, to the Mohawk reservation in Kahnawage outside Montreal, and to the idea of inhabiting a Moon Village decades in the future. I documented these journeys on Instagram as we went along. Towards the end of the course found myself wanting to construct a narrative with these images inspired by a central theme in one of the best lectures (IMHO) on the course; Sarah Sharma, director of the Marshall McLuhan Center in Toronto, spoke to us about her work on the notion that there are exits (there aren’t; or not for everyone at least), and on critical temporalities (how do we assign value and measurement to whose time, on what, matters?).
I got an opportunity to put these images together into a story thanks to an invitation from Tel Aviv-based interaction designer and artist, Mushon Zer Aviv. Mushon and I spoke at re:publica’s Thessaloniki event this week, and my part of the talk was the story-made-of-Instagram images. Unfortunately, the livestream broke halfway through our talk and the recordings aren’t up yet. However, here are the text and images from my story and I’ll post the video once the recording is ready.
EXIT:MOOON. A SHORT STORY ABOUT STAYING WITH THE TROUBLE.
It always rained now. Neither temperate nor extreme, the weather had been controlled so it stayed at just one ‘setting’. The rising temperature, and simultaneous flooding, hurricanes, and drought, was creating serious disruption in the markets. I think it was the monster tidal wave that destroyed Shanghai and Shenzhen that made them wake up to how bad it was. The re-insurance portfolios couldn’t be re-insured any more. Banks were in a death spiral of virtual lending. They found a way to fix the disaster response system and an ingenious little hack to deal with flooding, but the temperatures still rose. So, there was no more monsoons or droughts, but the price we paid was that it rained all the time. It was the best possible outcome given how bad things were. Everything on earth was in a state of permanent emergency. The apocalypse happened in drips and drabs whittling away at our spirit. No one was Raptured away and the Messiah did not appear. Neither did the robot army, nor aliens.
All this had happened because we simply refused to manage our addictions.
So, many left. Those who could, that is. For the moon.
They had discovered vast repositories of precious minerals deep in the heart of the moon. They found things we had on Earth like malachite, copper, cobalt, uranium, amethyst and gold – and with new elements we had never encountered before. The surface of the moon was barren and harsh but underneath it was a rich tropical forest.
They needed teams to set up extraction facilities that could extract, test, and evaluate how much lay under there, and figure out ways to trade and make money off these minerals. The Chinese had built incredible, vast towers of server farms and data centres, to handle the explosion in Moon minerals trading. We traded these Moon minerals and other Moon products on specialised commodities exchanges on earth.
I worked with teams that isolated and tested the minerals. My role was to build algorithms that could predict values of these minerals based on what was being found, and its quality, and considering the cost of being able to actually extract and use them. It was a computational exercise and I had to work closely with extraction teams, which I liked a lot. I liked going out there with them in the field. Otherwise, my field was just a screen, and a coffee machine. And bad internet. No matter how big and shiny the Chinese server farms were.
Being on the Moon was very freeing for scientists. They were getting to do some exciting work towards exoplanetary exploration. Mars was now that much closer to being accessible. It was a very exciting time for anyone in science and tech. Mars is a place for rugged outdoor types too.
The more Planet Earth crumbled, It seemed like our skill, creativity, and ingenuity as a species grew. We built amazing things. We got very good very fast at building almost-intelligent robots. We had near total Uplink for all humans and non humans to communicate. Still those pesky last mile delivery issues though. Poor people being left behind was still a thing. We just didn’t know how to fix the old hard stuff: culture, bodies, history, politics. So we just ignored it. It was inefficient.
But we ignored it at our own peril. We kept forgetting how to make these things work because we found that we liked applying algorithms to all kinds of complex problems – water shortage, poverty, gender violence. The reality is that algorithms and data work very well in science and engineering – like predicting climate change – but terribly when it comes to things involving humans. But that’s what we did.
I was part of one of the first crews of scientists to leave. Out here things are quite exciting, to be honest. There is a sense of discovery, and of actually being able to start over. It is like Mordor meets the Garden of Eden but without talking snakes, organic apples, or naked and happy people. We had imported some cool solar energy innovations, and architectural and design inventions with radical new sustainable materials we made in labs. We learned from plants. We built things mimicking capillary action in tall trees, and how mushrooms grow. The word for world is forest.
We had all this on earth, all these amazing technologies and ideas but in the end, none of it scaled. We just couldn’t unplug two hundred years of belief and value in rationality and graft on new ways of being. With exponential growth, you need exponential solutions. But we didn’t make it to those exponential solutions. Yet, it is a difficult balance to be here. We have all this cutting edge stuff, very hi-tech, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t sorrowful about the state of things at home. In a way, our guilt at escaping made us feel virtuous – in the best sense of the word; and dedicated to working hard to develop strong solutions. We were the pioneers colonising a new world to support the old one. No one really wants to live on this godforsaken barren little satellite. We want to be back on our messed up, falling-apart little blue planet.
Then, one day, things went wrong. An outdoor survey team that I work with picked up some disturbing electromagnetic signals. A significant planetary disturbance was predicted. Now planets wobble in their orbit all the time, and the bigger the planet, the bigger the wobble and the more dramatic the effects. It was Jupiter. But Jupiter was far away and it would be years before we would feel it, which would give us time to fortify our station. However, Jupiter wobbling was affecting the asteroid belt and sending rocks hurtling out of orbit at very high speeds. The reason we have craters on the moon is because it has been hit by asteroids so many times anyway. So this wasn’t something out of the blue. was always one of the biggest risks with being on the Moon; we knew this could happen. But as usual scientists fought with each other about who had the better data about what was going to really happen. How much should we invest to offset some future disaster that we cannot really know the shape of? “It was unlikely that something seriously negative was going to happen”. Unlikely is a word that policymakers use a lot when they don’t want to commit to doing something.
We are a small and fragile community up here Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian, Pakistani, Israeli, Iranian. We have amazing technologies but we still only have each other, eventually. Friendship and taking care of each other. We rely on these things much more, eventually, than we do on data. Data is the new nothing, really. It’s just data. We were faced with hard choices. Hard choices always end up being utilitarian ones. Sacrificing a few for the greater good. This is what the data tells you to do. If you don’t buy this logic, then it is as if you are naive, and don’t know how the real world really works.
Some people had the option of leaving. Those people who don’t have to take care of anyone else, or anything else. Who feel like they can sever their connections and move on to the next thing. Some times this is survival. Some times it is escape, it is exit.
But I am done exiting. There is no exit. It’s time to stay with the trouble.
Thanks to the organisers, Concordia U, and the fellow travelers who made the Planetary Futures Summer School joyful and inspiring.