Warsaw, Climate Care, and Pierogi

I love October.

Sure, the days are getting shorter, but that makes you appreciate every ray of the sun so much more. Every warm-ish (by that, I mean 13 degrees celsius) weekend feels like the last day of summer prompting you to use it well. Soft light and falling leaves add a romantic appeal to even the most mundane street that happened to have a plant. Or maybe my sentiment comes from the fact that I was born in October. Who am I to know.

Warsaw is great

As part of my Solarpunk research bender, I joined an online InterIntellect salon about planning livable, sustainable, and inspiring cities. (“Inter Intellect is like a remote Parisian cafe where you can meet smart people and chat about complex things. But bring-your-own-coffee.”)

We had a strong representation (including some urban planning professionals) of Londoners and San-Franciscans interested in transportation, food availability, supply chain management, cycling, density, and green space availability. We had a great chat, but I was surprised to leave the call blown away by how fantastic Warsaw scored on those dimensions. For example, on the topic of reducing food waste, we came to an interesting point:

Cantine-style bars would be more sustainable than cooking because they can optimize for seasonal or abundant produce, and benefit from the economies of scale. Restricted choice, but flexibility in portion sizes will result in less food waste than at restaurants, or even your own kitchen (RIP multiple celeries that we didn’t use up in time. We have failed you). Plus, by eating together, you get to create a sense of community.

People from around the world have reinvented Polish “Milk Bar” in front of my eyes. From Eater’s article accurately titled “Your First Stop in Poland Should Be a Milk Bar”:

Warsaw’s traditional, dairy-focused cafeterias dole out nostalgic charm and plump pierogies in equal measure (…) When Communist rule took root in Poland and inexpensive food for the masses became a must, these accessible eateries flourished. Though the Iron Curtain has long since fallen, the traditions and tastes of these often government-subsidized eateries remains

I never thought I’d live long enough to hear people from San Francisco and London dream of what I took for granted in my hometown. I know the grass is always greener, etc, etc, but Warsaw is becoming quite a hidden gem. Founder of Nomadlist compares it to Berlin. We have some way to go, but it’s genuinely cool here.

The Climate Care Industry

In The Climate Care Industry I propose a new term for all activity aimed at helping the climate:

An entire industry is sprouting around mitigating effects of the climate change, capturing CO2, and creating sustainable technology. We need a term that will help establish these efforts as their own domain to help them succeed. I propose we start referring to this industry as Climate Care, similar to Healthcare.

Current phrasing is either combative (“fighting the climate change”), confusing (“negative emissions” vs “climate-positive”) or easy to argue against. You can read more about the climate care industry here.

The need for maintenance

Stewart Brand is an inspiring citizen of the Internet. His The Clock of the Long Now remains one of my favorite books, blaming our short-term orientation for landing us in trouble repeatedly. Currently, Stewart is writing a book about maintenance, and the need for an honest conversation about it.

The first chapter is on Audible, and tells a story of the first race to sail solo non-stop around the world, and how maintenance played a crucial part in the success, failure, and death of its participants. Stories like these should be mandatory for everybody working with the software. Other disciplines have millennia of experience dealing with stuff breaking, but we just shrug it away. We are so proud of our cleverness and layers of abstractions, but we almost always over-prepare for the problems we’re familiar with and under prepare for anything else.

Old systems break in familiar ways. New systems break in unexpected ways

In my 15 years of software development, I learned the hard way, that maintenance has to be a part of the design, not an afterthought:

  • Always choose simplicity
  • Don’t try to impress your engineer friends
  • Plan your maintenance if you want your stuff to work.

What is complicated will always lead to problems

Would you like some adulthood with that order?

We have built a culture of permanent adolescence, with nobody really steering the ship. Inability to perform basic human maintenance is sometimes celebrated (“LOL, adulting is hard”).

My wife will be hosting an Inter Intellect salon (that Parisian cafe with your own coffee), where you can meet interesting folk debating rites of passage, visions of adulthood learned from our parents or school, and the secrets of successful adults.

The usual badges of adulthood are either out of reach or completely lost their appeal. We don’t know what else could be put in their place. Without a shared narrative that explains what is even the point of growing up, or experienced elders who could guide the candidates through this process, a lot of us don’t feel like proper adults even in our 30s.

Go get your ticket here.

Alexander von Humboldt: the first Solarpunk

Alexander von Humboldt served as a role model for Goethe’s Faust and helped Thomas Jefferson build the agricultural power of the United States. He inspired Charles Darwin to hop on the beagle to follow in his steps, Thoreau to seek close connection to nature at the Walden Pond, and Muir to create the national park system.

He has sown the seeds for the environmental movement of today, but he was not enthusiastic about the prospects:

“The human species could turn even those distant stars ‘barren’ and leave them ‘ravaged’”, Humboldt wrote as early as 1801, just as they were already doing with earth.

Andrea Wulf, the Invention of Nature

Humboldt was captivated by lush nature but loved humanity and the new technological developments. He believed that if we understand Nature and the laws governing her, we can create a sustainable future. He was the first Solarpunk and here are his ideas:

#1: Everything is Connected

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

John Muir wrote, summarizing Alexander von Humboldt’s ideas.

The idea of interconnectedness is central to Alexander von Humboldt’s intellectual pursuits. His relentless curiosity drove him to explore the messy reality of nature. Before Humboldt’s time, the role of the scientist was like one of the librarian – classify, label, and shelve facts. The most recent breakthrough of the natural sciences was the binomial classification – a system of grouping species originating from counting how many teeth or hooves they may have. Humboldt quite prophetically was opposed to such one-dimensional treatment of Nature and relegating science to forever slicing up the world into smaller pieces so they can neatly fit on a bookshelf.

Probably his most influential concept was the Naturgemalde: A vision, painting, and a scene illustrating how different parts of the ecosystem influence each other.

Humboldt’s Naturgemalde: the cross-section of Chimborazo volcano with the entire ecosystem explained.

Naturgemalde was not only a new way to showcase facts and figures like the altitude, vegetation, and snow cover of the Chimborazo volcano but the first piece of art illustrating the influence of these facts over each other. It was during the assembly of Naturgemalde that Humboldt first introduced the idea of vegetation zones – the altitude and temperature range suitable for certain species of plants, creating similar ecosystems in similar places around the globe. 

The evocative nature of the painting has inspired a generation of artists to seek unity and deepen our understanding of Nature instead of resigning ourselves to classify it.

#2: What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements

“What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements.”

Alexander von Humboldt, from the Invention of Nature

Humboldt was a scientist through and through. But as Leonardo Da Vinci before him and Richard Feynman two centuries later, he found beauty in discovering the truth about the world. Nature was a value in itself for Humboldt, not just a means to an end or something to conquer.

It is that emotional bond with the world that let him create the Naturgemalde.

“Nature every where speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul.”

Alexander von Humboldt, from the Invention of Nature

Poets and authors like Coleridge, Goethe, Thoreau, and Verne were deeply moved by Humboldt’s descriptions of the natural world and paid him homages in their own art. Goethe based Doctor Faust on his dear friend Humboldt, and Julius Verne made sure that Nautilus contained “the complete works of Humboldt”, as Captain Nemo was a great fan.

#3 Humanity has to work WITH nature.

During his travels, Humboldt saw the ruthlessness with which humans treated nature.

Humboldt wrote about the destruction of forests and of humankind’s long-term changes to the environment. When he listed the three ways in which the human species was affecting the climate, he named deforestation, ruthless irrigation, and, perhaps most prophetically, the ‘great masses of steam and gas’ produced in the industrial centres.

The Invention of Nature

Humboldt understood the connections between different parts of the ecosystem and it was clear that short-sighted exploitation of nature will not only destroy habitats but also have dire consequences for humanity. He wasn’t opposed to technology (in fact, he was very excited by the advancements of the 19th century), but he advocated for a nuanced approach towards nature rather than plantations of cash crops.

Solarpunk

252 years after the birth of Alexander von Humboldt birth, the world hasn’t changed much. His prophetic warnings about Humanity’s devastating impact on the natural world have unfortunately came to pass, and we are still trying to find our way out of this mess. I believe that way is the Solarpunk – a trend focusing on inspiring a sustainable future through art, and finding a way for modern technology to coexist with lush nature.

Solarpunks believe that this way is through Art and Technology. Humboldt believed in the power of art to capture and express more than formulas ever could and to inspire others to appreciate the complexity of Nature. Solarpunks believe that this Art can also inspire technologists to create sustainable solutions and policymakers to implement them. Humboldt believed that technology not only can, but has to coexist with Nature:

Humboldt, however, warned that humankind needed to understand how the forces of nature worked, how those different threads were all connected. Humans could not just change the natural world at their will and to their advantage. ‘Man can only act upon nature, and appropriate her forces to his use,’ Humboldt would later write, ‘by comprehending her laws.’

Andrea Wulf, the Invention of Nature

Solarpunks believe that technology coexisting with nature is the only way out of our climate predicament. Alexander von Humboldt was the first member of the Solarpunk movement.

One more thing: I am helping to fund a Solarpunk Art Contest and we are waiting for your Naturgemalde.

Solarpunk Art Contest

Last week, I transferred $1000 worth of magical Internet money (Ethereum) to an Internet stranger (@Yishan), so he can award it to artists inspiring a sustainable future (aka Solarpunk Art contest). How was your week?

Why Solarpunk?

Artist: Imperial Boy

I have written about Solarpunk in a previous issue of this newsletter – it’s a trend focusing on inspiring a sustainable future through art, and finding a way for modern technology to coexist with lush nature.

Solarpunk focuses on tales to inspire, not tales to condemn. Unlike the current debate about climate, it’s not anti-anything. It’s not shaming you for using your car, nor scaring masses with the warnings of the terrible outcomes of our habits. This is not the way out of this mess.

Chill with the dystopias

The original points of Cyberpunk, Mad Max, Black Mirror, and other dystopian stories were to warn us about the slippery slopes, so we can avoid dire consequences. It all backfired, inspiring creators and technologists to make that vision a reality because the aesthetics accompanying the message were compelling.

Please tell me if you know the original source.

Technologists live to create things that they fell in love with as children. Star Trek should be credited for the invention of the iPhone more than Steve Jobs because it sent millions of engineers onto the paths that resulted in technology combined in the slick monolith you hold in your hand today.

Art inspires, and technology follows.

I want the future to be hopeful

The lovely Solarpunk-inspired Chobani commercial

I believe the future is good and humanity’s best days are yet ahead of us. Technology has the potential to not only help the climate (which it did harm before), but continue providing improvements to longevity, health, and education.

We need to point technologists towards respecting nature, and all species on planet earth, creating sustainable habitats, walkable cities, and clean energy sources. We need artists to lead us, so technologists can follow. So lead us somewhere nice.

This is where you come in.

The Solarpunk contest I helped fund is running until November 1st, 2021. The format can be any visual medium (digital, ink, paint, 3D, animated, etc). It should be original art, not published elsewhere. Winners will be chosen by the CEO of Terraformation (@Yishan).

  1. First Place: $2,740 + $100 reprint purchase offer to publish the winning entry as cover art on one of the six first year issues of Solarpunk Magazine$1,000 payable in SOL (Ryan will help you claim).
  2. Second Place: $2,140
  3. Third Place: $1,740
  4. 7 other winners: $1,540

Submission procedure and more details are in this post.

Show us a nice future so we can build it. My future grandchildren are counting on you.

In other news, to match the growing nature-inspired focus of this newsletter and the blog, I redesigned piszek.com to match. Tell me what you think!

Tales To Inspire Climate Solutions, not Tales To Condemn

I found myself continuing the thread started in my Solarpunk newsletter issue: If you want people to change their ways, tell them Tales To Inspire, not Tales To Condemn.

Initially, I wanted to link Mister Money Mustache’s article “Efficiency is the highest form of beauty”, where he extols virtues of a certain extent of frugality not to maximize column D3 in his spreadsheet, but because it appeals to him aesthetically:

The reason I pursue and love the idea of finding new ways to live life in an industrialized world, is the same reason I love music, and art, and writing and all of the beautiful, advanced, inspiring things that people do. It’s because Efficiency is Beauty.

I agree with MMM, and it’s easy to laugh at us both as engineers, but this is very close to the classical conception of beauty:

The classical conception is that beauty consists of an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, symmetry, and similar notions.

Mister Money Mustache points out, that the opulent spending of the western world is not only in bad taste, but it also has a huge environmental impact:

Look at me! I can afford to grow all these impractical colorful feathers! Or dump water on this big green lawn and pay servants to water it, and I’m not even here because I’m in Monaco this month. Now, come have sex with me because you know you want some of these superior genes.”

But what appeals to me the most in MMM writing is that he does not dwell too long on condemning overspenders, nor the listing of 937 ways to cut your coupons, but focusing on a bright vision. Where most FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) advice consists of sprinting to retirement, leaving you with the Now What?! question, he presents the beauty of simplicity and the environmental benefits. His master plan is (was?) to use his influence and promote the desirability of being mindful with your resources:

you can fix the whole problem by doing just one thing: demonstrating and celebrating efficiency in your own life. (…) Start by attracting the top of society, allow them to demonstrate that your idea is desirable, then watch the rest of the world follow. 

This reminded me of Tesla’s fantastic Master Plan from 2006. It lays out a strategy of starting with an expensive car for rich people, and use these high margins to invest into lower-margin offering:

“The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium” (…)
Build sports car
Use that money to build an affordable car
Use that money to build an even more affordable car
While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

But what Elon omitted from the memo is that by entering at the high end of the market, and convincing the influential customers, he proved that it is desirable to own an electric car. The only people who were able to afford the Roadster (Tesla’s first car) were celebrities and rich folk. By riding this wave of hype (and I think we all agree that Tesla does create hype), he popularized electric cars, so that every major car manufacturer is switching away from the combustion engine to a more efficient electric engine.

On a more directly environmental note, Arnold Schwarzenneger has recently pointed out that constant alarms don’t make people act. They make them tuned out. From the Austrian World Summit:

Climate activists have succeeded in persuading many people that we’re on our way to human extinction and picking up speed, but people “tuned out” the climate change activism movement because it is “stuck in despair and confusion.” (…) 

Schwarzenegger warned that with the onslaught of news coverage of potential flooded cities, burning forests, and rising seas, “Is it any wonder people are confused or tuned out?”

I care deeply about the trees, climate, and environment. But I find myself tuning out as well. After all – I have to focus on my daughter, job, and life, and the constant climate anxiety does not help. If I devoted my whole life to doomscrolling, that wouldn’t help either. If we want to have a better future, we have to present a cool and compelling vision to work towards. The beauty of efficiency, sexy and insanely fast cars, and fresher air (what Arnold proposes as the first step) are all attacking climate issues indirectly but more effectively because they are easy to get behind.

Let’s kickstart the cool future with more tales to inspire. Maybe we’ll have the boybands back.

Maybe you have tales to inspire you’d like to see in these emails? Let me know!

Interesting things from the Internet

Inside the imaginarium of Solarpunk Architect

Continuing with the Solarpunk theme, I urge you to check out the work by Luc Shuiten:

since the 1950s, Luc (now 77 years old) has been designing for the future urban landscape based on his concept of “archiborescence,” blending organic and manufactured elements for homes, commercial buildings and even entire cities of tomorrow.

There is no evidence of office meetings boosting innovation

Whenever the discussion about Remote Work comes up, somebody cries

“Yes, but you need to collaborate in person”

The argument that usually follows is that these magical brainstorming sessions with the whiteboard are the fuel for innovation, and the only reason the economy still keeps going. The funny part is that we still have no hard data that this is the case.

This New York Times article with a self-explanatory title “Do Chance Meetings at the Office Boost Innovation? There’s No Evidence of It.” takes a closer look at this myth, and found no evidence of “chance office meetings” boosting innovation, nor productivity:

Yet people who study the issue say there is no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration

It is true, that being in the physical office can be beneficial for some, but at the expense of other workers, and the interests of the business itself:

The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” he said. “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”

In fact, when I worked in the “Open Office” space, I remember doing everything in my power to avoid my coworkers so I can get some job done:

Contemporary open offices led to 70 percent fewer face-to-face interactions, a study found. People found it distracting, so they wore headphones and avoided one another

The Potato Paradox

From Wikipedia:

Fred brings home 100 kg of potatoes, which (being purely mathematical potatoes) consist of 99% water. He then leaves them outside overnight so that they consist of 98% water. What is their new weight? The surprising answer is 50 kg.

Solarpunk is the future I want

Singapore and Tokyo captivated me with hopeful modern architecture. It seemed like European buildings scream “everything good has already been”, while Asian architecture looks toward the future and tries its best to make it compelling.

This turn towards gloom seems to be present in all aspects of western culture. We are going overboard with all the Black Mirror Mad Max Social Networks, and these “warnings” seem to be hastening the precise future we do NOT want. So much so that in 2020, Cyberpunk’s creator had to publish a reminder that “Cyberpunk was a warning, not an inspiration”.

It seems that humans don’t do very well with warnings (DUH if you’re following what’s happening with the climate). A better frame seems to be “Tales to inspire, not the tales to condemn” or “focus your time + energy on what you want to see more of.

So how does this compelling future look?

This week I stumbled upon the term Solarpunk, and I love it. It’s simultaneously tying techno-optimism, respect for nature, self-reliance, frontier aesthetics, and positive-sum games.

The pillars of Solarpunk

  • Focusing on designing a compelling future, not warning against possible problems.
  • The strong position of the art, capturing the imagination, and making the positive outcomes irresistible
  • Designing cities from first principles to be lush, bright, hopeful, and above all – nice places to live.
  • Technology coexisting with nature. Humanity finally curing its medieval god complex and giving up taming the dangerous forces of nature but working with them instead.

3 articles and 1 video about Solarpunk you should check out

Solarpunk manifesto (Regenerative Design)

Solarpunk is a bottom-up, unorganized movement held together by common beliefs. This manifesto is not a canonical set, but most of the points are addressing perfectly my disappointment with the mainstream vision of the future. Here are my favorite ones:

Solarpunk is a movement in speculative fiction, art, fashion, and activism that seeks to answer and embody the question “what does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?”

It is a counterculture that is actually constructive:

Solarpunk can be utopian, just optimistic, or concerned with the struggles en route to a better world ,  but never dystopian.

Humanity loved to tame nature. But it’s clear that we won. What now?

We’re no longer overlords. We’re caretakers. We’re gardeners.

I love the Aesthetics of Bioshock Infinite. No other game has had me just standing and staring at the visuals.

1800s age-of-sail/frontier living (but with more bicycles)

Drawing Pictures of Cities (Noahpinion)

Noah Smith has recently published a Substack Essay focusing on the urban design aspect of the Solarpunk movement. He analyses the art of Imperial Boy and lists why this urban design seems to work – check out the post for a deep dive.

Imperial Boy via Noahpinion

He concludes with the same sentiment mentioned in the Solarpunk manifesto – we need to first envision the future in order to start building it. It seems like (popular) art has turned from serving as an inspiration to priding itself in warnings.

But only by drawing a bunch of these futures can we convince the people of our cities that density and transit and mixed-use development won’t turn their cities into Manhattan clones or dystopian superblocks or whatever else their fevered imaginations run to whenever they hear someone say the word “density”.

To create the future we must first dream the future. Private foundations that are interested in pro-density politics should give a bunch of money to people like Christopher Hawthorne, who should then scour the country for a hundred different Imperial Boy type artists to draw pictures of the futures of American cities.

Solarpunk Is Growing a Gorgeous New World in the Cracks of the Old One (Singularity Hub)

This article on Singularity Hub echoes the same message:

The job of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.

But it also lists examples of Solarpunk sprouting in the world already, as “Gardens by the bay” in Singapore, or Golden Bridge in Vietnam.

The solarpunk credo is to grow the new world in the soil exposed by the widening cracks of the old world.

Dear Alice

This Chobani comercial captures Solarpunk perfectly:

A thing I wrote

Organic Governmental Disruption

I published an article unrelated to Solarpunk, where I try to predict how Decentralized Autonomous Organizations managed on the blockchain will be used in governance.

I mentioned we have seen enough dystopias, but I have heard the warnings, and I make a case for an auto-expiry system of any autonomous rules.

Check out the full text on Piszek.com