In the discussion of how to best deter people from messing around with nuclear disposal locations hundreds of thousands of years ago, of course the most well known is the WIPP “This Is Not A Place of Honor” Project. But I just found out about another strategy, proposed for the Yucca Mountain site, which involved breeding cats that would change color in the presence of radiation, and then, seeding cultural folklore about what the Ray Cats signified. This is the album commissioned by 99% Invisible to start that folklore. The most noble use for the most irritating possible earworm.
This one is pretty rough, as I just banged it out today. Usually these are about what I’ve been thinking this week, but most of what I’ve been thinking this week has been oriented around chemical depression and physical injury, and those are boring to read about. But persist I will and a newsletter you shall have.
Our world is a difficult place these days (he says, aiming for the easy shot). Either everything is moving in ways previously unseen and we are facing realities we’ve never had to deal with before, or these things have always been the case and we now have the ability to see this fact in a way we’ve never been able to before. Either way, the psychological landscape is shifting, and quickly. We require models and metaphors with which to frame our experiences. And some of the most striking things coming out of this Hot Shit Weird World are the narratives people are constructing to deal with it.
Warren talked about one of those sets on morning.computer the other day, what I’ve been thinking of as the Extinction Symbol Current. It feels… eschatological without the millennial sense of hope that comes with the notion of a savior figure coming to help. The Final Trump, in this model, isn’t going to raise the dead with cellphones intact, Mad Max will not be coming to save us from Tina Turner’s army. It also ties into a sort of primitivist movement that I see churning around as well, an increasing sense of looking for something that they don’t want to call spirituality because they want to distance themselves from the imprecise posthippie woo woo that has become the cultural baggage of that word. On that point in particular I have a lot to say, but it’s not directly relevant here, the important point being that it feels liminal and more than a little cthonic.
The biggest signifier of this current for me is the Dark Mountain project. I had never heard of these guys before this week, but just from their website I get a very distinctive vibe. Creating decentralized, bottom up organization to deal with the impending collapse of the top-down ones, but with a certain dark undercurrent that we really don’t know what we’re doing, and it’s all developing experimental pumping techniques while the ship goes down. Echoes of the survivalist culture before it got completely obfuscated by weird right-wing racists. The Whole Earth Catalog as grimoire.
(I’m probably reading a lot into that. That’s ok, I’m comfortable with that, just don’t assume that I know what I’m talking about in terms of “facts”. This is all impressions.)
(Late edit: As I was about to send this off, I got sent this collection of videos of cities without people. Definitely on-theme, here. Thanks, Trista.)
The other pole that I see here is represented by the Solarpunks movement. Solarpunks was, to my knowledge, coined back in 2012 by Adam Flynn. He was talking mostly on twitter about a set of ideas involving bottom-up structures, localized biotech, urban agriculture, and, generally (my interpretation, here) the idea of using advances in technology as a way of creating people scale systems for dealing with the coming changes, rather than the corporate and government scale ones which clearly aren’t working. He got a bunch of us in a room, we had some drinks and talked a lot, and for me, at least, there was a sense of something there but it was kind of ill-defined, like we were still trying to feel out the shape of it. We did the things you do, we set up a mailing list, I made a tumblr. We’ve occasionally put up relevant stuff, there was some traffic on the list, but really none of us seemed to know where we were going with it, other than tossing some ideas around.
Fast forward to last month, when my phone started blowing up on a daily basis with notifications that people were now following the Solarpunks tumblr. In the last month we have gained 206 new followers which, while not astronomical by any measure, is a significant upswing. Adam traced this back to a lovely post by Miss Oliva Louise. As far as I can tell from reading that, she wasn’t aware of our work at all, and came up with the idea independently. Which, obviously, I’m not mad at, because I think it underscores the idea that this is a Steam Engine Time situation. People are thinking about these things because now is the time they need to be thought about. Then more recently, Adam wrote Notes toward a manifesto that talks about the Solarpunk idea far better than I can summarize here.
What’s really interesting to me is that, like my interpretation of Dark Mountain above, there’s a definite aesthetic at work here. In the original conversations we were having, there was a notion of aesthetics, but kind of as a by-product. We were thinking of mostly technical solutions, in a very blue-sky way, but there wasn’t a real unifying idea of what it would look like. I actually intentionally distanced myself from that idea because “Hopeful” is not something I traditionally deal in, and I didn’t want to accidentally subvert our brave future by making it all angular, black, and screaming. I think what Olivia did was put a texture on it, something people can feel, an emotional immediacy that is easier to get a handle on than “trying to save the world.”
So, two takeaways here. First: the numinous is important. Art matters. I don’t care how pragmatic your product is, if you make something that people feel meh about and someone else makes the same thing in a way that people feel good about, you’re going to lose that battle. It’s easy to see this with Apple, of course, who have built a multi billion dollar cult that rivals Scientology for memetic strength. But, it’s just as important, and probably moreso, when you’re crafting something that moves away from industrial design and into more abstract cultural engineering. Like, say, developing techniques for dealing with massive global change.
(Hire a writer. Like me, for instance. I’m currently looking for a paying writing job. And I’m much better at hopeful now. awkward cough)
Second, and this is rather obvious, but: people are looking for answers in increasingly nonstandard ways. I fully expected to see Jonestown revamps and other escapist apocalyptic notions cropping up, and no doubt those will come. But I see here a trend in people looking beyond stock binary responses, seeking more nuanced ideas. There’s an embracing, tentative, yes, but there, of the notion that strictly linear and reductionist models are failing us, and something more holistic, yet still rational, is called for.
And that admittedly cagey phrasing is a set of ideas that I have many newsletters if not books worth of thoughts about, so I’ll somewhat lamely leave it at that for now, and return to these ideas later.
As always, thank you for your attention, and please don’t hesitate to write back, redistribute, or genetically engineer cats to this letter.
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