file000446935148This post is about a form of environmentalism as portrayed by Bruce Sterling in his 2009 Reboot 11 closing talk. 2 years old yes, but as valid as ever.

Before we come to this, let me lay out some context.

Where has the future gone?

The present: Any grand notions of unified progress of “bigger, better, brighter” under a fixed group or ideology is a relict of the past. Now, the future is characterized by fragmentation, globalization, and the dread of infinite possibilities.

There is no unifiying narrative anymore. We are all stumbling headlong into the Unknown.

“It is neither progress nor conservatism because there’s nothing left to conserve and no direction in which to progress. So what you get is transition. Transition to nowhere.” – Bruce Sterling

Unsettling? Indeed.

Depressing? Not really.

The “cultural temperament of the coming decade” according to Sterling looks like this:

graphic by Katie Chatfield

graphic by Katie Chatfield

Katie Chatfield has done a great job of visualizing Sterling’s talk in slides. I recommend watching the lecture and taking her slides as a reference.

As you can see he splits the future up into four quadrants, two in the area of “Shock of the Old” and “Dark Euphoria”. Although there is a lot to say about this, I don’t want to go into this here. I would start rambling without end. So, please. If you want to know more about this:  Listen to his talk or read the transcript.

What is important to note for now is the aspect of “Gothic High Tech” – A Generation X sense of decay and, well – apathy.

Post-Cyberpunk Environmentalism

We all have heard it before: We need to reduce our carbon-footprint, use water less, consume less, be less.

This mindset has bred a culture of repurposing and infinite reusing:

Especially in Europe, it has become very popular to turn buildings from the industrial age into dance-clubs, concert-halls and coffeeshops.

Sterling calls this repurposed architecture: “Stuffed Animal”

But are we turning into stuffed animals ourselves? Are we trying to cling to the old for half-nostalgic, half “environmentally aware” reasons, re-inventing ourselves constantly within the existing frame of reference, without re-booting the system completely?

Here, Sterling asks a question which, admittedly morbid, makes a strong point.

“I’m going to do something morally worthwhile that’ll make me feel proud of myself. But does your dead great-grandfather do a better job of it than you?”

What he means is this: If you try to save water, will you save more water than your dead grandpa? No. He isn’t using any, at all.

Will you be able to use less electricity than your dead grandfather? Again. no. He’s using zero, nada, nil, zilch!

Many people will simply shrug off this so called “Grandfather Principle” as just another anarchic sci-fi philosophy.

But, in fact – it just holds the mirror up to the socalled “environmentally aware” culture of Green that we have become so proud of.

Put in other words: Are we really offering an alternative? We try to consume as little as possible, wear second-hand clothes and keep re-using certain things until they literally fall apart but we are turning into Zombies during the process.

In this respect, some radical Greens are actually Goths, just barely held together by patchwork philosophies and the glue of “proud to do the right thing!” They are not buying anything, they don’t consume anything. They are basically dead, already.

How this is supposed to save the environment beats me.

So, how can we be more environmentally friendly without actually falling in love with decay and regression ourselves?

Here’s what Sterling suggests, as I understand it:

Objects as Frozen Social Relationships

Everything that you own was thought up by other people, produced by people, delivered by people, sold by people, etc.

You need to think of them not in terms of “Oh, I have this pen and I must keep my pen.” You need to think of these objects in terms of hours of time and volumes of space.

That means asking two questions: How much of my time does it occupy? How much of my space does it take? Do I really need it?

And here Sterling makes two great points:

  1. Get the best possible objects that you can find for everyday purposes!
  2. Get rid of everything that doesn’t occupy either a significant amount of your time or space.

This is simple and revolutionary.

Number 1: By buying the best possible bed, mattress, chair or food you can find…

  • you will support other people’s efforts by paying a good price for good quality!
  • your life-quality will radically increase! That means more happiness, sense of fulfilment for you and thus
  • increased ability to share your happiness with others. (If you think this is cheesy, nobody can help you, I’m afraid.)

Number 2: By getting rid of things that you simply keep for emotional, nostalgic or whatever reasons…

  • you free up a lot of space, not just physical but also mental space (See my book for more info on this)
  • you will radically increase life-quality, creativity and a general sense of well-being which is contagious: You’ll make others happy and will be able to help, assist and support in a way that would be impossible while being enslaved by your clutter.
  • you’ll find that it is very very difficult. Sterling describes a certain strategy of grouping your stuff into four categories. Check out the video below.

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