The Fire These Times (Also Owls)
turn that knowledge into know-how
Last week, in an unwise fit of “better put something here,” I promised to offer up some predictions for the new year. But really, prediction is a sucker’s game, especially in these days. I predict this year America will easily pass a million total COVID deaths. I predict lots of somewhat annoying people will get their NFT investments stolen, even as crypto snakes its way deeper into big corporate business models. I predict that very little will be accomplished by the American legislature, other than perhaps some contorted, punitive austerity measures designed to force disenchanted proletarians back to work.
More interestingly for me, I predict that this will be the year we start seriously talking about carbon removal as a practical undertaking, not merely a verboten “technofix” muddying the climate communication waters. We might even begin to have a real conversation about solar radiation management, though that will be way more fraught. Despite the various excellent sci-fi imaginaries of geoengineering being undertaken unilaterally (including my own), I’m skeptical it will happen, even if it maybe very well should. Our various limp COVID responses have soured me on the notion that national or local governments will do anything they can to prevent mass climate deaths.
Really though, all of these suggestions aren’t reads on the future but reads on the present. These are already unfolding trends that I’ve staked out as relatively stable. Science fiction and futurism aren’t really about knowing anything about the future (which is unknowable), they are a methodology for parsing the now, a way of making sense of the world just like economics and Marxism and Christianity. Interestingly, though, I think the more precarious the present gets, the more all these strategies and disciplines and ideologies start entwining and seeking answers in each other. I’m reminded a lot of China Miéville’s novel Kraken, which I am currently listening to, in which every cult and faction knows the eschaton is immanent. This results in a general stirring up and throwing out of old pieties for most of the key characters. Probably it’s a good thing, even though it’s provoked by a bad situation.
My below-the-fold content has a bit of an emergent bird/owl theme, weirdly. Also, if you are here for solarpunk content, rather than the grim capitalist realism of my predictions above, do give the The Fire These Times podcast episode I was on a listen. And if you are here *from* TFTT, welcome and consider pressing this subscribe button.
Press Clippings, Appearances, Etc.
The Fire These Times Podcast Interview: The Political Economy of Solarpunk —— A couple of months ago I was interviewed by Joey Ayoub, who has been doing a series on solarpunk for his excellent podcast. It was a great discussion that covered a lot of ground on my 2015 essay “On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk” and how the genre and the situation have evolved since. It’s been available to Patreon backers for a minute, but this week it went live for everyone on the various podcast apps and Youtube. Here’s a thread of snippets:
Solarpunk Surf Club Kickstarter Giveaway —— The nice people behind this fun utopian storytelling game reached out, and, since they had already quoted my ol’ “Move quietly and plant things” slogan on one of their cards, I agreed to offer up some signed copies of my upcoming book for them to give away to backers. They also sent me a copy to playtest. Here’s my review: “A great set of concepts and tools for playfully cracking open the too-oft-foreclosed possibilities for better futures. Working with these cards will expand your visionary vocabulary and sharpen your ability to imagine how we might individually and collectively tackle the massive challenges we face on our way through the existential bottleneck of the 21st century.” If you want to get in on the giveaway, check the details below👇
Works In Process
Our Shared Storm —— This past week was page proofs, which basically meant reading my whole book again, though this time printed out more or less the way it’ll look in book form. I’ve actually never read this book in paper before. I’m just not much of a printer-outer. I know lots of writers swear by editing their work on paper, printing it out in different fonts or sizes or spacing or even color to make their brains see it afresh. That’s just never really been a part of my process, however——I’m a slow, finicky writer and I don’t move on to the next bit until I’ve gotten a sentence or graf or scene pretty much how I like it. I was a little worried that doing the printout read-through would uncover a thousand lines that rub me the wrong way, but thankfully the only changes I needed to make were small adjustments to account for the results of the recent COP26 climate conference, which went down after I did the last round of copyedits. Anyway, it’s starting to feel like a real book! I’m nailing down some events and talks. If you or a scholar/bookstore/institution you know would be interested in hosting me for a Zoom or (covid-permitting) in person event, please reach out.
The Remainder —— Chipping away at the third act. At this point it feels like I’ve got a checklist and am going through ticking scenes off my clipboard as I load everything into the manuscript moving truck. Or maybe it’s like giving someone a haircut: once you’ve lopped off most of the hair, you spend just as much time trimming off the flyaways. I’ve been saying this for a while, but the end really is in sight. By the time I finish it’ll probably be exactly a year since I started in March 2021.
“Boomtown” —— This sold! No contract yet, so I won’t talk more about it, but very happy this collab with Corey J. White found a home on the first go.
Climate Repair Article —— I pitched and wrote up my basic argument about how to approach carbon removal from the left. It’s not too dissimilar from this great (but long) article by Andreas Malm and Wim Carton, but with more emphasis on just how we should think about this project, which I call ‘climate repair.’ We’ll see if it goes anywhere.
Apropos of the below, here’s one of the larger pieces on what I call my “southwest creature wall.” “Southwest” both as in “of America” and because it’s a southern wall on the west side of the house. It used to be all local Phoenix artists until I added a few pieces I picked up in New Mexico at Meow Wolf. Anyway this owl print (please excuse the glare, there really wasn’t a way to get a better shot without popping it out of the glass) was one I picked up at Phoenix’s First Friday art walk.
I bought it as kind of a tribute to my bizarrely viral owl orgasm tweet in late 2017, which, with millions of Twitter impressions and countless viral reposts on other platforms, will probably be seen by more people than anything else I’ll ever create, barring some massive blowup career success. And it wasn’t even my creation! Just a light bit of curation that I happened to screenshot with just the right proportions for Twitter’s mercurial interface. Experiencing the inside of a mega-viral tweet is still one of the weirdest things I’ve ever experienced online, one that permanently altered my relationship with social media. Though I went in and out of tryharding on Twitter for a few years after, I couldn’t ever really slip into the grind of a prolific daily poster because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d already peaked. And honestly that’s probably for the best. This owl is a regular reminder that though social media is designed to make us crave “number go up,” the reality of that experience is rarely that satisfying.
The thing about trying to grow food is that you often find yourself slowly reinventing agriculture. Specifically, the parts of agriculture that you were made aware of through culture and media but never actually connected to solving on-the-ground problems. This week it was scarecrows.
For some reason our garden this year has been beset by birds. We’ve never really noticed them in past years of growing, so not sure what’s going on. Maybe it’s because we planted late fall and are trying to grow over the winter. Maybe it’s something about the loss of the big chinaberry tree after a brutal past summer. The birds had often come and picked at the hard little berries that littered the ground under the tree, though I’ve also heard chinaberries are toxic so I was never sure if the birds were actually eating them. Maybe it’s just some cyclical migration thing, like how our citrus tree seems to be taking the year off.
Whatever the cause, they really are the worst. Between them and the ever-later summer heat we basically lost the fall as a growing season. They came and picked out a couple rounds of our seeds before we got wise and ordered some netting to cover up our planting bags. This has kind of worked, but the damage was done, and also we worry a bit about whether this has cut off a bit of the quite limited winter sun. Our lettuce patch has come up great, but the other greens are lagging. If we leave the netting off after weeding or whatever, the birds will come in as soon as we turn away and root around like crazy. We’re pretty sure they’ve ripped out a good percent of the delicate spinach and bok choy sprouts. We’ve become the kind of people who will run out into the backyard to shout the birds away about once an afternoon.
All of which is ironic, given that we’ve for years called our home “the Hummingbird House.” This was a rebrand of the previous name of “Scorpion House,” which I found was not so helpful when it came time to find new roommates. We do have——along with the mockingbirds, grackles, and occasional love birds——a lot of hummingbirds that come visit the feeder that hangs in our patio over the hammock. These obviously aren’t attacking our crops, and it’s one of the great pleasures of living here that I get to lounge in the hammock in the balmy spring months and watch the hummingbirds delicately flit for a drink, just a foot or two above my head. It’s amazing to see that they know and remember our place. Whenever I take the empty feeder in for a wash, we’ll always see hummingbirds zoom in to where they know the feeder should be, look around in perturbed confusion, and then zoom off in a huff.
So I’m a little worried that the anti-bird tech I added this week might have unfortunate slash damage effects. Operating under my highly recommended “if a thing that bothers me can be solved with little effort for under $30, just go for it” strategy, I ordered one of those fake owls, which, based on google results, are apparently the modern incarnation of the classic straw-stuffed-clothes scarecrow. Like a lot of internet schlock, the owl looked sturdy in pictures but turned out to be hollow injection mold plastic. The enthusiastic packaging proclaimed, in that translated-from-Mandarin grandiosity, that the owl would “defend your garden and become a soldier in your field.” We filled it with rocks from the xeriscaped front and set it up near the garden, hoping the predatory silhouette and the ominous spring-swiveling head will scare the birds away.
It’s been a couple days now, and the results are mixed. Maybe it’s helped some, but C says she’s definitely still seen birds out there, edging around the owl but still finding ways to get at the garden. We keep moving it around to different spots to see if that makes a difference and to perhaps confuse birds that are not entirely convinced our owl is the real deal.
Still, I keep coming back to this reinvention idea. Before this, scarecrows to me were creepy haunted horror tropes, born perhaps of some primordial fear of the uncanny we have toward things that look human but aren’t. Or they were a mechanic/collectible in Stardew Valley. I can almost feel the new neuronal path that had to be forged to make the connection from the archetype/character/digital abstraction to an actual object/technique that I might put to use in my material reality. It drives home how book smarts really =/= street smarts. Even though I knew about scarecrows, it still took a jump——and trying several other solutions——to turn that knowledge into know-how, as it were.