Cli-Fi Is Real

[This selection of my globally warmed collection Terror and Terraformation has been syndicated on HuffPo Green.]

When I first popularized cli-fi in 2009, it was initially inspired by Franny Armstrong’s docu-film The Age of Stupid, a work of science and fiction. Starring the late, great Pete Postelthwaite as a melted Arctic-bound archivist of a humanity that dumbly extincted itself (verb intended), Armstrong’s patient multimedia proved the boundary between what is environmental science and what is cultural narrative has always been what William Gibson described in his foundational Neuromancer as a “consensual hallucination.” He was speaking of the cyberspace in which we all now create ourselves, a floating fiction wherein we inhabit avatars and collectively build a multiverse with an actual future.

But as both climate science and science-fiction have lately warned, Earth does not have a future. And neither do we.

This existential bleed is of course the reason that Christopher Nolan’s cli-fi epic Interstellar reportedly feels like a documentary struggling with a blockbuster, as it wrestles with a titanic human species trying to survive its hyperconsumption and narcissism, on a fucking lucky rock spinning through space. It’s also why continuing reports from the too-conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are treated like fiction by sellouts, and always exponentially worse. The latest (finally) explains that global warming is abrupt and irreversible, and that our children will inherit an Anthropocene riven by swallowing seas, searing permadroughts and mass extinction for species of all shapes and sizes.

But both are real, and both are cli-fi.

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Revolutionary Patience: An Interview With Vashti Bunyan

[A child of the expiring '60s, I've always been pulled to its epochal artists, especially those who have secrets left to keep. This is why I finally caught up with folk's once-reclusive Vashti Bunyan, who is seizing the new century and it's technology. We communed for Salon.]

Vashti Bunyan’s latest effort, “Heartleap,” feels like a work of revolutionary patience, although she’s the first to admit she’s not quite patient. It unfurls quietly, naked and soulful, toying with listeners’ expectations of dynamics and volume but never quite fulfilling them. The Edinburgh-based Bunyan‘s last full-length, “Lookaftering,” arrived in 2005, after the reclusive folk artist’s forgotten 1970 debut “Just Another Diamond Day” was rediscovered by a new century of jaded postmodernists looking for something wonderful they might have forgotten.

Bunyan — who began her career in the ’60s as a protégé of Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, before abandoning the scene for three decades of more fulfilling pastoral domesticity — channeled into “Lookaftering” the unexpected affection and participation of more famous new adopters like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart. But “Heartleap” is wholly her own creation: empowered by the democratizing Internet, recorded with guitars and electronics at home, on a Mac using studio software any noob can master.

In a globally warmed era of white noise far from the optimistic philosophy of The Beatles’ epochal “All You Need Is Love,” both Bunyan and her familial “Heartleap” are practically defiant statements of slow living. “I feel overwhelmed by the complexities we face, the powerlessness it seems that so many of us express,” Bunyan told Salon. “And the difficulty in deciding which battles to fight the hardest.”

Bunyan’s long journey and hushed paeans to family and motherhood, the lives we all lead when the trappings of postmodernity fall uselessly away, the resilient but injured planet where we decide to live them: these are existential lessons wrapped up in three measured sonic chapters. And while she has hinted that they may have no epilogue, it seems reasonable to assume that an artist who stayed away from us for so long may ultimately be unable to resist returning to haunt our frenetic century, no matter how hard she tries.


As Solar Power Grows, Utility Profits Will Shrink

Sure, solar power and net metering are wondrous solutions for a society on the brink of environmental collapse. But who will crunch the numbers on the declining profits of increasingly obsolete utilities? Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, that’s who.

The lab’s scientists recently released a report, Financial Impacts of Net-Metered PV on Utilities and Ratepayers (PDF), that states in part: “Quantitative analyses relating to the financial or economic impacts of customer-sited photovoltaics and net metering have thus far consisted mostly of cost-benefit studies performed from the perspective of utility ratepayers, or society more broadly.” It goes on to say, “By comparison, few analyses beyond several research notes from Wall Street analysts sought to examine the financial implications of net metering for utility shareholders.”

Of course, that is likely because few besides those shareholders actually care, given the resolutely positive impact that photovoltaics have had on customers and “society more broadly.” In an era of irreversible global warming, brought on by way too much burning of the dirty fuels that comprise the utilities’ daily bread, few shed a tear for the 15 percent haircut utilities profits will suffer as more and more of their customers say yes to solar and no to coal, oil and gas.


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Solar Drones Take Off

Drones are controversial, proliferating and inevitable. So we might as well make them run on sunshine.

Alta Devices has lately been making the case for its flexible, thin-film AnyLight solar cells at energy summits and conferences, for the future of unmanned vehicles and smart buildings. The company claims that its gallium arsenide cells hold “the single-junction world record for light conversion efficiency at 28.8 percent” — but whoever ends up trying to break that record will nevertheless enter a growing solar drone market buzzing with opportunity. That’s because their applications to our globally warmed future seem proverbially endless.


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Can Stem Energy Storage Boost Hawaii Solar?

Utilities seem worried that unpredictability is the fatal flaw of distributed generation. But solar storage can already soothe that unnecessary concern, as utilities are finding out themselves. Especially in solarized, polarized Hawaii, whose (mostly) lone utility Hawaiian Electric Industries has partnered with California-based Stem for 1 megawatt of behind-the-meter emergency backup.

“The success of the solar industry in Hawaii is a blessing and a curse,” Stem’s vice-president of Hawaiian operations Tad Glauthier told SolarEnergy. “Local grid operators have to deal with unpredictable generation and potentially reverse power flow at the substation level. These factors make it a natural fit for Stem’s advanced energy storage systems and predictive analytics. Given our focus on commercial and industrial customers, we have a unique opportunity to help the utility balance renewables on the electric grid, while also reducing energy costs for businesses on Oahu.”


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DJ Shadow and the Future of Music

[I've interviewed the visionary Josh Davis before many times, because he's an historic hip-hop soundtracker who has shaped culture as it has shaped him. That process recently continued at Salon, and will surely continue again. Time machine time...]

When last we spoke, DJ Shadow reminded me that the internet is not our savior. He might as well have added that saviors do not exist. Of course, that doesn’t mean we haven’t stopped looking for them, especially from the hip hop that DJ Shadow — known to the I.R.S. as Josh Davis — so thoroughly redefined on releases like “The Private Press,” “Preemptive Strike” and especially his foundational 1996 debut “Endtroducing…..” the first samples-only album in history. Like a needle on the planet’s spinning record, the defiant Davis has leapt from groove to groove, style to style and paradigm to paradigm as conformity and complacency have settled into pop and hop, challenging himself and even his fans, who still hold onto “Endtroducing…..” like a life raft to a former world.

To wit, although he has been historically sanguine about the internet, DJ Shadow has nevertheless chosen this complicated moment to launch his own imprint, Liquid Amber, through which he will release his own music, as well as sonics from others that stir his interest. His imprint’s first single, the future bass compendium “Ghost Town,” was naturally released online first, and there’s a good chance that will be the case with many of Liquid Amber’s future releases, including his forthcoming full-lengths. Signs of the times, and all that.

But the vinyl culture he exhaustively preserves and represents is simultaneously landing much love: On Sept. 3 in Boston, DJ Shadow and his fellow archivist/experimentalist Cut Chemist’s Renegades of Rhythm tour begins schooling the U.S., using the legendary Afrika Bambaataa‘s prodigious record collection as textbooks. And what vibrant, relevant texts they care: Bam’s vinyl collection, pushing 40,000 and permanently archived at Cornell University, is so influential and educational that its astounding diversity has earned its curator honorifics like the Godfather of Hip-Hop, the Father of ElectroFunk and many, many more. And just like Bam encoded disparate styles like punk, J-pop, krautrock and beyond into hip hop’s sprawling DNA from the ’80s to today, Davis is bringing Bam’s socially conscious, purposefully inclusive cultural power to the people. He’s also making positive future music from an uncomfortable present.


Obama’s Solar Initiatives Aim to Slash Emissions

The sunshine hits keep on coming for President Barack Obama’s administration. New executive actions and public-private solar commitments recently announced by the White House promise to save Americans $10 billion and haircut carbon emissions by 300 million metric tons. Obama’s solar initiatives — as well as the many other areas of clean and efficient energy he’s just announced — also seek to further evangelize and catalyze solar support and funding, through government agencies as well as corporations and cities who have committed money and promises of their own.

Given the exorbitant U.S. military budget, it’s no surprise that the White House is leading with a planned Department of Energy partnership with three military bases and several community colleges to pilot solar job training for veterans, in hopes of smartly transitioning 50,000 installers into the sector by 2020. Also on the docket is $68 billion for 540 efficiency projects (240 solar) from the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which looks to green American agriculture’s oversized carbon footprint.


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CrossVectors: Solar Costs Shrink, Economy Grows

It may be overheating the Earth, but our sun is still the gift that keeps on giving, if you’re looking for clean energy or robust economics. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s new Department of Energy study Tracking the Sun crunched the price of photovoltaics from 1998-2013 and found that the cost of going solar is predictably plummeting.

From 2013 to the halfway mark of 2014, the price tag for various rooftop systems dropped 12-15 percent, with an extra 5-12 percent thrown in for systems in larger states like California, Arizona, Massachusetts and New York. That’s four years and counting the industry has trended costs downward — a poker tell if there ever was one.

“Today, solar provides 143,000 good-paying jobs nationwide, pumps nearly $15 billion a year into the U.S. economy and is helping to significantly reduce pollution,” SEIA president and CEO Rhone Resch explained in collaborative press release with Vote Solar. “There are now more than half a million American homes, businesses and schools with installed solar, and this is good news for freedom of energy choice as well as for our environment.”


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Utilities are a Dying Business, UK Should Go Solar

London-based Institute for Public Policy and Research (IPPR) was reportedly the first to influentially call for limiting greenhouse gases to two degrees Celsius. Now it’s calling for the immediate replacement of obsolete utilities with distributed energy.

“The U.K.’s current policy framework is faltering because it is propping up the large-scale, centralised utility business model, which is dying,” IPPR’s new report A New Approach to Electricity Markets (PDF) explains. “Now a range of distributed electricity technologies exist that hold the key to a cheaper, cleaner, more competitive and secure electricity system, that works better for consumers.”


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