From: Bruce Sterling []
Sent: Monday, May 15, 2000 9:41 PM
To: Viridian List
Subject: Viridian Note 00155: PlaNetwork Speech

Key concepts: PlaNetwork conference,
cybergreen activism, Viridian disasters, Los Alamos

Attention Conservation Notice: It's a long Viridian speech to a softball audience in San Francisco. Contains violent partisan attacks.

Links: They sure broke the mold with that list of presenters. Erik Davis must have a Rolodex the size of Gibraltar.
Julia Butterfly is the tree-hugger Druid High Priestess. With, like, cellphones and websites! Best presentation I saw there. Can't wait to see this gizmo work. Hope there's some spare cash in the NSF kitty. Still smoldering.

Entries in the Greenhouse Disaster Symbol contest: This contest expires May 31, 2000.

PlaNetwork Speech by Bruce Sterling Presidio, San Francisco, May 12, 02000

Hi, glad to be here. Thanks for that fulsome introduction. Let me start with a little audience participation here. We've got a pretty good crowd here, a very variegated crowd. I'd like to have a show of hands among you. Before that introduction by Erik Davis, who out there had absolutely no idea who I was? You never heard of me. I'm a complete stranger to you, we're meeting here completely by accident, apparently. Thank you for you frankness, ladies and gentlemen. That was very enlightening.

Okay, fine. My name's Bruce Sterling, I'm from Austin Texas, I'm a futurist and I write novels. I'm pleased to be here, it's a lovely venue and a nice event, and I'm looking forward to hearing what other attendees and presenters have to say. There's obviously a lot of territory to cover. Tonight, however, I'm going to confine my remarks to a single environmental incident.

As has been said many times before, "The future is already here, it's just not well distributed yet." In my business as a journalist and science fiction writer, I collect harbingers. Got stacks full of harbingers. I live for this activity. Some harbingers are more striking than others. My speech today will concern just one of them.

Let me, if I may, call your attention to recent events in Los Alamos. Ladies and gentleman, thanks to a prolonged La Nina drought and anomalous high winds, the capital of the American atomic intelligentsia is on fire. In fact, I flew over Los Alamos this morning, on my way here. It was quite a sight.

The burning of Los Alamos is an event, I believe, that should strongly resonate with people in the Green community. An event like PlaNetwork, which I take to be the first gathering of a strange new tribe of the high- tech Cybergreen community, should pay especial attention to this. Because this is not a merely common-or-garden massive environmental disaster, such as Mozambique being flooded by repeated giant tempests, or Honduras submerging in a colossal mudslide. This is the American scientific intelligentsia, on fire. Los Alamos, the company town of the Manhattan Project, is burning out of control. I regard this event as a kind of dark salute to us and our concerns.

You may ask yourself: why did this unhappy fire start? Well, the simple answer is that it was started by federal officials. The Park Service was attempting to manage that bone-dry underbrush, to set some cautious, farsighted, instrumental, federally-approved backfires, before the real hell broke loose. They knew very well that wildfire was coming. This winter's drought in New Mexico has been among the worst the state has ever seen.

But these farsighted attempts to engineer Nature do have their operational difficulties. Now despite the recent outcry in Congress and the press, I don't believe these Park Service people did anything gravely wrong or unusual. The people setting those backfires expected the heat to go down at night. The heat usually does. Unfortunately, since the planet Earth has been setting heat records for sixteen straight months, the heat does not go down at night in the customary way that it used to do. The night stayed hot, so the fires burned hot. The feds also expected the winds to die down at evening, as well. The wind commonly does die down. This time the wind did not die down. Instead, the wind got worse. Therefore, a backfire, meant to avert a scourge, has become a scourge. Why should we blame our public servants? A Republican Senator has loudly ordered a federal investigation, but come on, it's a natural disaster. The weather is supposed to be one of those things.

Unfortunately, this weather disaster is not merely natural. Because that is no longer Nature that the federal land service is attempting to engineer in New Mexico. Mother Nature is not behaving by the federal rule book any more, she has thrown that book away. Nature ended in New Mexico about the time that Bill McKibben wrote his book, THE END OF NATURE. So that's not a natural disaster. That is a brand-new, twenty- first-century-style, Greenhouse disaster.

Now imagine if this were happening in Indonesia, instead of New Mexico. A terrible drought, no rain in the rain forest, poor people slashing-and-burning in the forest. Fire spreads out of control. Capital choked in smoke for weeks on end. What would we say? Well, "Greenhouse Effect." It's Indonesia, the jungle's on fire, what can you do.

Well, isn't this Indonesia's planet? Does the weather stop at Immigration? Of course this is Indonesia's planet! This isn't Planet America. Our continent's on the same planet as theirs. We just have more cameras here. And a different set of scapegoats.

Since I am a novelist rather than a meteorologist, I'n not going to talk about El Nino and isobars. I could do that, if I wanted to see your eyes glaze over, but I don't, so I won't. Instead, I want to try to get you to poetically apprehend this situation. Bill McKibben might do a good job of this for us, but as far as I know, he's not around. The last I saw of Bill McKibben, he was on C- SPAN, being arrested in the rotunda of the US Senate. They led Bill McKibben off in plastic handcuffs: he was loudly protesting about the Greenhouse Effect and the intolerable corruption in American campaign finance. So let's just put Mr. McKibben aside for the moment. He's just another articulate intellectual like the rest of us.

Let me concentrate entirely on the situation on the ground. This is Los Alamos, the legendary birthplace of atomic power. But that's not a mushroom cloud that's hanging over their skies. That is a carbon-dioxide combustion cloud. Mighty big, though. Saw it today. Four hundred homes burned so far, plume of smoke three hundred miles long and visible from space. The entire city has been evacuated. That sort of thing.

There is, however, some reassuring news from the authorities. We are informed that the nuclear materials, and lo there are many in Los Alamos, are safe inside fireproof vaults. A blazing grass fire swept past the weapons-engineering tritium facility at Technical Area 16 yesterday, but it's a nice solid masonry building, so it's just a little scorched. Therefore, I think I can promise you that nuclear material will not be carried in the fierce updraft from an out-of control urban firestorm, and then liberally sifted, just as if it were fallout, in the wake downstream from a burning federal laboratory. That has not happened. That is science fiction, I made that part up. There are federal contingency plans. We're told it's not a matter of concern. Let me ask your opinion on something. If the plans went wrong, and that did actually happen, do you think that we might be allowed to panic?

Let me ask you something further. Why is the most prestigious laboratory of the Department of Energy on fire?

I don't want to heap unnecessary embers of sarcasm on Los Alamos. They may be engaged in destroying the planet, but so what, we all are. I'm sure that any online marketeer could tell you that their zipcode in Los Alamos and my zipcode in Austin have many, many overlapping consumption patterns, like Palm Pilots, blue corn tortillas, top-shelf tequila margaritas and subscriptions to SMITHSONIAN. I feel some sense of identity with them. In case you haven't looked lately, Los Alamos National Laboratory is remarkably cyber-green. They have a green chemistry program there. They do global hydromodelling and lightning studies on supercomputers. They do waste remediation. For you cypherpunks out there, they even do quantum cryptography. These are some of the brightest and most capable people in the world.

Los Alamos National Lab even has climate models. For instance, Los Alamos has a supercomputer model that can simulate wildfires. Los Alamos has the only software on earth that can run realistic, three-dimensional wildfire simulations, on a fine scale. The lab is deserted now because of the emergency evacuations, but if anybody was allowed inside the lab and could boot up their heavy iron, they'd be able to model what is happening to them right now.

Los Alamos is owned by the Department of Energy. The Department of Energy is in charge of America's energy policy, or the mess we have that passes for one. So these are exquisitely-qualified technical experts. They are in a splendid position to assess nuclear energy, and fossil- fuel energy, and their various effects in the world. They must step outside the lab sometimes. They can read a thermometer. They must know that the world is getting hotter. That the weather is getting rambunctious. They're technically literate people. How could they not know that? Now they are on fire.

It's no great atomic super-secret that the sky is full of carbon dioxide. You can measure it with an instrument. The soot is getting thicker, and the climate is getting weirder. It's on CNN, it's in TIME magazine. Oil companies admit this. Car companies admit this. The Energy Department's intelligentsia is now on fire. Log on and look at their website. I might point out to you web-design fans in the audience that the Los Alamos lab website has a lovely piece of Java-style dancing baloney in it, a little digital wildfire. "Do not try to come to the Laboratory!" this website declares, in Times New Roman font, 24 points, bold.

Ladies and gentlemen, I guess we should all admit that Los Alamos has disappointed us before. America's weapons designers never managed to give us a nuclear Armageddon. They were certainly lavishly financed, and they always claimed they were ready to launch at a moment's notice, but somehow they never launched. World War II turned out to be our only nuclear war, and the number-one product in Los Alamos was always vaporware. So now they are themselves on fire, and unfortunately for them, and their families, and their parks, and their gardens, and their forests, and their schools, a Greenhouse disaster is not the vaporware part. They built machines that can incinerate cities at the push of a button. Now their city is on fire and they can do nothing to redress this. They cannot rise to this occasion. They cannot even frankly describe or constructively confront this national security threat. They are reduced to utter, squalid impotence.

It grieves me to tell you that these gifted people, so lavishly underwritten for so many decades, are not only useless, but victims themselves. Even after the headlines from this fire fade, and they're on their hands and knees sifting through the ashes of their own homes for unburned bits of their children's toys, they won't utter a peep of protest about the true cause of their sorrow. They depend on Congressional funding to earn a living. The United States Congress is run by no-neck Christian fundamentalists who sell insecticide and teach high-school wrestling. The Senate is in the hands of the coal and oil interests. They dare not cross the Senate, so they won't speak out even when their own homes burn. The Senate wouldn't do anything useful anyway. They're not going to pass the Kyoto Accords, no matter what scientists may say. This Senate is so far behind the curve that they can't even get it together to pass a nuclear arms accord. So no, Los Alamos won't say or do anything. I think the scientists in Los Alamos can still be trusted to keep the nuclear omerta. Even if Republican investigators think otherwise of them.

The lesson here is not that atomic scientists are gutless eggheads. Einstein and Sakharov weren't gutless: these people are colleagues of Einstein and Sakharov. The true lesson of Los Alamos is that there's no ivory tower to hide in. You can have the biggest supercomputers on earth and a broadband video feed. If a Greenhouse monsoon rolls in, you're gonna have live video feed of your supercomputers washing downriver.

What are you gonna do when the sky turns black over your town? Are you gonna jump inside your laptop screen? Where you gonna hide, console cowboy? If it gets hotter, you can click up the AC like we do in Texas, but the Greenhouse Effect is an extremely intimate disaster. You're breathing it right now. The planet's entire atmosphere from pole to pole has been soiled with effluent from smokestacks. Too much carbon dioxide. It's in every single breath you take, it fills this very room. You don't get to pick and choose. There's no pull-down menu for another atmosphere. The sky is full of soot. Everywhere. There's soot in Yosemite. There's soot at the source of the Nile. There's soot in Walden Pond and soot in the Serengeti. There is no refuge. It's not imaginary, it's here.

Yet it's nothing compared to what is coming. Whatever sins of omission and comission we may have committed environmentally, they are the small ones, they are the beginner steps. Look at the curves, do some of the math. We're in deep already, but these are just harbingers. The real trouble lies ahead.

This situation calls for the genius of a Einstein and the moral commitment of a Sakharov. Unfortunately, the colleagues of Einstein and Sakharov are packing their car trunks and wheezing. Robert Oppenheimer isn't here. Vannevar Bush isn't here. They are all dead. Their century is over. We are here. Planetworking people. We are here, and I don't even know how to describe us. This meeting does have its comic side, ladies and gentlemen. Take some New Age hipster guru in a Guatemalan yarn vest. Add the crackpot inventor from the Disney version of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Shake well and ship to San Francisco. That is us.

In fact, that is me. I am having a moment of passionate identification here. I'm not claiming I'm any great shakes, but I do feel strongly that I actually belong here among you. I don't claim I can do anything useful, or productive, or practical about the future. I am a wacky cyberpunk visionary. I only want you to believe one thing about the future: I can smell it. So who would imagine that a motley crowd of geeks and dissidents are people who might rise to this grave occasion?

Okay, admittedly, it's a long shot. But imagine that we were those people. Green geeks. Imagine there really wasn't much else around. Imagine that the Christian right and the hippie left were still thumbwrestling in some senile culture war. Suppose that the government's knees were still shaking from a ludicrous coup d'etat blowjob. Imagine that giant worldwide smokestack industries were huge, rich, ruthless, stupid and corrupt. Suppose that science was mute, and the population was sleepwalking through the fire, while spin doctors ruled the earth. Suppose that people like us were in fact the big bright spot. The silver lining on the Greenhouse cloud, as it were. Imagine that we were exactly the kind of people who might somehow find new approaches, accomplish something practical and actually change this. I'm not saying that we're those people right now. But imagine that we became those people.

I thought I ought to raise that possibility. Thanks!

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