Viridian Note 00272: Au Revoir, Belle Epoque

Bruce Sterling []

Key concepts; Belle Epoque, warfare, Viridian tactics

Attention Conservation Notice: A lot of grim historical analysis and no cool toys.

War and Rumors of War. For heaven's sake, don't cut and paste me anything until you look at this first. One of the uses of adversity is that it separates sensible people from saps. People who send me lame urban legends are saps.

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The sudden outbreak of unconventional warfare has not escaped Viridian attention. In this Note, I would like to make it clear how the Pope-Emperor plans to adapt the Viridian Movement to our altered social circumstances.

    You have likely already seen a lot of earnest commentary consigning the period 1989-2001 to history. We are suddenly in a turbulent and violent time, and in a burst of harsh martial virtue, our immediate past is being written off as squalid, and overindulged, and pampered, and fatally innocent, and possibly somewhat effeminate. This is exactly what happened the last time a Belle Epoque collapsed.

    The death of the last Belle Epoque -- through terrorism in glamorous Serbia, unfortunately -- was followed by the gruesome mobilizations of August 1914, the War to End War. There's still terrorism in the Balkans nowadays, one might note. The War to End Terrorism at least has a different slogan, though.

    This event might be a passing nasty shock, like Aum Shinri Kyo or Jonestown. More severely, it might rival or surpass the Gulf War of 1991. The last such war was also a very sweaty-palmed event, but it was followed by a considerable boom. Wars do end, and if this one ends quickly and well, we might well find ourselves with a New World Order that's more than just talk, and a Long Boom with some serious muscle behind it.

    Or, it may be that Viridian Green, founded in 1998, is past its sell-by date. We may be well on our way to that much-forecasted next stage, Khaki Green, where pop culture and commercialism lose all their charms and the heavy lifting gets done by those long-time Viridian idols, cops and the military.

    Let me speak up now in firm defense of that Belle Epoque. That ten-year-period was truly grand. We were historically lucky to live through it. It began beautifully and it perished, if anything, through too much hope. It was not naive and foolishly innocent, it was splendid, vital and profoundly creative. Those were the best years of the 20th century, when at least some of its beleagured inhabitants finally found a proper way to live, a decent way that offered many great virtues.

    Nutty bubble economies run by cheery visionaries are much better for us than crass economies run by stolid monopolist bores. Near-total employment is far better than severe unemployment. R&D from peace dividends is better than a pinched war economy. Booming tourism from happy foreigners is better than empty hotels and airports. Politicians bedevilled with colorful sex scandals are better than fierce and resolute war leaders. And shucking and jiving our way out of an ecological crisis by making green design trendy was a much better method of controlling CO2 emissions than empty skies, market panics, and military hairshirts.

    That was not a dumb, innocent epoch. This is a dour and bitter epoch. We Viridians may have to wear some hairshirt, we may not be given any choice there, but ladies and gentlemen, we Viridians don't do hairshirt. We're not going to pretend that hairshirt is better. Belle Epoque is vastly better. This is worse.

    We Viridian want more Belle Epoque. We will scheme tirelessly to get it back, revive it, or fetch another one. We do hope to live long enough to see one. If we can't be its promoters, then we'll be its monks: we will protect its relics and its memory, we will copy it, we will distribute it, we will keep its lamps burning.

    Still, the cultural circumstances are rapidly and visibly changing, and our favorite tactics will clearly be less effective for a while, not that they ever worked all that well. They were not, in fact, the most effective tactics possible. Making things cool, making ideas trendy, were simply the tactics that we Viridians happened to be particularly good at. They were things we enjoyed doing. They were an efficient use of our limited talents and resources. They were the sorts of things that a few hundred people can do on the Internet without having to incorporate or buy uniforms.

    The most effective tactics for forcing huge numbers of people to undergo sudden and radical social change are done with bayonets. They're evil tactics, and regrettable, and morally repulsive, but just look at what has happened in two weeks.

    You may notice that although coverage of the Greenhouse Effect has vanished during the crisis, utterly involuntary yet very powerful anti-Greenhouse measures have taken place, to an extent previously unimaginable. The sky was empty of aircraft == those great guzzlers of fossil fuel. Americans, incredibly, are taking trains. No one is buying big cars. Even the ads so loathed by ADBUSTERS were busted off of the television.

    In short order, the USA is very likely to have both Arctic drilling and stiff conservation measures, renewables and maybe even nuclear, along with the kind of across the board belt-tightening that Greens never succeed in promulgating == measures that only rage and terror make worthwhile.

    Furthermore, when the Kyoto carousel rolls around again, the USA will not be balking on the sidelines, the planet's lone prima donna, pretending that free enterprise is more important than global security. Then there's that nuclear nonproliferation treaty that the US Senate didn't care about; that biological warfare thing that was too complex and invasive to enforce; those numerous human rights accords, dozens, that the USA considered too restrictive and obnoxious; those UN dues the USA deliberately refused to pay; the endless fight-picking with Iran, Cuba and China; well, you can name your own.

    Unfortunately, we Viridians are not the people to take any kind of effective lead here. We are design advocates, we're not spies, diplomats, cops or firemen, and we are certainly not going to be so fatuous as to become armchair soldiers.

    We're a, not a Furthermore, we Viridians are not even patriotic. Our core concern has nothing to do with nationalities; it's by its very nature global. A hard Greenhouse rain falls on the stockbroker and the mujihadeen alike. We Viridians are one of those slithering, highly dispersed, mobile, multinational, network entities you've been hearing about. Our natural environment, the place for which we were created, is the Internet.

    We Viridians can't and don't exist without the network, but now, we should expect the Net to change. It does that, you know: from military labs, to big science, academia, the dotcom period, it's very ductile. I have never seen such an outburst of black propaganda and psyops on the Net as I have seen in these two weeks. It is a kulturkampf battleground. I expect some Cold War-style heavy manners in a realm that is this troubled with imaginary Qaeda email, huge Microsoft worms, brand-new ECHELON-style terrie-trackers from brand-new agencies, self-appointed hacker vigilantes, and whole swarms of nutcase script-kids. Any serious new hacker-crackdown will pick up those little malefactors by the basketfull.

    The Net looks bad. The status quo ante is not going to cut it. Unless I miss my guess, the Net will be moving away from the flaky amateurism and sordid tragedy-of-the- commons that was its pride and joy, right past that totally imaginary commercial nirvana, and straight into a paramilitarized, ARPANET-friendly, Nervous System of the Coalition phase. We Viridians may be rather squeezed for room and oxygen in there. We may find ourselves asking for your help, in backups, archiving, distribution, web service and so forth. Feel free to volunteer. People of good will need to be uniting to move this medium into a disciplined, serious role as the backbone of a troubled global civil society. If that effort fails, the Net is going to go the way of CB radio. Or worse.

    We Viridians may have a harder time of it. Money, toys, and time may get tighter. We Viridians will no longer look much like What Happens Next (because we're not), and our abiding interests are likely to look a bit flaky and antiquarian for a while, like some guy leafing through Beardsley's YELLOW BOOK as the zeppelins hum above the searchlights.

However: our core issue, the Greenhouse Effect, is

not going to forsake us. On the contrary: the USA is about to undergo a military-entertainment dust-up with one of the poorest and most stricken countries on Earth, a place of incessant gunfire, poxed with landmines, that hasn't had a decent rain in 3 solid years. People who can live on naan bread and goat cheese are starving there from bad weather. Is it an accident that a place like that hides people of the Al Qaeda ilk? They're the New World Disorder, and they've learned how to ship.

    Look at the economic impact from the sudden loss of two skyscrapers in New York City. It's colossal. That's straight from the file we Viridians like to label "world becoming uninsurable."

    Now try to imagine New York hit by a Category 5 hurricane. Imagine the payout crisis around, say, 2050, with all the coral dead and the seas rising along entire continental coastlines. There are serious people in the re-insurance industry who claim that weather damage in the 2050s will outmatch the planet's entire GNP. Smashing skyscrapers with aircraft full of blazing fossil fuel -- that is by no means a Greenhouse disaster, it's just a war crime. But that event is of the scope and scale of the disasters that society is courting.

    The only event that can match NYC 9.11 for sudden loss of American civilian life is the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. That's an event from which Galveston, once the rival of New Orleans and the richest port in Texas, never recovered. Now we have a modern model for a major-league Greenhouse unnatural calamity. We now know what that does to people, to their morale and confidence, to the tenor of their society. We must not go there out of bland incredulity and some dismissive notion that things like that can never happen. And if we do go for there, for some godforsaken reason, we need coherent plans to claw our way back out.

However: we Viridians are not going to be doing that

clawing. That is frankly beyond our capacity. That is the realm of Khaki Green, the realm of hardhats tearing through rubble heaps 24/7, and if the Pope-Emperor gets into that line of work, he is not going to be doing a lot of whimsical email.

    We Viridians are going to continue to promote cool green gizmos == although we no longer expect to sell quite as many. And we will watch weird weather. We may very well change our list mechanics, those stars, the chevrons and so forth; we may be moving into new alliances and new areas of the Web.

    Furthermore. Instead of being the cheering groupies and advocates of our dear friends the designers, we are, if necessary, going to commiserate with designers, we are going to offer solidarity and *unfeigned moral support* to designers, and to their critics, and their teachers, and their stricken magazines and their stricken retailers; we Viridians don't care if you noble souls are at the top of Fortune's Wheel or suddenly considered the excrescences of a decadent consumer society, we get it about that business-cycle crap and we love you anyway, and we Viridians are with you people to our final Internet packet. What we can do for you, we're gonna. Don't be a stranger.

    In conclusion, I'm going to be travelling a lot. Because the planes are empty and people are asking. I'm accepting invitations from all over the place. I'm gonna be laying on hands. There's not a lot of money around on the circuit this quarter, but there is a hell of a lot to talk about, and friends are rarely happier to see one another than they are under these trying circumstances.

    My next gig is the Renewable Energy Roundup in Fredericksburg Texas, September 28-30. A very worthy affair.


    We will be running a display table, exhorting unto the masses and selling magazines and T-shirts. By all means come see us. It is next weekend. Be there or be square.

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