Blog Archive for the year 02014

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Oxford’s Oak Beams, and Other Tales of Humans and Trees in Long-Term Partnership

Posted on Wednesday, December 31st, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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Here at Long Now, we often like to tell the story – or perhaps better said, legend – of the oak beams at New College in Oxford. First told to Stewart Brand by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, this short and simple story epitomizes the tremendous value we can reap from some long-term thinking.

New College Oxford Dining HallPhoto via Tripadvisor

Despite what the name may suggest, New College is one of Oxford’s oldest. Founded in 01379, at its heart lies a dining hall that features expansive oak beams across its ceiling. About a century ago, an entomologist discovered that the beams were infested with beetles and would need replacing. The College agonized over where they might find oaks of sufficient size and quality to make new beams. Then, as Stewart Brand recounts,

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

He pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

In all likelihood, the story is a blend of myth and reality. While the College, in keeping with standard woodland practices in Britain, has always kept groves of oaks intended for construction purposes, it isn’t clear that any particular set of trees was officially designated to replace the beams of the College dining hall.

But as with all good legends, this story conveys a larger truth: that a symbiotic relationship with the natural world around us is a useful and sustainable way to maintain human civilization for centuries to come. Atlas Obscura concludes:

Somewhere on the land owned by the New College are oaks that are, or will one day, be worthy of use in the great hall, assuming that they are managed in the same way they were before. It is in this management by the Forester in which lies the point. Ultimately, while the story is perhaps apocryphal, the idea of replacing and managing resources for the future, and the lesson in long term thinking is not.

There are other stories that, like this one, convey the value of this kind of long-term partnership. For example, NPR recently featured a story on the Bosco Che Suona – the ‘woods that sing’. It’s in this Italian Alpine forest that Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppi Guarneri, and Nicola Amati found the spruce trees from which they made their world-famous violins.

Il Bosco Che Suona – the ‘woods that sing’
Photo via Trivago.it

Centuries later, artisan luthiers still come to these woods to source their raw material – and it is in large part due to this ongoing use that the Bosco continues to thrive. In partnership with local foresters, instrument makers select trees they think produce high-quality violins. The felled tree in turn makes room for new saplings, and the many months required for the production of a single instrument ensures that these young trees have time to grow up. NPR writes:

Before a tree hits the chopping block, Mazzucchi looks around to see if there are any tiny saplings struggling to grow nearby. If so, removing an adult tree will let more sun in and actually help the babies mature.

Bruno Cosignani, the head of the local forest service, explains that light is the limiting factor on tree growth.

“As soon as a tree falls down, those who were born and suffering in the shadows can start to grow more quickly,” he says.

And centuries from now, those trees, too, might become musical instruments.

Cork Oak Trunk SectionPhoto via Wikipedia

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, forests of cork oak likewise thrive in large part because of their utility to human industry. For centuries, possibly even millennia, the bark of these trees has been used to make the cork stoppers that keep wine (or any other liquid) inside a bottle. Because only the outer coating is harvested, the trees are left to stand – and thus continue to sustain both local ecosystems and human economies. As a feature in the Huffington Post explains,

Clearly, the environment supports rural livelihoods (and diets). But it also provides substantial ecosystem services. By resisting both fire and drought, cork oaks stabilize the region’s sandy soils and hold a line against creeping desertification. The trees, which are neither irrigated nor treated with herbicides or fertilizers, store carbon. (Because a harvested tree needs to regenerate its bark, it absorbs up to five times more carbon than an unharvested tree.) They also provide plant and animal habitat, absorb rainfall and prevent soil erosion, thus protecting the watershed that supplies two thirds of Lisbon’s drinking water.

Cork cutter at workPhoto via Portuguese American Journal

By harvesting material sustainably, the cork industry supports, rather than endangers, these forests. In fact, the largest threat to the Mediterranean cork oaks in recent decades has been the advent of aluminum screw caps and plastic corks. Without utility for the wine industry, there is little economic incentive to help sustain these cork groves.

Mediterranean cork oaks
Photo by Michelle Chaplow

These three different stories share a common message: by making responsible use of natural resources, we actually allow them to thrive, in turn ensuring their availability for centuries to come. In each of these three instances, humans have developed a symbiosis with trees that is uniquely long-term in approach. Whether out of respect for their lengthy lifespans, a recognition of their vital importance to aerobic life, or simply for utilitarian reasons, humans in each of these three instances make use of trees in ways that deliberately foster their longevity. Long-term thinking can be difficult for us short-lived humans, but perhaps trees can help us make a leap beyond the horizon of our own lifespans. Like the 10,000 Year Clock, trees – alive like us, but for so much longer – can help us imagine a time scale, and thus a world, that exceeds our own.

Rick Prelinger: Lost Landscapes of San Francisco (02013) — Seminar Flashback

Posted on Monday, December 29th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Rick Prelinger photo by Cory DoctorowRick Prelinger photo by Cory Doctorow

In December 02013 film archivist Rick Prelinger presented Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 8 for our Seminars About Long-term Thinking series. It’s been an annual tradition in our series since 02008. Click here to watch the full video. We do not publish audio podcasts for Lost Landscapes events because of their reliance on visuals.

Rick, the founder of the Prelinger Archives, curates a vintage filmic view of San Francisco to show our audience each December at the historic Castro Theater. He includes some industrial films and Hollywood “B roll”, but primarily Rick showcases home movies by amateur San Francisco filmmakers of decades past. As most footage is silent, Rick always begins the night by reminding the sold-out audience that “You are the soundtrack!”

Rick Prelinger Lost Landscapes of San Francisco

From Stewart Brand’s summary of the event (in full here):

Rick’s film this time featured the China Clipper taking off from the water next to the World’s Fair on Treasure Island; another float plane hopping along the water from Oakland to San Francisco as a ferry; the now outlawed traditional downtown blizzard of calendar pages drifting down from highrise offices celebrating the last day of work every December; the dirt roads of Telegraph Hill leading to Julius’ Castle; one of the 80,000 Victory Gardens in the city during World War 2; the bay filled with war ships (no one was supposed to photograph them); a tourist promotion film lauding San Francisco’s “invigorating sea mists”; a drive down historic middle Market Street, with the audience crying out a landmark: There’s the Twitter Building!

Rick Prelinger Lost Landscapes of San Francisco

Video of the twelve most recent Long Now Seminars is free for all to view. Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 8 is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until February 02014. The most recent 12 currently also includes Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 9 (from December 4, 02014). Long Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD including the five previous years of Rick’s “Lost Landscapes”.

Rick Prelinger is an archivist and filmmaker based in San Francisco. In 01983 Rick founded the Prelinger Archives which focus on home movies and industrial films. With his wife Megan Prelinger he runs The Prelinger Library in San Francisco: an independent research library with regular public hours. His film project No More Road Trips? is assembled from hundreds of home movies dating back to the 1920s. It has screened at the New York Film Festival and SXSW. Rick serves on the Board of The Internet Archive.

Rick Prelinger film shelves

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this video until February 02015). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

Salt Crystals and Selfies: Curiosity after the Seven Minutes of Terror

Posted on Monday, December 22nd, 02014 by Ahmed Kabil
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http://graphics8.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2014/11/25/mars/f17d9ebc88054dedce2d80e913fc89476d52495c/images/170-mount.jpg

In October 02013, NASA engineer Adam Steltzner spoke to the Long Now about landing the Curiosity rover on Mars. A decade of exhausted alternatives led Seltzner’s team to take the unconventional approach of a mini-rocket “sky crane” controlled by artificial intelligence to guide the rover to the Martian surface. Because the crane could not be tested on Earth, NASA would have to brave a $2.5 billion attempt on Mars to know it was successful. A 4×12 mile landing target at the Gale Crater left virtually no margin for error. It was a tense moment for martian space travel, which historically has a 42% mission success rate.

http://img.gawkerassets.com/post/4/2012/12/curiosity2.gif

It also made for compelling entertainment. Curiosity’s successful landing in August 02012 was a global event witnessed by millions, aided no doubt by a NASA social media campaign that included Curiosity video games, humorous tweets delivered in first-person by the rover, and “seven minutes of terror” ads that framed the descent as a high-stakes action film unfolding live before viewers’ eyes.

Guess who just got an “attitude adjustment”? My mood’s fine; I needed to reposition my medium-gain antenna for Earth communication

— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) July 19, 2012

A tweet from @MarsCuriosity ahead of landing on Mars.

28 Months on Mars, a new visual storytelling project from the New York Times, provides a window into what Curiosity has been up to since the dramatic landing. An HTML5 multimedia timeline weaves together patchwork snapshots taken by the rover with three-dimensional renderings of the martian landscape, immersing viewers in the bumpy twists and turns of Curiosity’s journey through the dried lakebed of the Gale Crater as it seeks to answer whether Mars could ever have supported life.

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2014/11/25/mars/f17d9ebc88054dedce2d80e913fc89476d52495c/images/809-mojave.jpg

Wheels show gashed wear and tear after five miles on the unforgiving Gale Crater terrain. An unexpected week-long hiatus occurs when Curiosity has to troubleshoot a software update downloaded from Earth. Drilling samples at the Mojave rock outcrop reveal rice-shaped salt crystals (picture above) that suggest a past cycle of wet and dry conditions necessary for supporting microbial life. And at each noteworthy moment, Curiosity takes a selfie.

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2014/11/25/mars/f17d9ebc88054dedce2d80e913fc89476d52495c/images/84-rocknest.jpg

The project is part of a growing trend in space exploration to use social media and short-form visual storytelling to engage the public and make the challenges and rewards of decades-long space missions more accessible.

Other recent efforts show the potential of short-form media to bring out the long-term narrative of extended scientific endeavors in space: NASA’s Global Selfie campaign for Earth Day 02014 resulted in over 50,000 submissions from 113 countries, and Astronomy Pic of the Day, a NASA project that shares daily photographs of the cosmos, has upwards of a million followers on Twitter. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield became a pop culture phenomenon through his social media dispatches from the International Space Station; and the European Space Agency has said November 02014’s Rosetta Comet landing (whose hashtag, #cometlanding, was trending globally for days) marked a “watershed” in the agency’s efforts to connect with the public.

Experience 28 Months on Mars here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/12/09/science/space/curiosity-rover-28-months-on-mars.html?_r=1

Long Now’s Nevada and Artists with Lasers: January 02015 at The Interval

Posted on Thursday, December 18th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Scotty Strachan speaks at The Interval - January 6, 02015

We have just announced our lineup of upcoming events at The Interval for 02015. The first four months of the year will feature talks on art, science, history, technology and long-term thinking. Tickets are on sale now for the first two:

January 6, 02015
Scotty Strachan: The Great Basin in the Anthropocene
environmental researcher at University Nevada-Reno
Scotty will talk about his scientific research in the Great Basin region including the Long Now owned site on Mount Washington in Nevada

January 20, 02015
Mathieu Victor: Artists with Lasers
artist, technology consultant (formerly of Jeff Koons studio)
first in a series on art, time, and technology talks produced with ZERO1

Space is limited at these events and tickets will sell out. So get yours early. If you make a tax-deductible donation to The Interval you’ll be added to our list for early notice about Interval event tickets. More information on these events below.

When we opened The Interval in June 02014 one of our goals was to host great events in our cafe/bar/museum space at Fort Mason in San Francisco. It was important that these talks complement our larger format Seminars About Long-term Thinking series which we produce for audiences of several hundred in San Francisco each month and are enjoyed around the world via podcast.

So The Interval’s “salon talk” series events are more frequent (2 or 3 times a month) and intimate: fewer than 100 people attend and have the chance to meet and converse with our speaker afterward. So far we’ve produced 14 events in this series and all of them have sold out. They are being recorded and will eventually become a podcast of their own. But we don’t yet have a timeline for that, so your best bet is to attend in person.

Scotty Strachan speaks at The Interval on January 6, 02015
Scotty Strachan speaks at The Interval - January 6, 02015

Tuesday January 6, 02015:
Scotty Strachan: Long Now’s Nevada: the Great Basin in the Anthropocene

Our first Interval salon talk of 02015 features geographer Scotty Strachan discussing the Great Basin region of eastern Nevada. Amonst his other work Scotty conducts research on Long Now’s Mount Washington property. Scotty has done extensive work with bristlecone pine trees which are amongst the oldest organisms on the planet often living for several thousand years. He will discuss his work in eastern Nevada and put it in perspective with climate science efforts worldwide.

Mathieu Victor speaks at The Interval on January 20, 02015
Mathieu Victor speaks at The Interval - January 20, 02015

Tuesday January 20, 02015:
Mathieu Victor: Artists with Lasers. Art, Tech, & Craft in the 21st Century

A creator, art historian and technologist, Mathieu Victor has worked for artists, galleries, and leading design studios. Mathieu’s study of past practice matched with his experience in executing extraordinary contemporary projects give him a unique perspective on how art in the physical world benefits from the digital age.

Other highlights of the 02015 salon talk schedule that we’ve announced: The Interval’s architect/design team Because We Can and Jason Scott of the Internet Archive will speak in February; and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes will talk about his new book on the Spanish Civil War in March. More talks will be announced soon. We hope you’ll join us at The Interval soon.

Jesse Ausubel Seminar Tickets

Posted on Wednesday, December 17th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Jesse Ausubel presents Nature is Rebounding: Land- and Ocean-sparing through Concentrating Human Activities

Jesse Ausubel presents “Nature is Rebounding: Land- and Ocean-sparing through Concentrating Human Activities”

TICKETS

Tuesday January 13, 02015 at 7:30pm SFJAZZ Center

Long Now Members can reserve 2 seats, join today! General Tickets $15

 

About this Seminar:

Jesse Ausubel is an environmental scientist and program manager of a number of global biodiversity and ecology research programs. Ausubel serves as Director and Senior Research Associate of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University.

He was instrumental in organizing the first UN World Climate Conference which was held in Geneva in 01979, and is one of the founders of the field of Industrial Ecology.

Ferreting the Genome

Posted on Tuesday, December 16th, 02014 by Perry Hall
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Revive & Restore Unveils Open Genomics for Conservation Initiative

Revive & Restore is embarking on its first open-access science initiative – Ferreting the Genome: Open Genomics for Conservation. The initiative will enlist the help of the public to understand how the black-footed ferret gene pool has changed from the founding population to the current generation. The goal is to determine, through this understanding, how genetic rescue techniques might be applied to conserve the species.

The black-footed ferret is a model species for this research; information from this initiative will aid the designs of captive breeding programs worldwide. From the website anyone can link to the first fully sequenced black-footed ferret nuclear genomes and participate in the analysis and interpretation of the data.

If open-access science for genetic rescue emerges as a successful method for gaining relevant insight into a large genomic dataset, it too could become a model method for finding genomic conservation solutions for endangered species.

Why the Black-footed Ferret?


Photo by J. Michael Lockhart, USFWS

The past 25 years of captive breeding have led to a loss of genetic diversity. Genetic diversity has been shown in conservation to be directly related to the health, or long-term survival/adaptability, of a species. For the black-footed ferret, genetic rescue means finding ways to bring back the diversity lost from inbreeding. The Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program has already pioneered genetic rescue techniques with advanced reproductive technologies, producing ferrets from “cryogenic artificial insemination” using 20-year-old cryopreserved spermatozoa to fertilize living females. These ferrets, born from parents spanning 20 years of generations, may bring back lost genetic diversity. The continuing decline of genetic variability in the black-footed ferret’s gene pool urgently needs a solution.

Dr. Oliver Ryder, Adjunct Professor of Behavior and Evolution at UC San Diego and Director of Genetics, Kleberg Chair at the San Diego Zoo Global will blog from time to time about the progress of this exciting initiative and respond to comments. Read his blog here.

Cryogenic artificial insemination is a powerful tool, but may be aided by other advanced reproductive strategies and de-extinction techniques; the first stage in diversifying genetic rescue methods lies in the genomes of ferrets both present and past – this is where our initiative begins. DNA samples of two living ferrets born in captivity – Cheerio and Balboa – were provided by the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Team and cell cultures from two additional ferrets – an unnamed male wild-caught at Meeteetse between 1985-1987 and Willa, wild-caught at Meeteetse between 1985-1987 – were provided by the San Diego Frozen Zoo.

Cofactor Genomics, sponsored by Revive & Restore, sequenced the DNA samples provided by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the San Diego Frozen Zoo. The closely related domestic ferret is used extensively for human medical research, and its genome has been thoroughly sequenced and analyzed by the Broad Institute. That data is linked from the website and offers an excellent reference genome for the black-footed ferret material: as much as 92% of the black-footed ferret genome can be mapped and analyzed with the domestic ferret genome.

Please join us to conserve this endangered species. Send your comments or questions to revive+ferreting@longnow.org.

“Wanderers” Short Film Gives Glimpse of Our Possible Future in Space

Posted on Thursday, December 11th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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Wanderers“, a short film by director Erik Wernquist, depicts a not-so-far future in which humanity has expanded throughout the solar system. The film starts with a panorama of humans 10,000 years ago at the dawn of civilization, a key point of reference in Long Now’s own intellectual ecosystem.

eDnRLGD

There are two specific aspects that set the video apart: the carefully researched hard science behind each shot of the video and the generally optimistic depiction of the future. To make the video, director Erik Wernquist made composite shots from images from different space missions and then filled in the rest. This image gallery gives a breakdown of the sources and science behind each shot in the film.

The generally optimistic tone of the film is in contrast with much of contemporary science fiction, which as a general rule shows dystopian scenarios in our near future. The call for more optimistic visions of our future has become a major point of discussion in the science fiction community, with author (and Interval donor) Neil Stephenson launch of Project Hieroglyph, an initiative that challenges science fiction authors to imagine optimistic hard-science futures.

Brian Eno and Danny Hillis: The Long Now, now — a Seminar Flashback

Posted on Tuesday, December 9th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Brian Eno, Danny Hillis: The Long Now, now, Seminar About Long-term Thinking 1/02014

Brian Eno, Danny Hillis: The Long Now, now, Seminar About Long-term Thinking 1/02014 photos by Kelly Ida Scope

In January 02014 Brian Eno and Danny Hillis, co-founders of The Long Now Foundation, spoke about The Long Now, now in our Seminars About Long-term Thinking series. Long Now’s third co-founder, Stewart Brand, joined them onstage for the second part of the talk.

Leaving the planet, singing, religion, drugs, sex, and parenting are all touched on in their wide-ranging and humor-filled discussion. There’s much about the 10,000 Year Clock project, of course, including details about how The Clock’s chime generator will work. And, fittingly, they discuss the notion of art as conversation.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. The Long Now, now is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until Februray 02015. Listen to SALT audio free on our Seminar pages and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk (in full here):

Hillis talked about the long-term stories we live by and how our expectations of the future shape the future, such as our hopes about space travel. Eno said that Mars is too difficult to live on, so what’s the point, and Hillis said, “That’s short-term thinking. There are three big game-changers going on: globalization, computers, and synthetic biology. (If I were a grad student now, I wouldn’t study computer science, I’d study synthetic biology.) I probably wouldn’t want to live on Mars in this body, but I could imagine adapting myself so I would want to live on Mars. To me it’s pretty inevitable that Earth is just our starting point.”

Danny Hillis is an inventor, scientist, author, and engineer. He pioneered the concept of parallel computers that is now the basis for most supercomputers, as well as the RAID disk array technology used to store large databases. He holds over 100 U.S. patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices. Danny Hillis is also the designer of Long Now’s 10,000-year Clock.

Brian Eno is a composer, producer and visual artist. He was a founding member of Roxy Music and has produced albums for such groundbreaking artists as David Bowie, The Talking Heads and U2. He is credited with coining the term “Ambient Music” and making some of the definitive recordings in that genre. In recent years he has focused on generative art including numerous gallery installations and his Ambient Painting at The Interval at Long Now. His music is available for purchase at Enoshop.

EnoandHillisClockShop photo by Alexander Rose

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until February 02015). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

Brian Eno, Danny Hillis: The Long Now, now, Seminar About Long-term Thinking 1/02014

Brian Eno, Danny Hillis: The Long Now, now, Seminar About Long-term Thinking 1/02014
photos by Kelly Ida Scope


The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Carne Ross writes to John Burnside

Posted on Monday, December 8th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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dysonIn April, Long Now board member Esther Dyson wrote a letter to Carne Ross as part of the Artangel Longplayer Letters series. The series is a relay-style correspondence: The first letter was written by Brian Eno to Nassim Taleb. Nassim Taleb then wrote to Stewart Brand, and Stewart wrote to Esther Dyson, who wrote to Carne Ross. Carne’s response is now addressed to John Burnside, a novelist, short story writer and poet, who will respond with a letter to a recipient of his choosing.

The discussion thus far has focused on the extent and ways government and technology can foster long-term thinking. You can find the previous correspondences here.


From: Carne Ross, New York City
To: John Burnside, Berlin
8 December 2014

Dear John,

We are bidden to consider the future. What a privilege to be asked! What a nightmare to contemplate!

Esther Dyson wrote to me to propose an appealing scheme of how to inspire communities to be healthier. She spoke too of how data and technology, on which she is more than expert, enable government to provide better services and be accountable to citizens.

Of course she is right on this point, but I think you and I would want to take it some way further. Esther’s model is the familiar archetype of representative democracy, where the many elect the few to provide services for them. It is a transactional model, technocratic, with success or failure assessed with measurement and metrics. What’s missing are some essential questions: Who is doing what to whom? Who has power and who does not? Indeed, what is it all for? Like Esther, I want better and more accountable services for everyone. But this is not enough. The contemporary architecture of representative democracy and a capitalist economy, within which these reforms would take place, is to me, and I suspect you, deeply inadequate. Its flaws – inequality, environmental destruction, to name but two – are all too evident.

Let us look to the future, which is the challenge posed by this series of letters. I tried to cast my mind ten thousand years hence, or a thousand. Of course it was impossible. I could imagine space colonies and eternally-pickled brains whose contents are stored in data clouds. But what’s the use of such piddling fantasies? It seemed more worthwhile to fantasize about an ideal. How would humans live in an ideal world? I did not imagine a blueprint of such a world: if the twentieth century has taught us anything, it must be that utopian designs are inherently despotic; whether communist, fascist or even neo-liberal. Humans are forced to fit the design, and not the other way around. I tried to imagine how a human would ideally live, a thought experiment which proved one thing: how pathetically distant our current “civilisation” is from ideal. But the vision thereby also provided a kind of target.

How should humans ideally live? They would be fed and housed in as much comfort as they wished. They would live as long as they wanted in beauty and perfect, athletic health (you and I, I fear, are some way from this ideal already). They would be free to die as they choose, for eternal life would, I suspect, be its own kind of hell (though I would be willing to give it a go). They would live in peace, without hatred or resentment. They would wallow in mutual love with other humans (perhaps they could enjoy the permanent sensation of being “in love”). I have long doubted the idea of living in “harmony” with heartless, brutal nature, but humans in this ideal conception would enjoy their planet, unthreatened by its depredations, and reaping from it all that they needed. They would be free of all coercion: no one would have power over anyone else. There would therefore be no government.

Their material needs and desires thus satisfied, humans would be free to indulge in what for me is the ultimate “point”, if there can be said to be such a thing, which would be the expression and enactment of all that is sublime and joyous of the immaterial: art, music, poetry (yes, John, you have a place there), love, sex (needless to say), pleasure, literature, voluptuous languor. There are not sufficient words for this fabulous realm; there is certainly no measure, which is why I recoil at our current obsession with metrics and measurable targets, and data: the things that matter most have no measure! It is there to be endlessly explored, imagined. It is the infinite.

Writing this today, I feel terribly sad and a little bit desperate. My expectation is that this ideal is, in reality, wholly unattainable. Looking forward once more, I fear that much more likely is that within a few hundred years, if not less, humanity will have successfully annihilated itself in ways already all too clear. Nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented. It seems implausible to expect that the bombs will never be detonated. We have already come very close to nuclear war on several occasions in the few decades since their invention. The supposedly stable framework of strategic theory – “mutually assured destruction”, deterrence etc. – seems flimsy at best, likewise, is the reliance on lots of buttons that must be pressed, or keys that must be turned simultaneously, as launch devices designed to prevent an accidental launch. Most worryingly, the proliferation of these ghastly weapons has already put them in the trembling hands of nutters like the Kim family tyranny of North Korea, and under the control of governments which could tomorrow be overthrown by, millenarian extremists, whether religious or secular.

Then there is “the environment” where credible scientific forecasts of global warming are already painting a future of planetary catastrophe. A thousand years hence? Even getting through a hundred without mass starvation, war and species loss seems unlikely at this rate. God, I feel like should stop writing, pour myself a Highland malt and lose myself in your fine poems. No, I feel obliged to continue.

What is to be done? Metrical improvement of government services doesn’t quite hit the mark, does it? I am not preaching revolution, for Hannah Arendt was right to say that revolution merely brings us back to where we started, usually, with much bloodshed and misery along the way. I don’t believe in violent overthrow or hostility. Together, we might just make it. Divided, we most definitely shall not.

I do believe that a cultural, political, and economic reformation is possible; a profound and magnificent reimagining of how we live and how we get by with one another. Humans survive together. Alone, we are nothing: life is not worth living. The most important question is not what we believe, where we’re from, what sex we are, or what kind of music, or food, or sexual partner we like. It is: how do we deal with Other People? Get this right, in the economy and in politics, and we might just make it.

If the ideal is humans who are comfortable, healthy, free from violence or coercion, then that is where we should start. This is not impossible even today. Put people first and central in politics and the economy. In ancient Athens, many citizens played an active part in deciding the city’s future. Today, “participatory” processes allow the mass – sometimes tens of thousands of citizens, men and women – to decide things like budget priorities. When all are included in these decisions, the resulting policies reflect all of their interests; they are more equitable. In comparison, supposedly “representative” democracies will inevitably create elites (the few elected by the many) who are inherently susceptible to the influence of – if not corruptible by – the most powerful, thereby exacerbating, rather than reducing, any existing power imbalance.

Inequality supercharges this problem. The rich are already powerful. The evidence clearly shows that “democratic” legislation reflects their interests (literally: interest on capital is taxed at a lower rate than earned income, so a wealthy hedge fund owner is taxed at a lower rate than his cleaner). As Thomas Piketty has so convincingly demonstrated, the rich are indeed getting richer, because, as he shows, the returns on capital are, in general, greater than the returns on labour. Not only are the rest not getting richer (at all), the poor are, astonishingly, actually getting poorer. We are living in the age of the globalized, mega-wealthy plutocrats who control vast sums of money, and thus vast numbers of people. They control politics, philanthropy, culture, and even ideas (the musings of a billionaire are deemed, in publications like The New York Times, much more worthy of publication than the musings of, say, a street sweeper).

Fixing democracy is only half the solution. We must also promote new forms of economic activity, where profits and agency are shared, not concentrated in the hands of a tiny few. Employee-owned cooperatives, whether a bakery or a bank, can be as successful as the egoist entrepreneur (an archetype that is much too celebrated in contemporary culture; every successful individual stands on the shoulders of many). This is not state control, or redistribution by taxation, which of course is a kind of coercion, something we wish to avoid. It is altering the form, and thus the outcome, of economic activity at source. If widely implemented, with good will, patience and perseverance (for nothing human is ever perfect), such methods may have rapid effect, especially since humans are now so thoroughly connected with one another, and ever more so. Changing the method is tantamount to changing the outcome because, as Gandhi stressed, the means are the end. Change the manner in which we interact with one another, how we govern ourselves, how we make things, how we flourish, and we change everything. We are no longer mere outputs of an ideological system, we are in control, at the centre, the point.

John, I know that you share these sentiments. The question now that I cannot answer is how do we foment this transformation. Stalin imposed Marx’s revolution, causing untold horrors. Our reformation must come by suasion, not coercion. It’s clear that the disillusionment with the current status quo is rampant. But it is a different matter to turn that negative into a positive impulsion to build new things, new companies, new forums for decisions. Expert craftsman of words that you are, I suspect you would also agree that words alone are not enough. Are we to be dragged under by our own cynicism? Or will hope come to our rescue?

My hope is succoured by the hundred tales I hear of people of similar mind taking their own course, building businesses, starting communities, tending to the vulnerable, sharing their labour, love and resources for goals far greater than mere money, for solidarity, for compassion, for mutual aid; they who celebrate the best of humanity, not the most selfish: a thousand paths in the same direction, towards lives that are lived fully, marching forward in step alongside other humans, respecting and loving them and in common purpose with them. These stories move me to the quick. There are legion. May they prevail.

Over to you, my friend,

Carne


Carne Ross founded the world’s first not-for-profit diplomatic advisory group, Independent Diplomat. He writes on world affairs and the history of anarchism, recently publishing The Leaderless Revolution (2011), which looks into how, even in democratic nations, citizens feel a lack of agency and governments seem increasingly unable to tackle global issues.

John Burnside is a novelist, short story writer and poet. His poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, won both the Forward and the T.S. Eliot Prizes in 2011, a year in which he also received the Petrarch Prize for Poetry. He has twice won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award, (in 2006 and 2013). His memoir A Lie About My Father won the Madeleine Zepter Prize (France) and a CORINE Belletristikpreis des ZEIT Verlags Prize (Germany); his story collection, Something Like Happy, received the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. His work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Chinese. He writes a monthly nature column for The New Statesman and is a regular contributor to The London Review of Books.

Royal Ontario Museum Passenger Pigeons Now on Display at the Interval

Posted on Tuesday, December 2nd, 02014 by Perry Hall
link   Categories: Revive & Restore, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

photo by Catherine Borgeson

Visitors to The Interval can now view two stunning passenger pigeon specimens on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) houses the world’s largest collection of passenger pigeons. These specimens showcase the species’ unique male and female coloration and beauty.

The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) once lived throughout eastern North America in enormous nomadic flocks – the largest flocks recorded in history. Fossil records date as far back as 240,000 years, yet in less than three decades the species went extinct in the wild due to commercial harvesting, leaving only a few birds in captivity by 01902. The last passenger pigeon died on September 1, 01914, at the Cincinnati Zoo.

photo by Catherine Borgeson

Revive & Restore’s flagship project, The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, aims to use new genome editing tools to recreate passenger pigeons from their living relative, the band-tailed pigeon. Through a partnership with the UCSC Paleogenomics Laboratory, Revive & Restore is sequencing the genomes of Royal Ontario Museum specimens to provide the foundation for future flocks of passenger pigeons.

Revive & Restore gratefully acknowledges the Royal Ontario Museum for this generous temporary loan for visitors to enjoy. Revive & Restore’s Research and Science Consultant and lead scientist on The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, Ben Novak, will speak at the Royal Ontario Museum on September 26, 02014 for their De-Extinction Dialogues event. The title of his talk is “De-Extinction: a genetic future to the conservation legacy of the passenger pigeon.” Visit the ROM website for more details.