How (Not) to Talk about the Environment

Reflections on Energy Literacy in the World of Tech Ubiquity

Abdelrahman (Abdo) Hassan

Credit: Mary Ponomareva

From March 10 to 13, FIBER organized a four day meeting place for artists, designers, creative coders, technologists, researchers, energy experts and policy makers who are committed to, or interested in, working towards a fossil-free and fair internet. The aim of the Natural Intelligence Lab was to fuse existing practices, skills and knowledge, and to form new alliances. The lab explored four interdependent and sometimes overlapping research areas: Energy Literacy, Everyday Technologies, Collective Infrastructures and Fossil-Free Imaginaries. Abdo’s piece connects to Energy Literacy, a research area where we looked at how to include a new energy awareness in design practice. How to work from, and collaborate with, natural cycles, ecological ethics and decolonial computing?

In her book Staying with the Trouble the feminist philosopher of science Donna Haraway writes:

Here, Donna Harraway implores us to embrace a hyper, yet situated, literacy when it comes to ecology. The invitation is to move beyond what the thing is, but rather towards our entanglements with it, the imaginaries we build to accommodate it, and its underlying assumptions. In the Energy Literacy research area of the FIBER Reassemble Lab, we explored new ways in which we can understand energy, and shape a common literacy around it. However, this very discussion warrants itself a key problematic: Energy itself is a colonial subject; It is often extracted from the ‘sacrificial zone’, to the benefit of an extractive global system. Energy producing elements, minerals and foods are extracted and transported from the global south with little regard to the sustenance of local human and non human ecologies.

Left: Cover of Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016). Right: A design by Elaine Gan for the exhibit “DUMP!” at Kunsthal Aarhus, 2015

This paradigm extends for ‘renewable’ and green energy as well. For example: The western-funded Ouarzazate Solar Power Station (OSPS) in Morocco, becomes a prime case, where the advent of ‘cleaner’ energy came at the expense of the local Amazigh communities, disrupting their agricultural practices (2). Hence, to build a decolonial literacy of energy we need to move beyond capitalist formulas of extraction and consumption. ‘Energy’ then transcends becoming a transactional byproduct, but rather an embodied life force, and an object of collective care.

Ouarzazate Solar Power Station (OSPS) in Morocco

We must then consider our energy literacy within itself, that is, how we talk about, conceptualise and trace energy within ecology. To be holistically and constructively literate, we must account for the technological affordances, literary vehicles, entangled histories and alternate imaginaries. It could perhaps be tempting to already prototype ways in which this new literacy would take shape; to speculate on whether technology can reorient itself to being the remedy, or whether it remains the poison. It could even be more enticing to start measuring, unveiling and unearthing the hidden channels of energy consumption. But what became clear during the lab is that Energy itself is a captive concept; already entangled in a knot of convoluted ideas. Building a better energy literacy requires us first to start untangling. To figure out and navigate away from pitfalls that shackle our literacy, we must draw a map away from where we currently are. This reflection piece then becomes, in response to Donna’s invitation, an understanding of what “Knots the Knot”.

1) Literacy isn’t consumption

To ‘know’ is not always to consume knowledge that is offered, or to pursue absolute truths. To ‘know’ could also be to ‘demand’, to ‘provoke’, to ‘play with’. A complex and disembodied sociotechnical system often hides knowledge. Constructing an idea of what a sufficient literacy then becomes a problem. How do we tackle what we cannot sense, nor measure? Take for example the true costs of accessing a website. It is not ‘sufficient’ to only consider the power usage that a device affords or the ‘cost’ of wireless or wired connection. Our devices and interfaces for interaction are often edge-nodes in increasingly complex and obscure infrastructures, protocols, distributed ‘clouds’, and spatial politics.

Photo: Maarten Nauw

To know, to be aware and to be critical, requires adopting different design systems, those that ‘allow’ knowledge to surface. One great example that was presented in the lab is the Website Carbon Calculator (3), a tool that allows web designers to reflect not only on their website designs but where the website’s servers derive their energy from. Such awareness of the intricacies of Energy Infrastructures also prompts solutions such as ones adopted by Solar Protocol, which allows for websites to be hosted by individually run solar-powered servers. The work of the Solar Protocol (4) tries to manifest a natural intelligence, which is a turn away from mechanisms that aim to measure in its bid for control. Instead, it’s an alternate literacy that relies on ‘listening’ and collaborating with natural rhythms.

2) Literacy is a multitude

Literacy as a concept isn’t only one thing, mentioning and discussing energy literacy as a single category highlights a need to shift our thinking in a way that can combat the climate emergency we’re living in, as we approach environmental tipping points (5). Literacy is a category from which there should be multiple instances. When it comes to treating energy as a life force, we need to understand the subjects it gives life. In our quest to conceptualise this pluralistic literacy, we need to consider intersectional literacies. Understanding energy flows is neither a purely scientific or technical feat, but rather it is situated in the sociotechnical contexts it’s embedded in. The global south, for example, doesn’t only experience different energy flows, but also disproportionately experiences the complications of the climate emergency. But the only differentiator isn’t race or class.

We have never been modern, by Bruno Latour.

Our new literacies should consider different origin stories, different gender identities, different frameworks for living and political economy. This is because, as history has taught us, we exist in interconnected assemblages. Differentiating an ‘objective’ nature from the ‘subjective’ social functioning is a toxic differentiation, as French eco-philosopher Bruno Latour illustrates in his book ‘We’ve Never Been Modern’ (6). The conversation around climate change for example, is shrouded in political discourse (7), dynamics of wealth accumulation (8), indigenous erasure (9) rather than being shaped entirely through scientific rigour.

3) Words matter; so we must watch our language.

The words we use to describe other words matter. In that light, the metaphors we use to describe abstract technical structures matter. “Clouds” are not really clouds, we “surf” a web that isn’t truly “decentralised” and seamlessly connected (10). Computer science has always drawn from nature’s inspiration for its emerging structures. But perhaps we must consider if this inspiration is really benign. What these metaphors often do, is deface the natural and whitewash the technical. Perhaps what we need to construct is a new language paradigm that allows human intelligence and natural intelligence to truly collaborate, taking into account the intersectional affordances of our language. During the lab, a round table discussion around ‘Queering Nature’ was held. The conversation taught us that we also need to be mindful of the gendered language we use to characterise the earth and its resources.

Photo: Zoë Horsten

We need to speak a new language that moves beyond human binaries of fertility and infertility, valuable vs dispensable, natural and artificial. Queering natural means that we understand that nature exists beyond human-constructed binaries.

4) Moving beyond solutionism and techno-pessimism.

When talking about future ecologies, there are often two dominant moods: Solutionism and Pessimism.

The first is a silicon-valley-Sponsored solutionism. Solutionist approaches put technology at the center of future literacy. In those paradigms, AI systems can help us manage resources, and move us beyond scarcity; they can seamlessly regulate and orchestrate our ecology. Such points of view have a clear caveat: they skip the cultivation of a critical literacy needed to understand the current ecology before making interventions. The technological infrastructure is resource-heavy in itself, and technical operation often generates emergent harms and amplifies existing social biases.

For example, the advent of web3 as a trust-less and decentralised protocol for managing online interactions has been promising in theory, only to be phased with growing concerns about the energy consumption of its underlying technologies. To further problematize the solution, we find its adoption uneven, with larger barriers to entry along the global south.

As a response to the boundless solutionism comes techno-pessimism, a view that technology is the antithesis of ecology. Techno-pessimism is best portrayed by the all-too-familiar Cyberpunk imagery (11); highrise building, flying cars, and automated helpers, but the decay of human agency and ecology. Cyberpunk settings manifest techno-pessimism so that greenspaces are a rarity, and technology is a tool of individualizing oppression rather than an instrument of collective liberation.

Cyberpunk imagery; highrise building, flying cars

So a new literacy would need to find a space between the two moods. It would follow the footsteps of alternate imaginaries, like those of Solarpunk (12), which builds a visual life of an alternative low-tech, high-life future. This intermediate space is one that is reflective and self-critical, embracing technology as a change agent but not centering it. In this literacy, we can imagine new human-machine choreographies, one where machines aren’t always on, and one where there’s a conscious symbiosis between human and nonhuman actors. In this new literacy, we can center dynamics of joy, rather than the dynamics of loss and decay.

5) We should tell shared stories

The last talking point is rather simple; we must be considerate of the ‘othering’ of nature. Anthropocentric perspectives place ecology at the periphery of humanity, often separate from it. Starting with 17th century philosophies that declared humans as separate from nature, and rejected anthropomorphic analogies which prescribed non-human traits to non-human actors. The shift in literacy here lies in a liminal space; one that isn’t completely separate from nature, but one that isn’t seamlessly integrated in it. Humans both consume and produce energy, inhibiting organisms and micro-ecologies. We are not only actors in the ecosystems but also subjects. We must consider alternate topologies of co-existence of human and non human Actors.

Photo: Maarten Nauw

Instead of talking about an Anthropocene, a geological epoch characterised by the disproportionate impact of humans and their technologies on the environment, we must imagine a world beyond human control. Bruno Latour theorised about such a topology in his Actor Network Theory (13), which maintains that we exist within a constantly shifting network of social and natural actors. In the same light, Donna Harraway invites us to think about an alternative ‘Chthulucene’ (14), that is, an era where environmental refugees (both human and non-human) lived together in the harmony of a ‘mixed assemblage’.

Hence we can synthesise loosely that the stories we should be telling of environmental resilience shouldn’t just be stories of human intervention, but also of organisms, microorganisms, habitats, practices. A new literacy of energy should exist within a new imaginary where nature isn’t othered.

More about Abdo

Co-developer and mentor of the workshops during the lab Abdelrahman (Abdo) Hassan is a data science practitioner, activist and poet. His practice is multifaceted and revolves around decolonial computing and bridging critical theory with the critical practice of data. His interests include memetics, internet geographies, technical utopias/dystopias and depictions of e-governance. During the lab, Abdo was presenting an anti-harm workshop, promoting decolonial design literacy, as well as interrogating the notions of Natural intelligence in a public lecture.

Sources

(1) Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble. Experimental Futures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

(2) Hamouchene, Hamza. “Energy Transitions and Colonialism.” CADTM, 2 Nov. 2020, https://www.cadtm.org/Energy-transitions-and-colonialism.

(3) “Website Carbon Calculator V3: How Is Your Website Impacting the Planet?” Website Carbon Calculator, May 25, 2022. https://www.websitecarbon.com/.

(4) Brain, Tega. “Http://Solarprotocol.net/.” Solar Protocol, n.d.

(5) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/sep/08/world-on-brink-five-climate-tipping-points-study-finds

(6) Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

(7) https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-challenging-politics-of-climate-change/

(8)https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2022.872806/full#:~:text=The%20results%20show%20that%20county,making%20progress%20toward%20multiple%20SDGs.

(9) https://newint.org/blog/2015/12/17/wretched-of-the-earth-open-letter

(10) https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/how-the-metaphor-of-the-cloud-changed-our-attitude-toward-the-internet

(11) Chougule, Ramesh. (2015). Technophobia or Technophilia? :A Study of Cyberpunk Science Fiction.

(12) https://www.re-des.org/a-solarpunk-manifesto/

(13) Latour, Bruno. (2017). On Actor-Network Theory. A Few Clarifications, Plus More Than a Few Complications. Philosophical Literary Journal Logos. 27. 173–197. 10.22394/0869–5377–2017–1–173–197.

(14) Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble. Experimental Futures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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Amsterdam based platform and festival for audiovisual art, digital culture and electronic music. Upcoming events: FIBER Festival 2022, mid-May