Bruce Sterling on Tue, 16 May 2000 20:23:28 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Speech at PlaNetWork

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.

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 

     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 

     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 

     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 

      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 

     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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