James Barrett on Wed, 19 Mar 2014 14:17:13 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible

Related to the assumption that energy will remain rare, I wanted to share something I originally wrote on my blog in 2008 (http://www.soulsphincter.com/2008/02/commons-and-fission.html):

With an installed peak power capacity of 20 megawatts, the world's largest photovoltaic solar power farm has opened in Spain with the potential to produce enough electricity for 20 000 homes. (see Eyebeam)

There is (or rather has been since a referendum in 1980, the results of which are still to be implemented) a rather prolonged debate about nuclear energy in Sweden that has gained new momentum in the last few months. Like many rich countries, Sweden is looking for ways out of the industrial age energy system (fossil fuel based and import orientated), a way to wean itself off oil and to secure energy production to within its own borders. These aims have the extra benefit of opening the energy sector up to renewable sources of energy production. There are many people in Sweden who (after 28 years) still want to see a "stop to construction and phase out of nuclear power" but the present government seems, like many other governments in the post-industrialized world, to be fond of nuclear power in principle. Why this is so I have been wondering about for a few days now and I think I may have an idea about.

Alternatives to nuclear power are based on Common resources; wind, sunlight, geothermal, and the less eco-friendly but relatively sustainable methanol and ethanol projects based on household waste recycling. A Swedish company has plans to design buildings that use the body heat of occupants to heat the building:

Recently, a Swedish state-owned company, Jernhuset, declared its plans to harness body heat generated in the Stockholm Central Station to power a complex nearby. Each day, around 250,000 people pass through this building. Jernhuset plans to capture their body heat through the ventilation system and use it to warm water which will then be transferred through pipes to the new complex. This warm water will heat the new complex and is expected to lower heating costs by 20%. This is a great deal, considering the total investment for the project will only be $31,200.

Each of these proposed systems for energy production is based on a resource that is not owned by no one person or corporation in its raw unprocessed state. One could say that the commons is at play in each example:

The word "Commons" has now come to be used in the sense of any sets of resources that a community recognizes as being accessible to any member of that community. The nature of commons is different in different communities, but they often include cultural resources and natural resources.
While commons are generally seen as a system opposed to private property, they have been combined in the idea of common property, which are resources owned equally by every member of the community, even though the community recognizes that only a limited number of members may use the resource at any given time.
Commons are a subset of public goods; specifically meaning a public good which is not infinite. Commons can therefore be land, rivers and, arguably, money. The Commons is most often a finite but replenishable resource, which requires responsible use in order to remain available. A subset of this is a commons which requires not only responsible use but also active contribution from its users, such as a school or church funded by local donations.

The nuclear power industry occupies a zone of transition between what is considered 'post/modern' and what is considered 'pre-modern' in the sense of the new ecology movement that has developed in the past few decades. Nuclear energy, while considered by many to be unsafe, it is not generally considered polluting in the same way a coal fired power station is. The image of nuclear power I believe held by many is a high technological but unstable industry. The key to why nuclear is a popular alternative for many post-industrial state's governments is that nuclear energy preserves a model of production that has its roots in high consumption industrialism. Such a model assists in a unitary commodity based economy where taxes are paid and present hierarchies maintained. While almost anyone can set up a windmill or a solar farm, nuclear fission is a tricky thing and not something anyone wants to be too close to. Nuclear power preserves the one-to-many model of industrial centralized property based markets. As Yochai Benkler explains in The Wealth of Networks (Free Online of Course): 

"However, the core characteristic of property as the institutional foundation of markets is that the allocation of power to decide how a resource will be used is systematically and drastically asymmetric. That asymmetry permits the existence of “an owner” who can decide what to do, and with whom. We know that transactions must be made— rent, purchase, and so forth—if we want the resource to be put to some other use. The salient characteristic of commons, as opposed to property, is that no single person has exclusive control over the use and disposition of any particular resource in the commons. Instead, resources governed by commons may be used or disposed of by anyone among some (more or less well-defined) number of persons, under rules that may range from “anything goes” to quite crisply articulated formal rules that are effectively enforced." Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks "Peer Production and Sharing" p61

I believe that so much of what could be playing out in societies dealing with massive network systems is being established below the official levels of administration, production and distribution of goods and services. Peer to Peer file sharers, people smugglers, mercenary armies, Folksonomies, G8 protesters, SMS political sends - Burma, South Korea, Philippines, an so on and on are parts of a more general revision of practices based on networks. The solar farm mentioned above is an example of a horizontal system based on a network. If one panel is taken out, the system continues. Solar farms can be built by communities and there is no need to involve the national electricity grid at all (unless the community chooses to sell their excess). The same can be said of wind generators. Where does this leave the large (or in the case of Sweden - state) energy producers which have enormous amounts of their capital tied up in industrial modes of production and therefore find it difficult to transition to networks that are less centralist than these present systems? The large one-to-many production of commodities such as electricity will attempt to assert their dominance by maintaining outmoded systems of production and distribution for as long as is possible. We are currently seeing the same artificial protection in the music and film industries, where old modes of distribution, and to a lesser extent production, are being protected by the industry through their lobbying of governments using copyright laws. 

James Barrett
PhD Candidate/Adjunct
Department of Language Studies/HUMlab
Umeå University

From: nettime-l-bounces@mail.kein.org [nettime-l-bounces@mail.kein.org] On Behalf Of olivier auber [olivierauber2@gmail.com]
Sent: 19 March 2014 11:16
To: nettime-l@kein.org
Subject: Re: <nettime> industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'?

Everything is based on the assumption that energy will remain rare.
Other NASA researchers believe the contrary ..

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