EcoGeek of the Week: Karl Schroeder
Karl Schroeder is the second science fiction writer to come out of the southern Manitoba Mennonite community (after A.E. van Vogt). Born in 1962, Karl grew up in a household full of books. He moved to Toronto in 1986 to pursue a dream of being a novelist, and now lives there with his wife and daughter.
Karl has been a fixture in the Canadian SF writing community since the late 1980s, establishing a growing reputation with acclaimed and award-winning short stories. Since his first appearance in the American market, he has enjoyed continued and increasing success. His previous novels Ventus (2000) and Permanence (2002), received a New York Times notable selection and the Aurora Award for Best Novel, respectively. He is also the author of Lady of Mazes, Sun of Suns (Book One of the Virga Cycle), and most recently, Queen of Candesce (Book Two of the Virga Cycle).
Karl writes hard science fiction with a humanist twist, focusing not just on technology and discovery but on the human costs of technological development. His website is www.kschroeder.com. He is also a contributing blogger for World Changing Canada and maintains the philosophical blog Age of Embodiment. EcoGeek: We started our interview with Tobias Buckell asking him about his statement that he is "a nuclear power loving environmentalist." And you recently had an article on your own blog where you spoke of some recent developments in fusion power research by Dr. Robert Bussard as "the truly epochal moment of the 21st century; a liminal moment." What do you think about nuclear power broadly, and can you tell us some more about what Bussard is doing?
Karl Schroeder: The discontents of nuclear fission don't stem from the reactors (Chernobyl aside) but from the mining, refining and waste disposal processes, which are horribly polluting. There are new technologies that could 'burn' spent fuel, largely obviating those issues. Nonetheless, nuclear remains hugely expensive and ultimately, it's going to prove cheaper to put up windmills and photovoltaics and store the off-peak power through such expedients as pumping water back up to the top of hydroelectric dams.
Bussard's technology is different. It and several other new fusion systems are game-changers. Bussard's system, for instance--if it works--will do aneutronic fusion. It literally produces raw electricity with almost no radiation and the trickle of radiation stops the instant you turn it off. If it overloads it fizzles out like an old-style vacuum tube. It uses no fissionables and produces no radioactive waste. And these reactors would be small enough to fit into the basement of an office building, or an airplane--or a rocket.
Of course, all the fusion funding in the western world is going into ITER (Wikipedia entry), a bloated, pointless exercise in bureaucratic creep. ITER is one of those runaway government projects that become, in an immortal phrase I wish I'd thought of first, a 'self-sucking lollipop.' But don't get me started on that.
EcoGeek: What are the raw materials and the fuels that the Bussard fusion would require? You aren't mining radioactives for fuel, but are other components going to have impacts, or does it use streams of materials we're already producing somewhere?
Karl Schroeder: The reactors would use superconductors, but since common alloys of tin superconduct, for instance, we're not talking about exotic materials here. The fuel for aneutronic fusion would likely be boron, which is literally as common as mud and about as radioactive as your morning toast. A few kilos per year would do for the entire US electrical grid, so you can see the attraction.
You know, technological miracles happen. Look at flight, or AC power being available in every home. The current generation doesn't seem to appreciate what's actually possible.
EcoGeek: What new technologies do you think have the potential for the greatest positive impact on the environment?
Karl Schroeder: I like to play a little game called 'if I had a billion dollars' (with a nod to the Barenaked Ladies' song). If I did, I'd drop $200 million on Bussard (I'm sure he'd enjoy that); $200 million on kickstarting a vertical farming industry, the same on ocean iron-fertilization studies, another chunk on developing an agrichar infrastructure, and the rest on various projects that can't get funding because they have a low probability of success, but massive payoff if they do work. --Which is precisely where our investment should be flowing right now, because we don't have time for incremental development to solve the climate crisis. We need miracles, and those don't come from slow, safe R&D; projects--such as ITER.
EcoGeek: What are some of the advantages that vertical farming would provide? Do you think that vertical farming can realistically replace current farming practice, or do you think that it would serve more as a supplement to existing farming? Does concentrating food production raise the risk of those structures being future terrorism targets? What does vertical farming provide that justifies the massive allocation of resources it would require?
Karl Schroeder: There's no new innovations required to begin vertical farming. The issues are financial and in engineering the system for maximum efficiency. One recent study found that a 47-story tall, one city-block square vertical farm could feed 50,000 people at competitive prices, while recycling most of its resources internally and producing most of its own power. From that study you can calculate that a set of vertical farms 25 blocks square could feed the entire population of Canada. What does it provide? Nothing less than the ability to "rewild" as much of the countryside as we want, by taking the burden of agricultural production out of the continental ecosystem.
(Ed. Note: You can see more about this idea in Karl's article about "Rewilding Canada" from WorldChanging.)
EcoGeek: You mention 'agrichar' in your Billion Dollars wishlist. That's not something I was very familiar with (though I think I got the gist of it after a little quick Google search). Can you tell us a little more about it (and why it's important or useful), or suggest a good website or link for more information for readers who would like to learn more about this?
Karl Schroeder: Agrichar is a modern version of "Terra Preta" which was used centuries ago in the Amazon basin to allow the nutrient-poor soils there to produce lavish crops. It's basically a burn-and-bury process that sequesters carbon, replaces commercial fertilizers, revives dying soils, and all in all is a perfect technique for long-term sustainable soil health. Simple enough that the Mayans could perfect it, with the potential to be used all over the world. It's a pretty new process so there's not too many sources of information out there about it, unfortunately. But it's precisely the sort of transformative technology we need.
EcoGeek: What environmental issues do you think are going to require technological intervention? Or, to put it a bit better perhaps, what environmental problems do you think *can* be remedied by technological intervention?
Karl Schroeder: Well, let's be clear on one thing: technology is legislation. A new technology can often create change (including social and behavioural change) where legislation and social activism have failed or are taking too long. Therefore, you shouldn't distinguish the idea of technological innovation from the idea of social activism. The two are inextricably linked, but technology has the greater power to effect social change because we have essentially no societal mechanisms in place to refuse new technologies. That fact is the source of our current crisis, and is also the Judo we'll use to overcome the seemingly insurmountable social inertia that is currently preventing powerful nations (such as the US and China) from recognizing and reacting to the climate crisis.
EcoGeek: Your Virga series (Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce, and the forthcoming Pirate Sun, and The Sunless Countries) postulates a gigantic, atmosphere-filled volume in space were people live in free-fall, or in artificial gravity from spinning cities. How well do you think humans are suited for living in alternative environments?
Karl Schroeder: Andy Clark refers to humans as 'natural-born cyborgs.' What he means is that we habitually extend and change our body-concept without even thinking twice about it. Certainly when I drive a car my concept of my body expands to include the car, which is how I'm able to make it alive around the curve of an off-ramp when I'm being followed by a Mack truck that refuses to slow below 80 km/hr. Your sense of body-in-space changes. And everything from glasses to shoes constitute extensions to the human body.
That said, I also think we're hardwired at a very basic level to live under gravity. I'd be surprised if it didn't turn out that the ballistic speed of nerve impulses isn't set by the requirement that the organism be able to react in time to accelerations in a 1g gravitational field. Full adaptation to higher gees would necessitate that we change ourselves on a cellular level. That's why, in Virga, the human settlers make their own gravity by spinning wood-and-rope 'town wheels' using home-build jet engines. They need the rotational gravity.
EcoGeek: That "natural-born cyborgs concept" is very interesting. Do you have a link for Andy Clark or for the quote that we could include?
Karl Schroeder: Andy Clark has several books you can find on Amazon, including "Natural Born Cyborgs" and "Being There." I particularly recommend "Being There" to anybody who still thinks the Cartesian separation of mind and body should be taken seriously. He is part of the recent movement toward studying what's called "embodied cognition" which is extremely important and hasn't received any mainstream press yet to my knowledge.
EcoGeek: Who do you think is writing interesting things about environmental issues?
Karl Schroeder: In the fiction area, check out Kim Stanley Robinson's current series, which includes Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting. I'd be loathe to single out anybody in the research or policy areas, though, for the simple reason that there are literally thousands of high-quality people working on environment problems now. It's a generational turnover the likes of which we've seldom seen--a true groundswell.
EcoGeek: What did you imagine the world would be like when you were a kid? Is it better or worse than your childhood fantasies?
Karl Schroeder: I thought we'd be settling Mars by now. I remember the moon landings, and Apollo was the paradigm by which all progress was measured at that time. And I knew that creating a true space-faring civilization was both possible and practical. --What I failed to realize was that the effort would fail due to bureaucratic inertia and political apathy. Those same forces are the enemies of innovation today as well. But not to worry; one eventual result of the internet revolution will be the replacement of bureaucracy with more efficient systems.
EcoGeek: What is your vision of life on Earth 100 years from now?
Karl Schroeder: If there is any life on Earth in 100 years, I foresee either an ecological catastrophe, with the majority of species extinct, the oceans stagnant, the arctic and Antarctic desolate and lifeless, and billions of people living in complete ignorance of how things could be, in massive urban centres; or, a world in which climate change was solved early and completely through innovations in power generation and carbon sequestration, where agriculture has gone to vertical farming and North America has largely been rewilded back to forest and open prairie, and where extinct species are regularly recreated by genetic engineering and reintroduced.
We are balanced exactly on the edge of the knife: it could go either way at this point. It is up to this generation to decide.
EcoGeek: A number of your books (Ventus, Permanence) touch on the concept of a mediated environment (inscape) where everything in the real world has a digital identity and is subject to control by various powers. What do you think of RFID tracking for objects as a method for tracking materials and supporting disassembly or recycling programs?
Karl Schroeder: RFID is the beginning of a change that will require us to draw very firm lines regarding issues such as ownership and privacy. It's good that the debate is happening now, because in a few years it'll be too late (because technology is legislation). In my novel Permanence I satirized one possible outcome of this trend with what I called 'the rights economy.' In the rights economy, every object has nanotags embedded in it that record who owns it, what it's worth, etc. You can't buy anything, you can only lease things from their rights owners. So every time you sit on a chair, you pay a micropayment of a thousandth of a cent or so to the person who owns the rights to that chair. You can't open a door without paying to do so, and all information is owned, too, so you can't open a copy of the Bible and read it without registering a payment to the Bible's rights owner.
Think this is ridiculous? Just look at the current debate over copyright, downloading and file sharing; and ask yourself, what will happen when fab units (3d printers) like the one Canon is selling to consumers, become ubiquitous? When you can print physical objects and simple devices, who's going to want to get paid for your capability?
Tracking, disassembly, and cradle-to-cradle uses--these will come, but they're obvious. There are other, more dangerous considerations we have to take into account with RFID.
EcoGeek: What piece of technology do you hope to see developed and widely available in the next 10-20 years?
Karl Schroeder: I foresee some things that are positive versions of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 'black swan'--gigantic, earth-shattering changes that sound ridiculous now but will be seen as inevitable when they happen. For instance: something I call 'the narratives' which is what you get when artificial intelligence gets good enough, and ubiquitous enough, that your surroundings can start to weave a seamless, life-affirming story of you for you where-ever you go. Life will be like living in a movie about your life; we can create systems that generate, not money, or information as such, but meaning for ourselves. The narratives would be earth-shattering because they could take over the function that religion performs now. ...And I can imagine you shaking your head and saying 'huh?' But is the nature of the future that what it brings is inconceivable before the fact.
EcoGeek: Do you have an environmental question that you think would be good for us to ask other authors we talk to?
Karl Schroeder: Yes. My question is, do you believe that sustainability is a zero-sum game? --In other words, that in order for us to live within our environmental means, we must scale back or abandon our ambitions in other areas? Because, to give away my own answer, I don't think sustainability is zero-sum. I think a lot of people do, and I think that's a dangerous trend. Maybe it's because I look into the future professionally, but I see great possibilities for both humanity and our planet. I don't believe the thriving of one has to come at the expense of the other, and I'm deeply concerned to find out whether other people do think that. 'Cause if they do, then we're screwed.