Solar punk – inventing an alternative future

“Was bleibet aber, stiften die Dichter – what shall remain is woven by the poets”. It’s been twenty since I adopted this quote by Hölderlin as a personal motto.
As writers, we keep the fabric of the world together. We are the keepers of tradition, weaving the loose threads of the past into the present. We are also custodians of the present, we give it shape, as witnesses, so that it carries into the future. But writers – and poets, thinkers, dreamers, entrepreneurs, or innovators of all sorts – do more: we propose visions of a potential future, inventing a different world to come. And by doing so, we make it possible.
Building the future starts with a bold act of imagination, rousing our emotions, and driving us towards action. This is a critical task today, as we face the funk of COVID19, while climate change and environmental collapse continue to loom in the background. Luckily there is a growing movement to rally us around an alternative future: solar punk is creating a post-kevlar, post-black-mirror, post-apocalyptic vision of the future, one based on peer-to-peer abundance, and solidarity between humans, nature and machines. Shall we build it?

This post was inspired by a piece on Singularity Hub from my friend and FOGA co-founder @carin Ism, where I contributed a few notes

Amplifying the signal

My partner used to take me to concerts – not so long ago, when concerts were still a thing. Last year, we listened to the Doric quartet. Walking back from Hamer Hall, I raved about that concert. Here is how I phrased it: their interpretation was such that I could identify the signal clearly – the melodic phrase, and the harmonic intention. There was a deliberate attempt at making sense of the score. Playing in that manner takes expertise, but also courage. Because, when you decide to interpret music in this manner, you state this is the music. No fudging. And if you made a wrong choice, inaccurate interpretation, people notice.

I had the same experience a while back, listening to Peter de Jaeger play a piece by Messiaen at an ANAM concert. Suddenly, there were echoes of jazz, it sounded like Gershwin. That was the message. I thought: ‘Of course, that was the musical world of Messiaen, no wonder he captured it, incorporated it to his work’. Peter de Jaeger revealed this to me, and showed how this piece fit in historically with others at the time, only by a choice of deliberate interpretation. He was reading the score, and shared the meaning he found with an audience. He made sense of the piece.

For this, he amplified a certain signal – melody, harmony, rhythm – isolating it, muffling the rest as noise. In the same way, the work of an editor is to amplify a signal. This is what I do, when editing: I look for the signal in the noise noise, then work with an author to amplify the first, and reduce the latter. It is a very personal process. I might be right or wrong. In fact, what I perceive may not even be clear to the author themselves. My unconscious brain, or whatever it is, comes into play.

Corollary: when a piece has nothing but noise, no signal, I will sense this, make it clear to the author. So, the skill – my gift, one may even say – is not my capacity to understand, but remain puzzled. In fact, I have never felt – or been – more useful than when I got puzzled.

 

On friendships in a global world

The rise of China, the rise of Asia, call for new personal and collective histories. In that effort, writers have a major role to play. We speak about ‘bringing cultures together’, but this expression is incredibly vague. Who’s ever interacted directly with a ‘culture’? No, we read books, listen to music, look at various artefacts, navigate foreign cities, and engage with individuals. So, the better way to phrase it would be, we must create conditions where friendships can be formed between people who do not belong to the same culture.

Friendship might begin out of pleasure or utility: that’s Aristotle. It grows as we come to appreciate the character of the other person. Friends come together because of shared activities: it is the foundation of cultural and economic activities. Friendship holds a city together. It is also the fabric of our ethical lives, and our political existence. But it goes beyond the boundaries of a city, those close networks of regular physical encounter. It exists also between cities, supporting trade, nurtured by a network of diplomats and merchants who know each other, trust each other, and enjoy each other’s company. Who share something together: that very network, that very connection between their main place of residence, and the communities that live there.

As the world becomes more global, that network is becoming broader and broader. We need new ways for the people belonging to those different worlds to come together.

Here is the crux: friendship exists on the basis of a shared virtue framework, anchored in common practices, and common judgements of what is good or bad – or shared criteria to assess it. How can friendship begin, and grow, between people who do not share this common framework, or a common vocabulary? That is the difficulty, but flip it around, and you find opportunity.  Friendship is political at heart, and therefore building new friendships is – genuinely – the way to change political structures. For with it comes a new vocabulary, a new understanding of virtue, new norms – and new collectives. Friendship is the most potent political antidote to tyranny – the Greeks knew that very well. As did the French revolutionaries, who proposed to list not only family relationships, but friendships on their registry, and declared ‘who has no friend shall be banished from the Republic’.

The root of society, this is what I propose here, is not family but friendship. Connection between families. Like a web. So, when studying abroad, when travelling, the injunction to ‘make friends with locals’ is not benign. This is how radical change might come about.

This network of friendship is, in turn, an ecosystem for trust. It is a way to overcome the prisoner’s dilemma: tragedies of the common have this element in common, that people fail to collaborate effectively, maximise their own interest at the expense of others. Not so with friends, we work together to find balance. Climate change, ecosystem collapse: a proper understanding of friendship – could – help us find a way forward. Because we need to build new collectives, united by new shared understandings of what is good, and communicating this through new language. And then, as we face a period of fast change, we will need the warm emotional support of friendship, simply to get through.

The proposal then is – could we build a friendship school for the 21st century? What would this look like? Please share ideas in comments, or reach out if you’d like to discuss!

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #16

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

31 december

New Year’s Eve is a celebration to welcome the New Year – the coming change. You make resolutions: ‘this is what I am going to change’. But I will take New Year’s Eve differently, as a symbol of mindful change – that is, a time to consider the past, remember Because the future is not the sheer rejection of the past, but its full understanding and accomplishment. A bright future requires a solid understanding of history.

I spent the last day of the year exploring museums – with a short stop alongside a lake. Most precisely, the Hubei provincial museum, with collections of paleontology, and bronze age artifacts. A key message was – that the land of Chu was a centre of high culture more than 2000 years ago – as was manifest from the beauty and wealth of the objects on display.

More important, for my own understanding, the museum had a visiting exhibition of Etruscan civilization – these mysterious forefathers of Italy, Rome, and later my own tradition. Including canope vases, and the earliest ex voto – hands, eyes, a finger, even intestines made of clay, given as presents to the deity – and so very similar to the practice of Neapolitan (or even Parisian) Catholicism.

Equally ancient and respectable civilisations – the kingdom of Chu, the Etruscans. In another room were displays of the early hominids, with an allusion to Cro Magnon, in France’s South West. Both stressed the continuity between Chinese and European achievements.

Looking at history on that scale – our ancestors, 2500 years ago – is not common in Australia: aboriginal people have a 40,000 year old traditional lifestyle – other Australians have imported theirs from England 2 centuries ago. But I am a man of old culture, migrated to this land that seems to miss its middle-band of history.

I reflected on lakes as well: a lake is a depression in the floor where water accumulates, not as a flowing linear stream, but a round shaped body, with no very clear movement or current. I travelled form the East lake of Wuhan to the West lake of Hangzhou. Both are seen as ultimate symbols of beauty – such as the Geneva Lake in Switzerland. Lakes are enjoyable to look at. They signify the possibility of lasting life – their accumulated water guarantees the possibility of agriculture, fish, plants, and drinking water. Where there is a lake, life is possible, ongoingly. Rivers may dry up – their source is far away – or suddenly rise. Lakes are stable and calm. Hence the joy that emanates from them.

For a long time, my main concern has been to understand what group I was a part of – because I had no clear ‘us’, but found myself in-between. And I interpreted it in the wider context of changes in my country – France becoming a part of Europe. So, I deliberately decided I would become European, and build on my French-German-Italian origin, British studies and time in Ireland, to fully embody and understand Europe. Then I could rely on pop culture and my own teenage passions to embody America – become a ‘North-Atlanticker’ – and my mother’s move to the Dominican Republic to become Latin. Slowly, I also expanded my Mediterranean self to North Africa and the Middle East – and embraced my father’s early Russian friendships to integrate the Slavic world.

Later, I moved to Australia, and did so through a journey across Asia – where I learnt about, and tried to ‘embody’ the countries of South East Asia – at the least, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. And I systematically studied Chinese to ‘become Chinese’. Then I started, through readings, and hanging out with N. and J., to explore ‘Africa’ as an added space.

By moving to Australia, I have decided that my ‘we’, my community, would be not just Europe, but the whole world, and that I should gather waters from everywhere in me, become a vast repository of world cultures. Then I will weave together stories, voices and narratives from across multiple countries. This is what I enjoy. Connecting C.’s afro-American self in Shanghai to J.’s story of migration as a refugee from Uganda. Connecting R. and I., China and Algeria.

I will do that in multiple ways, next year – through Marco Polo Project, through novels, through stories, maybe through training I will develop. I am not sure how exactly, but this is what I want to do: create the possibility for a cross-cultural consciousness, and a cross-national sense of history.

As I post this, Wuhan is now globally known as COVID-19 ground zero. If I was to return, this would invite further reflection on cross-cultural consciousness. Could this be the gift of the virus, that by spreading so fast around the world, affecting all bodies equally, irrespective of citizenship, it reveals our common belonging and might – just might – prompt us to collaborate in time to prevent the worst environmental catastrophes? So that the lakes can remain full, abundance preserved, and the 21st century not become the moment of radical collapse for humanity. What sort of cross-cultural consciousness, what sense of history would we need, for this to be the case? This is a question my 42 year old self now likes to reflect on. 

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #15

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

30 december

Before the year ends, I want to find my own centre of gravity – and I want to reconnect with my own story. As I looked outside the window, coming up from Guangzhou along the Yangtze basin, I realized I had no unified family story.

My father has a story – born from a modest family in the south, he studies and becomes an engineer in Strasbourg – his first marriage collapses but he loves his son. Successful, he goes up to Paris where he marries up into a Parisian family, and has two more children.

My mother has a story – last girl, unwanted, from a southern family migrated up north, her dream has always been to escape her local destiny and live in a beautiful sun-drenched warm country. For that, she may count on her charm. She marries a southern boy, handsome, successful – but things don’t work out, and she leaves him for someone else. Life is hard for a while, her new husband has money, but the relationship is tense. Where her son leaves for Paris, she opts for freedom, so moves to the West Indies, convincing her husband. He dies, she inherits, and marries again, a friendly local man.

But what is my story? Smart talented gay boy from divorced parents gets into the most prestigious college in France, with an ambition to become an intellectual and literary figure. Intelligent, he has academic success, but it is not his chosen path, and when he meets an Australian blog-artist, he follows him to Melbourne. There, he changes radically, embraces China, becomes a social entrepreneur and online editor? This, somehow, embraces the threads of both my parents.

I’m in Wuhan, the city of my childhood nanny Danhan. The faces here remind me of her. Wuhan was the capital of Chu, the city of the Dao De Jing and Laozi, the place where it was said that you should be like water, flow to your centre of gravity, because that is where your strength lies.

I will spend the last day of the year in Hangzhou, by the West Lake. A place I have always wanted to go, a place Marco Polo – my new role model – said was paradise on earth. I will be by a lake, a large mass of accumulated water, and ultimate expression of beauty.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #14

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

29 december

In March or April this year, I sat down at a Turkish café inside the Queen Vic market, thinking of what I really needed to accomplish this year. At the very top of the list, I wrote, learn Chinese. Now, I believe I have done that. I can keep up conversations with Chinese people for four hours or more, I can read, I can write small messages and emails. I still need to improve – but I have become operational.

This has been the biggest change in me this year – I learnt about China, I integrated the country deeply. This scholarship and these four months have radically changed me and what I feel that I can do. I am now someone who can speak Chinese.

I also feel very drained, more tired than I was the previous years – cautious about my health, I should be. My brain and body are tired – I have lived on very limited income for 18 months (though I relaxed a bit during the time of my scholarship), and this has taken a toll. I have also lived with high uncertainty – where the money would come from, what would happen next. Am I losing faith in what I can do, or just getting old?

I have largely confused work, life, holidays – I don’t say I don’t enjoy it – but it’s making it very difficult to identify socially, what I do, how I generate income. Maybe it’s OK? Or I can learn for it to be?

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #13

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

27 december

Am I leaving my life as a tourist? And am I just watching myself live? Or am I looking for impact? I am not extraordinarily busy, actually, I have lots of time to explore. It is unclear what my profession is, or how I make money – partly, I rely on various subsidies, rent from a place I bought, my partner’s income. And I live off the remains of an exam I passed years ago in what is now a foreign country.

Yet there is still new places to visit and understand better – this short trip – Guangzhou, Changsha, soon Wuhan.

It is an odd characteristic of intellectual life – or writers. We remember Stendhal, La Bruyere, Marx, and others, for just a few books they wrote, or ideas they spread. Their ‘professional’ life is irrelevant, retrospectively. Yet we have equated the worth of a person so much with their means of gaining income, that it takes a lot of effort to resist.

28 december

I’ve always enjoyed repeating, since reading that book by Kierkegaard. Today, I returned to Shamian island, and walked again in areas of central Guangzhou that I saw yesterday. The theme of these few days in Guangzhou might actually be – repeating!

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #12

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

26 december

I don’t so much love heat as I hate cold. About five years ago, I remember sitting on the coast of Lamma island in Hong Kong, watching the ocean, in a sweatshirt in November, and thinking, I will never be cold again.

This winter in Nanjing has been harsh – I was back to the weather I thought I had fled forever, my body and mind were not prepared. But now, I’m in Guangzhou, and relishing the tropics. My mother left Alsace for the tropics, my cousin left Lorraine for Nice, I left Paris for Melbourne. I have never regretted that move, if only for the heat. I can work now, I can move, I can breathe, I can be happy, because I am never cold. Nanjing has brought back memories of the terrible humid winters in Paris, when I would walk miserable along the streets. Now, I’ve arrived in Guangzhou, and just had bananas, peanuts and milk tea by the Pearl River. Bliss!

People who live in the cold take it as a given – hating it, but bearing it. What if we could be like the birds, and flee – move to where it isn’t cold. If I can fly there, why should I stay in the wintertime?

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #11

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

25 december

I’m obstinate. Tonight, I wanted to watch the first episode of Glee, season 4. The internet was horrible, I had to restart and reconnect dozens of time – but I did it, and I watched it. Today, I decided I would explore the centre of Changsha – and I did. One time, I lost half of a novel I had written. I wrote it again. I have this quality in me, this tenacity, that I will just go and redo as many times as needs to when I have decided something. I think it’s what has led me so far. I may not always decide to do something – I reserve my energy and my decisions for what’s important. But when it’s decided, I do not let go. I decided that I would stand up to X and I did. As I did to Y. I decided I would bounce back after not defending my PhD, and I did.

I have this extreme focused pugnacity. I should know to rely on this more, and take that as a reassurance: if I want it, I will do everything I can for it to happen. But the question is, do I really want it?

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #10

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

24 december

I have always experienced Christmas as an only child, last in a lineage, youngest in the family. I’m not sure I’ve outgrown this sense of being the young one among the adults.

I complained about being with 20 year olds a lot during this scholarship – yet I’ve increasingly found myself surrounded by younger people since I moved to Australia. Is it that migration has made me ‘restart from scratch’, or is it that, as I focused on new challenges, I developed natural affinities with younger generations who saw the world as I did?

I’m halfway through my life, and will probably never have a child. This lineage ends with me. But I have mentored others, younger ones, interns, younger friends. This has been my way of becoming an ancestor.