Rethinking Scale for the Renewable Energy Age
The Solar Media Collective is organizing a symposium on the multiscalar dimensions of sustainable, just, and hopeful energy transitions.
May 11, 2023, 9:30 am – 5pm @ Next-Generation Cities Institute (Concordia ER Building, 2155 Guy Street, 14th Floor, Room 1431). Remote participation possible via Zoom.
Organized by: Isabelle Boucher, Alex Custodio, Janna Frenzel, Michael Iantorno, Malte Leander, Robert Marinov, Christine White, Lee Wilkins
Funding and support: Next Generation Cities Institute, Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology, Sustainability Action Fund (SAF), Office of the Dean – Faculty of Arts and Science, and the Communications Department at Concordia University
In the face of a mounting global climate emergency and the repeated failure of governments and industry to organize a meaningful transition towards more sustainable social and economic formations, it seems that the time for novel and impactful solutions is running out. But what scale of usability and uptake must sustainable innovations reach to meaningfully contribute to ameliorating the climate crisis?
Sustainability—when premised on Big Tech’s imperative of “scaling up”—often becomes just another word for resource control and management practices that require an ensemble of data-derived models, measurements, and assessments. Media scholar Mél Hogan offers a critique of the “eternal promise of incremental innovation” that would manage to find ever-newer and rapidly-scalable techno-solutions to solve the problem of species extinction and the depletion of our finite resources (Hogan, 2018, 643).
She argues that this sort of “partnership” with nature maintains the growth of corporations and perpetuates logics of consumption, revealing capitalism’s profound contradictory relationship to nature (636, 644). According to energy scholar Sheena Wilson, sustainability has become just another way to “sustain capitalism” (Wilson 2018, 394).
We thus question the necessity of having scalable impact by exploring the multiple scales at which a meaningful transition towards renewable energy and sustainable practices must occur. We seek to challenge the sitelessness of large-scale initiatives by asking what might happen if situated solar relations were to become the primary protagonist of research, production, and outreach.
Taking inspiration from the international group, Solar Protocol, and their explorations into the affordances and techniques of solar-powered computer networking, we might question how social, political, technical, and cultural protocols surrounding renewable energy and waste can be developed to encourage diverse designs and scales of deployment for sustainable communities and creative practices.
As such, rather than taking for granted the principle of “scaling up” that requires sustainability to be replicable and expandable into universal and precise sets of standardized models, we argue instead for the necessity of having (non)scalable, situated, and evolving relationships with the sun (Tsing, 2012).
Situated Solar Relations: rethinking scale for the renewable energy age seeks to convene academics, artists, students, and community members for a day of roundtable discussions and workshops stimulating us to question and imagine what forms of social organization and tech design are possible—even ludic and enjoyable—when we abandon the fossil-fuel-powered assumption of energy abundance and work within the affordances and limits of the sun’s energy.
How can we imagine the social, technical, and political norms and protocols that are offered by solar (or alternative) energy and solar-powered media? In what ways can we stimulate diverse and democratized technical design and caring principles that are useful, rewarding, and enduring for specific groups and communities of users? What strategies of scalability (or non-scalability) could help us find pleasurable and rewarding ways to transition away from our carbon-powered lifestyles and towards more sustainable paths?
Hogan, Mél. 2018. “Big Data Ecologies.” Ephemera: theory & politics in organisation 18(3): 631-657.
Tsing, Anna L. 2012. “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales.” Common Knowledge 18 (3): 505–24.
Wilson, Sheena. 2018. Energy Imaginaries: Feminist and Decolonial Futures. In B. R. Bellamy &J. Diamanti (eds.), Materialism and the Critique of Energy, Chicago Alberta: MCM Publishing.
9:30 – Coffee and snacks + Introduction by the Solar Media Collective
10:00-11:00 – Roundtable 1: Art, Literature, & the Aesthetics of Hopeful Futures: Creative Imagining and the Renewable Energy Transition
11:15-12:15 – Roundtable 2: Ludic Solarities: Developing, Distributing, and Deconstructing Games in Tandem with the Sun
12:15-1:15 – Lunch (Some snacks and sandwiches will be provided)
1:30-2:30 – Workshop
3:00-4:00 – Roundtable 3: Building Solar Relations: Social, Political, and Economic Transformations towards Energy Justice
4:00-5:00 – Closing discussions
5:00-7:00 – Informal drink at a nearby venue.
Speakers: Jasmine Sihra, Ariel Kroon, Mathieu Lauzon-Dicso, Malte Leander, Alex Nathanson
Moderator: Christine White
The Art, Literature, & the Aesthetics of Hopeful Futures roundtable will speculate and elaborate on the role of literary, artistic, and design practices in shaping the aesthetics and modalities of a hopeful and sustainable future in the face of what many perceive to be a latent, population-wide state of climate anxiety and despair.
If the shift to more sustainable ways of living on and with our planet will require wide-reaching changes to our everyday lives and built environments (contrary to the ‘business as usual, only cleaner’ approach of industry and governmental ‘clean growth’ discourses), we will need meaningful cultural frameworks for shaping these futures in creative, egalitarian directions – i.e., for developing an aesthetic of hope that helps shift socio-technical images of the future away from the centralized scenarios of Big Tech giants and towards a more democratized and contingent set of norms and formations.
Hope punk, solar punk, care punk, feminist cyborg aesthetics, hacker cultures, and other genres of novel imaginings, creations, and depictions of harmonious relations between humans and nonhumans are all, in their own ways, just as important to ‘getting the transition right’ as are policy-making and industrial transformation schemes. Join our invited speakers in thinking through the role of literary, artistic, and design practice in collectively imagining – and building – a better world.
Speakers: Kara Stone, A.R. Siders, Przemysław Pawełczak, Alex Custodio
Moderator: Michael Iantorno
As playful objects, it is easy to overlook how videogames are mass-produced consumer goods that impact the environment through their production, everyday use, and destruction. Much like other household electronics, game consoles are “shiplike vessels that make fire into something we can manage” (Peters, 2015, p. 123), taming raw energy and materials for personal consumption.
Videogame software is embedded with ideologies that encourage environmental mastery, such as Stardew Valley’s unruly farmstead or Minecraft’s infinite frontier—both of which exist solely for players to traverse, tame, and retool. Even the most durable of videogame technologies are destined to become obsolete: upon disposal, their metal and plastic components are almost invariably transported to Global South jurisdictions where environmental protections and labor practices are lax (Grossman, 2006, p. 185).
Balancing the tensions between hardware/software, virtual/material, and invisible/visible is a difficult task. In this roundtable, we bring together a diverse collection of playful solar interventions to pose the question: how can we develop ludic experiences that reconsider our relationship with the sun? Through practices of game development, distribution, and deconstruction, we attempt to reconcile speculative design with materiality and consider the role of eco-modding, solar game servers, and photovoltaic homebrew in reshaping environmental realities. Games have the power to be potent media objects, but this potency cuts two ways: they help us construct optimistic environmental imaginaries while still embodying detrimental processes that are deeply entangled with the climate crisis.
Speakers: Faisal Shennib, Jordan Kinder, Anne Pasek, Janna Frenzel.
Moderator: Isabelle Boucher and Robert Marinov
The Building Solar Relations: Social, Political, and Economic Transformations towards Energy Justice roundtable will reflect on the theoretical and practical challenges of the energy transition(s). We seek to highlight the relationships and structures that underpin large-scale “technical” projects and industrial-level transformations in order to foreground the potential socio-environmental impacts of renewable energy and sustainable media practices. What are the oversights and contradictions of “ecological modernization”? And what are the simultaneous, incommensurable, and irreconcilable perspectives that shape sustainability imaginaries and practices?
By thinking through the many scales and relationships that constitute energy transition plans, we seek to interrogate the logics that are driving much of the “clean growth” movement. However, this discussion will be dedicated to thinking about scalability collaboratively, bringing in different perspectives and giving voice to people who are working to change the industry or science from within.
Can we use—and how—standardized “sustainable” processes and products to minimize the impacts of extractive and industrial processes such as mining, EVs, and renewable energy production? Can the design of sustainable media be democratized through media and tech literacy, maker- and hacker-cultures, and community-based initiatives? And are standardized designs, industrial scalability, and population-wide uptake necessary to make a meaningful impact on the climate?
More broadly, we want to consider what lies beyond the “large” or “small” scale alternatives of sustainability frameworks from the different perspectives of science, industry, and community organizations. Join our invited speakers in exploring these and other questions surrounding the various scales of sustainable tech design, production, and deployment.