Born in the USA

By Ulrich Gutmair and Martin Conrads interviewing Bruce Sterling, 10 May 2001
Image: Bruce Sterling

Celebrated science-fiction author; chronicler of hacker wars and founder of Green design movement 'Viridian', Bruce Sterling is also bastard child to Texas' phenomenally powerful oil industry. In this capacity, he knows a thing or two about how America's big boys do business and, after nearly a decade, a fair bit about the leadership style of their very own President, George W. Bush. During a recent visit to Germany, only a couple of weeks prior to Bush withdrawing from the Kyoto agreement on Climate Change, Ulrich Gutmair and Martin Conrads quizzed Sterling on what positive political intervention might look like in the Brave New World of immanent eco-catastrophe

Ulrich Gutmair: You live in Texas and have spent a lot of time under the rule of George W. Bush, so perhaps you could tell us something about his politics? From what I’ve heard, he represents this idea of ‘compassionate conservatism’, which means deregulation and having churches which feed the poor. What do you think his presidency will mean, in terms of change, for the USA?

Bruce Sterling: In terms of change for the USA, probably not very much - it’s just a restoration of the Bush dynasty. All the old hands on the Ford administration and the Bush administration are back in power and he’s just a young man who is the acceptable face of that particular establishment. He’s very popular in Texas. He’s not a megalomaniac or anything. He is just a young man of privilege who happens to have inherited this office.

You could think of it as the Hohenzollern dynasty, this sort of imperial- military power. The USA is the world’s policeman and our Secretary of State is now the former Chief of Staff of our army – generally not a good sign, you know. If somebody says: “our General is our Secretary of State” that generally indicates that the Cruise Missiles are warming up in the basement. But it won’t be about Europe, it will all be about Iraq. I think the Bush dynasty is convinced the only real interests America and the rest of the world have are resources – specifically oil. We’ve had an energy blackout in California and a lot of the campaign was centred around energy policy.

The idea is “go out there and dig, dig, dig”. Not only are Bush and his father oil men, but the Vice President is also a very, very active oil man. I think it’s kind of a segue back from the ‘New Economy’ as represented by Gore to the ‘Old Economy’ as represented by these oil moguls. What does this mean from a European perspective? Basically nothing! I don’t think Bush even knows Europe exists; he can’t tell Slovenia from Slovakia, he thinks the Americans have no interests whatsoever in the Balkans. They’ll moan and complain about the idea of separate European armed forces, but probably nothing will happen just because it’s too much trouble.

But it’s not like he’s a maniac or anything. There are people in the American Left who are coming on like the guy is a lunatic: dyslexic or insane or possibly stupid. It’s always a bad mistake to call any politician stupid – it gives him an opportunity to do whatever he wants and not have to take any blame for it. Underestimating your opponent is one of the stupidest mistakes you can make.

UG: You say the Bush presidency won’t have any consequences for Europe. But, on the other hand, you as the leader of the Viridian movement – which is concerned with the Greenhouse Effect – should be interested in all these oil people. Unlike Al Gore, I don’t think they will be remotely interested in having a Green policy. Could you could explain what the Viridian movement means?

BS: The Viridian movement is kind of my hobby crusade against the Greenhouse Effect. I’m a futurist and I’m very interested in issues that aren’t a big deal now but will soon be pressing on people. I really think the Greenhouse Effect is starting to change the climate pretty rapidly and it’s going to be one of the most important things about daily life in the 21st century. People looking back from their perspective of, say, 2020 and reading contemporary political coverage will just be shocked that nobody was addressing this issue. It’ll be like: were they in a dream or sleepwalking? What was the problem? So I make a lot of noise about it.

It’s true there are the oil people but, in point of fact, oil people and private enterprises are doing some pretty good work in the way of the Greenhouse Effect. I‘m very impressed by what BP does. If you’re gonna reform the energy structure you can’t just march with pickets, you actually have to build a different energy structure – I mean you have to build it, and it’s dirty work – like, with shovels! It’s not something you do by pressing the F1 function key. Actually, George Bush’s house in Austin has been solar-powered for quite some time. He’s on the Green Programme in Austin. Some of his supporters are not just energy people but right-wing Greens – sort of an unknown thing in Europe because there’s such a strong Red/Green coalition – but I’d consider someone like Bill Ford of Ford Motor Company or John Brown of BP basically to be right-wing capitalist Greens. There’s no reason why you can’t make a lot of money selling green energy, there’s a business model there. It’s not like a dot com, it’s like ‘voltage dot com’ and there’s this wheel that turns around and people get paid for that, it’s not a difficult matter. I’d hope to see some progress made there but, let’s face it, America is not the leader in that issue – Europe is, straight out and across the board! So people around the world shouldn’t expect America to carry the torch for every single thing. There are just some things Americans are no damned good at.

Martin Conrads: How do you see the political impact of someone like Ralph Nader? Will there be a continuity for the next voting period? Or was his just flash in the pan success, a way of breaking up the two big political opponents?

BS: I don’t know, I mean they’re very determined to go drill in Alaska, sort of drill off the cost of Florida. And oddly Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, doesn’t like the idea of oil derricks off the coast of his state. He thinks it’s going to interfere with tourism, so there may be a struggle between the vice president’s oil buddies and the president’s brother over the spoils here. Eventually I think Green issues will rise more and more to the fore because rich people don’t like having their houses blown down in monsoons. It’s a drag when the weather starts decaying because, hey, the rain falls on the rich and poor alike. Okay, it’s not some kind of socialist equity issue, but in the American two party system, third parties are traditionally corrupted. So I’d expect the Greens to have their clothing stolen. It’s just a question of who gets it – is it like the right-wing Green thing that’s represented by these new corporate Greens, or is it the sort of old fashioned Red/Green coalition that Gore tried to put together – which sort of kind of worked, because Gore got more votes than Bush?

The Left is actually making a pretty strong showing in the US right now. It’s an open question as to which party is better able to address that particular issue. Right now very few people feel it. It can only get worse – it’s like failing to take out the garbage, it smells bad but not intolerably bad, but you just know it’s gonna smell worse and worse, it’s just got to. It’s a chronic problem and someday somebody is gonna do something about it. I don’t think the initiative is gonna come from the US though. If it’s coming from anybody it’s gonna come from the Danes. Like, right now West Texas is full of giant Danish windmills from the Vestas corporation. I mean, it used to be that Texans would go into the North Sea and build these giant derricks and now it’s all about Danes showing up and building these giant wind derricks! That strikes me as a little weird but, you know, hey, they deserve it – they invented them! They’ve got the best wind technology around.

UG: I found a short quote, something you said about the whole idea of ‘Islands in the Net’, and all the Hakim Bey followers who took it as a very liberatory model, the idea of having these distributed zones?

BS: Yeah, the Temporary Autonomous Zone...

UG: ... you said that the TAZ will ultimately be more advantageous to the deregulation of capitalism than to the forces of liberation.

BS: Yeah, I think the TAZ – in the way that Hakim Bey describes it – is an accurate reflection of something like an illegal rave. But, you know, if you want to engage in illegal activities and you want to use that particular technique, it doesn’t matter what your political convictions are. Just like everybody can pick up a protest sign and march in the street. It doesn’t matter whether you wear a red shirt, a brown shirt, a green shirt, a white shirt or a black shirt – I mean, they are all shirts! It’s not like long-haired drug addicts have some kind of copyright on temporary autonomous gatherings that show up, accomplish something illegal, and then scatter in all directions leaving no trace. What that really sounds like is illegal North Sea dumping. That would be like: “I’ve got trash, you’ve got trash and we could get rid of it by recycling it. But that costs a lot of money – so why don’t we have like a trash-dumping rave? Well just get this cool old ocean-liner and take it out into the international waters where no-one is looking and throw everything over the side and then we’ll all go back where we came from, just like: hey man, party”! Instead of looking at each other saying: “boy are we cool, we fooled the cops one more time”, they’d be saying: “wow, we saved a lot of money! Let’s do this again”!

MC: There is this project by some people from Oklahoma building this ‘New Utopia’ island in the Caribbean, some libertarians. Have you heard of this project?

BS: I’ve heard of a lot of ‘Island Republic’ bullshit over time, yeah.

MC: Are they just fools, or is it the newest dream of the American frontier, or is this the contemporary format of an autonomous zone, or is it just hype? Is it taken serious in the States?

BS: Well, the Sealand thing got a lot of press. These Linux guys said: “well, we’re gonna build up a rogue node on the Internet and do all this stuff...” or whatever. But my question is: what’s the revenue model? There are a lot of counter-cultural organisations all over the place. There are lots and lots of religious communes, like the Amish in the USA, that are sort of semi-autonomous. The Amish can’t be drafted and they don’t pay certain amounts of taxes, they’re tolerated because they’re cute. The main reason they are tolerated is they look after themselves, raise their own crops and create their own buildings.

And then you got a place like Christiania in Copenhagen, where a bunch of guys took over this military base 27 years ago where it’s like: “you know, we’re Autonomen, and we’re gonna squat this place and build our own beautiful rainbow flag hippie republic here”. So, what do they actually do to make money? Mostly they sell hash, and they sell it to people who are coming in from the rest of the city. Now if they were just selling to each other and they could sustain an economy that way that would be okay, but that’s not the truth. In point of fact they are merely parasitic. They’re just retailing their autonomous legal status in order to break the law of some larger society and then retail their sort of semi-criminal enterprise.

So, if we gonna go build an independent island – and it’s actually economically self-sufficient – that would be interesting. That would be very interesting. But if you just build one because you’re trying to profit on this black marketeering scheme sooner or later somebody is just gonna step on you, maybe not this week, maybe not next week, but....

The other problem you might face is that as soon as you set up your TAZ somebody else will build one right next to you and then he’s gonna come shoot you to get your turf. That’ll be my prediction. Either two of them show up and there’s a gang war between two independent republics both trying to seize this market, or else there’s some kind of internal power struggle among the pioneers over whether it’s really about autonomy or about the black money. Over the long term it’s always about the black money! As long as there’s black money it’s like: “Cut to the chase. Just give me the cash! Forget the independent hand-waving temporary autonomous bullshit! Just give us the fucking cash”! It’s like Grenada. Maurice Bishop: “They have turned their guns on the masses!” No, Maurice, they’ve turned their guns on you, okay? It was on you! You were the guy getting shot in the tennis court, not ‘the masses’, okay? It’s like running around, doing your little thing here, arming the population and preaching, preaching, preaching. What was it about? Offshore money! All you have to do is look at the history of those things and you can predict how that’s gonna shake out. If you can maintain the ideology and also have a productive economic system – if you could do that the Soviet Union wouldn’t have collapsed, frankly. What’s the problem there? No jogging shoes, man! No toilet paper! That’s the problem. The economy does not function, it still doesn’t function!

MC: In Heavy Weather you described how the run on information about the weather brings a whole system into terminal velocity. At the time the New Economy crashed in Europe the climate was also crashing and still is. There were those big rainfalls in England, for example. Are you surprised by this coincidence? Or is it like two sides of the same coin and that, in fact, the run on weather data is the great hope for the New Economy after the crash?

BS: Well, I think we’re gonna see a lot more economic crashes and a lot more weather crashes. Like, the Champs-Elysées has its trees blown off, Britain is knee-deep in water, the Alps are melting and the glaciers are melting. It’s becoming pretty severe. By 21st century standards we’re really in the early days of the Greenhouse Effect. This is not the bad part. The bad part is ahead of us. This is just sort of early-warning signs, like a light cough and a sore throat compared to emphysema and lung cancer. The dot com crash will probably be behind us in a couple of years. People don’t want to pay absurdly inflated amounts of money for companies that cannot realistically supply their revenue stream. There’s nothing new about that, it happens all the time, it happened in railroads, and with a lot of different economic booms. It’s very typical to over-value certain things. It’s a bubble, like a Japanese real estate bubble or something, but it’s not like the weather suddenly is gonna get better. The economy might suddenly get better really easily, because a lot of productive capacities are gonna been taken away from imaginary Internet companies and devoted to Internet companies that are actually changing the means of production and distribution. In other words, it’s not an economic revolution or a new economy if I can merely talk gullible people into giving me money for nothing. That’s not change, that’s just a fraud. But I think there’s plenty of potential for real change, really serious changes in the way things are made, in the way they are sold, in the way they are shipped, in pretty much every aspect of the industrial order. I don’t think there is any way to stop that, it’s just from now on it’s gonna look a lot more like an actual economy and a lot less like a carnival.

As for the weather, it’s gonna be probably getting worse for the rest of our lives. Our children may see the worst of it. Even if we shut down every carbon-emitting thing and every methane emitting thing and every greenhouse gas tomorrow, there’s still a tremendous left over surge with the warming oceans and the changing currents and the rest of it. We’re not gonna be able to do that tomorrow – it’s just physically impossible, even with the greatest political will in the world and a warlike state of mobilisation it’s gonna be very difficult to uproot that enormous network.

They are huge, those energy utilities – bigger than continents. They are the biggest machines the human race has ever built and they are literally on at the present: they’re in every home, every industry, every airport, every nation. There is no nation that has no electricity. Sometimes there are areas that haven’t been electrified yet, but there’s never been a government that said: “Electricity? We don’t want any of that stuff!” That has never happened under any system. Alright, the Amish don’t want electricity. And people don’t want to be Amish, believe me on that one! Even the Amish aren’t real happy about being Amish, they just do it out of stubbornness.

My hope is that, if there’s convergence there, it’s not gonna be so much a convergence between the stock market’s instability and the weather’s instability, it’ll probably be a convergence between electrical networks and digital networks. In other words, if the utilities were a lot smarter they’d probably be a lot more efficient. And I see some hope there – you might be able to see the utilities reform as rapidly as say, the telephone systems. But even then I don’t have a lot of hope because there are plenty of telephone systems that still don’t work. It’s fragmentary, there’s WAP in Europe, four different cellphone things in the US and a different DoCoMo in Japan. And there are analogue ones and digital ones, it’s gonna be messy. You’re just deluded if you think that something like energy reform is easy. If it were easy we would have done it during the first OPEC embargo. We would have done that in the ‘70s. We put it off. We put it off for thirty years and now we are going to pay the consequences of not having done it in 1970. It’s just gonna get ugly.

UG: The idea of the Viridian design movement really reminded me of Buckminster Fuller’s idea of a design revolution; to have an ecologically oriented design functioning in a very general way. Would you compare your ideas to that?

BS: I couldn’t compare myself to Buckminster Fuller. He’s an actual engineer and I’m somebody who talks a lot. Let’s put it this way: I have a personal grudge against the Greenhouse Effect. I’m a child of the oil industry in Texas. I feel a personal sense of responsibility about what’s been done by this industry because, hey, it fed me, it educated me. I’m a child of privilege thanks to this industry and I don’t think that the people in it are evil. I’m not like denouncing my own father – he was my father! It was what we did. There is nobody in Texas who isn’t implicated in oil – Texas is synonymous with oil. But when there was an environmental disaster in Mexico and the jungles in Chiapas caught fire the sky over my hometown was grey for two weeks and the plume went as far north as Chicago. I’m not prepared to ignore that. I’m not under the illusion that I can change it by going into the office and hitting the F2 function key, but I‘m not gonna stay quiet! I dissent! I’m a dissident on that issue. I won’t collaborate any more! I’m going to do what I think I can do in the most effective way I can think of.

Now, I could have started the Viridian political movement and supported the Green Party in the US and tried to do some fundraising. I live in a State capital and I have friends in politics, I understand how that system works, but I don’t think that’s a good place for a science fiction writer to be investing his energies. I’m more interested in issues like industrial design and technological development. If there’s anything that I think science fiction writers are really good at it’s making technology sexy. That’s sort of where we shine! You take some gizmo nobody has ever heard of and you deploy it in some way where people say: “Wow, that’s cool, that’s the way forward”! That’s the sort of very typical social role. So, I’ve written science fiction novels about this. I wrote the book Heavy Weather which is a Greenhouse Effect disaster novel which I wrote in 1994. But that didn’t change anything. It’s not like the guys at the Kyoto conference were like: “Oh, yes, Mr. Sterling’s novel changed my entire....”. It’s just a science fiction novel and I really feel it’s time to carry the war to the enemy here.

When I look at social groups I could talk to – the police or emergency health services or the military, who are gonna have a big role in environmental disaster, or architects, or literary people or academia or internet people – there are a lot of different groups, all of them will be affected by the greenhouse situation. But I think the group I’m most interested in reaching are industrial designers, really. And not even industrial designers that much, because the real industrial designers are busy designing stuff. The people I‘m really interested in reaching are industrial design teachers. Although the Viridian list doesn’t have a lot of working designers on it – it’s like, Philip Starck isn’t gonna stop making toothbrushes to come see – I want design teachers getting really interested in my list. There are lots of little projects there and they have students and they are always looking for imaginary schemes.

When you are in design school you don’t get to make anything, you just have to make imaginary things, paper projects – and we are very good at that! You need some paper projects, boy, Viridian list has got plenty of those! It’s something we specialise in. Things that don’t exist that we wished we had, that are really objects from a better world. I think that’s one of our most effective tactics: just to describe consumer objects that are very attractive that you can’t have because your society is too dirty and too poorly organised to be able to produce them. To look at these projects and to imagine owning them is to be forced to imagine a different world. I think that’s a better way to get people into that frame of mind. Give them the artefact! Don’t give them a lecture about the constitution! It’s like, give them the jogging-shoes. Let them see the toothbrush. Give them the CD, don’t give them a talk about free speech! Let’s see some free speech! You wanna live in a society where women are liberated? Let’s not talk about female oppression! Let’s see some liberated women doing something that shows their freedom!

MC: So what you’re talking about is the opposite of dead media – it’s forthcoming media?

BS: Dead media is about dead forms of media and the Greenhouse Viridian movement is all about making our current energy systems extinct. How do we kill them, how do we obsolesce them, make them obsolescent in the quickest and least blood-thirsty way? How do we drive these things out of existence and replace them with something more effective? I’m very interested in obsolescence. Obsolescence is the future in reverse. You wanna know how things are gonna arrive on the scene? Well watch how they leave. It’s all the same curve, it’s all the same phenomenon. Maturity, decline, age, senility and death are just as much a part of the human condition as sex, conception, birth, youth, puberty. People don’t like to talk about that as much but that’s the same phenomenon. There’s no real reason to divide up the future of technology from its past – it’s all technology and if you really want to understand it you have to understand the whole thing, you can’t sort of pick and choose.

Ulrich Gutmair <>Martin Conrads <>Bruce Sterling <>