Carbon Refactoring

The logic of carbon pricing is explained by economists as pricing in an externality. The problems of climate change in this view is one of deep insincerity – a computational civilization continually lying to itself about the ecological substrate at its foundational layer. We have been professionally fooling ourselves for decades. Networks of sensors are in place to measure the state of the system but adjustments only weakly feed back. Carbon pricing has sputtered along without entrenching a self-reinforcing process, while container-based political systems, stuck in Westphalian tile-borders, flap unsteadily through variations of supporting legal regimes. This is exacerbated by what Bratton terms the capitalist pricing problem: the tendency for markets to mistake short term liquidity signals for long term plans, or as Keynes put it, “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”.

Carbon debt is technical debt. Technical debt is a term coined by Ward Cunningham and widely used and recognizable in software development. It represents the difficulty of working with the accumulated design limitations of a highly mutable system, including bugs, but also many partial and mutually irreconcilable models of the world in code. Working on a legacy system, one ridden with technical debt, is to face a human created artifact which evades human comprehension, let alone control. Carbon is a technical debt megastructure.

Addressing problems of technical debt involves redesign. An important set of software redesign techniques, those changing the design without change of function, are termed “refactoring”. Michael Feathers describes refactoring legacy code as establishing a design seam, and tests, then changing the system on one side of the seam without changing the behaviour. Each layer of a stack establishes such a seam, and they are omnipresent in software, at all scales. The point of refactoring is not to freeze the function of the system, but to improve the design in small steps to a point where functional improvements are safe, or perhaps just possible at all. Climate change, the long financial crisis begun in 2008, and technical debt are all crises of addressability: of being unable to trace causal relations through a massive codified system.

The story of renewable energy so far has been that of constantly working against the established infrastructure of the industrialized world: every improvement seems to require some other piece to be ripped out. Power stations have been the clearest and most successful point of intervention because the variation of power station inputs facing the need for power distribution creates design pressure for standard interface points at seams. For instance, power plug and voltage standards decouple network endpoints from each other. Though price points of solar vs coal tipped a year or two ago, that this happened despite the cancer-belching external costs being barely priced-in shows the immaturity of the system.

Bratton notes that Bitcoin inadvertently created a more direct link between exchange currency and carbon through the CPU- and hence energy-intensive process of proof-of-work mining. Other designers and startups are since sketching how similar Earth-to-User links could become more established parts of the Stack. Proof-of-stake coins like (some) Ethereum cut the energy usage by cutting the Earth-to-User link. More speculatively, Edward Dodge has proposed using the blockchain as a distributed ledger of carbon account, with mining based on a ton of sequestered CO2. Altcoin CarbonCoin (now seemingly deceased) replaced distributed mining of difficult to calculate numbers with mining by an environmental trust that uses six orders of magnitude less energy and puts profits into carbon mitigation.

A possible system linking these starts with carbon consumption endpoints. Forests and oceans are major carbon sinks, and prospecting rights could be claimed for blockchain coin mining, with satellite photography and other sensors providing the requisite proof of carbon. The mining claim is more important to the network than the legal title to the land, because double-claiming the carbon sink would make the carbon accounting invalid. For natural assets, the mining device need not be in the same location as the trees, though a maturing platform demanding more precision might call for devices on the ground, linking the Wood Wide Web to the internet and the blockchain.  This could be an Internet of Things (IOT) device that mints coins. A larger network of miners might demand a stricter proof of carbon, to retain the advantages of decentralized mining, including the incentives to participate. A previous post covered a design sketch for such a system.

Proof of carbon definitions can be captured as public software contracts, using Ethereum or a similar platform. A related idea is proof of location. The system is not totally trustless – it depends on independently observable weather data, and this might include state bureaus of meteorology for reference temperatures. (Neither is Bitcoin trustless for that matter – there is trust in the development team maintaining the protocol and in the open source process they run.) This also gives locals to the forest or ocean concerned a co-location advantage similar to that of high frequency trading systems to stock exchanges. The world’s greatest carbon sinks are not found in rich world finance capitals: this would give a small home town advantage to those local to say the Congolian rainforest, somewhat mitigating the colonial character of much international finance. (Introducing internet and trading connectivity to forests, who the most radical botanists are now arguing have cognitive processes, suggests future design mutations where animals or forests are also present as users of social and financial networks, perhaps in a mutually incomprehensible way.)

Other such designs are possible, including more centralized ones: the main feature is establishing a direct carbon-tracking data structure touching Earth layer carbon sequestration, Earth layer carbon emission and User-layer action (in the jargon of Bratton’s The Stack).

Refuge Stack

The Stack is a computational planet-system terraforming itself. Managing it is absurd, and changing it happens everyday. Humans working to deflect the system away from climate change processes that would kill them isn’t hubris so much as self-defense. Energy and commodity networks have always accumulated social power. Now it is here, computational society has obligation spam and sincerity leveraging algorithms organized in networks, and power also accumulates around them. To computationally address one from the other is an act of geopoetical network realism. If it results in gangs of telemarketing red guard killer whales demanding carbon coin reparations, we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

Mountain City

The mountain city of Mount Huan is acknowledged to be one of the wonders of my home district, even though many a year goes by when it is not seen at all. A few years ago, the lawyer Sun Yun’nian was drinking with some mates on his verandah when suddenly they noticed a lone apartment block on the mountain opposite, rising up far into the deep blue sky. They looked at each other in sheer disbelief, as they knew of no condominium in that vicinity and had not had a chance to buy off the plan. Then a vast number of skyscrapers with blobject glass curves, abstract sculptures, antennas, and wall-gardens came into view, an unsolicited message from city hall arrived reminding them to vape responsibly, and they realized it was the Mountain City of Mount Huan.
Presently the expressways and light rail of the outer city became visible, and within them they could distinguish countless storied buildings, temples and residences. Suddenly a great wind arose, dust blew in, and the city could scarcely be seen any longer. By and by the wind subsided, the air cleared, and the city had vanished, save for one tall tower. Each storey of this tower had been pierced by sixty shuttered windows, all of which had been thrown open and let through the light from the sky on the other side. One could count the storeys of the tower by the rows of dots. The higher they were, the smaller they became, until by the eightieth story they resembled tiny stars, and above that they became an indistinguishable blur of twinkling lights disappearing into the heavens. It was just possible to make out tiny figures on the tower, some hurrying about, others leaning, or standing.
A little while longer, and the tower began to decrease in size, until its roof could be seen. One by one, pieces the size of an apartment or a gondola would detach, descend at an orderly pace down the side of the building, and roll away, disappearing from view. The tower continued shrinking still further to the height of a stadium, and then a car, then a bean, until finally it could not be seen at all.
It’s said you can fly to Mount Huan, if you need to, and that maps work fine in the city centre, but are glitchy to the point of useless in the suburbs. You have to get a local app: I forget its name. A determined walker can take in the whole layout of the city – its markets, its users, its parks. It is in no respect different from a city in our world. The annual “Ghost City Marathon” has become popular in recent years, and is well regarded, though there are problems recording accurate times.


Pu Songling, Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio, Minford trans. Story 89 from Minford / Story 251 in Zhang Youhe is a model for this text.
Pu Songling, Liaozhai Zhiyi, 聊齋誌異會校會注會評本, Zhang Youhe ed, 1978.