UpWing/DownWing and Etherealization

An Overdue Clarification

I should’ve written this weeks ago, to help me outline the direction of my thinking.


This article on Aeon Magazine proposed a new political dichotomy based on (as ever) views of human nature and what kind of future we are prepared for.

The new dichotomy: Green (or DownWings) vs Black (or UpWings). [As opposed to Red/Blue (or Blue/Red if you’re American) Left-Wing/Right-Wing]


UpWingers (or “Blacks”), above all, anticipate futures of greater energy consumption.They tend towards technological solutionism, their view of the future is in the accelerationism/singularitarian spectrum. Politically, UpWingers tend to follow the American Right’s libertarian view of freedom, and the Left’s view of transcendent humanity. Human potential is unlimited and chaos can be tamed. UpWingers might wave away DownWing concerns as being surmountable. Black is the sky.

DownWingers (or “Greens”), broadly, anticipate futures of reduced energy consumption (through efficiency or destruction, if you’d like). They tend towards localization/resilience thought, their view of the future can range from declinist to hackstability (and even accelerationist in some respects). Politically, DownWingers tend to follow the Left’s view of communitarianism and the Right’s sense of natural order. Human nature is limited and chaos should be avoided. DownWingers might accuse UpWingers as hand-waving away complex problems with the dismissive answer, “We’ll think of something.” Green is the Earth.

Environmentalists can be DownWing or UpWing depending on their approach and assumptions. Politically, we can point to a DownWing Right or an UpWing Left or a UpWing Right or a DownWing Left. I’d use Green and Black (much easier to say) but Green already means something to many people, and talking about “what Blacks believe” is potentially confusing to outsiders. Dystopias can be UpWing or DownWing (same for Utopias depending on the image). Accelerationists could be DownWing (although I have not encountered a DownWing Singularitarian- unless you count AI-induced catastrophism, maybe?). I’m not sure if Declinists can be UpWing in the long term- perhaps someone who believes that we can achieve Science Victory but won’t for political reasons or something.

Steve Fuller, who introduced these terms in the Aeon article, created this dichotomy and is himself a committed UpWinger.


Etherealization and Energy

Above, I started by defining this UpWing/DownWing dichotomy through energy expectations. Here I show how the same “energy situation” might be seen differently by either Wing.

From the Archdruid Report:

I’m pleased to note that the conversation about ephemeralization and catabolic collapse launched a few weeks back by futurist Kevin Carson, and continued in several blogs since then, has taken a promising new turn. The vehicle for that sudden swerve was a  essay by Lakis Polycarpou, titled Catabolic Ephemeralization: Carson versus Greer, which set out to find common ground between Carson’s standpoint and mine. In the process, to his credit, Polycarpou touched on a crucial point that has been too often neglected in recent discussions about the future.
That’s not to say that his take on the future couldn’t use some serious second thoughts. I noted in my original response to Carson’s post the nearly visceral inability to think in terms of whole systems that pervades today’s geek culture, and that curious blindness is well represented in Polycarpou’s essay. He argues, for example, that since a small part of Somalia has cell phone service, and cell phone service is more widely available today than grid electricity or clean drinking water, cutting-edge technology ought to be viable in a postpetroleum world. “If Greer is right that modern telecommunications is full of hidden embodied energy and capital costs,” he wonders aloud, “how is this possible?”


First, the essay that outlines the Carson/Greer argument is useful for naming some other members in both corners, introducing me to the anarchic philosophy of economic mutualism and other proponents of catabolic collapse. Skipping ahead to the ephemeralization argument:

According to Carson, the problem with the theory of catabolic collapse is that it ignores what he calls “one of the most central distinguishing characteristics of our technology: ephemerality.” The classic example from Buckminster Fuller, he writes, is the replacing of “a transoceanic cable system embodying God only knows how many thousand tons of metal with a few dozen communications satellites weighing a few tons each.”

“It’s quite true that the mass-production industrial civilization that peaked in the 20th century is falling into ruin, failing to invest in upkeep at sustainable levels, and generally eating its seed corn — just as happened with Rome. The difference is, the Interstate Highway System, the civil aviation infrastructure, and the old electrical grid aren’t something to mourn. They’re something that would decay anyway, because they’re increasingly irrelevant to the kinds of production technology and economic organization the emerging successor society will be based on.”

Thanks to technological advancement in recent years, Carson argues, distributed infrastructure — including distributed renewable energy and distributed manufacturing enabled by peer-to-peer open source design— is making that same collapsing infrastructure obsolete.

“Metaphorically speaking, we live in the early days of an emerging economy in which peasant villages — with a Star Trek molecular replicator in each cottage — lives in the shadows of the decaying aqueducts.”


[…] Greer takes issue with the idea that the ephemeral technologies Carson mentions are really less resource intensive, arguing that we only think they are because of mistaken accounting. Satellites are not possible without a space program, and space programs require so much infrastructure that it’s ludicrous to suggest that they require fewer resources than transoceanic cables. As for the Internet, “Descend from the airy realms of cyber-abstractions into the grubby underworld of hardware, and it’s an archipelago of huge server farms, each of which uses as much electricity as a small city …”

This is actually a fascinating facet of Greer’s thinking. He argues often for the hidden energy and infrastructure costs to modern living. He asks questions like: how much money and oil-based products does it cost to get more oil (we can’t seem to get at oil anymore with our bare hands and simple tools…)? How many oil-based products does it cost to install and maintain solar infrastructure? How much energy does it cost to get more energy?

The answers he comes up with are something less than uplifting. I’m not qualified to say whether this view is justified.

Where Carson sees a world of increasing efficiency, Greer sees increasing hidden costs. Where Carson sees certain improvement Greer sees unmanaged complexity. Where Carson sees sustainability, frankly, Greer doesn’t.

The Carsons of the world see Humans as being capable of transcending and manipulating nature. The Greers of the world see Humans as natural creatures with limits- social limits, cognitive limits, physical limits…