Small Rural

Illustration by Kirsten Newkirk

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Divided Light

By Corey S. Pressman

“Tell us again how you came to the Oasis!”

“OK children, OK. Here we go.”

“The robed elder stood tall and made wide eyes.

“She pressed the cold blade against my sweating throat. I could feel my skin begin to split. The old woman looked down deep into my eyes. She seemed serene, calm in her violence.

“‘Time to step into the light, young thumb,’ she said.

“Just then it happened. A single thick drop, a liquid miracle, fell wet on her knife arm. Our four eyes darted to the spot. Another slapped my cheek, a sharp splash. The sky opened, children, and the water came down: a million impossible sparkling tears.”

“No, Radrian! That’s the end! Start at the beginning!”

“Forgive me, youngsters. As you know, I was not always a Ramish old one. So let us begin the right way. At the beginning, as you say. This is the story of how we divided the light.”

Drawn

My friends and I headed out early; it was a few hours’ ride to the Oasis from Shade City. We pulled out of town on the eastern expanse, through our dappled neighborhood, where the great solar shade that covered the central city offered the variegated light that fetched high rents, touristy cactus labyrinths, and the best golf. Being young and offensive, we were sure to obey zero traffic laws as we sped through the outer city, where the shade ran out and our unfortunate neighbors wallowed in the dazzle of full sun most of the day.

We blazed out into open desert. Looking back, Shade City’s solar ceiling dominated the horizon, reaching up and out as far as I could see. Looking forward, the Ramish settlements were almost invisible: small holdings dotting the landscape, a single slice of green the only clear indication of human habitation. Even the photon farms seemed to blend into the desert.

It was my eighteenth birthday, and we were headed to the Ramish Oasis so I could participate in a new but noble tradition: dunking my now-adult self in the deep Dragon Tree root pools at the center of the Ramish settlement. These desert denizens possessed some genius for biology and air: they engineered giant Dragon Trees that rooted to the aquifer and drew pools of cold water to the surface. The other source of Ramish water hung in the sky: a flotilla of tethered dirigibles populated by the Ramish aquateers of the stratosphere. Each mined the sky for humidity, one drop at a time, sloping the water down to glimmering oasis pools. These hosted a riot of chlorophyll that could be seen for miles.

I had never seen a body of water larger than a sink. I had never done more than splash myself with handfuls of lukewarm water. I had never immersed. Can you imagine, children?

We pointed the buggy at the winking green mirage ahead and partied hard as The Thumb grew hazy behind us. The Thumb—that’s what we called Shade City, or, to be precise, the huge solar-panel sunshade that Umbra Corporation was erecting over town. The giant structure gave us life: it gave us cool shade and clean power. It gave us a way to survive, and to attract people back to New Phoenix, which hadn’t fared well in the flare years. But it also evoked a sort of dread. It was a hovering menace. It was The Thumb.

But not today.

Ignited

Tall clouds assembled in the distance and tucked into the northern horizon. This almost-daily assembly was new, and a cause for concern for some. This, and a recent rash of angry red haboobs. Some whispered a storm was coming, real rain. But that was ridiculous. No one here had seen rain in decades. And there was no way we were delaying our party for fear of mythical weather.

Not that rain wouldn’t be remarkable. The lack of rain crafted our world, ours and that of our Ramish neighbors. The perennial drought was an active void, a creative hollow we filled with ingenuity, innovation, and life. Shade City filled the void with might—The Thumb was an engineering masterpiece that captured the sun and divided the light into raw power and chill shadow. The Ramish took more of a tinkerer’s approach. With their photon-farming topographic technologies, everything they used carried its own power supply. Every artifact derived energy from the sun. And their biotech: hacking trees and hoisting balloons to divide water from the sand and air was pure alchemy.

A return of the monsoons would certainly rearrange our reality.

We were stopped at The Palm at the Edge of the World—the first tree since The Thumb. Beyond that leafy waypoint, we could see the bayou of biohacked Dragon Trees, sprawling photon-farm homestead arrays, and curving zeppelin tethers of the Desert Ramish. The Thumb, with its myriad mantis construction cranes, was now an inky smudge in the rising heat to the east.

The Ramish at the gate were guards: a few youths and an elder. She was a piece of work, this one. As the young guards asked us out of the buggy, she came our way, right to me.

“That was Goma!” 

“Yes, yes, children. That was Goma. Although I did not know her at the time.”

Like I said, she was a piece of work, a real Ramish mystic. Swathed in purple and green glowrobes, bright with captured moonlight, she got in close, enveloping me in that shine.

“This the young shadeling come to cross to old?”

She reached out her arm, streaked with shimmering sol tats, and touched my cheek. She smelled like water.

I did not move.

The Ramish were fairly liberal with whom they let in. Heck, they were openly recruiting in Shade City. Step into the light! sang their swarming folded-reed drones. Join us at the Oasis and make the world! But the old lady seemed like a decider, and being denied entrance on my birthday would be super thumby.

Holding my face, she closed her eyes, eyelids aglow with powdered yellow light, and mumbled a fragment of poetry from another century.

“Be ignited, or be gone.”

We got back in the buggy. We were in.

Immersed

“Is that when you drowned?”

“Ha! Yes, it was pretty much right after we arrived.”

We headed straight for the pools. It was my first time at the Oasis, and it was overwhelming. The village was chaotic. And the colors! In Shade City, we all wore white linen tunics and lived in whitewashed, low-slung homes. Here were flowing robes in a thousand subtle shades. The Ramish photon tech was legendary, but to see it in its native profusion was dizzying. Each garment, every face, every corner, wall, and vessel was aglow with patterns of harvested light bent to beauty. And the smell! The vast reed paddies emitted a sweet green musk you could almost taste: more magical Ramish engineering at work, this time in the novel field of photochemical conversion.

The pools were a common gathering place for the Ramish; a handful of them watched us with amiable suspicion as we stumbled from the buggy to the water’s edge. Several offered the traditional Ramish greeting, step into the light.

Even standing ankle-deep in cold water was ecstasy. We yelped with false bravado as we dared each other to step deeper. But immersion was the goal here. I took a few wide sloshing strides and leapt in.

And that is when I drowned.

Not to death, mind you. But close. Of course, I couldn’t swim. Few from Shade City knew how. And I had just slid into the deep end of the pool. The cold water surrounded me. I panicked and flailed and lost all sense of up and down. All I could see were bubbles, bubbles everywhere. My vision dimmed.

And then the light. Jelena’s light. Her facial sol tats glowed a fierce gold as she carefully hoved towards me in the chaotic dark. There were arms around me and I was up and out. And in love.

She stood over me as I heaved up a week’s worth of water. Her face swam in biografted color as the staccato song of the Ramish-made sun wrens surrounded us.

This was such a foreign moment—the almost dying, the edible smell, the swirl of biohacked birds, her tattooed gaze. Fascination and fear. Right here was all the danger and strange that emanated from the Ramish, all the elements of their inscrutable otherness. Why would they engineer cells that way, with nanobio hybrids? Until then, I didn’t, couldn’t understand. To adapt yourself to the environment, rather than the other way around, felt like surrender to the flaring desert. The point of our city, our culture, in Shade City, was to keep people safe and free to live as before. We shouldn’t have to biohack ourselves or our animals just to survive, to forge Frankenstein trees and spend our days mending cell, soil, and air. It was madness. A single simple bold creation—The Thumb, the latest engineering wonder of the human race—should be sufficient. Why this multitude of forms when just one would do?

But in that moment, I understood one facet of it for the first time: it was astonishingly beautiful. And hers was the most beautiful face I had ever seen. And still is, children.

“Thank you,” I managed to croak.

She scowled a radiant scowl. “You are an idiot.” This she said flatly. “You people are always getting in the water like you know what you’re doing. This isn’t some Shade City recreation facility.”

She helped me up and wiped her hands on her wet turquoise robes.

“My name is Radrian,” I said, offering my hand. By now, my friends were all around us, chuckling at my near-death antics and at this awkward exchange.

She didn’t shake my hand, but was generous enough to give a small smile. “I am Jelena. Next time, stay in the shallows.”

I didn’t realize I was staring, mute.

“So, Radrian of Shade City, are you an adult now that you’ve done something publicly stupid?” Her gaze heated me up from the inside out. My heart tumbled wild. I heard myself speak.

“Uh, yes, I mean, no. Yes, today’s my birthday. Listen, thanks, thank you. You, uh, live around here?”

At this, all of us laughed. My friends, Jelena, even me. It felt good to laugh.

“My, you’re a smooth talker! Yes, you could say that. And you,” she said, her hand on my arm, tilting her head in exaggerated flirtation, “… you come here often?” Her hand was rough and warm.

As I commenced the calculus for some witty response, we were interrupted by a shout from across the water. There, reflected in the still pool, was a tall Ramish woman, unmistakably a parent.

“Jelena!” she clipped. “Jelena! Come now. Help me get ready for the market!”

Jelena looked towards her mother, glanced back at me. Bit her lip.

And she was gone.

Entwined

We partied all the way home, our buggy recharged with the new bent-reed battery we exchanged at the edge of the Oasis. Aside from water (and, I then realized, Jelena), the reed batteries were the Ramish’s best thing. These little woven miracles were constructed of genmod reeds that stored megawatts of potential energy when folded into complex condensed shapes. Set loose in a gearbox, the origami could power a buggy for days. Enough reed batteries and you could power your whole house with unmetered energy. The Thumb was wired everywhere in Shade City, even beyond, linking us to a grid that connected every house, every Umbra plantation in the desert, every desal plant on the Gulf of California eking out fresh water for food production and human consumption. The reed batteries, by contrast, let you disconnect, take your power with you, go wherever.

It was night when we got back under The Thumb. The Ceiling was transparent now in most neighborhoods, allowing in the starshine. Spotlights beamed down in some distant sector, illuminating a criminal on the run or a roadside stop, no doubt. Winking drones drifted on the Ceiling-fan drafts. The Ceiling in the club district was pulsing with some AR masterpiece or other. Some sleepier neighborhoods were dark, where the cool night air circulated in the full shadow of Umbra Corp’s masterwork.

My parents were awake and waiting, lights on full. That meant trouble. We only used power at night during parties and emergencies. And this was no party.

They had learned where I was, that we had gone to the Oasis. My mom, a VP of something-or-other at Umbra Corporation and an upstanding citizen, was not keen on the Ramish. I had heard it all before: They were not like us. Their origins in Saudi Arabia proved their whole enterprise was un-American. They were freaks who distorted nature and were altogether unwholesome, unwelcome, and unsafe.

To my Shade-City-believer, die-hard-Umbra parents, the Ramish vision was anathema. The Ramish wanted power distributed throughout society, not concentrated in a single company or an enormous grid. They wanted to make their own food, via whatever hijacking and hacking of nature was required, not import organic produce from half a world away. Perhaps most importantly, the Ramish were evangelists, seeking to graft their vision to the soul of New Phoenix. They were a cult, stealing away Shade City youth and brainwashing the world. They didn’t want Shade City to succeed or expand. And any Ramish achievement destabilized Umbra’s long-term revenue projections. “Our very livelihood,” as my mother liked to remind me.

Not everyone felt this way. Engineers and artists, young and old, often converted to Ramish: changing their names, receiving their sol tats, donning the robes of light. One day they were bored citizens, formatting voltaics for the Ceiling in a shaded Umbra lab; the next they were working the wonders of reed, bending or mining the atmospheric or subterranean aquifers for liquid gold. Even a distant cousin of my father went Ramish, stepped into the light as they called it. Now he crafts the genomes of marsh birds, carving phenotypes that capture water from the air and energy from the sun, bringing birdsong back to the shushed desert.

And there was the indispensable water the Ramish provided Shade City. And the reed batteries. And the amazing rainbow of photocycled garments and flowers and paints. When the Ramish first immigrated here from the Middle East, escaping the metastasizing, desert-eating gigawatt arrays of Riyadh’s dune hinterlands, it was a boon. Really, Shade City couldn’t exist without the Ramish.

My mom closed our argument that night with her standard summary of the situation: “Just because we can’t live without them, doesn’t mean we have to live with them.”

Escaped

“Tell us about the fight in the market! How you saved her!”

“Yes, yes, children. That comes next.”

The next week, on market day, I was working on the buggy when I heard a commotion. I peeked out of the garage and saw the smoke. The Ceiling was spouting thin streams of irreplaceable water at the fire. At the market.

I rounded the corner to the open white market square. Most of the place stood intact, piles of imported melons and racks of white linen standing witness to the pocket of ferocity forming in the Ramish quarter.

Chaos.

Overturned stalls, spilling stacks of reed batteries, some of which unhinged far too rapidly, exploding with enormous energy, bouncing in all directions like giant fatal morningstars set loose from their chains. Sprays of lunar flowers scattered, casting a kaleidoscope of cool color beneath the rising smoke braiding thick above several burning stalls. Water jetted down over the whole scene, a perverse and pervasive inside rain.

The Ramish scattered, some trying to save their wares, others fleeing. One on fire. A knot of Shade City citizens toppled tables, rousting the Ramish. Yelling and crying accompanied the keening of approaching sirens. In the middle of it all, kneeling to collect the scattered glowing flowers, was Jelena.

Our eyes met. Even from that distance, in the smoke and confusion, I could see every detail of her face. Her fig-red lips, her green eyes, gold sol tats illuminating her wide forehead in the gathering gloom. For a second time, she offered me her small smile. Burning fragments of fabric and flowers arced slowly between us. Water descended, a fall of diamonds. The cacophony somehow dimmed. My heart slowed despite the panic.

And then I saw it: a market pillar behind her had unmoored and was careening, falling on Jelena. Children! You could imagine my terror! I was no brave soul, just a young fool. I tackled her just in time, both of us rolling away as the pillar collapsed in a flurry of fire and ash. Then we were running, me pulling her away from the chaos, away from the danger. Towards my house. I had to get her away from here, out of Shade City. This was an orchestrated attack, a reverse riot designed to stamp out the Ramish menace. Jelena was not safe.

Covered in cold sweat, we reached the buggy. We navigated around the burning market and headed east, out of town. We burned through the dappled districts and rocketed out from under The Thumb and into the full sun. Neither of us breathed a word until we hit the desert.

Found

“Thank you,” she croaked.

“I’m so sorry, Jelena. I can’t believe this happened, is happening. I know some folks aren’t happy with the Ramish, but this is crazy. Who would attack a market?”

“It all happened so fast,” she said. “And you all look the same in your white linens.” This, with a bit of disdain. “One second I was arranging photon-flower bouquets, the next there was an angry knot of thumbies, then shouting and toppled tables and loose batteries. Then fire. Then you.” She tilted her head onto my shoulder, a frightened bird on a frightened perch.

“Well, we’re out of there now. At this speed, we can get you to the Oasis in an hour. Although this may be the buggy’s last ride; the battery is new, but the gears are old. Either way, you’re safe now.”

“Is that when the farmers found you?”

“Yes children, it was not long before we were radioed by the Ramish caravan. The very angry Ramish caravan.”

“Hey! Thumb-sucker! What’s the hurry?” The message startled us both. I looked around—at this speed, there was no way any vehicle could sneak up on us, Ramish or Shade.

“Uh … this is Radrian from Shade City. There was an attack, a, uh … fire at the market. We escaped ….”

“Listen, friendo.” Whoever said this had a thick Ramish accent, sort of Saudi meets Scottish. “We know about your attack. And now we see you burning towards the Oasis. To finish the job, eh? Well, I don’t think so.”

Where was this guy? There was no one behind us, no one in the desert at all. Just the hazy Thumb behind and resolving Oasis ahead.

Then it was dark. A wide shadow inked over us. I pulled back the roof flaps and there was the great grey ribbed belly of a Ramish zeppelin. The mammoth multifoiled airship cruised a thousand feet above. And it wasn’t alone. Looking up and around, we could see that this was the lead ship in a collection of dirigibles of different hues, shapes, and sizes. This was a Ramish caravan, come to truck water and wares. And to stop us.

“I recommend you put on the breaks, hotshot. Would hate to waste a whole heavy crate of spirulina dropping it on your ugly little buggy.”

Up ahead, The Palm at the Edge of the World came into view. Three Ramish buggies sped out of the compound. Like everything else Ramish-made, they were painted in festive photo-paints, designed to absorb and emit. These surfaces powered the buggies and adorned them. I never knew coral pink and powder blue could look so menacing.

I toggled the radio to all freqs. “This is Radrian from Shade City. I am with Jelena—we escaped the market attack. I’m bringing her home. Please, I’m stopping now.”

I slowed the buggy down. The desert dust fanned a high tail behind us as the wheels bit into the sand.

“Jelena? Is this true?” It was an old woman’s voice on the radio.

“Yes, Goma. It’s true.”

The zeppelin above slowed with us, the nose dipping. Its front hatches slid open.

Jelena continued, talking fast, voice trembling. “It’s true. It was terrible, Goma. They set it all on fire. They broke everything.”

We came to a stop just as the three Ramish buggies skidded in to surround us. Jelena and I got out as the guards rushed in. Caravan truckers were thumping to the ground around us, unclipping from their long bungees as they hit the ground. The dust from the skidding buggies dangled down, enveloping us and shifting in the rising breeze.

We were surrounded by a knot of glowing guards and sky truckers. They were moving in slow. Knives out. Somebody’s radio squawked news or orders.

Jelena took my hand. This stopped them. We all stood blinking in the dust. The breeze picked up and shifted the Ramish robes in the silence. The sky seemed to dim. The crowd parted as Goma strode through, scraping her blade from its place on her hip. She drew to a full stop before us, eyeing our clasped hands.

Her tone was almost conversational. “Jelena, darling. Please step away from our … guest.”

Jelena shook her head, grasped my hand tighter.

Goma shifted her gaze to me. The breeze stiffened and flew her hair like a long grey banner.

“Twenty Ramish,” she said. At this, the crowd seemed to shuffle in closer, straining to hear her above the moving air. “Twenty Ramish died today in Shade City. Those who tried to escape were chased down and murdered in the blaze districts.”

The crowd inched in. And not to hear better.

“Jelena, love. Please come here.” Even with all the whipping sand and flapping robes, I could see her hand tighten around the hilt.

“No, Goma,” Jelena replied, shaking her head. “Please don’t. Radrian saved me, wasn’t involved in the violence.”

Goma moved very quickly, children. She came at us, pulled Jelena away and behind her. Jelena was absorbed by the wall of wind-strewn robes.

“Not involved? Why, isn’t this the very child who came through here last week? Who, despite my generous blessings, treated our pools like a playground? Isn’t that just the sort of involvement that led to this rampage? And their police did nothing. And no thumb blood was spilled. Until now.”

My back against the buggy, she had me.

She pressed the cold blade against my sweating throat. I could feel my skin begin to split. The old woman looked down deep into my eyes. She seemed serene, calm in her violence.

“Time to step into the light, young thumb.”

Just then it happened. A single thick drop, a liquid miracle, fell wet on her knife arm. Our four eyes darted to the spot. Another slapped my cheek, a sharp splash. The sky opened, children, and the water came down: a million impossible sparkling tears.

“That was the first Bloom, wasn’t it, Grandmother?”

“Yes, children. And it was spectacular. The desert sprung to life. Later, the caravaners said that, from their high zeppelin vantage, the desert looked like a vast Ramish tapestry. They had to squint to pick out the Oasis and the Thumb amidst the profusion. This was the great lesson that set us on our current course of cooperation. This was the moment we all felt small enough to be indivisible.”

At first the rain shocked us into stillness. We stood astonished, tilting our faces to the sky. Our reverie was interrupted by a groan from above; the lead zeppelin dipped and rotated like a sick animal. The great skycraft started limping towards the sky harbor above the Oasis, followed by the others. Each wobbled under the weight of the impossible rain, its photon-powered hydro-extractors overwhelmed by the deluge. Then everyone was on the move, getting in buggies, heading for shelter, heading for home where the photon farms were already flooding. Their shouts were reduced to susurrus beneath the shower’s steady hiss.

Jelena found me in the riot of robes and rain.

And she took my hand.

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Choices

By Clark A. Miller

Cities change slowly, if at all. The 1950s choice to make Phoenix into car city, a giant grid of thoroughfares, endures today in its cookie-cutter housing developments, Walmarts, and Walgreens laid out in predictable patterns across the Valley of the Sun. But what if the city had to choose again? Would it take the same path?

The beating heart and circulatory system of any city is its energy infrastructure. Energy enables and informs urban design, both materially and socially. It shapes how far and fast people travel, how extensively they transform their environment, how widely and thoroughly they draw nets around the food, water, and resources of their neighboring hinterlands. Energy technologies organize everyone and everything, from political economy to the routines of everyday life. Humans are not so much what we eat but how we convert energy into action.

Phoenix in the 1950s was the brainchild of the Del Webb Corporation, the original Sun City, a place where ordinary people could retire to an active life of fun in the pool and on the golf course, the suburb of tomorrow in the making. But it was also a place where people dreamed the future of the city very differently. The legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright came to Phoenix every winter, his students in tow, to teach them to live in and to design according to nature. Taliesin West, his home just north of Phoenix, is an homage to that vision and a product of his own and his students’ ideas and hands. One of Wright’s students, Paolo Soleri, settled in Scottsdale with dreams of creating a new utopia, Arcosanti, a perfect marriage of people, technology, and ecology, cultivated under the desert sun. Wright’s and Soleri’s visions never really caught fire, fading in the harshness of the relentless, baking heat, but they provided an alternative, critical gaze that continues to reverberate today in the persistent—but wrong in many ways—view of Phoenix as the most unsustainable city in the world.[1]

Surprisingly, to many, the denizens of Phoenix use less electricity than most Americans. They do a better job of recycling and reusing water. They drive their cars no further than the national average on a daily basis. All of these facts run counter to the narrative of Phoenix as particularly unsustainable. That narrative stems from two fallacies. The first is about air conditioning. Introduced to mass culture in the 1950s, air conditioning is a symbol of modern convenience—or excess, depending on your point of view. But it takes significantly less energy to cool a Phoenix home when it’s 120 degrees outside than it does to heat a home in Chicago when it’s 0. So why does our culture consider air conditioning an unsustainable luxury, while heating is an unavoidable necessity? The second fallacy concerns the vast technologies that sustain Phoenix. Phoenix is brazen about its dependence on technology, making no bones of the fact that it moves water hundreds of miles across the desert to slake its thirst. As such, it is highly exposed to disruptions in supply chains. Yet, in this respect, Phoenix is no different than any other U.S. city. All cities today rely on global technological systems to provide food, energy, water, and materials. None are exempt. New York ran out of fuel during Hurricane Sandy. San Juan suffered the longest blackout in U.S. history after Hurricane Maria. We are all vulnerable. Phoenix just wears its vulnerability a little more visibly than other cities.

Phoenix stands on the precipice of the future. Old energy—the giant, world-spanning energy systems that made Phoenix possible, pumping water over vast distances, moving people along Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles, air-conditioning the desert—is under the gun. Carbon has to go, full stop. Internal combustion engines, gas turbines, and coal-fired power plants are stranded dinosaurs, dying the slow death of extinction. So, too, the old weather that drew privileged white people to the Valley. Climate change is making the desert even hotter. Water is slowly evaporating from the Colorado River. “A hundred days over a hundred” is becoming “a hundred and ten over a hundred and ten.” It’s a precarious situation, and it’s set Phoenix politics and social life on edge.

As Corey S. Pressman’s story “Divided Light” hints, Phoenix in its current form may not make the cut. A whiff of meaningful change, and people might hesitate before moving to town. A recent Rolling Stone exposé on climate refugees inside the United States identified individuals who’ve already left the city over its rising temperatures.[2] A trickle could turn into a stream, and then a flood, just as the waters wash across the landscape during the monsoon.

Shade City is the direct descendent of Sun City. Its raison d’être is relaxation in a resort-style bubble, insulated from the harsh desert environment by a smart-glass, photon-hacking, quantum conversion barrier with a wide array of technological capabilities variously called The Shade, The Ceiling, and The Thumb. The Shade’s panels can shift from transparent to opaque to translucent, dividing the light, dappling the surface beneath, creating patterns of starlight and moonlight never before seen in the night sky. It’s a constant work of art, carrying the colors and lines of saguaro and organ pipe cactus gardens into the clouds, even as its shimmering hues contrast the monochromatic simplicity of the dense, multifamily housing structures, golf courses, and shopping malls below. Shade City is present-day Phoenix taken to an extreme, a socio-technical system so thoroughly techno-encapsulated that you barely notice the nature outside the 10-kilometer-square fishbowl created by The Shade. It’s an illusion, of course, heightened by the long-term drought that has banished the monsoon and with it any hint of rain on the glass roof. Yet, it’s an illusion that’s pretty darn compelling for those who live under the Thumb.

The Shade’s high-efficiency photon capture devices collect most of the solar spectrum, reflecting the rest into space. The output is vast energy resources for Shade City. At 35% efficiency, the Shade produces 300 times the energy needed by the city’s residents to power their homes. Electrons are cheap and abundant for everyone. Shade City denizens don’t just enjoy central air conditioning in their houses; the city keeps the daytime temperature cool under the entire canopy. Biolights feed their cactus gardens, and people float down the golf course or across town to the mall in their Boeing electric, hex-a-rotor aircaddies. Their answer to the constraints of life in the desert? Move stuff, long distances if necessary. They move power from The Shade to the city itself through a giant central stanchion (The Thumb). So, too, they move that power to the city’s desalination plant on the Gulf of California via enormous, high-voltage DC transmission lines. The newly cleaned water—and the salt, separately—come back in giant electric caravans, along with shipments of food from the city’s vast Sonoran plantations, running along electrified guidewires tied into the new regional super-grid. The Shade is not just art or shade or ceiling; it is the infrastructural pump for energy networks that flow downward and outward from Shade City across millions of square kilometers of desert landscape. The result of all that infrastructure? As the billboards announce: the power to live the perfect life of comfort, convenience, and security.[3] A life of ease, as our protagonist makes so abundantly clear. No worries, be happy. Play golf, enjoy a walk in the cactus gardens, take a nap in the shade.

The Ramish are a different shade of light altogether. They are disciples of a generation of ambitious—and perhaps a bit mad—scientists and engineers lured by the cash liberated by the sale of Aramco and the rush of innovation spurred by Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s effort to transform itself from a petrostate into a center of Islamic technological and cultural entrepreneurship and exchange.[4] The Ramish are techno-entrepreneurs, libertarian craftspeople, inexorable makers, luminosity artists, and desert smallholders who make their living hacking quantum-conversion technologies as sources of income, and of beauty. Their ideas initially took shape in a tent city set up in the sand dunes halfway between Riyadh and Masdar City, before they were pushed out by growing arrays of solar panels gobbling the Arabian sands. Their culture internalizes, rather than externalizes, the food-energy-water nexus. They produce their own, rather than importing from other places. They are photon pharmers, protein engineers, and water miners. And they are lightsmiths and reed-benders, sculptors of high technology who forge photons into every conceivable form of energy service the Ramish need or can sell to their neighbors. Like the leaves of desert plants, like palo verde trees or creosote bushes, their devices transform light via molecular design into a vast array of chemical and physical phenomena that do work—and create splendor—for humankind.

Ramish technology is something to see: “batteries” made of reeds that bend in on themselves, unfolding to release potential energy; luminescent inks that impregnate the epidermis, creating permanent new cellular luminescence for sol tats, tattoo markings that signal an array of social, cultural, and familial information; sunbirds such as raptors, herons, and wrens with photoreceptive feathers that take in sunlight and convert it into food and water; dragon trees with roots that penetrate rock to vast depths and desalinate brine aquifers to create potable water; dirigible skins that use photons to coax water from the dry desert sky.

Ramish culture is decentralized. Their holdings are small and scattered across the desert. Dirigibles, photon pharms, and dragon trees are usually family-owned businesses. So, too, light forges and bioartistry co-ops. Families are arranged professionally in guilds and genealogically in loose kinship networks. Groupings of smallholders are arranged around Oases—literally places that store water, but also places of gathering, worship, commerce, and intrigue.

At the heart of Ramish political economy are the practices of making and valuation. Making is the act of creation, of the bringing of an object, an event, or a person to perfection. The Ramish greeting “Step into the light” is an invitation to forge oneself, to see the potential within oneself, while also being forged by the community into a disciple of the light: to declare one’s intent to be remade into a maker and to subject oneself to the process of making. Makers are material foundries: transformers of the basic elements of Earth and water and light and life into the material foundations of societies.

Valuation is the accounting for use: an assessment of whether innovation enhances or undermines the thriving of individuals, households, businesses, communities, and societies. The great mistake of the Silicon Valley juggernauts of the early twenty-first century was to forget that the ultimate source of value creation is people’s ability to use technology productively. Modern business models too often focus on creating value for the business, not for the user. Yet, if users cannot use a technology, first, to create value for themselves—and not just any value, but real value, net of the burdens or risks of use—then that technology will inevitably create a drag on its users, sapping income or wellbeing and undermining thriving.[5] This can occur even if customers seem willing to pay the price for the technology. Some utilities in poor countries give away televisions when they hook up new customers to the grid, because they know they’ll pay their bills, even if it costs their last dime, not to have their TV cut off. Valuation is, by contrast, an attempt to reverse that cycle through patterns and practices of reinvestment that trickle value in rather than out—to find ways to ensure that new technologies create real value for their users.[6]

For the Ramish, valuation is essential. Ramish technologies empower their users, nurturing value creation, looping generative feedbacks that strengthen communities. They are instruments of human thriving, wrought with thoughtful care to work sunlight into human creative possibility.

Choice is what makes the future. Or rather choices. Lots of choices. Individuals, families, businesses, organizations, governments: each chooses what to see and how to see it; how to understand and frame problems; how to respond; what kinds of values to commit to; what kinds of possibilities to imagine and strive for; what policies to adopt; what to buy; who to buy it from; how much to pay; how to use what they buy to create value for themselves, or not. Taken together, all of these choices add up to create the tomorrows that everyone inhabits. Perhaps it is this indeterminacy—no one’s individual choices shape the future alone—that leaves us feeling disempowered. No one need be responsible for the future, if everyone contributes only a small bit to its making.

Yet, there are also big choices. Recently, an influential political leader declared a preference for a future of plentiful solar energy in Arizona, while also suggesting that the state should obviously want the solar future that would be the least expensive.[7] As the story of Shade City and the Ramish suggests, however (alongside all of the stories in this book), the cost of future solar systems is hardly the only design choice that matters. For Arizona, and for Phoenix, choices about how to arrange solar systems on the land, how to arrange their ownership, in what ways to make them beautiful, or whether to partner them with transmission networks or storage systems are just as important as cost. Energy is the lifeblood of modern societies. As such, choices about energy systems determine far more than just how we produce and consume energy. The future of many aspects of Phoenix is at stake in how we choose to design our solar energy future.

[1] For a representative example of this argument, see Andrew Ross, Bird on Fire: Lesson’s from the World’s Least Sustainable City, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.[Back]

[2] Jeff Goodell, “Welcome to the Age of Climate Migration,” Rolling Stone, February 25, 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/welcome-to-the-age-of-climate-migration-202221.[Back]

[3] Our imagination of Shade City is indebted to Abraham Tidwell, who describes in his dissertation, “Morals in Transition: Imaginaries and American National Identity Through Three Energy Transitions,” and particularly Chapter 5, the sales cultures of green energy living in the retirement communities of the Phoenix West Valley.[Back]

[4] For more on Vision 2030, visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s official website for the plan: http://vision2030.gov.sa/en.[Back]

[5] See Clark A. Miller, et al. “Poverty Eradication through Energy Innovation,” https://ifis.asu.edu/sites/default/files/general/miller_et_al_2018_asu-ae4h_poverty_eradication_through_energy_innovation.pdf.[Back]

[6] Jameson Wetmore has written eloquently in “Amish technology: reinforcing values and building community,” in IEEE Technology & Society, about the ways in which Amish communities are highly deliberate in their introduction of new technologies into their societies, making sure that those technologies fit their values and their preferred ways of living and organizing community. Crucial for the Ramish is the insistence that this exercise of valuation is a responsibility of the maker and not just the user.[Back]

[7] “Commissioner Tobin Proposes Comprehensive Energy Reform,” Arizona Corporation Commission, January 30, 2018, https://www.azcc.gov/Divisions/Administration/news/2018Releases/1-30-18Commissioner%20Tobin%20%20Energy%20Reform.asp.[Back]

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