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Disobedient Objects: protest art occupies the V&A museum

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In a room in London’s stately Victoria and Albert Museum, two inflatable cobblestones now hang in the air like low-budget zeppelins above a troop of cartoonish gorillas clad in leather.

In the entrance to the new Disobedient Objects exhibition – positioned directly opposite some of the world’s finest Renaissance sculptures – sits a battered pan lid.

The subversives and revolutionaries – with their “art from below” – have taken over.

The exhibition is an investigation into the role of objects in movements for social change. The weird and wonderful artefacts chart the recent history of activism and showcase the power that everyday objects have when repurposed for protest.

The inflatable cobblestones, for example, were used in protests in Berlin and Barcelona in 2012. Thrown towards the lines of riot police, the devices make the authorities unwilling participants in an absurd sketch.

The police must throw them back, attack them, or attempt to bundle the unwieldy ballons into the back of their van. Either way, the result looks ridiculous, and inevitably goes viral on the internet.

An inflatable cobblestone hangs above feminine figures clad in leather and gorilla masks - a protest against the treatment of women in art

But that battered pan lid is perhaps the best example of what Disobedient Objects are all about. In 2001, Argentines took to the streets when their government freezing the bank accounts of 18 million people. 

Many banged pots and pans, engaging in cacerolazo, a form of popular protest often used in Spanish-speaking nations. 

Beaten out of shape, the pan lid still outlasted four presidents. “All of them must go”, the protestors chanted, and four leaders went in just three weeks.

The pan lid’s owner, Maria Teresa Nannini, stands proudly beside it.

“We protested against the banks, but we protested against the state too. The state should have protected us,” she tells me, speaking through an interpreter.

We waited a long time, because justice is slow.

After seven years, the bank finally returned her money. Many never saw their savings again. However, Nannini was among the Argentines who felt empowered by their new experiences of activism. She formed a civic action group, which she still coordinates.

“The important thing is something good came out of it,” she says.   

Thousands of pots and pans were banged on the streets of Argentina in 2001, in what is billed as the first national protest against neoliberal capitalism

The 99 objects on display – ranging from a homemade gas mask to a robot graffiti artist – were fashioned to protest against an array of injustices, but dissatisfaction with governments and neoliberalism is a common thread. 

In the 1980s when representatives of the Indian government, and bank officers, began entering farmers’ houses without warning, beating women, collecting loans and seizing property illegally when the men were at work, a grassroots movement rose against them.

When the union gathered its strength, they began erecting signs warning off corrupt intruders, telling them precisely when they can visit on the farmer’s own terms. One sign now hangs by the entrance to the exhibit.  

“It seems like a small thing, but in the Indian system it has been a struggle to preserve the way of life and dignity of the farmers, so this was a huge step,” says Tilly Gifford, who has worked closely with the movement.

They have achieved amazing things. But after 30 years of the same struggle, you’ll ask them now what their greatest achievement is, and they’ll say ‘Now, when we go to see a bureaucrat, instead of being told to sit on the floor, we can pull up a chair and sit down.’ 

Poignantly, not all of the disobedient objects were so successful. A miniature of the Goddess of Democracy statue that Chinese protestors erected at Tiananmen Square, before their uprising was brutally swept away, stands as a reminder of the lives lost in the pursuit of rights and liberties.  

But perhaps even more poignantly, many of the objects were fashioned for battles that remain unresolved.

As one of the defining issues of our age, it is inevitable that climate change is well represented.

A Bike Bloc – a four-wheeled, sound system-carrying contraption made of discarded pushbikes – supplies the mood music in the corner of the room. Many like it starred at the protests that surrounded the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen. 

Visitors can also enjoy a hands-on experience with a lock-on device. Described as the most successful object in the exhibit, lock-ons are used by protestors to chain themselves together. They can only be forcibly removed using smart saws that can distinguish between flesh and metal.

There was a particularly scary moment where I thought I’d lost the key,” says one activist. 

Many 'Bike Blocs' like this were used to form blockades or decoys at the 2009 Copenhagen protests

Some objects are more complex, such as the game app Phone Story, a subversive protest for workers’ rights in the developing world.

In the game – admittedly not an object – the player must take charge of the supply chain that produced the device they are playing on. Tasks include forcing children to mine at gunpoint, and preventing worker suicides in factories. The app was removed from iTunes in a matter of days.

In many different ways, the V&A’s exhibit reveals the imagination, resourcefulness and determination of social movements. 

What unites the objects – from Occupy banners to a slingshot made from a shoe – is the ability of their creators to make something powerful, moving or brilliantly effective from whatever they have. 

It is true that many movements cannot be considered wholly successful. Politicians still dither over climate change and workers are still abused in faraway factories.

But as a reminder of what is possible, a teacup sits beside Maria Teresa Nannini’s pan lid. It bears the logo of the WSPU, the suffragette movement that fought for the vote for women in Edwardian Britain. Their cause must have seemed hopeless once too.

And the activists will not stop. Many more disobedient objects will be crafted to fight these causes. Recognising that, the exhibit ends with a blank space, saved for future disobedient objects.

“Activism is never a waste of time,” says one televised activist on the wall above. 

“Even if it fails.” 

Disobedient Objects opens at the V&A on July 26, running until February 1 2015. The exhibit is free to enter.

Further reading:

Civil society organisations call for action at climate talks

Fossil fuel divestment campaigns can help ‘stigmatise’ industry

Environmentalism: does active mean effective?

Swimming against the tide: ethical banks as countermovement

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Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.

Deadheading

Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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