The harsh reality of cognitive limits.

 

Want to Build Great New Habits?
Interested in the Stunning Research that Changes Everything?
How about The Brain Hack that Makes You a Winner?

Clickbait like this is common, alongside more respectable Serious Yet Slightly Breathless News Items.

I spent several years researching behaviour change and running pilot projects on pro-environmental behaviour. My reading list was measured in feet and inches—I still have a two-foot stack of studies, and those are just my very favourites.

Out of all of this, I found one deeply important insight that explains, or frames, all of the work in the area—even the clickbait.

Our thinking has limits.

Just like we can only run so fast, or jump so high, we can only think so much.

I am going to show how this underpins everything from habits to heuristics—and how it helps us understand how to proceed. And yet this fact is very rarely discussed—and when it is discussed, we usually ignore it only to repeat the same old mistakes.

black and white threshold edited

So, our thinking has limits—which is not so surprising when you think about it. Our brain weighs only about three pounds. It sits inside a body that is fueled by food just a few times a day and still needs to sleep for eight hours.

Our senses take in an enormous amount of data that our brain must manage and select responses for. As Tor Norretranders says:

“The fact is that every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second – at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits…”

Estimates of how many million bits per second vary, but the average estimate is about 60 million.

60 million bits of data per second flood our senses, but we are conscious of only 40. Not 40 million, just 40. That means we are conscious of just 0.00007% of what we perceive.1

And you wonder why it is hard to get people to read your recycling brochure.

We ruthlessly filter the data pouring in through our senses, sorting and discarding, seeking patterns that would elevate bits from data to information.

A cracking sound in the woods, maybe a silence of birdsong, an observation that the berry bush you are standing by is heavy with delicious fruit—these resolve themselves into “That bear is going to kill me.”

The data has survived the filters and become very useful information.

This is why we have a Novelty Bias. If you are just standing there with nothing happening, you can probably keep standing there and nothing will happen, and so your brain can nod off. It is when something new happens—like the crack of a stick in the silence—that we start to pay attention.2

After you have filtered for what you hope is important, the biases and heuristics keep rolling.

“That bear is going to kill me, now what do I do? Do I freeze? Do I play dead? Do I run?”

“The last time I ran from a bear, I lived to tell the tale—so it will probably work this time…” That is the Similarity Heuristic.

black and white threshold edited

So we are absolutely swamped with data. Furthermore, we—and our brains—evolved in a context that required fast action to secure food and faster action to avoid predators. We simply would not have been able to cope if we had to evaluate and carefully consider every bit of data. So we evolved coping strategies.

filtering  =  coping strategy
cognitive biases  =
 coping strategy
habits  =
 coping strategy
rules of thumb (heuristics)  =
 coping strategy
tribalism  =
 coping strategy
not listening  =
 coping strategy
copying  =
 coping strategy
social choice  =
 coping strategy
doing nothing  =  coping strategy

 

That is what the clickbait and much of the popular science writing is about—it is research that unveils the coping mechanisms we use to deal with the flood of data flowing through a brain that has limits.

For example, Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Economics Award-winning psychologist and one of the founders of Behavioural Economics. In his wildly popular book Thinking Fast and Slow, he describes how our brains use two systems: System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

Kahneman is describing our coping mechanism for a brain that cannot deal with all of the data it receives, and so it manages most of it quickly, with broad strokes, in order to conserve the deliberative resources for fewer—hopefully more important—things.

Researchers such as Roy Baumeister or Jonathan Haidt have drawn from Kahneman and Tversky’s work, and popular books such as Blink, Nudge and Switch reference them heavily. Switch uses Haidt’s metaphor for the two systems—an elephant and it’s rider. One is big and powerful, the other is little, and spends a lot of time thinking. System one, the fast and intuitive process, is what Gladwell discusses in Blink.

The research, the pop science, the clickbait—they are all describing our coping strategies.

Many coping mechanisms work all right; for the most part they have helped humanity plod along to where we are today. But we are starting3 to see some spectacular failures. Sometimes we find ourselves unprepared to deal with modern problems using a stone age brain,4 and so we  try to hack or tweak our coping mechanisms.

I have lost count of how many pop science articles I have read that describe a cognitive bias and say, “Ah-HAH! A bias! Now all we need to do is hack that bias and we can get back to the par-tay!”

Here is the thing—

The solution increases the problem.

The coping strategy is trying to deal with too much data—and the tweak often just increases the demands on our brain.

If you have a bias evolved to deal with your limited attention, trying to deal with that bias by asking for more attention is…Dumb? A waste of time? Probably going to fail?

But most recommendations for how to deal with our coping strategies still frequently demand attention, and sometimes sustained attention.

This would mean the tweak needs the right information to make it through the filters instead of getting stuck along with the other 60 million bits, if the data doesn’t make it through the filter, then the tweak won’t work. Furthermore, to sustain change using conscious tools would require that the data make it through  the filter over and over again.

And all of this is in competition with huge corporate advertising budgets, the demands of work and family life, and stress of all kinds.

All of this combined with thousands of environmental, social justice and economic issues that must be urgently addressed.

To put it mildly, that seems overly hopeful.

Yet that is what is being proposed whenever a politician says, “It is all about education”, or an environmental group says, “We need to raise awareness”, or a campaign asks you to spread the word, or watch a documentary film.

Every second they have your attention, you are filtering 59,999,960 bits of information, but they feel pretty confident you are going to listen to them.5

The results speak the truth. We ignore the reality of human cognitive limits, and we design strategies that rely on cognitive capacity we simply do not have.

And so we fail.

What would a better strategy be? I think we must build Compassionate Systems that shape our behaviour or address problems without needing attention. A programmable thermostat eliminates 20% of our heating energy, without attention. A well-designed house can eliminate heating energy, without attention.

I also think we must redesign our democracy. As citizens we cannot keep up with the hundreds of important issues in our country—and if we think our politicians are reading the thousands of pages of reports they get each month we are deluding ourselves; they too are only human. We need electoral and consultation systems that are designed for the brains we have, not the brains we wish we had.

 

{ 4 comments }

Sustainable means able to be sustained, and the alternative, then, is things that are unable to be sustained.6

What part of unable to continue suggests we continue right down the same path? It is like my whole culture is gaslighting me because I feel so crazy.

Putting a finer point on it, I have long been a critic of vertical farms, most recently in Vertical farms: the greatest hope for cities, or a band-aid on a sucking chest wound? 

Salon also posted Enough with the vertical farming fantasies: There are still too many unanswered questions about the trendy practice.

But over at TreeHugger today, the tireless Lloyd Alter gives vertical farms a little love after nearly a decade of criticism, with I was wrong about vertical farms; Aerofarms shows how to make them really work.

 

Aerofarms has apparently avoided many of the things Lloyd has criticized in the past: the farm is in an abandoned factory, the growing racks are stacked very high to get more square footage, the plants are grown hydroponically in a fabric medium so consumption of nutrients and water can be tightly controlled to eliminate waste, and LED lighting is used that can be tuned to the specific colours the plants need for optimal photosynthesis, thus reducing energy use.

Aerofarms is a classic Less Bad is not Necessarily Good7 solution, in which efficiency serves to distract from the finitude of our planet.

Falling from 500 feet may be “less bad” than falling from 1000 feet, but you are still dead momentarily after impact. 

Today, we spend 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food. Efficiency might allow you to use eight calories of energy to produce one calorie of food, but you are still losing net energy at a shocking rate. It is Not Good.

Before fossil-fueled farming, it was easy to see which farmers used more energy than they produced—they were the dead ones. With only their own or their animals’ muscles to power a farm, the chain of cause and effect was very direct.

In Salon, Stan Cox calculates:

producing America’s annual vegetable crop (not counting potatoes) in vertical systems under lights would require well over half of the electricity this country generates every year, and that would crank out 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions per year.

Half of the electricity?! Hey, let’s be generous and assume they can double efficiency! Then it will only take ONE-QUARTER of all the energy used in the United States. And that is before we “succeed” in electrifying transportation and heating and cooling, thus radically increasing demand for electricity.

Which quarter of your energy use are you going to give up? Oh, you don’t want to give anything up? All right, I guess we need to increase capacity by 25%…

So, just a quick check-in on the facts:

  • The US energy mix is 90% non-renewable, while globally, energy used is 80% non-renewable. Replacing that energy with renewables is going to be a significant challenge—a challenge many analysts characterize as impossible.8
  • Various IPCC reports and international accords agree Greenhouse Gases need to be cut sharply and very soon. 80% reductions by 2050 is one common target.
  • Even still, these 80% reductions are widely seen as inadequate to avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • James Hansen predicts a sea level rise of several meters in the next 50-150 years. His position is controversial, but he has a history of conservative conclusions.

Given these facts, let me sketch some vertical farm scenarios regarding the electricity used to power the lights, pumps and filters, and whatever CO2 producing devices they are enriching the atmosphere with:

Dark Green Reality
In this scenario, let’s assume we look at whole systems and determine the most important response to climate change is to radically slash material and energy use. Energy is allocated with great care to only the most important tasks, like the digital archiving of certain very valuable research texts, powering infant incubators, and very small amounts of pumping and other services.

Since sunlight falls on fields for free, it is immediately obvious that generating electricity to power lightbulbs to grow salad is a fool’s choice. Humans choose a more local and seasonal life, following and obeying the rhythms of nature. Birds chirp in every tree.

Bright Green Utopia
The electrification of the ‘developed’ world accelerates, with champagne corks popped for every new Tesla model. The developing world follows, with electric cars, air conditioners, televisions, light bulbs and computers reaching billions more people then ever before.

To power all this requires damming every trickle of water on the planet,9 while resource extraction and manufacturing for solar panels and windmills still need huge amounts of fossil fuels. Coal plants stay online to cope with differences between demand and renewable supply (caused whenever the sun goes down), and there is a huge surge in (non-renewable) nuclear power development. The downwind pollution from nuclear reactors and fuel mining continues to cause cancers and birth abnormalities, and the spent fuel continues to have no place to be safely stored for the lifetime of the danger. It takes a century, but Aerofarms factory is washed away by rising sea levels.

Hell in a Handbasket
Increasing climate chaos activates human lizard brains at a mass scale, causing people to double down in a hedonistic fuck-it—a sort of perpetual Black Friday riot. All of this consumption requires massive amounts of electricity, so coal plants are spun up to maximum and construction starts on dozens of nuclear plants, as well as fuel mining and processing plants.

Global average temperature soars, ice caps suffer catastrophic melt raising sea levels dozens of feet within decades, not centuries. One billion people are displaced and massive urban areas including New York City and Mumbai are inundated. Aerofarms original location is washed away.

Business as Usual
On our current trajectory, BAU is not wildly different from the Hell in a Handbasket scenario.

black and white threshold edited

There is no way to make vertical farms good. Neither our current model of transporting food great distances nor vertical farms are good responses to overpopulation and urban concentration. Maybe they are less bad. Maybe.

The public discourse, politicians, academics, journalists, scientists, most seem to be blithely washed along in the flood of business-as-usual. The plan—the actual policy—seems to be hoping a knight in shining armour will ride in to save us. This is enormously frustrating for me.

“Would you like to get kicked in both knees, or just one knee?”

“Erm…. I would like to not be kicked at all…”

We are talking about systems that rely on non-renewable resources, and are therefore impossible to sustain. The immutable forces here are the laws of nature. If our agriculture is not sustainable, that means it will not be sustained. That means it will end. That means people cannot eat it.

Less Bad is slow death.

But it is true, talking about what is Less Bad and what is Good obscures the reality of the situation a little.

The challenge is that while Less Bad is slow death, Good is increasingly looking like different death, at least in the short term.10 We show no sign of voluntarily realigning our society and our culture to follow the laws of nature.11 Rather, we continue to throw energy, materials and technology at problems. This makes a reckoning inevitable, and it is hard to see how an involuntary reduction in population can be avoided. It sure looks like truly sustainable agricultural practices that could feed humanity will only be widely adopted when we have exhausted all of our Less Bad options.

Now, slowing bleeding is always a good idea, but we are way past the cut and scrape stage. When medics perform triage after a catastrophe, they leave some people bleeding because they have no hope of survival and the bandages and personnel are needed for people who might live.

So, should we focus time and attention on infrastructure that, as these rough scenarios show, cannot endure? Personally, I try to work for things that are Good.

Which is not vertical farming.

 

{ 8 comments }

We have enough Ideas (or, No pie for you.)

Why are we not winning the fight against climate chaos? Why was Trump just elected? Why has there been a slaughter of drug addicts this year?

Because we think about change wrong,12 and so our efforts are often wasted.

Three things are needed to make change;  we need three capacities. We need the Technical capacity, the Material Capacity, and the Social capacity. Let me explain:

If you have a recipe for apple pie, and some sort of an oven or other way to concentrate heat, you have the technical capacity to bake a pie.

If you have apples and flour and sugar and butter and pinch of cinnamon you have the material capacity to bake a pie.

And if you have someone who is willing to cut butter into flour, slice apples and wait around while the pie bakes, you have the social capacity to bake a pie.

If you lack any one of these three, there will be no pie. Pie will be impossible. You cannot have pie.

Technical capacity

Ideas are technical capacity. A vision. A map. A programming language. A recipe. All of the necessary technics to realize the idea are also part of the technical capacity—a factory with all its fabricating machines and finishing systems, handling units, air or water cleaning systems.
Distribution systems might be thought of as part of technical capacity.13

For some simple changes, the idea may be the only technical capacity you need, but for more complex change, you may need much, much more. Joseph Swan developed a light bulb that used a carbonized filament 30 years before Thomas Edison’s patent, but vacuum pumps had not been invented that could suck the air out of Swan’s bulb. He had an electrical supply, a bulb, a filament, but lacked a pump, so he did not have the technical capacity.

Microchip manufacturers are currently reaching the end of their ability to miniaturize, and so the much-vaunted Moore’s Law…is not a law. Chip designers have a lot of ideas, and are doing a lot of research, but can’t currently turn these possibiities into realities. They do not have the technical capacity.

Commercial power generation with nuclear fusion has been just ten years away…since the 1950s? The technical capacity does not exist.

Social Capacity

Social license, political capital. The ability to tax to raise funds. Volunteers. Educators. The willingness to go to jail in protest or the willingness to put up with inconvenience for a greater social good. Governance, obedience of laws. Unity, harmony, tolerance.

Open minds.

These things are not created or overcome with a good idea. I think of the social capacity as the fruit of relationships. Can a diverse group of people be brought together in common cause?

In the real world, away from the habit of worshipping ideas, we do spend a lot of attention on social capacity; coalition building, social capital, education, fundraising.

Material Capacity

Thanks to post-war exuberance and the silliness of feckless economists few of us think of there being limits to material resources. But of course, on our blue droplet, everything must be finite.  Without snow, you can’t go skiing. If you don’t have energy, you can’t do much of anything. No water or no soil or no seed…no crops.

If you don’t have apples, you can’t make pie. But if you do have apples, you can eat them fresh, dry them, sauce them, bake them, juice them for cider, distill them for brandy—as long as you have the necessary technical and social capacities for each of those operations.

black and white threshold edited

Sadly, our habit is to think and say that change is about ideas; new ideas cause change. TED Talks are Ideas Worth Spreading. Political parties have platforms and debate ideas. It is currently very important for cities to “consult” with residents and “hear their ideas”.
Pecha KuchaThinklandia. IdeaCity.14

We spend a lot of time concerned with messaging and with rhetoric, because our habit frames this battle as a clash of ideas, and when the best idea is proven out, it wins and change will follow as sure as day follows night…

—despite this not according with reality in almost any way; knowledge and awareness are frequently unrelated to behaviour.

—despite this not being the strategy of countless organizations that are getting things done; a soup kitchen is not about ideas, it is about feeding people. A traffic signal is not about ideas, it is about controlling the behaviour of traffic. Politics is rarely about ideas, it is about getting out the vote.

Of course even a traffic light has an organizing idea behind it. What if each signal was organized around a different idea? Disaster. But for traffic control, as with most of human existence, the ideas are quite old. New ideas are very seldom needed, in fact we are still struggling to execute ideas that are millennia old and so the fetishization of ideas is very often misplaced. What is needed is implementation.

Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. – Guy Kawasaki

Don’t freak out too much in trying to parse issues between social and material and technical. There is not much benefit to counting angels on a pin head. The big point is that ideas are not nearly enough. As someone trained in Industrial Design I like to joke I have a degree in brainstorming, and I still think ideas are only 0.1% of the solution.

What is needed is the social and material capacity.

black and white threshold edited

So how did Donald Trump become president?

It clearly was not a lack of ideas. I don’t think I heard a single new idea in the whole campaign, just the same old repetition about growth and jobs, with some excitement thrown in about health care, globalization and immigration. But I wonder if there was even a single idea that was less than 100 years old.

We have the technical capacity.

Regarding the American electorate, there is a clear lack of social capacity. Divergent social groups can not be brought together.15

 

How about the horrifying increase in overdose deaths as elephant tranquillizers are mixed into street drugs?

We clearly do not have the social capacity to care for the wounded people that become and stay addicts, or the social connections to prevent their being so deeply wounded in the first place.16 Furthermore, once people are addicted, we have the knowledge of safe injection sites—the idea, or technical capacity—but we have NIMBY resistance and government obstruction to opening sites, so we don’t have the social capacity.

Please note I am not saying we can’t develop the social capacity to forgo bathroom remodels and granite countertops, and choose instead to assign that money to paying for the supports necessary to prevent or mitigate the harm caused by our culture. We could do that, but we currently do not have the social capacity.

 

Climate chaos is the poster child of our misallocation of expectations. Scientists did research, the UN made statements, Al Gore went on tour.

The technical capacity is all there—the information and data, even the bright green solutions of electric cars and solar panels and high-speed trains, and the deep green solutions of walkable communities and bioregionalism and simple living.

And we progressives and environmentalists have spent well over a decade being gobsmacked that the only significant changes have been to the increasing level of carbon in the atmosphere. The atmosphere doesn’t care about Kyoto, or Paris, or Rio the first time or the second time. The atmosphere doesn’t even know Copenhagen exists.

The atmosphere only cares about tonnes of carbon, and those keep increasing.

And the louder we talk at people who seem to not be hearing us, the more social capacity we lose as we harden people into opposition.

An excellent recent article by David Roberts fleshes this out.

Most of our knowledge is not acquired or held in ways that we would think of as “learning”—teacher-student, textbook, debate, et c. Knowledge is social, Roberts explains, and is largely passed or outsourced within social groups.17

So, in a formal learning environment, let’s say math class, a conservative student will not care if the teacher is from the same group and shares their conservative politics. The student is there to learn and math is math.

In informal environments, like everyday life, the practise of outsourcing knowledge18 works great, most of the time. If we all had to know how to manufacture every part of every thing in the human realm we would be living a much more stone-age existence. So we are perfectly happy to let someone else be the expert in concrete reinforcing bar or antenna geometry while we are the experts in our field, and few of us care what social groups are involved.

But climate chaos is clearly different, maybe because it requires such broad changes to all aspects of our lives and cultures, maybe because it was carefully politicized. It is not something many of us go to school for, so we form opinions about it based on very few facts but a great deal of social “hum”. It is not much good for progressives to lecture conservatives on climate change because lecturing is not the mode of transmission for that subject and the social groups are not shared.

There is a huge gulf between social groups which simply arrests any attempts to build other social capacities, as would be needed to reallocate resources to carbon reduction, resettle away from flood zones, or make changes to urban form. So, we lack the social capacity to tackle climate change.

 

In these times, when we have more than enough ideas to enable us to live better than any royal family ever has and before the shortage of material capacity becomes impossible to ignore, most of our struggle comes down to a shortage of social capacity, as those three examples highlighted.

And as I said, it is not that we can’t reallocate our social resources of time and money to elevate important issues. We have, and we will continue to do so.

But social capacity is finite. It is based on the limited time in each day, on the limited capacity for communication and analysis, on the limited willingness to be taxed.

So, we can reallocate social resources to some issues, but certainly not all issues. As is the main point of my writing on Compassionate Systems, we need to replace social capacity with system design whenever we possibly can.

And, since we have too many issues that demand more capacity than we can possibly provide, each issue ends up in competition with the others—which is a horrible situation to be in. So, we need to shift to systems, but we also need to just give up on some issues, and lay them down. We need to lay them down so they don’t weaken others for lack of resources.

 

Technical capacity is our habit and gets all the glamour, social capacity is where the real work is happening, and material capacity still tends to be ignored, except around the hairier fringes of the internet.

I think we lack the material capacity to tackle climate change, and perhaps the fact we don’t notice this is another bad habit (which is a lack of social capacity). The material transformation after WWII has given us the habit of acting like we will always have more energy and more material. How else could we explain coffee pods and the fact the automotive fleet gets no better mileage than the Model T Ford?19

The sheer volume of energy and minerals that would be required to shift our consumption to either lower energy infrastructure or “green” energy may not be available.

And, of course, fossil fuels and mineral resources are all finite, so they are depleting and will at some point be unaffordable. Things we can do today we will not always be able to do as our material resources deplete.

black and white threshold edited

One of John Michael Greer’s very best posts on The Archdruid Report, to my mind, was his eulogy for William Catton. Tucked into the warm reflection was this amazing paragraph, which offers more background for the primacy of the idea and blindness to the material capacity:

Over the three centuries of industrialization…the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity… The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

 

There is no limit to number of ideas you can have about pie. But if you do not have apples, and a baker, you will never get to taste it.

 

.

 

 

{ 10 comments }

 

I sometimes find myself making negative comments about vertical farming. This happened again today, and the facebook friend to whom I responded replied very openly with, “Well, what then? Green belts?”

So rather than continue my terse and impatient crypticism on social media, I will try to respond comprehensively. My analysis, as with all analyses, rests on a few assumptions:

Our planet is finite, and receives no new inputs important to human timeframes, except for sunshine.

Since the planet is finite, everything on it is also bounded. Nothing can grow forever, and nothing can be extracted forever.

Please note that I said extracted, which is different than harvested. We extract nonrenewable resources, like oil, coal, copper and iron. We harvest renewable resources, like apples, wheat, chickens and salmon.

We can harvest extractively. So, if we catch too many salmon, the salmon cannot renew. This causes depletion, extirpation and extinction. But if we harvest less than can be renewed, that harvest is sustainable.

For all that people like to justify their behaviour by throwing their hands in the air and saying, “But what does sustainable even mean anyway?” it has a very simple meaning. It means, able-to-be-sustained. That means essentially forever, which to humans is probably 1000 or 10,000 or 100,000 years. Whatever.

That nothing can be extracted forever is basic math. Even if our planet was made of solid gold, we could only extract a maximum of one planet’s worth of gold from it.

But nothing is solid, gold, or anything else. Everything is mixed up with other things: coal is mixed with rock, fish are mixed with ocean.

Being practical, we like to start with extracting the richest, most concentrated deposits of a resource, whether that is coal, copper or whales.

We start with the easiest, and then we make some specialized tools which help us really increase productivity—so then we roar through the easy stuff, and start working on harder stuff and that slows us down a little. And then we slow down a lot. This is Peaking; the most famous example is Peak Oil. This is not a theory, it is math.

The shorthand for this in our daily life is the 80/20 rule. 80% of the work gets done with 20% of the effort—and the last 20% of the work takes 80% of the effort. That is nice, but it really is probably more like the first 40% takes 10% of the effort and the last 60% takes 90% of the effort—except the last one or five or ten percent is actually just impossible for us to extract no matter what we try.

So, if we have a field of potatoes and the desire for a plate of french fries, we can easily dig a few spuds by hand and we don’t care if we miss a few. But if want to maximize our profits by harvesting as many of our potatoes as possible, the 80/20 rule begins to bite. It seldom makes sense to pay humans to harvest 100% of the tubers; the payback on finding the last few—or the last many—is just not worth the labour costs.20

Faced with the high cost of labour it seems to make sense to build a potato harvesting robot. An automated—or lightly supervised—machine can outowork humans, and never asks for holidays or a raise. So that is great. We harvest more spuds and waste less food. We “spare” humans the toil of harvesting.

But at what cost?

The machine runs on oil, a non-renewable resource. It is made of steel, and aluminum, and copper, and fabulously rare minerals, all non-renewable. Furthermore, all of those materials were extracted with machines that run on oil, were refined in coal furnaces, and manufactured with more oil or coal.

And all the extraction, refining and manufacturing machines were made of materials extracted with oil, refined with coal, and manufactured with coal or oil. It is like a terribly polluting—and unsustainable—M.C. Escher drawing.

If something is unsustainable, well that means it is unable to be sustained. All we have left to discuss is the date of the funeral. To be fair, the funeral may be years, decades, or centuries in the future—but if you see a black suit or dress on sale, you might want to snap it up…because if you use non-renewables at any rate, they will eventually effectively disappear.

Lastly, I want to mention the principle of bankruptcy. If you spend more than you make, you go out of business. If a coyote spends more calories chasing rabbits than it earns when it catches rabbits, it starves to death. If a plant transpires more water through its leaves than it collects through its roots it wilts, and can die.

And if it takes more energy to drill for oil than you get out of the oil, you stop drilling.

The Beverly Hillbillies could spend one barrel of oil energy and extract 100 barrels of oil for sale—this is the magic of fossil fuels, they are fantastically concentrated. One gallon of gas contains the energy of something like two weeks of human labour.

But of course we burned through that pretty fast, and more recent drilling is closer to a 30:1 ratio. The oilsands are as low as 3:1—that one barrel of energy nets only two more.

Some biofuels may even be negative, they use more energy than is extracted. They exist, like industrial potatoes, thanks only to a massive, historical and onging subsidy of oil energy. Without the built industrial infrastructure and overseas resource wars, they would wither away.

And the same goes for our green darlings, solar, wind, tidal, et c. They are all harvested with machines of non-renewable materials mined, refined and manufactured with oil and coal. They are not able to be sustained.

So maybe I can talk about vertical farms now.

The notion is that dense cities can grow some of their food and cut down food-miles, the impact of transporting foodstuffs from field to plate. Secondly, by growing up perhaps we can avoid growing out, and thereby leave more land for other creatures. And thirdly, by hermetically sealing out insects, the use of pesticides can be hopefully eliminated.

Well, local eater though I am, I know food miles are not the greatest impact of food, by far. About 4% of the impact of your food lies in transporting it to your plate.

And what does the remaking of a farm on the vertical plane cost?

Farming benefits from rain for the plant, and the blessed sunshine, and the sweet soils, full of worms and bugs and bacteria and fungi, all of which add fertility.

Vertical farms build a concrete box to keep all that away, and so they must replace it all with lights and pumps and synthesized chemicals. Mined, refined and manufactured. And then after the manufacturing, the lights and pumps must be operated with power generated from coal, gas, hydro and nuclear. And those power plants are mined, refined and manufactured…

So everything that nature gives for free, a vertical farm excludes and replaces with an expensive, non-renewable, unable-to-be-sustained system that relies on subsidies from resources kept affordable thanks to foreign wars. In no way do they produce as much energy as they consume. And so, ultimately, they are destined for starvation.

Now, there are a few things that consume more than they produce which we continue to subsidize—babies spring to mind—so maybe we could choose to subsidize vertical farms because we like fresh lettuce, and want space for wildlife.

Maybe, But they do run on non-renewable materials and energy, and nobody who knows anything about manufacturing thinks that is going to change anytime soon, or that it is necessarily possible at all. I don’t find the idea of long-term energy subsidies for vertical farms to be very credible.

The use of non-renewables is not-able-to-be-sustained. And the use of renewables to grow food is, well, farming. As in fields. With sun and rain.

Well, what then? Well, this is not a problem that can be fixed, it is a predicament to be carried.

The question itself contains the perspective of Empire. Everything must bend to us, everything must work out for us, our way of life is not negotiable. We have upwards of seven billion souls on this planet, and they all want iPhones, therefore we need vertical farms.

History shows that empires cannot escape the math of bankruptcy, and so far they have all fallen. The only way out of this without confronting our desires to continue our highly subsidized life of ease and privilege is to seek a Higher Power—a miracle is needed.

For the rationalist problem solvers among us, that higher power is usually science and technology.

For example, if somebody develops a nuclear reactor that can run on pocket lint, we will be essentially liberated from constraints on our energy use. Realistically, that does nothing about the many other non-renewables except increase the length of time we can scratch around in the dust for crumbs. But most-importantly, it is a hell of a way to plan for the future. We are literally saying, “We don’t want to deal with reality, so we are going to continue doing whatever we want, and trust an angel will bring us a miracle.”

This church points to past innovations as proof we will science our way out of this jam. This ignores history. Various forms of fossil fuels, for example, have been known for millennia—they just weren’t seen to be useful. Many centuries later, given a huge untapped resource, well-known and lying around in plain sight, we did develop the massive burning of oil products that finally docked the whaling fleet. 21

Now, if they hadn’t developed petroleum products, we would have stopped using whale oil anyway for the simple lack of whales. That is the math. Whales were in steep decline before the first oil well was drilled.

But what we don’t have today is a massive store of concentrated energy, lying around in plain sight. We do have several kinds of very diffuse energy: nuclear, solar, wind, etc. Because of the energy, materials and infrastructure required to concentrate that diffuse energy, these have a much lower Energy Return on the Energy Invested than a nice barrel of oil.

This means there is less surplus. If your investment returns 7% instead of 5%, you have more surplus and you can do more things. If you have less surplus, you can do fewer things. So, in a world of diminishing returns on our energy investments, in a world in which we have and will continue to have less energy to spend, why would we build a box to keep nature’s free services away from our plants, only to replace those very things with energy-hungry lights and machines?

This is not able-to-be-sustained. And so it will not be sustained. That is the math.

Now, in the short term, we may get caught up in the Green Fever, and slap vertical farms in some parkades and vacant lots. It is a short-sighted sort of math, but it is good-hearted. 22

For myself, I am interested in longer-term thinking. I am not interested in advocating for systems like vertical farms, which will consume enormous amounts of concrete, steel, copper and plastic, and will eventually go out of business. Why would we sink precious resources into a system that cannot be sustained?

There is real, important and durable work, sustainable work, that needs to be done. If we want to increase the food grown in cities, start replacing decorative street trees with fruit and nut trees. Advocate for systems that manage our food scraps with chickens instead of with diesel trucks and loaders. Support your peri-urban farmers for your tender greens, and ask your grocer to contract with local farmers. Start thinking about what is able to be sustained. Think about what we can have, not what we want to have.

About a century ago, New York City received most of its food from within seven miles. So yes, cities need green belts. This is a durable model that has worked for humanity over the long term. Most importantly, traditional intensive farms can produce more food than they require to operate. They can be sustainable.

Ours is far from the first civilization to face the fact that our systems cannot grow forever—nothing can.23 Vertical farms are the answer to the wrong question. The question is not how many technologies we can deploy to resist change, no matter what cost to ourselves and the ecosphere. The question how do we live joyfully within our fair share of this planet.

***EDIT*** This just in from Salon. There are some actual studies with actual numbers in this article. Conclusion? Vertical “farming” is a giant energy loser.

http://www.salon.com/2016/02/17/enough_with_the_vertical_farming_partner/

{ 22 comments }

sauerkrautMaking ‘kraut is incredibly easy to do, and you will be richly rewarded for your few minutes of work. If you have never made sauerkraut before, feel free to skip down to the instructions. This super easy method requires almost no equipment, and eliminates the need for anything expensive like fancy crocks or airlock lids. In fact, you can find the inexpensive jars you need at hardware stores, kitchen shops and thrift stores.

But if you have made sauerkraut before, you—like me—have probably been doing it wrong. I am going to tell you of my journey on the sauerkraut road, complete with all the links you need to truly suck the oxygen out of a dinner party.24  Or, you can just trust me and skip to the instructions too. Really, there are 2,500 words between you and the instructions, so feel free to skip. You can always come back later when you want to geek out.

black and white threshold edited

I was not raised with sauerkraut, but I was raised with my mother’s admiration for strong Eastern European women who came to the Okanagan via the prairies. My mother swears that out of the few things these women could bring from the Old Country, they packed their sauerkraut stones. These were stones that were smooth and flattish and round—sized just to fit in a crock to hold the vegetables under the brine.25

When I am learning new skills I like to think about how to use less energy, so a big crock of sauerkraut that preserves fall vegetables without boiling water canning or freezing is very attractive. But, not being raised with sauerkraut means I don’t easily incorporate it into my diet. I don’t eat it straight from the jar. Though it is delicious, I seldom make sauerkraut soup.26

And so I have always ended up with a lot of ‘kraut that is getting less appetizing—soft and funky smelling. I have canned sauerkraut, but that kills the living probiotics that so many people need.27  Indeed, trying to get some probiotic-rich food into Carmen’s digestive tract was part of the motivation to make ‘kraut in the first place.

Making ‘kraut in a crock is also a big hassle, unlike the method I am going to share with you. With a crock, you must keep up with a daily schedule of skimming scum and occasional bits of floating cabbage of the top of your brine. If you go away for a couple of days you can easily return to a thick mat of blue mould, which despite what Sandor Katz says, I find discomfiting.

Fermenting in a crock adds to the burdens of the Small and Delicious Life. I often feel like I have a thousand tiny tasks—jobs that only need a little time, but at the right time—feeding the rabbits, watering the garden, feeding the sourdough starter, skimming the sauerkraut, doing one of the many steps of making a loaf of bread, shepherding some step of cider or beer fermentation, turning the wheels of Brie that are moulding in the cellar. All these little tasks can leave me feeling kind of panicked that I might forget something important.

So finding a new technique that totally eliminates a small, daily task is pretty freaking fantastic. In fact, I honestly think this method is truly transformative. It may not be the Gutenberg printing press, but it is right up there—but I am not quite ready to give you the instructions just yet. First I am going to tell you about an internet wormhole I fell down.

When I say internet wormhole, I usually picture the sort of 1980s computer graphics used to represent black holes—a sort of funnel through the space/time continuum. This wormhole was not at all like that. The sauerkraut wormhole was much more like a hole made by earthworms, sort of damp, dark, twisty, and narrow. And long. I think I crawled through that hole for well over a year, trying to grasp what was being revealed to me.

The first clue was this page on Open and Closed Ferments. This article has everything I love in my gurus: a bit of a mind-boggle, a no-bullshit tone, an attempt to present the full picture, and an honest wish for success regardless of whether you buy their product.

But I got stuck on this article for quite a while. I had no idea there were open or closed ferments. When I first read this I don’t think I had ever made alcohol. I certainly had not looked up the definition of fermentation.

Fermentation in food processing is the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions. Fermentation usually implies that the action of microorganisms is desirable. The science of fermentation is also known as zymology or zymurgy.

So fermentation converts sugars to acid or alcohol and gas under anaerobic conditions. There are many strains of bacteria and yeast that create different combinations of acid, alcohol or gas under different conditions, which is how we get the large variety of fermented food and drink.

  • Fermentation converts the carbs in wheat to acid and gas, which gives you the sour in sourdough and the bubbles that leaven the bread. Predigesting the carbs is why many gluten-sensitive people can eat sourdough.
  • Fermentation makes the alcohol and bubbles in our beer and cider. Both beer and cider are flat, not fizzy, after fermentation. Just like wine all the gas escaped through the airlock of the fermenter. To get the bubbles in beer, cider and champagne, a small amount of sugar is added before the bottle is sealed. The yeast eats that sugar and produces a small amount more alcohol and the gas that is now trapped in our carbonated drink.
  • Fermentation makes the acid that turns milk into yogourt.
  • Fermentation helps keep cured sausages safe to eat. When you make salami, you add a bacterial culture and a bit of sugar. The bacteria eat the sugar and produce acid, which drops the pH of the meat below the level needed for pathogenic bacteria to reproduce. So, it is creepy to make cured salami because you have links of raw meat hanging in your kitchen at room temperature for several days, but that creates the acid needed to keep the meat safe over its long curing time.
  • And fermentation makes our pickled cabbage and other vegetables safe to eat. The bacteria present on the foods digest the sugars stored as carbohydrates in the cabbage and convert it to acid and gas. This is the vinegar tang of pickled foods.

So, understanding that would have made my wormhole a lot shorter. It is still interesting to see the definition says fermentation happens under anaerobic conditions—without oxygen. How does that fit with “Open fermenting (where the surface of the fermenting liquid is exposed to the air) is the traditional means of fermenting kraut, pickles, wild yeast, and many other pickled or cured items.”

Well, the traditional method may not be the “best” method, if by best you mean consistent or safe, to reduce food waste and maximize storage. It may be the best method if by best you mean interesting flavours, such as are created in sour beers that are fermented in systems that deliberately maximize the amount of wild yeasts that get blown into the the open vat.

For me, I am interested in consistent and safe.28 I don’t want to waste hard-grown food, and I don’t want to make my family sick. And, it is a real bonus to reduce the workload.

The next turn in the wormhole was The Science Behind Sauerkraut Fermentation, on Lea Harris’ Nourishing Treasures site. That website is far longer and more informative than this Gilgamesh I am writing, but I still couldn’t quite wrap my brain around what it was telling me. If you have gotten this far, you might enjoy reading it, too.

Fortunately, somewhere in this wormhole I accumulated enough experience making fermented foods that I started to grasp the theory, even without knowing the definition of fermentation. But as is often the way, it wasn’t accumulated knowledge that changed behaviour. It was that I was dissatisfied with the big crock of mouldering old ‘kraut, and with canning ‘kraut and killing its probiotics. I finally had the brain flash that I could eat local food all year ‘round, preserve using no energy, and make small enough batches of ‘kraut that none would go to waste.

I just went to my farmer’s market and bought six cabbages, five of which I put in the root cellar. The sixth I made into ‘kraut, using the method I am going to teach you. A month later, I did another cabbage, and so on. Cabbage keeps very well, and this method worked out just swimmingly.

Did you miss that? I think it is earth-shaking. Unless your family eats great volumes of sauerkraut, stop making big crocks of it. You can store the cabbage in your cellar and always have fresh ‘kraut ready for you.

So, I had my conversion experience but had not yet experienced the miracles. I did not trust Lea,29 despite her extensive and literally microscopic experiment with different fermentation containers.

So, first I did the lowest-rent version, a mason jar ferment. I made ‘kraut as per usual, and crammed it into a jar, with some sort of weight on top. Every day or so I would slowly loosen the jar ring and vent a little gas out so the jar did not explode.

That worked just fine. Venting the jar was easier than skimming scum, and the ‘kraut was good. But venting the jar was still a thing I had to remember to do, and the consequences of forgetting could be very messy.

Next I drilled a hole in the lid of a mason jar and stuck an airlock from our cider-making into it. Also good ‘kraut, though the airlock is tall, and my homemade lid was sub-par. This is basically what many of the commercial sauerkraut airlock systems are—just a two dollar airlock in a hole drilled in the lid of a jar.

Then I happened to find a thin sheet of silicone rubber at the Japanese Dollar Store; I think it was intended to be a baking mat. I cut a silicone disc slightly smaller than the jar ring, and punched a small hole in the centre of my jar lid with a nail. Then I stuffed the jar full of salted cabbage, weighted it down, screwed the lid and ring on, and simply set my silicone disc on top. Again, great ‘kraut.

Parallel to these various experiments were experiments in weighting the ‘kraut. In my crock I used a glass disc—a microwave turntable platter I found at the thrift shop. In the jars I settled on a leaf of cabbage to hold the shredded ‘kraut down, itself held down by a jam jar, or a half-size jam jar, that was pushed down by the lid of the jar.

I also thought I may have invented a new thing—I tried a ziploc baggie of glass marbles.  You can stuff them into any size or shape of jar. But, I try to avoid plastic near my food, and I could never figure out how to make this awesome. Still, a handful of large marbles, what we called Cobs when I was a kid, might work.

These weights and airlocks were a lot of fiddling. And all this time the solution had been on Lea’s page. So here it is. Here is the secret.

Ferment in Fido Jar.

That is all, you are done, no fiddling. The internet hive mind says you should stick with European quality when you buy jars, no cheap mass-market crap. Even at Euro pricing, a two-litre Fido jar is only ten dollars at my local hardware store, and I regularly see Le Parfait jars in the thrift shop for a couple of bucks. The gasket seal allows gas to vent before the jar breaks.30

Furthermore, Lea theorizes the gasket makes life easy in other ways. An airlock keeps the jar at atmospheric pressure. When the pressure inside the jar is greater than the pressure of the atmosphere, it bubbles out and everything is equalized. However, the Fido jar is a little pressurized, which assures oxygen stays out of the jar—really preserving the anaerobic environment.

This means you don’t even need a weight for your ‘kraut—it doesn’t matter if cabbage floats or sticks up out of the brine. Could it get any easier? When using the last of my root-cellared cabbage, which has lost moisture over the winter, I have added brine to make sure there was enough liquid, but even that may have been unnecessary.

 

sauerkraut scales

Lea’s article on the science behind sauerkraut brings out a very important point: Sauerkraut is fermented by a succession of bacteria. There are three main bacteria that thrive in different conditions over the course of the fermentation. Off the top of my head, those conditions would be acidity, salt concentration, and temperature.

The acid we want to pickle our vegetables is a waste product for the bacteria, they eat the sugars in the vegetables and produce lactic acid and carbon dioxide as waste. The first generation of bacteria barely acidify the brine before they are poisoned by their own wastes.31 The second generation takes over and does the bulk of the acidifying before they too are poisoned by increasing acidity. The third generation finishes the job up by bringing the sauerkraut up to a safe level of about 2.5% acidity.

Accuracy matters because the salt concentration is an important part of making sauerkraut. Too little salt and you may allow spoilage bacteria to proliferate, too much salt and you won’t allow the sauerkraut bacteria to proliferate. If you don’t mix the salt in thoroughly, you can get pink yeast, which while it won’t hurt you, is considered a flaw. Do not used iodized salt, as it can make your brine cloudy. Use pure canning salt or kosher salt.

I am always weighing small amounts of things—hops, priming sugar, pink salt—so I bought a digital scale that is allegedly accurate to one-tenth of a gram. I say allegedly because how would I know? Even the global standard kilogram, which is kept in a triple vacuum, is losing weight.

Plus, this scale only costs seven dollars on eBay. To make myself feel better, I also bought a calibration weight on eBay. Using a scale is important because the grain size and grain shape of salt can really change how much a teaspoon of each brand of salt weighs. So, spend ten bucks and get a scale and weight.

But, for you Canadians who want to use a measuring spoon, one level teaspoon of Windsor Coarse Salt for Canning and Pickling weighs 5.5 grams. One level teaspoon of Diamond Crystal Pure and Natural Kosher Salt weighs 3.1 grams. The difference in weight between those two teaspoons of salt is why you should buy a scale.

So here we go.

black and white threshold edited

How to make sauerkraut the easiest and cheapest way possible.

sauerkraut prep

I use the two litre Fido jar. This costs about ten dollars new.

I find that a medium cabbage, about 7” in diameter, weighs about one kilogram and nicely fills a two litre jar.

Weigh your cabbage, on your kitchen scale or at the store when you buy it.

Now weigh out 2.5% of the cabbage weight in salt. So, if your cabbage is one kilogram, you need 25 grams of salt.

Cut the cabbage in half, then into quarters. Please be very careful about this. The worst knife injury I have ever seen was a chef slicing a giant block of cheese. His hand slid down the back of the knife and over the point of the blade, cutting him very, very badly.

Cut the core out of each quarter. You can grate this and add it to the ‘kraut.

Slice one quarter of the cabbage into long ribbons. I use an OXO Mandoline I got on Craigslist for $20, set for ⅛” thick. Traditional cabbage slicers are big wooden affairs with huge blades. Different people like different thicknesses.

In a large bowl, sprinkle one quarter of your salt on the sliced quarter cabbage. Toss the cabbage and make some effort to get the salt evenly distributed in order to avoid the pink yeast. Massage the salted cabbage enthusiastically to begin bringing the juice out.

Stuff the salted cabbage in the Fido jar and tamp it down. I use a wooden stomper from my food mill. You could use a rolling pin, or a potato masher, or your fists. You want it to be very, very tightly packed. This helps all the cabbage get in the jar and starts releasing juices from cabbage.

A delicious option is to thinly slice one garlic clove and scatter it over the surface of the cabbage.

Repeat with the other three quarters—slice, toss with one-quarter of the salt, pack tightly in the jar and sprinkle with a clove of garlic or other spices.

This should take you twenty minutes or so. Then you just close the lid on the Fido jar and clean your knife.

 

Now, theoretically, you do not need to open the jar for the next six to eight weeks. However, over the next 24 hours I tamp the cabbage a few more times to help it release juices. If the brine has not covered the cabbage by the next day, mix a teaspoon of salt in a cup of water until dissolved and add enough to get an inch or so over your cabbage.

Put the jar in a cupboard in your kitchen so light does not degrade the nutrients. Do not put your ‘kraut in a cool place, the succession of bacteria need to be warm. In the first week the gas being generated from fermentation will vent out the Fido gasket and can bring some brine with it. I put my jar in a dish to catch any overflow.

Now wait for four to eight weeks. In our mild climate, we like about six weeks. Once you have opened your jar of delicious sauerkraut, store it in the refrigerator.

 

I am sure your first bites will thoroughly convert you to this easy and effective method. Go ahead and buy another jar or two, and check out the Fido Fermentation facebook page for more ideas.32 Remember, Fido jars hold more pressure than airlock fermenting systems, so steer clear of those unless you want to fiddle with weights to hold your vegetables under the brine. Masontops has a kickstarter up for a one-piece vented silicone lid for canning jars. They say, like Fido jars, the Pickle Pipe holds some pressure, so I will be watching this with great interest.

Kimchi anyone? Sauerruben?

 

 

 

{ 9 comments }