The Compassionate Systems Theory of Change

Most of our attempts to make change rely on a belief that people can change, that change is possible. Of course, this is true—but just barely. So, this is not much of a theory of change, but rather a Theory of Unchange—a theory of why change is so hard.

Our brains are physically limited in the amount of thinking and decision making we can do; just a few hours each day is all we have.1 This is not a choice. This is a physical limitation, and is no more changeable than our height or eye colour.

If we were irrevocably bound by this limitation, humanity would literally still be shivering in caves. But instead we have developed coping mechanisms that allow us to recycle past decisions so we can use those few daily hours for new problems—as well as for the quotidian minutiae of life.

These coping mechanisms include: habits, rules of thumb, laws, social conventions, religious strictures, myths, superstitions, writing and publishing, social structures, governments—and especially physical infrastructure.

That I say “especially physical infrastructure” signals my bias. But I am a designer of products and systems, so rather than bias I like to think of this as my special insight.

We say, “like a fish in water” to draw attention to something that is so taken for granted it cannot be seen. But the fish is probably aware of temperature, density, salinity, taste, smell, and currents—without naming these things as properties of water. And so with humans. We are aware of wide roads, narrow roads, bumpy roads and smooth roads, but we seldom ask Why Roads? Or what would happen if roads were different.

Roads are something that many of us interact with regularly, perhaps for several hours a day, and some of us spend some of our few conscious hours thinking about them. But what about the things we are less aware of, like the insulation in our walls, the method of generating our electricity, or the type of piping that irrigates our food?

The way our electricity is generated can lock in orders of magnitude more pollution that we can ever affect by turning our lights off. The way our cities are built can lock in order of magnitude more pollution than we can affect with personal driving choices. We built these systems to cope with our limited ability to pay attention—to think and choose. Changing systems is the most powerful lever we can pull.

Of course, everybody knows this—people who care about these things sagely nod over Donella Meadows’ essay on leverage points. If she had known about recent brain research that shows how little conscious thought we have, Meadows probably would have been even more insistent that we focus on systems. And yet, probably because system change is so daunting, almost without thinking we default back to advocacy and education for personal changes—the same finger wagging about light switches and shorter showers that we know does not work.

We say these tactics aren’t working—and that implies that they could work, if only we did them better, or bigger. Better framing, more fundraising, better creative, more crowdsourcing, viral this or that.

But it is not that they don’t work, it is that they can’t work. They can not work.

Attention is a physical resource, which means our attention is exhaustible—in fact, it is very easily exhaustible—and finite. This means fighting for attention—as we do with our campaigns, social media, and documentary films—is a zero sum game. Attention is a limited commodity, and when you use it, it is gone. It is not that the tactic needs to be bigger, it is that the attention is already used up—gone.

This means this sort of work is fundamentally competitive. In order to succeed, something else must fail.

If you are going to get attention, you must take it from somewhere else. Essentially, you must stab your friends in the back. If your friend has a cookie that you want to eat, there is no amount of community engagement that will make that cookie multiply. You can take the cookie from them or share the cookie with them, but either way, your friend gets less cookie.

This may not be bad when we are talking about cookies, but when we are talking about medical research, food aid, endangered species, climate change, social justice, addiction…you are taking the cookie from some very important issues. Furthermore, these issues are already fighting for brain space against work and family and television and magazines and facebook…

Now, some very smart academics who study these things think that 80-95% of our behaviour is determined by the context we are in.2 I think these smart academics are like fish, and so can’t see the water they are swimming in—the physical context. They don’t see the way our behaviour is profoundly shaped, not just by roads and plumbing, but by building codes and zoning regulations and trade agreements.

One researcher thinks 99.999% of our behaviour is shaped by our context, and I think he is much closer to the truth. I developed this pyramid model to show what my hunches of the relative sizes of behavioural influences are.

behaviour pyramid

So, we should start by asking how we can change the system. Only after we have relentlessly eliminated any hope of ever changing the system should we try to fight for attention. If you can’t change the system, most of the time it would be better to do nothing at all rather than rob attention from an issue that has a chance. Fighting for attention is our last gasp, the thing we do when we are convinced we have no choice and our issue is so important we are willing to stab our friends in the back in order to steal attention from the issues they are working on. And even then, we will probably fail.

If we truly want to make change, we must stop asking for attention; we must work on the system. We need to look for the way to educate the fewest people—just the right people, the bare minimum needed to create the change we seek. We must build compassionate systems—systems that make our desired behaviour as effortless as turning on the tap or flicking the light switch.

We must build water.

 

 

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Skill, joy, and shaving.

IMG_0075I wrote this about five years ago, but had no place to publish it. After the topic of his most recent post veered to razors, John Michael Greer suggested I post it.

Joy is a thread that runs through our Small and Delicious Life, but this column is explicitly about joy.

And shaving.

For much of my life—once I got over the excitement of having hair on my face—shaving has not been a source of much pleasure at all. But unlike most people, whether they are scraping their face, legs, chest or underarms, I can now say I love to shave, I look forward to it; shaving enriches my day. How I got here is a bit of a circuitous story.

As a designer, I like to figure out new ways to reduce my environmental footprint.3 Ten years ago, in the hopes I could stop throwing away razor cartridges, I tried shaving with a straight razor. I never got very proficient, especially that bit under the nose known as the coup de maitre, but I could scrape myself pretty smooth. I picked up a puck of soap at the drugstore and a shaving brush off eBay. In the years since I demoted the straight razor to bathroom decor I have also dallied with the “safety razor”, the double-edged type used to chop cocaine or scrape paint spatters in the hopes I could re-sharpen the blades with one of these vintage gizmos.

This always resulted in some pretty wicked razor burn, and I always returned to my twin-blade cartridges. They got me smooth enough for an office job, and were the smallest non-recyclable monstrous hybrid I could find. I did avoid creating garbage from shaving foam cans, but I was not feeling like I was shaving sustainably.

Now I don’t know about you, but when something is weighing on me—when I am, as they say, down in the dumps, I tend to stay up late. And when I stay up late, I tend to drink and Google. For some reason I began googling things related to shaving. My, how the internet has grown up. No more peach fuzz, there is a great hairy bonanza of shaving information, equipment and ephemera.

I think I first came across this guy, who explains how to make a great shaving lather—turns out I had been doing it wrong, wrong, wrong. To start with, you don’t make lather in the soap mug—all those well-meaning Christmas gifts of a Shaving Mug and Soap Kit…how sad. Anyhow, maybe I wasn’t wrong, just joyless, and wasteful and ineffective. He shows how to make great foam in a variety of ways: in a bowl, in your palm, or on your face. I tried them all and spent several months making lather in a bowl. With the bowl you can preheat the ceramic; I floated my bowl in my sink of shaving water so I always had warm lather just like the barber’s. Finally I settled on working the lather up right on my beard. I am not a stiffly bristled guy, and this works wonderfully.

There is a pretty clear consensus in the online shaving world that the old safety razor is the ne plus ultra of depilation tools. I had a razor my father gave me, so I ordered a sampler of new blades and a brush from a fine Canadian supplier. Each manufacturer has its own characteristics—some are sharper, some hold an edge longer. I spent many a contemplative hour with my Scotch and water, pondering geopolitics and potential disruptions to my supply if I settled on blades manufactured in Egypt, or India, or Israel. I also got a very nice puck of French shaving soap—turns out shaving soap comes in many flavours, and none of them smell like Old Spice.

As with life, so with shaving—by which I mean advertising gets it all wrong. With a safety razor there is no grand swipe through your stubble, leaving a perfectly polished swathe through the lather like the beautiful people do with their Mach Whatever. The safety razor requires short little strokes, and lots of them. Do you watch Mad Men? Don Draper does it right.

Now I am smoothly shaven—in fact, I have never been so smooth. I also never get razor burn. And here is where the joy comes in—I shave four times, lathering freshly each time. I shave down, and then at a 45 degree angle, and then at the opposite 45 degree angle and then up. With a safety razor you use no force, just let the weight of the head glide over your skin. Those who are really serious make beard maps, getting to know their own face, how the bristles grow, and where they need to change direction for the closest shave. And the added bonus that started it all? I never throw away empty shaving foam cans, I see no reason to ever own another razor and my blades are a single material, 100% recyclable stainless steel.

It may seem inconceivable that I get up early in order to shave four times, but it is truly a blessing unto my day. Here is the thing—we have taken all that is truly challenging and artful and demanding and given it to the machines. For the humans we leave the task of pressing the start button—cars that parallel park themselves, jigs to cut dovetails, gas fireplaces that never fail to light,4 razors with four or five blades—pressing the button, over and over again, at work, at home, all day long. It is like we are trying to systematically destroy anything that requires practise, anything that may require expertise. To fit with other design strategies like Design for Environment, Design for Disassembly and Design for Recycling, I call this Design for De-skilling.

Why get out of bed at all, let alone early, when all you have to look forward to is flicking the switch on your electric razor? The economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen wrote:

…we should cure ourselves of what I have been calling “the circumdrome of the shaving machine”, which is to shave oneself faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves still faster, and so on…

As with Slow Food, Slow Shaving stands against this de-skilling. It takes practice to make a good shaving lather. It takes effort to shave closely. Each of these things forces me to focus, brings me back to a challenge in my life, the challenge of getting the right amount of water in the brush, of getting the blade angle just right. When I stroke my chin in thought my reverie is broken by amazement at how smooth my face is. When was the last time you had that sense of amazement delivered by the space-age multi-blade razor? It feels great—satisfaction at a job well-done—like making perfect pie crust or getting nothing but net on a three-point shot. That is a feeling we could have much more often in our lives.

 

Five years later I have a half-beard—a Hollywoodian—and so my shaving joy is reduced. But that means my shave soap may never run out.

 

 

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Is our localism too artisinal?

IMG044I recently reviewed Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener (summary: Excellent. Buy it) and was reminded of a philosophical and yet very practical farming question I asked him over beer.

“Since the economy is contracting, and for many reasons we believe the trend will be a general worsening of quality of life, what is your succession plan—what will you do when people can no longer pay for gourmet baby lettuce mix or pints of berries for $6.50?”

Jean-Martin did not have an answer to this question. I also talked a lot about Eliot Coleman in that review, and I don’t recall him answering this question either.

Both men are very intelligent and well-educated. Both men have looked at many factors: industrial agriculture is extractive, and so by definition is unsustainable; climate change; the depletion of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources. They have, correctly I think, argued that human-powered, small-scale farming is a good response.

Both men have also plotted a course for profitability—they are farming for all the right reasons, but they aren’t going to give the food away. And, they want to show other would-be farmer’s that we can reverse the trend of retirements, foreclosures, auctions and consolidation that has been ongoing for decades.5

Fortier also struck me as—ahem—a bit of a doomer. Which is to say I think he has drawn the logical conclusions from the evidence at hand.

And so I was surprised when he didn’t have an answer for my question.6

 

I think it is great that so many people are living a more local life. I love the joy of a local economy—I write this with my belly full of local and homemade food, wearing a hoodie made in Vancouver by my friends at Cima Coppi, and wearing Dayton Boots, which were manufactured maybe ten blocks from the hoodie. I find meaning and joy in these relationships. Just pulling on my boots gives me a tiny pleasure every single time—thousands of times over many years.

But most of us localists are still parasites on globalization—we need the fantasy of ever-inflating real estate to fuel renovation and construction, to fill government coffers with tax revenue to be spent on teachers and nurses who shop in retail stores and take trips. We need all these rich urbanites to buy our hand-crafted goods and lovingly harvested veggies.

It sure doesn’t take much to stick a pin in the bubble, as we saw in the US housing market in 2008—which spilled over into Canadian retail and caused a lot of damage. Recently Tim Hudak campaigned on slashing 100,000 jobs. How many of those well-paid government workers shop at the farmer’s market or buy veggies through a CSA?

So I worry. Localism has a large component of seven dollar loaves of bread, ten dollar pints of ice cream, four dollar tomatoes—and stratospheric prices as soon as you start talking about clothing or shoes.7 How resilient is this localism? How much change can these businesses withstand?

I don’t think these things are very resilient at all. During the Great Depression, there was a surplus of goods and services because people didn’t have enough cash. With the amount of  personal debt we are piling up, people don’t have a lot of slack in their discretionary spending—consumer spending is brittle, susceptible to small perturbations in interest rates, resource prices or the new normal extreme weather events. Regardless of the “value” of goods, if  people do not have disposable income, goods will sit on the shelves.

I don’t have any answers to this—other than I think shoe repair has a great future.

I do see a pattern, though I can’t give it a name. Those of us in the emerging alternative economy—organic gardening, Eastern Medecine, yoga, gourmet kimchi, Reiki, herbalism, coaching, soap-making, organic make-up—you get the picture; we seem to think we should do what we love, and be able to buy a house and a car like everybody else.

We think doing what we love should pay us just as handsomely as doing what we hate.

That is backwards.  You should be paid well for doing what you hate—because otherwise you wouldn’t do it. The most mind-numbing and least demanding jobs should pay the most. There is an enormous Boredom and Repetition Premium owed to factory workers.

So I don’t know. Localism has activated a lot of love-based work. But I think, when money is tight, people will be pretty quick to switch to two-dollar loaves of bread from the supermarket. Filling day-to-day needs at day-to-day prices seems like a largely untouched market—and when I say needs, I really mean needs, not fancies, or desires, or penchants, or whims. Needs.

Obviously this is a problem. If you want to be a small, local, non-artisinal baker making normal loaves of bread for the supermarket, you are competing with the megacorps that put the local bakers out of business8 in the first place. How do we balance between differentiating ourselves against the megacorps and becoming instantly irrelevant in a financial contraction?

Looking at the challenges of artisinal bakeries vs. local bakeries vs. megacorp bakeries does not even begin to deal with the challenges brought by low-wage, low-rights manufacturers. It is cheaper to send fish caught in Canada to China to be deboned and sent back to Canada. 68% of garlic consumed in Canada is grown in China—despite the fact that some Chinese farmers won’t eat their own vegetables thanks to the industrial pollution.

It is incredibly difficult to compete on commodities with globalized labour—but that still doesn’t make us any more resilient, so at the very least we should have a plan. When do you abandon the artisanal? Can you shift to lower-paying but higher-importance goods, or are you just going to stay with the sinking ship?

As I said, I don’t have any answers to this, but a couple of thoughts come to mind:

Dmitry Orlov writes about how, in the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people had very large gardens on the edge of town that were very important to feed the family. The focus was not on producing for sale, it was on subsistence and augmentation.

Similarly, in 1933 Ralph Borsodi, wrote Flight From the City,9 the story of how, in 1920, his family moved to a small farm close to New York City. He explicitly cautioned against trying to make money from your land, and instead taught that we should produce for ourselves in order to avoid spending money. They even wove their own fabric and sewed their own clothes. This is Jane Jacobs’ Import Replacement on a family scale.

Now, all of this self-provender does not pay the rent; you still need to work for dollar bills. But it does short-circuit what Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen called,

…“the circumdrome of the shaving machine”, which is to shave oneself faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves still faster, and so on ad infinitum.

So, I think if relocalization is truly going to be a force for sustainability, we need to be able to provide for daily sustenance instead of opening pop-up shaving machine boutiques. Sure, a new doggie-biscuit bakery keeps dollars revolving in our local economy, but when the economy hits a rough patch, it will be gone—out of business. But the megacorp selling two-dollar loaves of bread will still be vacuuming dollars out of our community, day in and day out, year after year.

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the-garden-1024x682The first piece of swag to come out of writing this blog hit my mailbox this spring, when I was asked to review Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener. Sadly, they did not also send me a broadfork.

Carmen and I were also able to enjoy a one-day workshop with Jean-Martin, put on by the Young Agrarians as part of the Rockstar Farmer Tour—and we even drank a beer with him afterwards. So, I got the inside scoop for you.

In short, if you have dreams of serious gardening or small farming, buy this book. Beyond that, the big question for me was why would I buy this over the Coleman classic, The New Organic Grower? I think you should buy both, but I think you should read Jean-Martin first.

I will go into more detail, but Jean-Martin makes starting a profitable small farm (grossing over $100,000 from 1.5 acres) seem possible. I could identify with him in a way I can’t with the Grand Old Silverback Coleman; Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène are young; they didn’t start with a lot of money; they live in Quebec, which is noted for winter; they have chosen a farming system based on hand tools to avoid the expense of tractors.

To explain why I think you should have The Market Gardener near to hand, I need to talk about Eliot Coleman, the Guru of modern smallholdings. Fortier is an admirer and student of Coleman, the two of them have gone on speaking tours together—their philosophies are very complementary. Coleman is a researcher, an inventor and a philosopher. He tells you what he knows, what he thinks and what he doesn’t know. He does not skimp on detail—his books are thick and packed with information.

And for me, trying to garden a few urban plots and imagine a more agrarian future, Coleman is overwhelming. There is so much detail I drown. Coleman also uses a folksy illustration style I find obscures the information—this really stands out, for example, in his discussion of crop rotation.

IMG_0872-1024x768Jean-Martin has cut to the chase and tried to produce a handbook, a plan for the new small farmer to follow. He is more detailed about budgets and costs, and yet presents topics like crop rotation in a more simple way—a way I was able to apply in my own garden this year.

Fortier, like Coleman, is very aggressive about weeding out inefficiency—even if a little Coleman goes with it. The New Organic Gardener strongly promotes soil blocks. Fortier says, in his charming French way, that soil blocks are too much work, and they get perfectly good results with standard seedling cell trays.

Coleman is great—he is much more detailed on soil amendments. He also includes more history and philosophy. Coleman is a popularizer of winter gardening—whereas the Fortier family simply plans to take time off in the winter and go to sunny places.

It is comforting to me to have Jean-Martin demonstrate successful and profitable farming with different methods than Coleman. It makes me feel like any small variance on my path might not necessarily result in a disastrous garden failure. Fortier proves what Coleman advocates—observe, experiment, and do what works for you.

So I think you should buy both books, but I would buy Fortier’s first. Coleman’s The New Organic Gardener is excellent to read by your winter fire, when you have time for reflection, or feel you have incorporated enough you want to raise your game.

Jean-Martin Fortier’s The Market Gardener is the book to have at your hand, on the table while you eat lunch, on your bedside table for the few minutes before sleep. This is a direct, clear, guide for day-to-day operations of your small farm.

 

 

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Photo by mia!

Photo by mia!

One of my comfort foods is whole-wheat macaroni with vegetables. Since I am a lazy cook and reluctant dishwasher I have always just grated cheese and sprinkled it on top of the noodles then stirred it into a clumpy and unevenly distributed mess.

I have only made a cheese sauce twice before, and both times were after being roundly mocked by loved ones for my brutish standard of living.

But if there is one thing the Small and Delicious Life is about, it is enjoying the making of life as much as the consumption. So last night I made a cheese sauce. It was delightful and fun to make—truly 400% better than my bestial and unevenly melted grated cheese. Furthermore, there seem to be alchemical reactions between butter and milk and a shake of flour—this has all the makings of a lovely internet wormhole.

As is my modus operandi, I googled and opened a bunch of browser tabs on how to make a cheese sauce, and one of those posts caused me to lose my mind.

When will it stop? When will this whole bloated shit-show just implode from the weight of our idiocy? You see, when you buy pre-grated cheese, it is covered with anti-clumping and anti-fungal agents.

Of course it is. As anybody who has grated a nice cheddar knows, it will clump like crazy. And so, in order to have the convenience of not having to bend your arm at the elbow, Industrial Products Inc. must lacquer each shred of cheese with cellulose—wood flour—and various other Better Living Through Chemistry Gross Domestic Product Enhancers. Hey, here is an idea—want to prevent your cheese from clumping? Simply grate it fresh from the Mother Clump—the bloody block it was made in.

I am sputtering with anger as I try to write this, and struggling to keep the profanity to a minimum in case my lovely old grandmother wanders onto this webpage. But what the hell?

I just want some cheese. I like it on my toast, I like it on pizza, I like it in sandwiches, I like it on pasta, and I like it on crackers. I am a man that is very happy with bread and cheese—I love both bread and cheese. I really like cheese.

What I do not want is anti-fungal chemicals that are used to manage the stupidity of pre-grated cheese.

This is really about surface area. A block of cheese does not have very much surface area. If a little mould gets started, you just cut it off and eat the rest. But when you increase the surface area an order of magnitude by grating it in a giant factory, then you put it in sealed plastic bags, drop them in a box and ship them around the continent—well, you can see how mould will grow.

Of course, since you have just carefully powdered each and every shred of your stupid pre-grated cheese, the last thing you want to do it mash it down again. And so each bag has lots of air in it, and each box has to be big enough to hold all those bags of air around all that fluffed up cheese. And so now we are wasting fuel, cardboard and plastic, all so we can eat some anti-fungals and wood flour on our fucking nachos.

 

Man. I am sorry Grandma. I lost it there. Still, it is not like you don’t know I am from the sweary side of the family—I do keep a lid on it when we visit. Love you!

 

How did I come across all this? Because there were several warnings that pre-grated cheese does not make good cheese sauce—you can’t cook with it properly. Small surprise really since it is no longer cheese, it is some sort of monstrous cheesewood. Perhaps you can panel your rec room.

Hey, just for kicks, why don’t you google ‘listeria grated cheese’? That’s right—if you want to get sick there is no better way than industrial ‘food’. Factory widgets for dinner—what could go wrong?

So. This is the world we have built—a world in which it makes sense to industrially grate cheese at a greatly increased risk of sickness, coat it with poisons and wood dust, bag it and box it and ship at great fuel cost, in order to use it only in a smaller range of ‘foods’.

And that is all I have to say about that.

 

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