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.1

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. 2

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. 3

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.4 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/

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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.5  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.

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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.6

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.7

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.8  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.9 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,10 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.11

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.12 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.

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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.13 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?

 

 

 

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Our cultural veneration of free will traps us in dead-end expectations that are unsupported by reality. If we want to make effective change, the idea of free will is one of the first things we should jettison, or at least put in its proper place.

John Michael Greer is one of my favourite thinkers and writers. I frequently recommend his book The Long Descent to people who are curious about my thinking, especially regarding sustainability. He has an incredible memory for historical detail, and has also read the work of all the great Western historical sensemakers. He writes weekly at The Archdruid Report and I never miss a single one.

Last week Greer touched on Free Will, and this week he expanded on his thinking. With perhaps less than his usual élan, he dismissed opponents of Free Will as Victorian Determinists. Now, I am no friend of Victorian Determinists so I won’t try to defend them, but I think there is another way to look at free will—we have it, but we only use it on the rarest of occasions.

If I could try to put our North American, Caucasian, dominant culture narrative into words, I think the story would go something like this:

Humans have Free Will. That means we are free to make choices. Choice is a decision to control our future behaviour; choice is conscious, and rational choices are the best choices. In order to make rational choices, you need information, and information comes from education.

Or:

We should thoroughly educate ourselves, and, with our Free Will, use the information to make conscious, rational choices about our behaviour.

Now, I disagree or have heavy caveats for almost every word in this narrative, but I tried to state a fair articulation. 14 In my work, I am interested in the impact our idea of free will has on our ability to create change.

I think our culture also has a tautology for behaviour—we choose our behaviour, therefore behaviour is a choice. The definition of behaviour I find useful is considerably broader:

Behaviour is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli or inputs, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

Or as I like to say, as long as you are not a rock, everything is behaviour.

Once you take a broader view of behaviour, it is immediately obvious that we are constantly behaving without having made conscious, rational choices. We make thousands of behavioral choices each day, and almost none of them are conscious.15

The cultural narrative for this fact is that we are bad, lazy, no-good, uncaring people, too distracted by reality television to bother with important thinking and choosing—we are by nature, flawed.

In fact there are two more important reasons we don’t consider every choice: there are only so many hours in the day, and we have only so much fuel for our brain. If we truly sought information and deliberated on every behaviour, we would never get our socks on before it was bedtime again.16

So most of our behaviour is not consciously chosen. Estimates vary between 95%17 and 99.999% of our behaviour consists of automatic responses to our context.

When so much of our behaviour is reactive, how can we say we have Free Will? At best we can say we might have free will a small fraction of the time. One researcher suggests we actually have Free Won’t—the capacity for the conscious brain to overrule behaviour signals that have already been sent by subconscious areas of the brain.

This is all getting very geeky. I am not going argue whether we occasionally make a free will choice.18 But I am saying our ability to deal with reality is damaged by our cultural narrative that behaviour is a product of conscious, free will choices.

As I have written elsewhere, since most of our behaviour is reactive to our physical and social contexts, the most effective way to change people’s behaviour is to change the context. Regardless of the speed limit, if the road is wide and straight, people drive fast. If the road is narrow and twisty, people drive slow. The most effective way to change behaviour is NOT to educate and inform people about the dangers of speeding, then post a speed limit and expect them to make a good choice with their free will—especially when everyone around them, their social context, is responding appropriately to the physical context of the wide road by driving faster than the posted speed limit.

Imagine how we might respond to issues if we stopped telling a story that behaviour is a product of choice, and instead compassionately acknowledged it is mostly a product of context. Think of the lives lost and families destroyed by lung cancer, drunk drivers, malnutrition, poverty, and lack of exercise. Think of arguments with loved ones and lost friendships. Think of the billions wasted on ineffective infrastructure. Think of the school system and the justice system.

Free will has very little to do with our lives, context is King.

 

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Two days ago I awoke to an eerie, silent hellsky. It was dusky dark, even first thing in the morning. The colour and brightness of the sky was all wrong, not just overcast but unnatural. Throughout the day, people described it as apocalyptic, discomfiting and especially, unsettling. Even the birds kept quiet.

Of course, as people in southwest British Columbia will know, it was the smoke of dozens of forest fires. But the knowledge did not calm the hairs standing on the back of my neck; only late the next day did they lay down.

The atmospheric weirdness wound social media to high tension and a petition was soon circulating to shame the provincial government into renewing their contract with a fleet of venerable and large waterbombers, The Martin Mars.

Clickety-click, petition signed, democracy in action. Three cheers for Western Civilization! 19

Then somehow a Factsheet from the B.C. Government surfaced, which essentially said:

  • The Martin Mars is too big and too slow to safely maneuver close to B.C.’s rugged terrain, whereas the currently contracted Fire Boss airplane is faster and more nimble.
  • Again because of its size, the Mars can only land on 113 lakes in B.C., whereas the Fire Boss can resupply on over 1,700 bodies of water.
  • The Fire Boss is more capable of delivering foam fire suppressants.
  • On the 2014 West Kelowna fire, the average cost of dumping a litre of water was 19¢ for the Fire Boss and 63¢ for the Mars.

Boom.
Detail. Facts. The petition was clearly the reactions of the uninformed; mob rule instead of reason and deliberation. The petition was probably started by opponents of our current “Liberal” government, simply looking to score political points. Mob rule is exactly why democracy is so important as a check and balance.

Then somehow a rebuttal to the factsheet surfaced. Sentence by sentence, the factsheet was dismantled—or at least the proper judgement of the situation was made much more complex.

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So, I am a pretty smart guy. I am quite literate, and consume an enormous amount of information which I contemplate and analyze and fit into the pattern of the emerging worldview I write about here.

I spent about an hour, and read two factsheets. I think it is safe to say that I spent greater attention learning about this issue than I do—or anybody does— for 99% of the issues we face. I did the right thing.

And I remain utterly confused about which waterbomber is a better choice to spend my tax dollars on.

Our cultural narrative—repeated endlessly on the nightly news—is “It is all about education.” When people are informed, they will make rational choices and will—obviously—vote for the best choice. Or at least write a letter to their local representative about the best choice.

And therefore, if people are not making the right choice, it is because they are uninformed or poorly informed and need education. The problem is cast as being a failure with us instead of a problem with the system.

Cue the campaigns: more pamphlets, forlorn photographs, sticky cognitive frames, and celebrity endorsements. If what you are doing doesn’t work, do the same thing more! Bigger! Faster!

My research on behaviour change offers a different perspective. If what you are doing doesn’t work, that may be because it just doesn’t work. No amount of bigger or faster will make it work, because it doesn’t work. In fact, it can’t work.

But a very few campaigns do work, and that adds to the corrosive danger of our narrative of democracy.

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I invite you start listing all the issues that request your attention. Think of every time someone has said, “It is all about education,” and then keep adding all the other things: climate chaos, racism, temporary foreign workers, clearcuts, sexism, globalization, real estate, abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty. And then how about girls going to school in Afghanistan, and whether Omar Khadr was a child soldier or an enemy combatant? Foreign food aid. Donating money to Doctors Without Borders or to your local Humane Society.

It is pretty clear we could keep listing for hours, or maybe days. Making a proper, informed judgement about anything in that list should take weeks of dedicated research.

Urban density. Legalized prostitution. Legalized cannabis. Legalized hard drugs. Voting for youth. Gay marriage. Which bathroom Trans people should use. Should Sikh RCMP officers be allowed to wear a turban?20 Should Sikh motorcyclists be allowed to not wear a helmet? Who pays their medical bill if they get a brain injury while not wearing a helmet? NIMBYs. Gentrification. Displacement.

These issues are complex; people get doctorates in Philosophy and Ethics and every other topic touched on. But me dedicating even one hour to a new topic is highly unusual. We just don’t have time. Even if we dedicated one hour to a new topic every single day we would never get through our list, and would be only slightly less uninformed.

My personal interest is on the limits to our cognitive capacity, so that is how I tend to think about the problem of democracy, but the limited hours in the day works just as well. You sleep for eight, work for eight, commute, cook, wash, shop for food, play with your kids, clean the house, visit friends, maybe care for an aging parent—almost nobody spends even one hour a day researching these important issues.

And there is nobody who has researched and developed an informed opinion on all the issues.

Which is why we elect politicians to represent us, right?

Are you kidding me? Politicians are worried about being elected; do you think they actually read the 3,963 pages they are given on every single vote? I bet they spend less time than the average citizen; they have a lot of other obligations.

I might sum up Western Democracy as the process by which we use one vote, cast sporadically, to elect someone who is largely as uninformed as we are, in the hopes they will represent our complex and often self-contradictory views. If they do not, we have no recourse except the laughable “holding them to account” in the next election cycle—at which time we may find we make exactly the same choice we did last time because our concern for abortion rights still outweighs our desire for intact ecosystems. Get Out the Vote campaigns change nothing more than the number of people casting that sporadic, lonely, unenforceable vote.21

So. We are obviously not making rational informed decisions. Almost nothing is “about education”.

Civil society groups use campaigns to fight for balance, to maintain some pressure between elections. Most of these campaigns utterly fail—as they must; we simply do not have enough time in the day to give them the attention they need.

Some of these campaigns do succeed—and as I said earlier, I think this is corrosive to democracy. If you “succeed” because of your acute framing, or because of the emotional heartstrings you pull, we are still not having the informed and rational debate we say we are supposed to be having. If a bandage staunches the flow of blood from a sucking chest wound, it gives the appearance the problem has been solved, but leaves the underlying condition untreated. A little success maintains the intravenous drip that keeps us hooked, without actually creating comprehensive change.

Right-wing populists propose referenda; the left-wing collectivists like Direct Democracy—both of which face us directly back at the immutable fact there is simply not enough time in the day to make informed choices about all the issues we face. Given the choice between Elected Unrepresentative or the Rule of Ignorant, I would prefer a benevolent dictator.

Being assured of benevolence is always the rub, though many people feel their elected government is not benevolent, though typically less inclined to summary execution.

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So what then, to do?

I think we must discard the idea of rational choice. We must trash it with the ferocity and power of an NBA Slam Dunk Competition. It is corrosive, and it keeps us from trying different approaches.

We must explicitly separate moral22 questions from factual questions. The moral position of the people in our country is more reasonably polled.23

We must acknowledge we will never have the capacity to make informed decisions on all the factual problems we face. I think we should assign the resolution of these problems to the binding decision of a Citizen’s Assembly.

As in the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform, a group of regular folks will be selected by lottery and balanced for sex, race and other demographics. The Assembly will spend a year, or two, or five, diving deep into an issue, and then they will make a decision.

And I think we should all just do what they say—they are people just like us, who have actually devoted the time to an issue in way we are all supposed to do. And they should do what we say, coming out of the Assemblies we sit on. Do we even need an elected government, or would simply having a Scheduler of Assemblies be enough? I don’t know.

For better or worse, we have arrived at a time and place where we have just enough information to make asses of ourselves. With good reason, we don’t trust politicians, bureaucrats, corporations or special interest groups. We aren’t going to move forward by doing the same thing bigger or faster. We need to do it different.

 

 

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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.24 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.25 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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