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, 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.


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. 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.

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 knowledge 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?

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.

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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.






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. 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, 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.





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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