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,1 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.2

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.3

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

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

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

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

Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. – Guy Kawasaki

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

What is needed is the social and material capacity.

black and white threshold edited

So how did Donald Trump become president?

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

We have the technical capacity.

Regarding the American electorate, there is a clear lack of social capacity. Divergent social groups can not be brought together.4


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.5 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.6

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 knowledge7 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?8

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.





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  • Eric in Kansas January 29, 2017, 9:18 pm

    Hi Ruben,
    I have gotten much to mull over from your post & comments here, and at SmallFarmFuture, whence I found you, thanks.

    If you would like a small artifact that I’ve made using my joke of “Roll the Dough!” as a slogan, I will mail it to you if you send a postal address to the email address attached to this comment.


    • Ruben January 30, 2017, 12:15 am

      I am glad these comments have been thought-worthy. And my curiosity is piqued, I have replied to your email address!



  • Martin January 26, 2017, 7:09 pm

    I said hello over on smallfarmfuture and I’m just leaving a quick comment here.

    One of the bees in my bonnet is the way we tend to forget that everything we do and think is in some sort of social context which places constraints on us just as much as the physical world does. It might be a “well duh” for any sociologist or anthropologist, but many normal people find it a slippery and not-entirely-pleasant idea (fish not knowing the water). So I think your three forms of capital are a useful way of pointing at this.

    Also, I very much like the layour where the “footnotes” are alongside their referents.

    • Ruben January 27, 2017, 1:48 am

      Thank you for reading, Martin.

      Yes, I also love the side notes; they are a Wordpress plugin called Side Matter. The plugin has not been updated in a while, and is not built for mobile. I live in fear the author will just abandon it.

      I was inspired by my best friend JB MacKinnon, who wrote a truly incredible book called The Once and Future World. He really wanted side notes—though he had to settle for footnotes.

      I love how the side notes allow me to snipe in with running commentary, it is very fun to write with them.


      I think I linked the two books about social context, I’ll Have What She’s Having, and Honest Signals. IHWSH is, in my opinion the much more important book, but Honest Signals really shows the power of the social context. The research is out of MIT, where they have hacked cell phones into wearable devices that record sound and video all around the user. They then map the social context they have recorded onto the user behaviour. They estimate 80% of our behaviour is simply reactive to our social context (If my memory recalls the percentage correctly. A shockingly large amount, regardless.)

      One experiment that sticks is they would show people video clips of a teacher teaching. 30 second clips, with no sound. The viewers could predict with 75% accuracy what reviews the teacher would get at the end of the semester.

      Now, I have background in product design, and so I noticed how physical design shapes behaviour. So, I think very few people notice the power of the social context, but almost nobody notices the power of the physical context. We don’t think about how the room we are in, or the street we are on, or the city we are in, shapes our behaviour.

      Small anecdotes leak out, like urban designers are starting to grasp that road design determines driving behaviour far more than speed limit signs. But these anecdotes have not formed into a school of thought. Which, I guess, is what I am trying to do with my writing on Compassionate Systems.

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Martin January 27, 2017, 7:49 am

        almost nobody notices the power of the physical context. We don’t think about how the room we are in, or the street we are on, or the city we are in, shapes our behaviour.

        Yes Yes – I am one of that “almost nobody”! Funnily enough I have recently re-organised my living space in the hope of facilitating various various emotional and behavioural effects (such as practicing the piano more). I’d noticed a long time ago that space influences behaviour (this will be confirmed by any actor, incidentally).

        No accident that I’ve also been interested in transport psychology – the effect of infrastructure on behaviour has become “cycle campaigning 101”.

        I’ll be seeking out both the books you mention – many thanks for your reply.

        • Ruben January 27, 2017, 8:48 am

          Playing the piano is an interesting example.

          There has been a lot of attention given to building habits. The weakness of that approach is that building habits requires quite a bit of very consistent and generally conscious attention. So, they might suggest you select a trigger, like after you drink your breakfast orange juice, you go play the piano.

          This requires you to maintain willpower through the habit building stage, and perhaps, to keep drinking orange juice.

          You have probably noticed that if your piano is accessible, you will play it more, which is definitely true. I imagine you still need to focus some attention on playing it however, which is great if you can.

          But we ask people to focus attention on everything—recycling, eating well, exercise, their work, politics, fundraising for charities, overseas aid, violence against women, anti-racism…

          We simply don’t have enough attention.

          So, if you need exercise, live on the fifth floor of a building without an elevator. Or live two miles from work, and don’t own a car.

          My family takes shorter showers now—because I installed a small hot water tank, and the water simply runs out.

          If there are ways we can set our surroundings to shape our behaviour we save our willpower and attention for other things.

          If you have hacked your life to promote piano playing, I would be interested to hear about it.


  • Joe Clarkson January 25, 2017, 2:45 am

    What about the tendency for technical capacity to substitute for social capacity, thereby diminishing the need for social capacity, the result being marginalized people?

    If automation and artificial intelligence come to full fruition, all the pie will be produced without bakers. That would make unemployed bakers (Trump supporters) envious and and upset with the still employed pie designers and sellers (Clinton supporters). That is, until the designing and selling of pies requires no human involvement either. Then only the pie factory owner will be able to have any pie since everyone else is unemployed and broke.

    Perhaps industrial technology has put us past peak-social-capacity. Perhaps the Luddites got it right after all. Perhaps Trump is an unwitting incarnation of Ned Ludd, with Chinese factories substituting for stocking frames.

    • Ruben January 25, 2017, 10:08 pm

      This is a very interesting comment, Joe, and I think would require a long essay of scenario thinking to develop.

      But in short-ish, I tend to think we have passed a tipping point that remains unacknowledged, which is that material capacity is also a trump card.

      Diminishing material capacity, like fossils fuels, concentrated mineral ores, rich soils, and a balanced climate are all things to which we pathologically respond, “They’ll think of something.”

      Obviously you and I acknowledge the importance of it—but you still didn’t mention it in your comment.

      It reminds me of this project I was on, a sort of Zero Waste Skunkworks. We had an entire unused floor in a government building, and we covered the walls in paper. We spent days writing and drawing and talking about Zero Waste, and what it meant and where the barriers were.

      Occasionally we would get overwhelmed and stuck, and I started to notice that within about five minutes we had drifted back to ideas to improve the recycling system. Business as Usual—in just a few minutes!

      It is incredibly hard to stay mindful of some of these ideas. They are totally outside, even castigated by, every institution in our culture.

      We focus on the technical capacity—Robots!—and on the social aspect—Jobs!—but don’t talk about the material.

      So, I don’t think automation and artificial intelligence can come to full fruition. We don’t have the material capacity, the fuel and ores need to supply the factories, and to supply the factories that build the tools for the factories, and to supply the factories that build the tools to build the tools to build the factories…

      But automation will bear much more fruit. How many jobs will be lost to robots before the automation “revolution” stops, slows or reverses? I have no idea at all. In my neck of the woods, logging jobs have been lost to automation for at least three decades I am sure of. These days, two operators can clearcut a mountain from the comfort of air-conditioned cabs, while listening to their mp3s.

      Long term scenario thinking about this is further complicated by the fact that energy is what has created economic growth and wealth. This is argued by Gail Tverberg on her must-read blog, Our Finite World.

      So, Trump was elected, one might say, by a lower rate of Energy Returned On Energy Invested. Lower energy return means less wealth, which means people have a hard time paying the mortgage and buying groceries, or are flat out unemployed.

      People who are feeling tight for cash do not typically broaden their horizons in concern for their fellow man; they look inwards and try to keep their shit together.

      We might even say that automation and offshoring are in part a response to the lowering EROEI. Companies have to do ever more convoluted things to try to maintain earnings.

      Anyhow, your question has more interesting threads to unfold, if I can stay focussed.

      You said, “What about the tendency for technical capacity to substitute for social capacity?”

      My first response, is it can’t. But your pie example is excellent. If you have a pie machine, you can have pie.

      You also mentioned Ned Ludd, which is insightful. The Luddites were withdrawing social license. The Luddite sabotage and riots were a demonstration that the social capacity for the industrial transition did not exist.

      Eventually, the social capacity was developed—in other words, treasure was collected and devoted to military forces to suppress the Luddites.

      We might, theoretically, develop the social capacity to tackle racism, or climate change. But that would require us to devote all of our mental resources and a great deal of material resources to that one problem, and I don’t think we are going to do that.

      Is that clarifying? One aspect of social capacity, I think, is the capacity to re-allocate resources to a new problem. If you can’t re-allocate, you do not have the social capacity.

      Okay, I think I might have it now.

      As I said, we have enough ideas. A pie making machine is not the hard part. What we don’t have is the social capacity for a society without jobs. Unemployed people got that way because they are lazy and stupid and too lazy to stop being stupid, right? Even with only the amount of automation we have seen now, we have not developed a narrative to keep the automated-away workers as accepted members of society.

      So, I don’t think we have the social capacity for great automation, I think King Ludd will ride again, and perhaps in the not too distant future.

      Which really, I think, is just a very long-winded way of saying what you said in your last paragraph.

      I appreciate how you have forced me to think about it, and perhaps someday I will have occasion to write more on it.

      So, we need the technical, material and social capacity in order to make change. More or less of one may be compensated for by more or less of another, but you will always need at least some of all three.

      (so, you can build huge roaring bonfires to stay warm, at great material cost of wood. Or, with a good idea, a stove, you can capture and experience as much heat as you did from the bonfire, but at much less material cost of wood. However, now you need mining, refining and manufacturing of iron, which requires a whole new set of capacities…)

      Anyhow, thanks again.

      • Joe Clarkson January 26, 2017, 2:37 am

        One aspect of social capacity, I think, is the capacity to re-allocate resources to a new problem. If you can’t re-allocate, you do not have the social capacity.

        What we don’t have is the social capacity for a society without jobs.

        Right on both counts.

        The problem of diminishing resources long ago required the social capacity to tackle the transition to a low-energy, low-population world. The basic technical capacity has been around for millennia and has been augmented by modern family planning techniques, but we have just continued burning through limited energy and other resources as if they would never end.

        You are right that material capacity will probably run out before there is any chance of technical capacity completely substituting for people through automation, but that same dearth of material capacity has great potential for creating many new jobs, if only we had the social capacity to organize them.

        Running out of diesel for the farm tractor? Hire legions of workers to manage the animals needed for the same work, or even send out people with broad-forks and hoes.

        We are so far into overshoot that even if we developed the social capacity to organize a transition from fossil energy to photosynthetic energy, I doubt that we have enough land area to accommodate everyone now alive. The transition to photosynthetic energy for the absolute maximum number of people is the world we want, but even though that transition to photosynthesis will be automatic, the world we will get will be via a transition that will be far more uncertain and full of unnecessary death due to lack of social capacity. So the world will end up with far fewer people living on the land than is possible with our existing technical capacity.

        I am 68. I have been watching this tragedy unfold for all of my adult life. The options we have squandered have left us with only the bottom of the barrel of good ones. Very soon even those dregs of good options will apply only to people in the very best of circumstances, those who live in small rural communities with lots of social capacity. That’s where my small farm is located. I can only hope that if we work hard enough on it, our social capacity will be sufficient.

        • Ruben January 26, 2017, 2:47 am

          Well, good luck to you and yours.

          I plan on writing a rejoinder to the “So, should we all just give up then?” thoughtstopper given by people who don’t want to consider reality. There is so much work to do, it would be great to not do the stupid work.

          Given our transition will be less voluntary, how do we shepherd skills and resources through for our descendants? Given the transition will involve depopulation, how do we teach grieving to a culture that has hidden death away for several generations?


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