Travel Article in Sunday Boston Globe


To travel, write and photography — it sounds like a pretty good life, doesn’t it? Well, thanks to the Boston Globe, I got to do just that.

The story — “Western fly fishing and bird shooting, close to Boston” — appeared this past Sunday in the Travel section. Alongside my story, the piece featured some of my photography as well. It was a real delight to see this in print, and to hear from so many people.

Concord Academy

concord academy logo

I am so pleased to be returning to Concord Academy to serve on their senior administrative team as the Director of Marketing and Communications. Attending CA was a transformational experience for me. It was a truly incredible education — surpassing, at times, both Brown and Oxford in its rigor — and a truly wonderful community. I am truly delighted to be back.


New England Rambler

A trail marking on the AT near Flagstaff Lake, Maine, pointing the way home.

I’ve been fortunate, early in life, to have lived in a lot of the world’s great cities: New York, DC, London, and Oxford, England. I have enjoyed all of them, but when asked I’ve always said that I would return to New England to live. And so it has been affirming to find, upon returning here, that that feeling proved true.

That is in part true because Boston is a gateway to the rest of New England. As many of you know, Sarah and I do a lot of traveling around New England: ski trips, beach trips, food trips, beer tours, antique stores, book stores — we try to take it all in, nearly every weekend. We talk about it often. And, we (or, Sarah) often write about it. The result is a blog: “New England Rambler |Day trips, road trips and head trips throughout the northeast.”

Though the project is a joint one, Sarah has been doing most of the writing, while I have helped. My favorite is our recent post on New England’s best road food. We got more comments, and more suggestions, for this post than any other. (Fodder for an app idea I’ve had for a long time. Ask me about it if you’re curious.)

For me, each trip has reminded me of why I’m grateful to be back in New England. And so we’re always looking for more suggestions on where to go, where to eat, where to stay.  Do you have a suggestion? Let us know!

Find the blog here:
And our Twitter feed here:

Guest post for the Barr Foundation

Note: Stefan Lanfer at The Barr Foundation was kind enough to invite me to contribute to their News & Knowledge blog. Below is a copy of that post. The original lives here.

In the beginning was the word. But now, word and image (if you want to give your words a chance).

A picture is worth a thousand words, sure. But what if those thousand words are shedding light on IMPORTANT issues? And what if they are carefully chosen, masterfully crafted words? Well, yes, even then – at least, that is, if you want to give your words a chance, or to see, as one nonprofit saw, a 7,000% increase in its social media reach.

In July, I participated in a meeting of the Transportation for Massachusetts Coalition. The focus was social media and how coalition members might support each other and their collective efforts more effectively. Ben Carmichael, Conservation Law Foundation(CLF)’s new Senior Communications Manager, shared about a recent experience that completely took CLF by surprise. After completing a new report, rather than issue the usual press release, posting it to CLF’s website, and sending a blast email to their distribution list, Ben and his colleagues decided to try something new. They created a simple, elegant infographic that distilled the report’s key findings. And they put that out front of their communications. The results? For one, they saw a 7,000% increase in CLF’s social media reach. I asked Ben to talk more about the experience and what they learned – which he does in this post.


Following months of research we at CLF and CLF Ventures were ready to release a report showing the huge potential for sustainable urban agriculture in Boston. The economic and environmental possibilities by converting just 50 acres are significant. And yet, on the eve of the release, we wondered: how best to communicate these findings to the public in a way that would make them not only resonate, but be shared widely – and, dare we dream, maybe even go viral.

CLF, like other nonprofits, has faced this problem before. We work very hard on long-term issues with diffuse risk and reward, and have taken to informing the public of our work primarily through words: we write blogs, press releases, and reports regularly – all the time competing for mindshare in an increasingly competitive, crowded, and noisy online environment.

And so we decided to take a risk and try something we’d never done before: translate our findings into an infographic. Most of my colleagues are lawyers. They have a deep and abiding faith the power of the written word. This was something new for all of us.

Here’s what we came up with:

The results were better than we ever anticipated. Once posted to Facebook, the infographic was shared, liked and commented on so many times it quickly became our most successful post ever – increasing our Facebook reach by more than a 7,000% after a week (and this before Facebook rewrote its definition of reach).

In an effort to translate some of this into relationships, we created a landing page for the report. By requiring people to enter some of their basic information before downloading the report, we were able to track who was downloading the report and why. When combined with a traditional PR push, as well as a blog post and promotion across social media outlets (TwitterFlickr,Pinterest, etc) that landing page has been very popular.

The Growing Green report, and particularly all the traction it got through social media, made for a very successful launch of CLF’s new Farm & Food initiative. As we think about how to translate this experience into future communications campaigns, here are our three key takeaways:

  • Great words deserve great images: In the beginning was the word. But now there is word and image – at least if you want to give words a chance. Social media rewards graphics and imagery that simplify otherwise complex ideas. Words can’t be replaced for nuance and complexity and for those already initiated to a cause or issue. But for those on the peripheries looking in – the potential allies and supporters – imagery can be a far more powerful hook, especially in social media.
  • Keep it simple. Really. When designing infographics, keep them as simple as possible. (Hat-tip to our designer, Kyric Avery, for helping us with that!)
  • Translate interest into relationships. Likes and shares are a nice affirmation – especially to those of us at nonprofit communications desks – but the case for impact is thin unless those likes and shares translate into more meaningful and lasting connections.

Ben Carmichael is Senior Communications Manager at CLF. Follow him on twitter at


– Posted by Stefan Lanfer, Knowledge Officer –



Bike Commuters: Rolling into Work Often, Earlier

The time is 8:15 am. You have a meeting at 8:45am. This leaves you with 15 minutes to get to work and make sure your hair doesn’t look like a character from Avatar. What do you do?

Two new studies out this month make the case that at rush hour, bikes can leave cars and public transportation in the dust, while other studies show the number of daily bikers is taking off.

First, compare cars to bikes. A recent article in the MIT Technology Reviewdraws on data from 11.6 million bicycle trips in the French city of Lyon between May 2005 and December 2007. The data shows that, on average, bicyclists travel nearly as fast as cars and that, at rush hour, the average speed of cyclists actually outstrips that of the average car — and this doesn’t include time for parking.

Some claim that this data doesn’t apply to American cities, many of which, unlike Lyon, are built on a grid. I’m in the camp that uses this science to make an unscientific claim: bikes can, in the right conditions, travel faster than cars when commuting. For the 9 out of 10 Americans who drive to work in a private car, this may well come as a surprise.

Another tool makes the comparison of public transportation to biking quite vividly. will show you how long it will take you to get to any part of a city of your choice at any time of day and within any time limits. It also lets you specify whether you have a bike with you. Say you select New York City, 8 a.m., starting point of the Washington Square area and a travel time of at most 15 minutes. The highlighted area (where you can travel) bubbles out to encompass southern Manhattan. Indicate that you’ll be carrying a bike, however, and your reach extends out impressively. This isn’t specific to New York City, either; I replicated this comparison in cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Dallas, and even London. All returned the same result.

I grant that this model doesn’t work in all locations for all people. Cities like San Francisco, that boast hilly terrain, are likely not suitable for this model. Nor are bikes a suitable replacement for all other forms of transportation; in a modern city, each has its place. However, these studies do suggest a general rule of commuting: bikes are faster than cars, in the right situation. That by itself is significant.

The good news for cycling supporters is that more Americans are realizing this. According to the American Community Survey, in cities like Boston and Washington, D.C., ridership is up 165 percent and 108 percent respectively over 2005 levels. In New York, where Mayor Bloomberg has constructed over 200 miles of new bike lanes in the last four years, ridership has doubled since 2005, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The rest of the country may be less enthusiastic about cycling, but they’re more enthusiastic than they were. According to the American Community Survey, between 2005 and 2009, bike commuting grew by 0.3 percent. Nothing, you say? It’s something, surely.

Source: Originally published in On Earth, December 13, 2008.

(Photo provided courtesy of megawheel360 @ flickr. Used under the Creative Commons license.)

Knowledge Networks: Reducing the Cost of Green Business

The leading question about climate change is a question of costs. No one disputes that climate change will be expensive.

Where advocates argue we need to pay now, climate delayers argue we should wait and pay later. As a consequence, where sides diverge on timing, they share a common concern to bring these costs down to levels that are both manageable and predictable.

Smart grid technology is part of an effort to bring down costs for the consumer. By knowing how much energy the customer is using, the argument goes, the consumer will use less energy. It is about driving change through information.

However, the barriers for smart grid technology remain high. It is entering a crowded, mature market place, and is deeply integrated into a rapidly changing if not uncertain scientific, technical and political landscape. The costs are high and the rewards remain uncertain.

There is one potential method to reducing these costs that is both unconventional and still largely unexplored: tailored knowledge networks. I’m not talking about Tweeting our way out of a climate and energy conundrum. I’m talking about the power of information to enable technical solutions at scale when shared freely — or to impede growth when unduly constrained.

Consider first the process of innovation. It is, by nature, either incremental or radical; either you improve something slightly or invent something entirely new. (Plastics, Benjamin. Plastics.) What an investment will yield — and whether it will yield anything — is always uncertain because failure is always an option. In the absence of a clairvoyant, R&D can be unattractive because it can be nothing but costly and uncertain.

In areas requiring innovation, knowledge is then not academic. As the stabilizing and enabling element, knowledge is both cost and cause. It is the product, and a costly product at that. Thankfully, some businesses are beginning to prove that networks reduce those costs.

Consider the example of 2degrees, an online network based in Oxford, UK, for professionals working in sustainable business. Their mission is to harness the collective knowledge of their network to expedite the process of innovation through webinars, subject-specific working groups and other information sharing services. Membership is free (though a business membership comes at a cost) and the pace of activity is impressive. Their early success, which I have witnessed as a member for two years now, is impressive and founded on well-established principles of business and group behavior.

First, its members. Drawn from business, government and academia, each member shares a common concern: to understand and help resolve the issue of climate change. The price one pays for general content is nothing other than the knowledge one cares to share, while the benefit is collective; no one has to pay anything, and everyone can learn from anyone.

Whereas traditional forms of information sharing, like peer review articles, conferences or think tanks, are of unquestionable value, they are also slow, burdensome, and monologue-driven. Networks can facilitate the kind of knowledge exchange people often seek: those answered by open-ended questions posed to a well-informed community.

There is an additional benefit to businesses. Whereas businesses often think about the marketplace in terms of capturing market share, networks can be an effective way of increasing the size of the original market. There is a growing body of literature, having grown out of the intersection of behavioral economics and energy, that demonstrates that information provision is a driving force in the adoption of new behavior. In other words, the best way to get people to do something is for them to know other people are doing it. Networks like 2 Degrees are, in this sense, reinforcing; they both strengthen commitments and engender new commitments, creating an expanding space of sustaining behavior.

In the age of growing technical and entrepreneurial challenges in confronting environmental challenges, innovation is essential. In the age of austerity, it is essential that the cost of this innovation is kept low. It’s my conviction that knowledge specific networks are can help enable both — innovation at a lower cost. It’s not the answer, but part of the answer.

Source: Originally posted on The Huffington Post, November 8, 2010.

(Photo courtesy of Ian Muttooflickr, via Creative Commons license.)

Congratulations, America. You Passed Wind.

For some, it was with a sense of relief that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar passed Cape Wind, the beleaguered offshore wind project on Cape Cod. For others, it was the latest in a drama that has lasted nearly a decade.

While the environment remains a low priority issue to most American voters, clean energy solutions have proven to be polarizing. Against the backdrop of rising expectations of a climate bill, the debate over Cape Wind is both enduring and exemplary.

With Salazar’s approval today, it was given the green light to become the first offshore wind project in the United States. But for the last nine years, it has been an example of how even clean energy can provoke everyone from environmental nonprofits to conservative business groups to fight dirty, and to fight amongst themselves.

How is it that something so simple and so useful as a windmill make foes of allies, and allies of foes? Once you sort through all the dialogue, the barriers boil down to backyards, money and delays. Let’s take each one in turn.


Wind turbines are built where the wind is most consistently strong. All you need to do is glance at a wind map of the US to see that these areas are often either rural — North Dakota, Colorado, Texas, Vermont and Maine — or coastal. As an energy resource, this is a good thing: the Great Plains has been called the Saudi Arabi of wind, while coastal wind can provide power to population pockets along the shore.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Martha’s Vineyard oppose the project on the ground that it would interfere with sacred rituals and desecrate tribal burial sites. The late Senator Kennedy also vehemently opposed the Cape Wind project, in part because the Kennedys, known as avid sailors, own a family compound that looks onto the project sight.

There is a very real and unavoidable problem: no matter where you put a windmill, it’s always going to be either in someone’s backyard, off their ocean dock, or along their hiking trail. This argument is not about windmills, but about fear of progress. Just ask the old man in New Mexico with whom a friend of mine recently held a conversation.

He said he remembered how up in arms everyone was when the town wanted to put telephone lines. Everyone, he said, though it was going to ruin the main street. Once they were there, they became commonplace. Now, in most places, you hardly see them. The same, he said, would be true for wind turbines.

There are other examples of this fear of progress. But the simple truth is that our growing demand for energy will demand we build new sources of power. Ask yourself whether the drive up California’s coastal Route 1 would be the icon it is with coal plants clustering the cliffs? And would Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard or Maine’s rocky coast would be the summer tourist destinations they are if they were dotted with nuclear plants, both functioning and decommissioned? Off shore wind famers — barely visible and glimmering in the sun — are hardly disruptive in comparison to conventional sources of power.


Money is another leading concern. The initial investment required for an offshore wind farm is high — nearly double that of onshore wind projects per kilowatt-hour.

This has proven to be a problem for Rhode Island’s proposed off-shore wind farm. The developer, Deepwater, would have charged National Grid 24.4 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2013, when the contract was due to begin, with prices increasing in subsequent years. The retail price of electricity for a home in Rhode Island currently is about 13 cents per kilowatt-hour. At the time, the governor’s office said the agreement would increase the average residential customer’s annual electric bill by about $16.

Meanwhile, upfront investment costs are significant. The Cape Wind project, for instance, will likely cost more than $1 billion. The Rhode Island project is even larger, and will likely cost $1.5 billion, not including the $8 million already spent on an impact assessment report.

These costs have been made more significant by weak federal subsidies for renewable energy relative to European subsidies, and by the lack of a federal climate policy. The lack of a clear federal policy introduces degrees of uncertainty into US-based investments in offshore wind that inhibit growth, and lead other countries like China, Norway and Denmark to surpass the United States.

Of course, there are paybacks. Both of these — the direct payback to investors and savings to local taxpayers — will come in years to come. A study released earlier this year by a consulting firm hired by Cape Wind’s developers Charles River Associates claimed that the project might save New England ratepayers $4.6 billion in energy costs over 25 years. However, these figures likely have little impact on political support. There is a large body of evidence that shows people account for potential but uncertain future savings poorly.


Finally, there is the issue of delays. Related to the issue of uncertain future savings is the issue of uncertain future impacts from climate change.

In scientific terms, the fundamental science of climate change is largely settled. But scientific terms don’t always translate into cognitive certainty; where the evidentiary standards of science rightly err on the side of conservatism, our minds demand the bold and the immediate. Scientists cannot tell us more than they know, and climate change will not deliver its full drama in one shot, but unfold slowly over decades.

What does this mean? It means the climate delay exploits a human problem. If we had more immediate evidence of the need for clean energy solutions, we might be more willing to build more wind turbines. But lacking the kind of evidence humans learn most effectively from, we predictably delay and debate.  In a snowy winter, such as the one DC and Europe experienced this year, we even confuse the weather for climate.

Not all is bad

Despite this, there is good news. Offshore wind will likely play a forceful role in clean energy development in the US in years to come.

Six governors of East Coast states — Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island — called on Salazar to approve the project, in hopes that similar projects in their states would benefit. These projects are part of a nascent but adamant wind industry. Twelve offshore wind projects from the Great Lakes area to the East Coast and Texas have been proposed. Cape Wind will no doubt lend certainty to these projects.

In addition to this momentum, it is unlikely that offshore wind would not play an important role in future clean energy development. It is only very conservative assumptions that yield a future in which one technology dominates. Instead, numerous technologies will likely play in a diverse portfolio.

Combine these considerations — state momentum and likely projections — with physical realities and you have a compelling combination. Lake and ocean winds are typically both more reliable and stronger. Offshore wind projects designed to capture such breezes are located close enough to population centers to limit the need for transmission lines while being far enough away to reduce the impact upon ocean views.

The green light Salazar gave to Cape Wind will likely fill the sails of these twelve offshore wind projects. It’s simply a question of which way the winds will blow.

(Photo courtesy of Martin Pettitt @ flickr. Used under the Creative Commons lisence.)

Source: Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 29, 2010.

Half-Baked Alaska: Palin’s Confused Vision of Energy & Environment

Now that Sarah Palin has announced her resignation as Governor of Alaska, you may wonder: What has she been doing? How will she fill her time? In an Op-Ed piece for The Washington Post, Palin kindly provided an answer. She’s committed herself to a single task: confusing the American public on energy and environment.

On Tuesday, Palin’s Op-Ed criticized Obama’s cap and trade bill — known as the American Clean Energy & Security Act, or ACES — and refused to acknowledge the existence of climate change. The article so fully muddles the issues that the best thing one can hope for is that someone else wrote the article, and the Governor simply signed her name.

Behind all the bluster — and the exclamations! that neatly turn fact into fiction — are familiar phrases. She appeals to national independence, rising unemployment, taxes, supply side economics and God’s creation. In so doing, she positions Democrats as enervating technocrats opposed to prosperity, and herself as rooted in a history of economic growth, rugged independence and faith.

To use talking points is one thing, to rely on them another. This isn’t a partisan issue; candidates from both parties have lines they work through. But Palin’s argument is so dependent on established Republican strategy that is reads like a grab bag of worn-out phrases.

This is where Palin’s argument veers from the path of denial. In making her argument, she ignores mounting, if not overwhelming evidence on energy and environment. She also strays from mainstream public opinion.

The Nobel Prize awarded to the IPCC was an acknowledgement that the fundamental science of climate change is firmly established. Furthermore, a recent survey of American opinion on climate change revealed that 72% find climate change to be personally important, while 90% believe the US should act to reduce climate change.

In her Op-Ed, Palin ignores both science and public opinion. If David Brooks was right in describing the Republican party as intellectually bankrupt, Palin’s Op-Ed positions herself as both a lender and borrower Republican subprime arguments. After articles like this, I would hope she’s flush out of capital.

Let’s take a few moments, then, to review Palin’s major points in the article, and trace where she goes astray.

Palin: “There is no denying that as the world becomes more industrialized, we need to reform our energy policy and become less dependent on foreign energy sources.”

Palin’s argument is afflicted as much by what is not there as what is not. Note here how she discusses the need to reform energy policy without mentioning why – that we live in a world of increasing resources scarcity facing and that we face uncertain risks from a climate that promises to change in the short and long-term, with potentially sever damages.

Palin engages in a critique of ACES without discussing why it’s being implemented in the first place. It’s like arguing against throwing water on a house fire, by avoiding all mention of the fire.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Palin has argued that man is not responsible for climate change. Or, rather, she said:

“I’m not one to attribute every man — activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man’s activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.”

Again, she seems confused, and is trying to confuse the American public.

Palin: “I believe [the cap-and-trade energy plan] is an enormous threat to our economy. It would undermine our recovery over the short term and would inflict permanent damage.”

Contrary to this argument, ACES will help to grow the economy. Palin distorts the picture by overstating the costs and ignoring the benefits.

For instance, any costs to the economy as a result of cap-and-trade largely nominal. Aluminum and chemical businesses will see an increase in costs of about 2% by 2030, while the steel industry would see a rise in costs of between 4% and 11%. Similarly, the cost to each American family would be about $174. These costs are real, but not huge.

Far from the crippling burden Paling describes, the cap-and-trade program would create market for carbon, spur investment and expand an already rapidly growing sector of the economy.

For instance, ACES would help spur $150 billion in clean energy investments, help to create 1.7 million jobs throughout the United States. ACES would help to unleash billions of dollars of investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy and clean-car technology. According to Andy Stevenson’s excellent piece over on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, the result of these improvements in fuel efficiency would be “1.4mln barrels a day by the year 2020…providing a cumulative savings to American households around $1,900 through the year 2020.” Those are real savings for American families.

Moreover, Palin seems to ignore that in the clean energy economy, jobs have grown by nearly two and a half times faster than over overall job growth since 1998. It is a field that is already growing. This will help accelerate growth in an already growing field.

For an economy in decline, job creation and the accelerated expansion of markets with demonstrated potential is exactly what this country needs.

Palin: “But the answer doesn’t lie in making energy scarcer and more expensive!”

Scarcity isn’t the answer. But putting a price on carbon is.

One of the challenges in creating substantive reductions in carbon emissions is generating the capital needed to develop and deploy clean energy technology at scale.

Cap-and-trade helps to provide this capital not by making energy scarce, but to create a market of perceived scarcity that drives up market prices for carbon. That market then provides a revenue stream to be invested in R&D measures for clean energy technology. It’s one of the best, and only, ways to generate the kind of revenue needed.

But this move is cute. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of Palin winking her way through the presidential debate. Too bad an exclamation point doesn’t magically convert fiction into fact.

Palin: “Those who understand the issue know we can meet our energy needs and environmental challenges without destroying America’s economy.”

To judge from all of the above, we know Palin is describing someone else. She clearly doesn’t understand the issues.

Palin: “We are ripe for economic growth and energy independence if we responsibly tap the resources that God created right underfoot on American soil.”

This is not only offensive, but reflects a shockingly limited theological vision.

In the first place, it is offensive to claim a responsible use of God’s creation is to limit our economy activity to only those fuels which are dirtiest and which therefore degrade the world we’re meant to protect. In fact, if you look at the position of many religious environmental groups, you’ll find Palin to be dramatically out of sync.

Furthermore, did God create only the resources beneath the surface of the earth? Did he not also create the sun? Did he not also create the wind and rain?

Palin: “Can America produce more of its own energy through strategic investments that protect the environment, revive our economy and secure our nation?”

Yes, we can. The Waxman-Markey Bill is a first step. It’s not perfect, but it’s not a stake to the heart, as Palin describes it. Much to the contrary, it’s a much-needed shot in the arm.

(Photo provided courtesy of Oyvind Solstad @ flickr. Used under the Creative Commons license.)

Source: Originally published on On Earth, July 16, 2009.

England: A Dusting of Snow, A Climate of Chaos

I went to bed last night with Oxford covered in a thin, quiet blanket of snow. I woke up to find the country in chaos.

The Telegraph ran a headline saying, “Britain paralyzed by worst snowfall for 20 years.” Meanwhile, the usually reserved Times of London reported: “Chaos after huge snow blanket hits UK.” The Guardian followed suit: “England wakes up to snow chaos.”

I read these headlines with the shades still drawn. Outside my windows, where usually birds signal the shift from the gloom of England’s night to the grayness of its days, there were students trilling about the snow. I threw open the window and found not a blanket of snow, but streets mostly black but for pockets of white and a chill in the air. So little snow, I thought, for so much disruption.

And so I took the streets. Experience bore out the papers. Many of the businesses along Turl Street — one of the quiet streets that typify Oxford, its pubs, clothiers and nested Colleges — were closed, or just opening, at 10am. At Walter’s barbershop, the conversation was about the snow. Over the radio, reports of commuting difficulties were read aloud, seemingly without end.

Once at home, emails came in, and status updates all read the same: “Snow day.” “Can’t make it to the office, working from home.” It all reminded me of a section from Sarah Lyall’s wonderful book The Anglo Files. In discussing the difficulties of the trains here, she recalled the following headline from The Evening Standard: “Inch of Snow Causes Chaos.”

For a boy from New England, this all seemed like a rather lot of hoopla about nothing. A few weeks ago, my father woke up to find a nearly a foot of snow on the ground. He cleared the drive way and, upon getting into his car, found his usual route blocked by fallen power lines. Finding his other route blocked by a fallen tree, he drove an extra 10 miles and made his way into the office. This was neither routine nor extraordinary; it was simply the weather, and he had a car.

Today was much the same; to me, it was simply the weather, and beautiful weather at that. But to this country, it was enormously disruptive.

The airports were closed, sealing England off from Europe, if not the rest of the world. The closures on the underground were comprehensive; only the Victoria line was reported to be running “in good service.” In this country, that phrase could mean nearly anything.

Following The Guardian’s declaration of chaos, came the equally dramatic headline announcing that the “Cost of arctic weather could top £1bn.” According to the paper, “The Federation of Small Businesses estimated this morning that one-in-five workers will fail to reach work today, at a cost of £1.2bn.”

Granted, the snow was the most England has received in 18 years. But that trend is consistent with 2008, the coolest year since 2000. A generation shouldn’t always prepare a nation for a once a generation event. But weather is never a day in isolation; it’s a constellation of global trends with local effects. Today, then, was a cold dip following a cool year on an otherwise warming planet. Today was more than a day; it was a model of what the world has seen this past year, and what England might see again. As such, it raises some important point, and questions, about climate change.

First, that climate change does not mean uniform global warming. A changing climate is a volatile one. The IPCC and others predict that weather patterns will not only warm, but will move towards their natural extremes. For England, that may mean more of today’s weather in the centuries to come.

Second, that countries are still subject to the unpredictable whim of the weather. Consider England’s productivity losses today. Climate change will risk, as England Sir Nicholas Stern famously said, a significant decline in economic productivity.

Third, it raises questions about adaptive capacity. England is, despite its sometime appearance as a post-industrialized country (again, nod to Lyall), in a position of global affluence. Its standard of living, and its productivity, is high. Despite all of this, all it took was a little snowfall to cause a major economic and social disruption. This certainly can’t bode well for developing countries, whose adaptive capacities are significantly lower.

Finally, the issue of adaptation is most often discussed over centuries. But today’s snow, and much larger, more devastating events like Katrina and the 2004 tsunami, raise the question of non-linear climatic changes. What about climatic changes that occur within the period of decades, not centuries? And what of the extreme events that occur an otherwise sloping trend? How will we adapt? If today’s events are any indication, the transition will not be painless.

To a large extent, some of these problems are peculiar to England’s constitution. Its weather is consistently poor, but rarely terrible. The only thing regular about the trains are their delays. Throughout the 20th century, England suffered such ignominies in proud silence. But not today.

The snow was too much, their preparedness too little. For this New England boy, the headlines wrote the pathos of the Old World. As a friend of mine observed, “No wonder we lost the empire.”

(Photo courtesy of taperoo2k @ flickr. Used under the Creative Commons license.)

Source: Originally published in On Earth, February 2, 2009.

Eating Stories, Telling Animals

Jonathan Safron Foer
Eating Animals
Little Brown, 2009
341 Pages
ISBN 978-0241144251

When Jonathan Safran Foer’s grandmother cooked chicken, he and his brothers would regularly interrupt the meal to say, “You are the greatest chef who ever lived”. Never mind that this “greatest chef” had only one recipe with two ingredients, or that she informed her grandchildren that dark food is better than light food, that bigger animals are better for you, and that no food was bad for you. According to Foer, “her culinary prowess was one of our family’s primal stories”. That, at least, was before Foer became a vegetarian. In the beginning, the story of chicken was sacrosanct. Then it was sickening.

As grandchildren, we eat food with a mute acceptance. We eat without question. With time and age, though, it is around these same meals that we learn that our grandparents often cook with profligacy because they cannot forget the hunger of World War II. To cook is to tell a story, and to eat is to become a part of that story. Through food we learn about ourselves. The first lessons of food is one we all know: you are what you eat. For the Greeks, diets of fish and cream make for lustrous skin; for the Russians, vodka sharpens the characters. For Foer—writer of lauded contemporary fiction, New York Jew, and newly converted vegetarian—food is what he has consumed all his life: a series of stories, deeply troubled.

Such stories are the substance of Eating Animals, Foer’s newly published book about his personal decision to become a vegetarian. Forgoing a polemic against meat in favour of the personal, Foer discusses food as a complex story in need of a new language. In the process, he fashions a genre somewhere between fact and fiction. This is not a new style, but Foer being Foer: an experimental writer first, a committed vegetarian second. This hybrid sparks at times, but ultimately the fancy of the experience feels lighter than the weight of the problems Foer describes.

To be fair, this is not the kind of story Foer is used to telling. His two previous books, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, are both works of fiction whose structure and style are experimental. Foer’s two subjects in these pieces—a Jew in search of the farmer who saved his grandmother, and a son whose father died in the attacks of September 11—are taken from broadly shared experience and rendered in highly stylized fiction. Eating Animals is a different kind of beast, one in which Foer alternately shines and fails, but in which he nevertheless raises provocative questions about animal cruelty and the efficacy of stories.

Foer’s vegetarianism began with the birth of his son and the adoption of his dog George, a funny pair who raise the questions motivating Foer’s years of research: who are we, and who do we want to be? In this account of factory farming, fishing practices, and slaughtering, Foer reveals a public that approves of cruelty to animals, condones environmental destruction, and endorses the degradation of public health. The distance between our two selves—who we are and who we want to be—is measured in cruelty.

Consider a few stories of systematic abuse. At a pig-breeding facility in North Carolina, undercover videotape shows workers bludgeoning pregnant sows with a wrench and violating a mother pig with a metal pole in ways both indescribable and inhumane. On another farm, workers extinguish their cigarettes on the pigs, strangle them, and throw them in manure pits to drown. And at Pilgrims’ Pride, one of KFC’s “Suppliers of the Year”, fully conscious chickens are stomped on and slammed into walls, their beaks twisted off and the shit literally squeezed out of them.

Slaughtering houses, however, are home to perhaps the greatest cruelty. We learn that where cows are meant to be delivered to the slaughtering line unconscious, the bolt gun often misfires, leaving them fully conscious while being skinned and dismembered for up to seven minutes. This account, taken in conjunction with a secret video released to the Washington Post, provides the most revolting and revealing moment of the book. In it, a worker recounts how it is not uncommon for heifers to be pregnant when they reach the slaughtering line—to see from the uterus of a pregnant, partially slaughtered heifer an unborn calf kicking as if trying to escape, or to be born.

Were every family to watch food-processing videos before they ate a T-bone steak or chicken nuggets, it is unlikely that their appetite would go undiminished. The facts are harrowing; the images repulsive. Factory farms are more than messy places—they are often sites of unregulated, undocumented, and inhumane cruelty. But when we eat the T-bone, we simply eat a steak, not a part of a once living animal. Our memory is abridged to include only the food on our plate.

For Foer, this is a narrative problem as much as a moral one. Like a poor translation, the act of purchasing and cooking meat erases food’s prior story. This is because eating is a fundamentally social act; and as we eat together, we rewrite the story of the food we consume. Food ritual preserves a specific version of our past—from Thanksgiving to Shabbat. The food used in these traditions is then not just food, but a symbol for the larger story: a turkey recalls a pastoral pilgrim past, and, as Foer argues, saltwater is also tears, matzo the bread of affliction. Eating and storytelling are inseparable, he says. The myth of eating is that we condone the conditions of factory farming. The distance between our farms and our plates is so great that we forget what happened on the farm to make our meal possible and remember mostly the story we are told.

Accordingly, Foer is convinced that we need not only to eat different food, but to tell different stories. “We need a better way to talk about eating animal”, he argues. Yet Eating Animals is not a polemic; it does not argue that everyone should become a vegetarian. If anything motivates the book, it is a belief in the efficacy of stories. In this sense, Foer’s book is not one of many about vegetarianism, but is self-consciously styled as a new story about food. This both raises and lowers the standard. How does Foer do in this first story of food? The results are mixed.

Foer’s book teeters with a tension between story and structure. Foer did not merely begin researching from scratch, but felt compelled to tell the story from scratch as well. In a chapter titled “Words Meaning” in large bold type, he begins with the recognition that “language is never fully trustworthy” and proceeds to provide definitions for words common to food and farming: kosher, bycatch, organic, intelligence, human, instinct. In defining “animal”, he starts with the Bible and with anthropologists. This is both beyond and below the project—it is, in the end, a distraction.

At their best, such moves lend pause, but they hardly ever provoke serious thought. The problem is that Foer can never really stop being Foer. He is a writer who built his fame on stories that were factually informed but free from the constraints of nonfiction. One could never accuse him, say, of inaccuracies in Extremely Loud because it was not meant to be accurate; rather, it is more honest for being made up. Eating Animals is a different project executed in a similar style. Foer is trying to be the new Foer in old clothes. The suit doesn’t fit.

Here, at least, Foer is not alone. Despite all of the books on the problems of food and the explosion of interest reflected in the rise of farmers markets, the availability of organic food, the banning of transfats in New York, and the success of authors such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, people continue to consume meat in ever-increasing amounts. Their stories, while well told and even better-selling, have not translated to equivalent changes in the public diet. Ultimately, food is not rational; it is cultural. We do not eat because we choose to eat, but we eat what we are told.

In that sense, Foer’s story, despite its imperfections, is important. The issues he describes—animal cruelty, the environment and public health—need new voices, not just the old and the familiar. Foer’s son may well become one of these voices. Like his grandmother before him, Foer now tells his son stories about food as he feeds him different meals. When he does, Foer frames his most compelling message: our stories are our food, and we become those stories.

At the beginning of the book, Foer’s grandmother recounts her survival through the Second World War. She describes how, from lack of food, she became increasingly sick. Sores covered her body. She found it difficult to move. She ate whatever she could find, things she’d never tell her grandchildren about. One day, according to her story, a farmer offered her a piece of meat. She wouldn’t eat it.

“You didn’t eat it?” Foer asks.

“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”


“What do you mean why?”

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”

“Of course.”

“But not even to save your life?”

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

Source: Originally published in The Oxonian Review, November 23, 2009.