Brooks’ law in aid plans : is more always merrier? gain goes down the drain.


Brooks’ law on software development says : “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. Brooks adds to his law that “Nine women can not make a baby in one month”. Is there a similar law for development?

I could propose two options:

  1. If results are elusive, adding an extra partner to an existing  coordination mechanism only detracts attention more from getting results.
  2. Adding untied development money to an acute conflict area makes the conflict more chronic.

While option 2 is tempting, I fear it would be difficult to prove this option in a way it would stand scrutiny; Option 1 is an  open door I want to walk through.

Of course, as Brooks himself states, the law is an “outrageous simplification”, and further points to two main factors that explain why his law works all too often (wikipedia) :

  1. It takes some time for the people added to a project to become productive. Brooks calls this the “ramp up” time. Software projects are complex engineering endeavors, and new workers on the project must first become educated about the work that has preceded them; this education requires diverting resources already working on the project, temporarily diminishing their productivity while the new workers are not yet contributing meaningfully. Each new worker also needs to integrate with a team composed of multiple engineers who must educate the new worker in their area of expertise in the code base, day by day. In addition to reducing the contribution of experienced workers (because of the need to train), new workers may even have negative contributions – for example, if they introduce bugs that move the project further from completion.
  2. Communication overheads increase as the number of people increases. The number of different communication channels increases along with the square of the number of people; doubling the number of people results in four times as many different conversations. Everyone working on the same task needs to keep in sync, so as more people are added they spend more time trying to find out what everyone else is doing.

The picture is easy to recognize : the 2 or three main players in a development field know each other so well they don need to meet except for a beer. Indeed: it is a jungle out there, and the fight for funding is harsh: you must know your competitors. The odd outsider claims there is a need for coordination and what used to be a working, informal process must be reported on and formalised.
The Lilliput  partner brings his “important” expertise and money on board, but must be consulted in all important matters. Everybody gets bogged down in coordination meetings.

Lilliput partners at the table

Just look at a typical picture concerning humanitarian assistance in 2009 to a country in Africa, Niger (FTS).The total recorded humanitarian aid was  57.83 million USD:

  1. Central Emergency Response Fund: 20.23 %
  2. USA: 17.07 %
  3. ECHO + other Commission (Europe) 20.76 %
  4. Japan:  6.92 %
  5. Belgium:  5.27 %
  6. France:  3.61 %
  7. Less then 1 %: Germany, Sweden, Switserland, UK
  8. Unearmarked allocation WFP:  3.14 %
  9. Carry over : 19.76 %

There is a good case for involving donors 1 to 3 in a coordination effort from the start. But what is the added value for the humanitarian results to invite one of the group 4 to 6? Sure they might have some specialised insights, but shouldn’t they be invited more punctually? And why invite the donors grouped under 7? Their contributions are close to the margin of error in the calculations of the others.

On the other hand, donors 4 to 6 have a very strong case to want to be involved, as they can free ride on the work done by the strong partners: studies, needs assessments, feedback from the field. Pure gold for the free rider. We might hope the donors grouped under 7 wouldn’t even bother.
Taking into account all coordination costs, it is probably better to keep the contribution of the fringe donors outside than to have them inside.

The picture for data per “appealing organisation” is as interesting:

  1. World Food Programme: 41.93
  2. UNICEF 17.83
  3. MSF: France, Switserland, Luxemburg, etc.  9.50
  4. Save the Children – UK  7.14
  5. Mercy corps  4.97
  6. Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN  4.38
  7. WHO  4.15
  8. Cooperative League of the USA  2.40
  9. Concern Worldwide  1.33
  10. Action contre la faim  1.13
  11. Less then 1 %: Luxemburg red cross, Oxfam UK, Medicins du monde france, French Red Cross, care international, Africare,

In the area of direct food assistance, USD 24.1  million has been contributed, of which USD 22.8 million was going to WFP, some 94 %. It seems coordination on food assistance is just a waste of time. For the overall effectiveness of food aid, the internal management of WFP activities is much more relevant than the effects coordination could have. Why is WFP a reluctant UN-reformer? Perhaps because they want to have results with the group they are supposed to help, hungry people, and not just with any nobody that might show up in the field claiming they distribute food.

I am not saying that the small agencies or small NGOs are irrelevant: far from that: they are the ones innovating, reaching the victims most difficult to reach, challenging the effectiveness and efficiency standards of the juggernauts (and dinosaurs). A coordination effort draws them in the mush that general consensus is, with a risk of conforming to the mainstream. It might even be a prerequisite for coordination to comply with what is generally accepted.  To get a share of the pie distributed at the coordination table, you have to pay the dues.  They could end up selling their soul for being allowed to play with the big boys.

Political economy of institutional coordination

It is not safe to assume that participants in a coordination mechanism share a common development goal. Indeed, sometimes one organisation is interested to push local ownership, while the other one pushes its own valuable and unique expertise. Coordination is more and more seen as an objective to aim for, not just as a means for better delivery

In our example, food assistance to Niger, the goal might be shared.
The different actors have some leeway to take decisions in country, but if push comes to shove, they are executing what their headquarters decide, sometimes in detail, sometimes only the general principles.

At the coordination table the organisations will do what they are supposed to do:

  • Pushing the mandate: Each NGO has a different political view on how society should work. This view will be different from the view of an international agency, guided by the General Assembly. Even within the UN, you might have a different focus between UNICEF and WFP on how to proceed. The goal is more to “trick” the others to your line of thought, as each partner has little authority to divert from their own mandate.
  • Dividing the loot: Coordination mechanisms are all about deciding what is important, and giving a place to each partner. In countries where there is an Emergency Response Fund or a pooled fund, the importance of getting the money becomes a matter of life and death for the organisation. If your specialised expertise is recognised as crucial to the strategy, it is like single sourcing a project.
  • There is no leadership that can enforce any compliance. You can say what you want, you don’t have to comply, the only pressure is peer pressure. This can be used to occupy a field before you are sure to have the capacity to deliver.

Moreover, the individual participants will have their own private agendas, priorities. Some might want to stay in the country for another year, others just want to leave. Alliances between institutions and friends are struck.

All these elements will be at play and deflect attention away from getting the results for the beneficiaries. In normal circumstances, the moral fibre of the humanitarian or development workers and institutions will limit the damage. With more partners, the risk to have somebody at the table who speaks only out of organisational self interest increases.

Cost of communication

In a typical humanitarian crisis, the UN classifies the aid in 11 sectors. Most organisations are active in more than one sector, so they must go to the different meetings. Agencies with a wide scope complain that up to 30 % of their in country management time is spent in coordination meetings (no hard data, no impact nor efficiency evaluations I know of). Smaller organisations could just stop working.  In an important humanitarian crisis, the number of international actors in a well funded crisis is important:  22 in Niger, more than 100 in the DRC. The number of permutations becomes infinite.
Jean-Michel Severino and Olivier Ray present this equation in a telling graph in their publication “The End of ODA (II): The Birth of Hypercollective Action”:


Should we coordinate?  Of course we must coordinate, but the objective must be more efficient aid, not coordination in itself. I would beg for more attention to levelling the playing field for all actors in the market by opening up all information, instead of trying to coordinate with everybody. Standardising information and have a transparent system for sharing is necessary for accountability purposes anyway, and could fulfil a lot of the needs that people wish to satisfy with coordination.  On the push for coordination at all costs, II would like to quote W.  Easterly in his immortal piece “Tower of Babble”:

“Coordination” and “partnership” are the equivalent in foreign aid of U.N. resolutions for world peace. Every different national donor, U.S. government bureaucracy, or private business has its own agenda, will not voluntarily sacrifice its own interests for some other organization, and there are no binding contracts to enforce any such sacrifices.

It seems Brooks’ law for development, including the caveat (“it is a gross simplification”) stands for development:

If developments results are elusive, adding an extra partner to an existing  coordination mechanism only detracts attention from getting results.

Moreover, the explanations stand in principle. In development there is also a third clause:

  1. It takes some time for the partner added to a coordination to become productive. This is is the “ramp up” time. Development programmes are complex endeavors, and new partners must first become educated about the work that has preceded them; this education requires diverting resources already working on the programme, temporarily diminishing their productivity while the new partners are not yet contributing meaningfully. Each new partner also needs to integrate with a team composed of multiple institutions who must educate the new partner  in their area of expertise in the sector, day by day. In addition to reducing the contribution of experienced partners (because of the need to train), new partners may even have negative contributions – for example, if they want to divert funding to their own organisations, or have a different viewpoint on development that move the programme further from completion.
  2. Communication overheads increase as the number of people increases. The number of different communication channels increases along with the square of the number of people; doubling the number of people results in four times as many different conversations. Everyone working on the same task needs to keep in sync, so as more people are added they spend more time trying to find out what everyone else is doing.
  3. The expected contribution of a partner to the totality – as much in expertise as in financial contributions, can be negligible, increasing the risk that point 1 and 2 outweigh the benefits of the extra partner.
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Donor projects: is money a placebo, attention the drug?

In development, local self reliance is often seen as the main long term objective, while the delivered “hardware”, bridges, roads, schooling, are just seen as stepping stones to the road of self reliance.

I would like to raise the following issue: when working with a local partner in a structured way, the donor attention sometimes has more impact than the money. This means the current indicators to measure development value, based on money spent, might be of little merit.

A classical logical framework approach, or even better, a participatory German ZOPP procedure, helps the local partner to analyse his own problems, and search for solutions. It means that in the startup phase of a project, the partner creates himself a project he fully identifies with and can believe in. Further down the line, external attention helps to keep the partner focused to reach the benchmarks of the project.
In my limited experience, the effect of the external attention to the problem at hand, has an important effect on the success of the programme, where the spending of donor money could sometimes rather distract than focus the minds.
Indeed, a limited project to address one issue in the health system, e.g. introducing a new approach to TB treatment, needs different inputs from the different actors in the health department. The donor money itself for this project is only a very limited contribution, compared to the need for focus of the higher management, the time the staff must spend on training, the cost of maintenance and use of health department buildings, etc. The mobilisation of these inputs does not depend on donor money, but on stakeholder motivation on all levels.
In a developing country the problem is often how to bring everything together and motivate the understaffed and underpaid stakeholders. One way to do it is to give recognition. The old fashioned way: doing site visits, meeting officials, holding joint events, bringing overseas visitors to a rural backwater.
Exactly these elements are, in the post Paris declaration world, classified as “transaction costs”. However, the field visits of the donor might for structural multi-stakeholder change processes be the most efficient input, while the money itself is mostly the grease to keep the machine running.
Of course, when the main problem is debt relief, or the need for a concrete bridge over a river, just paying attention will not solve much, but as social programs are more and more central in development, I just wonder whether anybody has more than anecdotal evidence on this effect, or whether I am just  a development romantic?
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Aid evolution: a system beyond planning, markets and networks

Local units obeying local incentives and rules1

I remember the bleak look of the supermarkets in Nicaragua in 1992. Only a few products were available, nearly all from the same low quality brands. So where should we buy diapers, baby toys?  I am speaking about the everyday things you need to run a household with two small kids. On the black market of course: the Mercado Oriental, where you ventured only with enough money to buy what you wanted. A market bustling with activity and offering products from all over the world. The government, which controlled a big chunk of the economy, trade, the borders, could not deliver simple products like diapers to the consumers, while the rough and bustling smugglers could.

Central in the concept of evolution is the principle that the result is not planned, but is obtained by local units obeying local rules and incentives, and each optimize their behavior to get for themselves optimal result, within the limits set by the rules. This is the secret of natural evolution, but also the way the Mercado Oriental could sell my kids a Korean bicycle.

The concept of evolution is interesting to apply to development processes, as it would turn the current paradigm on its head: a lot of proclaimed principles  work against the grain of the self interest of the actors, and by striving to commonly defined goals, the actors flock towards one-size fits all fads instead of trying to optimize the results of their own efforts. An evolutionary approach would make donors flock to high result areas, but also reward higher benefits when specializing in a less crowded area.

Beyond planning, markets and networks

Owen Barder wrote a thoughtful paper explaining exactly why it is important to move away from the current planning paradigm. In essence, the planning paradigm tries to ignore the political economy, the different interests at play in the aid environment. While a consensus is created at a higher level, the incentives to get low-level results are scant. Owen argues that instead of imposing a new plan, we should change the evolutionary pressures in order to get results where it matters, unleashing the powers of evolution by harnessing the potential of a market and network approach.

Perverse effects of joint agendas: the lemming effect.

Admitting that coordination problems are insoluble could point in a more fruitful direction, such as specializing more and then you won’t have to coordinate

As only a few aid agencies have the wherewithal for good research, the research of the World Bank and DFID is dominating the discourse on development. It is not surprising that the best course of action for a whale like the World bank is probably not the best course of action for a mountain goat like Luxembourg or Switzerland. Under the current paradigm, the Paris Declaration, this is largely ignored. All should invest more in basket funds and budget aid2. If a small donor would strive to get some expert knowledge in only a niche, like in land management in mountain areas, their credibility and added value would probable be way beyond their monetary contribution, while the value of money in a basket fund is never much beyond the nominal value. What is the best course of action for the World bank might not be the best for the recipients, nor the individual contributing donor. As the consensus tries to cover all aspects af development, it pushes the donor countries to spread their support thinly, towards all good causes. This is something where the World bank might strive for, but for a small donor it leads to a ridiculous number of small contributions.

At the same time, the current consensus leads donors to select the same donor darling countries, or the same sexy themes of gender and development. In the current paradigm, where the budget and not prior evaluation is the tool for deciding on an intervention, the donor has no incentives to search for his own niche.

The planning response to the lemming effect, where all donors fund the same interventions, is to create a trust fund, to support “underfunded” causes. A common complaint is indeed that some actors and causes are just not enough taken on board. The disadvantage of this kind of approach is its tendency to spread the money amongst all stakeholders (“more democratic than strategic”). It is just not done to judge the quality of the participating executing agencies. The possibility that nobody funds a project because of quality issues with the evidence base or the partner organisation is never really taken on board.

The social economy of incentives, rules and indicators

The current paradigm : an amount is a result; everybody using the same instruments and partners

A number is simple and authorises everybody to judge whether it is much or not. However, in development the amount invested is seldom related to the results. The drive for higher project amounts is not based on economies of scale, but rather on the capacity of donors to manage transactions. The difference in efficiency between interventions rank from micro-interventions with huge payback (e.g. the Sant’Egidio community succeeding peace negotiations in Mozambique) to huge interventions with catastrophic results (the US intervention in Vietnam?) with combination in between.

The current incentives are very much skewed to a lemming – like approach to development. A mono-culture of approaches and priorities. If an approach is “hot”, everybody wants to be in the picture and rushes to join the stampede. The incentives are important to do so. Indeed, as the electoral cycle of 4 years coincides with the rotation cycle of development staff, success is not in results, but in announcements, commitments and project start ups, in line with the issues the international seminar circuit agrees upon. You shine today, not in 4 years’ time. Everybody moved on by then. The rules on “good” donor behavior will stimulate the donors to walk jointly the same paths. The current rules that donors abide with are more about how do we do what, than what should we get to. Indeed, if the MDGs would be taken seriously as a basis, the interventions would fight child mortality directly, not basket funds based on long term comprehensive plans.

The current approach, is geared to joint photo-opportunities at coordinating events and funding complex “innovative financial products” such as pooled thrust funds, Cerfs and Errfs, with overall unclear oversight structures.This approach seems to contain risks for an elected official, as all politics are eventually local.

Like buying a government bond as an investment, following the crowd isn’t exactly a bad investment: the results will be dependable, but average. However, development needs bold initiatives, where high returns and failure are the two sides of the same coin, with evaluation as a way to flip it

From identity to added value

In development, like in business, an added investment should never be decided on the average return of the investment, but on the marginal return. What will be the real added value of a small donor topping up a World Bank effort and contribute 0.3 % to a trust fund for basket funding?  Wat is the benefit for a skilled plumber to start an Internet company, because the internet is where the money is? Would taking out a loan to invest in the internet startup be really the best the plumber can do?

What if a donor stopped caring about the effectiveness of the system as a whole, but looked at the results of his own money instead? Deciding on real evidence based results for the beneficiaries.

The main question should not be “what do the others do? ” but “where can I make a difference”. The Easterly post “Do what you are actually good at, or what you should be good at?“makes an eloquent case on New Zealand. But other examples abound: an analysis of the Netherlands development cooperation “less pretention, more ambition” advocates concentrating on what the Netherlands are actually good at, like water management, instead of just supporting the World Bank ideology of the day.

A focus on measuring and expected impact and evaluating results on a case by case basis should be central, in order to determine exactly how high the added value of the marginal investment is. The evidence base of effectiveness should replace the current set of proxy indicators for donor effectiveness, as they are contained in the Paris declaration or the Accra agenda for action.

For a donor politician, this seems an easy sell towards his voters: Our contribution to develpment will be linked to our national identity, like the Dutch building dykes, the New Zealanders training pacific students and helping sheep farming. We are our own man. And where we cannot help, yes, we just abstain or support whoever can do best.


1 The greatest Show on earth, Richard Dawkins, 2009, p 218

2 Let alone the Paris declaration is mostly based on in house World Bank research that has been found inconclusive in subsequent World Bank research reviews.

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Civil society, or perhaps mercenaries. What are NGOs?

A Grimm fairy tale

While reading the Haiti Earthquake Flash Appeal 2010, I was surprised, after all these years of talk about local ownership, to find only a few local civil society organisations mentioned in the whole document. What is wrong here? Have the poor become less empowered over the years?

In the seventies and eighties, the rural areas of Central America were stirring. There were farmers’ unions creating savings and credit unions and mutual health insurance was starting up. The organisations of the poor professionalized, and linked up on national level. With economical self reliance came more political cloud.  This was hailed as the coming of a social democratic movement, comparable to how the poor were uplifted in Europe long time ago.

In the nineties however, these membership based service organisations were in decline. The treasurer ran off with the money, or some insolvent members took the whole system down. Meanwhile, (is correlation causation?) the Credit-NGOs took off on a large scale. NGOs, led by a professional board, and hiring experts for the field work, created credit systems all over the place with donor money, not limited by the savings they could gather. As the risk in taking credit is rather limited (it is another guy his money anyway) and the risk in depositing savings in a community managed structure is high, the creditworhty poor moved to the better option, leaving the cooperatives with heaps of bad credit and angry savers.
The same happened with farmers unions. Being part of a union for legal support spreads the risk amongst the members, but using a legal support NGO is without any risk for the individual poor. The outcome is simple: bye bye empowerment. The rural client-patron relationship between landlord and sharecropper moves towards a triangle, where the landlord and the legal NGO become the patron of the sharecropper. Is he better off now? yes, without any doubt. Did the poor become more self reliant and  powerful to negotiate his rights with the landlord and the other powers surrounding him? Doubtful.
While self organizing poor can be a threat for the powers that be, NGOs seldom are, although the NGOs might speak out forcefully.
A black and white picture, and the reality has a lot of shades of gray. However, if there is even some truth in it, NGOs can be counterproductive if self reliance is the goal of aid, as they make the self-organisation of the powerless more difficult. This leads to less accountable governance, a prerequisite for a more equitable society.

Legitimacy comes in different stripes

For the sake of this article, I would narrow down the definition of NGO to the typical organisation that receives donor aid: an organisation governed by a board that is self contained and not directly responding to the beneficiaries of the services the NGO offers.
Most civil society organisation are accountable to the (paying) membership. The chamber of commerce, the church, the union, even Greenpeace lives and dies with its active membership. It are also the members who receive the benefits provided by the organisation, such as an entry to heaven, business related information and lobbying or defense of the employee. NGOs are contractually accountable only to the donor providing the funding. I would like to define civil society, for this article, as such a membership based organisation. Although the press and the academia definitively are civil society, they are not captured by this definition.
In essence, if the organisation would die without donor funding (funding by a foreign power), it is not civil society, but it is still classified as an NGO.
A third important group active in development  is the private sector as such, and we might wondeer whether the typical NGO is not rather part of the private sector.
From the governance structure you know who will call the tune: “if you ask them to paint your bathroom, they will” claimed somebody about a competing NGO in South Africa. NGOs will be more popular with donors as they can focus on delivering on their project documents: no internal democracy, no unruly membership, no delays discussing project arrangements with the membership, just flawless execution, at a transparent price.
NGOs have no democratic legitimacy as they represent only themselves, however, their legitimacy can be very strong on other aspects. They can have strong financial systems and deliver the required results. Some NGOs, like e.g. Transparency International1 and many other local and international NGOs have a very strong moral legitimacy.
Community Based Organisations can be Civil Society or NGOs, depending on the governance structure. However, when local groups are serviced by national organisations, it is only when this larger organisation can qualify as civil society (with the local CBOs as members) there will be a counter-power holding  the national government accountable. If the servicing organisation is just a NGO, there is no democratic legitimacy, and no counter-power. Supporting efficient NGOs can cause the civil society to wither and will consequently strengthen the powers that be.

The problem is that taking a shortcut, bypassing international NGOs and supporting immediately the local NGOs, will not solve the legitimacy question.

The goal of development aid: self reliance

If the goal of development aid is to support the self reliance and self development of the poor, it is important to use NGOs for their skills, expertise and moral legitimacy for strengthening the civil society, and not just for the services they deliver. Even if this civil society is less than perfect in delivering themselves. Supporting NGOs in roles that compete with the role civil society normally plays should be shunned. NGOs are important, but only to a degree. Strengthening the NGO-sector is not a valid development goal, while strengthening a democratic civil society is.
Of course, the central problem is, that accountability to the beneficiaries is mostly an aftertought, and beneficiaries might not like the donor priorities.


1 Amnesty International and the Red Cross movement are rather civil society organisations, as they are very much membership based.

See also on the goal of development and civil society: Global Dashboard: Aid: what is it good for?

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From heart of darkness; develop or civilize? to city of light

The objectives of development aid are not well defined. This is one of the reasons why it is so easy to claim that aid does not work. More narrowly defined sub objectives, like diminishing child mortality, or getting more children in schools (whatever they do there) are more specific, and success is more common and even measurable. Most often development is seen as poverty reduction, in the broad sense. however, poverty reduction does not give the full picture: development is wider. Values like respect and empowerment have only limited poverty reduction value, and they should be accepted as part of “development” in their own right. On their own, they are also better measurable than mixed up with all the other aspects.

In Conrad’s’ “heart of darkness”, Marlow, the captain,  before leaving for Africa, visits “the city of light” where he gets his contract as a captain on the Congo boat. The main discourse in that city amongst the chattering classes is not about getting rich but about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’.  As recent as the invasion of Irak, the civilizing mission was highlighted, more than the economical or even military aspects of the enterprise.
Marlow goes on:
I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.
‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,’ she said, brightly. It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.
The insensitive choice of words is not the issue here, I just want to highlight that even King Leopold’s exploitation of Congo was marketed and even bought as a noble task, aimed in the first place to transfer values.  Aren’t we development workers like Marlow’s auntie? We are still mixing up the noble development tasks and the mundane, and then claim everything is one and the same thing.  Going holistic.
Apart from the material aspects of development, there is a whole body of values that are considered as part and parcel of development. Gender equality, human rights, accountable government, the convention of the rights of the child, refer to values that are ingrained in development thinking. Most of these internationally recognized values are important on their own. When they are “taken on board” as a prerequisite for economic growth and whatnot, they end up diluted and compromised. Political correctness has linked these values to the overall development goal, mostly defined in shorthand as poverty reduction, or, economic growth. The noble values get mainstreamed instead of spearheaded.

Meanwhile, there seems to be little evidence that these individual rights and the values behind them really lead to faster economical growth, and we don’t need  a link between these separate goals. The results are bad economics, and very much compromised values.

I would like to argue for a more vertical approach, where you know that if you work on Child Protection or accountable government, you will not be accountable for economic growth, or when you work on small business development, you are not evaluated for gender equality. When you want to improve the life of women, it is often better to improve it than start an overall watch on everything everywhere, called mainstreaming. Indeed the different values and goals are  linked in some way, and a good problem analysis will show all the interdependencies, and help to choose those that must be tackled to get our results. Where values clash, it is worth to have a fight over it, and make choices instead of just smothering everything in a meaningless consensus.
It is possible that if  budgets are allocated for the separate values instead of for development as a general enterprise, countries would choose to fund only support for economic growth, or only child rights. I am not sure whether this would really be a problem, as some kind of market would be created, where a donor will have to find for a “fit” for its priorities with the recipient countries, with less demand for the more exotic choices, or for the same choice everybody else makes.

By Sam Gardner

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Can Haiti count on us? Seriously?

To cut a long story short: yes, you should donate to Haiti. How and to whom is a secondary question.

Haiti has touched a raw nerve with the professional aid cynics. A case in point is William Easterly, the champion for more accountability in aid, who is now going out of his way to praise the current wave of solidarity for Haiti.
When a catastrophe strikes the poorest and most vulnerable people in the hemisphere, you just have to help. Whether you help or not tells you who are. Somebody who knows to act on compassion or not? In the face of disaster, other questions are secondary. My main concern is whether Haiti will be able to count on us beyond the first 3-4 weeks or even 5-10 years to get out of the hole they are in.

I’m just a soul who’s intentions are good/ Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

I don’t know a lot about Haiti itself, and will refrain from an opinion on specific local organizations. In my profession, I help international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with certain projects and have overseen international agencies. I have visited and worked with local aid groups in Africa and Latin America. Most of them have a very strong internal moral culture. They take their mission seriously. Money is accounted for internally, although they might externally obscure accounts so that they can use it in ways that they perceive to better serve their mission and organisation. They are also human. Some people do become corrupt, build empires, play games of power, and slack off. Most don’t. Common as they are, any case of corruption in an NGO is a double disgrace, because it’s like stealing from the poor.
If you fund one of the UN-agencies or major NGOs for its core competency, your money will be rather well spent. These organisations are without any doubt more frugal, better focused and more motivated for their work than a lot of private sector and government services. Professionally, I am convinced that for development, only the highest standard of results for money is  acceptable. This means that improvements are always necessary. But we were talking about Haiti.

The first weeks: effective delivery of food, health and other basic services

In the first couple of days, you need search and rescue, first aid and emergency surgery. You need it quickly and professionally. You need everyone who is in the area to rush to the scene and start working. Of course this is not perfectly coordinated. You don’t have time to wait for the results of meetings on all levels. Rush in and don’t waste time. Starting from the moment when there is an appointed coordinator, the teams must just go where this coordinator tells them to go. If this wild rush for to help didn’t happen, lives would be lost. Indeed, most people die in the first day. And after three days, savings become rare. International teams are welcome, but nearly all the people who get saved are saved from the rubble by their neighbors during the first few days. Apparently the all-hands-on-deck cooperation and mutual help is the norm in emergencies, rather than asocial behavior. A joint-relief effort can be a good start to nation-building.
Next priorities are water, food and shelter, while medical attention continues to be important.1 For this kind of “bulk delivery” of aid, small is wasteful, and only clogs up the coordination mechanisms. The big professionals for this kind of aid are known: the Red Cross movement, the multilateral agencies like UNICEF and the World Food Program, and on the NGO side there are humanitarian giants like MSF and Oxfam.
Already after a few days people start rebuilding their life. Rubble removal is a first sign. The ministry of Health, supported by the international agencies, gets more control over the process.
In the case of Haiti, I am amazed that all these different countries,UN agencies, and International NGOs have managed to produce a document within a few days with all their planned activities for the first months: the Haiti Flash Appeal. Now the donors have a good overview on who does what. As most of these actors are accepted by the humanitarian community as decent organisations that can deliver what they promise, nothing stops the individual to pick his beneficiary from that list.
Are these not the moments that make you proud to be human?

Who’s country is it anyway?

The average Haitian has been a victim of his country rather than an actor in it. In other articles this sad history is highlighted. It is a story of dashed hopes and hope-turned disaster, of popular heroes staying on too long as a president and turning into dictators, of families with no other option to survive and exploit the land beyond restoration. The once-lush country is now barren. With lots of poor in it.
What was worrying me in the first week was the lack of even token respect most people talking about Haiti have for the local institutions, the civil society, the elected government and the churches. It is true that the earthquake has destroyed the very heart of the country, but still, every long-term solution will have to be one where the Haitians can take responsibility for their own future. We heard stories of heroic international rescue workers, saving lives. But the thousands of heroic stories of Haitians were left untold.
While the rushed declarations in the first week had more than a whiff of paternalism, the Ministerial Preparatory Conference in Montreal (25th of January, only 2 weeks after the catastrophe) is a document of unexpected lucidity. The government of Haiti gets the leadership role it needs to take. A long-term commitment is pledged by the main donors, based on the needs.

An election is an event, democracy is an institution: of duty bearers and rights holders

However, I still fear for the future. High-level declarations are usually just that, and my view of empowerment is not that it is something that is given by the powerful, but wrestled by powerless.
In his excellent blog, Duncan Greene from Oxfam writes the following:
There is no apolitical option: A disaster of this magnitude is also a political shock. New actors will emerge, old ones will decline, politics will shift. The spontaneous self-help groups that sprang up after the 1985 Mexican earthquake boosted independent social movements and ultimately led to the decline of Mexico’s one-party state. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolution traced its rise back to the mishandling of 1972 earthquake aid by the Somoza dictatorship.
Disaster response is not a substitute for politics. Donors won’t solve Haiti’s problems (which of course predate the earthquake), Haitians will. But the way reconstruction is designed could help or hinder efforts to tackle poor governance, mass unemployment, inequality and crime.
The government currently appears largely absent, but power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. New forces will emerge, which may strengthen or radically alter the social contract between citizen and state.
Re-building the country will be a massive effort. A lot of the physical infrastructure can theoretically be built by international enterprises and delivered key-in-the-door. However, the Haitians will still be in the same dire situation, without a dream of a decent life, even with a new hospital without working health services. With Duncan Greene I would plead to keep an eye on the institutions that lead to a better society and with every intervention to take the impact on these institutions into account.
An option nobody mentioned yet, is to tap into the successful institution-building experience of the European Union for prospect member states. Indeed, up to now the success of the EU in building stable economies and democracies from countries for all kind of stripes is remarkable. From Poland to Portugal, From Greece to Macedonia, success was not guaranteed. It is telling that the EU reserves the institution-building treatment for the “near abroad” while for countries far away, elections event management with international election monitoring tourism will do.
Interventions in the third world tend to be just that: interventions. The world intervenes and organizes an event, with massive press coverage and superstars. They call it elections. Preferably presidential elections with winners and losers. While democracy has been a story of creating stronger institutions to restrain abusive individuals, elections and even constitutions are organised to create “strong leadership”. And this is exactly what happens. Strong leaders are seeking a third term, and weak institutions cannot stop them.
Duty bearers and rights holders is UN jargon for very important principles. Poor people have human rights such as education, basic health services and protection against abuse. They will only get these rights if the civil society, the organised “we the people” are empowered to ask for it. The poor are the rights holders. And who are the duty bearers? It is the local government. Indeed, the local government should guarantee the basic rights, and be accountable for it. The same happens with the civil society: the local union or chamber of commerce is the duty bearer for the type of services they give their members. They organize the people to help them demand their rights from the powerful state or private sector boss. The government is the duty bearer, but can outsource the services if need be, e.g. to the church for education, or to NGOs.
Indeed, our aid-giving governments are duty bearers towards their own electorate, not towards the Haitians. This means that in the long run, our governments will push what their own electorate wants, and the feedback from the Haitian whether this is appropriate, will not be taken into account (otherwise our leaders would act against their mandate). International NGOs that don’t respect this dynamic will be more part of the problem than part of the solution. Local paternalistic NGOs, who only deliver services, wouldn’t be helpful in the building of an accountable Haiti. They aren’t duty bearers, and health care becomes a donation from the NGO instead of a right that can be asked from the elected government. This way universal health care is difficult to attain, as a lot of people who could fight for it, already get it. Those falling through the cracks just stay there.

With great power comes great responsibility, what are you going to do?

How fast will we forget? We should mark the date of January the 12th 2011, and every year after to ask for accounts from everybody who promised to help. How much has been spent? on what, who were the intermediaries? was empowerment of the rights holders mainstreamed in all activities? Where did every penny go? Do we get access to the reports and accounts? Is there a systematic evaluation and are there lessons learned? An institution that complies should get more money. Incompetent ones should be exposed. All too often funding decisions come from the heart while the content of reports go to the brain. We must hold our governments and NGOs accountable for the money spent and the promised results.
As an individual, you should feel good about the needs you want to address and the organisation you are going to support. The needs are plenty and most of them are vital. When the normal protection of family and society crumbles, you need shelter, health care, protection against all kinds of abuse, education, work, income…. If you browse the Flash Appeal, you’ll be amazed by the rainbow of needs and the organizations that reflect them. In March there will be an updated version, that doesn’t only focus on saving lives but also emphasizes reconstruction with the government in the drivers’ seat and with the international community as peers, and with more attention paid to local contributers. It is more a structured and coordinated inventory than a top-down plan.
So choose your cause, your quest, and research your partner.
A good place to start this research is here. Different websites (or this and this) track the behavior of organizations. Other websites focus on transparency. I don’t  know the internal workings of these self-appointed watchdogs, but I use them as a web-source, just an element in my research. What bothers me in the lists the US sites have is that they give very little attention to empowerment of the local civil society or elected officials. Do they support well-respected local communities or are they just paternalistic do-gooders? It is a complaint equally heard about official Aid from the US: when all the US-partners and consultants are paid, what is left? How can you be sensitive to the real needs if you have no local partners? I know the Haitian Red Cross supported by the red cross movement has always been there. I know Oxfam has been working for years in Haiti, just like Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, Catholic relief Services, and some others.
There is a lot of support now, and if you give to an organisation you trust, they might gather more means that they can use efficiently for Haiti. Are victims of other catastrophes less worthy? If you trust the organisation, let them reassign the money to the needs they see as the most urgent. This is what Doctors Without Borders did already a few days after the earthquake: they announced they had enough for Haiti already. Most humanitarian agencies have a “reserve fund” they can use in case of need. These funds can be mobilized within 24 hours after the impact. The juggernaut of all these funds is the Central Emergency Relief Fund of the UN, and money from it can be assigned flexibly. Most UN-agencies and even most NGOs can recieve money from this fund. To donors and the public, most of them offer their own fund you can contribute to without earmarking your contribution to a specific crisis. But don’t let anybody distract you from demanding the results you paid for.
Moreover, if you have any skills, you might consider to contact a decent organization and offer your services. For Haiti or elsewhere. Probably money is more efficient, but as I said before, it tells more about who you are if you give more than just money. For the moment the place is swarmed, and if you don’t have any specialised skills they urgently need, stay away. The rebuilding may take 10 years, so what about 2018? By then you are a certified engineer they will need.  As I said before: can they count on us? seriously?
By Sam Gardner


1 Epidemics rarely happen immediately after an earthquake. Contrary to conventional wisdom, dead bodies don’t cause epidemics, although they do stink. However, mass burials can traumatize the grieving family. Bad hygienic circumstances afterwards, e.g. by the lack of water and sanitation can cause epidemics though.

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Ethical eating in a diverse world: where angels fear to thread (final part of a series)

I am sitting on a terrace in the shade of a vine in the South of France invited by some friends. Not the kind of like-minded buddies we mistake for friends, but the kind of neighbors you know you can count on whatever happens. The day was good, and the evening is promising. Drinking a good wine and degustating some superb foie gras. Foie gras is a divine treat. It is the liver of a fattened goose or duck. The production stems from a tradition dating almost more than 20 centuries old, and foie gras is produced by local small farms, who raise their birds with love themselves and choose the fodder with care.
It is an evening to remember: what can be more rewarding than being with friends you can trust and together enjoying superb food and wine? I have second thoughts. The “gavage” or force feeding that produces the “fat liver”, foie gras, is normally recognized as inhumane treatment.
Should I make a stand, refuse to eat, educate my friends about the ethics of foie gras consumption? Shut up and just abstain myself? Or just enjoy the food and company? How would my friends percieve my breach of the laws of hospitality? How would the greek gods judge it? The jewish god would understand, but Jesus might have second thoughts.
I don’t know what to do. Although the different values touched upon are all unequivocally important, applying them all together in a real life situation is never straightforward. It does not work to use a points system for every ethical choice: 3 points for obeying the laws of hospitality, – 5 for eating an animal inhumanely fed, but +1 for having it raised in a sustainable system and another +1  for being top quality food. I might even come out winning.
The current popular culture promotes a puritanical view of life: One issue is singled out, and declared good or evil, and people can “sin” against food prescriptions. Another Spanish Inquisition is born. The use of sugar, corn syrup, aspartame, cooked food, uncooked food, meat, fish, milk, grains, have all been declared a sin against our own health and the environment at one time. Long gone are the times when only gluttony was considered as immoral, when “not what goes into the mouth is sinful, but what comes out of it”. The vegan, the vegetarian, cave man dietist, explain the complex world of wining and dining with simple answers. And chances are, those answers don’t take taste into account.
It is clear what I should have done with the foie gras: the ethical eater is essentially an asshole, who never just can let go. Perhaps we should mostly try to be just mindful about what we eat. Prepare our meals with care, chosing the ingredients with knowledge of the different choices they imply, and transform them to a nice dinner for our loved ones. And sometimes, we should just enjoy.
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Farming systems: from exploitation to stewardship and back; ethical eating in a diverse world (part 6 of a series)

Farming system analysis is at the core to what food really is. It describes the ecology of men in  nature, or the place of nature in the human environment. This is why this chapter is central in our series. As with every story, a tentative to a coherent picture is presented, while reality is much more muddled.

Domestication: a special case of symbiosis

The hunter gatherers could cook, and with this they set themselves apart from the other animals. But the impact of cooking on the environment was not an environmental revolution: humans managed to spread around the globe, invading most ecosystems, but their numbers stayed limited to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem around them. Cooking is special, but so is the capacity of beavers to create plains and marshland with their dams. So is the capacity of coral reefs to create islands. As an efficient hunter, men could cause the population of vulnerable animals collapse, such as perhaps with the mammoth. However, those animals had it coming, as they were apparently defenseless against the first capable predator. It was not the first time that a new predator changed the balance in an ecosystem.
The hunter gatherer exploits his environment: he takes from it, without too much thought about long term sustainability. Indeed, nature itself limits the crop, by limiting the number of humans to the carrying capacity of the area. Too many humans leads to too little resources, and humans die until the equilibrium is restored. This is why they prefer to roam to new hunting grounds. Once there are humans everywhere, the territorial fight for hunting grounds is of life or death importance.
In nature, a wonderful cooperation can develop between different species that are totally unrelated. Ants cut leaves to grow fungi for food, or protect aphids against predators, and are paid for it by the aphids with energy rich, sugary drinks. Birds feed from the meat between the teeth of a crocodile, and clean the teeth in the process, other birds pick parasites from cows or hippos. Plants come to the same type of relations: birches live in symbiosis with a fungus which receives sugar and provides the plant with water and nutrients in exchange. A symbiosis is a relationship of mutual support, in contrast with exploitation.
Symbiosis between two different creatures can be compared to a marriage: some are abusive, but as both parties share the same fate, making the best of it is in both sides’ interest.
This type of relationships increase the complexity of the ecosystems, bringing mutual benefits in the equation. However, primates, except for living with beneficial bacteria, are not known for developing this kind of relationship. In Symbiosis, the totality is cared for, moving away from pure exploitation to a more caring and system based approach.
According to the fossil record, for most of his history, the human hunter gatherer was not very good at bonding. But then, another pack animal was drawn to cooperate with men, and hunt together. Men and Wolves/dogs hunt together since 15000 BC. Both men and dogs adapted to the cooperation. Men by developing warm and fuzzy feelings towards puppies, dogs by changing in a lot of ways, the main trait of domestication being to become nicer to humans, or “tame”.
The mutual benefits of a symbiosis between herbivores and men are enormous. Men protect the animals from predators, and guarantee a food supply by herding or feeding in a stable, provide regular water and shelter. The animal gives his healthy flesh to the humans, after a life span normally longer than average in nature. Both humans and domestic animals have been fertile and multiplied thanks to this arrangement.
Not all animals are fit to live in symbiosis with men: initially, they had to fit with the semi-nomadic lifestyle, and be prepared to eat a diversity of food. Moroever, they should be nice and recognize the leadership of the human. Animals roving around in herds, like sheep or goat are a perfect fit for living with the early hunter gatherers. Nasty creatures, like the African Buffalo, never were domesticated.
Another kind of symbiosis requires a permanent settlement. Symbiosis of plants requires the grower to stick around for the complete crop cycle; pigs and chicken are not that easy to move around.  This wave of domestication Happened as from 9000 BC. Cats apparently only moved in with granaries and mice.
Michael Pollan has an interesting take on domestication in “the Botany of Desire”: corn might have manipulated mankind to plow fields, to sow and fertilize, all this to multiply the genetic material of corn.
While environment was destiny in the hunter gatherer days, now the farmers begin to master the environment. While over-hunting makes game more scarce, and means mostly hunger for the hunter, overgrazing with cattle can cause desertification. In order to have a decent harvest of wheat,you must clear the field from every competing plant, calling them weeds. Going beyond the carrying capacity leads to generalized environmental degradation, and loss of short and long term carrying capacity. The strategies to cope with these aspects, lead to farming systems as a response to the different short and long term challenges. Farming systems are an important element in the ethics of food, and should be treated seperately. A managed, stable farming system is a stable ecological situation, unlike the exploitation of the earlier systems.
Genetically, over time both sides of the symbiosis will adapt to get the most from the collaboration. Humans that can digest milk as an adult will thrive, while others die earlier. Meek, fast growing and productive animals will be allowed to multiply, while others get slaughtered young.

The ethics of domestication.

Domestication is a natural phenomenon, pushed to extremes by humans. As domestication is in essence an inter-species collaboration and a more complex system, it looks like a positive evolution in itself. However, “with great power comes great responsibility”: the effects on the environment can be devastating. Plant domestication of annual grain crops seems in this regard the more threatening, as it is requires a complete slash of the competing vegetation, eliminating biodiversity and leaving the soil exposed for erosion. The effects of animal domestication are less total on the spot, but over the years, it leads to a wider impact on whole regions. Indeed, sometimes bush is burned regularly to leave room for the more hospitable grasses, or overgrazing can lead to desertification. Moreover animal husbandry can cross the ethical line and degrade to animal abuse.
In this framework, it seems unethical to assign as a general rule lesser intrinsic value to domestic animals, and a higher value to the wild beings.

Only vegetation of 4-5 meters high gives a blaze that is suitable for annual crop farming: semi-nomadic agriculture or sustainable exploitation.

Undisturbed, in most areas, vegetation develops from fallow to grass to a bush and later to a forest. Under a thick bush, soil is well drained, aerated by soil fauna and roots. Moreover, the organic matter of good quality gives the soil ideal properties for agriculture and ample reserves in plant nutrients. Typical for good quality humus (the organic material in the soil) is the C/N ratio of around ten, which is the ratio typical for soil microorganisms. The part above the soil however, is high in carbon with wood or straw having a ratio of up to 100. The species in a bush are perennial, competing well in bush over the years, but not thriving in the environment of annual crops: bush species are not weeds for agriculture. The soil however is often rather acid for annual crops. The best way to restore soil fertility (make the field good for agriculture, including the soil structure, drainage capacity, nutrient content and weed competition) is to let the bush grow long enough, so you have 4-5 metres of vegetation.Sufficient for a good blaze.
Cutting down the forest and planting in the residue would mean bacteria would decompose in a hurry all the cut down material, immobilizing the Nitrogen to create a ration of ten, down from 100. Starving the crops from this vital nutrient. Termites and other insects would multiply and decimate the crops. The soil acidity would stunt growth of every annual crop. A good burn however, maintains the soil fertility, while eliminating the above mentioned problems. The ashes would bring down soil acidity, while adding Potassium and Phosphorous to the soil. After 2-5 years of culture, the amount of weeds will increase, the nutrient status goes down, the structure degrades. It is time for the farmer to clear a new plot. Adding chemical fertilizer would improve the nutrient status of the soil for some time, but the weed infestation, structure and organic content of the soil still goes down, making yields harder to get. Throwing in herbicides could stave off the need to move on for another year or so, at a cost in long term soil protection.
A slash and burn rotation, manages to maintain average soil fertility for centuries. However, with population rise, or sedentarisation, the holy fallow gets shorter. Yields go down and erosion strikes.  Where did the Maya’s go? The answer is simple: “every civilizations disappears with the 15 cm of fertile topsoil”. A more sustainable system than slash and burn is needed for building a lasting civilization.

Humus farming: sustainable intensive systems, stewardship with knowledge

In different parts of the world the conundrum of soil fertility decline was solved. This lead to stable societies practicing agriculture for centuries on the same plot, without any long term decline in soil fertility. There was not one solution, but a mesh of small measures, based on a thorough understanding of the interactions between all elements of the farming ecology. Some elements are common to those systems: firstly, as much attention to long term fertility as to short term yield, with special attention to humus economy and the valorisation of residues and secondly, the need for extensive local, even plot specific knowledge.

You don’t actually own the land, you take care of it for the next generation.

The farming system has a long term view, measuring progress in fertility in generations, not in years, in an environment where life expectancy can be as low as 25 years. This is perhaps why they must be traditionalist and have good reason to honor the ancestors.
The organic matter in the soil degrades only slowly, and you can farm in temperate climates for 20 years without experiencing a crop decline by not taking care of it. This is a common practice for farmers knowing they will sell the land, not leaving it to their children. This also means that in regions without reliable property rights, long term sustainable agriculture is an illusion. Weed infestation  too builds up over the years.
In different farming systems the humus problem has been solved by integrating animal husbandry with agriculture. Indeed, farm animals valorise mostly residues, creating on a fast track stable humus with a good C/N ratio in the process. Grass, crop residue and leaves feed ruminants, growing in places unfit for annual crops, such as the roadside or wetlands, or in between perennials like in orchards. Pigs savor sub-par human leftovers and acorns or truffles. Chicken feast on the worms and maggots living in the dung of the farm animals around the house. Farm manure, in an integrated farm in the 18Th century, was probably the most valuable animal product, with meat, milk, wool, as an added bonus.
The farms were optimized for soil fertility maintenance, maximizing the total long term production within the limited available resources. Every element in the farm was used in different ways. The willow was used for broomsticks, basket weaving, shade for cattle, drainage of wetland, fuel, nesting for mice-hunting owls, and emergency fodder for ruminants. The benefits of the willow are weighed against the diminished grass production in the shade. The system was not optimized to maximize just one crop on one field during one year.
Controlling weeds and pests happens by manipulating the environment, making it hostile for a weed species to take over. By rotating crops, the weed that do well in a certain year, gets clobbered in a next year. For instance a weed blooming in 20 days after germination will do well in an open crop, like leeks, needing a lot of weeding, but will be eliminated in a crop that covers the land well during the bigger part of the year, like clover. If necessary, the land can be covered with grass for a few years to eliminate all annual weeds and crop pests.

Minimizing the ecological footprint

In an integrated farming system with husbandry, agriculture and forestry, the ecological footprint of the total is lower than the sum of the components. Indeed, the ecological footprint of beef is said to be way above the one for grains. However, in a farming system where the cow is browsing on lots unsuitable for annual crops or eating crop residues the footprint tends to zero. Humus-farming without animals seems like an enormous waste in comparison. To keep your humus content high, you have to forage for organic matter or gather crop residue for making compost. Keep the temperature of the compost high and tumbling the product regularly to kill of germs and weed seeds. While with less work, you could have meat, eggs and milk as an added by-product, just by letting animals do the composting.
In this system the loss from leaching and export is very limited. The export from the farm is only the grain itself, no crop residue. In peri-urban areas, the nutrient in the grain returned to the land as night soil or kitchen spoils for direct fertilizing or as swine swill.

From humus farming to capitalism

At the onset of the chemical revolution in agriculture, in the old agricultural areas, the farming systems were mostly sustainable. The soil properties were near optimal. Adding chemical fertilizer to this mix was explosive: suddenly the plants were placed in an optimal environment with added to it optimal macro element nutrition. Micro elements were available in the soil already.
With benefits now depending mostly on the use of inputs in a short time span, the elements composing the old humus based farming system broke down. Indeed: soil structure can be improved by heavy plowing; nutrient status by adding chemical fertilizer; weed control can be obtained by using herbicides; it is cheaper to import soybeans to feed the cows than to make hay for the winter.
The local nutrient and humus cycle is not relevant for the bottom line of the farmer any more: by increasing the total yield, including crop residue, the humus content of the field can be maintained. Spreading 10 bags of 50 kg on an hectare of fertilizer is cheaper in labor and total cost than gathering and spreading 30 tonnes of compost or farm manure. Because of the cheap energy (to make fertilizer, transport everything, to work the field) the economical picture of agriculture has changed completely. Optimizing the farm for capital and labor, the integrated system has little chance. Through the law of comparative advantages, the different elements of production get split between farms, regions or continents.
While the integrated farming system was heavily based on ecological knowledge of the farm and the different living creatures on it, this knowledge is less of an asset in modern farming. Indeed, the solutions for every problem are similar in most cases: more fertilizer, more herbicides, more insecticide. The detailed knowledge of the benefits of crop rotation for weed control is less important. However, most farmland has stayed productive under modern agriculture, proving it is not rushing us to disaster.
The biodiversity of an integrated farming system is important, domesticated and otherwise. There is probably more biodiversity in this kind of small scale farming system, with small plots, hedges, woodlots, crop rotations than in the original climax vegetation, which is often dominated by only a few species. . Although the macro fauna (bears, wolves) might be limited, there is a lot of diversity in bird life, insects, rodents, all kind of weeds and other plants. The modern agriculture by contrast, is very poor in biodiversity. A well maintained corn crop is not a lot more diverse in biological life than a tar road.

Cognitive dissonance, alienation and the longing for the idyllic Arcadia

The humus focused integrated farming system is the image all people have when we buy milk or meat, and the dissonance with the current reality with muddy, bare feedlots, is striking. We long for an Arcadia that did not produce enough to pay for a decent life for the farmer.
The ethical question we ask ourselves when filling our shopping basket is how much deviation from the “natural”, becomes rape of the earth, the plants, the animals.
Capitalism disassembles the integrated local system and creates a global instead of local system. Soybeans for growing pigs in Denmark are imported from Argentina, Fertilizer for the soybeans in the US comes from Morocco. The sense of ownership, the holistic approach is replaced by a sense of loss.

Did we go wrong? successful modern farming and ethics.

There is no doubt that the main ethical imperative is to feed all humans, with a price affordable by the poor. The quality must be acceptable and balanced with the price.

There is equally no doubt that this is only feasible using modern farming methods, the sustainable, low-input systems of yore will just not do. In order to limit the damage to nature, it is also imperative to limit the area under cultivation, meaning maintaining high yields. Indeed, when the agricultural industrialization started, Malthusian thinking was the norm: farming systems were sustainable, but is was accepted that, with projected population growth, famine would execute population control. This did not happen. Whatever is proposed, as an ethical system to produce human food, planning for famine is not acceptable.

With benefit and pricing as the main driver, and cheap inputs to raise yields, 4 issues are not taken (sufficiently) into account:

  1. The rape of the earth through unsustainable exploitation is not checked. For instance burning down the rainforest for only a few years of annual crops
  2. The externalities from industrial agriculture. To name just a few: the decline of biodiversity, the destruction of the environment from over-fertilization, pesticides,
  3. Instrumentalization of animals, beyond what is acceptable in a compassionate society. Chicken in batteries, cows in feedlots, “gavage”, force feeding of goose.
  4. Production for remunerative markets, not based on needs. As there is a good market for meat, and poor don’t have the means to buy staple food, the food is used to produce meat (I hesitate to say raise livestock).

The environmental footprint: products or systems?

As a picture tells more than a thousand words, I refer gladly to The International Institute for Environment and Development that prepared a picture comparing how an integrated farming system produces an egg, to industrial egg production.
A comparable picture can be created for (soy) milk production and even pig raising. Of course, if you feed the chicken fish meal, soybeans, maize, the footprint of eating eggs will be higher than the footprint of eating the grains immediately (and leave the fish in the sea, using fish meal might be immoral in itself, as it exterminates all fish indiscriminatingly emptying our seas).  However, when the chicken aerate your you compost and produce eggs in the process, with only additional feeding, the footprint might be close to zero. The footprint of industrial farming  rotation of maize-soybean, with its vast fields without any biodiversity left, relying on long-lasting herbicides, over-fertilization and use of heavy machinery is humongous.
The “footprint”, the calculation of the environmental impact should never be see the product as a commodity: it should take the production, marketing and transformation system into account to produce this specific chicken in my oven. Moreover, it should not only be calculated on simple measures, such as carbon balance or water use, but also on the impact on biodiversity, or environmental damage through pollution. Also the impact on producing communities  is important. An approach of Fair miles is more indicated than just counting food miles.
As a basis for ethical choices, lists of products out of their farming systems context are worse than useless. They lead the consumer to make an irrelevant choice, and feel self righteous about it. Moreover, they stand in the way of promoting the needed changes. A product based approach would direct the farming system not to overall efficiency, but on product based efficiency on the global level. The demand for soybean would go up, monoculture or not, while the demand for integrated chicken production would go down. The final outcome would be thus more industrial agriculture.
A better approach would be to give a label to an individual product or to a farm of farming community. To the same degree a sheep grown in his natural habitat at the other side of the world (e.g. New Zealand) can have a smaller footprint than a local sheep fed with valuable grains.
Moreover, in most farming systems optimized for sustainability, animal husbandry has its place, especially milk and egg husbandry, meat as a by product. But it is impossible to satisfy the gluttony of a slab of meat with every meal without wasting valuable resources and being animal unfriendly.

The ethical consequences of a farming system approach

The question whether humans should eat killed plants or animals is not directly relevant to the issues discussed in this chapter, and shall be dealt with later.
Looking at the farming systems, ethical food choices will strive to diminish the negative impact of industrial agriculture. Some possible guidelines:
  1. Higher production per unit of area is an ethical imperative. Local if possible, global if necessary
  2. The raping of the earth should stop. Growing respect for plants and the earth must be promoted. There is clearly an ethical aspect to how tracts of land are used in a way that leads to biological death or pollution in the wider environment. Cutting down the rain-forest for unsustainable annual crops, dumping pig manure on maize fields, radical extermination of all competing soil life or plants from a farming system, leading to extreme impoverishment of the biodiversity, the use of fish meal from industrial fisheries as animal fodder are but a few examples.
  3. Respect for animals, domestic or otherwise , is imperative. Where you draw the line on ethical treatment of animals cannot be cast in stone. Acceptable treatment of humans might be a benchmark. A sliding scale can be followed, where with time, increased education and higher income, better treatment for animals is expected.
  4. From the environmental viewpoint, there is nothing wrong with eating animal products from an integrated farm. However, the current levels of meat consumption are unsustainable.

And what about Genetically modified crops?

Is there any ethical problem or just a manageable, subject to regulation, safety hazard problem with GM? I notice the ethical question is not asked when using vaccinations with GM bacteria. I would like to get better answers on this issue.

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Ethical eating in a diverse world; cultural idendity and food: from nuclear family to feasting on diversity (Part 5 of a series)

The cultural identity is based on the biology, but tastes better.

Answering the question “what do we eat” is central to our omnivorous identity, unknown by herbivores nor carnivores, as they just eat the same every day.

The major cuisines of the world compose meals from the main food groups: meat or milk products when available, beans or cabbage when lacking meat, a starch rich staple food, and some fruits and vegetables. As our body has a genetic memory of very lean times, we crave for food high in energy such as oil (fat, cream), sugar and starch. Traditional meals will limit these cravings, by e.g. limiting the deserts to the end. However, as meat has always been in short supply for most of the population, until a few decades ago,  richer people traditionally ate more meat, even more than a few times a week. Meat is worldwide still seen as an indicator of status.

Traditional meals are not “composed” on the basis of a prescription for health, although the element of balance can be found in most kitchens. Once there is enough “staple” and the question “where is the beef?” has been answered, the main element in a refined kitchen is taste. People eating food only for nutrition are frowned upon in most cultures. In times of extremist zeal however, the enjoyment of food, sex and alcohol can be forbidden or heavily regulated.It is remarkable that you can raise a child on traditional food, although the meal is not prepared following scientific prescriptions, while a modern diet taken from a magazine, or the adverts, or even a modern “ism” like veganism, almost certainly will leave you deficient for a few major elements, and overfeed in others. Even following the “food pyramid” based on food science will leave you confused. Modernized traditional meals, with more attention to vegetables instead of the traditional “all the meat we can get” approach seem to be the best available choice. The fun part is that we are not limited to our own tradition. To the contrary: diversifying into other cultures seems to improve the overall value of the diet. Even combining traditions in one meal seems to improve our level of satisfaction. And is contentment not the real fruit of a good meal, and the overall goal of civilization?

The marriage of culinary tradition with global diversity has an ethical aspect on itself: openness to the world, compared to closeness. Looking over the border and enjoy it, while not giving up your own. Your mothers’ kitchen defines your identity, but this identity can only be positive if it is a window to the world: your own kitchen gives you the reference framework to go confidently into the world of taste and other traditions, like speaking your own language well is a boon for learning more languages.

Sam Gardner

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Ethical eating in a diverse world; the taboo: to define identity by exclusion (part 4 of a series)

There might be as many taboos as people

A taboo food is a food from which people abstain for cultural or religious reasons. As the common meal is an important way to share common humanity, the food taboo is an important way to separate “us” from “them”. While the laws of hospitality join everybody around the table, the food taboos strengthen the inner circle by excluding the other. Strict adherence to food taboos makes reciprocal hospitality impossible.
Cannibalism might be the oldest taboo. It seems  that cannibalism was practiced by different groups at one stage, although direct testimonies are rare. It was mostly something told about “those people over there”. Now cannibalism is taboo in most cultures. This might be originally a health prescription and not a real taboo: diseases transmit easily by eating flesh of deceased specimen of your own species, with Creutzfeld-Jacob as a grueling example. Slaughtering healthy humans for their flesh doesn’t make you a lot of friends neither in an environment where life is nasty, brutish and short.
Taken together as a group, the religious taboos are mainly proclaimed for their power to exclude “the other”, the unfaithful. Indeed, the essence of a religious taboo is the confirmation of prejudices and often apparent illogical rule. Humans should not question the divine law. Afterwards, people weak in their faith,seek a post facto rationalization, although second guessing a Divine order is always risky. The sometimes quoted health reasons for religious taboos suffer from confirmation bias: most foods have positive and negative effects on health. Looking for an explanation for the taboo only the negative is highlighted. Indeed pigs can be carriers of illness, but in most era’s of human history the health benefits of having a decent meal with (fried) bacon were higher than the risks carried by contagious pigs.
For the nomadic early Arabs and Jews it was easy to forgo pork: hogs, due to their physiology, need water and don’t support traveling. It was the domestic animal of the sedentary farmer and the city dweller: them, not us. Moreover, there is good reason to accept that the taboo was “cast in stone” in a period of increasing water shortages in the region. Some go as far as stating that Islam has been spread mostly into regions where pigs don’t thrive anyway. Meanwhile in regions where Islam and pigs thrive, a more tolerant form of Islam with small scale pig farming is often practiced. The animal of the arabic peninsula, the goat, is meanwhile instrumental in deforestation, desertification, and making the ecology more hostile to pigs and agriculture, more prone to nomadism.
Another well known religious taboo is the vegetarianism practiced by Jain, linked to an ethical choice for non-violence. The taboo on beef-eating in Hinduism could also be explained by environmental factors: Cattle is too precious providing milk and power, to have it slaughtered for meat. In traditional agriculture, the surplus of calves for slaughter is limited. In Hindu and Jain vegetarians do eat other animal products, such as milk. Non-religious Vegetarianism and its modern pendant, veganism are discussed later.
Some cultures extend the cannibalism taboo to “friendly” species. In the Anglo-Saxons don’t eat companion animals like horses and dogs while they savor drought oxen  without impunity. This has nothing to do with flavor or nutritional aspects, it is an ethical judgment. Frogs are too prince-like to eat for the English, while the French eat them without regret.
A special form of cultural taboo are the fake health recommendations: suddenly a food gets labeled with a health risk, with little or no scientific basis. Before you know, it is conventional knowledge. A kind of nutritionist political correctness. Examples abound: carbs, fat, etc. I mention these taboos here, as they are part of a sub-culture and not really health concerns.
Some people stop eating a certain animal or plant because of the risk for extinction or the damage to the environment caused by the culture. Notorious examples are the eating of turtle eggs, eating whale meat, or the consumption of soybean or maize grown under over-fertilized monoculture. These are not really taboos, as the reason for not eating is ethical and not cultural nor religious,.

The ethics of taboos

For ethical purposes, four main groups of taboos can be identified:
  1. Private taboos, which are kept in the home. E.g. some subcultures have a taboo against soft drinks, but when they organize birthday parties or eat out the taboo is not community  enforced. This kind of taboo is ethically neutral, as it clearly considers the importance of community acceptance higher than the enforcement of the taboo. A lot of people abide in this way to religious taboos too.
  2. House rules are linked to the family: the taboo is not enforced when going out in the community, while it is expected from the others to abide with the house rules when visiting the home. This kind of taboo is coherent with the laws of hospitality. It accepts diversity, and forces everybody to face the diversity (when in Rome, do as Romans do).
  3. Missionary taboos impose themselves on the environment. The aim of the taboo is to separate oneself from the community or to proselytise the  community change its ways. The missionary taboo demands respect, but it is not respectful itself. Most strictly enforced religious taboos fall in this category. The taboo is seen as an absolute value, higher than the other values in the community. Worse: the community is defined as those accepting and following the taboo.
  4. Personal taboos: while the individual always abides with the taboo, no behavior change from the community is asked. An example can be the consumption of alcohol.

At what point do bad manners turn  into unethical behavior?

Private taboos and house rules pose in general little ethical problems, as long as the taboo does not lead to child malnutrition, health costs for the community, or degrades to a form of psychological child abuse.

Some religious leaders have taken a strong stance against missionary food taboos: “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man (Mathew 15:11).” Indeed, the general effect of a missionary food taboo is its divisive impact. It separates us from them, and attaches a moral superiority to the followers of the taboo. The taboo goes nuclear on the shared meal, bringing division at our table. Moreover the taboo diminishes freedom of choice and food diversity for an individual. By limiting the access to diversity it is limiting the development of a person to its full humanity. Due to these negative properties, the balancing positive properties of a particular taboo must be very convincing in order to be acceptable.

In a modern ethos most religious taboos are difficult to defend as a missionary taboo for their limited advantages to mankind, and the divisiveness they bring. As they have scant rational basis, their enforcement on the community as a missionary taboo is at least a show of bad taste.

Refusing to eat some food because of the negative impact on the environment is on a stronger ethical foundation. It is however, not really a taboo, as the reason for not eating it nor cultural nor religious. However, the scientific basis for these choices is often shaky. Some of these taboos are just a sign of black and white thinking or environmental myths, without attention for the nuances of reality. In this case, they are food taboos as they are a sign of adherence to a sub-culture an not a science-based ethical choice.

This aspect will be addressed in the part on farming systems. When is an environmental effect so important it should be law, when should it be “the right thing to do” and when is it just individual lifestyle choice?  When is this taboo just not important enough to go nuclear on our shared meal? What is the effect on the environment of eating meat just only once at the shared table, compared to the use of a car? In the chapter on veganism some of these elements will be further explored.

The taboos against eating animals emotionally close to us seems to have little objective ground, but the attitude of respect it shows for companions is important.

By Sam Gardner

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Ethical eating in a diverse world: at the table (part 3 of a series)

Dining together to create a common identity and as an educational tool

Dining together, is an important community-building institution. Extended family and community are less defined by bloodlines than by sharing a meal on a regular basis or on special occasions such as Christmas, marriage or funerals.  Indeed, the genetic offspring was never sure for men, but the moral offspring, those with whom the daily meal is shared,is obvious.

In some traditional hunter-gatherer societies a woman offering a man some cooked food and the man accepting it boils down to a marriage. Sex is less central to the family bond than food exchanges.

Table manners set apart insiders and outsiders. The use of utensils, sticks, cutlery or hands, the time of the meal, eating with open or closed mouth, these habits separate the people like us (class, culture, family) from the others.

Research has confirmed the importance of the shared meal. The family dinner seems to be central both as an educational tool, assuring that children do well at school and grow up to be valuable adults, as to instill a reflex in the family members to care about nutritional habits.

Looking at the importance of shared meals in historical, cultural and educational context, it can be concluded that the ritual of the shared meal has an intrinsic ethical value on its own, strenghtened when the food or the occasion are special. However, for the global citizen, it is not always clear what rituals and table manners he should use. The laws of hospitality answer this question.

The laws of hospitality, defining identity by inclusion

The laws of hospitality, common in traditional cultures, build on the sanctity of the common meal. These laws contain rules for the visitor and for the host: ” In an accurate reflection of ancient Greek culture, rules of hospitality are among the most revered social and religious laws in the Odyssey. Men are measured by the way they play host or guest, and those that antagonize the hero often do so by failing their part of this important contract. Guests are expected to bring gifts to their host, respect the house and servants, and act with grace and appreciation. Often, the guest is a source of news and bearings from the outside world and expected, in some ways, to sing for his supper. The host is then to provide food, shelter, and even money and transportation if the guest is in need. Breaking these obligations in the Odyssey is disrespectful to the gods and indicates a somewhat subhuman status”

The laws of hospitality are a way to codify the coming together of 2 identities: the identity of the guest, who comes into the house of the host, and will be invited to share the ritual of the common meal that defines the identity of the hosting family, according to their table manners. The guest will receive food and shelter, but must respect and become part of the identity of the host. The identity meaning, amongst others, what they eat and how they eat: what you eat is who you are.

The laws of hospitality, inviting people and be their guest, are still a very important ethical pillar of our day to day human interactions. While less central than in the days of yore, the laws Ulysses abode with are still valuable in the current western culture. Tinkering with the laws of hospitality changes the inherent quid pro quo in the arrangement, to a degree to make it less adapt to our modern society. Indeed, if the idea of full immersion of the guest in the identity of the host gets lost, and the guest does not participate in the sharing of the food and the rituals of the host, the walls between the cultures are not broken down: each partner keeps up his own shield and observes the other from behind it as an outsider. The new arrangement will lead to less cross fertilization and hybridisation than the tested arrangement. As the guest does not share the common meal, there is less “communion”, and less obligation for the host to defend the guest as if he was a part of the family or clan.

by Sam Gardner

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Ethical eating in a diverse world: our biological identity is cooked (part 2 of a series)

The cooking hunter-gatherer

Humans should not return to their “cave man diet” to be healthy. What a creature eats in the wild is not necessarily the best option. In the wild, the full potential of a species cannot be developed due to a lack of available nutrients, illness, competition with members of their own species, and predators. Life is poore, nasty, brutish, and short (1) . Following the diet that was feeding this crippled existence is probably not on the road to a long, happy, and fulfilled life. Biology sets the framework inside of which the individual can develop its potential. This means that it is important to investigate our roots and to know the limitations and possibilities linked to our biological identity–but please keep in mind that history is not destiny.

It is a fact that the human is (existentially) an omnivore Our gut and body need nutrients from milk or meat that herbivores can produce themselves or extract from plants. Moreover, we need nutrients that are only found in plants. Vegans have to resort to highly processed and reprocessed or even chemically produced alternatives for the nutrients from animal products. Carnivorous humans, like Inuit, need to “burn” the proteins from meat in the furnace provided by animal fat, because eating only lean meat for energy leads to “protein poisoning” and death after only a few weeks.
Negating the fact that humans are build to be omnivorous is like negating that earth is a warming globe (OK, not exactly a globe, but rather a globe than flat, you get the gist). Some debates should just be cut short.

The Professor of Biological Anthropology, Richard Wrangham, makes in his book:”Catching fire; how cooking makes us human” a very convincing argument for putting cooking central to our being. A first jump in human development happened when the social Australopithecus increased the amount of meat in the diet, this improved the quality of the diet and increased the amount of energy available for growth and brain functions. The biggest evolutionary jump however happened when we started cooking, and so more or less doubled the nutritive value of our food, while expanding the number of comestible species of plants and animals. This extra food and energy was used to build our bigger brains, leading to all this.
Cooking makes whole groups of plants and parts of animals comestible and digestible. Digestion means that we can actually use the nutrients that are enclosed into them, so they don’t end up feeding only the bacteria in our gut or beyond. Without cooking, the range of foods available for consumption would be limited to a frightening degree. We would not be able to digest cereals, and most tubers and vegetables would have the nutritional value of a fiber. This would leave us reliant on fruits, nuts and meat. Agriculture would never have taken off, while nomadism might just have worked. The earth would only be able to provide for a pre-caveman population density.

Cooking is also one of the first activities where economies of scale and specialization really count. The centrality of cooking as part of the human identity, creating a formal “meal” leads to the sanctity of the shared meal, as covered later.

An ethical system should respect our biological identity, so an absolute choice for or against a complete food group like meat or cereal negates, or chooses to ignore human nature. When there is no choice, there is neither a question of ethical options. Is it an option to forgo all meat or all vegetables? There is a choice when relying on chemically or otherwise processed additives. However, for now this is an unsustainable universal human ethical code.
However, randomly picking items of a few groups and declaring them out of bounds is possible. This will come with some cost as it does not authorize to optimize the available natural resources to their fullest extend, but these taboos come with some benefits too, as discussed later.

The dangers of blind adherence to traditional norms: history is not destiny

Richard Wrangler dedicates a chapter of his book on how cooking freed men to do something beside eating, to increase his success in his travails and create elaborate social structures. Another chapter deals explicitly with the gender balance at the advent of cooking and in hunter-gatherer societies.
The picture is ugly, where the hunter-gatherer marriage, with norms extending to our current times, is aimed at providing the hunting (or socializing) men with a cooked meal when they get home in the evening. A single woman preparing food for an unrelated man in such societies often equals to a marriage. In the end, the woman is expected to provide a cooked meal for the man. The whole relationship looks very much like a racket, where woman can escape their food being stolen by linking up to one man, who will be beating her if she doesn’t cook well enough.Traditional norms are abandoned for good or bad reasons. It may be because they stopped being relevant, as new food, such as potatoes, replace the centrality of turnips in the meal. It can be because the initial investment needed to make the social contract work can be escaped when social control breaks down, leading to an implosion of the system. It may also be because a traditional meal can only be prepared if there is one family member (e.g. a woman) full time assigned to cooking, eliminating other ambitions for this individual.
With the evolving  needs and ethics of society, the centrality of the home – cooking from scratch for the family might be questioned as an institution, thanks to the evolving technical possibilities such as deep freeze, eating out, fast food and ready made meals.

While slow food seems to be inherently more valuable, this value must be weighed against the cost to the individuals who must sacrifice their time for the preparation, and the fulfillment they get from doing so.

by Sam Gardner


1 As the copyright of the original quote has expired, I can claim this phrase of Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan) as mine.

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Ethical eating in a diverse world: an introduction

The relationship to food is at the heart of the culture which we learn from our parents. Eating is–with its do’s and don’ts and its daily rituals–a central cultural institution like literature, songs, architecture, or music.  Since eating has been confused with nutrition and dieting, it seems like the “ethics of eating” is in danger of being reduced to a simplified ethics of what you eat, with each food group or even chemical component labelled as good or evil.

In the following series  some dimensions of the ethics of eating will be explored, with special attention paid to the link between self-identity and food. The objective of the series is to map the ethical  dimensions of the daily meal within the cultural, the biological, the economical, and the ecosystem. The objective is to paint a rainbow of ethical reflections, beyond a black-and-white approach. 

 -by Sam Gardner
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Believing in the electric car

Electric cars are finally breaking through – perhaps. The electric car is ready, but there is a lot of work to be done before they become successful: habits must be changed and investments must be made for a completely new infrastructure. In this article, it is argued that it is important to make this choice rather sooner than later, and that we must live up to it.

Cars are here to stay, for now

The cities, suburbs and countryside have been rebuilt for the car. Without a car, it’s difficult to organise “normal” family life. Wrong and right choices have led to this situation. Does the current situation lead to a maximisation of “happiness” for society as a whole, and does it even lead to optimal mobility? Individual households don’t have any other choice but to use cars, and the road is still a tragic commons.

Rebuilding a new incentive system leading to a more balanced approach to mobility is a very long-term project. Meanwhile, the earth is burning and climate change could well end the world as we know it. The most urgent fight concerning mobility is to convince the world that liquid fuel (even ethanol) must be replaced by electricity. We already have the science, so it is safe to predict that this will happen. However, it is difficult to predict when. This article deals with accelerating this transition.

Elements of the discussion

Muddling the margins: Energy efficiency

Just after the first oil crisis, in 1976, Volkswagen produced the rabbit Diesel. A small car with a fuel consumption of (as I remember vaguely) 4 liters/hundred km (60 mpg). Now 30 years later, the latest Prius with hybrid technology is hailed as a very fuel efficient car, consuming 5l/100km or 55 mpg.

The golf diesel was a light car. The Prius has a lot more power and possibilities. Moreover, the standards for measuring fuel consumption have evolved. However, in general, with the liquid fuel-based cars, the future is not much different from the past. This is caused by some basic flaws in the process: Heat engines use the “carnot cycle” meaning that efficiency is limited by the first and second law of thermodynamics. Current motors have an efficiency of about 25 %. In very good situations, like a power plant, with economies of scale in a very controlled environment, the efficiency of transforming heat to useful power can be brought up to 45 %. Electric cars don’t face this limitation. The efficiency of an electric motor is already between 79 and 90 %. Including a loss of 10-25 % in the battery, it beats petrol engines hands down, even when starting from liquid fuels in a power plant.

Just like the metric system, the cost of changing from one system to another can be prohibitive, even when everybody knows the alternative would be more efficient to run. Investing in the electric car requires guts, but we’d be investing in the inevitable.

Independence from an energy source

The current paradigm for cars is limited to only one energy source–liquid fuel–with the option to use some limited mixtures like ethanol. This means that choosing your engine defines what energy source you will use for the lifetime of the car, whatever the pricing or scientific advances bring. Transforming alcohol to hydrogen or to petrol comes at a high cost and is inefficient. An electric car, however, uses the mix of the day your utility decides on,  based of the price/tax rate of the day. You can even opt for your own preferences: pure coal or only wind power. The electric car creates a much more efficient energy market and it will be easier to fight monopoly suppliers, compared to the current OPEC-based economy.

Distribution systems

The distribution system for fuel cars, with carbon based fuel, or even hydrogen, is ridiculously complicated, cumbersome, and even dangerous.

  • The fuels can burn and even explode easily. This is good when inside the motor (it’s internal combustion, after all) but transporting the stuff is risky. Moreover the stuff is poisonous when spilled and when inhaled, before and after combustion, for people and for the environment.
  • It needs to be delivered to points of sale all over the country in trucks, covering every patch of the road network. Honest. Not a lot of improvements to this system are expected. We might not want bigger or more trucks. So part of the fuel is used to truck the dangerous liquid around. Did I say it can burn and explode? Unloading the trucks is cumbersome to say the least.
  • Putting the fuel from the local tank in the car is another awkward process, where some dangerous volatile and explosive gasses escape inevitably. The thought that the engines waiting to be filled are combustion engines is not reassuring. Did I say the liquid burns and explodes?

The distribution system for electric cars would be totally different.

  • There would be a grid covering every patch of the country. You can plug your battery in whenever, wherever you want. The charging of batteries is expected to increase in speed and efficiency fast.
  • Loading the energy is just plugging in a well-protected cable.
  • If loading the batteries is too slow for your taste, you can just replace the empty battery by a full one. We do it all the time with our cameras and flashlights, if we agree on a standard of size, form and electrical properties, we can do it for our cars too. A machine will do this for us, as the batteries can be somewhat heavy (several hundred kilograms). A system where there are 3 qualities of batteries at the stations which moves the quality up at predictable intervals, would work to make the system ever more efficient.
An additional point that is often forgotten in calculations of efficiency of energy use of electric cars is that it runs on waste energy. Power plants are not just switched on and off at will. They produce more or less the same amount of energy day and night, whether there is demand for it or not. This means that we can charge the batteries with the electricity which would otherwise be wasted. Even crazier, these stacks of batteries can help to make the grid more effective, by selling electricity back to the grid during the peak hours at a higher price.

Bio fuels

Bio fuels are not relevant to the equation if we are looking for energy efficiency and environmental gains. They occur mostly in an environment of pork-barrel politics or protectionism.

Firstly, using bio-fuels in a power plant and bringing the electricity to the car will always be more efficient than putting them parallel or mixed with the other combustible liquids in the trucking system. You can even use raw switchgrass instead of transforming the biomass to ethanol (with loss).

Secondly, it is not because they have “bio” in their name that they are better for the environment than fossil fuels. It looks like the use of bio fuels from corn or from recently won tropical forest is even more damaging to the environment than fossil fuels. All externalities should be added to their cost.

Thirdly, bio-fuels should be treated as a commodity, like fossil fuel, and as a commodity chances are slim that they will be good business in agriculture. At least not with a growing human population to be fed.

Fourthly, as a strategic option for independence from producers of oil, it could be an option for wet, sunny countries (such as Brazil) but in general it is a wasteful proposition compared to energy efficiency and direct power generation from the sun, wind and water.  I can think of better uses for corn, sugar, palm wine, and rum (alcohol from sugar cane) other than filling my car.

The added value uses of bio-fuels reside probably more in the use of all kind of side-products, residues and stalks than the transformation of high value harvests like maize cobs or palm nuts. Even if the direct transformation to energy of a full crop would be economical, it would probably involve the use of perennial plants, that cover the soil for the totality of the growing season, with an efficient  photosynthesis system (such as C4-grasses). Examples would be elephant grass or sugar cane.

Changing batteries or charging them, it does not matter

The “better place” batteries can be changed in a few minutes. The Tesla batteries in 5 minutes. However, with the newer battery technologies that are available now, and will come on the market shortly, battery recharging might become a matter of minutes instead of hours. If a break of ten minutes is imposed only every 300 kilometers, this might be an acceptable safety measure against overstretched drivers. It is not a showstopper. Even the old, trusted lead-acid batteries might be up to the task in such an environment. With a leasing model for the batteries, they can improve independently from the cars they are used in, and the combetition between battery – utilities can drive the price down and the charge up.

The silent, clean  thing

Cars are not only using costly and imported oil. They make noise, causing a rise in stress levels in the cities with their never ending roar, and they bring sooth in the air, causing thousands of deaths, more than those caused by accidents. The noiselessness might be dangerous for pedestrians though, who now routinely adapt their behavior based on the auditive signals they intercept. With the ubiquitousness of MP3 players, and artificial noise made by electric cars, this argument becomes less relevant.

The pollution is not just moved to the power plants: you can switch your electricity generation to alternative sources easier than car motors, so it is easier to stimulate a change at that level: solar cells, tidal energy, and what more, can all play a role.

The cost of fuel in a shrinking economy

In the slow economy, the cost of petrol based fuels is very low. The price of an electric car and the batteries, the initial investment cost, is higher than the price of the combustion engine. The financial benefits are indeed mostly in the mileage per dollar. The initial investment cost can be prohibitive if the petrol based fuels are cheap. This investment costs will fall importantly with mass production and scientific research. As the electric car complies with important recognized objectives of the governments in the west, such as diversification of fuel dependency, carbon reduction and health improvement, it is acceptable that the government steps in with temporary subsidies to create a sufficiently large market, and to take take this initial hurdle.

And the light shone in the darkness

I saw a Tesla driving. It was like the flight of an owl. The sheer silence, contrasted with the power of movement was eerie. The Tesla is an all electric  sports car, with properties of sports car, a price like a sports car, but extremely low power needs. No kidding. Attacking the market from the top.

The electric car is here. The combustion lobby did not want to build it. The ebay-founders instead of the big car companies financed it. Tesla motors is not (yet) under bancrupcy protection, while the combustion car lobby is scrambling for government aid.

What can we do?

Breaking technological monopolies

In general, it is bad practice for a government to make technological choices: the government should set objectives on energy use, or pollution, and let the market, combined with (stimulated) research, come up with unthought solutions. However, sometimes we are locked into a bad technology, because the cost of switching is too high to take as a single consumer or private company. This is where there is a role for the government in breaking the technological monopoly and level the laying field. This kind of hurdles have been taken before, with massive layoffs and assets becoming garbage overnight, but also with a jump in quality of life, new employment and productivity: e-mail overtaking the fax and telegraph, Switching from MsDOS to Windows, from horses to cars.
If only the bump of the initial investment can be taken, electric cars could win out in the market space, as they consume less and pollute less. Once mass produced, the price of the cars would be low enough to make them affordable and competitive.
A working distribution system for the electricity has to be created that can compete with the current technology. Once the field is level, the market will drive out the inefficient and polluting systems. Leveling the playing field is a task for the government or the electric car industry as a whole: they have to provide the initial investment to make the switch. This means creating the standards for batteries, so all cars can use the batteries from all providers. The standards should leave room for innovation inside the battery, but standardize the connection to the grid, the connection to the car and how they fit to the car, to make switching a quick process. Once these elements are standardized, batteries could be offered more as a lease to car owners, with options between different providers, than as a straightforward purchase. Don’t forget that these batteries can make the energy grid more efficient, by absorbing electricity at night, and giving it back at peak needs. They even can make alternative energy options more attractive, by spreading production and consumption better over the day.
Moreover, a network of charging/changing stations must be built as before the car makers can make the cars, otherwise the cars would be useless.

Individual contributions

Do not worship false idols, know that every stage is a stage towards the full electric car. Don be sidetracked by false profets, who dont understand the second law of thermodynamics.
Plan to buy as your next car an electric car, and therefore wait another 2 or 3 years to buy your new car. If you are a decision maker on corporate or local government level, broadcast your decision to buy only electric cars in 3 years time. Even make it a legal requirement. Write cars off only after 5 to six years, so that the cost of purchase is easier offset by the cost of fuel over the lifetime of a car.
Support legislation for standardizing car batteries, making the playing field for competition level amongst car factories and battery producers, moreover putting a leg up for a distribution system.
by Sam Gardner
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Designer Baby

The knowledge of our genetic code and the technical tools to use it to our own advantage may inspire fear; it threatens the human race’s natural evolution. The consequences of these new technologies are extremely relevant, but are mostly not threatening if regulated. However, the changing science and society will need the moral tools to navigate this uncharted territory.

Nothing new under the sun: Natural Selection

In a way, humans have been genetically designed for a long time; what we see as beauty in male and female — such as beautiful hair or a smooth skin — are indicators of health, and when we have the choice, we tend to choose our partner with properties we want to see in our children.

Traditionally nature had the biggest impact on selection: with a blunt axe, it weeded young children for genetic fitness, but also for simple bad luck — like falling out of a tree without a doctor around. Selection for resistance against child death, pestilence, and disease is strong in the environment. Congenital diseases that show up after 40 are of little relevance in an environment where people rarely live long, and those genes are not eliminated — they accumulate in the gene-pool.

The kind of snapshot product from this evolution is the current homo sapiens. The variation of traits is important, since different pressures in changing cocktails of selection and preference depend on place, environment, and time.

From puck to pit bull

Would humans, when facing the possibility to select their offspring according to their whims, follow the route of the peacock, and go for all kinds of quirks? The choice of dog breeds for pets could make us fear for the worst. The selection of dogs for physical attributes is only marginally limited by nature, and we can see that humans choose for a wide range of forms and properties, apparently with scarce regard for practical needs. Dogs are selected for cute floppy ears — this leads to regular ear infections — or a deformed nose — which can lead to breathing problems. They can be big and hairy or small and hairless, or even the other way round.

However, when looking at the list of the most common dogs in the US (American Kennel Club), common sense prevails: in the first place, the friendly family dog, the Labrador Retriever; in the second place the space-conscious Yorkshire Terrier, and thirdly the trainable guard dog, the German Shepherd. When given a choice on how to chose their best friend, most people apparently choose quite reasonably, yet, there are still 158 different breeds on the list. Still, most dogs are mutts and the healthier for it.

What would the new potential for choice mean in humans? Would we create designer babies with floppy, big ears, cute wide eyes and a snout? Or would we go for a race of Nobel prize-winners, with a brain double of what we have now? A moral code seems to be necessary to protect children from the imagination of their parents or creators.

Health and clones

The blunt ax, killing children with disease and pestilence, has all but disappeared in many nations. Meanwhile, the knowledge of hereditary diseases and how to identify them even before conception, could lead to their elimination within a few generations. Health is more widely defined than what natural selection does; we want our children to live way beyond the age of fertility. This selection is even more stringent in bona fide sperm and egg donor banks. Regulation is needed to guarantee the physical and psychological potential of the genetic material.

It seems like the resistance against childhood illness will probably diminish, as the broad “natural” selection disappears, but the acute genetic problems might also disappear. And as parents choose more than only health factors from sperm or egg donors, we could possibly come closer to selecting our dream partners than the drive to breed a superior race.

However, when we go on selecting against genes for congenital diseases, will we start eliminating genes for for bad looks or stupidity? To what degree can we tamper with the gene composition of our offspring? What is decent, what is unethical, and what is criminal? Our humanity, gene pool, and cultural diversity, is created by the lottery of random processes during the meiosis — the forming of sexual cells. Turning off this process and choosing for uniformity, even for only some people, is a very fundamental choice to limit the by-nature imposed variability. This seems to be one of those moments where it would be better to be safe than sorry.

As far as health concerns go, it will be everyone’s responsibility to choose the outcome, but stronger regulation will definitely be needed. Finally, it isn’t too strong a statement to say that human genes should never be subject to the forces of the market.

Nothing new under the sun: the need to protect the child

Designer babies are already amongst us in their most basic form — by controlled genetic selection. Our impact on the genes of our offspring will grow fast. Terrible abuse is possible, and will probably happen. But as is the case with most scientific progress, if it is timely and properly regulated to protect the weakest from abuse and neglect and the megalomaniacs from themselves, the future seems rather bright.

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Saving Your Wallet and the Environment

Go for your personal interest and save the world in one go.

The green tide, a tide that was swelling just a few months ago, seems to have turned. This has happened before; the “greening of America1” in the late sixties, died from the economical realities of the oil shock. The public attention moves in waves, and an issue can go from paramount to naught in only a few weeks. When an issue rides on the top of the wave, it rakes in unnecessary and promises that should not be realized in the long term. The public faith in ethanol in 2007, for example, did not balance with the other needs of the human environment, causing basic food prices to rise worldwide.

However, it is important to remember that the green cause is more than dealing with carbon and green gadgets. There are more and more reasons to green our lives and livelihoods. Regardless of the current economical crisis, the green lifestyle needs to stay on the top of the agenda. With the current green paradigm this seems improbable. The green discourse focuses totally on global warming and asks a drastic change in lifestyle without offering direct incentives to the participating individuals; we should do it for the common good and humanity’s future. The “commons” have been very broadly defined: not the family, not the neighborhood, in many cases not even the country, but the world at large. In the economic climate of fall 2008, with families cutting back on their basic expenses, this altruistic focus won’t sell. Very strong incentives will have to be imposed by governments to make this paradigm work: it will not happen voluntarily.

Due to a changed socio-economical environment, measures that bring about economical savings or direct benefits will become more important, and the choices will depend on incentives for the individual. There will be the benefit of a more balanced debate; integrating elements of environment, economy ,and general public interest, will guide the choices towards more long-term solutions. Local environmental issues, such as air quality, noise, and biodiversity can receive a higher priority, since they are more relevant to the directly experienced quality of life.

Ecological investments make economical sense for the individual and society.

The initial investments in personal ecology make economical sense. There are ample examples of this, and most of them are well documented across the Internet. Once past the first investments, science can catch up to make the second, more important ones, economical too.

By just applying the economical logic within an ecological mind-frame, we might get very far. So, why is our average energy use not going down quickly? Why do more and more people own a personal spa, buy a second home, and as a result make all investments in light bulbs useless? One reason is because the dice are loaded against a sustainable lifestyle. A lot of the consumers’ behavior is not driven by informed economic self-interest or health concerns. Social pressure and status-seeking are major driving forces. Be honest: what is the utility of this outdoor, heated spa in winter? As a bonus, the not-so-hidden hand of the government seems to support consumption more often than eco-logic. This is also the reason why “fad” greenery and green gadgets seem to attract more followers than a balanced approach that takes all environmental and economical aspects into consideration.

It is obvious that the drive for a more sustainable society should not suffer during the downturn, on the condition that the right priorities are set and the right incentives are in place. Start with direct short term goals that make environmental and economical sense, both on the personal, local, national and global level, and move on from there.

1. The Greening of America, Charles Reich, 1970

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Galileo Day Campaign: 29 February 2012

The day to celebrate the Earth and Science

Leap day is the single day we all think about our place in the universe, and how we know that place; it honors the earth we live on and our knowledge of the science of

nature. This is why we propose to baptize the 29th of February 2012 ?Galileo Day?: a day of wonder about the beauty of the universe around us. A day to recognize the benefits of science and of the scientific method.

Finally, a day to honor the individuals who stand up for what they know is true. As Galileo Day or Earth Moves (Us) Day, Leap Day could eventually become a public holiday.

Now that the last leap day has sped us by, it is the right moment to launch this campaign as it is important to start early.

There is still time to weigh the pros and cons of such a day without the need to rush.

A day with a message Leap day is the single day where we all think about the workings of the world in the wider universe. Every person using the Western calendar will pause at least once during this day and contemplate the orbit of earth around the sun. An orbit that takes a year, that cannot be exactly divided in a number of full earth days. It is the day every person is just a bit proud that He Understands His Position on a Moving Object in Heliocentric Space, contrary to flat-earthers or geo-centrists, who share, in our mind, a place next to Neanderthals and other extinct species.

Predicting seasons is a practical skill

In the tropical hunter-gatherer societies, seasons came and went, and many of these societies used the lunar year rather than the solar year. It was rather the approximate onset of the seasons than the possibility to predict them with precision that counted. However, agricultural societies or seafaring communities, were very keen on predicting when they could expect the seasons to come. The agricultural societies tended to follow a calendar that follows the movements of the sun, and the skill of predicting the seasons was held in high esteem. Priests and scientists are the custodians of this lore, and we are still in awe of the skills of the Egyptians, Mayans, and Chinese in calculating the calendar and the orbit of the stars. It is difficult for 21st century city dwellers to grasp the urgency of the precision and difficulty to calculate the calendar up to the accuracy of the need for a leap day. Over the lifetime of a person of 60 years, leap days make a difference of maximum 15 days, while the onset of spring or the rainy season varies by more than 10 days from year to year.

In regions with a limited growing season for agriculture, 15 days can mean the difference between life and death. Only through indirect astronomical observations is it possible to define the length of the year precisely. The calculation of the calendar was a practical science for early agricultural societies. However, with the accumulation of scientific knowledge, it became apparent that the reality, as perceived by the direct senses or passed down the generations, did not correspond with the newly acquired powers of observation. The Greek seafarers and travelers already knew that the earth was not flat, but round (spherical). Near the end of the middle ages, improved observations led Copernicus to propose a new world order, with the Sun in the middle, and the Earth in orbit. As this information initially only travelled in a small circle of intellectuals, this view did not stir much opposition.

E pur si muove! And yet it moves!

This changed when the Renaissance broadened the impact of ideas: hunger for knowledge and science was boosting progress all over Europe and this knowledge was spread more widely. One of the better known proponents of the Renaissance is Galileo Galilei. Galileo was a devout Catholic all through his life. He was a typical renaissance man and well-rounded scientist: a philosopher, physicist, astronomer, and above all, the one considered as the father of the scientific method. He worked from a hypothesis, he tried to test his hypothesis through rigorous experiments, and was ready to accept the results of his experiments instead of his own cherished ideas.

Galileo improved the telescope, invented in the Netherlands, and soon became one of the leading astronomers of his time, able to disprove some long held views of his contemporary scientists. When this public figure gave his full support to the findings of Copernicus, placing the sun in the center and the earth in orbit, his enemies, who had suffered defeat arguing against him on other scientific issues, started a campaign against him. According to some of the clerics, heliocentrism, putting the sun in the center of the universe, was contradictory to the Bible and thus heresy. Galileo took Augustine”s position on the Bible: not everything was to be taken literally, even more so when the passages were meant to be poetic or symbolic. This campaign, like a modern press-smear campaign against a public figure, and the subsequent trial, forced Galileo to recant his position on an object orbiting around the sun. We are talking about the inquisition here, and he was probably glad to make it alive. According to popular legend, Galileo muttered after recanting his theory: and yet it moves?. Recognition of the beauty of the world and the benefits of science Indeed, it still moves us, the earth, spinning around its axis, spinning around the sun and around the center of the Milky Way. Galileo died in 1642 and in 1758 the Church authorized the full publication of Galileo”s work. The acceptance of the Copernican world view was postponed, but as it was grounded in reality, observation and scientific method, it prevailed. This is not the story of faith against science, it is the story of jealous competitors bringing down a brilliant man through a public campaign based on prejudice. And ultimately, the scientific method prevailed, but at a huge personal cost for the involved individual. While Galileo was banned from public life, he wrote what is now considered to be one of the main works of physics ever, and the basis of the work by Newton and others. He is known as the father of modern science, while his enemies can be said to be the at the origins of the tabloid method of justice.

Leap day, Galileo day, a day to celebrate the Earth and Science

29 February 2012: Galileo / Earth moves day. We would like to propose to baptize the 29th of February ?Galileo Day?: a day of wonder about the beauty of the universe around us. A day of recognition of the benefits of science and of the scientific method. Finally, a day to honor the individuals who stand up for what they know is true. In the schools, it would be good to highlight on this day the history of the human knowledge, and the facts on our position in the universe. Scientific institutions should certainly take a day off, and governments should allow their personnel to attend to Galileo day celebrations. Post Scriptum:

Definition of Galileo Day

The 29th of

February. A day of wonder about the beauty of the universe around us. A day of recognition of the benefits of science and of the scientific method. Finally, a day to honor the individuals who stand up for what they know is true.


h3>Call it a day

Leap Day would be a logical name, as it is already in use. However, does it speak sufficiently to the imagination? Galileo Day seems rich with images and meaning (like Columbus Day). However, Galileo is very much part of the Western heritage, and the meaning of this name might be lost beyond the people educated in the fine print of European history. Earth Moves Day is nice, but could be confused with Earth Day, held on the spring equinox or the 22nd of April. Another option would be to

allude to the centripetal force that holds us in place, and go for Rodaytion. For now, as one of the editors has just finished a divine pasta dinner accompanied by a superb Italian wine, Galileo Day is the favorite. However, we are open to support another name, depending on the quality of the associated food and drinks.

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