Small: Good? Bad? Yes! Perhaps…

I just finished reading Bill McKibben‘s “Deep Economy.”  LA Times regards the book at “mind expanding.”  It definitely had some compelling stories about the viability of local agriculture, and some nasty ones about megafarms and the staggering grip that ADM and Monsanto have on US (and to some degree, world) agriculture.  Sadly, his argument is largely anecdotal.  Sad, because in the end, I can’t tell if the argument holds water (even though my romantic side hopes he’s right).  He dismisses some classes of argument (economics, etc) when convenient, and then use that logic when it suits him.  That works fine if you’re not the sort of person who cares about details, but it tends to weaken the argument even further.  So despite his readability, he’s probably not going to change a lot of minds.  Even if he’s talking about some legit ideas.

Meanwhile, at the recent TED conference, I watched Louise Fresco sorta make bread while she talked about the progress in agricultural production.   She use Wonder bread to make a point that it represented the industrialization of agriculture, but that this was not such a bad thing, because it represented such a huge increase in production.  The idea of returning en masse to that artisan’s loaf model would mean a dramatic reduction in agricultural productivity, and doom huge numbers of people to starvation.  Bad. Poor land productivity can also lead to deforestation in the developing world.  Also bad.

So, Bill is basically telling us that small would be a lot better.  Louise tells us that small is a romantic notion that we should let go of, since going there would actually be a disaster.  Who is right, and who is wrong?

Trick question, of course.  It’s possible that both are right.  Or even that both are wrong.  Because they are not talking about the same small.  At least, that’s my conclusion after looking closely.  Bill wants us to be smaller than the massive mechanized and low labor farms common in the US.  He talks about perhaps doubling the labor content of food relative to those massive farms.  His anecdotes talked about relatively small farms with smaller equipment.  It may cost more (he acknowledges that) but can actually produce more food per acre using fewer chemicals.  This seems credible to me.  And although he often uses the term “locally grown”, he will also talk about regional food supplies, and talks about preference, not mandate.

Louise, on the other hand, was telling us that those hand-tilled farms of the good old days will not produce enough food to feed the planet.  And, having seen the village farming in Sierra Leone in January, I think she’s probably right also.  Louise also pooh-poohed the idea of locally grown food, arguing that regional would make much more sense.

I believe there is some midpoint that both could support.  Smaller than megafarm, but not as small as village farms.  Increase the labor content relative to highly mechanized US farms.  Increase the productivity, probably through modest mechanization, of the farmers and the land in developing nations.   Senegal, for example, is more mechanized and more productive than Sierra Leone.  Europe is somewhat less accepting of megafarms than the US (and, in the spirit of anecdotes, here is one) , but they have much higher land productivity than the developing world.  So, Bill is nudging us more toward the European model.  Louise would seem to be hopeful that Sierra Leone, and even Senegal, could move toward European productivity. In short, both want “sustainable”, even “thrivable” as the end goal for humans and, necessarily, the planet.

I don’t know whether Bill and Louise are pals, or if they met, whether they could find a number of points on which to agree.  I hope so, because I believe they’re both intelligent, and they both want as many humans as possible to have high quality lives.  (It’d be great if they could find ways to work together.  His populist appeal combined with her positional and academic credibility would be a formidable combo.)

I would prefer that their messages, like many messages, not be expressed in such ways that they are readily captured in conflicting sound bites.  But that’s life as we know it.  Perhaps the biggest conflict in our world today is the between the complexity of our problems and the enduring human preference for bite-sized concepts.  It’s not so much that our problems are so complex that they’re beyond understanding, but they are beyond understanding in an elevator pitch.

Maybe that’s why my blog posts tend to run long.  But if you read this far, you’ve demonstrated a willingness to invest at least a few minutes on an idea that doesn’t fit neatly into a sound bite.

“Encyclopedia of the future”

In the non-mathematical field there is wide scope for the use of [computing] techniques in things such as filing systems. It is not inconceivable that an automatic encyclopaedia service, operated through the national teleprinter or telephone system, will one day exist.

— Trevor Pearcey, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Australia, 1948. Quoted in Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age. Hat tip to the Downlode Etext Library.

Visionary thinking, 53 years before the launch of Wikipedia.

Let’s do some visionary thinking of our own, and expand the kind and amount of knowledge available freely online, and the ways of making it available.

Do you have knowledge or tech skills? Do you want to help expand the freely available, open knowledge that will help build a thrivable world and give us a chance to get us through the climate crisis? contact us by leaving a comment below.

Lean code #2: Luxury computing


Efficient code is green code, as I blogged a few weeks back. And more than that, efficient code is just really, really nice to use.

I’ve been using LXDE for a couple of months now. This is a “desktop environment” – that is, the window manager, panel, all the “GUI” stuff, that makes up the top layer of a Linux distribution. I’m using it with Mandriva (and like other major desktop environments, it also works with many other distributions).

And this is a very lightweight distribution – i.e. it’s efficient code. It’s much smaller than even XFCE, one of the best known lightweight alternatives. But here’s what it means to me:

  • Stability. The last time I restarted my laptop was about 20 days ago – in that time I have suspended and woken the machine several times every day, with no hiccups. My browser (Swiftfox, a slightly faster and lighter version of Firefox) has crashed a few times, thanks to way too many tabs, and to a document-viewing site called scribd.com. But the operating system has been rock solid.
  • Speed. I wanted a lightweight distro so that I could just open my laptop and be writing in seconds rather than minutes, before I forget the idea I’m planning to write down. I thought that would be hard to achieve, but it was as easy as installing LXDE. Plus, I rarely get the hangs and long waits I used to get with Windows, and to a lesser extent with fatter Linux systems. (If I do, it’s usually because I have a file search going that I’d forgotten about, and that’s quickly fixed.)
  • Much more flexibility. I can now keep open whatever programs I want, without upsetting the system. I always have multiple documents open in Abiword and text editors, Skype, often I have two browsers open, plus a PDF viewer and more. Even when most of the memory is in use, when Mandriva with heavier desktops would be slowing to a crawl, Mandriva with LXDE is perfectly happy and responsive. And with its smaller footprint, it’s harder to use up the memory in the first place.

Perfect, huh? Well, not quite. It’s a work in progress, and while I’m told everything works well on LXDE with Debian or other distros, I have problems on Mandriva: I have no audio, no flash video, and USB drives and external hard drive don’t work at all. I live with this for now, because the speed and stability is letting me get my work done in a way that no operating system – Windows, Mac or any Linux distribution – has ever done for me before. For the occasional backup, I can boot up in Openbox and the USB connection works perfectly. (Openbox is an even lighter option, just the window manager used by LXDE with no “desktop environment”, but it’s slightly confusing for newbies.)

At some point soon, I plan to bite the bullet and switch to Debian. But whatever system I end up using, one thing is sure – LXDE has spoiled me. I have experienced sleek, efficient code, and there’s no going back.

Footnote: In the interests of better documentation, and making life easier for newbies, I’ve been adding what I learn to the Mandriva and LXDE wikis. Of course!

Getting it: Ekopedia

It’s very striking when we meet people that really get what Appropedia is doing – why knowledge sharing matters, and why we practice radical openness and collaboration. Examples are when I heard Akvo‘s Mark Charmer talk passionately about the importance of breaking down the barriers between our silos of information; another was in 2007, on my first call with Andrew Lamb, head of Engineers Without Borders UK, hearing his lament over the many, many development organizations, each with knowledge that is not actively shared.

The most recent example is Jean-Luc Henry, founder of Ekopedia, a mostly French language sustainability wiki. Like others, he didn’t need to be converted – Ekopedia has been sharing sustainability knowledge since 2002 (well before Appropedia, which began in 2006), and branching out into multiple languages.

In the last few weeks we’ve begun talking seriously about our shared vision, and how we can work together. As a first step, we’re moving all French language content on Appropedia to Ekopedia, and all English language content on Ekopedia to Appropedia. Less duplication, more synergy – and an expression of our trust and shared vision.

With our own translation projects, starting with Clarion University’s program and expanding from there, and with like-minded people working on translation for related projects (such as OLPC), there is the potential for massively ramping up the work of effective multi-lingual knowledge sharing. If we can get funding to develop new translation tools, it could be better still.

We’ll keep you informed. If you want to join the team, please get in touch!