Ecological Efficiency, Hamburgers, and the Possible Survival of Civilization

“Efficiency” usually means the degree to which costly inputs to a process are reduced in relation to the process’s desirable outputs. This linear input-process-output model of efficiency fits well with the linear models of production, consumption, and growth that have been spreading, like cultural parasites, over the globe for the past few hundred years.

On a finite planet, though, such linear models are doomed.

Is there a measure of efficiency that could work on a finite planet? One that could guide us toward cyclic, harmonious processes rather than linear, doomed processes?

A Tale of Two Hamburgers

In the Mato Grosso province of Brazil, near the Xingu River, on the traditional lands of the Bororo indians, in the midst of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, is a 32,123-acre soybean plantation. Its borders are sliced out of the green patchwork of forest with satellite-guided precision in a perfect rectangle. Planted and fertilized by tractors, dusted and sprayed by airplanes, harvested by a swarm of massive combines, this is, in conventional terms, possibly one of the most efficient food production operations in the history of human civilization.

Field cut through the Mato Grosso forest (image thanks to Google Earth)

In ecological terms, though, it is a monster of staggering proportions. This monster stretches back and forward in time: back through the network of energy and chemicals that feeds the soy plantation, and forward into the places where the soybeans and the leftovers from their production will go.

These soybeans grow on fossil fuels, from Venezuela or Saudi Arabia or Kazakhstan, refined and shipped across oceans and burned to make the concentrated nitrogen fertilizer needed to grow soybeans in the thin post-rainforest soil. Some of this nitrogen becomes soybeans, while much of it floats into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a highly potent greenhouse gas, or runs off into rivers and eventually estuaries. The soybeans are transported to feedlots where they are fed to fattening cattle. Some of this nitrogen becomes manure and urine, and the rest becomes beef. The beef eventually comes to North American fast-food restaurants, and is turned into hamburgers. The hamburgers are enclosed in disposable packaging, money is exchanged, the hamburger is eaten, and the packaging is thrown away.

This is not the end of the hamburger. Once eaten and digested, the nitrogen whose journey through the linear food system began with fossil fuel extraction goes from a gut to a toilet to a sewage plant, and eventually ends its journey by being dumped into a river or an ocean or denitrified into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide.

This hamburger — we’ll call it Hamburger A — is a masterpiece of linear efficiency. Every step in its production and disposal may be fully optimized for maximally efficient use of human labour, capital, and even energy. The business plan of hamburger A is optimized to perfection. But, because every part and process of hamburger A begins somewhere and ends somewhere else, and the two do not connect, there is a vast impact that is outside the business plan of the hamburger, but borne by the Earth. Hamburger A is a linear hamburger of doom.

Now consider Hamburger B. It is a hamburger that could, in an only slightly different version of reality, be purchased at the food co-op on the small island where I live. It is almost a Möbius hamburger, because there’s no beginning and no end to any of its parts, but we have to start somewhere: nitrogen-rich manure from animals and humans is applied to nearby grass and grain fields. Cows eat the grass, while fertilizing it with their excrement. Grain is harvested using human and animal labour and small machines, then ground into flour nearby. Cows are butchered, and ground up in small batches. Farm and processing leftovers are recycled through composting and carbon-sequestering biofuel cycling. Flour and meat are transported a short distance, then made into a hamburger and immediately eaten, without packaging. Once it’s served its purpose in the human digestive tract, hamburger B is composted and recycled into fertilizer.

In conventional terms, hamburger B is appallingly inefficient. The localization of production and processing eliminates all the economies of scale that benefit mass production. Every step in the process is small, slow, and labour-intensive. Marketing, branding, testing, process design, and transportation all have to be figured out locally, rather than by specialists in a centralized organization.

But, in ecological terms, hamburger B is far more efficient than hamburger A, because the required adaptation of nature is minimal — it doesn’t create extractive impacts from mining fossil fuels or mineral fertilizers, and it has only very small, local impacts from the leftovers of the system’s processes. We could call this property of Hamburger B, the minimal adaptation required by the rest of nature, ecological efficiency. Under this definition, a process is ecologically efficient in inverse proportion to the amount of adaptation — present or future — that it demands in the surround bio-ecosystem.

Hamburger B is ecologically efficient, but where does that get us? In our current economic arrangement, almost nowhere.

The Economic Catastrophe

It is well known that hamburger A is a disaster, and hamburger B is where we need to be heading. Why, then, is hamburger A still taking over the world, and hamburger B still disappearing?

We can think of a socioeconomic system as a Darwinian environment that shapes the fate of its contents, in the same way that rocky environments lead to the evolution of mountain goats and the deep ocean vent environments lead to sulfur-breathing tube worms. I call this extension of the notion of selection from evolutionary theory the principle of selective systems. In an economic environment where conventional efficiency is the sole determinant of fitness, hamburger A out-competes hamburger B. This is why, in North America, hamburger B has become scarcer and scarcer, and hamburger A more and more ubiquitous, even though A is, in systemic terms, a defective hamburger that carries the seeds of its own destruction.

In biology, something like this has been dubbed a trojan gene effect: a heritable trait may confer some extra virulence and spread through a population, even though it weakens the population overall, potentially leading to its collapse. In this case, the unchecked spread of hamburger A and all that goes with it, driven by a relentless maximization of conventional efficiency, could lead to the conclusion of our current attempt at civilization and the end of the hamburger as we know it.

Conventional efficiency is driving the biosphere to the edge because to be inefficient is expensive. Our economic system is designed around the maximization of linear, economic efficiency, not ecological efficiency. There is zero economic cost for ecological inefficiency, except where it overlaps with conventional efficiency because of resource costs or where government regulation has made pollution or extraction expensive.

We all know that hamburger B is better, but still, hamburger A wins.

Hope, or something like it

Looked at in strictly political, or economic, or ecological terms, it seems that we and the rest of life on this molten, igneous, fascinating, miraculously evolving megalith are, to put it bluntly, screwed. Neither market forces, nor altruistic politicians, nor ecologically conscious consumers have come anywhere close to turning our society from its dogged march towards ecological disaster.

If we zoom out from politics and economics and ecology to look at the larger picture, the situation looks even worse. This, paradoxically, might be reason for hope. Altruism may not have to work entirely on its own.

The same linear mindset that is wreaking havoc with the biosphere is at work in human society. For example, consider the linearity of current methods of handling a person’s passage through life. In traditional societies, the elderly generally take care of the young, while those of in between years are working. Today, this cyclical arrangement is broken: children start in a hospital, are then handled by a daycare, then go to school, then, if economic and social conditions permit, to university, then they get a job, possibly have children, eventually retire, and then are exported to a nursing home to end their days surrounded by other old people under the management of professional caregivers. This is an efficient system indeed: hospitals have specialized economies of scale at baby production, daycares have economies of scale managing herds of toddlers, schools are efficient at mass production of more or less socialized teenagers, filtered by obedience and academic skills, universities continue the filtration process and allow mass selection of mates, jobs fill most of the time not occupied by sports and television, and nursing homes keep the embarrassing and unsightly denouement of the human condition from distracting the workforce.

The psychological costs of this arrangement are on a par with the ecological costs of the linear industrial food/waste system. The Earth, which bears the burden of the latter, cannot speak. The humans, who bear the burden of the former, can speak, and are very gradually coming to grips with how thoroughly their lives have been misdirected through the machinery of linear efficiency and an economic dogma that deifies the crude satisfaction of material desires while blindly ignoring the ultimate purpose that satisfaction is supposed to serve: human well being.

This is, possibly, the most hopeful thing in the world.

My Month of Eating From the Island

One year ago today I began a dietary experiment: I decided that for the month of May, I would eat only food grown or harvested on or around Cortes Island. This article is a lab report from that experiment.

A Hair-brained Scheme

When telling people about this experiment, the response was generally: “Cool!…Why?”

There were several motivations. I wanted to know the food that was on my plate. I wanted to see what it would be like, when looking at the food in front of me, to be able to see its history, to know it; to know where it came from; to know who I had to thank for the recent stages, at least, of the intricate chain of events that brought it to my plate; to know that, in its cultivation and transport, only some acceptable minimum of harm had been done to the rest of life; and to know that the economic flows that travel in the opposite direction alongside flows of nutrients — the money we pay to eat — was going where it should: to worthy, hard-working fellow islanders, from whence it could do its very small part toward local abundance.

And, too, I was curious what the effect on mental and physical health would be to eat very simply.

The plan was declared “hair-brained” by some of my acquaintances. They were right.

The Meaning of Dearth

I launched the experiment on May first, with very little preparation. On the same day, I learned a new word: “dearth”. Dearth, I found out, is the time of year when the stored food from last season has been eaten up, and the food from this season has yet to arrive. According to the local food experts and growers to whom I inquired by telephone, in this part of the world, “dearth” also means the month of May.

On Cortes, two things are unaffected by dearth: kale and chicken eggs. So, my diet became kale and chicken eggs.

Kale is a wonderful food, packed full of vitamins. You can find it perched at the very top of the what’s-the-most-nutritious-food lists handed out by health food stores. This is very good, but it turns out that vitamins are not what enables one to do things such as, for example, standing up from a chair, or walking across the yard.

What you need to do these sorts of things is calories, which the health food superstar has very few of. I discovered this experimentally when, after eating very little other than kale and eggs for three days, I no longer felt like walking across the yard or getting up from a chair once I’d sat down in it. Doing these things just seemed like a whole lot of work.

After several days of hopeful but fruitless telephone calls (while feeling less and less well fed, and eating more and more eggs) I finally found a solution in the root cellar at Linnaea Farm: potatoes. Most had been eaten or planted already, or had sprouted into long thin shrubs in the cellar, but in the back corner bin there were enough small, well-keeping fingerlings to get me through the month.

I replaced a gate post at Linnaea as a work trade, and walked off with a large bag of potatoes and some beautiful early greens from the production garden. My diet was suddenly rich and nutritious, and walking across the yard became less daunting immediately.

Discomfort Food

With potatoes, kale, eggs, and fish I had the makings of a healthy and satisfactory diet – or so I thought.

Part of the point of the experiment was to try a very simple diet. I know the labour-intensiveness of culinary creativity, thanks to learning to cook from my wonderful gourmand francophile mother who will, from time to time, whip up a batch of crepes as an afternoon snack, acting as though this was perfectly normal. I avoid culinary creativity when possible, and the only dish I’m known to be good at cooking is porridge. A local diet seemed like a great opportunity to take my nutritional laziness to the max.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was actually difficult to be satisfied with nothing but kale, eggs, potatoes, and fish. No coffee. No tea. No whipped cream. No toast with butter. No butter at all!

The problem of butter was more than recreational, because I knew I was going to be short on fats. It is also nice to have hash browns and a fried egg for breakfast, which requires something greasy, like butter, which requires access to something like a cow, which, despite my whining to the local cow owners, I hadn’t managed to get. Local butter was inaccessible, due to regulations for my protection.

Luckily, another solution was found: at some point in the past year or two, a heroic local food pioneer called Max was involved, in some way I haven’t quite understood, with butchering a sheep. As a result of this he had some jars of rendered sheep fat which he helpfully provided along with two large bags of delicious local nuts.

This opened up new culinary horizons, but they came with social complications. I have a small cabin — possibly the island’s tiniest tiny home — with a rudimentary kitchen in it. Rudimentary means that in one corner there is a nicely varnished but empty cabinet, with a sink in the top and a pipe out the bottom. That’s about it. Onto this is added a hot plate and an electric kettle. Cooking on this equipment is satisfying but very inefficient, so mostly I cook and eat out of a sort of communal kitchen nearby. This kitchen is inhabited by a bunch of people, with many different dietary preferences and requirements. Some of those preferences are, so to say, vegetable-oriented. So, when I arrived triumphant with my jar of sheep fat, and started sizzling it in a frying pan, and a powerful odour of lanolin and other obscure but very sheep-like smells began filling the kitchen, and then the house, the response was immediate.

Luckily, people who use communal kitchens are, for whatever reason, usually idealists of some kind or another. This was lucky because instead of my sheep fat being banned from the kitchen, I was treated with sympathy. As my brother said to my other brother, “just be glad you aren’t going to have to eat it”. If I was going to such extremes as to eat something so disgusting, then clearly I was, for some strange but possibly worthy reason, serious about this idealistic experiment.

Among the people with whom I share that kitchen are some very good cooks. So, in addition to fumigating them with strange carnivorous smells, getting in the way of fast-moving chefs with my never ending potato washing and kale cutting operations, and filling the refrigerator with containers of bulk-cooked potatoes, miscellaneous plants from the garden (sometimes with the roots still attached), and other precious items, I had to enjoy my spartan and repetitive menu in the middle of a parade of the most delicious-looking gourmet meals, top-notch coffee, and — worst of all — whip cream.

This was particularly notable during a two night camping trip with my family near the middle of the month. Recreational camping — that is, camping for some reason other than lack of housing — seems to be a lot about eating things. Such as marshmallows, cookies, and hot chocolate. I was prepared for this, and brought with an insulated bag full of all the local food I thought I could eat, when we headed off by boat for a remote part of the island.

On the first morning, though, as I was lying in a stupour recovering from a tent-free night providing a local fast food feast for the local mosquitoes, my brother came by. “The ravens ate your food,” he said. My sleep deprived mind refused to make sense of this statement. “What do you mean, they ‘ate’ it?” I asked, irritably, from my sleeping bag. “Well, they ate it”, he said. “You’ll have to come and see”.

They had, in fact, eaten it. At some point during the night, ravens had singled out my bag of local food among all the stores we’d brought, and tore it open. They had shredded the egg carton and carried away every single egg, cracked open two plastic containers of potatoes and nuts, and opened a bag of dried apples – my most precious ingredient – and strewn it around the camp site. Virtually the only thing intact was four cans of salmon and my jar of sheep fat.

I salvages a few of the potatoes. Between them, the canned salmon, and freshly-caught cod from the bay I made it through the camping trip. In fact, I enjoyed it. I was beginning to learn to appreciate the simplicity of local eating in fact, rather than just in theory.

The sheep fat was not bad. Fresh leeks sizzled with fat and fried into scrambled eggs makes an excellent breakfast. The experiment of eating local turned out to be more psychological than culinary. It’s astonishing how little eating has to do with getting fed. It’s even more astonishing how much of living has to do with eating! All of this becomes glaringly apparent when one is on a continuous diet of potatoes, surrounded by people whose days are hung together on large, delicious, and carefully prepared meals.

I was healthy – probably better nourished than on my normal diet – but it turns out that most of eating is recreational and social, not nutritional. It made clear to me the difference between eating a perfectly sound, healthy, nutritious, simple diet, and eating for fun – which, it turns out, seems to be the function of most food.

Health Food

There are many odd diet fads around – from “paleo” dieters gnawing on half-raw steaks, to vegan diets, to blood type diets, diets full of fat, diets with no fat, diets with “good” fat but not “bad” fat – it’s such a muddle who can say even what “health food” means? But, all diets seems to agree on two things:

  1. Don’t eat sugar
  2. Don’t eat too much grains, especially white wheat flour

Luckily, neither sugar nor wheat grows on Cortes. On the other end of the spectrum from these outlaws are the “superfoods”: a rotating cadre of specialty products that – if you believe the hype – will make you thin, beautiful and immortal, prevent cancer, cure acne, scrub your intestines, and possibly provoke enlightenment. Whether these claims are entirely reliable may require further research. Nevertheless, we are once again in luck because many of the foods that do come from Cortes – including kale, salmon, oysters, blackberries and blueberries – are frequent superfood-list members.

Local eating also promotes health in a less direct way. As one theory goes, our brains evolved to make us seek out and eat fatty, starchy, salty, and sweet things, which were less abundant than veggies and protein on the prehistoric savanna. Fast forward a million years or two, and we have all kinds of fatty and sugary things to eat, but the brain’s software hasn’t been updated in all that time, so we keep following the old instructions: all fat and sugar thou findeth, thou shalt eateth. This, among many other things, has lead to an obesity epidemic of grotesque proportions.

Luckily again, though, local dieters are spared this problem because Cortes is a bit like the proverbial savanna. Without sweet, fatty, starchy, salty things to eat, we not only eat less of those things, but we also eat less in general because we’re not coaxed to gluttony by the paleolithic nutritionists that lurk somewhere in the brain-stem.

We all know that overeating is unhealthy, especially when it leads to being overweight. But, it turns out that eating less is a good idea regardless of weight. This was born out by experiments with “caloric restriction” diets. Conducted, as usual, on rats, one study found that rats on a restricted diet survived as much as 30 – 50% longer than rats who were allowed to eat as much as they chose. Whether it’s ethical to test diets on rats is another question, but in this case researcher who did the study was so convinced by the results of his experiment, according to CBC, that he did unto himself as he’d done unto his rats and put himself on a caloric restriction diet too.

An Island of Abundance

As the month progressed, my diet became increasingly satisfactory, at times approaching gourmet. Max’s walnuts mixed with the delicious, subtle, wood-flavoured maple syrup from Cortes Gardens; A squash from Marnie, sliced raw, also with maple syrup; salmon candy from the Blocks, and the Block’s canned salmon, which is almost as good as candy; local blackberry jam, eaten by the occasional spoonful; goat milk, steamed on an espresso machine and flavoured with maple syrup; toasted squash seeds; green salad with nuts, pickles, hard-boiled eggs, and a sweet and sour honey and pickle-juice dressing; once one gets organized, the island’s bounty is enough to make a nutritious and tasty diet, even in May.

Local eating has this wonderful side effect: the ripples that come from our participation in the food chain become positive, rather than negative. There is no category of economic activity that is more worthy of our respect and support than our local farmers and food growers. Attempting to make a living (or even supplemental income) from small-scale farming in our current economic system is an act of idealism, or possibly love, but not of economic rationality.

Everything about so-called “laize-faire” market economics conspires to favour of soil-destroying industrial monocrop agriculture whose productivity is dependent on cheap fossil energy and chemical inputs, and whose externalized costs to the Earth and human welfare are largely missing from financial balance sheets.

Every dollar that’s spent locally and not sent off the island to support some other economy is a dollar that can circulate on island, making us all richer in one way or another. Because agriculture is a form of primary production, the positive effect of local spending is doubled or tripled. (Purchase an off-island apple at a local store and around twenty cents for every dollar stays on the island in the form of the store’s gross margin. Purchase a local apple – either directly or through a local store – and the whole value of the apple stays on the island.) By supporting our local farmers and food growers, we are supporting the sustainability, resilience, and prosperity of the whole island.


In the end, the most notable result of this experiment has been gratitude: gratitude for the wonderful diversity of food that we have the privilege of eating; gratitude for the gift of sustenance, and the humble plants and animals from which one can live well and fully; gratitude for the people whose commitment to soil, food, and doing things right allows us all to eat better and more ethically in this place; and a special, unexpected gratitude to those who brightened my life last May with gifts of local food from their own gardens and pantries.

We are what we eat. If we’re eating a problem, then we’re part of the problem; if we’re eating a solution, we’re part of the solution. The more we shorten the long chains of consequence that extend from our consumption out in to the world, so we can see where our footprints hit the earth, the more we can take responsibility for what we do to the planet, its other inhabitants, and ultimately, ourselves.

Charles Eisenstein, in his book Sacred Economics, says that sacredness comes with the uniqueness of particular things, particular places, particular people. Market economics emphasizes interchangeable conformity (between, for example, one picture-perfect apple an another; one ticky-tacky suburban house and another; one employee or consumer and another), and this interchangeability is the opposite of the uniqueness that Eisenstein considers prerequisite for reverence.

I don’t know if this is true (I’m sure that a Catholic would disagree that a communion wafer was any less sacred for its sameness to a few billion others), but I do know that knowing the particular story of the food I eat — what land it grew from, whose hands cared for and harvested it, where the costs, coming and going, end up — changes it. Less food becomes more nourishing, objects become relationships, and the web of connections that flows through all of us, often known as life, becomes just a little more apparent in its jaw-slackening, mind-composting awesomeness.