robertogreco + supplychains   7

Cap and Trade – The New Inquiry
"Q: Is that why the book is largely set in a forest? So much of the writing about capitalism is located in factories, fields, or counting houses. What can forests help us understand about capitalism?

A: Not all forests are just groups of trees. Much of the book takes place in the industrial forests of the Pacific Northwest. It was a center of industrial timber in the mid-20th century and is still considered an industrial forest today. Managed forests have become an important model for the industrial plantation. The sugar cane plantation of the New World was the early model for industrialization. Now when you look up the word plantation, tree plantations come up first. For me, writing about forests is a way of getting at industrial discipline.

Of course, the original New World colonial plantation haunts capitalism to this day. It is on the slave plantation that Europeans learn to create assets through the joint disciplining of people and crops. They also invented techniques to shield investors from the environmental and social consequences of the investments that they were making, often over long distances. The mid-20th century managed forest in the U.S. was a model for the intensive crop production of a forest. Weeds were removed through spraying, and the technical monocrop features of the forest were really exaggerated, even in national forests.

Q: In your essay “Gens” you make this statement of purpose along with your co-authors: “Instead of capitalism a priori, as an already determining structure, logic, and trajectory, we ask how its social relations are generated out of divergent life projects.” How did you come to this way of thinking about capitalism?

A: I came to it in part through feminist political economy. In the late 20th century, feminist political economy started asking questions about labor that weren’t getting asked, like why there were women factory workers and why certain industries preferentially hired women, or even certain kinds of women. In order to explain that, one simply couldn’t ignore complicated historical trajectories—colonialism, racism, and the way the state interacted with the family—and the way these histories intertwined to create a particular moment in capitalism. Those basic opening questions turned into fertile theoretical ground for feminist scholarship. Rather than starting from a monolithic structure of capitalism and asking about its effects, feminist scholarship asked how a set of histories congealed together to create a particular kind of economic moment.

Q: Matsutake mushrooms are very small. The mushroom trade is very small. But you convincingly argue that small does not mean unimportant. Scale is an important theme in the book. What can mushrooms help us understand about capitalism and scale?

A: We are seduced by our computers today. Computers have such an easy time making something bigger or smaller on a screen without appearing to distort its characteristics at all. It makes us think that this is how reality works. When reality does actually function this way, it is a whole lot of work to make it scale up and scale down. And it never works perfectly. The plantation chases that ideal. Its goal is to scale up or scale down without changing the manner of production at all. But doing that is an enormous amount of work, and the work is often violent.

Mushrooms turn out to be a good way to think about contradictory and interrupting scales, both in terms of political economy and ecology. In the supply chain, there’s not the same emphasis on maintaining production standards across scale. Instead, there are techniques for translating mushrooms produced in different local realities and scales into a single, uniform commodity. And these techniques never succeed completely. Ecologically, if you don’t have certain small disturbances between particular organisms, you wouldn’t have the effect of the forest at all."

Q: The book flips the geography of the supply chain we are most used to hearing about. The flexible labor is in rural America, and the buyers are overseas, in Japan. Is this a new historical period, economically speaking? How do you situate this in the context of the broader 20th century global economy?

A: I argue that there was a moment in the late 20th century when a particular model of Japanese supply chain became so powerful, it kicked over a big change in the way supply chains worked globally. Production was no longer the organizing force, which had been the case in the U.S. corporate supply chain, the predominant form before that. These changes disentangled the relationships between nation-states and powerful sourcing corporations. This disentanglement allows the rural northwestern resemble the global south in certain ways as a sourcing area for global supply chains. But the matsutake supply chain is an unusual case. If you want to find U.S. companies sourcing from other parts of the world, that’s still the dominant form of supply chain.

Q: The book seems hopeful.

A: I’ve been accused both ways.

Q: Well, it has “End of the World” in the main title, and “the Possibilities of Life” in the subtitle.

A: That’s true. We don’t have a choice except to muddle by. So that’s the hopeful part. We have to figure out what we’ve got and what we can do with it. To me, this is practical hopefulness. It is a hard line to pull off. The subtitle is not actually about hope in a traditional Christian sense of redemption. At this particular historical moment, I don’t think that makes much sense. There are plenty of people who want to use a set of philosophies or technologies to get us out of the soup. That’s tough. On the other hand, there’s just getting stuck in a big bundle of apocalyptic thinking.

The book asks us to pay attention to the imperfect situation in which we live, to recognize both the handholds and the pitfalls. Perhaps looking at this particular mushroom lends hopefulness. I’ve since realized I don’t have to go that direction. Lately I’ve been giving papers on killer fungi, the kind of fungi that grow unintentionally out of the plantation system. These fungi and other pests and diseases represent the plantation system gone wild in ways that negatively affect humans, plants, or animals. Fungus can be terrible too."
scale  scalability  capitalism  sustainability  annalowenhaupttsing  anthropology  anthropocene  2016  themushroomattheendoftheworld  growth  plantations  geography  supplychains  japan  us  forests  trees  mushrooms  nature  multispecies  labor  morethanhuman  annatsing 
october 2017 by robertogreco
Tim Maughan on Twitter: "Zuckerberg translated: I created a thing that became incredibly powerful and complex, and I now have no control over it"
"Zuckerberg translated: I created a thing that became incredibly powerful and complex, and I now have no control over it [screenshot]

been saying this for ages (as has Curtis and others) - this is now the way the world works.

We build systems so complex we don't understand them, and can't control. Instead we try and manage and reactively fire-fight small parts.

see also: all markets, supply chains, the media, algorithms, economies, day to day politics, policing, advertising..just take your pick.

How do you make sense of a system no single individual can comprehend? You lose agency and blame others. You dream up conspiracy theories.

Or you try to find one single answer or reason - and you argue violently for it - when the reality is its far too complex for that.

"It was her emails! The media! Racism! It was bernie! No, it was the russians!" It was all those things, plus x more levels of complexity.

This all sounds very 'we're fucked' and defeatist and, well, yeah. Maybe. Or maybe we can try and find ways to wrestle control back.

One thing these systems all have in common: their purpose is primarily to create and hoard capital. Maybe we should pivot away from that?

More relevant quotes re complexity, control, and automation from that Zuckerberg statement (which is here …) [two screenshots]"
timmaughan  elections  2017  2016  markzuckerberg  facebook  systems  complexity  agency  cv  control  systemsthinking  economics  algorithms  media  supplychains  advertising  politics  policing  lawenforcement 
september 2017 by robertogreco
Mitigation of Shock – Design Responses to First World Disasters
"In the last year alone, average temperatures have exceeded recorded averages month upon month, marking seven months of new highs since the end of 2015. February 2016 was recorded at 1.35 degrees Celsius above the long-term average. Migratory patterns and natural behaviours of the planet’s fauna are already changing to adapt to the new normal. Extreme weather might not directly link to climate change, but is a key indicator. James Hanson and his colleagues’ new research demonstrates how the global sea level is likely to increase “several meters over a timescale of 50 to 150 years. As climate change threatens significant change to our planet and society, what will be left of the world we have grown to know, and love?

The history, present, and future of climate change, is also the study of the history, present, and future of inequality and injustice. Will the effects of climate change reinforce or subvert the status quo?

Parallel to these questions is the gravity of predictions and anticipatory warnings from climate researchers, data scientists, and economists, which collides with the lived realities of people living in western democracies. Our lifestyles of access and abundance look set to dramatically change. Row upon row of supermarket shelves, filled with all the food you could want, from all around the world, all year round, so cheap that you can buy two for one and throw one away, will soon be in short supply.

The disconnect between scientific, data driven predictions of global warming, and the lack of immediately visible signs creates a space of cognitive dissonance, its implications unsettling and ominous. But it is also a space which offers the opportunity to confront our fears, to experiment with ways in which the shocks of the impact of climate change can be mitigated. It is in this space that we at Superflux have situated our research and design project: Mitigation of Shock.

We will design responses to first world disasters that are likely to happen in the near future, by prototyping alternatives today. Alternatives that are tools, methods, materials and commons that individuals can learn, use and share in order to gain agency and capacity to mitigate the shock of climate change.

If you are working in climate science, food insecurity, global economics, supply chains, or related fields, we’d love to talk to you."
climatechange  superflux  mitigationofshock  science  foodinsecurity  supplychains  disasters  globalwarming 
july 2016 by robertogreco
Every cup of coffee is a spectacle of logistics
"Meyer's essay is part of what seems like a still-developing genre--Paul Ford's essay on "the American room" is another example--of stories that excavate the hidden infrastructure that make everyday experiences possible. These systems are utterly prosaic exactly because they're the product of huge amounts of manpower and material working according to painstakingly developed protocols. The author's motivation for exposing them seems to be to both demystify and reenchant the world, and the attitude expressed is a mixture of admiration, awe, and dread.

Neal Stephenson's classic Wired essay "Mother Earth, Mother Board" might be the model for the genre, like Tolkien is for epic fantasy. Let's call it the "systemic sublime.""
coffee  logistics  timcarmody  2014  robinsomeyer  supplychains  systemicsublime  systems  systemsthinking 
january 2015 by robertogreco
What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Making | Quiet Babylon
"This is an era of networked wealth, going to scale, first mover advantage, positive feedback loops, virtuous cycles, high concentration, and high disparity. These are some of the intolerable conditions of the time we call (with subversive hope) Late Capitalism.


I suspect that much of this essay will make very little sense unless you believe as I do that we are beset by wicked problems exacerbated by networks of sublime scale that have been built on top of millenia of injustice chaotically interacting with good works and hope.

I do not think it is possible to feel empathy for 7 billion people. I know it is not possible to mourn the ~400,000 souls we lose to death every day on this planet earth. In a city like New York, it is not even reasonable to say Hi to everyone you pass on the street. Forget New York, it wasn’t reasonable to say Hi to everyone I passed at XOXO. There are too many humans. Boundaries must be drawn. Who are our friends, who is in the community, who gets to count. The boundaries can be drawn wider or narrower, and with more or less care. But the starting points of those boundaries are necessarily accidents of history, and history is pretty messed up.

Andy and Andy have been public about their struggles to redraw the boundaries of the community that takes part in XOXO. This year was better, they said, but still too male and still far too white. They are working to do better still if they ever do an XOXO again.

If they do, they will have to carefully consider who gets on stage and work with those people about what they have to say. Because people who make things is a broad remit. The mission of XOXO is an admirable one: to be a place where independent creators can find themselves amongst people like them; to give the participants the feeling that even though independence can be lonely, we are not alone.

But to be sat amongst a community who do not share your concerns is a terribly alienating experience, especially if the speakers on stage are claiming a we for the room that you do not feel. A greater diversity of speakers and a greater diversity of participants means by definition fewer common experiences and a more complicated we.

Chinese factory workers are not welcome at XOXO. This is a profoundly uncomfortable thing to say because it feels like punching down, but it is true. Chinese factory workers are not independent creators. What inspiration would they find in hearing John Gruber talk about Google Reader’s impact on his business model? What advice would they pull from Anita Sarkeesian describing the conspiracy theories leveled against prominent women on the Internet? What series of completely patronizing assumptions did I make when I wrote those last two questions?

Marketers, brand managers, advertising agencies, and social media gurus are also not welcome at XOXO. This feels less uncomfortable to say because it feels like punching up. Harassers are completely unwelcome and Andy and Andy took public glee in sending them away.

Community design is a tricky thing and the debate about incremental improvement vs radical transformation is far from settled. Figuring out how to ethically exclude people, how to effectively include people, and which intolerable conditions of ambient injustice to accept as given is a wicked problem. Working through it requires care and nuance and vigilance against derailment.

Derailment is when discussion of one issue is diverted into another issue. For example: if someone were to say, We need to work hard to increase the non-white percentage of conference attendees, and someone else said, Yeah, but what about the Chinese workers who make your devices?

Context collapse is an important way of making sure that marginalized people and issues aren’t allowed to disappear completely and an excellent derailing tactic. Arguing that an issue being raised is a derailment is an excellent derailing tactic.

A lot of the problems described by people on stage at XOXO would not have been problems if no one on earth should ever be at risk of starvation or lack medical care was not a radical idea. But it is a radical idea and it is not possible to mourn everyone. So boundaries are drawn and communities are constructed which help their members understand what’s possible and not everyone gets to count.

The inability to effectively address all of this is also one of the intolerable conditions of late capitalism."
timmaly  xoxo  latecapitalism  capitalism  supplychains  labor  timcook  apple  disclosure  context  contextcollapse  inclusing  exclusion  canon  derailment  conferences  complexity  boundaries  communitydesign  making  makers  scale  hope  dematerialization 
september 2014 by robertogreco
Science teacher: Buckets with holes
"Buckets come as they are, and they do one thing--they hold things. Everything, actually.

In these parts they're generally made of plastic, the residual order of plants that took in the sunshine unfathomably long ago. (Oh, I could give you a number with a lot of zeroes, but let's be honest, none of us beyond the Feynmans and the Einsteins know how big a few hundred million truly is.)

Most of the buckets in my home were likely made in China, because it's cheaper to make them there than here, even with the cost of shipping. I used to work on the docks. I've been in the hold of very big ships. If the ship is big enough, it can carry enough buckets to make shipping costs almost negligible.

But someone making a bucket in China, a long, long away, cannot possibly know why I need this particular bucket today.

But I do. So I modify it.


I bottled a bucket's worth of mead today. Eric, who loves my daughter Kerry, keeps a couple of hives in Montclair. He gave me a gallon of honey from his hive. A gallon of honey weighs about 12 pounds, a gallon of water about 8 pounds. There's a lot of stuff in honey that's not water.

Each pound of honey took over 50,000 miles of bee flight, so my melomel took the better part of a million miles of flight to make. Millions of yeast critters took the honey and converted it into mead--those surviving now sit in my compost pile in the backyard. I said a prayer for them, or maybe I said it for me, but I prayed anyway, because something good happened to me that I did not deserve.

My mead bucket has a 3/4" hole drilled near the bottom, so I can put in a plastic spigot (also made in China) that lets me drain the fermented mead in a controlled fashion.


I clam. Every couple of weeks I get enough meat from the mudflats around here to feed Leslie and me for a few days. I pray for the clams, too, as I drop them into scalding water. I have no idea what they feel, but I know what I do, and praying helps.

My clam bucket has about a hundred tiny holes drilled in the bottom. I used an electric drill.

The power to drill the holes came from Beesley's Point Generating Station a few miles north of here. It burns coal (made from old plants, but not as old as those that made the plastic for my bucket). It also uses old tires, made from rubber plants likely alive in my lifetime.

And yes, I think of these things as I muddle through my day.
I pray a lot.


I teach biology. Our desires change all the time, but our needs are the same as they have been for millenia.

Our needs come down to the stuff of plants, of yeast, of love. Most of what we need I'll never understand, but I teach a very human process that gets us closer to understanding the infinite every day.

But, of course, the infinite can never be understood.

So I pray…"
michaeldoyl  2014  systems  systemsthinking  prayer  supplychains  materials  clamming  energy  networks  zoominginandout  process  everyday  complexity 
september 2014 by robertogreco
6, 3: Seasteading
"So Jim is a blacksmith – a word I mostly hear these days in jokes about obsolescence. He lives on a small, rural island where he has the time and quiet to think and work very hard on small things that most people have not imagined. He is also one of the most globalized people I know. I’m counting people who had “major liquidity events” and whose Twitter profiles say their location is SoMa/SoHo or whatevs. Jim is narrowly specialized labor, enabled by things like oligopolistic global shipping companies.

And likewise, my family’s off-the-grid setup – solar panels, their own well, their own garden – relies on solar panel manufacturers, modern well-drilling rigs, and the internet.

Many visitors are offended by this. They have a rhetoric of simplicity that feels that e.g. buying gasoline to run a generator to have electric lights in winter is failing to live up to the promise of living in the woods. But for my family and others, that promise was never made. It’s a projection, an assumption, an outsider’s stereotype. They are not claiming or trying to be out of the world.

What do you get from living on a natural seastead oops I mean small island? Well, you get a different kind of time – a different set of distractions. Not simplicity, but a reallocation of complexity that suits some people. You get too many things to list here. The one I want to talk about is that you see your material dependencies more clearly. That is, you have to carry the gas that you buy. You know where your water comes from, even if it’s just as technologically mediated as a Brooklynite’s water – maybe more – because you have to replace the pump from time to time. It’s not that you have less of a supply chain, it’s that you pay more attention to it because you’re the last link in it. You unload your kit, your cargo, your stuff, from a literal-ass boat that goes across the water."

So here is what I can tell you: our material culture is vast. The substrate of comfortable, middle-class-as-portrayed-in-primetime American life is ginormous, far beyond anyone’s understanding in any depth. Years ago there was a Neal Stephenson Wired story called In the Kingdom of Mao Bell, from which I often think of the line (phrased in terms of Western culture, but mutatis mutandis):
For a Westerner to trash Western culture is like criticizing our nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere on the grounds that it sometimes gets windy, and besides, Jupiter’s is much prettier. You may not realize its advantages until you’re trying to breathe liquid methane.

Which is only to make a point that is easy to make but very hard to appreciate, and I have to practice making to myself in new ways all the time, re-estranging it to re-familiarize it: what we have going here, this system by which roads are paved, you can appeal a court ruling, you can just assume you got the right change back at Whole Foods, Whole Foods exists, etc., is so big and complicated that you can’t appreciate it. At best you can call upon cognitive intercessors, like thinky magazine features on the cold chain or whatever, to mediate between your grasp of the size of the culture and its reality. I say this as someone whose job is partly to look at enormous depictions of material culture – I mean staring at the Port of Tokyo–Yokohama, or Magnitogorsk, is kind of what I do all day, and I still take it for granted.

And the system has tremendous momentum. I am no historian, but my vague sense is that in recognizable form in the Euramerican sphere it goes back to things like the New Model Army and the aftermath of the French Revolution: the establishment of a bureauracy, i.e. a system of applied governance with accountability built in as paperwork and defined responsibilities, as opposed to something at best hollowed out like a nest of sticks inside feudalism.

And when I see bureaucracy around me doing things like getting all fetishistic about a piece of paper, I have to remind myself that yes, this is imperfect, but the point is that we enshrine the word, something roughly permanent and widely legible, as opposed to worshipping the squire, i.e., whatever he feels like today, that we can’t even examine directly to mutually identify and begin to debate whether it’s good. A whig history but I’m a whig."

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march 2014 by robertogreco

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