United States of Permanent War

SOURCE: Ray Songtree (rayupdates@hushmail.com)
SUBHEAD: Although they regularly promise to support peace, Washington is committed to perpetual war.

By Edward Hunt on 25 February 2017 for Lobe Log  -

Image above: Defense Secretary "Mad Dog" James Mattis and President Donald Trump in the the Hall of Heroes in the Pentagon. From original article.

As the foreign policy establishment continues to grapple with the consequences of Trump’s election, U.S. officials can still agree on one thing. The United States is a nation that is waging a permanent war.

In December 2016, President Obama reflected on the development in a speech that he delivered to U.S. soldiers at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

“By the time I took office, the United States had been at war for seven years,” Obama said. By continuing that war, “I will become the first president of the United States to serve two full terms during a time of war.”

Notably, Obama did not issue his remarks to criticize the United States. He only made his point to note that Congress had never provided him with authority to perpetuate the wars of the Bush administration. “Right now, we are waging war under authorities provided by Congress over 15 years ago—15 years ago,” Obama said.

Consequently, he wanted Congress to craft new legislation that made it appear as if it had not permitted the United States to remain at war forever. “Democracies should not operate in a state of permanently authorized war,” Obama said.

The Bush Plan
Regardless of what Obama really felt about the matter, the Bush administration had always intended for the United States to wage a permanent war. In the days after 9/11, President Bush provided the guiding vision when he announced in a speech to the nation that the United States would be fighting an indefinite global war on terror. “

Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes,” Bush explained. “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen.”

The following year, Director of Policy Planning Richard Haass provided additional confirmation of the administration’s intentions. “There can be no exit strategy in the war against terrorism,” Haass declared. “It is a war that will persist.”

In other words, Haass announced that the United States would remain at war against terrorism forever. “There is unlikely to be an Antietam, a decisive battle in this war,” Haass stated. “An exit strategy, therefore, will do us no good. What we need is an endurance strategy.”

As U.S. officials developed their endurance strategy, they also settled on a few guiding principles. For starters, U.S. officials determined that they would have to maintain some kind of permanent presence in Afghanistan.

“We’re not leaving Afghanistan prematurely,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked during the early years of the Obama administration. “In fact, we’re not ever leaving at all.”

More recently, a number of officials in the Obama administration articulated a similar principle for the Middle East. In October 2016, for example, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted that the United States would remain in the region well into the future.

 Even if the Islamic State is defeated, “it is probably not going to go away, and it’ll morph into something else or other similar extremist groups will be spawned,” Clapper said. “And I believe we’re going to be in the business of suppressing these extremist movements for a long time to come.”

This past December, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made a similar point, arguing that coalition forces “must be ready for anything” and “must remain engaged militarily even after the inevitable expulsion of ISIL from Mosul and Raqqa.

In essence, U.S. officials agree that the war against terrorism must remain permanent.

The Trump Turn
Officials in the Trump administration, who are now taking over the endurance strategy, have also remained determined to keep the nation at war. Although Trump promised during his campaign that “war and aggression will not be my first instinct,” both he and his cabinet members have displayed a clear preference for war.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who is perhaps most well known for once commenting that it was “a hell of a hoot” and “a hell of a lot of fun” to shoot enemy forces in Afghanistan, argued during his confirmation hearing that the United States should take advantage of its “power of intimidation.” In fact, Mattis pledged to increase the lethality of U.S. military forces. “Our armed forces in this world must remain the best led, the best equipped, and the most lethal in the world,” Mattis insisted.
Furthermore, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has positioned himself as an even stronger advocate of war. For example, Tillerson insisted during his confirmation hearing that the Obama administration should have helped Ukrainian military forces fight Russia after Putin had seized Crimea in early 2014. “My opinion is there should have been a show of force, a military response, in defensive posture,” Tillerson said.

In addition, Tillerson insisted that the Trump administration will not permit China to continue building islands in the South China Sea.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed,” Tillerson said.

Altogether, Tillerson argued that the United States must display a greater willingness to go to war. In the years ahead, the United States will follow “the old tenet of Teddy Roosevelt, walk softly and carry a big stick,” he promised.

Finally, Trump has displayed an even stronger preference for war. In his many public statements, Trump has essentially branded himself as the new face of the permanent war against terrorism. “Radical Islamic terrorism” is something that “we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth,” Trump promised during his inaugural address.

In short, officials in Washington are committed to perpetual war. Although they regularly promise to end war and support peace, they have spent the past 16 years transforming the United States into a nation that is permanently at war.

In fact, “the fighting is wonderful,” Trump has said.

• Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.


US Nuclear power dream is dying

SUBHEAD: In the last 20 years, the U.S. has seen only one new functional nuclear reactor constructed.

By Michael McDonald on 23 February 2017 for OilPrice.com -

Image above: Operator in the Control Room of the Watts Bar II Nuclear Plant. The Watts Bar plant named 8th biggest U.S. boondoggle ever. From (http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/business/aroundregion/story/2015/nov/25/watts-bar-plant-named-8th-biggest-us-boondoggle/337599/).

The United States was once a projected leader in the nuclear energy race. In the 20th century, the world dreamed of finding a way to provide safe, cheap, and renewable energy, and nuclear power seemed to be the manifestation of those dreams. All of this, however, seems to be coming to an end.

This past week, Toshiba decided to sell its American nuclear power subsidiary at a $6 billion loss.

Westinghouse Electric Company, an American company that Toshiba acquired 10 years ago, is in the business of building and constructing nuclear power facilities. This isn’t the first time that Toshiba attempted to offload controlling interest in Westinghouse – all previous efforts, however, have failed.

Many reasons have been cited for this sell-off. Firstly, demand for electricity has been slowing down as of late. Secondly, natural-gas prices have been declining, making it harder to justify the measures necessary to make nuclear power work – one of the primary motivators for these projects was the increasingly high cost of natural-gas.

Finally, integration of renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar) have been becoming more prevalent. Again, this makes it harder to justify nuclear energy projects.

However, the biggest barrier to entry for nuclear energy providers is the trade-off between safety and cost. The production of this type of energy can be fast and cheap, but not if companies comply fully with the U.S. nuclear regulatory body. Nuclear energy in America is simply becoming an uneconomic option.

This is problematic on the global scene for a variety of reasons, chief of which is safety standards. The U.S. remains the exemplary model to follow when it comes to regulation of new technologies.

If nuclear power in America slows down substantially, the influence the U.S. has over global safety standards wanes, and the world becomes less willing to comply with basic guidelines. Without that scale of market presence from the U.S., the industry can suffer.

This slowdown from the U.S. may be advantageous for state-owned nuclear facilities. Without America as an example, Russia, parts of Asia, and the Middle East become the example to follow – their lack of standards and regulation would be to the benefit of nuclear facilities owned by governments.

However, many privately owned nuclear facilities simply do not have the capital to sustain these plants, even when the government helps subsidize their operations. This is evidenced by Toshiba’s termination of their Westinghouse project. Projects on the private side take much longer to complete, so that safety concerns change along the way, locking them into a cycle of never ending regulation updates.

In the last 20 years, the U.S. has seen only one new nuclear reactor that is functional, constructed by a government entity – the Tennessee Valley Authority. Further, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission shows that there are only four reactors currently under construction in the entire country.

Two would be at the Alvin W. Vogtle station in Georgia, and two at the Virgil C. Summer plant in South Carolina.
These projects are implementing reactors manufactured by Westinghouse.

Construction on all four are currently delayed over three years and are billions over-budget. Westinghouse itself was one of the last private companies to be commissioned for the manufacture of nuclear reactors – before over-budget, inefficient projects such as these pushed them into ruin.

Westinghouse has said that these four projects, as well as two more in China, will be completed. But it remains doubtful that the dozens of other projects it has been commissioned to complete – and yet to begin – will ever reach fruition.

Video above: Scene from 1979 movie "China Syndrome" when operators, played by Jack Lemon and Wilfred Brimley realize that the core of the nuclear plant they are running is about to meltdown. From (https://youtu.be/fmdSBQGqfJw).


Designing a DeGrowth Economy

SUBHEAD: The religion of "Growth" is a narratives used to justify the expansion of global finance.

By Charles Hugh Smith on 24 February 2017 for Of Two Minds -

Image above: Illustration of a brain divided. A mental transformation will be necessary to adjust to a DeGrowth economy. From (https://co-munity.net/growl/events/mental-infrastructures-and-degrowth-transformation).

The conventional objections to DeGrowth boil down to: "It isn't the status quo, so it can't work."

Actually, it's the status quo that isn't working.

I've written about DeGrowth for many years, including  Degrowth, Anti-Consumerism and Peak Consumption (May 9, 2013), Degrowth Solutions: Half-Farmer, Half-X (July 19, 2014) and And the Next Big Thing Is ... Degrowth? (April 7, 2014)

These are the basic concepts of Degrowth:
  1.  Consumerism is psychological/ spiritual junk food (French: malbouffe ) that actively reduces well-being ( bien-etre ) rather than increases it.

  2. Better rather than more: well-being is increased by everything that cannot be commoditized by a market economy or financialized by a cartel-state financial machine-- friendship, family, community, self-cultivation. The goal of economic and social growth should be better, not more. On a national scale, the cancerous-growth measured by gross domestic product (GDP) should be replaced with gross domestic happiness/ gross national happiness (GNH).

  3. A recognition that resources are not infinite, despite claims to the contrary. For one example of many: China Is Plundering the Planet's Seas ( The Atlantic ). Indeed, all the evidence suggests that access to cheap energy only speeds up the depletion and despoliation of every other resource.

  4. The unsustainability of consumerist "growth" that's dependent on resource depletion funded by financialization (i.e. the endless expansion of credit and phantom collateral). This is covered in greater depth in my short book Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform).
  5. The diminishing returns on private consumption and "bridges to nowhere" (crony-capitalist public consumption).

  6. The failure of neoliberal capitalism and communism alike in their pursuit of growth at any cost.
Degrowth is heresy in what John Michael Greer calls the religion of progress (i.e. growth). The faith that growth equals progress is akin to the Cargo Cult of Keynesianism, the notion that expanding debt exponentially to drive diminishing returns of growth is not only necessary but a moral imperative.

Both the religion of growth and its Cargo Cult are narratives used to justify the expansion of global finance via financialization.

Expanding capital, profits and power is the key driver, and the religion of growth is merely the public-relations narrative that mesmerizes the debt-serfs, political toadies and media sycophants.

This leads to a fundamental question: how do we design a system that enables us to do more with less of everything ? How do we design a system that incentivizes doing more with less rather than squandering resources via optimizing human greed?

A DeGrowth economy must fulfill two requirements:

  1. The DeGrowth economy must provide paid-work livelihoods and opportunities for everyone who wants them.
  2. The DeGrowth economy must institutionalize a decentralized, democratic, self-organizing process to allocate human, social, resource and financial capital as an alternative to centralized states/banks and profit-maximizing corporations.
These arise from three key insights:

1. If we don't change the way we create and distribute money, we change nothing .

2. Not everything that is valuable is profitable , and so maximizing profit is not the sole arbiter of "value," nor is it a sound process for allocating labor and capital for everything that has value but isn't profitable.

3. Centralization undermines democracy and generates privilege, inequality, insecurity, conflict and waste by its very nature. (I discuss this further in my short book Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege .)

Image above: A boy in the Far East plays in industrial ditritus at the edge of the sea. Does this look like a world with plenty of room for everything to expand? From original article.

DeGrowth requires two intertwined systems: a decentralized, localized, globally connected network of self-organizing productive "tribes" whose labor generates a global labor-backed crypto-currency .

I describe such a system in my book A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology & Creating Jobs for All .

DeGrowth is coming whether we like it or not or plan for it or not. Our choice is to blind ourselves to the implosion of the "growth" status quo and squander the opportunity to create an economic system that thrives in DeGrowth, or accept the end-game of financialized "growth" and embrace the technological tools that enable decentralized, localized, globally connected networks funded by a labor-backed crypto-currency .

The conventional objections to DeGrowth boil down to: it isn't the status quo, so it can't possibly work. Actually, it's the status quo that isn't working , and DeGrowth is the result of that simple yet profound reality.


Brace for Impact

SUBHEAD: It is time to focus on building a movement for adaptation to climate change.

By Daniel M. Voskoboynik on 22 February 2017 for New Internationalist -

Image above: Turkana women carry canisters to get water from a borehole near Baragoy, Kenya. Photo by Goran Tomasevic. From original article.

Responding to climate change is not just about curbing emissions, but also adapting to what has already changed.

The fight to tackle climate change has two core branches: mitigation (curbing excessive greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (addressing the effects of climate change that are already unfolding). But although both areas are needed, the public tends to focus on the former in discussions on climate change.

The pressing priority is always to pull down emissions. Climate change is portrayed a future threat and our responsibility to act is framed in reference to our children and grandchildren. If environmental ruin is already here, it is deemed marginal compared to the tempests amassing on the horizon.

But this uneven focus on the future understates the gravity of present impacts. Today, climate change accounts for 87 per cent of disasters worldwide. Some of the worst droughts in decades are continuing to unravel across southeastern Africa and Latin America. Cyclonic storms, floods, wildfires, and landslides are bearing on the world’s most vulnerable populations.

The sudden violence of disasters is paralleled by the brutality of gradual change. Coastlines are being shaved and eroded by rising tides. The encroachment of sea water is increasing the salinity of littoral lands, leaving them withered and infertile. Rain patterns are shifting, shattering the millions who rely on the sky for sustenance. Every second, one person is forced to flee their home due to extreme climactic conditions.

This context of daily displacement and desolation means that the fight to tackle climate change today is fundamentally a fight to determine the fatality of the future. Yet adaptation, the crucial tool in that fight, has been side-lined and neglected.

So what is adaptation?

Adaptation means preparing our society for the climatic threats it faces and will face, insofar as we can.

It means weaving safety nets for the world’s most vulnerable populations.

It means bolstering river embankments, introducing measures to prevent diseases, building water-resistant infrastructure, expanding storm sewers and water storage, extending insurance, implementing disaster early-warning systems, and introducing a range of measures to palliate damage.

Some adaptation initiatives are already underway. From the Cook Islands to Morocco, farmers are adjusting practices and diversifying crops, to create a more climate-resilient agriculture. Current agricultural models, where monocultures breed vulnerability, are being transformed into biodiverse agrosystems.

In flood-prone areas, like Delaware, urban planners and citizens are re-engineering and re-designing neighborhoods to reduce the risk of inundation and future sea level rise.

In urban areas prone to intense heat, like the Indian city of Ahmedabad (which lost 1,300 citizens to a 2010 extreme heat wave), municipal officials are implementing heat action plans which train health workers, distribute cooling supplies, open public areas for shade, and raise public awareness.

In some areas, the only plausible form of adaptation is abandonment. In Fiji, villages such as Vunidogola are already being relocated after Cyclone Winston and other disasters devastated a number of settlements – while rising sea levels provide an additional layer of risk. The Fijian state has listed relocation as a top priority for the government.

A decade ago, the Maldivian government also organized a ‘staged retreat’, concentrating populations away from secluded islands threatened by rising sea levels.

In Alaska, the citizens of Newtok have applied for federal disaster relief to finance their own relocation, as thawing permafrost erodes the land under their feet, pulling the village towards the Ninglick River.

In China, the government has relocated over a million people away from areas governed by environmental hazards.

But adaptation is not just a technical exercise; it is also a struggle to shape what kind of world will greet the intensifying weather patterns of tomorrow. Whose lives will matter when the storms arrive?

Will the seawalls we build to hold back the swelling tides be accompanied by walls to hold out those fleeing?

The challenge of adaptation directly exposes the climate crisis as a crisis of social justice. All disasters break open the wounds of unequal societies. Storms do not discriminate, but they do make landfall on landscapes riven by disparities of wealth, power and safety.

The labels of ‘natural disaster’ and ‘extreme weather’ can mislead us into thinking that the principal dangers we face stem from the atmosphere’s furies.

But as geographer Jesse Ribot writes, ‘vulnerability does not fall from the sky.’ The wreckage of climate change is the product of collision: between environmental conditions and human realities.

This collision explains why women are far more likely than men to die in natural disasters and endure the slow violence of environmental degradation. It lies at the root of why ethnic minorities, the disabled, the silenced, and the neglected, are all disproportionately susceptible to the rigours of a changing climate.

Deep adaptation means challenging these inequities, reclaiming rights and cementing the best possible conditions for survival.

In Nairobi’s informal settlements, such as Mukuru, increasingly torrential rain spells misery for inhabitants. To build their community’s resilience, local activists are working to obtain land tenure that would enable them to defend their rights to water, health and sanitation.

What such initiatives illustrate is the agency we do have. While climate change will cause irreparable ‘loss and damage’ (impacts that just cannot be eased or adapted to), our human societies are usually the juries of fate, deciding whether cyclones will meet buttressed foundations or breaking beams.

We are still drastically unprepared across the board; the deadly European heatwaves of 2003 and 2010 revealed the stark inability even of the wealthiest economies of the world to adequately handle climatic shocks.

Finding the funding

But all transformations in politics come with costs and obstacles. The cost of adapting to climate change in ‘developing’ countries could reach $300 billion a year by 2030 and $500 billion by 2050. Funding is in short supply, with the richest states committing only meager contributions.

Rudimentary justice holds that those most responsible for a vulnerability bear the greater responsibility for redressing it, but climate change’s chief culprits remain reluctant to pay their fair share of adaptation finance to the world’s most vulnerable countries.

Neither will private finance emerge as a magical solution to the tasks of adaptation. Markets tend to follow active demand: needs backed by money. But what money can you make from displaced farmers or dispossessed communities?

As the impacts of climate change bite and politicians feel the heat of public discontent, governments are paying more lip service to ideals such as climate resilience.

But with environmental movements mostly focused on taming the drivers of climate change, this agenda of adaptation is largely being shaped by states and multilateral institutions, in ways which lay the burden of bearing at the feet of those most vulnerable.

Environmental scientist Stan Cox and anthropologist Paul Cox explain in How the World Breaks, that these models of adaptation envision a ‘resilience [which] is catastrophic by design, morally unhinged, because it counts on the vulnerable to absorb what the market sheds so that the market’s irreparable fragility can be conserved.

The vulnerable and the marginalized must have power, but not just the power to adapt; they must recapture the terms of adaptation.’

It is up to us to recapture those terms and ignite a discussion on transformative adaptation, where efforts to adjust to climate change can also serve as opportunities to decarbonize the economy, confront poverty, erode gender inequity, deliver racial justice and remediation to victims of environmental violence, suture community rifts, improve public health, and cement local resilience.

The future is here

The future is arriving sooner than expected.

Too often, our responses out of touch with the scale of the challenges they seek to address. In 2003, philosopher Seyla Benhabib wrote about grappling with new patterns of migration and globalization;
‘We are like travellers navigating an unknown terrain with the help of old maps, drawn at a different time and in response to different needs.’
It’s time to think big and retrace our maps along the lines of the new magnitude. Every gradient of warming we fail to slow needs to be compensated by an equal reduction in deprivation.

The task may seem daunting. With so many challenges facing our world, where do our limited energies go? How do you fight fires and prevent them at the same time?

There are few easy consolations, but one is clear: the solutions to our multiple problems can and should be found in the same places.

The struggle for climate adaptation is precisely the struggle for migrant rights, for decent work, for better infrastructure, for democracy, against gender violence. It is merely the struggle for a safer world, hastened by the alarms of shattering temperature records.

But by explicitly referencing adaptation, we can help humanize the realities of climate change, clarify our alternatives, and help ensure we can meet the incoming watershed with buffers of hope.


Advantages of decay in food system

SOURCE:  Andy Kass (a_kass@yahoo.com)
SUBHEAD: Vietnam's low-tech food delivery takes advantage of decay and fermentation.

By Aaron Vansintjan on 20 February 2017 for Low Tech Magazine -

Image above: A stall selling homemade dưa chua in a Hanoi market. Photo by Aaron Vansintjan From original article.

The food system in the industrialized world is based on mass-production, global distribution, and constant refrigeration. It requires many resources and produces a lot of food waste.

In a tropical climate, everything decays faster. Bread gets soft and mushy, milk spoils, the walls get moldy just months after a layer of fresh paint. Food poisoning is a constant concern. The heat and moisture make for an ideal breeding ground for bacteria and fungi.

In this environment, you’d think people would be wary of any food product that smells funny. But in tropical Vietnam, food can get pretty pungent.

Take mắm tôm, a purplish paste made of fermented pureed shrimp. Cracking open a jar will result in a distinct smell of ‘there’s something wrong here’ with hints of marmite to whelm through the whole room. You have chao, a stinky fermented tofu, which was so rank that the smallest bite shot up my nose and incinerated my taste buds for an hour (‘Clears the palate!’ said the waiter encouragingly).

Consider rượu nếp, which is sticky rice mixed with yeast and left to ferment for several days ‘in a warm place’ — i.e. the counter.

The result is a funky-smelling desert—literally rice left to rot until it turns in to a sweet wine pudding. On the 5th of May of the lunar calendar, Vietnamese people will eat rượu nếp in the morning to celebrate ‘inner parasite killing day’. Bonus: day-drunk by the time you arrive at work.

We shouldn’t forget Vietnam’s world-famous fish sauce — nước mắm — made from diluted fermented fish, a flavour that many people around the world continue to find totally intolerable.

In Vietnam, putrefaction is accepted as a part of life, even encouraged. But fermentation in Vietnam isn’t just an odd quirk in a tropical diet.

To understand why fermentation is so integral to Vietnamese culture, you have to consider how it is embedded within people’s livelihoods, local agricultural systems, food safety practices, and a culture obsessed with gastronomy; where food is seen as a social glue.

And when you bring together all these different puzzle pieces, an enchanting picture emerges: one in which fermentation can be a fundamental component of a sustainable food system.

Unlike many high-tech proposals like ‘smart’ food recycling apps, highly efficient logistics systems, and food packaging innovations, fermentation is both low-tech and democratic—anyone can do it. What’s more, it has low energy inputs, brings people together, is hygienic and healthy, and can reduce food waste.

Rotting Food can be Safe and Healthy

At the entrance of a market in Hanoi, a woman with a dưa chua stand tells us that making ‘sour vegetables’ is easy: you just add salt to some cabbage and let it sit for a couple of days. As we talk, several customers come by, eager to scoop some brine and cabbage into a plastic bag. Worried that we’re discouraging her customers, she shoos us away. She isn’t lacking business.

Is fermentation really so effortless? The short answer is yes. Many recipes will call for two things: water and salt. At just a 1:50 ratio (2%) of salt to food, you can create an environment undesireable for all the bad bacteria and encourage all the good ones. Sauerkraut, kimchi, fish sauce, sriracha, and kosher dill pickles—are all made according to this principle.

Yet other types of fermentation are a bit more complicated. They call for sugar (e.g. wild fermented alcohol like ethiopian honey wine), yeast starters (rượu nếp, most wines and beers), special fungi (tempeh, miso), or some kind of combination of fungi, bacteria, salt, or sugar (kombucha).

Yet others are simpler: to make cooking vinegar, just let that bottle of bad wine sit for a couple of days, and to make sourdough, just mix water and flour and leave it on your counter.

All in all, fermentation is just controlled decay: your most important ingredient is time. This can sound like a bit too much, too fast. Take the woman I met at the entrance of the market. Her dưa chua, while in great demand, looks like wilted cabbage, soppy, floating in murky brine.

Some bubbles are forming on the edges of the plastic container—for the trained eye a sign of an active fermentation process, but for the uninitiated, an alarm bell.

There’s no use beating about the bush. That dưa chua is in fact rotting in a very similar way that a peat swamp is constantly rotting, belching large doses of methane into the world. What’s happening is an anaerobic fermentation—that is, without significant amounts of oxygen.

This absence of oxygen and the high levels of salt creates an environment supportive to several bacteria that also find their home in our own digestive systems.

Those bubbles forming in the container are by-products of these bacteria: CO2 and methane. The bacteria also lower the pH and start breaking down raw food—essentially pre-digesting it for you.

And, once the pH goes down even lower, you’ve created a monster so voracious that no other fungus, bacteria, or parasite with bad intentions will dare to enter its domain. So yes, it’s rotting just like a stinky swamp, and that’s a good thing.

Image above: A woman sells nem chua — raw fermented pork—outside her house. Photo by Aaron Vansintjan From original article.

It’s a good thing especially in a climate like that of Vietnam. Every fermentation is a small victory against the constant war against heat and humidity, which destroys all edibles in its path.

Instead of eating raw cabbage and risking death by a thousand E. Coli, you can eat fermented cabbage and know, for a fact, that it won’t have you hunkering by the toilet bowl any time soon.

Not only that, but eating fermented food has significant health benefits. You might’ve noticed the new fad of ‘pro-biotic’—well all that really means is that the product contains some kind of active bacterial culture that looks like the flora in your own stomach.

That would include, not just Go-gurt, Yoplait, Chobani, and Danone, but also several kinds of cheese, pickles, beer, and just about any other fermented product.

Eat about a tablespoon of any of these at the end of every meal, and you inoculate your stomach with a fresh batch of microbes that help you digest—all the more necessary when we eat antibiotics in our meat and bland diets of white bread and peanut butter, and drink chlorine in most municipal water systems.

Further, products like fish sauce and shrimp paste provide many impoverished Vietnamese with micro-nutrients, B-12 vitamin, proteins, and omega 3 fatty acids—comprising a significant part of people’s nutritional requirements. For a country that still remembers hunger and starvation, this is no small fry.

After several months of studying Hanoi’s food system and the people who make their living off of it, Vân (my Vietnamese collaborator) and I are starting to see some patterns.

A Diverse Food System

In the same market we talk to a vegetable vendor. Real estate in the neighborhood is getting more expensive, rents are going up. She’s having a hard time making ends meet.

On her street many elderly have sold their farmland—which they used to grow vegetables and decorative flowers—and now, unemployed, they spend their time selling home-made fermented vegetables out of their front door.

In the same neighborhood, we meet Tuan, an elderly woman growing vegetables in the banks of a drained pond. She rarely goes to the market—she can grow much of her own food in this little patch. We ask her if she ever ferments her vegetables.

Of course, but she doesn’t sell them—they’re just for herself and her family.

After several months of studying Hanoi’s food system and the people who make their living off of it, Vân (my Vietnamese collaborator) and I are starting to see some patterns.

In Western countries, the food system is shaped a bit like an hourglass: industrial farmers send their food to a supplier, who then engages with a handful of supermarket companies, who then sell to consumers.

In Vietnam, on the other hand, it looks more like an intricate web: wholesale night markets, mobile street vendors, covered markets, food baskets organized by office workers with family connections to farmers, guerilla gardening on vacant land.

Food is grown, sold, and bought all over the place, and supermarkets are just a small (albeit growing) node in the complex latticework. Most people still get food at the market, but many also source their food from family connections.

Image above: From jugs a restaurant offers home brewed rượu men, Vietnamese rice wine. Photo by Aaron Vansintjan From original article.

In Vietnam, many people might have one ‘profession’, but when you ask a bit more questions it’ll turn out that they have half a dozen other jobs for ‘extra income’. There’s a generalized ‘hustle’: everyone is a bit of an entrepreneur.

After talking with Tuan for several hours, we learned that she has, throughout her long life, fished, grown vegetables, corn, and fruit trees, sold rice noodles, bread, ice cream, roses, and silk worms. Now, aged 68, she grows decorative peach trees and grows vegetables when she can.

With an economy just decades shy of a highly regulated communist regime where the only food you could get was through rations, and the memory of famine still fresh in people’s mind, this is entirely understandable: with a finger in every pot, you can just about manage to survive. These two factors, a highly distributed food system and diversified livelihoods, make for a fertile environment for fermentation practices. 

With easy access to wholesale produce, many can turn to small-scale fermentation to compliment their income—or, in the case of Tuan, to spend less on food at the market.

Preserving the Harvest, Bringing People Together

Vietnam hosts both the Red River delta and the Mekong delta—two of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. The heat and the vast water supply allow some areas of Vietnam to have three full growing seasons.

That means three harvests, and that means lots of food at peak times, and sometimes so much that you can’t eat it all. That’s another bonus of fermentation: if your food system is local, you’re bound to stick to seasonal consumption.

But by fermenting your harvest you can eat it slowly, over a long time period. It’s this principle that underlies much of fermentation culture in East Asia.

Take kim chi, a spicy fermented cabbage from Korea. Traditionally, the whole village would come together to chop, soak, salt, and spice the cabbage harvest every year. Then, these mass quantities of salted spicy cabbage were stored in large earthenware pots underground—where cooler temperatures lead to a more stable fermentation process.

As a result, you can have your cabbage all year. If you want a localized food system, you need to be able to store your food for long periods. Fermentation makes that possible.

Fermentation is also social. Fermenting large batches of summer’s bounty typically requires hours of chopping—the more the merrier. And chopping is the perfect time for sharing cooking tips, family news, and the latest gossip. In South Korea, now that kim chi production has been largely industrialized, people try to relive the social aspect of making it through massive kim chi parties in public spaces.

In a country like Vietnam, where a traditional food system still exists for a large part, fermentation remains embedded in social relations. Relatives and neighbors constantly gift each other fermented vegetables, and many dinners end with a batch of someone’s home brewed rice wine—rượu men. Fermentation lends itself well to a gift economy: there is pride in your own creation, but there is also no shame in re-gifting. And because of its low costs, anyone can take part in it.

Gastronomy, Tested with Time

It is a bit disingenuous to caricature Vietnam’s food culture as obsessed with rotting, and suggest that this is largely the result of a tropical climate. Rather, what we’re dealing here is difference in taste: what may seem strange and pungent to one culture is highly appreciated in another.

In fact, one of the greatest impressions I have of Vietnamese culture is its deep appreciation for gastronomy: subtle, complex flavors, considered textures, modest spicing and well-balanced contrasts define Vietnamese cuisine.

Fermentation is a crucial part of this culture: the art of fermentation requires paying attention to how flavours change as food transforms, understanding these chemical shifts and using them to achieve a desired affect.

It’s also clear that Vietnamese gastronomy is popular: it takes place in street food stalls, run by enterprising matriarchs, constantly experimenting with modern products and traditional flavors. It is cheap and, to ensure customer loyalty, it is surprisingly hygienic.

Street vendors rarely have fridges, nor do they have large cooking surfaces, dishwashing machines, or ovens. By and large, they make do with some knives, two bowls to wash fresh vegetables in, a large pot, a frying pan, coals or gas burners and — for products that may go bad during the day — fermentation. Having limited access to capital and consumer electronics, these vendors — most often women — ply their trade in a way that has stood the test of time.

They know the rules of hygiene and food safety, and, because they have to be careful with their money, they know exactly what kinds of food will go bad, and what kinds of food can be preserved.

In doing so, they practice a food culture that has been passed down through generations—to a time before fridges, a global food system powered by container shipping, factory trawlers, and produce delivered to far-off markets by airplane.

While modern technology has provided many benefits for our diets, there are many innovations from the past that have been abandoned as the global food system was transformed by the availability of cheap fuel. One such innovation was the fish sauce industry that flourished during Ancient Roman times.

For Romans, fermenting fish was a crucial aspect of a low-tech and seasonally-bound food system. In fact, it so happens that research now suggests Vietnamese fish sauce may actually have its origins in the Roman variant produced over 2,000 years ago.

Today, however, fermentation doesn’t fit so easily within the global food system. Harold McGee at Lucky Peach tells the story of how canned products were notoriously difficult to transport in the newly industrialized food system of the 19th century.

Apparently, until the 20th century, metal cans would regularly explode, sending shrapnel and preserved tuna flying through the decks of transport ships. This was due to heat-resistant bacteria, which continued fermenting the product long after it was heat-treated.

The solution was to subject the canned product to high temperatures over a long period of time, killing all remaining cultures, in turn changing their flavor. But in the case of fermented food, the problem has not gone away: if you want it to be actively fermenting, transporting it will risk explosions on the high seas. But heating stops the fermentation process, and kills its unique flavor.

It’s for this reason that products like kim chi, kombucha, and sauerkraut often have to be produced locally, despite increasing global demand. In some way, fermentation belies the industrial food system: the fact that it is alive means that it doesn’t quite fit in. You either have to kill it, thereby change it, or it will keep bubbling through the cracks.

A Low-tech Food System is Possible

Fermentation cultures in Vietnam give us a glimpse of what an alternative food system might look like, one that is both decentralized and doesn’t depend on high inputs of fossil fuel energy to preserve food, high waste, and high-tech. Why does this matter? Well, in a world facing climate change, we need a low-impact food system, and fast.

But there are other reasons: with increasing concern over the health side effects of common chemicals such as BPA, found in almost all cans and pasta sauce jars, people are looking to safer kinds of preservation, which aren’t killing them and their families slowly.

And with the rise of the local food and food sovereignty movements, many are realising that we need food systems that support everyone: from small farmers to low-income families.

Because of its low investment costs, fermentation lends itself well to supporting small businesses, allowing them to take advantage of seasonality while practicing a time-tested low-tech method of food preparation. Today, in response to increasing food insecurity, we are hearing increasing calls for a smarter, more efficient food system.

Proposals such as intensive hydroponic and vertical farming, big data-powered logistics systems, smart agriculture technologies, and food waste recycling apps clog the news.

But we already have a low-tech innovation that works very well. Fermentation, because it is accessible to everyone, because of its low energy requirements, and because it fits right in to a more sustainable food system, should not be abandoned in the search for global food security.

Image above: A fish sauce factory in Vietnam. Photo by Mui Ne info & events. From original article.

It’s easy to get the impression that we live in a world of scarcity, where there just isn’t enough food to go around, and food production all around the world is limited by technological backwardness. On the other hand, many of us are more and more concerned with the increasing problem of food waste in Western food systems.

We seem to live in a world of both scarcity and abundance at the same time.

Food fermentation is a strange thing: it inverts what many regard as waste and turns it into a social, living, edible object. As a friend of mine once said, if you have too many grapes, you make wine. If you have too much wine, you throw a party. If you still have too much wine, you make vinegar.

Fermentation turns scarcity and abundance on its head, belying easy categories of what is waste and what is too much.

Sustainability advocates worry a lot about making the ‘supply chain’ more ‘efficient’ — that is, increasing profits margins while making sure all food reaching consumers in a perfectly fresh state.

Instead, we could consider taking advantage of decay. This isn’t hard: you just have to add some salt and water. We’ve done it for thousands of years, and, if we follow the example of food cultures like those in Vietnam, we can do it again.

The future will be battery powered

SUBHEAD: A battery will do for the electricity supply chain what refrigeration did to our food supply chain.

By Amelia Urry on 21 February 2017 for Grist Magazine -

Image above: Colorized photo of Thomas Edison as passenger in his 1902 battery powered horseless Studebaker automobile. Image From (https://photocolorizing.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/thomas-edison-electric-car-1902/).

The battery might be the least sexy piece of technology ever invented. The lack of glamour is especially conspicuous on the lower floors of MIT’s materials science department, where one lab devoted to building and testing the next world-changing energy storage device could easily be mistaken for a storage closet.

At the back of the cramped room, Donald Sadoway, a silver-haired electrochemist in a trim black-striped suit and expensive-looking shoes, rummages through a plastic tub of parts like a kid in search of a particular Lego. He sets a pair of objects on the table, each about the size and shape of a can of soup with all the inherent drama of a paperweight.

No wonder it’s so hard to get anyone excited about batteries. But these paperweights — er, battery cells — could be the technology that revolutionizes our energy system.

Because batteries aren’t just boring. Frankly, they kinda suck. At best, the batteries that power our daily lives are merely invisible — easily drained reservoirs of power packed into smartphones and computers and cars.

At worst, they are expensive, heavy, combustible, complicated to dispose of properly, and prone to dying in the cold or oozing corrosive fluid. Even as the devices they power become slimmer and smarter, batteries are still waiting for their next upgrade.

Computer processors famously double their capacity every two years; batteries may scrounge only a few percentage points of improvement in the same amount of time.

The battery might be the least sexy piece of technology ever invented. The lack of glamour is especially conspicuous on the lower floors of MIT’s materials science department, where one lab devoted to building and testing the next world-changing energy storage device could easily be mistaken for a storage closet.

At the back of the cramped room, Donald Sadoway, a silver-haired electrochemist in a trim black-striped suit and expensive-looking shoes, rummages through a plastic tub of parts like a kid in search of a particular Lego. He sets a pair of objects on the table, each about the size and shape of a can of soup with all the inherent drama of a paperweight.

No wonder it’s so hard to get anyone excited about batteries. But these paperweights — er, battery cells — could be the technology that revolutionizes our energy system.

Because batteries aren’t just boring. Frankly, they kinda suck. At best, the batteries that power our daily lives are merely invisible — easily drained reservoirs of power packed into smartphones and computers and cars. ]
At worst, they are expensive, heavy, combustible, complicated to dispose of properly, and prone to dying in the cold or oozing corrosive fluid.

Even as the devices they power become slimmer and smarter, batteries are still waiting for their next upgrade. Computer processors famously double their capacity every two years; batteries may scrounge only a few percentage points of improvement in the same amount of time.

Perhaps the biggest problem with lithium-ion batteries is that they wear out. Think of your phone battery after it’s spent a few years draining to 1 percent then charging back up to 100. That kind of deep discharge and recharge takes a physical toll and damages a battery’s performance over time.

So we’re overdue for a brand new battery, and researchers around the world are racing to give us one, with competing approaches and technologies vying for top spot.

Some of their ideas are like nothing we’ve ever plugged into the grid — still not sexy, exactly, but definitely surprising. Liquid batteries. Batteries of molten metal that run as hot as a car engine.

Batteries whose secret ingredient is saltwater.

It’s all part of a brand new space race — if less flashy than, you know, outer space.

There are a few things you want in a good battery, but two are essential: It needs to be reliable, and it needs to be cheap.

“The biggest problem is still cost,” says Eric Rohlfing, deputy director of technology for ARPA-E, a division of the Department of Energy that identifies and funds cutting-edge research and development.

A 2012 study in Nature found that the average American would only be willing to pay about $13 more each month to ensure that the entire U.S. electrical supply ran on renewables. So batteries can’t add much to electrical bills.

For utilities, that means providing grid-level energy storage that would cost them less than $100 per kilowatt hour. Since it was established by President Obama in 2009, ARPA-E has put $85 million toward developing new batteries that can meet that goal.

“People called us crazy,” says Rohlfing. That number was absurdly low for an industry that hadn’t yet seen the near side of $700 per kilowatt hours when they started, according to one study of electric vehicle batteries published in Nature.

Now, though still unattained, $100 per kWh is the standard target across the industry, Rohlfing says. Get below that, it seems, and you can not only compete — you can win.

And here’s what a better battery stands to win: a cleaner, more reliable power system, which doesn’t rely on fossil fuels and is more robust to boot.

Every time you flip a light switch, you tap into a gigantic invisible web, the electrical grid.

Somewhere, at the other end of the high-voltage transmission lines carrying power to your house, there’s a power plant (likely burning coal or, increasingly, natural gas) churning out electricity to replace the electrons that you and everyone else are draining at that moment.

The amount of power in our grid at any one time is carefully maintained — too much or too little and things start to break.

Grid operators make careful observations and predictions to determine how much electricity power plants should produce, minute by minute, hour by hour. But sometimes they’re wrong, and a plant has to power up in a hurry to make up the difference.

Lucky for us, it’s a big, interconnected system, so we rarely notice changes in the quality or quantity of electricity. Imagine the difference between stepping into a bucket of water versus stepping into the ocean. In a small system, any change in the balance between supply and demand is obvious — the bucket overflows.

But because the grid is so big — ocean-like — fluctuations are usually imperceptible.

Only when something goes very wrong do we notice, because the lights go out.

Renewable energy is less obedient than a coal- or gas-fired power plant — you can’t just fire up a solar farm if demand spikes suddenly.

Solar power peaks during the day, varies as clouds move across the sun, and disappears at night, while wind power is even less predictable. Too much of that kind of intermittency on the grid could make it more difficult to balance supply and demand, which could lead to more blackouts.

Storing energy is a safety valve. If you could dump extra energy somewhere, then draw from it when supply gets low again, you can power a whole lot more stuff with renewable energy, even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

What’s more, the grid itself becomes more stable and efficient, as batteries would allow communities and regions to manage their own power supply.

Our aging and overtaxed power infrastructure would go a lot further. Instead of installing new transmission lines in places where existing lines are near capacity, you could draw power during off-peak times and stash it in batteries until you need it.

Just like that, the bucket can behave a lot more like the ocean. That would mean — at least in theory — more distributed power generation and storage, more renewables, and less reliance on giant fossil-fueled power plants.

So that’s why this battery thing is kind of A Big Deal.

“A battery will do for the electricity supply chain what refrigeration did to our food supply chain,” Sadoway says from his office in MIT, a good deal more spacious than the battery lab.

Those canisters he showed me were early prototypes of cells for a “liquid metal battery” he started researching a decade ago.

“I started working on batteries just because I was crazy about cars,” Sadoway tells me. (His desktop background is a 1961 Studebaker Avanti he sold a few years ago. He keeps the picture around the way one would memorialize a family pet.)

In 1995, he took a test drive in an early Ford electric vehicle and fell in love. “I realized the only reason we don’t have electric cars is because we don’t have batteries.”

So Sadoway started thinking. He had some experience with the process of refining aluminum, and he wondered if that could be a model for a new, unorthodox kind of battery. Aluminum smelting is a dirt-cheap, energy-intensive process by which purified metal is boiled out of ore.

But if that one-way process could be doubled up and looped back on itself, maybe the huge amount of energy fed into the molten metal could be stored there.

In some ways, that’s insane — the molten battery would have to run around of 880 degrees F, only slightly cooler than the combustion chamber of a car engine.

But it’s also a bizarrely simple concept, at least to an electrochemist. It turns out assembling a cell of a liquid metal battery cell is as easy as dropping a plug of metal, made up of two alloys of different densities, into a vessel and pouring some salt on top.

When the cell is powered up, the two metals melt and divide into two layers automatically, like salad oil floating on vinegar. The molten salt forms a layer between them, conducting electrons back and forth.

But even with a promising start, developing a new battery is a glacially slow process, Sadoway says. Early funding from ARPA-E and the French oil giant Total helped him get the idea off the ground, but sustaining research for the years needed to build any brand new technology is expensive.

Venture capitalists are shy about drawn-out engineering projects when there are so many software startups promising fast profits.

“In any capital-intensive industry, industry will stand in the way of innovation,” Sadoway says. Existing battery companies have too much invested in the status quo to be much help, he says. Lithium-ion came from outside the established battery industry of its time, he points out; the next battery will have to do the same.

The molten metal battery has long since moved out of the basement lab. In 2010, Sadoway started the battery company Ambri with several of his former students, then moved HQ into a manufacturing facility 30 miles west of Cambridge to the town of Marlborough.

Now, Ambri employs about 40 people and is busy building prototype battery packs out of hundreds of the molten metal cells.
Sadoway says Ambri is less than a year away from deploying its first commercial models.

All signs have been hopeful so far, he says. At the manufacturing facility, some test cells have been up and running for almost four years without showing any signs of wear and tear. Getting the assembled battery packs, each consisting of 432 individual cells, to work was trickier.

But after ironing out some pesky issues with the heat seals, the battery packs can reach a self-sustaining operating temperature, hot enough to charge and discharge without any extra energy input.

Now Ambri is in the middle of raising another round of funding, enough to reach market-ready production mode.

On my way out the door, I say that, for all the difficulty and delay, it seems like this battery could really be close. “I hope so,” Sadoway says, looking almost wistful. “Maybe this is it. I’d like to see that.”

The molten metal battery isn’t the only moonshot battery. It’s not even the obvious front-runner. Other technologies are pushing ahead, quietly and without fanfare, from “iron flow batteries” to zinc- and lithium-air varieties.

Like Sadoway’s project, many of these untested technologies are funded initially by grants from ARPA-E. “These are very early stage, high-risk technologies,” says Rohlfing, the agency’s deputy director. “We take a lot of shots on goal.”

One especially promising contender in the better battery battle is the Pittsburgh-based company Aquion, whose founder, Carnegie Mellon professor Jay Whitacre, set out in 2008 to design the cheapest, most reliable battery you could make.

The result is something colloquially called a “saltwater battery.” It looks, more or less, like a Rubbermaid bin full of seawater. All of the materials in the Aquion batteries are abundant and easily obtained elements, from salt to stainless steel to cotton. What’s more, none of those materials carry the risks of a lithium-ion battery.

“Our chemistry is very simple,” says Matt Maroon, Aquion’s vice president of product management. “There’s nothing in our battery that is flammable, toxic, or caustic.”

It’s also stupidly easy to assemble. “Our main piece of manufacturing assembly equipment comes out of the food packaging industry,” Maroon says. “It’s a simple pick-and-place robot that you’d find at Nabisco, putting crackers inside of blister packs.”

Aquion batteries have been on the market for nearly three years, installed in both homes and utility-scale facilities.

Overall, Aquion has 35 megawatt hours of storage deployed around the world in 250 different installations. One in Hawaii has been up and running for two years; last year, the battery-plus-solar system powered several buildings for six months without ever falling back on a diesel generator.

“We need to get more of these things out into the field,” says Rohlfing. “Right now, if I’m a utility or a grid operator and I want to buy storage, I want to buy something that comes with a 20-year warranty. The technologies we’re talking about aren’t at that stage yet.”

But they’re getting close. Another ARPA-E-funded project, Energy Storage Systems, or ESS, announced last November that it would install one of its iron-flow batteries as part of an Army Corps of Engineers microgrid experiment on a military base in Missouri.

ESS has also installed batteries to help power an off-grid organic winery in Napa Valley — for that matter, so has Aquion. As more and more of these one-off experiments prove successful — and more of these new kinds of batteries prove their worth — the possibility of a battery-powered energy system comes a little closer.

But will batteries ever be, well, cool? That’s a harder question. Aquion’s Matt Maroon has been working in the field since 2002, soon after he left college. At conferences, Maroon was often the youngest person in the room by 30 years. He was sure he wouldn’t be “a battery guy” for his whole career.

Fifteen years later, he’s still a battery guy — but he’s no longer the youngest person in the room. More students are starting to get involved with batteries, and people are starting to take notice. “It’s still not as a cool as working at Apple,” he says. “But I think people recognize its importance and that kind of makes it cool.”

“Or I hope so,” he laughs. “I’ve got a 9-year-old daughter. So I’d like to work on something that she thinks is cool someday. That’s my ultimate goal.”