What the Whole Foods Buyout Means

Oops, looks like this got prematurely posted as I was working on it. So here it is again, all finished-like!


I pick on Whole Paycheck – I mean, Whole Foods – a lot. I did it before I started working there, and I do it even more now that I’ve seen first-hand how the proverbial sausage is made. Why? Well, first off, they make it so easy. They’re a grocery store for the clueless and self-righteous elite, for people who’ve probably never worked a service job in their life. They prey on the aforementioned elites’ desperation to buy happiness, to buy enlightenment, to buy guilt-alleviation, and to buy youth, beauty, and whatever the hell “wellness” is. And since they opened their first store back in the 80’s, they’ve done a pretty damn good job.

But not quite so much anymore.

Sales for the all-natural grocer have been in steady decline for some years now. I’ve heard stories from co-workers about the good ol’ days of gainsharing payouts – gainsharing is the store’s practice of dividing up some of a store’s excess profits over the course of the year and distributing it among employees around the holidays – which used to be in the hundreds of dollars. In the past 5 years, payouts have plummeted, and have recently been in the measly dozens of dollars. And if this is happening at the leading store in the entire region, employees at other locations probably see hardly any payout at all.

The Big Squeeze

To put the severity of this in perspective: the gainsharing board at my store, a little corner of baseless and manufactured optimism, is proud to boast month after month of surplus that will be available for the gainsharing program; one little detail, though, is that these surpluses are not from sales, but from labor. A labor surplus means that when employees are let go, or when they move on, they are not replaced, leaving the rest of the team to pick up the slack. More work is created for those remaining, so a gainsharing payout from a labor surplus is hardly an extra “bonus” at all – it’s actually hard-earned pay and it’s peanuts to boot.

This kind of cannibalization, this slow speeding up of the treadmill, I’ve begun to call The Big Squeeze. It’s happening across the board in the US economy, and hitting the retail sector hardest.

Imagine, for a moment, a toothpaste tube. It’s brand-new and filled to overflowing. At first, you only have to give the tube the slightest pinch to get some of the toothpaste out. But as more and more of the toothpaste gets used up, you have to squeeze harder. Without taking the analogy too far, imagine a fist holding the tube in the middle, and squeezing the toothpaste out that way. The middle disappears first, right? That fist, squeezing the tube empty, is what our economy looks like right now. And toothpaste, remember, rarely finds its way back in the tube, let alone worked back to the bottom.

Another way in which things resemble a Big Squeeze might be found in the metaphor of an orange being juiced. Getting the juice out is easy for the first few seconds, but quickly becomes more difficult as there is less and less to extract. The same principle can be applied to the labor situation. To use my experience as an example again: another co-worker told me that when she first started at our location about 3 or 4 years ago, the job was orders of magnitude simpler. The menu was half of its current size, we had less equipment to use and manage, and the ingredients we worked with were far fewer.

In my short 8 months there, the menu has grown by about 30%, the number and variety of ingredients used to make orders have almost doubled, and time spent making orders has increased. Adding to this is further complexity due to changes in the chemicals we use for cleaning and sanitation, and more rigorous procedures associated with their use. (Because of those wonderful labor “surpluses”, we don’t have the time to actually perform any of those procedures, and are often required to cook the log books while supervisors look the other way. Who the fuck has time to check the PPM of chemical formulas twice a day when we sometimes don’t even get the opportunity to take our legally-mandated breaks?) And yet, there’s still only ever one or two of us doing the work that three or four people should be doing.

All of this has been an effort on the part of Whole Foods to squeeze extra efficiency out of its employees. First, they gutted labor, but once you’re already running on a skeleton crew, you can’t get rid of any more people; there’s only so much fat you can trim. So the next strategy is always, invariably, to extract more efficiency out of what you have left: you try to expand the size of the ship and spread your skeleton crew thinner. You can’t make them work longer hours, but you can train people to do a wider variety of things, so that they might be more versatile employees, or just hire floaters in lieu of department-specific workers (sacrificing expertise and customer service). You introduce more and more complexity to the jobs they already do, barraging customers with a larger buffet of choices (which all cost extra, but succeeds in distracting from the dip in quality of core products; at least, for a time).

These are all tried-and-true methods of a failing business – it’s also, if you think about it, how a star goes supernova. The question is, does it collapse into a dwarf star or a singularity? Whole Foods was limping, and Amazon pounced – personally, I feel as if the company has gotten swallowed up by a supermassive black hole before we even got a chance to find out either way.

A Horseman of the Apocalypse

Amazon, along with Google, Facebook, and Walmart, are the proverbial Four Horsemen: Surveillance, Enclosure, Monopoly, and Conquest.

As the Horseman of Enclosure, Amazon would be more than happy to see the dissolution of retail and public space as we currently know it. In fact, Jeff Bezos would probably wet himself with glee if the American public didn’t ever leave the house – they’d do all their shopping and consume all their entertainment from the comfort of their armchairs, likely using Amazon to do it. A few months ago, that kind of domination would not have been complete, though. As Fortune explains, the grocery business is a notoriously tough nut to crack, and aside from the smattering of shop-for-you services that have cropped up in recent years, online companies looking for an “in” haven’t found one… until now:

“Food has been insulated from the e-commerce revolution over the last 20 years, but the reality is consumers are going online, they are expecting mobile, and they want the ultimate convenience,” said Michael Wystrach, co-founder and CEO of meal delivery service Freshly, in an interview with Fortune. “The evolution of the grocery store business is going to evolve dramatically over the next five years.”

“The reality is consumers are going online”.

I don’t think I actually buy that when it comes to food. I’m not really able to find data, but if Instacart’s Foodie Awards are any indication, it’s that higher-end, “artisan” food products are the most popular purchases its customers make. It’s not quite Blue Apron-level elite, but these kinds of products (cold brew coffee, artisan marshmallows, prosciutto, etc.) are pretty firmly outside the price range of the working class. The lower middle class, the working class, and those in even lower income brackets, then, are clearly not doing their grocery shopping online.

What’s happening here, then, is that Silicon Valley and the other bloated behemoths of e-commerce are introducing disruptive technologies and business strategies that only the monied are in a position to take advantage of, then, still propped up by venture capitalist cash and itching to get out of the red, proceed to declare that “all” consumers want the future of X industry to go in their direction, and then actualize their self-fulfilling prophecy by muscling their way into markets that don’t actually want them, or by merging with bigger players and choking off the competition, leaving the less monied with no other choice but to shell out. This is how Walmart, the Horseman of Conquest, functions in the brick-and-mortar world. Amazon simply does it in notional space – by colonizing your purchasing habits even though other alternatives are still technically available.

Instacart will not ultimately survive the Amazon buyout unless it, too, is assimilated. Me and a few of my co-workers, in fact, don’t even predict that Whole Foods will survive the buyout. It will either not exist in another 10 or 15 years, or will have been rendered completely unrecognizable. This is what companies in capitalist economies do, though: the only way to survive is to cannibalize your own long-term interests, and then prostrate yourself before the highest bidder.

In other words, the only way to get toothpaste out of the tube is to squeeze.

Where Values Don’t Really Matter

In the hallways behind the public-facing part of the store at my location, we’ve got the “Core Values” painted on the walls. They’re nothing more than bits of decoration on otherwise drab gray paint that everyone ignores; a perfect microcosm to how often anyone at the company thinks about them when making a decision, least of all the CEO. Be wary of for-profit businesses who claim to have a mission statement beyond “make as much money as possible”, because when their back is to the wall, or when a quick buck is to be made, you can bet your ass that money will always trump the “mission”.

The extent to which a large corporate entity can ignore its own mission statement at the prospect of increasing sales can’t get any more evident than with Whole Foods post-buyout. For shits and giggles, I’ll go over each tenet and explain just how, exactly, it will now cease to have any meaning. (Not that many of them ever did.)

  • We sell the highest quality natural and organic products available: This is just plain wrong – really, only somebody who literally has their head up their ass would believe this. This is, of course, if you don’t equate “high-quality” with “fancy” – ie. products that have way too much R&D invested in their packaging, or products that have been processed to heck and gone to make it more palatable to western tastebuds.
  • We satisfy, delight, and nourish our customers: This one’s tricky because none of it really means anything. However, our customers are dissatisfied and irked all the time; every day those kinds of people make my job just that much harder as I watch them cut each other in line, snap their fingers at us to get our attention, or interrupt us as we’re helping somebody else. In fact, it seems like almost half of our customers seem to be in a bad mood on any given day!
  • We support team member excellence and happiness: This has always been bullshit, but now with Amazon running the show, I can’t see it ever improving. Amazon is one of the worst employers out there, and you’d be hard pressed to get me to believe that there won’t be bleed-over in how Whole Foods will be expected to treat its workers in the future, especially if Amazon is looking to create an even tighter, leaner ship. I already explained the so-called “labor surplus” above, but also there’s the fact that raises are hard to come by, everyone who works there is constantly amped up on nigh-lethal doses of caffeine just to keep up with the hard, unpredictable hours, and perks are far and few between.
  • We serve and support our local and global communities: Aside from the small smattering of fair trade items that the store stocks (and ignoring that the Fair Trade label has problems of its own), I don’t really see how WF differs drastically from any other typical grocery store. Unfortunately, now with Amazon in the picture, this will be even more meaningless: Amazon cares nothing for anything but “free trade” – that is, the sort of free trade that makes it easier for them to muscle their way into whatever markets, wherever, and to chew people up and spit them out.
  • We practice and advance environmental stewardship: Laughable. Simply laughable. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is such a bald-faced lie. Oh wait, I sort of did.
  • We create ongoing win-win partnerships with our suppliers: This may be true as of right now. I’m not sure. I know that’s not always been the case, though, especially with that little scandal about WF using prison labor to source some of their products. (Prisoners, that is, who legally get paid less than a dollar per hour of work, and whose employ is not federally regulated.) Post-buyout, again, I can’t really see this improving. All I know is how Amazon treats its self-published authors and what it does (or does not do, rather) for product pricing.
  • We promote the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education: I’m guessing that “stakeholders” here means customers and employees, in which case it’s a wash. Only a couple of the stores I’ve been to actually host classes and workshops about healthy eating, and the rest is your superfood of the week bullcrap. Like the whole juice trend (and not to mention the partnership with Juicero a few of the So Cal stores have made): juice is not actually that healthy. It’s basically nature’s flat soda: sugar water. And yet, along with a lot of other over-priced “food” items making dubious promises, like probiotics, prebiotics, turmeric, bone broth, and wheatgrass, they keep pushing it on the consumer. This stuff isn’t any healthier than the boring shit like brown rice and cabbagebut it sure is for WF’s coffers!
  • We create wealth through profits and growth: I saved this one for last because it’s the only honest sentence they have in their whole portfolio of marketing copy. The problem, obviously, is wealth for whom. Certainly not employees, and it’s definitely a questionable claim regarding their supply chain, but as far as corporate goes, this is 100% true. So congratulations, Whole Foods, your mission statement isn’t all lies, at least.

The Future of the Grocery Store

Part of Whole Food’s decline is in no small part due to the wider availability of organic food now than when the company started over 30 years ago. This has forced it to respond in predictable ways: provide ever more niche goods as well as target a niche market – upscale health-conscious consumers rather than the grubbier hippy-types that started the health food store industry. Unfortunately, when you cater to the rich and well-to-do, you have to make a lot of compromises to keep them coming back. This is how we got that Juicero pilot program – the Juicero itself the epitome of Silicon Valley hubris – and other food fads, each one in turn promising, in ever more colorful language than its predecessors, health, happiness, and everlasting youth.

What Amazon might plan to do with Whole Foods should scare you, though. If it means to make a hard push for personal shoppers, then say goodbye top even more customer service jobs as the rest of the grocery industry is forced to kow-tow to the course charted by the e-commerce behemoth. Personal shoppers, not being the people for whom a good customer service experience is directed toward, won’t mind waiting in longer lines as cashiers are let go. People with experience and knowledge about certain products won’t be necessary either – a personal shopper’s job rarely involves making decisions that would require the input of an expert. They are usually hesitant to make any executive decisions on behalf of their clients at all, as a matter of fact. If nothing else, the Amazon deal will result in fewer jobs in the long run, and WF stores will likely be nothing more than the raw material to start its own warehouse chain specifically catering toward gig economy personal shoppers.

Whole Food’s share of the organic and all-natural pie will not be growing again. This is what the big picture is telling us, for those who might listen. As wealth continues to trickle up, as the middle continues to hemorrhage due to the big squeeze, the number of customers who can afford to shop at Whole Foods will only shrink. And as that customer base shrinks, the only way to stay out of the red is either downsize, or find new markets. Amazon will likely encourage, if not downright force, both. The downsizing is already happening; see above. And it’s only worked a little bit, only bought the company a little more time. So what does Amazon plan to do?

Well, Jeff Bezos has said that he wants to use WF to compete with the big warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club, and that should be an indication of the future he’s imagining. This should terrify you: because what Amazon wants, Amazon usually gets. It’s obliterated the brick-and-mortar retail industry, eradicating employment at traditional stores, and introduced logistics jobs in their place. Now instead of being a full-time employee at some store, where you get a decent amount of human interaction, where you get benefits and perhaps a store discount, you can work in a sprawling, sunless warehouse complex where you rarely speak to anyone while on the clock. Or, you can ship packages for them, using your own car, your own insurance, and your own gas money.

No matter what they might try to tell you, this is the future Amazon has in mind for the grocery store:

And they’ll let nothing get in their way.

California Grown

I’ve made a soft resolution recently to eat as locally as possible. I didn’t wake up one morning and go “I’m gonna be a locavore from now on”; it’s just that I found myself making the decision to buy local produce more often than not in recent weeks, and I encouraged myself to continue doing so.

I live in the easiest place to do this in the entire US, though: California. A huge portion of the nation’s food comes from here, and we’re the #1 exporter for a number of crops for the whole planet. Things are in-season for a long time around here, too.

So I thought, why not give it a go? Or at least, pay attention to where and when it becomes a difficult decision. This means I’ll probably be giving up things like chia seeds, quinoa, and a number of varieties of rice. I’ll have to do my research. I won’t be giving up spices – I rarely use them anyway – and I will pretty much be forced to limit my sweeteners to… honey. (I don’t think there is any agave production in CA.) I’d use dates, which we do grow fairly close by, but they have a high glycemic load and aren’t great if you’ve got iffy blood sugar like I do. Plus, they’re not all that useful where liquid sweeteners are concerned.

I’ll also be limiting my purchases of bananas. I probably won’t be able to eliminate them, but I can personally avoid buying them. The banana industry is… pretty ugly on the whole. More on that in a later post that’ll rip into veganism again and paleo, though.

I probably won’t be following up on this too much; it doesn’t feel like that big of a change, being fortunate enough to be where I am, and aside from a few take-for-grantedables, there probably won’t be much to write home about. There is no grain or legume that can’t be substituted with another, banana substitute suggestions are one google search away, and the more exotic stuff that I only just in recent years got used to eating aren’t non-negotiable in any real way. Not to mention the fact that, I’m so used to making sudden changes to my life that most of them don’t feel particularly special anymore. I became vegetarian; so what? I stopped wearing makeup; big deal. I haven’t bought shampoo or paper towels in two years; yawn.

Anyways, that’s happening now. If there’s any noteworthy developments, I’ll keep you posted.

Remove Lint with Water

I have a white cat, a wardrobe that almost entirely consists of the color black, and I don’t own a lint removal tool. I mostly just… never got around to getting one. Thoroughly shaking clothes out does an OK job, but sometimes I have to pick him up and my black shirt is suddenly heather gray.

So in a pinch, I’ve discovered that a hand moistened with water does the trick just fine.

You want the palm of your hand just went enough to be damp, but not wet enough to drip: it seems like this has something to do with the surface tension of the water creating friction, therefore clinging to your skin as well as whatever else comes into contact with it. Once you’ve got your palm and fingers wet, pull your shirt (or whatever) taught, and drag the flat of your hand down the length of the fabric like you would a lint brush. Your skin will be dry after doing this a couple times, but re-moisten and repeat as necessary. Once all the hair/lint is bunched up in one spot, just pick it off.

Easy peasy.

What I’m Reading: A Friday Link Roundup

Salon.com

Our Plastic Oceans – Counterpunch
The world’s oceans are predicted to have more plastic than fish by 2050. This is of course, using current numbers – nevermind that plastic usage will only increase in the coming years. So expect this milestone to be reached sooner than that.

What in the World is Causing the Retail Meltdown of 2017? – The Atlantic
It should be pretty evident to most of us why this is happening. But if it’s not, this article from the Atlantic sheds a little light on the situation. If course, it makes the mistake of thinking that the current epicurean foodie boom is different from previous consumer materialism – it’s only different in that your status symbols are now comestible, not usable.

Inconvenient energy fact: It takes 79 solar workers to produce same amount of electric power as one coal worker – AEI
Both this piece and the NYT article that its responding to miss the point in a pretty spectacular way: that energy production itself, to meet even a fraction of current global demands, is environmentally and economically unsustainable. However, I do have a soft spot for journalists who take the piss out of renewables, simply because it’s verboten to do so and not because the miracle of wind and solar has any basis in reality. The faux-sustainability liberals of the NYT-reading sort see “jobs” and get excited – clearly, solar is a boon, right? – however, that many workers producing only a tiny fraction of fossil fuel energy does point to massive structural inefficiencies: inefficient technology, and inefficient distribution of funds. Because where is all that money coming from? Most of it, to be frank, isn’t coming from direct profits, it’s coming from government subsidies. And eventually, all subsidies must come to an end. We know what slashed subsidies do to industries: look no further than the fate of nuclear. Solar is, indeed, a bubble waiting to burst. All cheap energy is a bubble waiting to burst.

The trouble with infrastructure – Resource Insights
Kurt Cobb explains, pretty succinctly, why complex systems (in this case, physical infrastructure) either grow or fail, and why there’s no in-between.

It’s the end of the world and we know it: Scientists in many disciplines see apocalypse, soon – Salon
Until zero wasters can get their heads out of their asses and start talking about the bigger picture, the zero waste movement will be remembered as nothing more than a self-indulgent fad that left its believers just as unprepared for the harsh future ahead of us as any climate change denialism:

It is considerations like these that have led risk scholars — some at top universities around the world — to specify disturbingly high probabilities of global disaster in the future. For example, the philosopher John Leslie claims that humanity has a 30 percent chance of extinction in the next five centuries. Less optimistically, an “informal” survey of experts at a conference hosted by Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute puts the probability of human extinction before 2100 at 19 percent. And Lord Martin Rees, co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University, argues that civilization has no better than a 50-50 likelihood of enduring into the next century.
To put this number in perspective, it means that the average American is about 4,000 times more likely to witness civilization implode than to die in an “air and space transport accident.” A child born today has a good chance of living to see the collapse of civilization, according to our best estimates.

Going Analog Part 5: Navigation

Since ditching the smartphone, I’ve only put my sim card back in for the purpose of using GPS navigation on one single occasion. This was a multi-legged, complex series of trips in a part of town I was completely unfamiliar with, and my timing was important.

I went from the San Gabriel Valley to Irvine to pick my dad up from the train station – whose location I didn’t know – and then we drove to where I was checking out a Cherokee I saw on Craigslist near the beach. The Jeep was in abysmal condition, so I passed on it, and we found ourselves at a used car lot about a mile up the road, where I wound up buying my current Cherokee. My dad, who was also in the area to test drive a used car, needed to make his appointment a few miles away while they put a fresh battery in the Jeep at the used dealer. An hour later, and the two of us suddenly had three vehicles in our possession. So, with the Jeep still at the dealer, we dropped the car I drove over with at the nearest Amtrak station, which I felt comfortable leaving overnight, and drove back to pick up the Jeep. From there my dad and I parted ways, each of us in a “new” car. I promptly took off and headed for a birthday dinner in Long Beach, deciding to take side streets since the Saturday afternoon traffic had all but turned the local freeways into parking lots. After dinner, we drove someplace else for drinks, and at the end of the evening, someone decided to help me get both cars back that night instead of me taking the train to pick it up the following day.

Whew, I’m tired just from remembering all that!

Situations like aren’t regular occurrences for most people. For me, that kind of logistical nightmare happens only once or twice a year, at best. Without addresses for any of my destinations, I would have been almost completely lost. (Though drive in a straight line long enough in this town, and you’re bound to run into something you’re familiar with.) If I’d had an hour to prepare and plot my trips on paper, I probably could have done it. But the fact of the matter was that I hadn’t quite built up my psychological tolerance to getting lost as much as I have now.

I have gotten lost since then, and somewhat majorly. Only a couple weeks after that, I was supposed to meet a friend in another (albeit closer) part of town I wasn’t so familiar with. The freeways around the border between Glendale and Los Angeles get pretty messy also, and apparently major streets change names when you’re not expecting them to: for instance, the northbound offramp for the street I wanted went by a different name than the southbound! My neatly memorized planogram of what sequence of freeways I needed, the offramp to look out for, and the general direction to make my way in after that went out the window when I realized that I was no longer in Glendale at all. To make matters worse, due to all the junctions in that area, getting off the freeway to get back on in the other direction was more complicated than I was expecting. Two more things added insult to injury: not only was I running the heater in that 90F weather to help the shot radiator do its job, but I was running on fumes to boot!

But I kept my cool. In fact, keeping your cool is probably the most important thing about using analog navigation tools – or in my case, an imperfect mental snapshot of Google maps and a 12-year-old memory of that one time I visited somebody who used to live there I think?

I got there, I didn’t run out of gas, and I learned a lot about getting around the Atwater Village area, which I am never, ever going to forget now. Did I wish I had a GPS to help me navigate that fiasco? No. It was kind of fun actually, in the way that taking something apart and putting it back together as you figure out how its works is fun. Because that’s what navigation is, really: mentally taking apart a roadmap, street by street, turn by turn, and figuring out how a neighborhood or a landscape works. Navigation is a skill; if you do this enough, it’ll soon become intuitive, and the muscle memory you develop, the resilience to irrational anxiety, will help you navigate places you’ve never even been to. Or places that don’t even have roads.

Getting lost doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to even just a few years ago, and I fear what this is doing to our collective tolerance for spontaneity, our fortitude in the face of the unknown, and our own propensity to fear the worst. If we can’t handle not knowing where we are in a grid full of people whom we can ask directions from, then how will we be able to get ourselves out of stickier situations? What happens when the car breaks down in an area with no cell service? Or when you get turned around on the hiking trail? How we respond when the familiar suddenly becomes unfamiliar is important, and being able to assess the situation while keeping calm is no less than a life skill.

I once saw a 70 year old man on a forum complaining about young people being too dependent on complex technology to save them from bad situations, and said that if a person didn’t know how to read a map and compass, then they deserved to get lost. I’m inclined to agree, to be honest. Or rather, that they ought to get lost, and get lost repeatedly, until they realize that there’s nothing to be scared of, and nothing to be inconvenienced by if you’re worth your salt.

Remember Thomas Guides? Let’s bring those back. They’re sure as hell cheaper than a data plan.

Setting the Record Straight

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but I figure that now’s a good a time as any. I don’t want readers to get the wrong impression about this blog. I never intended for Zero Waste Millennial to be inspirational, cheery, topical, or political in only the blandest “write your congressman and shop fair trade” sense. Life is hard, messy, and ugly. We humans have done a lot of damage to our environment and each other, and I am under no delusions that any one thing, or even a whole buffet of things, can ever give us the green utopia most of us so desperately want. Scaling back, paring down, and simplifying our lives just makes sense. It’s not about saving the world.

On my About page, I have a little tongue-in-cheek list of what I do here, called The ZWM Promise. Let’s go through them one by one.

1. This blog will never be lifestyle porn.

What is lifestyle porn? It’s basically uncomfortably detailed accounts, accompanied by way-too-many photos, of random people’s lives, homes, and the crap that they own. Lifestyle porn is how marketers sell stuff to you that you don’t want or need: they show you a gadget, and then they show you beautiful people loitering about that gadget or using it, smiling and laughing, and just generally having a better time than you. Your brain begins thinking that maybe, if you owned that gadget too, then you’d be smiling and beautiful and having a good time too. It’s a perpetual motion machine of unmet consumerist desire and FOMO. I want no part of it.

2. This blog will never be marketable.

I will never try and sell your attention or your clicks for money. I will never accept money or products in exchange for reviewing them; I will never affiliate myself with one of the leading corporate entities responsible for the destruction of local economies, for globalization and fossil-fueled powered freight traffic constantly shuffling between the States and China, and who is famous for having one of the most uniquely inhumane working environments in the US; moreover, the tone of this blog will never be warm and comforting enough to make you want to buy anything. I want to keep you on your toes, I want to make you feel the full breadth of human emotion in response to real things going on outside the bubble of your life and the lives of all the other bloggers you follow… and disappointment in particular doesn’t often make for a good motivator to go shopping.

3. I will always support my claims with facts.

If I tell you to stop using Facebook, or if I tell you that your middle-class American lifestyle is among the top 5 perpetrators of climate change and biosphere collapse, then I’m going to back those up with facts. I want you to believe me – that is, assuming you’re the rare sort of person who is actually convinced by silly things like facts.

4. I will not stop talking about biosphere collapse, resource depletion, and peak energy.

I won’t. If that makes you uncomfortable, then unfollow me and go look at more lifestyle porn.

5. This blog will not shy away from difficult discussions, but it won’t be afraid to have fun sometimes too.

While I don’t care one whit about my reader’s personal comfort zones, I do still care about having fun, and giving myself the breathing room to enjoy small things in life. For instance, discovering that I could use frozen sweet potato instead of banana in chocolate smoothies was nice – I haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater yet and still like finding ways to make my food just a little more local when I can.

One of the most important things we have to learn, if we’re to take ecological destruction and lowering glass ceilings and flattening EROEIs seriously, is how to entertain more than one emotional state at once. Happiness and sadness can coexist in us quite readily; there’s no rulebook anywhere that says you can’t feel both without being overcome with guilt. Guilt, moreover, as a chronic state of mind is hideously useless, and actually pretty counterproductive – it twists our perspective into seeing everything and anything as a potential bogeyman or a potential savior. You might recall just how much ink has been spilled in the world of fiction on characters who are trying to assuage their guilt.

We don’t need to be puritans – in fact, we probably shouldn’t. The point of no return for catastrophic climate change, biosphere collapse, and sustainable technology passed a long time ago. Everything now is farts in the wind. I mean really! How long did it take for us to get from 300ppm to 400? A small handful of years, and global emissions continue to climb. We’re SOL – it’s time we got over it, started saying goodbye to the rhinos and bears and fish, and quit Facebook already.

The ability to find happiness in the direst of straights has served humanity well for as long as we’ve been around. Love, beauty, silliness, skill – we can enjoy these things no matter what. We can enjoy them even though we know that things have gone to pot, and that we all are very much complicit in it doing so.

We Might Learn From the Cubans

At 28, 5 years after moving back to LA from my college days in New York City, I’ve bought my first car. He’s all steel, with a curb weight of about 3800 pounds and an engine, I keep hearing, that just won’t quit. “Bulletproof” is a descriptor I’ve heard and read about the inline 6 countless times now. People get into accidents with them and are able to drive away in their totaled cars, unharmed.

If my car was a person, though, he’d be old enough to drink. Born in 1996 with three previous owners and 193,000 miles under his belt, the relationship I plan on having with this car is going to be one that not many Americans will be able to relate to. Jeepers will, obviously: It’s a Jeep thing. But the people I hope to take inspiration from in the years ahead will be the Cubans and their “yank tanks”.

Zero wasters and other low-impact folk really need to look at how Cuba has survived the 60 years since President Kennedy signed the order that choked off all resources to the small, harmless, communist nation in an attempt at attrition. The islanders didn’t succumb to US bullying, though: things were very hard, but they made do with what they had to work with. They are agriculturally self-sufficient, they’ve perfected the art of preventative medicine, and they’ve succeeded in keeping the nation’s fleet of 1950’s-era cars running in spite of sanctions and the complete collapse of a replacement parts market.  Motor Trend magazine sent a writer there to experience the Cuban car culture and this is the sight he was greeted with:

…strolling the busy streets of Havana today is like teleporting back into a 1950s Hollywood movie. You half expect Jimmy Stewart to drive past tailing Kim Novak in his DeSoto. We came here knowing we’d see a few classic American rides, but, in fact, amid a sprinkling of Russian Ladas and the occasional Korean compact, the grand old iron is everywhere. At a nearby curb sits a ’52 Ford Crestliner. There on the Malecón, the broad artery that sweeps along Havana’s waterfront, glides a ’57 Buick Century, followed quickly by a ’58 Chevy Impala and a ’57 Plymouth Fury. Few and far between are the cream puffs, true, but most of the passing museum pieces look amazingly good considering they’re well past retirement age and have never stopped working fulltime.

Most of these vehicles, as the author calls them though, are “zombies” and “mutants”. Many of them don’t even have the original motors anymore, and some of them don’t even have car motors. But is that so bad?

Dimitrio lifts the massive hood [of his 1953 Oldsmobile]. “This engine? Soviet. But not normal car engine. They use this to power welding machine.” Indeed, much of Dimitrio’s Oldsmobile runs on similarly ingenious life support. He points to the driver’s door. “That car is 60 years old. Where you can find a door for that piece of shit? If someone smashes your car, they have to make a new one.” Dimitrio moves to the back of the work yard, picks up a finished rectangle of “new” floorpan. “These guys, they make the pieces by hand — with a hammer.” He runs his fingers over the symmetrical square indentations in the metal, each one hand-beaten into shape. “This isn’t work,” says Dimitrio. “This…is art.”

A sustainable automobile culture and industry could never have looked like anything but this. They would have to be treated as heirlooms, driven by careful owners and maintained by guilds of car-wrights. But instead we’ve built the entire apparatus of automobile construction and maintenance around the rapidly fading mirage of cheap energy. Instead, we live in a culture where people upgrade cars faster than they upgrade mattresses. And like everything else in our failing world of consumer goods, even our cars are increasingly designed to be disposable.

I mean, let’s face the facts here: my 1996 Jeep Cherokee that gets 20 MPG under the best of conditions is, in a number of ways, more sustainable than a brand new Tesla or Prius. The most obvious reason is due to the reality of embodied energy – the carbon footprint of simply manufacturing a new vehicle and getting it to the show floor. If you take a look at the numbers for a Tesla vehicle – or even the new Tesla battery pack “Gigafactory”, the plant that’s due to be responsible for manufacturing the very backbone of its vehicles – it just doesn’t work out. However, it’s more than that: it’s the hidden maintenance costs of flimsy vehicles riddled with computer chips, cameras, and other “smart” technology. Who can fix a Tesla when it breaks down? Not you, that’s for sure – the learning curve for performing maintenance on a Tesla vehicle is so steep that you have currently have no choice but to take it to a dealership for repairs. You can’t just be a mechanic anymore; you apparently have to be a computer engineer as well.

There are other questions too: how easy is it to total? What is the carbon footprint of every individual component under the hood? How many miles will each component last? How easy are the parts to make and what is the embodied energy of the tools required to make them? How long can the workhorse keep running with a simple preventative maintenance routine, or does it need kid glove treatment and witches brews of exotic fluids?

I highly doubt that a Tesla battery can even theoretically last as long as a well-maintained straight 6: I’ve heard from guys who’ve put over 500,000 miles on their Jeeps, and their engines are still going strong. Moreover, when the engine does finally die (and it’s not just a cracked head or broken rod), the block is iron. It can be retooled, rebuilt, and hopefully, reused for another 500k miles. Of course, rebuilding even a basic engine like this costs a few grand and several dozens of hours of work, and most people – most people in the States – would rather just get another car. But I don’t want to be most people if I can avoid it.

Voluntary simplicity doesn’t just apply to wardrobes and kitchen cabinets. In Cuba’s case, the simplicity was quite involuntary, but the things they’ve created due to the strict limitations put on their day-to-day lives forced some amazing things to happen. That’s not to say that the average Cuban wouldn’t trade their 1950’s jalopy with a 4-cylinder Kia motor for something newer; they’re simply a people forced into mind-blowing creative solutions in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. But that sort of convenience that we’ve come to expect from things like “progress” and “growth” hasn’t gotten us anywhere good lately.

I like to joke that the only “power” feature I’ve got in my car is steering. Aside from the 10-year-old aftermarket stereo, the only buttons I’ve got in the Jeep are for the headlights, defroster, and climate control. He’s about as bare-bones as a 90’s car is going to get (aside, of course, from the coveted 4×4 transfer case), which means that performing my own maintenance is going to be about as easy it gets. The DIY ethic among Jeepers, I should note, is generally about as strong as their love for the brand, and community support is phenomenal.

Every make has its group of aficionados, but aside from hot rodders and vintage muscle car guys, the level of dedication just doesn’t compare in the wider car-loving culture. We just don’t need to give a damn about our cars so long as they get us where we need to go. How many folks read their owner’s manuals cover to cover? (did. And I’ll probably be doing it again for a refresher soon enough.)

I won’t lie: the simplest thing to do would be to not have a car at all. In fact, since buying the Jeep, my life has gotten about twice as complex as it was before. If I’m to learn to fix the Jeep, then I need to know the Jeep: I’ve already spent dozens of hours researching parts, model year quirks, potential upgrades, problems, noises, wiring diagrams, octane ratings, maintenance schedules, best practices, and even etiquette. I know how to begin diagnosing problems that I had no idea existed before, or check the integrity of parts that I ever knew needed checking. The Jeep is not a low-maintenance vehicle; he requires a level of vigilance that most other car owners could never be bothered with. I glance at my gauges as often as I glance at the rearview mirror while driving. I keep a notebook in the glove compartment with a list of every single little thing I’ve done to him, who did it, and how many miles was on the odometer when it was done. I keep a towel in the back for when I need to pop the hood and get my hands dirty.

But I need a car now, and I refused to get one that I didn’t love enough to be in it for the long haul. Just as I don’t want my life riddled with disposable clothes, disposable plates, or disposable bags. And the old wartime adage of “make do and mend” extends to so much more than just socks. We don’t get rid of our homes as soon as they show signs of wear and tear, as soon as the plumbing goes out, or the roof leaks, or a fire levels the garage. We do so much living in our vehicles, that the same should be said of them too.

So, I’m going to learn from the Cubans as much as I can. Such a way of doing things is laborious, sometimes not especially cost-effective, and within the unimpressive rigidity of our convenience-driven consumer culture, it’s probably even just plain lunacy. But so long as I can afford parts and can tackle the relatively modest learning curve of car maintenance, then by all means: call me crazy.

(Must be a Jeep thing.)

More on the Cuban cottage auto industry:

More on high mileage cars:

What I’m Reading: Friday Link Roundup

How bad is email for the environment? – The Washington Post

A story started making the rounds last week about French energy regulators asking companies to cut back on email in order to save energy. It sort of sounds like a satirical piece — it did, in fact, end up in Reddit’s “Not the Onion” subsection — but the suggestion really does come from the French regulator RTE.

Which got us thinking: How do our tech habits affect how much power we use and the environment?

Living world: should natural entities be treated as legal persons? – Resource Insights
An interesting post about where this is happening, and why we should probably want to see more of it.

A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel – Harvard Business Review
There are so many nails in the FB coffin. And yet, everyone still uses it.

History suggests there is a way to lower inequality. But you’re not going to like it – The Washington Post
No, you’re not going to like it very much at all. But the real world isn’t cute kittens and Dwell centerfolds. The environmentally-inclined still have a chance to become historically literate (most of us are woefully ignorant of anything that happened before the industrial revolution, which is big part of what caused our demise as a mass movement) if only to be able to see how things might likely turn out in the years ahead instead of banking on pipe dreams like transparent solar panels and hydrogen cars, and being caught with our pants down when those things inevitably fizzle out like every other environmentalist pipdream.

Moreover, we need to prepare for the likelihood of violence happening closer to home than we ever thought possible. Peace never lasts, and only the most insulated members of a population ever manage to convince themselves that it’ll always be on somebody else’s doorstep, or that they are somehow a chosen people the ravages of time can’t touch. It becomes very hard to worry about those plastic cups when you’re forced from your home and left wondering how to keep your family alive. (Wide mouth stainless steel or Nalgene bottles are very handy for survival situations, however. I’d recommend single-walled stainless: you can cook in them.)

Don’t Be That Lady.

We had a lady show up at work today asking for some water. So my co-worker grabbed a plastic cup, proceeded to fill it, and handed it to her. This was when we found out that she’d wanted to fill up her ostentatiously overpriced Swell bottle.

“I don’t want a plastic cup, that’s bad for the environment.”

We explained that her ostentatiously overpriced personal drinking vessel was not allowed to touch our equipment because of health reasons. My co-worker said this came down from the health department (which is a story I hadn’t heard yet, though to be fair, I haven’t heard any explanation for the change whatsoever), and that there was nothing we could do. This poor woman, thinking of nothing but the welfare of “the environment”, refused the disposable cup and presumably went to a supervisor to find out what could be done. She returned a few minutes later with the supervisor, who explained that he’d talked to one of the assistant store managers, who said that we were allowed to fill her cup with our disposable cup, and then reuse the disposable cup for another customer.

This seemed marginally satisfactory to her, and so she proceeded to awkwardly try to pour water from a 32 oz. cup into the tiny, useless mouth of her Swell bottle, spilling water everywhere in the process.

My co-workers had since turned their attention somewhere else, and sensing that the situation was not adequately resolved, I told her that the decision had come down from corporate, and that if this was really important to her, it would do her well to write them about it. This seemed to reinvigorate her, giving her a kind of recourse she hadn’t considered until then, and she walked away from the exchange with a sense of purpose.

My co-workers laughed about it for a while, and they congratulated me on being such a good mediator. I told them that the rule was “fucking stupid”, since every other coffee bar on earth takes personal cups – we reusable types buy insulated mugs for a reason! – and they agreed.

But the encounter was still funny to them, and me too.

Because this woman is a dime a dozen: your stereotypical conscious consumer who doesn’t actually have a damned clue about what they’re supposed to be conscious of. So let’s break this moment down a little.

First off, she showed up with a ostentatiously overpriced Swell bottle. The design is meant to feel sleek and luxurious, not actually be practical in any way. Wider mouth bottles are easier to fill in all manner of situations, not just sink faucets, and they’re easier to clean. Stainless steel is also neither eco-friendly nor sustainable in any meaningful sense.

Secondly, her verbalized rationale: “That’s bad for the environment.” Nothing sets off my shelteredenvironmentalistdar like hearing words such as those spoken about disposable plastic cups in a corporate grocery store chain with very plainly dubious sustainability practices. Guess what? Her Prius is bad for the environment too – so is the sheetrock in the walls of her house, as well as the manufacturing practices that produced the clothes on her body, and as the energy that will inevitably go into sending her angry email off to Whole Foods customer service. Fixating on plastic cups as part of your strategy to save the environment is about as useful as fixating on dust bunnies in your strategy to save your already burning house. (Keeping a tidy house, however, will make it easier to get out alive when it does inevitably go up in flames.)

Thirdly, the appeal to authority: the poor supervisor she got involved. He wasn’t even our supervisor, but some leadership for what we call “front end” –  basically check-out and all the store infrastructure that concerns coming and going from the store. The woman clearly had no idea how retail businesses actually work, which is her first mistake, because then she would have known that most of us are completely powerless to do anything but obey the health department (where it’s convenient for the store to do so, of course), and make customers as happy as possible while extracting as much money from them as possible. If we tell you that we can’t do something, then know that we don’t say that lightly: one of our unspoken maxims is to never tell a customer “no”. So when we do actually have to tell them no, it’s a big deal. It came from on high. Our non-answer should have clued her into how entrenched we are in this culture of expert lip service and limited liability.

Her last mistake was trusting Whole Foods to give a damn. Let me say this in plain English: Whole Foods does not give a damn. It doesn’t give a damn about climate change, it doesn’t give a damn about waste reduction, it doesn’t give a damn about resource overshoot and depletion, it doesn’t give a damn about pollution, it doesn’t give a damn about sustainability. What Whole Foods cares about is making money, just like every other business in the country. (If Whole foods really gave a damn about any of those things, it’d declare itself a conscientious objector of industrial consumer capitalism and close its doors.) This woman didn’t even have the faintest idea that Whole Foods didn’t have her best interests at heart, wasn’t completely committed to environmental and humanitarian issues, and that money, somehow, doesn’t come first.

Please don’t be this woman. Please get your facts straight, get your environmental statistics from someplace other than Treehugger or Facebook, and stop putting blind faith in a system that only values you for the plastic in your wallet. By all means, make a stink about the ridiculousness of requiring disposable cups at a coffee bar – raise hell even – but as you do it, remember that, in the scheme of things, it’s as futile as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.