Whither scenic beauty?*

I am currently doing my PhD field work, which involves interviewing people about the governance aspects of landscape-scale biodiversity conservation. Driving through a number of different landscapes over the past 5 weeks has reinvigorated my interest in the ways aesthetic preferences affect the way we interact with landscapes. At first aesthetic preferences seems a rather in banal aspect on which to place my focus. However, such preferences influence our perceptions ecosystem health and the conservation actions we think are required (or not required) in a landscape.

My interest in the topic was sparked when I first moved to Australia. I was given a similar disclaimer every time someone took me out into the bush**: “It takes some getting used to.” After walking around for a bit, they would tentatively ask, “So what do you think?” I always responded that I thought it was beautiful. I tend to prefer “messy” landscapes to “tidy” ones, and the Australian bush tends to fall into the former category.

John Forrest

John Forrest National Park in Western Australia

Fire

Burned area in Wireless Hill Park in Perth.

Atherton Tablelands

In the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland. Those are termite mounds between the trees.

Valley of the Giants

Valley of the Giants in Denmark, Western Australia

Both personally and professionally, I have found that many Australians, even those born and raised here, have aesthetic preferences that align much more with their European heritage than the realities of the Australian environment in which they live. On settlement, the intention in many places in Australia was, in fact, to create a ‘Little England’, despite the fact that the environments are wildly different. This includes Tasmania, where one of my case study regions is located (see, e.g. 1). The Australian bush generally doesn’t fit the European aesthetic. The trees are often messy, woodlands are often too open or too dense and shrubby, the landscape is often burnt, and for much of the year it can look pretty dry. Though many of our ecosystems in Australia qualify as among the most biodiverse in the world, you have to know what you’re looking at to realise that. There are exceptions, of course, and I have included some of those exceptions in this post. What really gets me thinking, however, is the way our aesthetic preferences affect the way we perceive and manage landscapes, particularly when there is a mismatch between these preferences and the dynamics of the ecosystem.

Landscapes are inherently social. Not only because most have evidence of human intervention, but also because the

Standing dead trees in the Tasmanian Midlands. Does this decline mean we should more urgently attend to issues in the landscape? Or does it send a signal to you that the system is too far gone?

Standing dead trees in the Tasmanian Midlands. Does this decline mean we should more urgently attend to issues in the landscape? Or does it send a signal to you that the system is too far gone?

way we perceive them has implications for the way we interact with them. Aesthetic preferences are an important component of that perception. For non-experts, scenic beauty serves as a surrogate for ecosystem health. If we think a natural area is beautiful, we are more likely to view it has healthy. Sometimes beauty comes from our perception that the place is “pristine” or “untouched” (though we are very bad at assessing whether or not that is the case). Downed wood from logging is one of the most influential variables in lay people’s perceptions of forest health (e.g. 2). But we aren’t entirely consistent with the way we interpret signs of human influence. We also interpret some signs of management (e.g. weeding, thinning of understorey) as “cues to care” that indicate a forest has a caretaker and is therefore healthier (3). “Messy” ecosystems, like some of those that I have shown in this post, are not only under-appreciated aesthetically, but we often have trouble translating such chaos into ecosystem function.

Landscape-scale is the focus of my research because it is the scale at which many major threats operate. The term is nebulous and defined differently by landscape artists, planners, and ecologists. However, let’s settle for now on a notion of a landscape as something that does not extend beyond our “perceptible realm”, as humans have great difficulty engaging in other scales of interest (4). Why is this important?

At this scale, landscape perception thus becomes the key process for connecting humans with ecological phenomena. Particularly relevant to this paper, aesthetic experiences evoked through perception of the landscape powerfully and regularly engage people with ecosystems. This implies that landscapes that are perceived as aesthetically pleasing are more likely to be appreciated and protected than are landscapes perceived as undistinguished or ugly, regardless of their less directly perceivable ecological importance.Aesthetic experiences may thus lead people to change the landscape in ways that may or may not be consistent with its ecological function. (4: p. 960)

Does this grassland invoke the same feelings you would have in a forest? What if you knew it was an endangered grassland?

Does this grassland invoke the same feelings you would have in a forest? What if you knew it was an endangered grassland?

For the sake of brevity, I won’t discuss all of the literature on this. I want to just focus for a moment on my thoughts and experiences, as this is the benefit to having a personal blog, after all! In my experience, there are many people who do not appreciate the biodiversity values of Australian landscapes unless they fit a particular aesthetic mode. This certainly seems to be the case where I live, in Perth, and I have heard time and time again from people who think our bush is “pretty average” *** This in spite of the Southwest corner of Western Australia being a biodiversity hotspot. Yet the key, I think, is actually in that classification itself. Biodiversity hotspots are identified as such not just by virtue of their  biodiversity values, but the fact that those values are under threat. But you won’t see WA residents coming out in droves to protect their local patch, even if they will come out to protect an iconic bit of wilderness that is much more aesthetically pleasing. Are the threats perceived as less threatening because we are underwhelmed by the bush? I don’t know, but I do wonder.

In the Tasmanian Midlands, we have a critically endangered ecological community (i.e. the Lowland Native Grasslands). Yet if you ask most Tasmanians about this region, many will tell you that it’s the agricultural wasteland between Hobart and Launceston. Though many of the landholders recognise what they have, many others perceive a landscape that is highly modified and a bit of a lost cause at this point. On a research field trip to the region, I heard one person refer to conservation in the Tasmanian Midlands as “conservation for connoisseurs”. Like a fine food or drink that may not taste great to an unrefined palate, the midlands landscape may not look like a landscape worthy of our protection and resource investment. It may just look like a region full of sheep and poppies with few “natural” values left, and there are certainly problems with ecosystem function in this landscape. But the fact is that this does not mean the biodiversity values are gone, and that many of these are actually an important part of the social and economic viability of that landscape. Does the fact that it doesn’t look like some of Tasmania’s other, more iconic landscapes make it less worthy of protection?

By Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg: JJ Harrison (http://www.noodlesnacks.com/) derivative work: Pointillist (Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Scott’s Peak from Lake Pedder in Southwest Tasmania: JJ Harrison (http://www.noodlesnacks.com/) derivative work: Pointillist (Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The relationship between aesthetics and biodiversity conservation policy and management is complicated, but I do think it is important. Biodiversity conservation is, and probably always will be, normative. And non-expert judgments of ecosystems often hinge on aesthetic perceptions, as these drive our connection to iconic places. This has very obvious implications. Destruction of grasslands don’t bring people out in droves; but forests do…certainly in Tasmania. It may also be more difficult to convince people to invest in these less conventionally “beautiful” landscapes, especially in times of limited resources in which the iconic landscapes like the TarkineKimberley, and the Great Barrier Reef are under threat and worth of protection as well.

My point here is not that we shouldn’t protect iconic landscapes, nor is it that we should favour messy landscapes because they are the underdog of conservation. My point is that we cannot trust that our perceptions of an ecosystem can tell us about its value. Just like many of our other sensory experiences, I think we operate under an illusion of scenic beauty and need to challenge our natural inclinations. Though I do not operate under the misguided assumption that knowledge cures all environmental ills, I do think that we should pause before jumping to conclusions about the ecological value of a landscape in the absence of knowledge about its function.

I personally love the Tasmanian Midlands landscape, but I also saw it for the first time on a research trip with knowledgable guides. Perhaps I would have felt the same way even if the circumstances were different. I don’t know. There is one thing that I do know for certain, however, and that’s that the adage to not judge a book by its cover doesn’t just apply to people. My move to Australia has taught me that things of great value can often be found in the most unassuming packages.

DSC08809

Near Tunbridge Township Lagoon in the Tasmanian Midlands.

*The title of this post comes from an article that seeks to find a balance between expert-driven landscape planning that leans heavily on biophysical aspects of the landscape and perception-driven approaches that favour socio-cultural perceptions (5).

** In Western Australia, all forest seems to be referred to as “the bush” but in other places in Australia, I more often hear the words forest and woodland. Not sure if there are regional differences, but “the bush” is kind of a signature term in Australia.

*** In Australian terms “pretty average” generally means not good at all…just inoffensive I guess. For example, if you go out on a blind date and your friends say “was she hot?” and you say “she was pretty average” that basically means you weren’t attracted to her. Australians also often use it when they dislike something, but they don’t want to whinge. Example: “What do you think of the way X government programs is run?” They may say, “It was pretty average” but when probed further will offer a string of reasons why it was, in fact, below average.

Barron Falls in far north Queensland

Barron Falls in far north Queensland

1. Boyce, J. 2008. Van diemen’s land, Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc.

2. Nassauer J.I. 1995b. Messy ecosystems, orderly frames. Landscape Journal, 14: 161-170.

3. Ribe R.G. 1991. The scenic impact of key forest attributes and long-term management alternatives for hardwood forests. In: McCormick, Larry H.; Gottschalk, Kurt W., eds. Proceedings, 8th CentralHardwood Forest Conference; 1991 March 4-6; University Park, PA. Gen. Tech. Rep. NE-148. Radnor, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station: 34-54.

4. Gobster, P. H., Nassauer, J. I., Daniel, T. C. & Fry, G. 2007. The shared landscape: What does aesthetics have to do with ecology? Landscape Ecology, 22(7), 959-972. See a copy free here.

5. Daniel T.C. 2001. Whither scenic beauty? Visual landscape quality assessment in the 21st century. Landscape and Urban Planning, 54(1): 267-282.


Individualism, Hierarchy, Solidarity, and Fatalism

I was sorting through some old emails today, and I came across a discussion from a few months ago between me and other researchers. One of them had suggested it would make an excellent blog post, but none of us ever wrote one. So here I am. I am sharing my personal thoughts on the matter, not theirs.

The discussion was prompted by a lecture given by Matthew Taylor, CEO of the Royal Society for the Arts. You can listen to it on the ABC’s* Big Ideas podcast or online here. You can also read an article he wrote on these issues here.

The basic premise of the lecture is that three sources of social power – individualism, hierarchy, and solidarity – need to be present for society to function. He also mentions fatalism as a fourth force, but this is largely set aside in the lecture. All three are fairly self-explanatory: hierarchical power comes from those who have (or think they have) authority to tell us what to do, solidarity originates from the groups to which we belong and share values, and individualistic power has its origins in our desire to survive and succeed. As he succinctly puts it: I’ll do what I’m told (hierarchy), I’ll do what everyone else is doing (solidarity), and I’ll do what I want to do (individualism).

In thinking about how to tackle “wicked problems”, Taylor suggests that we approach them from a design perspective, rather than a policy perspective, using these forces as a lens through which we view potential solutions. In other words, we can leverage on these forces in designing solutions to the complex problems that trouble society.

A quick note for context: The term “wicked problems” refers to complex policy problems that cannot be defined completely and for which most solutions are less than optimal (Rittel and Webber 1973). Many environmental problems fall under this umbrella.

These forces often operate all at once and generate friction when they meet. Taylor uses the example of climate change, which I think is an excellent one. People often firmly commit to one of three paths: individual ingenuity and technology will solve the problem, world leaders sign off on treaties to bring the world community in line, or we need to all chip in and collectively change the way we live. Fatalism, of course, is the view that it’s all made up; or if it’s not, we’re all screwed. The topic of my PhD, biodiversity, could also be similarly parsed into these four categories: individual management and conservation of the remaining patches of habitat will save us, we must join together and connect these patches across landscapes, or the government should command from on high that no actions that threaten the remaining biodiversity will be tolerated. A more fatalistic view would say that extinction has always occurred and is inevitable, thus we should stop trying to prop up some of these species just because they are cute and cuddly.

Kookaburra

This post was seriously lacking in pictures, so here’s a kookaburra thrown in for good measure. Photo: Kookaburra and frog (2), 24 May 2009 via Flickr, Richard Taylor, CC BY-SA

Quite rightly, I think, Taylor argues that we need all three to solve wicked problems, but that in today’s society they have become unbalanced. I will leave you to listen to the whole lecture if you please, rather than rehashing it all here, but it did prompt a few thoughts about how this intersects with my own research and thinking about institutions. First I’ll clarify what I mean when I say “institution”. Institutions are the rules, norms, and strategies that shape the behaviour of individuals and organisations. They can be formal, like policies, but they are often informal, like the practice of heckling the opposition in parliament. They can be abstract, like marriage or economic markets, or more concrete, like policies on paper. Think of the way you run your household. Those sets of household rules and norms (unspoken and spoken) are institutional arrangements. Institutions organise our lives and make things predictable. But in doing so they are also embedded with those four forces that Taylor discusses in his lecture.

Starting with this view, Taylor’s approach offers an interesting way to think about designing institutions. I am a firm believer in the idea that we need to tailor solutions in the problem we are trying to address. That said, calling it “the problem” is incomplete, as problems are understood from multiple perspectives. Individualism, hierarchy, and solidarity are but one way to shed light on these different perspectives. They aren’t the categories that I will be using, but they are indeed very useful ways to think about the problem. Both those who cause environmental problems and those with the capacity and/or authority to solve them often view the issue quite differently. The former may adopt an individualistic view, and the latter a hierarchical view. I suppose Taylor’s view is not an earth shattering take on the matter. In fact, it’s quite intuitive. Still, it can be a useful or enlightening way to prompt policy makers to think about solutions that align with each of these categories, rather than handing down a solution from on high (which sometimes seems the easiest option). The idea is that we get to the heart of the problem, rather than pushing down with force.

Taylor advocates for a design approach to solving wicked problems, so the real quandary for me in all of this are the embedded assumptions in the word “design”. Though my research falls under the umbrella of institutional design, I have not yet fully come to terms with what it means to design institutions. In part its a tacit implication of a god-like designer, but more so it is because the term can be a bit misleading at first glance. Although we can design policies, and identify leverage points that can change behaviour, there are limits to our ability to “design” solutions. Societies are of course complex systems, and once a solution enters into this system it can evolve into something quite different than intended. There is a range of perspectives on the limits of design.  I personally fall into the camp that says any attempt will be incomplete, but that the best you can probably do is indirectly design solutions to complex problems by finding the important leverage points. Though design is to some extent possible, the idea is just that institutions do not emerge fully formed from a design process, but rather they take on a life of their own and evolve.

I think Taylor partly addresses the limits to design when he discusses at one point how his approach to solving complex problems gets to the heart of the problem but that it is incremental, rather than in search of a “once and for all solution” which is what politicians might want. He noted that all of the different solutions are going to interact and that we need to be flexible as we make changes and adjust as we go, like moulding a clay pot.

If you listen to the lecture, I highly recommend listening all the way through the questions from the audience. These were quite revealing. It seemed several people were rather unsatisfied because they couldn’t see how his ideas would work in practice. There was a very enlightening part of the question period that illustrates this (and the notion of that institutions evolve in ways we might not have intended) very well. At one point, someone lamented the decline of traditional institutions, and suggested that liberal values are eroding those institutions that are seen as inequitable or unpalatable to modern sensibilities (e.g. church, marriage). This has become a familiar refrain in modern media.

Though it frustrates me that people adopt such a static view of social institutions, I do understand the origins of the fear. We have a very difficult time seeing innovations in the institutions we know so well because these institutions help shape our thoughts.

Iron cage

The imagery of an “iron cage” is often used to describe how institutions tend to become homogenous. Photo: Framed rebar, 15 Sept 2007 via Flickr, BY-YOUR-⌘, CC BY-SA

When familiar institutions are under threat, we also panic for a number of other reasons, besides not knowing what comes next.Though institutions like marriage evolve over time, many of these changes are slow enough that they don’t feel threatening. When a faster change emerges,  there is often a sense that we are approaching unknown territory. It can feel as though these familiar institutions will dissolve completely, and we will be left in an institutional void. What will replace the old institutions? People often seem to fear the worst, i.e. that they will be replaced by nefarious institutions that threaten civil society. Perhaps this is because we haven’t known life without these traditional institutions, and we think they are the only ones that can bind society together. Or perhaps we just cannot imagine what could replace them because our innovation is stifled by the familiar. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, I suppose.

For the record, I think a lot of the panic about erosion of our institutions is overblown. I personally don’t think institutions like marriage or the church are under threat of extinction, but they are going to evolve and change, just like most things in life. Even if we do allow liberal values to change them, however, they likely won’t be unrecognisable or completely new.  Returning to environmental problems, the green economy will not be a completely unrecognisable economy to us. Many of the same patterns of behaviour will still be there, even if the inputs and outputs change.

Design Frame

The past provides a frame for designing the future. Photo: Framed tower 8 July 2009 via Flickr, greckor, CC BY-SA

In the world of institutions, nothing is every completely new or completely traditional**. We will always have a design frame shaped by our past and our present. Institutions can be designed, but it’s difficult for us to undertake the activity of design without viewing it through a frame that has been shaped by past and current institutions.

Hypothetically, it is possible that we could decide to completely dismantle all environmental institutions to solve complex problems like climate change and biodiversity loss and decline, but it is unlikely that we will do so. And if Taylor is correct, then design is not only shaped by current and past arrangements, but it also shaped by those four forces, implicitly even if not explicitly. I may still struggle with the attachment of the word “design” to solutions for wicked problems, but I do like that he has brought sources of power to the fore, and highlighted their role not only in complex problems but also in their resolution.

* For Americans, that’s Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the ABC in America. It’s like PBS.

** This comes from the concept of bricolage. For an excellent discussion of bricolage, I highly recommend this book by Frances Cleaver:

CLEAVER, F. 2012. Development through bricolage: Rethinking institutions for natural resource management, London: Routledge.


Blog Revival and a Few Book Reviews: Introverts, Decisions, and Critical Thinking

I plan to revive this blog soon, and write more about thoughts that are related – but perhaps tangental – to my research. I will soon be conducting my fieldwork for my PhD thesis, and although I won’t be able to share specific details about that, I know the experience will prompt many thoughts that will be worth sharing. I am looking forward to getting off the computer and back into the world. I’ve spent months developing a conceptual framework, so I’ve been knee (mind?) deep in theory. Time to return to practice. 

For today, however, I’m just going to share a few reviews from Goodreads that I have written in recent months. If you’re a book nerd like me, you should really try out that site. You can see all my reviews at http://www.goodreads.com/saraheclement.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

As an introvert who loves books, spending time reading a book about introverts was blissful. I really enjoyed this book, just as I suspected when I first stumbled upon Cain’s Ted talk. It was thoughtful, well-written, and entertaining. More importantly, it has helped alleviate some of my guilt about who I am. Like other introverts Cain discusses in the book, I am prone to guilt, particularly guilt about my introversion and a deep-rooted sense that my personality is somehow “wrong”. Cain offers a wealth of advice not only for introverts, but also for extroverts who undoubtedly deal with extroverts in their lives or even want to cultivate the more introspective elements of their personality. Without knowing it, I have developed many of the coping techniques for introverts that Cain discusses in the book, so it was good to see that I was on the right track; but there was also plenty that was new for me. For instance, when performing a task, introverts divert more of their attention to monitoring how that task is going than extroverts do. I just thought that was a peculiar quirk I had – a need to always know where I am going and what I have done so far. I was also a bit put off by the title “Quiet” because I am an introvert, but no shrinking violet like I thought the name implied. Then I realised, like so many others in the book, I have developed an extroverted character that I play in social situations, but at my core I crave quiet to think and perform my best.

Cain manages to strike a good balance in this book. As I said, there is a wealth of information to help introverts as well as extroverts, and it would be great if more teachers, bosses, friends, and partners of introverts would read this book. There’s research, but this is more a pop psychology book, so that research is interwoven with many personal stories of people she knows and people she interviewed. It’s a fairly quick read, yet she covers the topic in sufficient depth and breadth. She doesn’t denigrate extroverts in the process of discussing the qualities of introverts. Her central thesis is a reasonable one: that we’re living in a society too heavily skewed towards extroverts, and we need to also provide environments in which introverts can thrive. Any introvert who has worked in an open office plan or attended a networking event knows just how painful this extrovert bias can be, and while we can certainly hone our acting skills and pretend to be extroverts, to do so without “restorative niches” is exhausting. But this book is about so much more than this simple thesis, and I would highly recommend it to anyone; but particularly to other introverts that may not entirely embrace, understand, or nurture this aspect of their personality.

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

I bought this book on a whim when I was browsing in the psychology section, mainly because this was the only book (besides Kahneman’s most recent) in that section that was not a ridiculous self-help book. I’m not sure what’s happening to the psychology section of book stores, but I do know that this was an excellent impulse buy. I really liked the way this book was organised. Each chapter built on the previous one, taking the reader through a really compelling narrative about how we decide – exactly as advertised. He does an excellent job of weaving personal narratives with the research, which really made the information about the way the brain works easier to understand and absolutely fascinating. One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was that he has restored some of my faith in my brain! This may sound a bit odd, but after reading books like Mistakes Were Made and Invisible Gorilla, you start to get a bit flustered with just how wrong you can be. This book was a good counterbalance to the effect of reading those. Although he does discuss the weaknesses of the way our brain regions interact when making a decision, he also discusses many of the strengths and provides really clear, tangible ways that we can protect ourselves from errors and play on those strengths. It’s not an academic work, so the referencing is not very good (just a Bibliography and no in-text citations or footnotes). It didn’t bother me that much, but because I read books like this for the curiosity factor, it does make it difficult to follow up on particular passages that piqued my interest. I imagine that if you were in this field of research, the lack of referencing would annoy you, but I’d say this book isn’t directed at you, rather it’s for the curious layman who wants to know more about what’s happening inside his/her head when making decisions.

How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions by Christopher diCarlo

I admit that the title of this book got me. As an American living abroad, I already feel like a pain in the ass a lot (“Americans are so loud!” “Why do you always ask so many questions?”), so I figured it would be fun to learn new, more constructive ways to irritate people with my probing questions. Unfortunately, this book didn’t really deliver.

This would be a really great book for teaching critical thinking to high schoolers. The writing is clear and easy to understand, and it covered the most basic and important aspects of critical thinking. It’s systematically written, and it’s very clear where diCarlo is taking you. However, the style of writing wasn’t for me, as it seemed more like an essay for university than one with a compelling, interesting narrative. It was almost robotic at times, then he would throw in a pretty decent joke, so I don’t think he’s completely humourless! I just think his personality doesn’t come through in the writing, and even though it’s a book about a serious topic, I think a more compelling narrative would have made the book much better. His paragraphs are also unbearably long in parts, mainly because they cover more than one point. This not only makes it more difficult to read, but it doesn’t make sense given how clear he is in most of the book. He also has a habit of repeating the same points over and over again. In several places he actually has almost an identical sentence written with slightly different wording, right in a row! The only reason I can think of for this is that he teaches undergraduates, and he must be used to having to flag his point really obviously and repeatedly to make sure it gets through. I’m a very slow, careful reader, however, so this drove me insane.

The illustrations in this book are weird. They are often of everyday objects, and it’s difficult to find the method in the madness behind how these were selected. When there are relevant illustrations that are useful, they sometimes just threw me off. In his discussion of the “Onion Skin Theory of Knowledge” for instance, he is actually talking about pre-existing theories that many authors before him have discussed. Using systems theory to explain the relationship between natural and cultural systems is not new, and I found it a bit odd that he didn’t reference any of these authors. There are entire disciplines devoted to this sort of perspective! (e.g. human ecology)

At the beginning of the book he asks you to answer ‘the five big questions’ and then you’re supposed to answer them at the end. They were interesting, but it would have been better if he had either phrased the questions more accurately or set them up better. I personally misinterpreted a few. For instance, “why am I here?” was actually “why is the universe here?” and “what am I?” is actually “where did humans come from?” or something to that effect. If he had explained that this was to get a sense that this was about whether you believe in natural or supernatural origins of life, that would have changed my thinking, but I thought the questions were more about ontology and epistemology.

All that said, I am giving the book a fair rating because I think it’s a really good guide to critical thinking, and I think it will be a useful book to keep around as a reference. I recently heard an interview with diCarlo, and I must say I am looking forward to his next book which is on free will. But I think with that book I will have a look through before buying to see that it’s written in a style that is…well…more my style.

Cookbook Series: Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry

 

The collection.

As promised, here’s the first installment of my series of reviews of the cookbooks I own. First up: Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry. It’s fitting that this is the first cookbook I will review, as it’s my favourite (or at least in my top three – don’t make me choose!). Why? So many reasons…

  • The recipes are unique and creative, and fulfill a unique niche not filled by my other cookbooks. He doesn’t just recreate soul food. He puts new twists on old recipes, and encourages you to create your own twists on family classics. There’s even a space to write and re-create your own family recipe.
  • Terry is a man after my own heart, as he has a recommended song to accompany each recipe. Food and music! Together! As they should be.
  • The recipes are, in general, perfectly balanced between healthy and decadent. While his recipes are often healthier twists on many soul food classics, he’s not afraid to use the ingredients required to replicate the richness of these dishes.
  • There is a recipe for black-eyed pea fritters that are amazing. Although I’ve just linked to the recipe, I assure you that the creation of this recipe, all by itself, is reason enough to buy this cookbook and support this chef. (And don’t wimp out and bake them. Fry them. Trust me.)
  • His recipes are generally foolproof. Some chefs are more scientist than artist, but Terry is definitely an artist. I have a feeling that he sees his recipe as a template that can be played with, and every time I have played with the template it has worked out well. For people that don’t like to follow recipes, that’s great news. Of course it’s also worth noting that his recipes are brilliant as written as well.
  • The ingredients lists and the recipes are short. Not too much detail, nor too little.
  • He has a whole chapter dedicated to ‘zero waste watermelon’ in which he uses every part of the fruit. Brilliant, and I know some other bloggers would agree that there’s a certain genius about finding a way to use every part of this fruit.

Another thing I love is that he tends to consistently use a core group of ingredients, so if you want to make his recipes, you’re not left with orphan ingredients. So many cookbooks send you hunting for random ingredients that you’ll never use again, even if you do like them. With this cookbook, expect ingredients like greens, black-eyed peas, cornmeal, root veggies,  thyme, cayenne and coconut oil to make repeat appearances, along with many other staples of most vegan kitchens like tofu, brown rice, quinoa and tempeh. He also made me fall in love with some ingredients (celeriac) and bemoan our limited selection of produce with a few recipes (why don’t we have plantains…why only ‘cooking bananas’, which are not plantains at all???).

A list of my favourite recipes from this book, to get you interested in checking it out:

  • Blackeyed pea fritters with hot pepper sauce (as previously mentioned – I’ve m

    Blackened Tofu with Succotash Salsa, Christmas 2009. Not winning any awards for photography, but it was delicious.

    ade these more times than I can count).

  • Quinoa cornbread (a twist on traditional cornbread with whole quinoa and a bit of quinoa flour)
  • Roasted plantain pieces with garlic-lime dipping sauce
  • Crispy okra strips with Lime-Thyme Vinaigrette
  • Celeriac sauce (with everything – or the coconut tempeh in the book)
  • Roasted red potato salad with parsley-pine nut pesto (and I don’t even like potatoes all that much!)
  • Sweet Sweetback Salad with Roasted Beet Vinaigrette
  • Grits (all of his recipes for grits are amazing, but my favourite are the creamy grits with cajun-spiced tempeh)
  • Black. Brown. Green. Granola.
  • Blackened tofu slabs with succotash salsa (I convinced James we should have this on Christmas along with the requested hot, stodgy meal. Who wants to eat roasted potatoes and gravy when it’s over 100 F/40C outside???)
  • Baked BBQ blackeyed peas (by far my favourite baked beans recipe – quite different than traditional baked beans).

Honorable mention goes to the tempeh, shitake mushroom and cornmeal dumpling stew because James loved it. Dumplings can even make James – a tempeh hater – eat tempeh. And he would probably add the roasted potato and mixed greens gratin, which was pretty tasty even to me, who is lukewarm on the subject of potatoes. One thing to note, though, is that for those of you who prefer photo-heavy books, don’t look to this book for ‘food porn’. It’s a simple book in terms of its graphic design, and I personally like that. Buy this book for the content, not the aesthetics. Also, if you are afraid of spice (are you crazy??) note that his recipes would be delicious even with the hot spices omitted. Just don’t tell me about it.

For more on Bryant Terry, listen to this great interview from 2009 on Animal Voices, check out his webpage, or even read about his own favourite cookbooks here on 101 Cookbooks.

Work has been crazy lately and will be for the next few months, so expect more posts like these, which are quick and easy to write and don’t require much brain power after a day of exercising the mind at work.

Climate Science Rapid Response Team

A common source of irritation for me is terrible science reporting, particularly in relation to climate change. If you were to follow mainstream news sources, you would think scientists are in an utter state of confusion over climate change, and that they just can’t seem to agree on even the most basic concepts. If you were to read right-wing publications, then you would think that climate change is nothing more threatening than a part of your ‘regularly scheduled’ climate cycle…a left-wing conspiracy to bring the economy to a screeching halt. And if you were to read left-wing publications, you would notice a tendency to consistently raise the intensity and volume of the threat. In other words, it’s hard to find accurate, unbiased reporting on the latest studies that includes all of the pertinent details you need to understand what the researchers are actually saying. As a consequence it is difficult to make heads or tails of what’s going on.

One of the reasons that the reporting is so bad, in my opinion, is that science stories don’t always make good news. They certainly don’t all naturally make excellent headlines that will excite people, and this is exactly what news outlets need to make their headlines stand out amongst the potentially thousands that people come across each day. This means reporters have to find something gripping in any story they report on, and in climate change studies I find this is often not even the main take-home point of the original study.  In fact, it is not uncommon to seize upon a single interesting line in the discussion section (which can be speculation….it is of course, for the purposes of discussion) and run with it. For this reason, climate science can seem as confusing as rocket science, and with as many contradictions as nutrition and health  (wait…is tofu good for me this week, or not?). This is particularly the case f you don’t follow up on stories or only read the big key messages. For instance, I noticed many people were confused by reporting on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef a few years ago. One week you would read all about the bleaching is dying a slow painful death because of climate change, and you would hear what a dire situation we will have on our hands in a few years. Within a month there would be another story where people would read about reefs recovering 10 times faster than we thought they would, yet this is still bad news in the context of climate change as it is due to a unique combination of factors.

And let’s be honest, how many people have the time or inclination to sift through it all and understand exactly what the latest research is saying? I can see why people would be confused, whether they are trying to follow along or not.

It is on topics like this – topics that are big, relatively new, and the subject of much current research – where many of us begin to notice inconsistencies or contradictions on what seems like a daily basis. If you are like me, you will often have a hunch that the reporting is getting it wrong, or at the very least leaving out a big pieces of the story that are essential to the narrative. Yet most of us don’t have access to journal articles, or the time to read the reports that are often released on this topic. So what to do?

Ask a climate scientist who is familiar with the research, of course.

What, you don’t have a friendly local climate scientist you can turn to?

This is one of the reasons I got so excited when I was listening to a (not so) recent Point of Inquiry podcast interview with John Abraham and Scott Mandia about the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. I am decades late on finding out about this (in internet terms…a year is like a decade on the internet, right?), but I am excited nonetheless. Here is a team that will not only field your questions, but they have enlisted 135 climate scientists that will provide a prompt answer:

The role of this endeavor is to provide highly accurate science information to media and government representatives. We believe that scientists have an important role in communicating the science directly with the general public. We encourage questions from recognized media sources and from governments. We will work hard to ensure that all questions are answered as promptly as possible. [Source.]

As Chris Mooney points out in the interview, scientists aren’t exactly known for their media savvy or their quick responses, so this fills an important gap. For the most part, I think it’s fair to say that the narrative on climate change has been created primarily by news outlets, politicians and well…people other than climate scientists. As a highly politicised issue, scientists are not exactly well-placed to address the mis-reporting and are – rightfully so – loathe to engage in the ideologically-driven dialogue. Scientists are often criticised for their inability to communicate their work to the public, so it’s hardly a surprise that we’ve ended up with a mis-match between what science says, the media reports and what the public believes.

If you have the time, I would highly recommend listening to the Point of Inquiry Interview, which you can download on iTunes or listen to here. One of the things that stood out for me the most was the distinction between being an advocate for science education and an advocate for taking specific actions. I think the scientists here have struck a good balance: they are seeking to clarify misunderstandings, inaccuracies, and sometimes muddled reporting whilst not advocating for a specific policy response. This is a tough balance to strike, but I am happy to see that they recognise that it is possible to be an advocate for science without compromising their integrity as scientists.

Now, if only people would post more questions….

You can read the enquiries and public responses here.

Cookbook Series: Organisation

I love cookbooks.

The collection.

From Left: Veganomicon, Vegan Deli, Ani’s Raw Kitchen, Raw Food Revolution Diet, The Complete Soy Cookbook, A Vegan Taste of East Africa, Vegan Soul Kitchen, La Dolce Vegan, The Joy of Vegan Baking, Vegan with a Vengeance, The Vegan Table, Breadmaker’s Guide, 30 Minute Vegan, Vegan Fire and Spice, Peas and Thank You, Vegan Brunch, The World in your Kitchen, Vegan Cooking for One, Squeezed and Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World.
However, until recently I was more a collector of cookbooks than someone who used them to cook. I love cooking without cookbooks; however, I admittedly found myself in a lot of food ruts. Let’s just say that I was making things like palak channa, dhal, Thai green curry, curried split peas (are we sensing a curry theme?), stir fries, and the same couple of tofu and Mexican dishes over and over and over again. I could probably still happily eat those dishes most nights, but since I’ve been meatless since I was 12, I kind of felt it was time for me to re-invigorate my cooking repertoire. It wasn’t because I didn’t have lots of other things that I loved to eat…it was really just because making the same things again and again meant I was guaranteed to like my food and to always have what I needed on hand.

About a year ago, I decided that I needed to stop buying new cookbooks for a while until I committed to making most of the ones from the books I already had. I figured it would not only let me cash in on my investment, but it would be fun trying to work my way through and lead me to some new favourites in the process.

I am so happy with my decision.

I’d say that in the past year I make a new dish at least 3 times per week, but often 6 or 7 new dishes. And I am STILL probably only 25% of the way through this collection. Now, I will always leave at least 25% of it untapped because I don’t really eat or make desserts (sugar makes me feel ill), and there are others that I simply have no interest in (or aren’t actually things I need recipes for). Even so, I would say I have about 40-50% to go! Overwhelming, but kind of neat at the same time.

To keep my sanity in this process, I have come up with a system to ensure that I remember what was good, what was bad and what was just okay. I will share that in this post, and then over the next several months (or probably the next year!) I will review all the cookbooks. I plant to be quite thorough because I am a firm believer that you should only review a cookbook once you’ve made quite a few recipes from it. However, I find a lot of reviews fall short of my expectations when I am looking at a new cookbook purchases, so I hope to at least provide a little clarity to the 2 or 3 people who actually read the reviews.

Onto the organisation. Here’s what I do:

  • I have gone through all of my cookbooks and made a list of the things I want to make. I have done this twice so far: once for warm weather and once for cool weather. If you arein a place that has more definitive seasons than Perth, it’d be even better to make one for Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer. However, here we have only two basic seasons in my opinion, and even those are a bit screwy when it comes to produce. I mean, things like strawberries are in season most of the year! I’ve given up on figuring out why certain things are in season when they are, and just roll with it. I’m getting sidetracked here, but my point is that different things appeal in different weather, so I found that I needed to go through the books again when winter started.
  • The night before grocery shopping, I make a list of the recipes I’ll make for the

    Example of a recipe I've marked up.

    week. That way I can add everything I need to the list. I didn’t do this at first, so I ended up going to the store mid-week. I hate that and it can get expensive (hello, impulse purchases!).

  • When I make the recipes, I note the changes I made. I often also note the weight of ingredients I used for certain things, as I find this provides a more accurate way of making things. I know that sounds pretty pedantic, but basically I do this so that if I love something I can make it the same way again. I am not a very structured cook, but when something works really well, who am I to mess with it? Good cookbooks have groups of recipe testers for a reason: they want to get a consistently excellent result. I want that too, and sometimes that means deviating based on what I have, my dodgy kitchen appliances, and the lack of many vegan products that are available in the US. Noting all of this also helps me know what changes work and what doesn’t. 
  • After I make each recipe, I have a rudimentary rating system: a check (or a ‘tick’ as Aussies would call it) for those things that were good but not great, a check+ for things that are excellent, and a check- for things that are not so great. A few things have even got a big fat X which means never again, but that’s very rare. Luckily, most things I’ve made either have received a check or a check+. I also note anything I want to remember for next time. For most things, James and I agree, but there have been a few things I have just thought were ‘meh’ but he really liked. So I note that, too.

This was a vegetable soup with dumplings. Of course James loved it - it's bread floating in soup!

I normally use about one-quarter of the sweetener called for in a recipe, but sometimes it's still too much. This salad had sweet potatoes, so I should have known not to add any sweetener at all!

So that’s pretty much my system for keeping all this organised. In the end, it’s likely that only those recipes getting a check+ will be made again and again, but there are things that I re-visit that I like better the second time around.

A quick note to those of you that don’t like writing in books: stop being silly! To be honest I don’t understand why people won’t write in any books, but as far as cookbooks are concerned I think it’s incredibly silly. Cookbooks are meant to have worn pages, notes, stains and a range of other blemishes. It’s how you know they’re loved.

Raw Vegetable Stack from 30 Minute Vegan

Not sure if any of that was interesting to anyone, but I hadn’t posted in ages and wanted to write something simple. I know there are a lot of people like me out there that love cookbooks but find they don’t use them enough. I encourage you to put them to use! If nothing else, it will inspire you to get more creative in the kitchen and get out of a food rut. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, and I know most people aren’t interested in making as many new recipes as I have made over the past year, so do what works for you. I happen to find cooking the most relaxing thing after a long day of work, which requires a lot of my brainpower, and a workout, which requires a lot of my physical energy. My favourite way to unwind is to make and eat something new. I find chopping vegetables to be oddly therapeutic, and especially rewarding when it results in something interesting and delicious that I have never made before.

Book Review: The Invisible Gorilla

I read a lot of books on scientific and skeptical themes, many of which I heard on some of my favourite podcasts, such as Point of Inquiry. I highly recommend that podcast and website as a way of sifting through the millions of books out there. I have read many books after listening to interviews with the authors, and they rarely disappoint. Point of Inquiry was, in fact, one of the first mediums that taught me that there even was such a thing as a skepticism as a ‘movement’ or school of thought. Up until then, I just thought I was a weirdo, but once I discovered skepticism, it was like I had won the lottery. Only in this lottery, I mainly won a whole slew of resources and an avenue to meet others with a similar love for science and reason, and I was faced with an overwhelming number of decisions about where to invest my time. So much choice! Anyway, it was through this discovery that I found that not only could I read these books, but that perhaps there would be others like me who would want to talk about them! So I did what any good book nerd would do: I started a book club. A skeptical one, at that.

So far we’ve read some excellent books, such as Bad Science (one of my favourite books, and one I will review at a later date. You can actually read one of the book’s chapters here.) and the Invisible Gorilla. This time, it wasn’t Point of Inquiry that pointed me to the book, rather it was a fellow member of the Perth Skeptics. One of the founders of that group, Kylie Sturgess, also has a podcast and she even interviewed the authors.

I’ve delayed writing this post because I loved this book so much, and have so much to say, yet I don’t want to say too much about it because I really want people to read it. Basically the premise of the book is this: Our minds don’t work the way we think they do, and the way we see ourselves does not align well with reality in many surprising ways. The subtitle of the book is “And other ways Our Intuition Deceives Us” and that’s a very appropriate subtitle indeed. The authors take the reader through a string of stories and scientific evidence that challenge our instincts. The book is well-written, highly readable, entertaining, and endlessly fascinating. It helps you understand not only how many ways our brains deceive us, but also how many things they are prone to missing altogether.

This is one of those books that I wish I could make mandatory reading. Of course, I am not foolish enough to believe that everyone who reads it would believe the information it contains, but that’s okay. For people who are genuinely interested in learning more about how the brain works, why it works that way and its limitations, this book will give you the basics and direct you to many resources to learn more. It’s a beautiful book for skeptics, in that in the process of reading, you may go through a bit of a crisis because you suddenly feel that your mind is not at all what you believe. As stated in the summary of the book on its website, “Reading this book will make you less sure of yourself-and that’s a good thing.”

Gee, I’m really selling this, aren’t I? “Read this book, it will make you doubt everything you know about yourself!” Well, firstly I wouldn’t go that far, unless you are prone to existential crises. And second, I think that a bit of doubt can be a very constructive thing, especially if it creates more awareness about how to overcome, limit, or (at the very least) acknowledge that we don’t always know or see the things we think we do. I realise that this is all a bit opaque, so let me end this by listing a few of the ‘illusions’ the authors cover in the book. They are ‘illusions’ because our intuition tells us they are true, but research tells us how they are not:

  • The illusion of attention refers to our mistaken beliefs about the way attention works. We experience far less our visual world than we think we do. We miss things happening right in front of usall the time, and we are much worse at multi-tasking than we would like to believe. Our brain has a limit on the number of things we can pay attention to, be it in real life, a movie, etc. This is why we are so notoriously bad at talking on a mobile phone while driving, why we may think that something ‘jumped’ out in front of us while driving or why a radiologist can miss something that they weren’t told to look for. We aren’t good at noticing the unexpected, but we think that we are because, well, it just seems so obvious, especially in hindsight. This illusion is where the authors discuss the source of the book’s name, this video.
  • In discussing the illusion of memory, the authors debunk the myth that even our most vivid memories are accurate. Remember where you were on September 11th? Or when JFK was shot? In the book the authors discuss how even the most salient memories are subject to distortion. They even discuss something that has happened to me on a number of occasions that I had always pondered. Ever hear someone recall a story that happened to you and get really confused? I have. Well it turns out that this is all part of the illusion of memory – we can even take on other people’s memories as our own once they have told us the details of a story.
  • The illusion of confidence was among my favourites in the book. This is a reference to our tendency to overestimate our own abilities, especially in relation to other people. (The chapter is titled”What Smart Chess Payers and Stupid Criminals Have in Common”.) In this chapter, the authors also discuss how this illusion causes us to interpret others’ confidence as a valid signal of their own abilities. Consequently, we trust confident people more, and this can have very serious consequences. For instance, a confident witness is often viewed by juries to be a truthful witness, but as the illusion of memory shows us, confidence in our memory of an event does not mean it is more accurate.
  • The illusion of knowledge causes us to think we know morethan we actually do. Often, we have just surface knowledge when we think we actually have a deep understanding. I think we can all relate to this in our experiences with, say, recent University grads at work or with a friend who went to a seminar and suddenly considers him/herself an expert. However, we all have this illusion. It’s what causes us to think we know how common every day objects (e.g. a bicycle, toilet) work, and it’s also what leads us to believe projects will take much less time or resources than they actually will.

I will stop there because the fun in reading this book is in the narrative, and knowing too much about it ahead of time could spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that the authors do provide reasons for these illusions, and offer advice on how we can work with them. Though you may find yourself doubting your entire life during the first chapter, I promise it gets better. And I also promise that this doubting is precisely why this book is so excellent and enjoyable to read.

As a side note, I personally enjoyed that the book critiques Malcolm Gladwell’s work a number of times. If you’ve ever read Gladwell’s work and have been agitated by the grand conclusions he draws from minimal evidence, I think you will appreciate these comments! If you’ve never read Gladwell’s work, you probably wouldn’t even notice the critiques.