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.

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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:

Source: http://theinvisiblegorilla.com/blog/2011/03/01/invisible-gorilla-makes-an-appearance/
  • 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.

Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal

I am going to admit something: I tear up ever time I see a commercial about Tasmanian Devils.

Source: http://www.theage.com.au/news/in-depth/devil-of-a-problem/2007/10/20/1192301096591.html

I hate to admit when I get weepy over animals because I’m used to people discounting vegetarians as ‘sappy’ people who have unrealistic, romantic notions about animals. “Nature is cruel, and vegetarians don’t want to admit it,” they will say.

Well, yes, I suppose nature is cruel, if you want to ascribe human characteristics to it. I, however, prefer to just admit that I like the natural environment and the animals that live in it. Always have. Vegetarian or not, I don’t think there’s anything illogical or overly emotional about that.

But back to the Tassie devils. If you don’t live in Australia, then you might not know that there is a devastating disease affecting the Tasmanian devil population right now called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). The disease is one of only three known cancers that is contagious, and it has affected at least 60% of the Tasmanian devil population. The disease was first discovered in 1996, and by 2009 the Australian government had declared the devil to be endangered. For more information on the disease, see the FAQ’s here.

I couldn’t find the commercial online, but here’s something similar [WARNING: Some of the images in this video of the disease are disturbing.]:

I am not sure what it is about this problem that makes me so emotional. There are a lot of animals in danger throughout the world for various reasons, and I think about those as well; but there is something about this issue that really nags at me. I know that it is only human to focus on iconic species (e.g. the bald eagle, the giant panda), particularly those that seem to represent an entire place. The Tasmanian devil fits that bill. Perhaps it is the fact that this disease is spreading so rapidly and that it doesn’t have a simple solution, unlike species extinctions that are driven almost entirely by land use change. Perhaps it is because I watched too much Looney Tunes as a kid. Whatever it is, it’s something that I can’t seem to get out of my head.

I hope to organise a fundraiser for the Tassie Devil Appeal in the next year, but in the meantime my intention with this post is simply to encourage others to learn more about the DFTD and donate if they desire. To do both, visit the official page of the Tassie Devil Appeal. Have a look around at the information, research, videos (they even have ‘home movies‘) and the images. Visit the appeal on Facebook or the program on Facebook here.

I also recommend reading the news on the topic when you can. One of the things I think that touches me about this campaign is that they have done a good job in balancing the gravity of the situation with the sense of self-efficacy. Far too many environmental campaigns focus too evil on the fire and brimstone, and lose sight of the fact that you need to provide people with a sense that their actions will be effective. The situation is very serious, but there is good news to be found in the research, e.g.

Finally, just for fun: if you want a clue as to why they are called devils, watch them eat! It also provides a clue as to why this disease spreads so easily. They do not take kindly to another devil trying to get a bite of their meal.

Don’t Fear the Phyllo

Just a quick, somewhat pointless, post about food on an unfortunate day that I can’t eat any. Think of this as a public service announcement, to encourage people to make things at home that they might normally reserve only for restaurants and parties: phyllo.

Phyllo (or filo or fillo) is something that I have cooked with a few times, and each time I’ve been amazed at how well it stands up to my carelessness in the kitchen. As anyone who has lived with me can attest, I am a messy cook. The kind that preps as I go and can’t be bothered with specifics. I love cooking more than baking in part because I can get away with this imprecision.

Spanakopita from Vegan with a Vengeance, braised figs with arugula (aka 'rocket') from Vegan Table.

Before I cooked with phyllo for the first time, I had often heard people talk about how afraid they are to cook with it. Every time I went to Greektown in Detroit for my beloved spanakopita, I heard people say this. Many cookbooks, such as Vegan with a Vengeance, have long tutorials on how to work with phyllo. I noticed that the tone is normally like that of a pep talk, and I can understand why. Apparently, this little roll of dough you can buy in the supermarket can cause a lot of anxiety.

So it was with some trepidation that I made a dish with phyllo for the first time, but it turned out brilliantly (see right). It wasn’t perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. The beauty of any pastry, including phyllo, is that it’s really easy to cover up your mistakes, especially if you choose the triangle shape like I did here.

The other day when I was making phyllo, it occurred to me that there were a few places where things could go wrong and really ruin things, but that there were many more places where you could do the wrong thing with little consequence. For example:

  • Don’t fear the oil. This is not a time to make a low fat dish. Layer the olive oil on every sheet (a thin layer, but a layer nonetheless). In the true spirit of the dough’s origins, don’t be afraid of the olive oil if you want the phyllo to be flaky and delicious.
  • Cover the dough with a damp cloth or towel. I have put too much water on the towel before, only to end up ruining the top sheet. This last time, I even accidentally got every corner of my dough soaking wet due to my small counter space and a pool of water. It ruined that corner, but I simply tucked that bit in as I was making my triangles. Problem solved!
  • Don’t overstuff, but you can get away with more than you think. One of the reasons things like homemade ravioli annoy me is that you have to put so little stuffing in to ensure the edges stick together. As someone who is more interested in filling than bread, I find this irritating. Phyllo is very forgiving in this sense. I overstuff them, but because I am folding it over so many times, I can cover up any areas where it tries to escape.

That’s it. As I said, a rather pointless post, but I hate to see people fear using certain ingredients or making certain dishes. Maybe one of these days I’ll write a post on bread, as it’s yet another dish that I find so incredibly easy and forgiving. I just can’t understand why people would bother with a bread machine when your own two hands make better bread than any appliance ever could.

I will leave you with my latest phyllo creation: Moroccan Phyllo with Curried Tomato Sauce from The Vegan Table. They aren’t perfect and the lighting is terrible, but I think you get the idea. These were the batch where I ruined one corner of the entire stack!

Moroccan Phyllo with Curried Tomato Sauce from The Vegan Table with Sweet Sweetback Salad from Vegan Soul Kitchen

 

The Problem of Place

This is an old post from February 2008, from my previous blog. I had been living in Australia for 1 month. I am posting this for my best friend, B, because she loves it and loves to share the post with others when they are blaming their problems on their place in the world, and endeavouring to solve those problems simply by changing their location on the map.

I am beginning to wonder if I will hear it no matter where I move in the world: “Why did you come here?” I hear this every time I move to a new place, as well as frequently when I travel, and each time, the people asking the questions seem genuinely puzzled. Whether it is aesthetics like bad architecture or weather, environmental concerns like urban sprawl and air pollution, or any number of “isms” (e.g., elitism, classism, racism, etc.), people just cannot seem to understand why anyone would want to come to their hometown.

 

I would ask the same thing if someone were to move to Temperance or Ida, where I went to primary school, or Marysville or Port Huron, where I spent my teenage years. Whenever I met someone who moved to that town I would ask, “Why in the hell would you want to come here?” Sometimes they would point to things about the town with which I flat out disagreed, but other times they would point to things that I was taking for granted. For instance, Port Huron and Marysville are on the water, and though I saw it as the centre of chemical valley, there are plenty of tourists that visit the town each year for the natural amenity. I grew up in a state surrounded by the largest freshwater supply in the world; yet still when I meet people anywhere in the world that say they love Michigan, I look at them like they are insane.

 

It is no different in Perth. I have met several people from all walks of life that look at me like I am insane when I tell them I have travelled to the exact opposite spot on the globe to live and work here. This is just human nature. It is so easy to feel the weight of a city’s problems when you are immersed in them for most of your life. Plus, for those who grew up in Perth, they have seen developers change the face of the land. For Australians in general, they have seen their government make mistake after mistake. They have seen their culture usurp some of the worst American ideologies. They have watched their neighbours in Southeast Asia suffer as Western governments prosper. In short, they suffer from many of the same problems that the US and other Western nations do, which leads them to dissatisfaction and disgust. Sometimes that contempt is directed within, sometimes it is directed to the broader culture/community at large, and sometimes it is directed to the immediate community in which they live.

 

Amongst all this, it becomes easier and easier to invest hope in somewhere else, wherever that “somewhere” may be. Also, while no one likes to see other human beings suffer, for those who are more socially aware, there are moments in which the suffering seems to be in every corner. They can only rail against this suffering for so long before frustration sends them on a search for an alternate explanation.

 

The easiest explanation, often, is to fault the place in which we live. It fits so seamlessly into our life narratives. It becomes “this place” that is somehow the cause of great and small ills, from boredom to persecution. This fascination with place distracts from the broader paradigm. Subsequently, as we focus on problems of place, we begin to fetishise “somewhere else”. Often, this somewhere else is really just an insular community of like-minded individuals. This is only natural. We all need to find that sense of place where we feel comfortable. In a broad sense, it is a sense of “home” that these other places offer, even though we do not always see it as such. For many people, especially people who tend to see themselves as outside mainstream culture, this sense of home is difficult to find. It is therefore only natural to grip tightly to a place that supports our ideologies and sees the world through a similar lens. It makes us feel just a little less insane and a little less isolated.

 

However, I find the idea that things are better “somewhere else” problematic. It is a mental trap. In many ways, it is simply another form of the classic “anywhere but here” or “the grass is always greener” mentality. Worse yet, people who believe that things really are better somewhere else often operate under the assumption that their lives will be better in another place where the solutions lie in wait. On some level, they believe they can leave their problems (or the problems of society at large) behind, when in fact these problems will inevitably follow them. The idea that one can simply wipe the slate clean is a romantic notion, and one that I wish I could believe, but it is a fallacy. It is what I would refer to as “the problem of place”.

 

The problem of place also leads us to believe that being surrounded by like-minded individuals is the best thing for us. This is completely understandable. Living in a place where no one seems to share your beliefs (I am a vegan who has lived in America and Australia – I know all about this!) is generally frustrating and sometimes infuriating. In contrast, when we stumble across a community that supports us, rather than fights us, we finally feel comfortable. However, with that comfort, discourse can sometimes dissolve, and the change that happens when two opposing forces collide can come to an end.

 

I heard different versions of this problem of place time and again before I moved to Australia, and I have heard it since moving here as well. I will hear it many times more in my life. I find this frustrating in the first instance because my move to Australia had nothing to do with wiping the slate clean. I very much liked the slate I was working from. In the second and third instances, I find these comments frustrating because I know that I used to believe the same thing. It took a long time for me to realise what I was actually seeking. However, I have long since given up explaining why I believe this view to be problematic. I have also discarded the expectation that I can save people from years of grief by explaining to them the underlying issues at hand. This is, after all, simply my perspective, not an absolute truth, no matter how passionately I believe it. More importantly, I believe that it is only through experience that people can come to understand the actual source of their dissatisfaction with their lives and/or with society in general. I do not think it is possible to show people through words what they can learn through action – namely, that places do not make people happy, and they do not make people miserable either. There’s much more to it than that.

 

Recently, I had an interesting discussion with my boss that prompted me to broaden my own way of thinking on this issue. “Every community is unique,” she said, “but they are 95-99 percent the same.” And that’s just it: every community does have a unique “feel,” but ultimately they share more in common than they are separated by difference. Some people may find the notion that they are not unique offensive. Of course we would all like to feel like “beautiful and unique snowflakes”. But I would argue that my boss’ sentiment is not offensive at all. It is, in essence, the recognition that societies are comprised of people. (Yes, there are limitless non-human elements of society as well, I realise that.) And people are driven by similar motives, make decisions based on rational thought, and act with intention no matter where they reside. Of course there are countless different views of the world and visions of the future. There are limitless factors that influence the way in which society operates, but it all comes back to the same premise: societies are comprised of people.

 

The sooner we recognise that, the sooner we can shift the focus from place to people. Port Huron, Perth, or any other place is not the problem. For those of us who want real change for everyone, rather than a mere change of scenery for ourselves, we have to shift our train of thought. Otherwise we are just providing comfort for ourselves, instead of the providing a better quality of life for everyone.

Writing Public Submissions: A Short Guide

I’ve spent the majority of the past few months responding to public submissions. We do a lot of this sort of thing: reviewing public submissions, analysing them and summarising key themes, responding and making changes as required. I admit that it becomes tiring after a while. At first every submission seems unique and interesting. I find it endlessly fascinating to view a project through the eyes of other people, and public submissions are one of the instances where people practically where their heart on their sleeve. When you see the way people interpret facts, you get to see a glimpse of how they interpret the world. Consistent with the many variations of environmental worldviews* , you find people believe in the power of nature to ‘work itself out’ whilst others believe the right sorts of human interventions can help the environment achieve its full ‘potential’. Some people believe nature has inherent value, whilst others believe it only has value when it is put to use by humans. It’s a spectrum, but it’s a spectrum with extreme ends. When put this way, it isn’t surprising that people can so passionately disagree with data collected in an environmental assessment (in this case, I am referring the surveys and investigations that are done as part of the environmental approvals process). Data is not just data when it is interpreted by a human being. It either fits within their worldview, or it does not, and when it does not, the conflict has to be resolved. This is not unlike the risk perception issues I highlighted in this post.

Still, however fascinating I might find this process, there only so many times that you can read different submissions that use the same phrases, the same words and the same arguments before I grow frustrated. I get frustrated because proponents (or their consultants) create documents that the public has trouble interpreting (if they can even find the time – or the internet access – to swim through the piles of reports). But I also grow frustrated because the process of public comment is not well-understood, and when I see a member of the public craft a lengthy submission that communicated intense passion, it breaks my heart. While I’ve always wanted to believe that a good idea, particularly when stated with confidence and passion, will be heard, the reality is that public comment periods usually don’t work that way. The reality is that policies and decisions are not made by the public. Of course the public plays a role, and their views are considered as part of the broader decision-making process. But it’s also true that more influential people and groups get more say in big decisions. It’s also true that whether or not a project is politically tenable, and whether it can meet standards and regulations, plays a very big role.

I vacillate on this: some days I think that people over-estimate the impact public submissions can have and some days I think they completely under-estimate it. Until recently, I thought the role of public comment was better understood, until I read this book** and realised I may be subject to the ‘curse of knowledge’ in this instance. The curse of knowledge, as defined by Chabris and Simons, is when we have trouble switching our point of view to consider what someone else might know, mistakenly projecting their knowledge onto others. Just because my job has helped me to become intimately familiar with community consultation, this does not mean that everyone is as familiar. This is always apparent when I attend meetings of small community organisations. Full of well-intended, intelligent individuals who have organised around a common issue, their passion often exceeds their knowledge and they are all too aware of this. It’s frustrating for them, and it’s frustrating for me, as I am all too familiar with feeling in over your head.

So today, the Public Environmental Review for the Roe 8 Highway Extension is out for public comment. This road will put a highway through one of the last remaining wetland chains in Perth metropolitan area, and it is a road that will essentially lead to nowhere. You can read more about it on the Save Beeliar Wetlands Site.

At the 'No to Roe 8' Rally in October 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can probably tell from my tone (and pictures), I recognise the potential conflicts when my own environmental worldviews and data collide. I am not in favour of this road, and this will very likely influence my interpretation of the data, even though I will try my best to read it with an open mind. Even for a skeptic, it’s hard to allow data when you can’t even agree on the validity of the premise.

So…to ‘celebrate’ this release (and to help me prepare for my meeting tomorrow), I will offer a few words of simple advice for any member of the public who wants to write a public submission, but wants to write the most effective submission they can, given the existing system. I am focusing on Australia here, but the fact is that the process isn’t all that different in the US.

  • Consider joining a group. Named organisations receive priority in the public submissions process. Proponents, and the Environmental Protection Authority, will often directly address concerns in submissions from key stakeholder groups.
  • Encourage that group to ask experts to write submissions, but send those submissions in themselves, rather than as a tag-along to the group submission. Academics and experts in the field also receive priority when the public submissions are analysed. In short, groups and experts take first priority and will cause proponents and regulators to pause and carefully respond.
  • If you’d also like to write a submission yourself, do just that. Write it yourself. Those form letters on most major NGO sites and through groups like Get Up! and Move On are great for showing that a lot of people care about an issue; however, when it comes to a public submission, 1,000 form letters do not count as 1,000 submissions. They count as one, and they are responded to as one.
  • This is not a numbers game. Although the numbers will be analysed and reported, just because a lot of submissions are in opposition the project, this does not mean the project won’t go ahead. Although some people may find this frustrating, think of it like this: what if the level of popularity guided all of our public policy decisions?*** If we want consistency in decision-making (whether we are achieving that is another question altogether), then we need to act according to agreed upon principles. Though it’s often a crude tool, the principles prescribed by regulations and guidelines are the ones that are generally used by decision-makers.
  • Given the above, become familiar, to the extent you can, with the process in which the proposal is being assessed. You don’t have to read the regulations. Most agencies have short guidance documents and fact sheets. For the Roe 8 Proposal, it’s the Public Environmental Review process, which is explained on the EPA Website. EDO usually has great documents as well. Read the scoping documents, which are usually provided as an appendix. You don’t need to become a policy expert. Just arm yourself with a little knowledge about the standards the project (and documentation) must meet.
  • Limit and prioritise. I know it is tempting to list every single thing that is wrong with a document, particularly if you spend hours of your free time pouring over the documentation. However, the fact is that this is also not a numbers games. Just because there are a lot of little problems, along with some really big ones, doesn’t mean that together they automatically add up to a ‘fatal flaw’ (and please, also avoid using that phrase unless you are really sure it fits that definition.) My recommendation is to determine the most important points you want to make. Discuss those first, succinctly but factually.
  • If you really want to discuss every flaw in the paper, organisation is crucial. Have a sectionat the front of your submission highlighting the most important issues. Other sections might consider “secondary issues” or “other issues for consideration” and finally a section with “editorial comments”. This is where you can channel your inner grammarian and pick on their typos, desktop publishing, etc. If there are a number of categories that concern you, I would recommend putting those under headings as well. For example, put all the comments about specific species (e.g. the graceful sun moth), hydrology, air emissions, etc. in their own sections, clustered together, if you really have that many comments. I still recommend highlighting only the most important ones. The reason? People will be more open when reading your submission if you don’t appear petty, and nitpicking can easily appear petty in a written submission.
  • Ask questions – both of yourself and of the proponent. Of course I am partial to the process of inquiry, but I find that it really helps if I consistently ask myself “what is my real concern?” When I answer public submissions, I have to spend a lot of time deciphering what people are really saying in their submissions. When people make inflammatory statements or say things that don’t make sense, it’s often because there is a core concern that they aren’t sure how to express other than through anger or frustration. If you ask yourself why you feel a certain way, this can help overcome this problem, and even help you determine if it’s the facts or your values that are the source of your criticism. As far as the questions of the proponent (or government), that’s pretty self-explanatory. If you feel questions are unanswered, or information is unclear, ask. They have to answer every question.
  • Cite reputable sources where appropriate, but avoid reliance on too many secondary sources like newspaper articles. If an article piques your interest in something, consider investigating the truth of the matter, if you can find additional information. In many cases, articles reference reports that can be easily find online. Check the original sources when possible to see if the media indeed reported it correctly before hanging your hat on the argument.
  • Emotion: good for rallies, but not so much for a formal submission.

    Avoid emotion. If you are taking the time to write a submission, it’s likely you are extremely passionate about the issue. Whilst passion is an admirable trait in my mind, it doesn’t do much for the quality of a public submission. Proposals are assessed against criteria, and while the stress of a proposal is a social impacts, communicating that stress in a submission is unlikely to change the outcome of the regulatory approvals process. Also, avoiding emotions doesn’t mean you have to refrain from stating what is important to you. In the case of environmental issues, most emotions can be re-stated as management principles.****

  • If an issue is really important to you, try to read that section of the report, rather than just relying on the executive summary. I realise time is limited, but unfortunately people too often submit questions and comments that were addressed in other sections of the report. Unfortunately, this makes the question really easy to blow off when it is clear the submitter didn’t read the relevant sections of the report.
  • If all else fails, sign the form letter. If you don’t have the time or inclination, just sign the form letter online, via email, etc. It isn’t counter-productive. It just isn’t particularly productive. However, it still demonstrates that people care about the issue, and if combined with a lot of weighty evidence, it can provide some support. If you do choose the form letter, I suggest you make sure it goes to the Minister, rather than the EPA, as the ultimate decision will rest with them. Technically, the EPA provides expert advice to the minister on an environmental approval.
  • Form realistic expectations. As I said in the intro, I actually find it really disheartening that people believe that their criticisms can lead to a ‘no’ on a proposal. Proposals are assessed by ‘independent’ government agencies, but decisions are made at the political level. In the end, sometimes even the strongest factual case can mean nothing in politics. I don’t like it, but ‘them’s the breaks

As all good bloggers are supposed to do, I will end with a series of questions. What role do you think public opinion should have in public policy and development decisions? Have you ever made a public submission? Do you think I am being too harsh? Too cynical?

*Note: It was surprisingly difficult find a good, succinct article that covered the diverse range of worldviews for free on this topic, but there are many books out there if you are interested in reading more. A great one is Environmental Values and American Culture.

** I will write a review of this book in the next week or so. It’s a must read for everyone, in my opinion!

*** I was looking for a quote I thought FDR made on this, but either my memory or Google has failed me. There is obviously a wide range of views about the value of public opinion. Some are highlighted in these quotes, though all are obviously simplified.

**** I realise that sounds like bureaucratic doublespeak, but it really is quite simple. For example, if you are horrified at the thought of a project’s impact on future generations, rather than stating “You are going to destroy the environment, and our children will have to live with the consequences! You are raping the land for profit now, only to leave us with nothing later!” Try this: “Sustainability is about providing for our needs now without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This project cannot be considered sustainable due to X, Y and Z.” That first sentence is available on nearly every website that contains a definition of sustainability, so this doesn’t require expert knowledge.

One Year (Paper)

I don’t plan to post about nothing all that often, but in the spirit of promising I would post on a semi-regular basis, I want to say a few words about an important milestone.

This past Sunday, I had my one year wedding anniversary.

Our 'winter' wedding.

We could have two anniversaries, since we had a second wedding (technically, a ‘renewal of vows’) ceremony in England. We did this my family could afford to take the trip (obviously, plane ticket to England < plane ticket to Australia), and so that James’ family in England could celebrate with us.

Our 'summer' wedding in England.

No matter when you start counting, it’s been a very good year. We celebrated with a dinner at my favourite vegetarian restaurant in Perth, Genesis in the Hills. (Admittedly not my favourite restaurant in Perth, I am afraid. That title goes to a Thai restaurant called Saowanees in North Perth.)

Yes, it is 21 C (70F) and we are wearing scarves and hat. 'Tis winter in Perth.
I didn't take pictures of the food this time, but James had the veggie burger and it looks like this. it's on New Norcia sourdough bread with a homemade patty, and it is delicious. They don't skimp on the delicious local olive oil either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t have much to say about the meal, especially since I wrote about Genesis already over at vegaroo! here. The menu changes regularly, according to the seasons and what is in their garden. We don’t have many completely vegetarian restaurants in Perth, but this is by far the best vegetarian restaurant we do have, and always worth the money. Even better – and well-suited to our personalities – this meal was free because we had a gift certificate. The staff at Genesis is friendly, they remember me and they were even showing a photography exhibition of a friend. Plus, it’s in the hills (i.e. the Darling Scarp), which is always a little greener than the rest of Perth.

Afterwards, we went on a walk in the beautiful ‘winter’ weather (read: cool and pleasant, rather than baking in the intense Australian sun). From the earliest days of dating, James and I have taken walks together. It’s one of the few forms of exercise on which we can both agree. As people who both enjoy a good introspective walk alone more than a romantic stroll, there’s something to be said for the fact that some of our most pleasant afternoons and evenings involve a walk. Perhaps we are just old at heart.

I also gave James a letter. The first year is, after all, the paper anniversary. I had to celebrate somehow, and we’re not much for excessive gift-giving in this house.

This wasn't actually the letter. This was Christmas 2008, and he was reading an ancestry book from his mum, but this is the face. Happy, but emotional.

Probably the most important part of the day for me was writing the letter. I wrote it early in the morning, when my brain works best, and it helped me reflect on the last year. Obviously, the marriage has played a huge role in shaping the last 12 months. From a relationship perspective, it has been exactly how I thought it would be when we got married on 12 June 2010, and that is to say: it’s been excellent. As someone who was skeptical of marriage – and pretty opposed to it for myself only a few years ago – this in itself a big deal.

However, in many ways, this past year has been quite uneventful for me. I am continuing to work, as I have been doing for about 7 years. I am still learning every day, but I am feeling confident in what I do. I am living abroad, sure, but I have been doing that for nearly four years. This is my home now, and the ‘newness’ has indeed faded a bit. On the whole, this year has been filled with the typical ups and downs of life, but it has not been full of monumental events. I traveled to a few places I loved, either again (England and Wales) or for the first time (Scotland and Norfolk Island).

At the same time, I have been feeling a bit sorry for myself because of the lack of major milestones in my life. I am still in limbo in many ways, in part because of the typical struggles of being an ex-pat and making plans to return to study for a PhD. There are other ongoing struggles that are little, but important to me, like struggling to find fulfilling volunteer work at the right organisation for me. I will avoid delving too deep into the navel-gazing, but suffice it to say this year has brought more moments of feeling sorry for myself than I am used to. In part, it’s a product of more free time and a brain that does not cope with that well.

Writing the letter, however, helped me to realise that I have no reason to be sorry. This was a ‘big year’ because I got married, but also because I found myself in a place where I finally had the time to reflect on what I am doing, what I want to do next, and how I am going to get there. Years past have always been filled with school or a new job, moving to a new country, or falling in love. Despite the feeling of limbo (or perhaps as a result?) this year was probably the most stable year of my adult life. Not coincidentally, it was also the year that I realised how different reflection on my life can feel amidst this new-found stability. I would say it is that I have finally become an adult, but that’s not it. Not one to dwell on the romanticism of adolescence or young adulthood, I’ve been an adult for a while.

Whilst writing the letter, the conclusion I finally came to is this: I thought marriage would teach me how to better look toward the future. To my surprise, it taught me how important it is to be in the present. If I don’t, I just might find myself feeling misinterpreting a very good year for a mediocre one, simply because it wasn’t a series of achievements. Life doesn’t always have to be able creating a better resume or experiencing new things. Sometimes it’s simply about appreciating what you have, right here and now.

And on our wedding day.
At the Bakery (a music venue) in Perth. We'd been dating two months at this point.