Saving Ourselves for Later


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Nicola Twilley
Nicola Twilley is a contributing writer for newyorker.com. She is the author of the blog Edible Geography and a co-host of the Gastropod podcast. She is working on a book about refrigeration.@nicolatwilley

Your 2014 article about refrigeration spreading in China in The New Times goes into detail about the environmental hazards of mass-refrigeration. So what’s the alternative?

It’s not about finding an alternative. People who work in cold storage have an expression for what happens to people who have been cold for too long: the four umbles—mumble, stumble, grumble, and fumble. Cold slows your reaction time because cold is a slowing device. They call it “cold stupid.” We as a society are currently cold stupid. We need to be cold smart. We need to start thinking about cold as a resource.

Part of that will mean not regarding the big white boxes in our kitchens as the only solution. There are lots of things we currently throw cold at. One example is shelf-life. We have fetishized freshness but actually fermented foods have huge benefits to our microbiomes. There’s no way to be anti-refrigeration. But we’ve gone overboard by embracing it as the answer to everything. We should ask ourselves, “When is cold the right thing we need and when is it not?” Why don’t we just use cold when it matters?

We’ve come to take it for granted as a one-size-fits-all solution, actually As recently as 1910, there was still a lot of suspicion and fear around cold storage. Suddenly, food could last six months, and that was freaky, just like it still freaks people out to learn that their apples might have been picked two years ago. It’s all controlled atmosphere storage. In 1910, there was a banquet where they printed on the menu the refrigeration history of each menu item: “This fish stored at this storage unit for 6 months.” It’s been a total paradigm shift, but it’s only a hundred years old. It’s not that long in the history of human life, so it’s entirely possible for us to have another paradigm shift to think about cold and how we use it.

We built our cold chain in separate blocks, but that did not begin as an inevitability. The first cold storage unit ever built was in Boston and it was designed thinking of cold as something that would be piped into homes and businesses. There would have been cold pipelines under the streets like gas or electricity. It makes you think about the issue differently. When we look at the refrigerator, we see cold as something we plug in, not as something connected to a larger system. We don’t see the cold chain behind our food.

How much is the cold chain part of every city’s infrastructure?

To a huge extent! Beyond food, there’s the cooling of buildings and people and those systems don’t work together. The best estimate that New York City has is that the city has three days worth of perishable goods on hand if the electricity goes out before we start not having enough food. Without the cold chain, supermarket shelves would be empty because we’re so reliant on it. Hunts Point, the wholesale food market that supplies most of New York City, is in a floodplain. It flooded during Hurricane Sandy and it will happen again. That’s where the bulk of perishables enter the city. The cold chain forces choke points that then become vulnerabilities. They are efficiencies, but they’re also vulnerabilities.

The cold chain also physically shapes infrastructure in our cities and homes. In most of the country, people grocery shop once a week. They can do that because they have a gigantic fridge. They might even have a second fridge in their garage. The habits and the infrastructure shape each other. You have the giant fridge which determines the fact that you can have a giant supermarket and a giant shopping cart. Even the width of the aisles — which is built to accommodate the carts — is traceable to the fact that you have a big fridge to fill. The dimensions of the grocery store could be different. Our relationship with the cold chain is woven into all of these subtle, invisible choices. That’s why the store is so big and why you have a giant parking lot that spills outwards into the city. It creates weird spacial dimensions that you would never think about while sitting in your kitchen.

What types of interventions could help cities start to be “cold smart”-er?

We waste a lot of cold. For example, liquid natural gas gets shipped at incredibly cold temperatures but when the cold gets to the ports, we just let it go. But ports are also where perishable goods are coming in.

Smaller fridges would make better cities because people would have to go out and shop more often. It’s a domestic-level intervention that has urban-scale implications. People drive to the grocery store and fill up their cars with food. It would be better if people went to get fresh food every day. And I know, people work like three jobs and don’t have time for that. We have other problems to solve so that people don’t have to work three jobs. I’m not pretending this is a social solution to our problems. But cold smart can also start to happen at the community level like communal root cellars and pickling!

A lot of our produce isn’t very happy in the fridge anyway since fridges are dry. That’s not the right condition for a lot of produce—but root cellars are. In some parts of Maine, whole communities get together to harvest ice from ponds, and the ice lasts through the summer in an ice house with no electricity! And you can use that for a communal produce box.  Produce is a lot happier in a humid icebox.

Communal solutions encourage people to be a little bit more mindful. I know I sound soviet and we don’t live like that anymore, but how can we replicate some of those conditions and have people think about them, rather than just have this clean white box where we just leave food to die? It would translate into resilience too because the power could go out and maybe you wouldn’t have fresh milk but you would still have fresh produce and roots.

We should stop apologizing for thinking about communal solutions. It’s become so outside of the realm of acceptable ideas, as Fonna Forman and Teddy Cruz say, even the word “public” has disappeared.

You’re totally right. I feel ridiculous saying these things and yet the ice house I visited in Maine was awesome. Everyone was out on the ice, coming and going. Some people worked the whole day, while some people did almost nothing, but they came! And then the ice house was filled, and it was done. There’s some manual labor, so that’s good. Why run on a treadmill when you could spend the day harvesting ice? It’s hard work, and it’s fun. And that solution won’t work everywhere since not everywhere has a pond, but again, that’s what being cold smart means—adapting to what you have. People are constantly writing op-eds about how everyone’s so lonely and loneliness kills but also would probably resist the concept of a communal root cellar.

We’ve established that we’ve gone too far with individualism… but we kind of like it. What kind of interventions can we make on the technical level?

Yes, it’s still worse to imagine sharing! There are a lot of ways to not waste cold. We don’t think about where there’s already cold, and then we spend energy and greenhouse gases making it in other places. There’s cold in space, in the upper atmosphere. We have all the cold we could ever want to make. Turns out Ben Franklin actually wrote this idea in a letter. Hot air balloons were new and he thought, “What if we used those as floating refrigerators?” People used to have spring-houses where water would bubble up and keep the environment cold. They would build an insulated structure around a spring in order to use that as a cold storage. Amazon is patenting giant blimps that are going to hover over cities fulfilling our every need. That’s actually a patent they filed. And maybe it’s not the worst idea if they think about taking advantage of the cold and not refrigerating it.

So it’s yet another space in which we need to un-silo information and infrastructure?

We need to think of cold differently. Part of the reason I’m so fascinated by the fact that the first cold storage buildings treated cold as a utility that would be piped in, is that I think that would have made us think of cold differently. We would have seen that we were connected to an infrastructure of cold. Boxing means we only have cold where we make it rather than where it is. People don’t know when food is fresh because they’ve been deskilled, so they just look at sell-by dates instead. You can smell things. You can feel things. Our entire sensory system evolved around being able to tell if food is OK to eat. That is why we have the senses we have. People have stopped trusting their senses in favor of trusting the refrigerator. Why de-skill yourself that way? A lot can be done for the food system simply by making it more visible. That’s where things need to start for people. Because for the moment, the way cities get fed is almost absolutely unknown to most people.

People don’t even know Hunt’s Point exists, and it’s enormous. This has to do with considering culture as part of the urban infrastructure. Because what you’re talking about is a cultural paradigm shift.

People want to say, “This is disastrous and bad and we have to change everything!” That overlooks the way change actually happens, which is in small interventions, totally unevenly distributed. The thing that sweeps the city and changes everything is not going to happen. The media narratives around this are stupid. Either “The city isn’t resilient, we’re all going to die” or “We need this massive one-trick solution that’s going to make us resilient.” It’s not. Unfortunately, funders want solutions that fix everything.

Right, and politicians want big, visible solutions they can cut a ribbon in front of and say, “Look what I did!”

And some plants around a drain that will serve as filters is not a photo op. It works the same with food. People either want to see wholesale change in the food system or they’re saying, “That will never work!” They either want gigantic vertical skyscraper farms that will grow everything the city needs, or they say, “No, we can’t feed the city with these little patches of land! Urban agriculture can’t feed the world!” Actually—if you crunch the numbers you could. People would have to change their diets, but either way, it’s beside the point. I’m not advocating for that version of the future. There’s so many things we can do at small distributed scales to change our relationship with food that will add up to much more than the sum of their parts and that aren’t flashy or glamorous. We don’t have to raise pigs in skyscrapers. Some things make sense to grow in cities. Some things taste better when they’re grown hyper-locally. Small scale operations can also help people know what it takes to grow things.

How can we go about reshaping our concept of solutions?

It’s about how we relate to the problem. The start is being able to imagine it. If you can’t imagine where food grows, how food is kept, how food gets to you, then you can’t change your relationship to it because you have no relationship with it. You can’t re-imagine anything if you don’t know about it. It’s not just about feeding people. It’s about how we imagine possibilities for food. You can’t imagine other possibilities when all you have is the grocery store. That’s a very defined relationship in which you have no participatory role other than consumer. Why wouldn’t we create a world in which we play roles other than consumer and thrower-away-of like grower, storer, or processor?

What do we need to make legible in order to make solutions more (re)imaginable?

If there’s waste, it’s because we don’t see the system as a whole. We need to make the cold chain and food infrastructure visible, accessible, and welcoming. For example, you can’t go to Hunts Point. It should be public-facing. It’s not enough to feed the city behind the scenes. All school kids should go on tours. There should be tours for the public. I would love to see labeling on trucks as they move around the city. “This truck is bringing milk.”  Some grocery stores have little infographics on their fridge doors to help people realize, “Oh, these are fridges and they used to be open and maybe that was wasteful.” Cold storage companies make how-your-pineapple-got-to-you videos but nobody watches them. When I led a food infrastructure tour in LA, it was the most oversubscribed thing everywhere. People want to see it if you pitch it right.

I would like to see much more food and fridge literacy. I love that menu from the banquet said where all the food had been stored and for how long. I would like to see kids going on school trips to cold storage units. They should know that those exist and they should know how to spot them. Most can’t tell apart a refrigerated truck. Sadly, not many people spend time making food infrastructure or the cold chain visible. But until things are visible, we’re not going to fix them.

You see those labels on buses that say, “This bus runs on natural gas. It’s saving X amount of energy.” What about, “This truck is being held at 32 degrees and it’s carrying your milk.” Just tell people. It doesn’t need to be something genius, it’s just that we don’t see inside closed boxes. People drive past cold storage on freeways and on the edges of cities and don’t know what it is. They could easily have some indication of what they are so you don’t have to be into the cryosphere to identify them. I would just like people to see how much cold space is around the city and where the trucks are moving.

How can city governments adopt this as an agenda?

We must design our relationships to resources, even if that’s just starting with legibility, visibility. Because when things are invisible and people don’t have a relationship to them, there can be no participation other than as a consumer. That’s such a limited way to participate in our food system and in our cities. We don’t have to radically reinvent things. We need to stay away from solutionism—from thinking one solution will solve everything. What will actually happen are distributed solutions once people can read the city. Once it’s legible, you can make it participatory. People will reinvent things themselves once they understand them.