Sourdough and Sustainability

About a year ago, I baked my first loaf of sourdough bread while quarantining. Around the same time, I also began to explore a long-dormant interest in philosophy. Over the past year, these twin hobbies have developed alongside each other. Baking bread has become not only a rhythmic, meditative practice in my life but also an artifact of philosophical reflection.

In the fall, I signed up for my first college philosophy course: environmental ethics. Over the next several months, my understanding of sustainability and ethical action was remade. My favorite book I read for the class was Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. I had never heard of it before, which goes to show my naivety; it stands with Silent Spring as one of the foundational texts of American conservationism and environmentalism.

Early in the Almanac, Leopold begins one of his characteristic musings with a provocative declaration: “Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how.” Leopold goes on to discuss the creative power latent in a simple seed. Upon reading this line my mind went to sourdough. If this restriction on creation can be circumvented, baking bread, like planting a seed, is an example of a loophole.

As the poet creates beautiful verse through the careful arrangement of words, stanzas, and symbols, so the baker guides a loaf into existence through flour, salt, and water. As the poem takes on attributes not present in mere words (symbolism, evocation, beauty), so the bread acquires qualities (crust, crumb, flavor) that seem categorically different from the initial ingredients. At risk of blasphemy, I will rule out the baker-god comparison; poets will suffice for now.

In this essay, I hope to explore some of the ways in which I believe that sourdough bread can be a realization of an ethic of sustainability — or at least serve as a tool for discovering what a sustainable future might look like.

Stewardship & Experience

In an essay entitled Preserving Wilderness from his 1987 book Home Economics, essayist and conservationist Wendell Berry lays the outlines of a way forward from an increasingly polarized clash over the relationship between humanity and wilderness.

On one side are the ‘nature extremists’, who assume that there “is no difference between the human estate and the estate of nature”. They see humanity as a scourge upon nature and believe anything which purports to explain humanity’s right to subdue or even utilize nature is little more than an anthropocentric conceit.

On the other side are the ‘nature conquerors’ or technology extremists, who conceive of nature solely as raw materials to be exploited by technology for profit or growth.

Berry sees the question itself as fundamentally misrepresenting the relationship between so-called ‘humanity’ and ‘nature’ by abstracting our lived experience, and seeks to defend a ‘middle ground’. He does this through the concept of harmony with wilderness through stewardship, which he lays out most directly here:

“Harmony is… consciously and conscientiously [asking of our] work: is this good for us? Is this good for our place? And the questioning… is minutely particular: it can only occur with reference to particular artifacts, events, places, ecosystems, and neighborhoods. When the… dialogue becomes too abstract… responsible questions are not asked.”

There are two elements to Berry’s definition of stewardship. The first is an active engagement or continuous dialogue with nature, which leads naturally to love of the environment. He describes ‘good workmanship’ as “careful, considerate, and loving work [which] requires us to think considerately of the whole process, natural and cultural…the good worker loves the board before it becomes a table, loves the tree before it yields the board, loves the forest before it gives up the tree”. To think considerately of the whole process requires the kind of active engagement or ongoing questioning he has advocated. The good worker does not merely love the board and the tree and the forest; he loves them because he intimately engages with them. Likewise, the good baker loves the flour and the starter because she handles them, watches them grow, and engages in a form of dialogue with them.

Of course, there is one way in which a baker might bake bread without loving it, and it gets at the heart of the second piece of Berry’s ethic: particularity. He insists that stewardship is only viable with respect to specific events or environments. If processes are abstracted away from our direct engagement, it is much easier to stop asking responsible questions.

Berry recognizes this when he singles out abstraction as a primary problem with modern economies: “I would call our economy, not materialistic, but abstract, intent on the subversion of both spirit and matter by abstractions of value and power.” The only way the baker can bake bread without loving the flour is by substituting experience for efficiency. This is why stewardship might be called a radical ethic: it reclaims active, concrete complexity from the jaws of passive, abstracted simplicity.

Complex Systems

Particularly with respect to questions about sustainability, we often speak of the capital-E Environment, by which we presumably mean the biotic system that encompasses our planet. The second major shift in perspective affected by my environmental ethics course was to recognize that this is a strange and dangerous way of conceiving of sustainability. We exist not in an Environment proper but in many environments which are codependent upon each other.

Environment is a perfect example of the kind of abstraction Berry warns against. When we conceive solely of an interface between two theoretical groups — ‘Humanity’ on the one hand and ‘Nature’ on the other — we eliminate the direct experience necessary for responsible questioning.

To be sure, I do not mean to suggest that sustainability must be individual, or that mass political action and governmental regulation are unnecessary distractions; on the contrary, they are of the utmost importance. The shift in perspective is to recognize that responsible stewardship extends not only to individuals but to communities and states. The environments we exist in are not raw materials to be manipulated or to be preserved; they are complex systems with which we must maintain constant dialogue.

As a student of computer science and philosophy, I have long been fascinated by the concept of complexity and complex systems. For the class we also read Donella Meadows’ Thinking In Systems, an introductory text to complex systems theory. Put simply, a complex system is an entity composed of many interacting parts in which the relationship between those components — the structure of the system — gives rise to qualities not present merely in the parts.

Once again, my mind goes to sourdough bread as a perfect example of a complex system. A loaf, with its delicate flavor, beautiful colors, seems irreducible to its components. There is something latent in the process of baking or structure and arrangement of ingredients that adds qualities categorically different from those exhibited by flour, salt, and water (emergence). Moreover, minor changes in the temperature, flour, or activity of a starter can have very large butterfly effects on the final loaf (nonlinearity). Baking a perfect loaf is not a deterministic or algorithm process — it is, as systems, a dynamic process governed by feedback.

These same principles hold true when applied to systems at a larger scale. Emergence, nonlinearity, and other such features of complex systems are the reasons why interaction with these systems must be ongoing and dialectic in nature. Systems are not static entities, and so system problems demand dynamic answers.

Virtue Ethics

For most of the history of western philosophy since the Enlightenment moral discourse has been confined to two approaches: deontological (e.g. Kantian) and consequentialist (e.g. Utilitarian). Deontological ethics are primarily concerned with questions of duty or principles of action: an action is right because it is in accordance with moral duty. Consequentialist ethics, on the other hand, focus on the outcomes of actions: an action is right because it generates pleasure or utility.

When I learned about these theories, I frankly found myself rather unsatisfied with both of them. At risk of oversimplification, they seem to demand too much certainty from an area of inquiry that had little to offer.

Happily, I am not alone in this judgment: dissatisfaction with the state of moral philosophy led some philosophers in the late 20th century to usher in a revival of a third ethical tradition, which has its roots in the ancient work of Aristotle: virtue ethics. Rather than basing the morality of an action on its accordance with a universal law or a utility calculation, virtue ethics insists that morality should be concerned with how actions affect our character. The good life is one lived in accordance with virtue, and thus good actions are those which build habits of virtue.

In her wonderful essay Baking Sourdough and the Moral Life, Alda Balthrop-Lewis touches on similar topics and hints at a case for virtue ethics. I would highly recommend taking a look at it if you’re interested.

Personally, I have found myself fascinated and generally convinced by the small amount of virtue ethics I have studied. Of the major ethical theories, it seems to be the best suited for a world understood through the lens of complex systems. When interacting with systems, attempting to pigeonhole towards determined results often leads to traps that produce opposite effects from what is intended. Many who study systems insist that rather than maximizing or minimizing outputs or inputs to systems, interactions and policies should focus on qualities: diversity, resilience, etc. Virtue ethics also seems to be more in line with an ethic of stewardship that emphasizes active questioning and experience with environments.

Sustainability as a Virtue

More than anything, this essay is a loose collection of thoughts, but perhaps they could be synthesized as such:

First, we have an ethic of stewardship as a guide for a sustainable future. This entails the rejection of the idea that nature swallows the human estate, and also that human progress is destined to swallow nature. It holds that the relationship between humanity and wilderness is paradoxical and intertwined: we depend entirely on nature, and yet possess the cultural capability to tear it apart.

Second, a commitment to understanding environments as localized complex systems, exhibiting emergence and non-linearity; and thus, an assertion that sustaining environments requires continual, active interaction with and experience of them.

Third — springing out of the nonlinear nature of complex systems — a preference for virtue ethics that places character as the primary determinant of morality, rather than aloof theoretical laws or calculations.

Sustainability is best conceived not as a goal or a quality of policies, but as a virtue. Drawing from Berry’s essay and the groundwork of complex systems theory, sustainability could be defined as the ability to steward a complex environment. As a virtue, sustainability is a habit of character that must be built up through right action, not merely a quality of some goal. Furthermore, achieving a sustainable society would require not just political will, but the admission of sustainability into the canon of virtues and widespread practice of it.

This practice is where we return to bread. A starter and a rising tub of dough are examples of complex systems: from simple ingredients emerge qualities that cannot be reduced to mere ingredients. Tending for sourdough is a process that, despite the reputation, demands relatively little labor, but a large degree of high care and attention — in a word, stewardship. It requires practice and habit. If sustainability is a virtue that requires stewarding over complexity, then baking sourdough is a moral good — a practice that builds our capacity for sustainability.

At the very least, it will be admitted that if baking bread is a moral good, it is the tastiest such good yet discovered by human reason.

Studying computer science and philosophy @ Georgia Tech

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