Temporary Expert – Reflection on Energy Field Guide

For the first project in Temporary Expert, we each created an Energy Field Guide on a randomly assigned form of energy. Mine was plant-based diet. Other people worked on nuclear energy, electromagnetic energy, human biopower, and tonglen breathing, among other topics.

You can see a draft of my field guide here. The overall message is that you can control huge energy systems with a more plant-based diet. You can eat less meat or no meat, and in the process, be part of using less land, water, and energy that otherwise unchecked is environmentally unsustainable.

We spent about three weeks researching, a week interviewing a working participant in our field, and a week or so producing the final guide.

Here are a few reflections on the process.

  • What did you learn?  What was inspiring? What parts?

I found it satisfying to go beyond the topic of plant-based diets to include many other kinds of energy, such as land, water and power. After discussing systems-thinking in class, I found it more intuitive to make this leap. It was also out of self-preservation of my personal interest in the topic, as I did not want to repeat common knowledge about vegetables being healthy for you. Expanding my topic helped me stay engaged, and I hope does the same for other people, too.

On a larger scale, I was inspired to find that my research is part of recently heightened conversation around climate change. Over the years, there have been many articles, reports and studies about food production and climate change. But in the last two weeks, two significant reports came out. One was published by the United Nation’s panel on climate change, and the other report by a group in the science journal Nature.  Taken together, they say that humans have 10 years to change how markets work to prevent catastrophic climate change by 2040, and that global food production is not environmentally sustainable unless people eat less or no meat. I was more prepared to read the reports without feeling depressed because of my field guide research.

Coincidentally (because my energy topic was randomly assigned), I had also recently stopped eating meat myself, after reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer (a book that influenced me and many others to rethink eating so much meat). Therefore, my topic found me to be a receptive candidate for further research into diet. I also felt optimistic about whether people would really change their diet based on what they read. I had done it.

As for creating the field guide itself, I had two minds about it. Either I felt like a natural, or I felt trapped by myself.

As a natural, I could feel my years of professionally honing language for non-profit programs quickly come back to me. What can be said to invite someone be part of something they’ve never done before? You can’t make people care for a reason that’s totally new reason to them. But you also can’t tell them something they’ve heard a million times. What do they already care about? What new perspective haven’t they heard yet? Another lesson came in handy from the past. You can’t make someone change. But what you can and should do is assume they are in a position of empowerment over their life, whether now or later, and that at any moment in the right circumstances, they can choose to see something in a new possibility for themselves and the group. All of these balance points played out in my mind as I structured the field guide and wrote down the copy.

In the moments I felt trapped, I felt like “of COURSE I would make something that looks like this.” The style, tone, and format were all within my comfort zone. I did not feel like I created something that intentionally used an existing genre or format outside my own personal taste, that made an interesting contrast or further supported the content of the field guide. I had considered using a women’s magazine travel guide checklist, like the one below. But with the time we had, and my existing skills and tools, I wasn’t sure marrying this structure with my research would land for the reader. It might work for a different energy topic.

In the end, I did make a field guide in which the genre or format does match the research I gathered and my organization of the content — it’s just something that I would totally make. I’ve created a handmade, collaged, coherent and comfortable jumble of text and visual hierarchies that come across as trusty, friendly, warm, cynical but optimistic, and open for the reader to think for themselves. I now much more admire people who are able to work within many visual communication languages.

  • How did you manage your time? Could you realistically improve that? What would you do differently in general?

I managed my time no better or worse than usual, in that I was able to pace myself the weeks leading up to it but also spent a good amount of time producing the final piece the two days beforehand. One thing that really mattered was being able to talk with someone about a couple conundrums in the moment. For example, I was stuck on which visual thread would tie together all of the pages. In hindsight it seems simple, but I really had to hammer out with someone else how there would be individual hands for the first three spreads regarding what you can directly control, and then increasing numbers of people for the energies you control together with others. I also had to talk out loud for a while about what the title of the field guide would be. I felt like I was in Mad Men, throwing around ad campaign copy ideas. Next time I would embrace that I’ll need to talk out loud about conundrums, and plan to be near people to do so.

  • What feedback did you receive?

Overall I’ve heard that people enjoy it, and want to share it with other people. But those are people who I know… when I have a final copy, I’ll share it with people who I don’t know. After talking about distribution possibilities, I’ll make a final user testing plan to get a last round of feedback.

  • How did you balance research and experimentation? Which is easier? How can you focus more on the areas that you shy away from?

I did not experiment with visual ideas until I had my research in a good place, as I felt more confident allowing form to follow content.  Also, producing images or fabricating physical forms can take a lot of time. Typically, I spend more time thinking, writing, sketching and talking out loud with others to consider or eliminate which images or form factors will best support the goals and message of a project. I don’t usually think through my ideas by producing more drafted images or forms.

However, looking back, I can see the brief moments where I could have practiced putting my developing research into different genres or form factors. This might have influenced the direction of my research in an interesting way.  I could make time to do this with Topic #2.

Temporary Expert – Research for Plant-Based Diets as a form of Energy

Update as of September 18th:

I’ve gathered more research (see very bottom) thanks to Marion Nestle’s incredible and very active blog “Food Politics“. Nestle is an academic at NYU who specializes in the politics of food and dietary choice.

I’m beginning to think my Energy Field Guide on Plant-Based Diets will be focused on using one’s diet to contribute to preventing climate change by choosing how one participates in many kinds of energy that are part of the U.S. food production system.

My field guide might have entries with a multi-layered taxonomy: 1) A thing or location 2) a Higher Concept that is a Form of Energy 3) a Feasible Alternative Reality.

For example my field guide will suggest you take your guide and do these things.

  • Go to Whole Foods owned by Amazon (Taxonomy: Thing/Location)
  • In order to learn about Capitalism (Taxonomy: Higher Concept / Form of Energy)
  • And consider participating in an alternative solution like a grocery store cooperative that buys from local farms and mission-aligned companies (Taxonomy: Feasible Alternative Possibilities).


  • Pick up the container for the last thing you ate (Taxonomy: Thing/Location)
  • In order to learn about Food Labeling & Consumer Choice (Taxonomy: Topic / Form of Energy).
  • To imagine being able to see a second label reporting how much environmental energy was required to make that single serving.

These don’t have to do with plant-based diets yet…. but I will orient the field guide user by beginning with two introductory entries about plant-based vs meat-based diets, and all the energy forms they participate in.


Update as of September 11th:

My Energy Field Guide topic is “Plant-Based Diet”. This topic can quickly become about US food production, and how we prioritize land, water and energy.  I now see a plant-based diet as a way to individually influence energy management nationally, and to directly control my own body’s energy.

Below is my draft of a systems map. I’m considering a focus on one system component of “decision-making systems” related to the Plant-Based Diet.  Who decides what about diets and food production, and what is within their control? The individual, the restaurant, the grocery store, the government, advocacy groups, etc.?

Everything is so interlinked. I can see the challenge of having to really force oneself to remove sub-topics from your focus in order to really communicate a message. And within eating habits, US food production, and energy management, removing topics may in the end undermine the ability for someone else reading my Field Guide to find a compelling argument to reconsider their own diet. A decision like changing what you eat relies on many influences. But ultimately the reason why  one person changes their food habits is different from the next person.

Further below are my list of answered and unanswered questions.

And lastly, I include a list of links that I’ve read or not yet read.

Systems Thinking Map

Plant-Based Diets (several kinds)

vs what exactly?

  • Meat-Based Diet.
  • Different types of plant-based diets.
  • Fasting.
  • What else

Energy –  Four forms:

  • In the form of land, water and energy (“natural resources” // more abstractly, properties of matter that manifest as capacities to perform work
  • Converted into plant-based food (grass (“forage”), grains) What about insects?
  • Converted into US livestock (chickens, dairy cows, beef cows, turkeys, lamb)
  • Converted into animal products (eggs, chicken, milk, beef, turkey, lamb)
  • Converted into human energy (calories, protein, nutrients // strength & vitality // physical or mental powers // properties of matter that manifest as capacities to perform work)

Human population

World population

US population

Livestock populations – in US and in World

US Food Production System

World Production System


Natural Resources




Fossil Fuels

  • Coal
  • Oil
  • Natural gas

Non-fossil fuels (is this renewable energy? or specifically what is this?)

  • Wind
  • Sun
  • Water
  • What else



…The opposite of sustainable – “one time use” … what are the common phrases for this?

Food consumption

  • Human culture, comfort, taste, habits
  • Socioeconomic status (allows different purchasing powers and access)
  • Obesity, diabetes
  • Whatelse

Types of Food

  • Plants
  • Grains (different than plants? do legumes and soy count?)
  • Animal products
  • Sweets and Fats
  • “Fake meat” like Seitan Meats, Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger
  • What else

Food Shopping

  • Different kinds of grocery stores
  • CSAs
  • Park Slope Food Coop
  • Your own garden
  • What else


  • Long list
  • What is employment in US Food Production, and what % of that is total jobs in the country?



Higher or lower energy & protein content

Direct costs vs indirect costs

  • Direct costs
    • Production of the harvest animal or plant or grain
  • Indirect costs
    • “Maintaining breeding herds”
    • Environmental – overuse of lands, uncontrollable animal waste, C02, toxins in the land and water, poor health of humans and animals nearby



Human and Animal health issues




  • Consumers
  • Citizens
  • Food companies
  • Policy makers
  • Researchers
  • Journalists
  • Bloggers
  • City, state, federal government central offices and agencies
  • Animal rights groups
  • Environmental groups
  • Plants, grains, and animals themselves
  • Who else?

Decision-making systems

  • Elections of people to political office
  • Research committees who approve or deny new research
  • Consumer choice
  • Food stamps policy?
  • What else?



Answered Questions

Q: What share of energy used by US food production comes from fossil fuels?

A: “The share of U.S. food-system energy from fossil fuels was 93 percent”

January 2017 USDA Report: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/82194/err-224.pdf?v=42804

Q: What is fossil fuel?

A: Energy that is “one-time use” and therefore not renewable within a human timescale. Is formed by natural processes that take millions of years (e.g. 650 million years). There are mainly three kinds of fossil fuel: coal, petroleum/oil, and natural gas.

Unanswered Questions

Q: What makes up that remaining 7% – what are the examples food production companies using non-fossil fuel energy?

Q: How much of food policy is politicized? Is there much of a difference in opinion among stakeholders as to whether there are problems or not?

Q: Which research journals are neutral, liberal, or conservative? Reports from policy groups? Government agencies?

Q: Who agrees with Pimentel, the author of the linked report? I have to check again, but he seems to mostly reference his own research in his footnotes. Is this common?

Q: Why doesn’t Pimentel explain fossil fuels, and whether they are good or bad? There is no explanation which makes the research appear biased.

Q: The report brings up world and U.S. population growth. In particular, U.S. population growth over the next 70 years is presented as extreme. But how does this compare to the amount of livable land available in the U.S.? And how does this ratio compare to other regions in the world?  The U.S. experienced huge immigration on top of native peoples living here, which naturally would increase its population over its 242 year history.

Q: The report makes a good point that U.S. food production uses up large percentages of land, water, and energy. It also implies this production is mainly eaten by Americans. Is this true? What about food imports?  And what about food being exported to other countries?  Would either of these increase the problem?




To Read:

Marion Nestle’s Blog (Food Professor at NYU)

Tagged “Climate Change”


Eat meat and reduce carbon emissions. How? Feed cattle on grass.

Eat less meat: more evidence from climate change and health

USDA Secretary issues guiding principles for farm bill

World Resources Institute report

The U.K. food industry fights labeling efforts, successfully

Milan Food Expo: A highly preliminary assessment

Meat arguments: health, climate, taxes

Livestock and Climate Change?


Tagged “Sustainability”

Livestock and Climate Change?

Agroecology: it’s the hot issue in agriculture, but what does it mean?

Rotating crops in Iowa–a better way to farm

What ag schools really need to teach: a report

Weekend reading: a how-to for sustainable food systems (again)

World Resources Institute report

The bizarre saga of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines: Continued

Weekend reading: Grass (the green kind)


Searched for “Power”

Weekend reading: Concentration and Power in the Food System

Proposition 37 take-home lesson: the power of money in politics


The French food industry v. public health: front-of-package label

Weekend action: Advocating for organics (Toolkit!)

Farm Bill #1: Earl Blumenauer’s bill


Search for “Capitalism”

Weekend Reading: Seven Cheap Things

Weekend Reading: Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism

Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods: a roundup


Marion Nestle’s Books

Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat

Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics

Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics

What to Eat

Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety

Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health


Blog post about how much animal diets are based on oil/fossil fuels : http://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/how-fossil-fuels-are-used-to-produce-meat/