Difficult Words No 3: Murmuration
Some things are just weird. Sometimes weird things get weird names. Murmuration is a 500-year-old word for a big flock of starlings, and it gets used when they do something that seems to violate “how things work.” But a murmuration isn’t about breaking rules. It’s about what happens when the deep rules break the surface.
You may have seen video of starlings doing their thing, and if you haven’t you owe it to yourself to do so. Here’s an example that’s been getting a lot of play. And here’s another one with its own twist. The rapidly shifting, almost fractal way in which the flock moves is an example of simple individual choices creating remarkable group behavior. Every starling obeys just one basic rule: stay close to your neighbors and match speed and angle. Of course, there are tiny variations, and these are what ripple through the whole flock to create the astonishing display.
A murmuration isn’t just beautiful. It’s a living visualization of laws of physics and systems. In the language of such things, a murmuration of starlings is a critical system, that is, a system poised to change. When the change happens, it’s called a phase transition, like when water turns to steam or ice.
Another example of a critical system is an avalanche, or rather, the snow before the avalanche. What’s interesting is how all that violence and motion is there in the motionless snow, utterly invisible, but totally present, waiting for some small thing to push it past the tipping point.
Human society is a system, too. We’re slower than avalanches and starlings, and we follow considerably more complex rules, but phase transitions do happen.
Take for example the one-time profession of the woodworker. Now, “woodworking” usually conjures the image of dad/uncle in his garage-shop, fiddling with powertools and projects that span years from start to completion. In short, a hobby.
But woodworking used to be anything but. In a world before plastic, or even Bakelite, almost everything in your home aside from the pots, pans and tableware was made of wood. A lot of it was furniture, but it was everything else, too, from toys, to clocks, to hangers in the closet, to the closet itself. It was a massive industry, and schools and apprenticeship programs churned out craftsmen by the tens of thousands. Woodworkers were as common as espresso joints.
Mechanization and changes in materials killed all that and brought us to the age of Ikea. Now, the age of Ikea is a two edged sword, because the furniture is cool and inexpensive but, honestly, who hasn’t had an Ikea chair disintegrate in their home? I once watched an Ikea chair supporting a well-known TV actor actually explode. All four legs managed to simultaneously blow off — there’s no other term for it — leaving the actor, still planted firmed on the seat mind you, to land flat on the floor.
What’s astonishing about the terminal condition of Ikea wares isn’t that stylish but cheap furniture reverts to sawdust with the application of time. It’s our reaction. We shrug. And then we go get another one.
Now, we could instead take the cash we’ll spend on the dozen or so Ikea chairs we’ll purchase in a lifetime and buy a single well-made chair that would last more than that lifetime. But we apparently don’t get tired of spending our money on crap, instead of spending a bit more on something that isn’t crap. That’s the central tenet of the globalized economy, and to judge from how China’s weathered the Great Recession, it’s hard to argue.
But sometimes things — and people — surprise you. It turns out there’s another institution in the midst of a phase transition and it goes by the name of brewing.
Brewing is very big business. Beer is the third most popular beverage in the world after water and tea, and it rakes in $70 billion per year, mostly funneled to the coffers of a few enormous multinational conglomerates. But here’s a surprising factoid. The largest American-owned brewery isn’t Miller, Anheuser-Busch or Coors. No, they’ve all been swallowed by multinationals like SABMiller and InBev. The largest onshore brewery is a craft brewery, Boston, the home of Sam Adams.
The craft brewing renaissance in the United States is generally dated to 1976 when the New Albion brewery opened in Sonoma, California. New Albion only survived for six years, but by the time it expired, a few others had popped up. How few? A total of eight in 1980. The whole 1980s was a tough time to be a craft brewer. Most survived by operating brewpubs, using the brewing as a gimmick to bring traffic into the restaurant. It was a tenuous niche, mostly kept alive by the enthusiasm of the small brewers and utterly ignored by the big brewers as meaningless.
But underneath this modest veneer, a phase change was, well, brewing. Like starlings in a flock, a number of individuals were making choices, affecting one another, and the random scattering of brewing enthusiasts suddenly exploded into a movement, craft brewing as a segment hitting a growth rate of 58% in 1996. It wasn’t a rate that could be sustained, but it never quit growing and it still is. Before the craft brewing explosion, there were 44 breweries operating in the United States. Today, there are 1,927 and most Americans live within ten miles of a craft brewer.
This is all the more astonishing when you realize that brewing, as an industry, is in decline. It’s getting smaller, making less money every year. But not craft brewing. As the multinationals slowly bleed, craft brewing’s revenue grows, 12% in the most recent year.
This is the mystery, the murmuration of craft beer. For decades we shrugged and chugged various grades of industrial brew that were more or less interchangeable. The few larger brewing houses made money hand over fist. Small, local brewing looked as dead as woodworking. But, unseen, the nexus of brewers, beer and their customers was a critical system nearing a tipping point.
Pause to understand that we’re talking lowly beer. Not wine. Not chocolate. Not a high-end food with a well-heeled audience happy to spend more if they could. If you’re younger than 35, you probably don’t remember what the beer section of a grocery store looked like in 1989. It was tiny, for one thing. Why? Because it only had to have room for the few offerings from the big brewers (possibly spiced up with “light” versions of their product) and a few regional brands. It had about as much variety as the bathroom tissue aisle.
Thankfully, that era is gone, and I don’t think it’s coming back. Brewing as a craft died, but it was reborn into a world where the conventional wisdom — and the everyday truth — is that price trumps quality. But in this one little corner, quality reigns because there’s a public that understands and values what the craft brewers do, and who thinks, to mix my metaphors, “No, I’m not going to buy another Ikea chair.”
So it makes me wonder. If it could happen with beer, where else could it happen? What else contains hidden criticality? What other systems are nearing this tipping point?
It may be that there’s a hint in the name. The “craft” in craft brewing isn’t just a marketing term. Craft is about men and women devoting themselves to the pursuit of mastery. It’s called a pursuit, because craft is never perfected. In brewing, the craftsman engages with what nature gives him. Hops and barley aren’t quality controlled industrial components. They’re living things that the craftsman shapes with his or her patience, skill and understanding.
It’s pretty much the opposite of the modern industrial farm. Quarter-million-dollar, GPS-guided tractors, genetically engineered seed, massive inputs of both synthetic fertilizer and pesticides: all of it is an effort to remove craft from farming, and replace it with a series of predictable, repeatable, interchangeable steps. The goal is to make it as close to an assembly line as possible. It’s the same kind of thinking that makes Ikea prefer to use sawdust as “wood.” An actual piece of wood is individual, with unique strengths and weaknesses which can be understood and used by a craftsman. Sawdust, on the other hand, can be shaped by machine into predictable, repeatable, interchangeable components. It’s tremendously efficient at producing a high volume of product. If only it weren’t all crap.
But if the modern industrial farm is a monument to the effort to make craft irrelevant, there’s another kind of farm devoted to craft. Behind the resurgence of farmers markets, there’s a cadre of farmers committed to using their wits instead of their bank accounts. And behind them, there’s a resurgence of young people — educated, wired and networked — who are deciding that they want to be farmers. It’s not coming a moment too soon in a nation where the average age of a farmer is 54.
These young people go by an old name — they’re called apprentices, a term from the age of craft. It’s tough to be an apprentice farmer. There’s little money, expensive land, hard work. The lessons don’t come easy. You have to have heart and you have to believe because, in the big picture, there’s just a few of you, doing something that the overwhelming majority of your industry — the flock, if you will — believes is meaningless.
And maybe they’re right. Maybe the notion of farming without satellite-guided tractors and aerial drones to produce Normalized Difference Vegetation Index photomosaics to enable variable-rate application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and phytosanitary products (AKA “pesticides”) is a hopelessly romantic notion, divorced from the reality of farming as a business.
Or maybe it’s like 1980 and the eight craft brewers all over again. Maybe the change has already started. Maybe it’s already out there, right now, starting so quietly it’s only a murmur.
Murmuration Sighting by Reway2007
Starling System Criticality by Tony Armstrong
Starlings of Oz by Eric n6oim
Brewing Flowchart by Jerine Ley
Industrial Farm Tool by Erwin Schoonderwaldt
Craft Farm Tool by Francesco Rachello