Cold Chain Melt Down

Nonfiction∙ 5min ∙ Collage, text | 2016

"Taking Buildings Down" was a call for ideas from the Storefront for Art & Architecture that sought proposals for the production of voids; the demolition of buildings, structures, and infrastructures; or the subtraction of objects and/or matter as a creative act. This project was my submission to this call for ideas.

I chose to interpet the prompt using a minimum of text supported by images I collaged from stock and news photos. I took the challenge as an opportunity to pinpont the most vulnerable feature of our precarious and unsustainable global food system: the cold chain.

The current condition: the cold chain logistics and storage market is a $230 billion industry.

The best way not to take something for granted? Take it down.

The Coldscape or “cold chain” is the complex global network of temperature-controlled storage and distribution warehouses, shipping containers, and display cases on which the daily diet of the average American is almost entirely dependent.

I first learned about the Coldscape from Nicola Twilley, whose project Perishable: The Refrigerated Landscape of America simultaneously fascinated and horrified me. Twilley describes the Coldscape as “a vast distributed winter…that creates the permanent summertime of the world’s supermarket aisles.”[1] I was stunned by the image of a worldwide system of artificially chilled forcefields—and haunted by its underlying implications.

The cold chain is an ubiquitous but invisible infrastructure on which our modern, industrialized civilization is totally dependent. It’s an overlooked but critical aspect of energy consumption, climate change, and economic policy. The cold chain logistics and storage market is a $230 billion industry. [2]

I started to wonder: what would happen if the system failed? How long could we feed ourselves if the Coldscape collapsed? Moreover, how much energy would we save in the process?

The collapse of the cold chain measures the degree to which our global food production and distribution system depends on it. The process of removal is simple: cutting power to all refrigerated warehouses, shipping containers, and retail cases would render them useless and effectively “taken down.” The immediate result would be a widespread food shortage, followed by looting, foraging, panic, and chaos…

The process and methodology of removal: when energy and labor costs outweigh the benefits of wasteful abundance.

But what about the long-term results? The removal of the cold chain would force citizens to consider practical alternative solutions to implementing food security without compromising food sovereignty. A disruption of this scale would force a critical mass of the public to confront the amount and impact of waste generated in a surplus-­driven food system. It would also reveal an immediate and substantial offset to humanity’s rapidly expanding carbon footprint. Now, what might that look like?

The resultant condition: the public is forced to take action or else succumb to food desertification.

Look, I’m not suggesting that we literally pull the plug in order to demonstrate the un-sustainability of our current food system. But I am suggesting we exercise our imaginations and consider the possibility of living in a world without it. To do so expands the limits of our understanding beyond what we think we know to be true, and allows us to tiptoe into what we thought we knew to be false… but might actually be true. In this case—that the sudden and complete destruction of the Coldscape would inevitably call permaculture design, cooperative farming (and financing), and localized, energy-efficient marketing and distribution to the rescue.

The current paradigm allows little room for the expression of these ideas in a way that is tangible and accessible to ordinary people. The small farmer whose useful knowledge of home canning and fermentation techniques that preserve and extend the seasonal harvest is no match for a media environment bought, sold, and saturated by ketchup corporations who are competing for our ignorance and desire.

A Modest Proposal: Cold Chain Meltdown. Sometimes the only way to intervene is to challenge ourselves to think the unthinkable, and then ask: Is it worth it?


  1. Madrigal, Alexis C., "A Journey Into Our Food System's Refrigerated-Warehouse Archipelago" The Atlantic, Jul 15, 2013. CHECK CITATION FORMAT. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/a-journey-into-our-food-systems-refrigerated-warehouse-archipelago/277790/
  2. https://www.trade.gov/topmarkets/pdf/Cold_Chain_Top_Markets_Report.pdf

Originally published on Medium as "Cold Chain Melt Down" on March 9th, 2016. Special thanks to Michael Lyons.

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