Thursday, August 26, 2010

Those crazy do-gooders

"Math Lessons for Locavores" is an annoying op-ed piece in the New York Times that I somehow missed until now.

I don't dispute the claim that it can be cheap and efficient to transport food long distances. But that's about the only claim that Budiansky backs up. He does nothing to show that ignorance of economics means that "the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas."

How is it self-indulgent to grow your own food, or buy from people who do, or pay more for local food (even if this is a mistake)? Why, or how, would such "self-indulgence" defeat the purposes of the local food movement? I guess we have to understand its sole purpose as being to increase economic efficiency. But that isn't a plausible understanding at all. These are Birkenstock-types we're talking about, after all. They're capable of self-righteousness, but economic efficiency is not their main concern.

He continues: "Other favorite targets of sustainability advocates include the fertilizers and chemicals used in modern farming. But their share of the food system’s energy use is even lower, about 8 percent."

This looks like a promising entry in a non sequitur contest. "Hey farmer farmer, put away that DDT now, The chemicals you're using/ are a recipe for inefficiency-hee!" I don't think that's how it goes.

He ends with this:
The relative pittance of our energy budget that we spend on modern farming is one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being.

What the...?! Where did that come from? What is "our energy budget"? Some sum set aside to be spent on energy? There is no such thing, surely. So he must mean the money spent on running farms, including the cost of fertilizers, etc. But wouldn't that include the money spent on subsidies? Who thinks that's money well spent? And farming includes animal farming, too, which is generally not a great investment in our well-being.

I hope he got a big bribe to write this and doesn't actually either believe it or hate green-types so much that he'll say anything just to try to make them look bad. He's probably honest but confused, and I probably shouldn't write about things that make me feel like Brian Leiter, but I can't believe this kind of thing gets published in such a high profile place.



  1. is there any way you could work on persuading brian leiter to adopt that principle?

  2. In my dreams. They say he's nice in real life.

    In an attempt to save myself, I might add that I agree with some of the things Budiansky says--perhaps even all the things he says that have actual substance. But he ends with a misty-eyed paean to modern farming, and begins with a claim that I read as suggesting (falsely) that the trend toward eating more local food is in danger of collapsing.

    Yes, the benefits of eating local food can be exaggerated. Yes, some people give bad reasons for wanting to eat local food. But does that mean that the whole thing is doomed? Or self-indulgent? It was the insults that annoyed me. Oh well. Rant over.

  3. One thing: At least in my town, I would suggest that most of the loca-vores I see are not "Birkenstock-types"--they are libertarian Thoreau-type rugged individualists (with guns rather than sandals). (I can't really imagine Thoreau wearing Birkenstocks...) What I find fascinating about the local food movement is that it brings hippies and rugged individualists together...and here in Kentucky, the thought seems to be that for the farmers who made the switch to food crops from tobacco, it's a more efficient (and perhaps, better for the community and the soul) move for them to market directly to local consumers than to try to hitch themselves to a commercial distributor. (However, that's just the theory; I don't know how the actual economics are working out...)

  4. They might not be Birkenstock-types here in Virginia, either, really, but they are definitely hippy-ish more than they are gun-toting. But we have a lot of old hippies here (grumpy that the 60s didn't lead where they had hoped) and some younger, happier ones too. The locavores are mostly foodies, I suspect, but you see a lot of vaguely hippy-types at the farmers market.

    I hope small-scale, family farming can work. If it's going to survive the economics will have to work, but I don't think people choose to eat that food primarily because they think it's more efficient economically. Which was one of the points I wanted to make.

  5. on that point i think it's probably just thankless drudgery you risk taking on—when the arguments for e.g. an environmentalist-tinged locavorism are broadly consequentialist, and especially when they center on claims that are especially systematic (as environmentalist claims are prone to), that practically invites all kinds of muddled skepticism and foot-dragging. and, apparently, some of that is easily expressed in terms that cloud the relationships between different systematic measures like economic ones and consequentialist-environmentalist ones. this kind of thing is practically an established genre for journalistic hacks by now. i think slate even has a regular column devoted to it. (but what about THIS consumable? is it really green or not?)

  6. Thankless drudgery doesn't sound good. You're probably right, and I think I will try to avoid it.