Stephen Budiansky has published a New York Times op-ed critical of localvores’ math.
‘Local, Schmocal’. The fuel usage numbers they cite to justify the virtue of eating locally are unsupported, concocted, in Budiansky’s view. He concludes:
Eating locally grown produce is a fine thing in many ways. But it is not an end in itself, nor is it a virtue in itself. 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.
Budiansky is the proprietor of Liberalcurmudgeon.com (‘Who says you have to be a conservative to be pissed off?’), where he amplifies his theme in a post, ‘Local, Schmocal’. There is more about him at the end of the post.
The Number Game. I don’t know whether his examples are right. But his line of argument is, perhaps for reasons with which he might not agree.
The substitution of numeric justifications for nuanced explanations blights more than the local food movement. The environmental movement used carbon and green house gas numbers to represent the challenges it wanted to publicize. Because it is easy to measure and describe, it is easy to address. It has crowded out of the mental marketplace issues such as drinking water availability, coal ash pollution and a host of others.
The lesson: Beware of simple – especially numeric – justifications for complex ideas.
The Virtues of Local Economies. For me, the essence of eating locally and its supporting organisations such as Slow Money is the creation of local political economies centered on food.
The localvores’ most visible success – and I’d argue by far the most important – are the farmers markets that have sprung up in the past decade from Dorset, VT, to the Ferry Building in San Francisco. I’ve been to tiny ones in Townshend, VT, and vast ones in Madison, WI, and Charleston, SC. I bought fresh fish from a tiny start up market in Nassau.
Why are farmers markets important? Because they bring together people of widely varying political casts of mind in settings designed to encourage camaraderie, informal conversation, good will.
The customers tend to be able to afford the prices which are considerably higher than, say, Price Chopper’s. So, farmers markets today don’t reproduce the social mix of the markets of my childhood in the late 40s and early 50s. Nonetheless, they are an important step away from ‘the lonely crowd’ of our malls and big box nests.
Equally important, eating locally helps keep people on farms, in small communities. Nothing shocked me more on my seven-day tour of Ohio than the shells of small towns vibrant 35 years ago. Surrounding them now are strip malls and beyond them huge, consolidated fields.
Like John Steinbeck’s Oakies in The Grapes of Wrath, the farmers have been ‘tractored out’. Today, one man with modern equipment can rake and bale more acres of hay in a day than in the 1950s two men, two boys (I was one of them) and a girl could. Plus, of course, the woman who produced three meals (one brought to the field), kept the house, tended the chickens, etc.
Hence, as I’ve written, Ohio’s ‘bare ruined choirs’.
The Covenant of the Wild. Stephen Budiansky wrote The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication in 1992. It completely changed my understanding of my/our relationship with domestic animals – especially dogs. At the same time, it offered an ethical basis for our responsibility to domestic animals – something I felt – and feel – very strongly about but for which I lacked a rationale.
From a writer’s standpoint, it’s a daunting book. I wouldn’t change so much as a comma. Budiansky can write in 200 words what others can’t do in 2000. He has a knack for capturing complex research in prose accessible by anyone.
Read The Covenant of the Wild!
Disclosure: I am a founding member of Slow Money.
A somewhat different version of this post appears on the Risk Metrics ESG Insight Blog.