"Since every purchase made in a free economy is chiefly a purchase of many kinds of stored energy, it may even be that buying the cheapest food is the closest possible approximation humans can make to measuring their "environmental footprint" at the supermarket."
The U. S. Democratic Party finds itself in an amusing quandary as its national convention, scheduled to begin on Aug. 25 in Denver, approaches. The Denver Post reported on Sunday that local caterers are having trouble adhering to environmental and health guidelines laid down by the host committee on the party's behalf. A request for proposals obtained by the Colorado paper indicates that fried foods will be banned, that all meals must be served on reusable or recyclable plates and that no individual plastic containers for drinks will be allowed.
But the trickiest part is the rule that everything on the table must be locally or organically grown. "We all want to source locally," says one exasperated caterer, "but we're in Colorado. The growing season is short. It's dry here. And I question the feasibility of that." Another potential bidder observed that green sourcing rules sometimes forced them into counterintuitive choices. Would it be "better" to order compostable cornstarch cutlery, even if it had to be delivered from an Asian factory?
If the Democrats were serious about eating green, they could surely just have some army cooks make a few thousand quarts of nice healthy lentil stew for everybody. What they want is credit for environmental rigour without sacrificing their bourgeois right to fine dining. And if they have to waste a certain amount of energy, effort and money, so be it. Unfortunately, waste is waste, and the ethical complexities of eating green can't simply be shrugged off.
Fact is, the faddish passion for counting "food miles" and obsessively searching out local produce began to look dodgy the second the books started flying off the shelves sometime last year. Locally grown food will save on transport emissions, but the true green aspirant would factor in the ecological cost of water, fertilizer and energy consumption — remembering that not every kilowatt is created equal in the eyes of Gaia. The nearest producer doesn't always win. And a full accounting would incorporate the details of the fabrication of the farm machinery and the greenness of the diets of the farm workers (and other labourers ultimately involved in contributing farm inputs), thus yanking the analyst back to square one in an infinite chain. All of this applies to "organic" produce and meats, which, after all, are designed to limit the use of synthetic agrichemicals, not the emission of carbon.
Fans of eating local are convinced, despite the inherent impossibility of passing a fully informed green judgment on a meal, that the general idea is sound. (Some, to be sure, are concealing a moral distaste for globalization behind a mask of ecological piety.) But does it really make sense — even in principle? We would not expect to have a beneficial overall effect on the environmental envelope if we all reverted to smelting our own steel in backyard furnaces, after the fashion of China's Great Leap Forward. Like the unfortunate Chinese peasants, we would go about it inefficiently, and squander a great many resources — and carbon emissions — on unusable, unsellable or short-lived output.
Because large corporate businesses are obsessed with efficient use of inputs, for reasons having nothing to do with the environment, they must be presumed to start out with a huge environmental lead over the small producer. So why would we assume that things work any differently when it comes to food?
The new hordes of green-eating advocates are merely reviving an old and well-known problem in a new form. In the 1920s, the economist Ludwig von Mises argued that rational economic production was impossible under socialism: Denied the price signals that give social needs and preferences an implicit hand in every decision a capitalist entrepreneur makes, a state planner could never hope to predict demand and make informed choices. The debate over economic calculation carried on for decades, but in the end, the collapse of the Soviet Union settled it to near-universal satisfaction. Mikhail Gorbachev and his colleagues knew that their economy had no reasonable method of answering questions like, "Do we make more shoes or more socks next year?"
De-linking household-type economic decisions (asparagus or beets?) from money considerations, and replacing them with an environmental standard of value, creates the same species of confusion. The problem of determining which bag of onions might involve the release of the least carbon would require the solving of a vast array of equations, too great for the human mind even to teach a computer to solve. Since every purchase made in a free economy is chiefly a purchase of many kinds of stored energy, it may even be that buying the cheapest food is the closest possible approximation humans can make to measuring their "environmental footprint" at the supermarket.
Take heed, Democrats! It's not too late to go with the lentils.