html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: <a href="http://www.marginalrevolution.com">Tyler's</a> <a href="http://www.slate.com/id/2152675/">review</a> reminded me.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Tyler's review reminded me.

I should have liked Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma better than I did. My main objection to it was simply that I am already in the choir; I was bored reading a book intended to convince others of a food policy I’ve held for many years. I’ve mentioned before that in addition to being vegetarian, when I am preparing food, I eat strictly local and seasonal produce. We are nearing the end of tomatoes; when they go, I won’t eat a fresh tomato until next July. I haven’t had a banana in years and I don’t expect to eat another until I visit the tropics. I’ve bought my vegetables from the same growers for the eight years I’ve lived in Sac. Should I have a question about how they are produced, I’ll ask the guys when I see them Sunday. I would like to have that kind of direct link and transparency with all of my food purchases.

I can afford my freako food policy because I live in one of the great breadbaskets of the world, where something ripens every month of the year. When people from cold climates hear of my food policy, their first objection is that they would get no fruit or vegetables for all winter and spring. I don’t argue with people in person, but my absolutist stance is that no one should live in a place that cannot feed its people year round. Yeah. I truly believe that. Living in a physical system imposes limits on people and severing the link between landscape, food and people allows people to deny those limits. Northern hemisphere people eat a cherry in November as if the world hasn’t turned on its axis away from the sun, in thoughtless defiance of shortening daylight and cooling nights. Eating seasonally acknowledges and submits to the real restrictions of the natural world and most people in developed countries could use a lot of practice doing that*.

The next objection that people raise is that not everyone can move to places that can feed them. My response is that there should be radically fewer people. I read the blogs that are worried about countries with declining birthrates and for the life of me, I cannot understand why that is a problem**. A society of people individually and voluntarily choosing not to replace itself, partially because their quality of life is so high? That isn’t a problem, that’s the fucking solution. I want every population in the world to move to that stage as soon as possible, skipping the consumerist phase, if possible. I would love a return to a world with a low human population, clustered in richly productive lands with adequate water supplies, marginal lands and cities and industrial agricultural and global trade ensuring a supply of cheap plastic toys abandoned. I think a population crash is inevitable and I hope we take a soft path to get there.

I don’t talk about this stuff much, largely because I don’t expect to convince people to change their eating habits. If I could though, I would wish that people knew where their food comes from. I wish they made an aware choice about where they put their food money. I wish they were willing to pay for all the costs of their food production. If Pollan encourages that with Omnivore’s Dilemma, more power to him.








*I’m sure you can find a lot of food porn rhapsodizing about the joys of eating each thing in its season. I also think like that, but I’ll leave you to find some ode to a ripe peach elsewhere. After all these years, I no longer consider my food choices constrained, but that may be comfort with my habits. Over a year, I likely eat a broader range of produce than people who don’t follow the seasons.

** Because of the loss of a culture, like in France and Italy? Those cultures developed during centuries when the population was vastly lower than it is now; above some threshold, it isn’t that you need a number of people to sustain a culture, you need isolation so they don’t go intermarrying the hot Asian boys.

25 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Getting fresh fruit and produce all year round is just a convenience, not really a necessity. I mean, what's a cold climate to you? Minnesota? Wisconsin? Alaska? People lived all of those places long before the large grocery chains showed up.

You can always preserve food and save it for the winter. Fruits and vegetables grow in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the summer, they'd just have to can them to have them for the winter. So, realistically, those places can support the people living there, it's likely just not as efficient to do it.

Anyway, I don't care where my food comes from, as long as it's there. Though, I wouldn't mind there being fewer people out clogging up all the things I like to do. Although, a lot of the things I like to do would probably go away without a lot of people to support them.

And, isn't it kind of hypocritical for someone who wants to have kids complaining about the number of people out there? Or do you plan to only have 1 kid?

Justin

5:50 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

It's far from clear to me why a "local only" policy should apply very narrowly to one type of good (foodstuffs.)

Why is it OK to buy a chair or pencil or book or digital media not locally produced, but not foodstuffs?

The phrase "Living in a physical system imposes limits on people" would seem to naturally apply to all products.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Just to give a specific example of a particular non-foodstuff good:

Worldwide, something on the order of half-a-trillion semiconductors are manufactured annually. It used to be that it took about 10 gallons of water to make one (my rough knowledge on the subject is a decade old.)

Anyhow, trillions(?) of gallons water are being used making semiconductors and sending them out across the globe. That seems like a huge footprint compared to importing New Zealand oranges out of season.

6:18 PM  
Blogger capella said...

Megan, reading your blog makes it impossible to avoid the sense that you have a wonderful and happy and well-ordered and deeply considered life. And that's great, and I think you are very impressive to have gotten there.

But elevating something like eating only local produce to the level of a belief? Why? It's a health consideration, or a food preference, or a lifestyle. And it works for you, so that's great. But to say that everyone should live the way you live, just because you like spending a lot of time and money hunting down food that's 10% tastier and healthier, seems narrow-minded.

6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, what happens to the economy of Ecuador if people don't eat bananas, which is their #1 export?

As for population, this seems a very California attitude of feeling too crowded in (even though I know you don't buy into the anti-immigrant hysteria). Shouldn't the emphasis be on how much we consume... The UN population analysts seem to think that the world population will level out in another 50 years or so. That's not the problem... It seems the real issue is that some folks (starting with Americans) consume a lot more in resources than those in other countries...

Peace,
A

6:28 PM  
Blogger aregon23 said...

I would strongly suggest reading an introductory text on Economics (competitive advantages, etc.), because some of the statements from your post such as "A society of people individually and voluntarily choosing not to replace itself, partially because their quality of life is so high? That isn’t a problem, that’s the fucking solution." are clearly contradictory to your goal of a simpler society. As the population ages, who do you think is going to bear the burden of supporting the senior citizens? Maintaining the GDP, etc.

Your concept of utopian society is another flight of fancy, unless you want us to go back to the stone age.

You might 'think' you enjoy the simple life, but after a couple of crop failures, winters without food, you will very quickly wish you had the comforts of home and the 21st century.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was going to say what I think Aregon23 said--the reason why low birthrates are bad is because the population inversion is unpleasant.

Other than that, I strongly dislike this type of thinking, which I consider ascetic. You are imagining a responsibility which is simply not there--swimming in the kiddie pool when you could be playing Marco Polo in the deep end (I know, I know, it's just food).

I have a long line of thought from here (which ends with interstellar colonization and possibly the heat death of the universe, depending on how drunk I am) but first I would need to know if you are justifying this position rationally. That is, if a magic fairy dropped off shipments of bananas and brought back bags of magic fertilizer (and video-conference calling cards) replicating your experience at no cost to the environment, would you still refuse to eat bananas?

The human race would be tragic if it was not meant for something greater, and the disconnected yet globalized civilization we are building is a step forward.

7:51 PM  
Anonymous ananda said...

Just imagine how hard it would be to find the right man for you if the population were radically lower!

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

Living in a physical system imposes limits on people and severing the link between landscape, food and people allows people to deny those limits.

Sometimes it's denial, yes. But sometimes those limits have just been raised. Long-crested weirs (i.e., irrigation tech in general) raise those limits just like importing bananas from Ecuador does.

So, when is it denial and when are the limits genuinely raised? What are the real, sustainable, long-term limits? This is an open question that depends on technological advances (like irrigation) just as much as on the functioning of the planet's systems.

9:35 PM  
Blogger Pandax said...

Hmmm, I literally checked out this book from the library this week. I was just about to stat reading it.

People are concerned about low birthrate because many governement entitlement programs are like pyramid schemes. You need lots of people at the bottom to pay the ones at the top. ;) That's my simple theory anyhow... .

11:13 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Aregon23 and 7:51 anonymouse and other prospective commenters:
I'll have this conversation with you guys tomorrow, when we aren't sleepy, but I would like to take at least one line of thinking off the table. I will not entertain any blanket statements about "reading an introductory text on economics". I've taken two years of graduate level economics, and when I say I don't understand or agree with something, it isn't out of ignorance. When we talk more tomorrow, I'll want you to explain exactly what you mean, in simple or advanced economic terms. None of this crap about how if I only understood the basics, I would understand why I am wrong.

11:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think more population is intrinsically good, the fiscal and innovation issues are important, but also if we cut back on the population of *the West* (which is really the option on the table here), I literally fear the world will be lost.
Tyler

4:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"globalised civilisation"?
Give me a break!

Seems to me to be about cultural homogeneity and , in some sense, a new form of imperialism. Uniformity isn't unity...

As for a lower popualtion, that seems like a perfectly 'rational' (or at least reasonable)preference if sustainability is in question.

Maybe I'm just misunderstanding Tyler's comments but if he's saying the world will be lost without "the west" then one can only hold one's hands up in exasperation.

To anonymous, 7:51:
what I dislike is this negative attitude to asceticism...as if more and more is necessarily a good thing or that the increasing scale of commoditisation is something we shouldn't resist.

But yes, by all means, let's talk about flights of imagination and Utopian dreams and recognise that the one of unending material abundance has serious consequences for the environment and for human solidarity.


In the end, I've got to agree with Bauman (liquid modernity): capitalism and 'progress', 'development' depend on an ideal that can never be reached, on us being 'constantly moving happiness machines' and never being satisfied. Is it any wonder, then, that there's so much unhappiness?

I think we should ask Brando's question again (from Apocalypse Now): 'have you ever considered any real freedoms?'.

4:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"An elusive happiness that is always just out of reach and that is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies, and that disgust with life sometimes gripping them in calm and easy circumstances"
--De Tocqueville.
(from my 'happiness' blog)

4:29 AM  
Anonymous ananda said...

While I am looking forward to the back and forth on this topic, I can't help but wonder about the usefulness of one bunch of imaginary people arguing that another bunch of imaginary people should still get to be imaginary.

5:25 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

You were complaining about lingerers earlier.... I didn't comment then but now your cutting down banana eaters and that pushed me over the edge ;)

Do you drive to the food market? If so, is it really local? Would you have been able to get there from your home every weekend if you walked?

My point is that I can live in Pennsylvania and eat bananas for the same reason that you can eat food grown in a specific regional area... modern technology.

Eating bananas because they can be transported to my area is similar to eating local because you and your farmer can each drive 60 miles to get to the market.

5:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To follow up on what a couple prior commentors said, it's not the lower population itself that's the problem, it's the process of getting to that lower population. If the dependency ratio (number of workers for each non-working person) falls below a certain point, it becomes a major drag on the economy. And note that our steadily falling retirement ages just makes the situation more difficult.

As for eating local produce, I agree that it's a good idea whenever possible, but a complete shift is not really practical for most people.

Peter
Iron Rails & Iron Weights

6:51 AM  
Anonymous thelonious_nick said...

1) Though Iceland is a fairly cold place, its soil is similar to Hawaii's, as you might imagine. There are also lots of volcanic steam vents. Build a greenhouse over one of these vents and you've essentially built a little Hawaii where you can grow bananas and other tropical plants. The Icelanders in fact do this--I visited one when we went there on vacation a few years ago. So in your view, is that locally grown, or is that cheating?

2) I see no reason Earth's human population could not reach a sustainable, say, 20 billion, if most of us lived in the ecologically sound manner of the inhabitants of NYC, HK, and Tokyo (i.e. lots of mass transit, walking to work, densely packed housing, etc.) With that in mind, it's a shame that the UN projects the world population will peak in 2050 at around 8.5-9 billion people.

7:17 AM  
Anonymous justus said...

Sacramento Valley can't feed its people year round, at least not without some of the world's most extensive irrigation. That seems like a fairly major circumvention of natural limits. As recently as 1915 the Valley could only produce crops for eight months of the year.

The fact that Sacramento grows tomatoes at all (which along with nearly every other crop grown in the valley is not native to the area) seems like a severe distortion of the natural system.

The machines they use to pick the crops were made in Japan. We all know where the oil that drives those machines comes from. The labor came from hundreds of miles away. The fertilizer -- if they use nitrogen or potash -- was likely imported, possibly from as close as Canada, potentially as far as Russia. A tiny portion of your natural gas comes from Rio Vista; the rest from Alberta, Canada.

All of those are integral to your "local" farmer being able to provide you with fresh produce on regular basis.

How do we decide which distortions, some of which have become historical facts, are allowed and which aren't?

Besides, they can grow bananas in Sacramento just fine :) ... you just have to grow California Gold instead of Cavendish.

7:24 AM  
Blogger LizardBreath said...

I will not entertain any blanket statements about "reading an introductory text on economics". I've taken two years of graduate level economics, and when I say I don't understand or agree with something, it isn't out of ignorance. When we talk more tomorrow, I'll want you to explain exactly what you mean, in simple or advanced economic terms.

Man am I glad you said this. I wanted to so badly, and couldn't make it compatible with the whole 'active kindness to other commenters' obligation. (Not that the way you said it wasn't kind, but I wouldn't have managed the firm but fair tone nearly as well.)

8:16 AM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

I love the new tagline. Given that "eating" and "economics" are the topics du jour, it's quite apropos.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Alright, here goes.

Justin:
I'm totally good with people living in whatever ways are appropriate for their place. But, if you live in Wisconsin, you shouldn't be eating grapes in January. Hell, if you live in California, you shouldn't be eating grapes in January.

Mark:
It should apply to all products, but I can only reach as far as food for now.

Semiconductors have a more enduring value than the taste of an orange from New Zealand, especially when you can get your calories and yummy foods locally; I would do a different analysis for them and likely approve of more widespread semiconductor dispersal than food dispersal.

Capella:
It isn't just the virtues of tastier and healthier that make me willing to prosletyze; it is that I think that being part of a system that permits the externalities of cheap food is wrong. That's where the belief comes in.

A:
I want world population to level out sooner, at lower levels. I also want them not to consume as much. What happens to Ecuador? Why, it's population shrinks to a locally supportable level. How fantastic if that could be through educated people voluntarily foregoing children to enjoy their standard of living.

Aregon23:
I've been pretty explicit about how being a Luddite, and thinking that my happiness doesn't come from gear. That said, I love blasting my music on my fine, fine speakers and I like having some Internets in my house. I want to pick and choose the benefits of this and the last century, which is why I hope for a soft population contraction, not a rapid collapse.

7:51 anonymouse:
I'm not sure which responsibility you are calling ascetic, but I very deeply believe that every person owes a deep duty to the natural world we live in and the communities that shelter us. Slight personal sacrifices in consumption are the least of it.

Um, I would eat the occasional banana if I believed I was paying for all the costs of its production. I *might* even eat meat if I believed that. By now though, my taste preferences have shifted so that I prefer local and seasonal produce.

I don't believe the human race has a destiny, although I have hopes for it. Many fears, too.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

7:55 Ananda:
Finally! A genuine concern! I can't refute this yet...

Mitch:
I love a physical solution and beautifully designed systems as much as the next girl, but I suspect that the limits are much lower than most people want to face. When I am tzar, I will make those decisions for everyone.

PandaX:
Pyramid problems would only suck for a generation or two.

Tyler:
I am down with doomsday predictions of climate change and famine and plague, and I think without a educated populace, we are genuinely at risk of collapse. That would suck, because it would entail lots of suffering before the end. That's why I want every country that isn't in a voluntary contraction to experience the factors that induce a voluntary contraction. Also, I don't fear the end of humanity, 'cause I think the world would like it just fine.

Billo:
I never know how to respond to your comments. They are often more abstract than I follow.

5:25 Ananda:
WORD.

Matt:
Mostly, I live like I believe.

Shipped bananas impose environmental costs on other people. Local produce imposes those costs on me. Since I am the beneficiary, I should experience the air pollution, and work to lessen it.

Peter:
The process of getting to a lower population may suck because of our community support policies, but it will really suck if it happens by plague or famine. And it will only suck until the demographics even themselves out in a couple generations, at a new lower level.

Eat local when you can, ignore it when it would be rude or a hassle, pay full costs for your imported food when you can.

T_N:
1. Where did the timber for the greenhouses come from? Kidding! Um, local soils, local energy, foreign crops. Sounds like a good use of knowledge and resources.

2. I'm not as optimistic about numbers that high, even with reduced resource use, and I probably also have a higher threshold for the baseline environmental quality I want. 1-2 billion sounds better to me.

Justus:
I choose the circumventions of natural limits, when I am queen. Some stay, some go, depending on whether they let me drive the heavy machinery.

LB and Mitch:
Thanks.

***********
Phew. Got through 'em.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Dr. Zeuss said...

I think the key is in Tyler's statement that "more population is intrinsically good". I don't know enough to say whether your recommended policies would be good or bad for the humans that end up actually being around, but to a hardline Benthamite utilitarian like me it can be better to have more people even if we reduce the average happiness per person if it means we increase the total happiness.

7:54 PM  
Blogger aregon23 said...

"I've taken two years of graduate level economics, and when I say I don't understand or agree with something, it isn't out of ignorance. When we talk more tomorrow, I'll want you to explain exactly what you mean, in simple or advanced economic terms."

I thought, I did make brief mention of the neo classical economic theory that sharply contradicts your view point. Viz. Competitive advantage, free trade, etc.. Your two years of graduate level economic studies would have covered most of these basic tenets that modern day economics stands on.

While a more complex rejoinder to your post would require a blog post of my own, simply put, if it makes more sense for Ecuador to produce banana's for consumption, it is better for them to do so, while we can concentrate on manufacturing goods that help increase the pie versus decrease it. Not to mention the fact that without the trade of banana's Ecuador will lose valuable exports, and it will cause a negative impact on their GDP.

As far as your seemingly effortless transition from being a Luddite to desiring music from fine speakers is concerned, it does smack a dab bit of hypocracy but I think I can understand it to some extent. I feel the same occasionally when life gets too demanding. But I have to say, I like the conveniences of modern day and would never exchange it for anything. You only have to poor or stay in a third world country to understand why your statements might seem ludicrous to some.

No offense implied in either of my posts, and by no means did I intend to sound patronizing with my comments on reading economic theory. It was just that what you said is completely contrary to free trade and if you are interested in more literature on some good papers on the same, I would be glad to point you in the right direction.

9:58 PM  

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