Saturday, August 21, 2010

More Thoughts on Budiansky

Budiansky's article certainly generated a lot of criticism both here and over at Crunchy Chicken. Probably one of the most oft-repeated themes was "I don't trust statistics."

Which is fair, I suppose, but makes things difficult. I mean, I get that it's really damn easy to lie with statistics which is why I would want to know exactly which studies are being cited and then go and review the methodology before I accepted someone's statistics at face value.

The problem is though, if we want to answer these complex questions about carbon efficiency and energy use, and we want to do them fairly, we do have to sort of agree that we can study them with some sort of method. It's fair not to accept uncited and unverified statistics, but at the end of the day, social policy can't be determined on a wing and a hunch. It's fine for YOU to FEEL that local is the most carbon efficient, and for you to then make your decisions accordingly, but that doesn't NECESSARILY make it true.

Now the other criticism that came up was, "Budiansky is missing the point! This isn't about carbon miles it's about a food REVOLUTION!"

And it's fair, that the locavore movement is about many things, and about many things to many people. However, I also think it's fair for one article to address one facet of the locavore movement, which is most certainly about food miles. Now you may say that you're a locavore because you want to know the farmer who grew your food, and that's valid. But that doesn't mean that it's illegitimate for Budiansky to argue that locavorism isn't NECESSARILY more carbon efficient.

But back to Budiansky, who I think, sort of deserves a lot of criticism himself for issuing a stream of statistics without any mention of his sources (I know that this is totally kosher for an op-ed piece, but if he wanted to, he could have mentioned a study or two.) One of the things that struck me the most about the Budiansky piece is his findings that most of the energy consumption in agriculture comes from us, the consumers. From our fridges, stoves, dishwashers, and car trips to the grocery store.

And actually, given his findings, it's a little surprising that most personal environmentalists are railing against the article because in fact, the article, is, in many senses, a call to arms for personal environmentalism. What Budiansky is saying is, we're not going to reduce the energy consumption associated with food until WE the consumers start acting differently. What he's saying is that each of us, as individuals, can make a difference, by walking to the grocery, turning off the "heat dry" on our dishwashers, and yes, by turning off our fridges.

Of course, I suspect, that if there was a mass movement to turn off our fridges, some other op-ed writer would respond by calling us eco-nuts, and unveiling a heap of statistics that show that refrigeration constitutes a minor portion of America's energy use. But that's another story.


Ivy said...

I think a lot of the problem comes from the issue that you touched on a bit at the end--no matter what movement begins, people are so eager to jump on it and point out that it doesn't work, or that it's a ridiculous crazy hardship with no real benefit.

The problem with that is, people get demoralized. If everything you do is dismissed with 'it doesn't matter' nobody is willing to make the small changes, let alone the big ones.

Call me cynical, but I think that most of the people writing these pieces know that. But they're so invested in maintaining the status quo, or unable to see other possibilities, that they want to discourage the rest of us from trying. And that's what pisses me off.

ruchi said...

Ivy, I totally agree with you. I think there are a lot of people invested in maintaining the status quo for a variety of reasons. And they are doing everything they can to discourage the rest of us from doing anything to shake the system up.

Lee said...

I think the whole thing is a tremendous distraction from the real issue.

Which is: (a) Houston We Have A Problem, and

(b) Houston We Can Fix The Problem Real Easy, But We Have To Change Our Ways A Bit And Actually Use Our Brains.

Being a locavore is all very well and dandy, and sounds nice and wholesome, but you're not going to be very sustainable or environmentally-friendly if you happen to be local to, say, the migration path of the last few hundred blue whales, and they look like a tasty snack to you, according to your cultural standards.

Or what about if you live in an area where there are heaps of cows? Start calculating the carbon footprint of even the most locally sourced heavy beef-and-dairy diet, and you aren't going to be looking too sustainable.

Labels are fun, and they're cute, and they're a nice way to feel good about ourselves, but if we're not analysing what we're eating ad how sustainable it is, local or not, we're just jumped up idiots spouting more greenwash.

And yes, I feel a blog post coming on about this! Watch this space - I'll probably be writing another blog post that will offend a cast of thousands in no time!

Silver Pen said...

Ivy's right. Whenever a movement gets noticed enough to be named (locavore, vegetarian) its like painting a target on it and everybody and their cousin feels its open season.

I finished reading the article and felt insulted and sad and then thought "What a jerk." But I still feel a little miffed. Because it didn't seem like the articals point was about food miles it felt like it was a quick way to score a few points off some misguided and foolish people who were actually easy targets because they cared.

I shouldn't have felt insulted because I'm definitely not a locavor. There's just no way in my aria, but I did.