Home > Unintended Consequences > On the Lighter Side – “Social Consciousness” on the Roasting Spit

On the Lighter Side – “Social Consciousness” on the Roasting Spit

Let it not be said of this blog that we have no sense of humor. Although not a regular visitor (really!) to Cracked, a facebook friend posted this link to an article called “Six Socially Conscious Actions that Only Look Like They Help,” and I had to share. It is pretty biting commentary, but I’d like to point out especially the last two.

“Eating Local” or the “Locavore” movement tends to sound pretty good, especially if you happen to be running a trendy new restaurant aimed at the finicky hipster set. Problem is, it’s particularly absurd. Many a reductio argument has been leveled at protectionism, and that remains valid here. Why restrain trade across borders only? Why not across cities? Why not across neighborhoods? Why not between your left hand and your right hand? If there was nothing to be gained by trade, nobody would do it.

And that’s exactly where the locavores go wrong. Not only are they harming themselves by paying extra for inferior product, as it turns out, they are harming the environment they are trying oh-so-hard to get you to think they are protecting. Turns out that eating locally does not mean eating foods normally found locally. Rather than importing an orange from Australia, we attempt to grow them in North Dakota, and since over 90% of food-related emissions come from food production, not transportation, that is quite a harm, on a net basis. 

If it’s February in Minnesota, a true locavore wouldn’t be having that roasted chicken served with whipped truffle brie on toasted brioche, drizzled with balsamic vinegar.  He’s probably eating a moose.  Raw.  In the snow.

We see the same problem with high-mileage cars. The only incentive that one would have to buy a high-mileage car is if they tend to drive a lot of miles. I think the order of causation is flexible on a case-by-case basis; some drivers drive more after they buy their Prius because they think they “can,” and some people only buy a Prius because their life has changed in such a way as to make it far more useful – i.e. having to drive more.

In either case, we quickly see that the average driver of a high-mileage car makes up the difference, and more, simply by his driving habits. Again, we see evidence that people do not change their ultimate way of life when they are guilted into “eating local” or “driving green.” Instead, their consumption expands to fit their method of consumption.

I am reminded of the truly remarkable book by C. Northcote Parkinson, called “The Law: Complete.” In a tongue-in-cheek expose of uniquely human foibles, Parkinson, with the veneer of utter seriousness, skewers exactly these types of situations. Examples include work expanding to fit the time allotted, expenditure rising to meet the budget, and the number of people in any working group expanding regardless of the amount of work to be done.

Each law is complemented by examples, many of which were drawn from Parkinson’s own time on the British Civil Service.  It is sharp and witty, and it is well worth your time.

  1. A Critic
    November 28, 2011 at 7:46 AM

    “Not only are they harming themselves by paying extra for inferior product, as it turns out, they are harming the environment they are trying oh-so-hard to get you to think they are protecting. ”

    I prefer to eat very local. The main garden is only about 30 yards from the house, the field is 150 yards. The product is superior and costs less, and it is good for the environment. I am however, not a typical well intentioned idiot. I also prefer to buy locally produced foods. This is for a number of reasons, including that developing relationships with local producers means they will be far more likely to help me if there is a global financial panic or when our first national famine starts (although by that point I should be self sufficient).

    The problem isn’t eating locally. The problem is eating stupidly.

  2. November 28, 2011 at 3:31 PM

    The drive for self-sufficiency certainly is a better reason than faux-environmentalist concerns. This seems to be a problem in defining my terms – “eating local” is not the same thing as “eating local for the wrong reasons.”

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