Americans have two great loves, eating and shopping, and their Thanksgiving holiday is the occasion when they enjoy both activities in all their gluttonous splendour. But while the central concern of most Americans last week was how to avoid getting trampled in the Black Friday stampedes at the mall, a more conscientious group was stressing over the morality of the holiday menu: should the vegetables be organic, or local?
It turns out that if you’re actually serious about taste, health benefits, and environmental impact, the correct answer is “neither.” The dispute between organic and local is one of those enormously high-strung civil wars that sweep through the environmental movement from time to time. And like its most notable predecessor, the paper-or-plastic conflict that raged across supermarket checkout counters in the late 1980s, this is one of those fights that is a genuine sucker’s game: the only way you can win is by not playing.
The jig has been up for organic for a while now. Originally promoted as the magic bullet of the produce aisle, with better taste, health benefits and environmental grades than regular food, organic has turned out to be none of those things. It didn’t help the organic brand that Wal-Mart started selling by the gross to the ambulatory eating machines of Middle America, but at least its defenders could cling to the idea that an organic tomato or lemon was more nutritious than its conventionally grown counterpart.
The bottom fell out of that conceit last spring, when a massive study out of Britain concluded there is absolutely no evidence of any such benefits from organically produced foods over conventionally produced food.
As a result, the local-food forces seemed to be in the ascendant. The great appeal of local food is it combines direct support for a regional economy with what appears to be a low environmental impact. After all, it stands to reason that the shorter the distance between the plow and your plate, the less energy consumed through transportation, helping reduce emissions that cause global warming.
But that last point took a serious hit last week with the release of a new three-year study showing that for a number of food staples, moving them around in huge container ships as part of a global supply chain is more energy efficient than locally sourcing stock. The report focused on the life cycle of salmon production, but the authors suggested their conclusions could be generalized to any number of common food staples.
The key to their argument is that it isn’t enough to look at where the food was produced, because “near” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.” You have to consider all inputs, such as food, fertilizer, refrigeration, transportation. Most of the transportation energy it takes to bring food to your table is expended in the last few miles, and cars and trucks are far more polluting than highly efficient trains or ocean-going container ships. So much so, in fact, that it appears that British shoppers would be doing the environment a favour by spurning domestic apples and lamb and importing them from New Zealand.
So with organic debunked as nothing more than a scam, and local reduced to little more than an under-motivated preference for freshness and the small farmer, yet another pointless exercise in pseudo-ethical consumerism appears to have come to an end.
At this point, true progressives might feel inclined to step back and reconsider the whole vote-with-your-wallet mindset that sees social justice as never more than a cup of fair-trade coffee away. The planet (and the poor) should be so lucky. The desire to moralize our consumption is one of the most ingrained traits of our culture, underwritten by a pair of extremely unproductive attitudes.
The first is the unshakable bourgeois conviction that my taste must not only be good, but also good. It presumes that what makes me happy must necessarily do right by the environment, and what is spiritually satisfying must also be morally praiseworthy. Except we have no right to make this assumption, and by all indications, there is no connection at all between the two.
Layered on top of this is a more serious problem, which is that the increasingly strident desire to politicize what appears on our dinner plate reflects a correspondingly feeble interest on the left in taking policy and political institutions seriously. This is, in large part, the unfortunate legacy of Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, the antiglobalization manifesto that taught an entire generation of university students to blow off normal political activity in favour of radical consumerism.
The book has just been released in a new tenth anniversary edition, and as her new introduction makes clear, the intervening decade has only made Klein herself more contemptuous of mainstream politics. She dismisses Barack Obama—a man who is the single most inspiring figure to appear on the left on this continent in two decades—as little more than a conservative wolf who has pulled the wool over the eyes of America’s liberal sheep. His crime? Appropriating the symbols and messages of true radicals while pursuing bipartisanship with “crazed Republicans.”
This is nothing but the old Chomsky/Nader paranoia about the state being the executive arm of the capitalists dressed up in brand-weary cynicism. Why vote? Why get involved at all? You’ll just end up with a government.
The left still can’t shake its obsession with politicizing its consumerism. As a result, the real thing the left is consuming is itself.