The Petroleum in Your Breakfast and the Carbon Dioxide Coming out of Your Shoes
Peter Slote, my first Aikido instructor and Oakland Recycling Specialist, kindly chastised me recently for even hoping that some recycled/recyclable plastic razors and tooth brushes were particularly environmentally friendly, pointing out that shipping to their east coast home and back alone consumed enough oil to be problematic. (On the other hand, I bet the normal ones are mostly shipped from China.) He just sent me a great article from today's Chronicle
analyzing the fuel that went into transporting a simple, cheap, organic San Francisco breakfast to San Francisco.
There was a great (if annoyingly New York centric) article in Slate
a couple weeks ago about the dark side of organic produce at places like Whole Foods---if your only concern is the environment (and not your probably non-threatened health or the health of the farm workers), you are over all better off buying local conventional produce than Chilean organic produce. (I was gratified because the day before this article came out I had picked my way through Whole Foods in Berkeley, carefully reading labels to pick up local cheese and crackers, but I was amused because most organic-supplying stores like Whole Foods label their produce adaquately enough for the consumer to make that choice and in the Western United States organic very often is as local as its going to get.)
Recently on Snarkmarket
I left a somewhat snarky comment calling for a little browser plugin that would inform you how much the online purchase you just made would cost the atmosphere in carbon emissions to be shipped to your house. I later pointed out to Robin, climateboy, and Saurabh by email that this would be unfair, because the exact same problems apply to most "local" traditional stores, and Robin got the same feedback over at WorldChanging. In fact, shipping and handling may very well be more efficient than individual consumer driving.
I've been thinking about locality ever since last fall, when I went to the Peak Oil talk
where I first met up with Hedgehog. For example, we have noticed that it is almost impossible to buy a solid pair of local shoes. Scotto is fond of pointing out that we basically take oil and turn it into food. Take a look at the Chad Heeter article Peter sent me:
What they've discovered is astonishing. According to researchers at the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Agriculture, an average of more than 7 calories of fossil fuel is burned up for every calorie of energy we get from our food. This means that in eating my 400-calorie breakfast, I will, in effect, have consumed 2,800 calories of fossil fuel energy. (Some researchers claim the ratio is as high as 10 to 1.)
It is, actually, pretty easy for me to mostly eat local food, because of where I live. Normally, my staple is basmati rice, and that, of course is shipped from India, but I have been eating less of that lately, and I know that almost everything else I eat is from Northern California, or at least packaged here. But the real problem here is an information problem. The oh-so-glorious free market is supposed to work when all the players are fully informed about all the risks and consequences of their choices. Besides their being ludicrous assumptions about how fast information can travel in time in that model, there are ludicrous assumptions about how much the information there even exists for the consumer to process. Heeter writes:
But if there was truth in packaging, where my oatmeal box now tells me how many calories I get from each serving, it would also tell me how many calories of fossil fuels went into the product.
In light of Colin's excellent recent post
on James Woolsey's recommendation for avoiding foreign oil consumption, let me point out that this isn't just about foreign policy or even peak oil. This is about the fact that we are in a hell of a lot of trouble. See this week's Time cover -- our planet is melting.
All the burning Turkey offal in the world may save us from more wars (though I doubt it) but it won't save our atmosphere. Hedgehog likes to give us pointed reminders that the best way to reduce our dependence on oil and save the atmosphere is to reduce consumption. (They're surprisingly effective reminders--small but spiny mammals land memorable punches)
I've been trying to drive less--and trying to come up with a palatable caffeine source that can get me to the closer parking lot without itself getting here from half way around the world. I've been very, very, very slowly working on becoming a competent biker with a lot of help from my friends. I've also been paying more attention to what I buy and where it comes from, and trying to cut down on non-local purchases. I'm not as enthused about having such a globetrotting 2006 as 2005 was. But it's all very slow and haphazard. It hardly seems optimal. I want to engineer something better, precise.
So, what do we do? Speak up, dear readers. I am at a loss. Really, we all are.