Saturday, September 4, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance Is Good for Me

I've been working my way through Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, which challenges just about every premise of my worldview. (More to come on this when I have the energy.)

Now I've also discovered Stephen Budiansky, writing at the Liberal Curmudgeon Blog. In addition to being a journalist and historian, Budiansky has been a farmer for 30 years. Based on his experience, he recently wrote a balanced but still ringing indictment of the local food movement:

I had read enough of American social, geographic, and economic history to know that no matter how much Thomas Jefferson and Currier and Ives glorified and romanticized the American farmer, the people who actually grew up on farms couldn't wait to get away from them. The work was brutally hard, the isolation stultifying. We still like to imagine pastoral scenes of community barn-raisings and rows of canning jars brimming with peaches and mornings fresh with the smell of new-mown hay; then you read what life was really like. Animals and the land were abused in ways literally unthinkable today; diets were atrocious; diseases of man, animal, and plants devastating.
Beyond romanticism, though, Budiansky questions the wisdom of localism because, he says, it makes more sense to grow crops where they grow best, using nitrogen fertilizers derived from natural gas, and then ship them, because shipping is a very small part of the total energy picture:
You can grow these staple food crops like wheat and rice and pulses and oilseeds the old way on 3 or 4 or 5 times more land, or you can grow them on large plots using modern technology on 3 or 4 or 5 times less land. And we're talking about huge amounts of land, with huge environmental consequences. In India alone, improvements in wheat farming alone have spared 100 million acres of additional cropland that would otherwise have had to be slashed out of forests somewhere over the last 50 years to produce the same amount of wheat that Indian farmers produce today thanks to technological advances. That's the equivalent of three Iowas or 50 Yellowstone National Parks. Without modern farming, we literally would have already cut down every acre of rainforest just to grow the staple food crops that feed the world. Would that be "sustainable"?
Even the idea of local food as a secure food system is skewered by Budiansky:
Finally, we're told that food security depends on local self-reliance. But the locavores have it exactly backwards on this point. Nothing is more vulnerable than self-reliance: one storm that destroys the crop one year, one local outbreak of an insect pest or blight — and if you have no other source to shift to the result is famine. This was the story throughout human history before modern transportation and commerce networks. Networks on the other hand are inherently resilient because a disruption in one spot will be easily compensated for by another.
Much of this is in keeping with Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline, another book that caused me a fair amount of cognitive dissonance.

All of this dissonance is painful and makes me want to sleep a lot. Maybe my brain will process it while I'm napping.

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