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Archive for April, 2008

A few weeks ago we noted that high prices for industrially-produced food might be a good thing if you wanted people to buy more organics. Even the New York Times came to the same conclusion.

But not so fast, says Tom Philpott over at Grist.org.

Philpott worries that, as supermarket prices for conventional goods rise, people on low incomes will turn to fast food outlets before they turn to organics.

The reality, he says, is that fast food operators “can likely absorb higher input prices and still churn out crap.”

So what should we do? Says Philpott:

The answer, it seems to me, is not just to hope that expensive industrial food drives people toward equally expensive sustainable food. It’s to make sustainable food more broadly accessible and affordable.

As an example of the kind of action he’d like to see, Philpott points to recent legislation in Washington state that encourages schools and food-banks to use locally produced food, even if cheaper food can be imported from elsewhere.

One response to Philpott’s article comes from an agronomist, ‘Pollencruncher.’ He argues that with organics you are buying a better product, so price parity should be less of an issue — and yet thanks to public perception price parity has always been seen as necessary for organic food to be widely adopted.

But now, “We in the Organic community have met the desired goal of Parity prices for the first time in decades,” Pollencruncher observes. Couple that with the better nutrition you get from organics and you have a rationale for not being so pessimistic about what people on lower incomes will do.

Perhaps what people also need, in concert with the kind of policy action Philpott advocates, is better education in health and diet, so they can be better-informed when they weigh the financial costs of any food choice against the likely benefits and risks to their health of eating that food.

That would require, of course, disseminating messages that run counter to the best interests of very large and very influential agribusinesses. But when there’s no voice to counter advertising relentlessly selling cheap but nutritionally-empty food, too many of our collective decisions are likely to run counter to our collective best interests.

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It may be hard to believe, but some 35,000 homeowners’ associations in California alone ban clotheslines.

That’s a lot of places where the wonderfully drying California sun could be doing for free what otherwise takes a lot of energy and, these days, adds plenty to homeowners’ gas or electric bills.

As Mindy Spatt of the Utility Reform Network pointed out in an op-ed column last week, a clothes line

requires no government subsidy, no tax rebate and no expensive installation. On a hot day, it can practically match an electric or gas dryer load for load. And it costs next to nothing.

She contrasts the savings in energy we’d achieve simply by air-drying our clothes with the money the State of California is spending on finding high-tech, and too often high-cost, solutions to our energy ills.  Says Spatt:

it isn’t necessary to drive bills for essentials like heat and light through the roof to fight climate change. We can lower our bills and conserve energy at the same time with low-tech, low-cost solutions. Electric and gas dryers account for about 10 percent of residential electricity usage statewide.

So let’s press those homeowners associations to stop banning clotheslines, Spatt argues.  If, like us, you agree with her, you can find  more information at Project Laundry List.

From the news items posted at the site, that snobbery about laundry is a nationwide phenomenon.  Spatt’s op-ed suggests one good trick to get around that: Don’t call it a ‘clothes line,’ call it a ‘solar dryer.’

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As environmental issues finally seem urgent to broad swathes of the US commentariat, that reality is spawning all sorts of creative arguments for what people wanted all along.

Take the example of drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive habitats in the USA. In a Tribune Media column today, the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson argues — quite creatively — that the proper response to our various environmental crises is for the US to drill for more oil in Alaska and off the Florida and California coasts.

His reasoning, essentially, is that right now we don’t have any decent alternatives to oil and that other oil exporters are nasty mean guys who don’t care about polluting. So if the US can become more oil-independent, it will make the polluters poorer and more likely to be deposed (at whatever human cost) and therefore make for less pollution! He says:

the choices facing us, at least for the next few decades, are not between bad and good, but between bad and far worse – and involve wider questions of global security, fairness and growing scarcity.

It’s a little like George Bush’s firm belief that the solution to everything is to cut taxes on the rich. We can expect to see a lot more of this: people finding in climate change a rationale for doing what they wanted to do, even before climate change was something they felt was an issue.

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What, exactly, is the world coming to? How worried, precisely, should we be about the state of our climate, our energy system, our food supplies, our water, the air we breath? What really is — or might soon — be the problem with any of these?

It’s hard to keep track and easy to feel overwhelmed.

A good place to start feeling a little less swamped and a little more informed this Earth Day might be this useful round up from the folks at AlterNet: “Eight Reasons Our Changing World Will Turn You Into an Environmentalist, Like It or Not.” To quote the editors:

Alternet picked eight topics — water, global warming, food, health, energy, pollution, consumption and corporations — that pose real dangers to the future of human life and selected a series of recent essays that illustrate these problems, along with links to organizations and further resources that address these issues.

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Gloom — appropriately perhaps — seems to be the theme this Earth Day.

Joseph Romm in Salon thinks it’s already too late to save much of the flora and fauna on our planet. It’s time to worry out ourselves, he says.

Over at Alternet, Michael Klare worries at length about a ‘new world order in energy.’ The comments are as interesting as the article: some alarmed, some thoughtful, others desperate, crazy, excited even.

In the New York Times, Paul Greenberg reviews two novels that conjure ‘ecological end-times.’ Ecotopia, first published in the 1970’s, imagines a better life (for a part of America, at least) emerging from eco-crisis. The more recent novel, The World Made by Hand, is based in an East Coast town of the future in which most people return to laboring and can now only dream of driving. Says Greenberg:

I would prefer to live in Ecotopia, but the verisimilitude of Kunstler’s world leads me to think the future is Union Grove. Thirty years from now, it will be interesting to see if that little town seems excessively sad, richly luxurious or spot on. But for now, I’m hedging my bets. Where I live, one block east of ground zero, I’ve started keeping a compost bin and am thinking about adding a micro wind generator.

Meanwhile columnist Paul Krugman fears that we’re running out of commodities. That won’t mean the immediate collapse of civilization, he reassures us. But

rich countries will face steady pressure on their economies from rising resource prices, making it harder to raise their standard of living. And some poor countries will find themselves living dangerously close to the edge — or over it.

No critique from Krugman, though, about whether the way we’ve come to define a good life is part of the problem. And no ideas for how we might resolve the crises that will come when countries do tumble over the various precipices upon which they teeter.

Over in the UK, the Independent is doing its usual best to add to the bad news. Yesterday they mourned the decline of birds that usually migrate to the UK.

So what are we to do? For an exhortation not to give up — but to act both personally and politically we can turn, thankfully, to Michael Pollan — writing in the Time’s magazine this Sunday.

Whatever we can do as individuals to change the way we live at this suddenly very late date does seem utterly inadequate to the challenge. It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live.

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You’d think that as we reap the environmental, health and political consequences of industrial farming techniques that consume vast quantities of fossil fuels, degrade soils and leave us with poor diets, organic produce would become ever more popular.

But two recent New York Times stories reveal a counter-intuitive, but important, reality: that as the problems associated with industrial farming get worse, organic food can easily become an even harder sell than before.

We weren’t alone in surmising that a rise in the price of conventionally farmed foods (mostly caused by a rise in the price of oil and the ethanol boondoggle) might benefit organic farmers, since that price rise ought to make organics more competitive as an alternative.

But the price pressure on conventional foods has driven up the price of organics, too, the New York Times tells us.

Partly it’s a matter of supply out-running demand, in which case we might expect market forces to come into play and bring new organic suppliers into the market. That happened in the last decade, after all, with organic farming enjoying a worldwide boom while conventional farmers received rock-bottom prices for their crops.

But now that conventional crops are commanding record prices, farmers have lost a major incentive to go organic.

The impact on consumers is powerful, too. High prices for conventionally farmed foods may drive people to organics, but they might equally lower our collective resistance to genetically modified foods — foods that are almost always classed as non-organic — the Times reports today.

Pioneer organic consumers never bought organic because it was cheap. They saw themselves as foregoing their present financial comfort for the sake of our long term global benefit. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll be needing to call on that altruism — and call on it from a great many more people — for a good while to come.

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Every week some 32 million copies of Parade Magazine — the popular (and populist) insert to many US Sunday newspapers — get printed. So it’s hardly a paragon of environmental sustainability. As wikipedia notes, one of its signature features is also “a significant amount of advertising for consumer products.”

So we say ‘God Bless’ to Parade for this week running an article that points out a truth rarely acknowledged in the commercial press: that truly green activities are often more about not spending than buying something new.

In describing some ‘better ways to go green,’ author Christie Matheson reminds us that while you might feel good about redecorating your home with eco-friendly furniture, it would be better to reupholster and refurbish what you already have. Better to drive less than buy a new Prius. Better to drink tap water than water from plastic bottles that you assiduously recycle.

None are earth-shatteringly original ideas. But thanks to their emphasis on restraining consumption as opposed to enabling more of it, they’re ideas that get aired all too rarely in commercially-supported media — including a great many outlets designed specifically to appeal to people who see themselves as environmentally aware.

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