In my last, I argued that it might be a more sustainable path for people to avoid striving for self-sufficiency, and to embrace trade and efficiency instead. I’m a bit uncomfortable with this conclusion (two posts that led to this are here and here), because the quest for efficiency, when coupled with market forces, can have severe downsides. If efficiency is the only goal, then production often ends up taking a toll on people, animals, or the environment. But despite these problems that need addressed, I’m quite certain that the underlying premise is a correct one. This, in turn, leads to yet another logical conclusion—the “packaging and transportation” part of that last discussion.
Just to recap, here’s the train o’ logic so far—trade leads to specialization, which leads to efficiency and productivity, which leads to the group being better off. Efforts toward self-sufficiency run counter to this, and are nearly always inherently less efficient. Since efficiency is, by definition, “not wasting time, effort, or materials”, then it follows that its opposite—inefficiency—is wasteful, and (other things being equal) that the efficient path would be the more sustainable one. To expand on this, let’s look at two other common “sustainable” trends that are perhaps as prevalent as trying to be self-sufficient—
- Buying local.
- Avoiding packaging, and/or plastics.
Both of these impulses might not pass muster in the sustainability department if we judge them according to the economic tenets above (and both of these have been goals of mine at different times in the past, so I’m not just casting stones here). In the case of buying local, here’s an example—it probably doesn’t make sense to grow crops in someplace like Phoenix, Arizona, just to fulfill a desire to buy local food. Trade would be a better, more efficient, and less-wasteful path. People in Phoenix could do things that are easier to do in a desert environment, such as teach university courses or write software, and then trade with others for their crops (using money, of course—money makes trade more efficient. Again, less waste is created by using the efficient path).
Another example—the carbon-cost for raising lamb locally on a small-scale in a climate not quite suited for it, and then taking small quantities of that meat to a farmer’s market in a vehicle that gets fifteen miles to the gallon, might be higher than shipping the same meat in bulk from New Zealand, halfway around the world, due to the efficiencies of ocean shipping and other economies of scale.
The same sorts of issues exist with packaging. One small example here—people who avidly try to avoid single-use plastics sometimes make their own mustard. Needless to say, making mustard at home from mustard seed is inefficient (and therefore wasteful), similar to the vinegar example in my last post. The same is true of a great many things people try to make themselves in the name of avoiding packaging and creating less trash. Or, people (and again, I’ve done this) buy products in glass containers to avoid plastic. That impulse might also be misguided—to use glass jars of mayonnaise as an example, the glass jars themselves could easily weigh as much as the mayonnaise that is being shipped inside of them, (and they’re bulkier to boot) and therefore could effectively double the cargo weight per unit of mayonnaise, and dramatically increase the fuel required for transportation.
Rather than focus on “local” and “packaging-free”, a better way to look at these situations is to realize that one cost of efficient centralized production is often that goods need packaged for shipment, and then shipped. It is a price to pay, but one that is more than outweighed by the advantages of efficiency. Take that $2 jug of vinegar in my last post—that is the price I can take it home for, and therefore that price reflects the cost of the vinegar, AND the packaging, AND the transportation required to get it to the store shelf. (And, for that matter, the electricity the store uses, the employees’ salaries, insurance on the building, etc. Those low prices are quite a testament). So there is a cost for packaging and transportation, but not a big one. The advantages of the efficiency outweigh the cost of the packaging and transportation, many times over.
So, because of these facts, I think I need to make my peace with transportation and packaging—they are both important aspects of efficient and less-wasteful production. As such, we might need to quit treating “local” and “packaging-free” as goals in and of themselves. Here are some better goals–
- Efficiency of production (other things being equal, which is actually a whole other aspect of this; there are many ramifications in this area.)
- Transportation modes that have low carbon-footprints, preferably modes that are powered entirely by renewable power.
- Packaging that is fully recyclable.
If we couple these things with reduced consumption, the payoff to the planet would be tremendous. I won’t go into a lot of detail here, there is obviously a great deal of nuance in these matters, but again, I think the general premise is a correct one. Through efficiency we can have our cake and eat it too. It is theoretically possible for us all to be able to have material wealth, AND free time, AND take care of the planet, and that’s a goal worth striving for, but it is only possible if we keep efficiency in our list of goals.
Now, I’ve been talking about efficiency of production, but keep in mind that other efficiencies pay off in much the same way, and in many cases with virtually no downsides. An example in this case—a few years ago I met a guy who lived in a small yurt nearby (not you, Gary!), who told me that he burned two and a half cords of wood a year here in Vermont in order to heat it each winter. I use virtually the same amount of wood in our house, which has many times the square footage, because our house is highly insulated, and therefore more efficient in terms of heating. Per square-foot of area, it is many times more efficient than the yurt. So, to reverse this train of thought—the yurt is wasteful, in terms of heating. And, that is true even if you heat with wood that you grew sustainably and harvested responsibly—it still takes time and effort, which are important resources.
The bottom line here—efficiency isn’t the only factor that matters, but we can’t leave it out of the mix. And the good news is that in many ways we’re on the right track with this efficient market economy of ours. We don’t need some new alternative economy, we basically just need to tighten up what we’re doing with this one. Our systems are good ones, but we do need to reduce consumption, create cradle-to-cradle recycling systems, and move away from fossil-fuels.