11 October, 2009

Fords to Ploughshares

Sustainable food for the billions. It's an aim, isn't it?  I don't know, it seems to me that perhaps it isn't.  We in the Western world are busy "raising living standards" to bring the rest of the population up towards our standard.  Is it working?  Ask anyone whose people have received foreign aid and disaster relief in the latest round of disasters, and they'll probably tell you it's working.

But really - weren't they victims of the higher living standards in the developed world?  Because many of these disasters can be traced these days to climate change, caused by the technological changes needed to raise the living standards for that lucky percentage of the population of the world...

Well, what about locavore living?  You know, where you eat only local food, or as practically as possible, local food only?  (I think if you're living inland and want to make a one-time Lobster Bisque then getting the lobster from the coast is okay - our ancestors would have made a trip to the coast and made the dish there, either way the same amount of miles are involved, but a lot less energy is involved in bringing the lobster to Mohammed...)

It's a quandary.  Here's the next logical step of the local living phenomenon:  Buy locally made goods.  Again, there are a few problems with this.  Like - I'd really like a marble pestle and mortar.  Fine, except that there's no local marble anywhere around here.  So how about I ship in the marble and make it locally?  Well, there will have to be a much larger chunk of marble shipped to make the p&m out of.  Then too since there are not likely to be skills locally in marble working, there will be wastage of marble, and energy.  In this case, is it ecologically acceptable to buy an imported marble p&m?

Your mileage may vary...  (Pun totally intended...)  I can't imagine buying a totally locally made car, for example.  And when I do, will this car be the best in terms of manufacturing costs and footprint?  Are our local craftsmen "reinventing the wheel" needlessly and inefficiently?  Considering there are large automotive manufacturers out there who have already mastered more efficient manufacturing processes?  Will a car with Wood and leather seats and trim (because we have no local source for making vinyl and plastics) really be more environment-friendly than a mass-produced one?  And since I mentioned mileage - what will be the environmental footprint of me using that locally-made vehicle instead of a mass-produced and quite possibly much more efficient one?

See, the problem isn't bringing everyone's living standards up - it's that in order to bring 3/4 of the world's population up to a marginally better living standard, you have to take down 1/4 of the world population's living standards quite a bit more...   And while it sounds good in theory, it's going to be a very tough thing to sell.

There is a limit to how much material we can use to raise living standards - it's almost precisely one planetful of resources and materials.  No matter how you try and slice and dice it, if there are 10,000,000 gallons of fresh water in your region, that's only 10 gallons per person if you have a million people.  And in actual fact, 700,000 people will be subsisting on 2 - 3 gallons, 200,000 will be using about 6 gallons, and the rest (all 100,000 of them) will be using a staggering 70 gallons each.  And please don't think that this is a wild exaggeration - it is in fact around the ratio that has been established by almost every body that has researched world affluence and world poverty.  If you're reading this, there's a better than 75% chance that you're one of the 70 gallon users.

So the trick will be for *YOU* to make the decision to reduce your living standard.  How far are you willing to go?  Give up using a car, or at the least, make sure you don't replace your existing car for its entire lifespan, and drive it only for absolutely necessary trips?  It's a start.  Better yet is to replace your car with a bicycle, right?  Yet even that had to be manufactured, and by just owning a bike you're still far better off than the majority who have to walk.

Perhaps the best thing you can do is make a list right now, open a text page and type down what you're personally prepared to do in order to use less of the planet's resources.  For each thing, if it's something you're already doing, note down approximately when you started doing it.  Now save the list for a month and then come back to it.  See how many more of the things you can tick and add a commencement date to.  I'm betting the ticks won't exactly be piling on thick and fast, and that's precisely the problem - we in effect need people *right now* to have lists like that with 90% of the items already checked off...

The biblical admonition to "beat swords into ploughshares" illustrates the problem perfectly - there is only so much iron in the world.  By turning 90% of it into personal transport, that leaves only 10% to be turned into ploughs and harvesters and tractors and farm equipment.  But which one produces more food to raise the living standards?  And yet to you, imagine the effect of losing your vehicle.  Your job, your shopping, your leisure - they will all be affected greatly.  And the temptation is to think that "this is only going to save one panel on a large tractor, I may as well not bother."  And that's the problem in a nutshell...

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