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June 28, 2010

Energy: Should We Buy It, or Grow Our Own?

"Economies of scale" is not a phrase often heard around Farmers' Markets, but perhaps it should be, once it's been stood on its head. It is an idea that has been used to justify and support the dominance of large, national or multi-national operations of all kinds. It's often used in discussions about efficiency and avoiding waste, and it must be said that there ARE efficiencies to large operations. But there are costs – not so much hidden as not discussed – as recent experience with banks insurance companies and oil companies has proven.
Though global agribusiness provides blueberries in winter, the costs are compelling: lack of freshness and nutritional content, chemical and genetic alterations that many find less appealing than the benefits promised, and the gigantic carbon footprint from transportation, deforestation and fertilizers. A global agricultural infrastructure does have upsides – if you simply must have blueberries on your cereal in winter – but the downsides are giving rise to discussions about organics, family farms, foodsheds and locavores: all about economies of a smaller scale.
Massive producers of meat can put a chicken in every pot, and a burger on every Weber grill. They do it so cheaply that the food of choice for the poor is now fast food meat accompanied by a soft drink that is sweetened by (government-subsidized) corn derivatives. To get meat this cheap, we have to set aside any semblance of humane treatment of these animals, either during their lives or in their deaths. We have to give them hormones to get them ready for market much more quickly than Nature could do it, and antibiotics because they are living, in the case of chickens, literally right on top of each other, and illness would decimate their population without drugs. Cheap meat has a downside, especially for the animals, but also for us. (Author Isaac Bashevis Singer said he became a vegetarian, not for his own health, but for that of the chickens.) Most meat found at Farmers' Markets, from local or regional ranchers, avoids at least some of these problems, and some ranchers are exemplary.
The changes we are making in the way we grow food can provide a model for improving the way we generate energy.
For generations we have enjoyed the benefits of a cheap, centralized, carbon-based economy. Gasoline, natural gas, coal and oil have given us the gifts of fertilizers, home heating without a lot of smoke and soot, the freedom to "drive around and think," as I did when I was a new driver and gas was nineteen cents a gallon, the convenience of plastics. Honestly, it's been a blast. No wonder a lot of people want to deny that the solutions to earlier problems have themselves become a problem. You can't blame them, really, except the ones who know better. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something," said Upton Sinclair, "when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
Like Food, Inc., however, Carbon, Inc.'s downsides are eclipsing its benefits: asthma at epidemic levels, landscapes ruined for generations, fouled air, climate changes of uncertain severity, wars for oil, a blight on ecology and economy alike.
Consider these consequences of our continuing reliance on carbon fuels:
  • Americans spend $1 billion every single day on imported fuel.
  • Much of this money goes to regimes with which we are at war.
  • So we finance armies, and then spend more money (and lives) fighting them . . .
  • while they control our fuel lines.
  • Sending this kind of money abroad costs us about 2 million jobs at home . . .
  • and buries us under massive trade deficits and debt . . .
  • while our fuel and our money literally go up in smoke.
We haven't always been painted into this corner, but we're here now, and it's time to get out. Past time. According to The Breakthrough Institute's November 2009 report, "Rising Tigers," China, Japan and South Korea are all already ahead of us in developing clean energy technologies. They are investing at a level three times that of the U.S., even counting the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act's dramatic increase in funding. Allowing our competitors to gain this early lead is madness, when we have it within our power to end our dependence on other nations for our energy. We're dependent on OPEC now: why not sell clean energy in the new economy, instead of buying it?
The good news is, thirty-three states, including New Mexico, began the transition to clean energy over the last decade. It's already generating jobs. A Pew Charitable Trust study in June found that the clean energy economy grew at more than double the rate of the rest of the economy: 9.1%, compared to 3.7%. In New Mexico the contrast was breathtaking: 50.1% compared to 1.9%.
Clean energy also attracts investment: one company with operations in New Mexico has made jet fuel from algae: they have received almost $250 million from private and government sources in just the last two years. At an Investor Summit on Climate Risk, hosted by the UN this year, investors representing $22 trillion (that's with a T, yes) in potential investments are waiting on governments to show resolve before they invest. The money is there. Will we let it go to China, Japan and South Korea?
Call your state and national representatives. Tell them you want us, not just to compete, but to lead. Tell them you're tired of seeing our economy and our environment mired in oil and up in smoke. The really good news is that, as the truth has come out about big banks and big food conglomerates, it is coming out about the deficits of a carbon-based economy. New technologies are on their way: whether we have a hand in creating them is up to us.

1 comment:

  1. As an environmentalist since the early seventies, I agree with every observation and opinion you share above, John, but I would like to add a related quote (which I stole from Kevin Evans' Mo Rage blog):

    "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me eight times, I must be a f**king idiot." -Jon Stewart, on the last eight U.S. presidents vowing to end America's addiction to foreign oil.


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