A Carnegie Mellon study shows that only 11% of food’s carbon footprint is from transportation. So why do people focus so much on eating local? By worrying about the firecracker of the problem (transportation) are people ignoring the dynamite of the problem (food that is made in an energy efficient way)?

The Chicago Tribune ran a front page story today about the costs and benefits of the “locavore” movement. It describes the growing number of people who are trying very hard to eat locally: food produced within a 100-300 mile radius of where they live. The jury is still out on which foods actually make an environmental impact by being produced locally.

I think it should be pointed out why eating locally might be bad for the environment over food produced thousands of miles away: growing raspberries in Illinois (where, to my knowledge, they are not naturally occurring and cannot stand the harsh weather) can take a lot of energy. To withstand the weather or non-ideal soil conditions, extra energy needs to be put into things like greenhouses or fertilizers. Overall, this can take more energy than just getting the raspberries from their natural environment and shipping them to Chicago.

People also might buy local for things like feelings of fellowship, community, or just supporting your friends (all of which I think are absolute bullshit). And although some studies seem to be coming out shortly that measure the possibly trivial and possibly huge difference buying local makes, the environmental aspect seems to be quite a firecracker characteristic.

Often times, people engage in actions that tend to make a trivial difference in their end goal instead of focusing on the things that actually make a significant difference. I’m going to cheat on my wife, use the Lord’s name in vain, lie to tons of people; but I’m also going to donate lots of money to the Catholic Church and go to mass every Sunday. I’m going to go to a restaurant and order a double bacon cheeseburger with everything on it and get a large chocolate milkshake; but the milkshake is going to be made with skim milk.

The point I’m trying to make by these scenarios is that by being conscientious of those trivial acts, people feel like they are doing their part and actually getting closer to reaching their end goals. Sure, ceteris paribus, going to mass might make you a better Catholic and getting that skim milk might make you lose weight. But by doing those trivial things, people mentally justify actions that actually have a much bigger impact.

I was discussing this sort of idea with a friend a few days ago. He travels a ton: he went to high school on a different continent than his home country and goes to college far away from his home country.

Traveling contributes CO2 up the wazoo to the global environment. So will taking shorter showers, reusing plastic grocery bags, decreasing toilet paper thickness, or buying organic really make that much of a difference? All else equal, these actions are positive things. But by doing these very small things, is my friend indirectly justifying his incredibly high-carbon lifestyle to himself and not actually helping the environment? By focusing on things that account for 0.00000… % of his overall carbon footprint, is he incorrectly thinking that he can continue to travel so much yet still help the environment? I sure think so. I imagine someone who is trying to lose weight that just went on a 10 minute run: I can eat this double cheesecake; I owe it to myself, I just ran for 10 minutes!

The point is that there are things that make a small difference (firecrackers) and things that make a big difference (dynamite). If all we think about are the firecrackers, we forget that we are all responsible for some dynamite.

Perhaps this is somewhat of a digression, but I think my thoughts about general environmental activism should be mentioned here, especially because my friend admittedly takes the moral high ground on matters like this and believes people who don’t do the small things that decrease environmental impact “don’t get it.” We all do things we don’t need. In fact, we don’t need much. Here’s a quotation, courteousy of William Eric, regarding marketing and how it encourages people to buy things they don’t need:

We, as one agency, plead guilty. Advertising does sell people things they don’t need. Things like television sets, automobiles, catsup, mattresses, cosmetics, ranges, refrigerators, and so on and on.

People don’t really need these things. People don’t really need art, music, literature, newspapers, historians, wheels, calendars, philosophy, or, for that matter, critics of advertising, either.

All people really need is a cave, a piece of meat and, possibly, a fire.

The complex thing we call civilization is made up of luxuries. An eminent philosopher of our time has written that great art is superior to less art in the degree that it is “life-enhancing.” Perhaps something of the same thing can be claimed for the products that are sold through advertising.

They enhance life, to whatever degree they can.

-Young and Rubicam Advertising

We all like things we don’t need, things that aren’t meat (or food, more simply), a cave, or fire. Eating meat is terrible for the environment, but people do it because they say “I’m selfish, I like meat.” Similarly, people say “I like traveling, so I’m going to do it, even if it’s terrible for the environment.” People also say “I like my long hot showers,” “being lazy and not turning off the lights when I leave the house,” and even “my SUV isn’t really practical but god dammit it’s fun to drive so I’m going to do it.”

All of these things are things we don’t need. So before anyone takes the moral high ground and criticizes anyone else for not doing enough for the environment and engaging in conspicuous consumption, think about your life and think about all the things you have that you don’t need and are bad for the environment: that iPod, art, going to a college away from home when there is likely one closer, sports, watching movies, alcohol, barbecues, really comfortable chairs, hair gel, smoking pot, anything related to music, earrings, literature, etc.

In conclusion, if we are really to stop any sort of catastrophic climate change, we need to stop focusing so much on the firecrackers and start worrying about the dynamite. This is admittedly a stance that is fairly recently developed and ripe for criticism and I am willing to take any sort comments pointing out holes in my thinking.