Monday, October 1, 2012
Why I've Turned Chartreuse, Part II: Go Local, Go Medieval
If we limit ourselves to local food, our diets are limited to what can grow locally. No more coffee or bananas. We’d adjust to drinking roasted barley brew and eating apples, but what if our local crops fail? And fail they will. Although locavores argue that local food staying in the local economy ameliorates local food insecurity, when there isn’t any local food, interdependence adds food security. Looking at the larger geographic area, more food miles are a good thing.
We are likewise told to only buy local because local dollars stay local. We’re told to boycott WalMart, the store that brings low prices to poor people. Support your local bookstore rather than that big bad Amazon.com. But someone living where there’s no local bookstore can buy any book from Amazon and local bookstores can’t stock the volume Amazon does. Buying in a bigger market gives us more choices. Moreover, the workers in a big box store are local who will spend their wages locally especially if there’s a local low price WalMart.
In the United States, very small businesses that do less than $500,000 worth of business and engage in no interstate commerce are exempt from labor laws, leaving their employees subject to exploitation. In contrast, employees at Amazon.com and WalMart must be paid federal minimum wage and overtime.
The eat and buy local movement implies that local people are more worthy than outsiders. “You’re not from around here, are you?” is hardly a hospitable greeting. Keeping our food and purchases local sets up an invidious distinction between local (us) people and non-local (them) people. What about the inherent worth and dignity of every person? I eat Corvallis food, but not that dreck from Eugene or Salem. Who knows where it’s been?
When groups of people compete, it’s win-lose, but when people trade it’s win-win. Everyone can be a foodie when Oregonians trade their marionberries for California artichokes!
The world the locavores want to return to sounds like the 14th century medieval manorial system. We imagine bucolic villages where everyone knew everyone else growing their own organic food. But what happened when local crops failed? From The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley: “the price of wheat approximately trebled in 2006-8, just as it did in Europe in 1315-18. At the earlier date, Europe was less densely populated, farming was organic, and food miles were short.” Just what the locavores advocate.
Let’s examine the 14th century stats. “Europe was less densely populated.” The population of Europe was approximately 70 million in 1300; it’s increased ten fold – to about 700 million today . “All farming was organic.” Crop lands had to lay fallow some of the time to replenish their nutrients and feed had to be grown for the draft animals, taking up crop land that couldn’t be used to feed people. Yields were small, 10% of what they are now. The potato, which flourishes in Northern Europe and produces more than twice as many calories per acre than wheat, hadn’t been introduced from the New World yet. “Food miles were short.” They had to be. There wasn’t the technology to ship food in the 14th century. No trucks, freeways, railroads, steam engines, or airplanes. During the famine, this meant food couldn’t be moved from the unaffected Southern European regions to the famine regions.
A short digression: remember the story of Hansel and Gretel, the children who were left in the woods to fend for themselves when food got scarce? That story originated during that Great Famine of 1315-18 when the adults would abandon children and the elderly. By 2008, we’d forgotten the grim reality behind the story; Hansel and Gretel are just fairy tale figures.
The frequent famines demonstrate there was no sustainability in the manorial system. When times and weather were good, population grew exponentially, but available arable land grew arithmetically. Until new sources of energy in the form of fossil fuels were discovered, Malthus was right. Fossil fuels also help capture nitrogen for fertilizer from the air and thus preserve land to grow food for humans.
After Europe recovered from the famines, the Black Death or plague decimated the undernourished population. One-third to one-half of the population died. Other contributing factors were the overcrowding, lack of hygiene, and prevalence of rats. Neither the church nor the government could address the problem. Superstition was rife. People blamed the lepers and the Jews for the plague, so they killed them. The 14th century locavore’s world was a violent one.
In the 21st century the plague organism Yersinia pestis is still extant. A dozen people a year are infected in the US, but we bathe, wash our clothes, keep rats out of our dwellings, and eat well, factors making an outbreak unlikely. If there is one, we have antibiotics, laboratories, communication to stop a pandemic in its tracks.
Our sixth Unitarian Universalist principle counsels us to commit to the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. We likewise value the life of the mind. The 14th century was an eat local/buy local world. Was there culture? Not when most people were illiterate. Was there peace? No, there was almost constant war among competing fiefdoms. Was there liberty? Not for the 95% of the population who were serfs. Serfs were one step up from a chattel slave – they couldn’t be sold individually, but they had to stay with the land. Was there justice? Not if you recall the grisly public torture-executions for offenses that aren’t even illegal today.
We Unitarian Universalists need to dig to the root of issues like the buy and eat local movement. A movement whose end result is a return to the 14th century medieval manorial system is not just nostalgic, it’s reactionary.