Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Modern Environmental Fairy Tales: "Moving Back to the Land" and the 100 Mile Diet

When I socialize with my environmental friends one of the most common themes is their dream to move “off the grid” and live off the land. This idea of moving to a neo-Walden and experiencing a Thoreau-like existence seems to be a common theme amongst my environmental friends and apparently I am not alone. In his 1992 book “Green Delusions” Martin Lewis wrote about the new “Arcadians”. The term was used to describe environmentalists who wanted to go back to a simpler time and live off the land. 

Unfortunately, what these Arcadians don’t seem to understand is that with our modern population numbers, living off the land is simply not ecologically sustainable. Ultimately as the human population has continued its presumably logistic growth towards some ultimate peak the result has been a squeeze on the ecosystems necessary to maintain a human presence on planet earth. Regardless of how you feel about global warming/climate change/etc… you should want a planet that is fit for human habitation and that means leaving room for non-humans to thrive and survive. Moreover, I would argue that functioning, healthy ecosystems have an intrinsic value exclusive of human needs. We are caretakers of this planet and allowing nature its rightful place is, in my opinion, a base requirement that humankind owes the planet. 

Now imagine a world where the 2 million people in the Metro Vancouver area all moved to self-sufficient homesteads. Consider what our suburban lifestyle has done to our natural spaces and now consider what it would look like if each one of those lots was an acre or two and filled with personal-farms? Forget about the Agricultural Land Reserve we would have small inefficient farms occupying every wild space to the Rocky Mountains and don’t even get me started on environmental Kuznet curves and how our current quality of living actually results in improved environmental outcomes.  

Serious environmental scholars understand that the best way to preserve nature is actually to get the majority of our population into cities where we can reduce per-capita energy costs through mass transit, shorter travel distances for supplies and shared heating/cooling in energy-efficient high-density housing. The more spread out your community, the less likely that centralized services like sewer, water and gas are possible and the more expensive the cost to maintain the services. We worry about our groundwater quality now, imagine what it would be like with personal farms on septic fields covering the entire Fraser Valley.  

Another theme in the environmental community is the idea of eating locally with the biggest fad being the 100 mile diet. From an environmental perspective regional self-sufficiency in food is a loser. Large-scale farming, with its ability to maximize crop yields and thus reduce land needs, is a necessity in a world of 7 billion souls. Anyone really interested in this topic should read The Locavore’s Dilemma by Desrochers and Shimizu. They comprehensively deconstruct the environmental arguments for the 100 mile diet and the concept of “food miles”. 

The activists point out that the food then needs to be moved by ship or airplane but Desrochers and Shimizu point out 82% of the estimated 30 billion food miles associated with U.K.-consumed food are generated within the country, with car transport from shop to home accounting for 48% and transport to stores/warehouses representing 31% of food miles. As for carbon dioxide equivalents, as Tasmin MacMahon notes in Macleans: Research from the U.K. comparing local tomatoes with those imported from Spain showed the U.K. tomatoes, which had to be grown in heated greenhouses, emitted nearly 2,400 kg of carbon dioxide per ton, compared to 640 kg for the Spanish tomatoes, which could grow in unheated greenhouses. Those of you in BC will remember the uproar when the local greenhouses were forced to deal with air quality regulations and what that meant for profitability of the farms. 

As for organic farming, the desire to reduce fertilizer residues in your food is a good thing but the reduced crop yields derived from organic farming is the exact opposite of the methods needed to feed the planet. Moreover recent research suggests that most organic food isn’t appreciably safer and the research is definitive that organic foods are no healthier than food from non-organic farms. Meanwhile, the widespread use of “natural” fertilizers in organic farms can lead to the contamination of groundwater supplies with nitrates and in exceptional cases animal wastes and e-coli. While factory farms have their own fertilizer/waste issues, they tend to be much more tightly regulated and have the financial wherewithal to invest in the most efficient treatment systems. Not to mention that in sufficient quantities/qualities, their outputs can actually have some value on the open market. 

I hate to be a big humbug to my activist friends this Christmas season, but as a pragmatic environmentalist I have to burst their bubbles and crush their dreams. The thought that we can, as a society, move back to the past is an environmental fairy tale and would be an ecological and human disaster of almost biblical proportions.


  1. I agree with much of what you have written here. I live in Wyoming, where ranches are being chopped up into 35 and 40 acre parcels so "you can live a true country life". The unfortunate thing is people have no idea what a true country life is--being snowed in for weeks because you can't get the road open, constant repairs of housing, trying to keep that wonderful renewable energy going with controllers burning out and batteries freezing. Many of the areas look like a rural ghetto--junk everywhere, sub-standard housing. People have died in the winter and search and rescue has to get people out every year. This is not paradise. Not even close.

  2. I could have responded to any of the posts I have read so far that I was in nearly complete agreement with what you have said. Furthermore I think you describe the issues, trade-offs and remaining questions extremely well. Thank you.

    I want to add one more point to your arguments and those of TAC. The myth that local organic gardens can support everyone is so totally at odds with my personal experience that I cannot believe the folks who are making these environmental fairy tale arguments could have spent any significant time gardening much less farming. In the best case, keeping a large garden producing well is incredibly time consuming but there are always problems that make it worse. While I have a garden, the increase in time to maintain a garden (much less process all the produce for later use) that could provide any meaningful contribution to my annual diet is so far out of proportion to what I would want to do that I haven’t even tried. Talking to farmers has not led me to believe that the majority would suggest otherwise either.

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