Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Uncommon common sense.

Regular readers will have noticed that I'm not writing much about renewable energy and energy efficiency this summer. This isn't because I don't have any projects on. I've done a bit of free consulting around the region, and am still measuring the wind at the Mount View site and getting worked up to measure the wind at a new site in Troy, Maine.

But what I write about tends to be what's on my mind, and what's on my mind right now is the stuff I gots to get done at the Womerlippi Farm and Garden Enterprise. Not to mention the rotational grazing project at MOFGA. Today's job will be the sheep shelter and chicken tractor replacement mentioned a couple posts back. Plus the UK media continues to razz on the food crisis. And what I've been noticing are the bugbears that food advocates have, and the backlashes they create.

As an advocate for, and teacher of, small scale local agriculture and horticulture, and because I'm trained as a scientist and policy wonk, I like to help folks keep their motivations sorted out. Too much muddled environmentalism makes for unpopular environmentalism, and if we could all just keep our bugbears at bay we'd get further with the average Joe, who after all is amenable to common sense, but sensibly shies clear of fetishism.

One such bugbear is purism of any kind, whether organic, local, zero-carbon, whatever. The single minded pursuit of any one of these always appears to me to be counter-productive, a bugbear.

So, for instance, the banning of caffeine at the MOFGA Fairgrounds. I've been a card-carrying member of MOFGA for a long time, but why, in this age of high quality, shade-grown, fair-trade, organic coffee, is the dreaded black stuff still banned from the fair? Because someone on the MOFGA board had a bugbear about it, that's why. And to 99% of fair-goers, it seems really silly, and so, as a result, some of them begin to laugh at, and are turned off by, MOFGA's other messages, most of which are quite reasonable.

Likewise GMO foods. I really don't enjoy the prospect of Monsanto "taking over" developing world agriculture by patenting genetic resources. But does that mean that all GMO organisms are bad? Of course not. One of these days we'll patent the GMO organism that cures cancer, or malaria, or that makes carbon-neutral liquid fuel from algae fed on seawater. Blanket opposition to GMO is another bugbear that most ordinary people thankfully, see right through.

Organic food seems to me to be becoming a bugbear these days. When I'm faced with a choice between local Maine produce grown using fertilizers and pesticides, and out-of-state stuff that is squeaky-clean organic, I go for the local every time. Since the recent USDA regulations organic certification is now somewhat captured by industry anyway, at least at the national level. We really should fess up to that and become more circumspect about organic certification.

I'm not even going to talk about carbon neutrality, except to say that it's possible, and it frequently happens, that we become obsessed by this bugbear such that a corporation goes to extreme and expensive lengths to become carbon neutral in one building or one transportation scheme as a "showcase" when the same organization has dozens of other buildings and vehicles that haven't even been considered. A decent across the board percentage reduction, with all the low hanging fruit well-picked, is sign of considered carbon mitigation, not the "one showcase building" syndrome.

All of this purism and faddism contributes to the image that many ordinary people have of environmentalists as strange types with strange agendas, and not much common sense.

One of the great gifts that first British and then American free speech gave to the world is political satire. Purists everywhere are wide open to this lowest, yet funniest, form of political wit. Another is the leveling that occurs when our lords and masters are exposed for the twits they are. How are the mighty fallen, when their bugbears are exposed on Comedy Central or You Tube. And how we vulgar Anglo-Americans love to see 'em fall. There's many a dictator around the world who shudders at the thought of all the satirical endeavors the west has waiting for him, the day he dares to leave the safety of Upper Gondolia.

But when our bugbears allow that same Hogarthian satire, which knows no safety barrier, to be turned against the environmental movement, in this day and age of real environmental worries like climate change or food scarcity, we all lose. A capable, reasoned pragmatism is the best antidote.

I'm really enjoying my morning coffee today. Are you?

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