Thursday, November 6, 2008

No more trickle-down sustainability?

I had to conceal my mild discomfort the other day when a gushing colleague handed me another of the growing clutch of high-end locavore/foodie magazines, the kind that take on the mantle of "sustainability" all too quickly for my liking.

Don't get me wrong. I'm in favor of local food. I grow a lot of it myself, in a crusty, curmudgeony, perennial English countryman kind of way. But I'm distinctly uncomfortable with any kind of elite movement in society. A yeoman farmer, from a long line, one of Cromwell's "russet-coated" captains, I've been on the wrong side of the class system all too often for my liking.

As such, I studiously employ the thrifty human ecology of my ancestors. I carefully maintain a heavy emphasis on the Yorkshire breed of pigs in my farming, employ various strange northern English and Scottish dishes made with sheep's offal, and, of course, the humble Maine potato. The basis of my food chain is oatmeal, food for both sheep and pigs, from Aroostook County, Maine.

Not really what the gourmands of this world have in mind, but it does stick to your ribs and keep you regular.

So I stifled my discomfort and took an interest. It wasn't so bad. This particular magazine did have some real farmers, and some interesting Maine food system innovations.

But let's not fool ourselves. The local food movement, like the green business movement, is just a slight diversion of capital and finance from the main torrent of commerce, generally upmarket, generally trendy, but small. A trickle. From the trickle-down theory of sustainability. And like green business, it was what climate and sustainability advocates in farming and business needed to do, to do business at all before November 4th 2008. But it's now a bit of an anachronism.

Trickle-down sustainability is now, officially, out of date. It's "out."

But what's "in?"

Now that President-elect Obama has begun to organize for the day he gets his hands on the strings and levers of executive branch power, and now that the Dems in Congress have a sizable majority, it's time for a mainstream approach to green business and agriculture. By definition, "mainstream" means two to three orders of magnitude larger than now.

Larger means bigger, folks.

Specifically, we need to begin to fill those carbon stabilization wedges in short order, on a very large scale. We already have this pretty much figured out. A small army of climate wonks stands in waiting, around the nation, in colleges and universities, to help implement climate solutions. But stabilization wedges are not exactly what most people think of when they think of carbon reduction.

Take methane management, for instance. Much of the methane we produce comes from farm animals, the rest from landfills. Ah, you say, time to employ the local food solution, get the unsightly CAFOs banned, go back to small mixed farms, have all the kids eating local salad in high schools, etc, etc. Increase the rate of food waste recycling from kitchen to compost to farm, get the methane out of the waste stream, out of the landfill. Get the methane gone in no time.

Well, let's think about this a bit longer.

One of the best ways to manage methane on the farm is to run the manure from feedlots and dairies through a biogas digester and use it to produce electricity and fertilizer, spreading the liquid manure that results on fields used for corn silage, hay, and other forage crops. But to do that, animals need to be confined at least some of the time, and because of a surface area/volume ratio effect in the digesters themselves, the economic size of herd needed to supply manure to an efficient biogas plant might be 300-400 animals. Or more.

Not what the locavores had in mind. While the small organic and artisanal farms they definitely do have in mind, well, these needed to be audited carefully for climate emissions per unit of food, before we sink a lot of government time and money into them as a way to help the climate. I'm pretty sure that some of these places use more energy per carrot, or per pig, not less, than conventional operations, trucking produce around to farmer's market after farmer's market.

So it isn't necessarily local that is key here. Local is a fad, a trend. One that happens to coincide with some of the important but underlying trends in agriculture that need to be encouraged, like the use of aerobic compost, or the reduction of pesticides, but not all, and not some of the most important. As with much of the climate problem, more careful analysis will be needed.

Likewise green business. Current notions of green business are either distinctly small in scale, when we need to ramp up production and deployment of green energy and transportation capital by one to two to three orders of magnitude. Others are distinctly greenwash, a marketing ploy. The big oil companies for instance, have been polishing their "beyond petroleum" credentials for public consumption while ramping up tar sand production behind the scenes. Tar sands, like coal, are climate anathema, requiring two to three times the emissions of conventional oils. The oil companies know this, and they even know what they have to do, which is to make plans to sustain oil production at a much smaller scale for very much longer than they have in mind right now, with a much higher quality of extraction technology to eke out supply. While the rest of industry, especially housing and transportation, makes plans to learn to use first 25%, then 50%, then 75% less oil per year through efficiency improvements to cars, trucks and houses, and through new designs for replacement cars, trucks and houses. They already know how to do that too. They just won't do it until we make them do it. But we will make them do it. If we're smart, we'll never run out of oil. It's too useful. But we will learn to cherish it.

Cherishing oil is not what a lot of green advocates have in mind.

So we're heading out of the era when the only way you made a farm or business more sustainable was by starting your own, very small, very green farm or business. These will still have their place in the sun, but now what we especially need are efficient green solutions for very large scale businesses. The larger the better, in fact. There's some urgency here.

But thankfully we're also heading out of the era when the only sustainability you could get was "trickle-down" sustainability, that diverted a small flow of finance and commerce from the mainstream to the green. Now we can bring the entire resources of the federal government, with all those agencies, NASA, EPA, NOAA, NSF, plus the great land-grant university system, plus the massive resources of capital itself, trillions of dollars of savings and investment that needs to make a buck, sitting around a little too idle right about now.

We've done this before, so we know how, more or less, to do it again.

In the summer and fall of 1940, after the Invasion of France and the Low Countries, but over a year before Pearl Harbor, FDR began finally to reorient the US economy from the peacetime production of cars and refrigerators then favored by isolationists, to wartime production of ships, planes, tanks, and munitions, both for the new ten-million strong US Army and Navy he would eventually create, and to send to Britain, then fighting for it's life alone against Nazism.

Ultimately 50% of the US economy would be diverted to wartime production. Government investment increased by an order of magnitude. Finally the Great Depression came to an end, and there was full employment, including Obama's own maternal grandmother, working in that aircraft factory.

Dollar-a-year men went to Washington for their marching orders, then went back to Kansas and Chicago and Detroit and Seattle and reorganized American industry on a scale that many, including Adolf Hitler, had thought impossible.

If we could do it then, we can do it again now. Civilization is no less threatened by climate change now than it was by the Nazis in 1940. And it certainly will pull us out of the recession.

But we have to think big, very big, to have a hope of succeeding. And we shouldn't imagine that the sustainability policy of an Obama presidency looks anything like the trickle-down sustainability that the greens who started small farms and small businesses were forced to develop in the shadow of the Bush administration.

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