Monday, September 14, 2009

Culture, costs, and one critique

I think Evan's post is largely on the mark. First I'd definitely agree with him that visionary reworking of an entire system is usually the wrong way to go about change. The system that we have now is an emergent result of the decisions of millions of households and communities. While systemic institutional change is always important, we need to recognize that change will ultimately rest on the decisions of individual households. Even if you have a great degree of faith in top down institutional change (which sometimes isn't entirely unwarranted), you can expect a great deal of social strife if we don't adjust our expectations of normal life in concert with those changes. Evan and I often critique blind adherence to the idea of atomized individualism on this blog. I think this is an important place to point out the situations where we think individualism is appropriate, and where individual and family level decisions not only are the fulcrum of change - they are also intimately tied to real change at the level of the community or the collective.

I'd also like to highlight one economic efficiency benefit of taking a cultural approach to food, rather than just a commodity approach. When economists worry about "sustainability", they're often primarily worried about what are called "externalities", which can be either positive or negative. An externality is a cost or benefit which because of property rights arrangements are not factored into a market price. For example, the trees of the rain forest may belong to someone who can sell them to farmers who cut them down so that cattle can graze. But some of the benefits of the rain forest accrue to everyone - not just the owner of the trees and land. For example, they help to clean carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. This is a very real, valid benefit. If the owner of the trees were trading away his air quality alone, then we would expect the free market to provide him with the best possible tradeoff between the money he could get from selling the rain forest and the quality of the air he breaths. But the owner of the rain forest is also trading away other people's air quality, and he has no incentive to efficiently trade that because it's not a benefit he enjoys. In this situation, a private market would cut down too much rain forest to grow beef for McDonald's. The market, because of the imperfect structure of property rights, is inefficient.

What does this have to do with culture? When we take cultural considerations into account, we are by definition considering costs and benefits beyond our own individual costs and benefits. This is obviously no guarantee of a perfect solution either, but it does help to more efficiently arbitrate between private preferences and the costs and benefits impacting society as a whole. Market exchange enforces a culture of reductionism that works wonders in efficiently distributing the many products that have only private costs and benefits. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that commodification is thus a universally applicable way of understanding our world. "Culture", however amorphous, is another perfectly acceptable prism through which we can view the world - particularly when we are concerned with something like food, which enmeshes us in a broad community not just of other human beings, but other species, which are all affected by our decisions, and yet don't always have a say in those decisions.

I'll end on a critique, though. Despite my insistence that commodification isn't always appropriate, I'm not about to suggest (and I don't think Evan was either) that food isn't to a large extent a commodity or that markets aren't an appropriate way to distribute food. It's also important to point out that aesthetic primitivsm on the part of the well off is dangerous if it is promoted as an ethic for the entire world. I'm reminded of this point after hearing news of the death of Norman Borlaug: botanist, Nobel Prize winner, and driving force behind the so called "Green Revolution". Borlaug worked to genetically modify plants to increase their yields. He was also a proponent of the use of pesticides, so long as they weren't deleterious to human health, and criticized environmentalists that opposed all pesticides and genetic engineering on principle. In doing so, Norman Borlaug broke the back of much of human starvation and allowed economies to develop beyond their rudimentary agrarian bases. To put it simply, Borlaug made food production very cheap. Now, I don't know enough about his work to know if his advances contributed to the problems that Evan's book describes. But he highlights the danger of pursuing primitivism for primitivism's sake. It's great that more people want to eat organic vegetables grown on small plots, or free range chickens. That's wonderful. But six billion people cannot survive on that form of production. Perhaps the relatively well off can buy everything at a local farmer's market. But when the relatively well off think about the wider food culture they really need to consider the people that can't buy there. We need to consider the tradeoffs and compromises we're willing to make. Maybe genetic modification by cross breeding to feed India is OK, but changes at the genetic level are too dangerous to rush forward with (note to readers: we already have rushed forward with those sorts of changes - this is just a hypothetical). Maybe instead of taking up lots of land with a free range chicken farm we should just decide to not eat chicken, or eat it far more rarely. There are very real reasons why men like Borlaug launched the Green Revolution. This seemingly corporatist venture was launched out of compassion, not concern for profits. As chic as primitivism is today, the human race hasn't historically enjoyed it's experiences in the vice of the Malthusian dilemma - and many of the strongest proponents of primitivism are the ones that are the farthest removed from their ancestral peasantry. But ultimately, an informed cultural (rather than commodified) approach to food will recognize this. It will recognize that family farms are valuable to the community, but that ample food supply is too. Indeed, I think taking a bird's-eye, cultural approach to these questions is the only thing that can strike the appropriate balance.