Wednesday, January 11

Crunchy Concerns

I'm a week late finding it (probably because I avoid the Times, as a rule), but this article caught my eye for several reasons. The idea of conservative environmentalism has been an interest of mine for some time. Not an interest I've pursued enthusiastically, but one that I've fed from time to time with books or articles that happen, without any initiative on my part, to land in my line of sight.

The Times article is equal parts analysis and hype for the author's forthcoming book, Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of counterculture conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party). My reaction to the article is similarly mixed. There are many sentences which I could have written myself, but there is also much in in it that leaves me cold, or worse.

I freely endorse sentiments like:

[M]y wife and I recoiled from a crass conservatism that had no use for conservation and which never saw a field or a forest that it didn’t want to pave over to create a Wal-Mart parking lagoon. . . .

As a general rule we preferred the Small, the Local, the Old and the Particular over Big and Global and New and Abstract. . . .

We are traditionalist conservatives of the Catholic sort who identify more with Pope John Paul II, JRR Tolkien, GK Chesterton and even, God help us, with the Prince of Wales when he talks about the value of small farms and traditional town design. . . .

We had come to believe that the family, not the individual, is the basic building block of society. . . .

As conservatives we have as much suspicion of big business as we do of big government. . . .

As the late Russell Kirk, the ideological godfather of contemporary American conservatism, wrote, “In America especially, we live beyond our means by consuming the portion of posterity, insatiably devouring minerals and forests and the very soil, lowering the water table, to gratify the appetites of the present tenants of the country.” He demanded that Americans behave more prudently to honour “the future partners in our contract with eternal society”. . . .

I was also interested to learn that Whole Foods (just two blocks away, thank goodness) is owned by “a Reagan-loving, Texas-living vegan getting rich off bringing humanely farmed meat and other organic products to the American mainstream.”

The parts with which I disagree are less easily quoted. Much of my objection is aesthetic or visceral: I cringe at the sound-bite cutesiness of Rod Dreher's "crunchy con" label, and instinctively distrust his smug flaunting of his green epiphany and the self-congratulatory glee with which he flirts with the tamest fringes of the counterculture (a general objection I have to radical chic).

I am also more skeptical than Dreher seems to be (though his book isn't out, so I can't know his full positions) of the benefits of small, local farming. There are few bigger fans of farmers' markets than me--I rarely missed a Saturday at Borough Market during my three years in London, I bought most of my food during my year in Portland, OR, at City Market, and a major criterion during my apartment search in Washington was the proximity of a farmers' market--but intensive, modern agriculture is much more effective for supplying a national population of 300 million and a global population of over 6 billion. More than debt relief or direct aid, global free trade in agriculture represents the Third World's best hope for economic growth.

There is much for the Western gourmet to love about the environmentally and socially conscious Slow Food movement, but its roots (in Italy) are resolutely protectionist and its principles--particularly the emphasis on buying from local farmers--could hardly be better designed to stifle a Third World development. Slow Food advocates counter that global agricultural trade encourages Third World countries to produce commoditized agricultural products for a global market at the expense of traditional, local produce. This may be true, but it is awfully presumptuous for us to dictate to Third World farmers, who don't have the benefits of agricultural-welfare handouts, how they should and shouldn't take advantage of international markets. For a vivid illustration of who wants what in global free-trade, one should consider that the major sticking point at trade conferences these days is the West's refusal to drop its agricultural subsidies and the Third World's frustration at our intransigence; the Doha round of negotiations broke down on precisely this point. (For a vivid illustration of the problem, consider that the protestors at the most recent round of WTO talks in Hong Kong were well-off European, American, and Hong Kong students joined by South Korean rice farmers who are prepared to resort to violence rather than give up some of their lavish state subsidies and face competition from Chinese and other Third World farmers.)

The U.N.'s WTO Watch describes what is at stake:

It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of agriculture and the trade in agricultural products for Africa Farming employs some 70 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa's work force and generates an average 30 per cent of the region's gross domestic product. Yet rural Africans are among the poorest people in the world.

What the Slow Fooders fear will happen in the Third World has already occurred in Western countries (which is what the Slow Fooders are reacting against) and it is a big reason why our grocery store shelves overflow with fruit and vegetables while those in undeveloped countries are, shall we say, less bountiful.

I have a similar problem with Dreher's swipe at Wal-Mart. As I said above, I agree with the sentiment, but I also acknowledge the selfishness of my position. Though I would rather chew on a light bulb than spend ten minutes in a Wal-Mart, and my blood-pressure rises noticeably with every mile I am forced to drive through a big-box-store suburb, I appreciate the benefits that these stores bring to millions of Americans.

Wal-Mart, portrayed in some disreputable circles as a Victorian work house without those establishments' redeeming warmth, has made lower and middle class Americans measurably better off by reducing their shopping bills by 25%--$263 billion, or $2,329 per household, in 2004 alone. (Source: paper by John Furman, visiting professor at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.) And the biggest savings are for groceries, where Wal-Mart regularly undercuts the big, unionized chains.

According to the same source, "[e]ven if you grant that Wal-Mart hurts workers in the retail sector – and the evidence for this is far from clear – the magnitude of any potential harm is small in comparison. One study, for example, found that the 'Wal-Mart effect' lowered retail wages by $4.7 billion in 2000." (The study referred to can be found here. The most detailed study of Wal-Mart's impact on the U.S. economy, as both a supplier and employer, is this study conducted by Global Insight. This study was conducted with exclusive access to internal Wal-Mart data for presentation at a Wal-Mart-sponsored conference; it was overseen by two independent advisors, one from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and one from the left-leaning Brookings Institution.)

Farmers' markets and local specialty shops are privileges of the upper-middle class. The extra thousands of dollars that Dreher's family and I are willing to pay to patronize them are less easily absorbed by a family living near the poverty line.

This preference should not, however, be dismissed as lifestyle snobbery, indistinguishable from a teen's obsession with designer labels or rappers' amusing celebration of Louis Roederer's 'Cristal' champagne and Bentley motor cars. I accept at face value Dreher's explanation that he "[began] eating organic for practical reasons: it tasted better than what we could get at the supermarket, and we liked how our patronage sustained rural family farmers," because I agree with those reasons (although I think Dreher ignores the unseemly element of pride in the latter reason). Like Dreher's, my preference for traditional, local, quality food is honestly held. Like Dreher, I am also glad that my preference has many environmental and social benefits, particularly for responsible Western farmers. Unlike Dreher, I am prepared to accept that my choices could also have negative consequences for others in my society and globally.

Slow Fooders and their environmentally conscious fellow-travelers must tolerate or ignore many hypocrisies--double-standards and inconsistencies which I hope that I acknowledge even as I enjoy the (sometimes literal) fruits of their labor. Slow Food encourages sustainable, local food production, but I would bet a pretty penny that most Americans like Dreher have no qualms about buying or ordering (at restaurants) French Wine (or California wine, if they live anywhere outside California), French or Italian cheese (where does their Parmigiano-Reggiano come from?), or Italian, Spanish, or Greek olive oil.

The list could go on for pages, but my point is that there is a fundamental inconsistency between North Americans' (and Europeans', to a lesser degree) increasingly global palates and the limits of local food production. You just aren't going to drink local wine if you live in Michigan, or orange-juice if you live in New York, or eat much sushi if you live in a land-locked State or a one that doesn't grow rice. And hold the coffee for anybody living in a Western country. The romantic notion of eating regionally and seasonally is incredibly limiting, which is probably why the French, Italians, Spaniards, and other emotional proponents of Slow Food were so quick to import exotic spices, fruits, and vegetables when they opened up global trade routes. There was polenta before corn was introduced to Northern Italy in the 17th Century, but I suspect that few Italian Slow Fooders would readily return to the millet or buckwheat polenta of their ancestors.

Globalization over the last half-millennia has benefited world cuisine enormously. The public face of globalization at WTO rallies may be McDonald's, but this superficial focus ignores the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indonesian, Indian, Pakistani, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Lebanese, Italian, French, Spanish, Greek, Brazilian, Argentinean, and Peruvian restaurants in every major city around the world today. These restaurants, without which most serious food lovers' lives would be immeasurably diminished, are just as much a product of culinary and agricultural globalization as offensive Western fast food chains (I won't say "American," because, in my experience, Canada's and Britain's home-grown chains are no better, and Belgium's Quick (popular in France) is probably the worst of the lot). So, by all means bemoan the decline of regional specialization (I do), do everything you can to encourage local producers (I do), shun Wal-Mart and big-box stores (I do), but at least feel a little guilty next time you enjoy wine, olive oil, rice, fruit, or vegetables not native to your patch of the earth or prepared in a style that would have been foreign to your grandparents (I try to, though unsuccessfully).

. . .

Reading back, this is without doubt my most disjointed and rambling post to date. And I didn't even touch on my intended subject of the broader (and non-food related) conservative environmental movement. Fodder for another post, I guess.