Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What will it look like?

Back sometime in my sophomore or junior year at Oberlin, I took an environmental economics class from a visiting professor who happened to be a real economist. Not that the econ faculty weren’t real economists, but Oberlin students were sometimes hostile to real life, and it affected things. But this guy (and I can’t for the life of me remember his name) did his best to bring an economic take to the nascent environmental movement (we are talking somewhere between ’80 and ’82). He talked about hydrogen powered cars (he liked fuel cells) and creating and trading pollution credits. He also talked about how, if we were/are serious about reducing waste, we need to create one or two or more types of re-usable containers. One container, specifically for food, could be a cube like thing with a cylindrical lid on a wide mouth opening. It could hold, say, a quart and one could bring a bunch of them to the store. It could be easily stackable in (canvas) bags or on bikes or in specially designed trunks in cars. In the store one could step up to the various rice or pasta dispensers and use one or more of these containers to get what you wanted. The containers could have RFID chips to record how much and what is in them (as programmed by the dispenser). The idea would eventually be to have all the food in dispensers, or if fresh, with some setup to identify it. I remember the professor saying the thing would need to be built like a tank, so if it was thrown away it could simply be retrieved (I suspect people would want them light). Obviously this type of container could revolutionize packaging as we know it, and we could dramatically reduce our waste. And technology is getting more and more sophisticated, so I expect someone could create the reusable containers with advertising that would appear on the sides when the food was dispensed into it.But would people accept these containers? Already some of us are carrying reusable canvas bags to the grocery store to use instead of paper or plastic bags, but I have to say there are a lot more reusable bags at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods than at Walmart (how many at the Giant Eagle probably depends on which iggle you go to). Although we are getting more accepting of canvas bags, the reusable containers would still be a radical departure from what we do now.

Another thought that passed across my brain had to do with cattle and red meat. Now, we are starting to learn that grass fed beef is better for us, in part because grain (corn) fed beef has to be fed antibiotics to enable them to digest corn. Also, the way the market for red meat has developed, cattle are now fed steroids to make them bigger, and the amount of corn they are fed makes them fatter (and fatty). Anyone who has read the Omnivore’s Dilemma remembers Polyface farm (and some people may have heard about it other ways). The book describes a method of rotating a herd of cattle so that grass land is not overmunched (the right word escapes me at the moment). In fact, all sorts of animals are rotated along with the cattle, to cultivate the land as wisely as possible. The wisdom is not the genius of man, though, it is the natural rhythm of wild animals, that move in herds and don’t stay in one place and eat. Well, to be perfectly clear, this is an idealized sort of farming using domesticated animals and grass meadows surrounded by trees. There is an artificial diversity created by the farmer, Joel Salatin, that has been carefully worked out. The funny thing is that when Salatin’s father bought the land originally, much of it was considered too hilly to be useful. Salatin takes environmental issues seriously, he refuses to ship the meat his farm produces (he has a good business with Virginia locavores).

But how could we produce all our meat in this way. It’s not impossible to imagine a conveyor belt with grass (in several varieties) on it, or some such kind of thing. It is possible to imagine a new kind of factory with grass fed cattle. The thing is, our meat might get more expensive (as might other foods if our farmers grew less (subsidized) corn). But if our food is no longer subsidized, parts of out taxes could go down, or be used to offset the cost of national healthcare (which needn’t cost that much more than our current system, but that’s a subject for another day). But we might not continue to be the bread basket for the rest of the world. I think that they might not mind, as long as they could get some help starting to grow their own food.

But we are talking about a relentless sort of pragmatism. We don’t generally do that sort of thing (except on Star Trek). Maybe Obama will start to help us move along that direction. Meanwhile, you can do your part (as can I). You can do some things I have already done, such as replace light bulbs with compact fluorescents. You can use canvas bags for groceries. You can recycle plastic bags at your local grocer or Walmart. You can drive more carefully to save gas. And you can do things I have yet to do, like grow your own vegetables and compost your food waste (I think I’ll stop there in my list of shortcomings). All these things are steps along the way towards what probably should be a different future. How it will look is up to us, but we should try to think about it rationally.


Vannevar said...

Each month Wired magazine offers a few newly coined words/phrases from the zeitgeist. I recently saw "cowpooling" (vice carpooling), which is a small group of localvores splitting up a cow raised by management-intensive grazing.

Mark Rauterkus said...

Saw a guy on the streets in China on a bike with 2 wheels with aprox 84 pair of shoes -- each in shoe boxes.

Saw two double beds (mattress & box springs), headboards and one dresser on a single 3-wheeled bike.

Refrigerators on a bike -- no problem.

The hauling potential of a bike is vast.

Re-use containers would be nice.

EdHeath said...

Vannevar, I'm hoping the splitting up was in some future sense. Otherwise, ewww.

Mark, have you seen the xtracycle? It's not something I think I need right now, but it is cool (