Friday, December 18, 2009

About "food miles" and other gestures of virtue

One of the features of modern life is the range of moral gestures—in conversation, in purchasing and so forth—that express moral virtue, a sense of moral concern. The trouble is, that such gestures virtue as signals (to oneself, to others) of moral concern has no necessary connection whatsoever to truth or good sense.

Indeed, it is worse than that. Because their utility as signals of moral concern, of virtue, are so high (particularly given their minimal cost), any attempt to engage in critical analysis of them is likely to be ignored or resented. You are literally threatening to take people’s “moral toys” away from them. Not only does that threaten to take away an easy marker of virtue, it further threatens their sense of themselves (particularly their ideological framings) as perceptive and knowledgeable.

This fits in with why making predictions of disaster (appropriately couched as a failure of capitalism/industrialisation/Western civilisation etc) is such a cost-free exercise. The prediction shows you are “concerned”. Whether the prediction comes anywhere near the truth or not is beside the point. To suggest the prediction is baseless, or greatly exaggerated, is to take away a marker of “being concerned” and is also a sign that you are “not concerned”. Such resistance to the “concern” is thus both a threat and a moral failing.

The “immiseration thesis”, eugenics, “the population bomb” are just highpoints of a persistent pattern of disaster predicted which came nowhere near reality. The current looming “climate catastrophe” shows much the same patterns, albeit on a much larger scale.

In the meantime, we have these little “markers of virtue” which have entered the culture. One of which is concern for “food miles”. Now, if one believes there is some element in food transport and production that is seriously underpriced, there may be an issue. The solution to which is remove the subsidies or regulations or impose the Pigouvian tax that will get rid of the effect.

Given, however, how much petrol is already taxed, such serious underpricing seems unlikely.

Failing that, the concern is a nonsense. Transporting things further has been a basic engine of human progress. A subsistence farmer is very “food mile” virtuous. We only manage to get rid of famines by being able to transport food significant distances (and ensuring people at the other end could pay for it). In other words, by conquering "food miles".
The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s is still remembered with horror. The Irish famine of the 1790s 1800-1 is a footnote to history because the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time acted with intelligence and dispatch and announced a bounty on the importation of wheat to Ireland. Shippers immediately shipped food to Ireland in response to the bounty. Food that could then—because of the bounty—be sold cheaply. If the same had been done in the 1840s, that Potato Famine would also have been a footnote to history [or, at least, much less severe]. Alas, Ireland was now directly governed from London (thanks to the Act of Union) and, in the grip of the latest scientific theory (classical economics), Her Majesty’s Ministers felt themselves unable to interfere with the “laws of supply and demand” and did nothing effective.

Ministers framing decisions in a very poor way and making very bad decisions because the “latest science” told them. The latest, very new, science. Anything familiar in that?
Climate science as we know it today did not exist in the 1960s and 1970s.
Just as eugenics was a response to the new science of hereditary: a key problem with new sciences being that the wider society (including science in general) lacks experience in assessing their strengths and weaknesses.

The failure of the British Cabinet to act effectively also, of course, meant that more coal was not expended transporting food: very “food mile” virtuous.

This is what is most insidious about things such as “food miles”: the clever stupidity of them. They actively discourage thinking seriously about what the real drivers of human progress are. Ordinary human effort is turned into a mark of perdition.

It is especially silly for Australians, given how much of our prosperity over the years has been built up shipping food (and minerals) all over the planet. It is the quintessential inner urban moral indulgence: particularly appealing to people whose work does not involve the grubby shifting of stuff, but the elegant electronic zapping of symbols [or other ideas-based services]. Like many of these moral gestures, it is way for the modern moral middle class to congratulate itself on the virtue of its elevated occupations.

There is, after all, therefore very little incentive to look at such things critically. Nor are they likely to socialise much with folk with other perspectives.

It also shows little grasp of what benefits the developing world. Is “fair trade coffee” less virtuous if it came across the globe, for example? It is so easy to invent this stuff, so easy to “take it on board” and so anti-social to suggest it’s bollocks.

And thus is the intellectual quality of social life steadily degraded in little acts of “moral concern” which, in the name of “moral progress”, undermine and attack the drivers of genuine progress: intellectual openness, science, trade and commerce.

ADDENDA This post has been amended to clarify some points and correct a date error. A friend has pointed out that "food miles" originated in early C20th blood-and-soil mysticism: not a good starting place, though perhaps a revealing one.


  1. Yes. What we should concentrate on is total energy cost of producing and transporting food, not just the transport cost. It takes less total energy to raise sheep in New Zealand and ship the meat to the UK than it does to raise sheep in the UK itself.

    The whole "local food" business is just another marketing gimmick like "organic food"

  2. Yes, it makes no sense just to pick on transport. Regarding your example, concern for "organic food" also started in blood-and-soil mysticism.