Sustainability Through Poverty

In my previous post on urban planning, I mentioned the increasingly popular idea of sustainability through povertyDon Boudreaux responds to the currently hip idea that somehow we need to revert to a more local economy with local food production.  This is absolutely absurd, for any number of reasons.  I'll just list three:

  • It doesn't work.  The total energy used for transport, say of food products, is a small percentage of the total energy used in the total production process.  The energy transportation budget is generally smaller than efficiency gains from scale or from optimizing location.  For example, a wheat farm in Arizona on 50 acres is going to use a lot more energy (and water, and fertilizer, and manpower) than a wheat farm on a thousand acres in North Dakota.
  • It leads to poverty.  Our modern society, our lifestyles, our lifespans all are a result of the fantastic increases in efficiency we have reaped from the division of labor.  A push to localize all production reverses the division of labor.  Many products, such as semiconductors, become outright impossible on a local scale.
  • It leads to starvation.  It is hard for us to imagine famine in the wealthy nations of the world.  Crop failures in one part of the world are replaced with crops from other parts of the world.  But as recently as the 19th century, France, then the wealthiest nation on earth but reliant on local agriculture, experienced frequent crop failures and outright starvation.

More on the food-miles stupidity here.  And an interesting study that shows that processed foods greatly reduces waste and trash to landfills was here.

Update: More on food miles here at Reason


  1. David B:

    I fundamentally agree with you, but Don Boudreaux's letter is a strawman argument: he's conflating causation with correlation, and that's not a good way to make the argument.

    The other links you posted are better.

    I think that the current progressive fallacy is the "all or nothing" approach: there's nothing wrong (and a lot of things right) with buying some goods from local producers, and some from non-locals. Price is a good differentiator between equivalents, but often things aren't strictly equal. An example is the butcher we use (Wasserman & Lemberger): they're located about 65 miles away, and they deliver once a week on dry ice. But boy, their meat is fantastic, and I've never run across a better kosher butcher.

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