Sustainability as Penance

An article in City Lab on a vegetable shortage in the UK reminds me of an old idea that I never really seemed to be able to articulate, so I figured I’d finally give it a shot.

There’s a weird vibe about arguments on sustainability sometimes, where it feels like it’s more about impugning the morality of the behavior in question rather than about some technical definition of sustainability. This dubious definition of sustainability has a habit of popping up when people have a preconceived negative opinion of the user in question (LA is bad and unsustainable for importing Owens Valley & State Water Project water!) but not when they don’t (when was the last time you heard about the water shortage on the Delaware River?).

Food is perhaps the most frequent victim. In the article above, it is suggested that poor harvests in Spain due to bad weather are revealing an “unsustainable” food supply system in the UK. It is noted that 50 percent of the UK’s vegetables and 90 percent of its fruit are imported. Further, it is suggested that perhaps UK residents should just eat in-season locally available vegetables like winter roots and leeks, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale (three of which are cultivars of the same plant).

First, let us note that sustainability here has been arbitrarily defined: produce from Spain, not sustainable; produce from the UK, sustainable. Sustainability should be defined by some assessment of our ability to keep producing things without destroying the productive capacity of the system; instead it is defined by arbitrary borders. Why are Spain and the UK the units of analysis rather than something larger (the EU, for example) or something smaller (the constituent countries of the UK, parliament districts, etc)? Why not go full rugged individualist, and say that any produce you consume that you didn’t grow on your own land isn’t sustainable?

Second, there’s a tone of judgment – why do you silly people demand zucchinis and eggplants, instead of just being satisfied with cabbages? Well, aside from this having nothing to do with sustainability, why shouldn’t people in the UK get to enjoy a variety of vegetable and fruit? Most produce in the US is grown in California, because of places with very favorable climates like the Salinas Valley, Central Valley, and Imperial Valley, and available resources for irrigation. Why shouldn’t people in other states get to enjoy that productivity?

Third, it’s quite possible that moving to a system where people are only allowed to consume locally produced food would have a larger environmental impact. Transportation costs and carbon emissions are a small portion of the total costs and carbon emissions of making food. Increasing agriculture on marginally productive land just because it’s close to population centers might increase impacts because a larger amount of land would have to be put into production.

Finally, the unsound footings of this definition of sustainability are laid bare if we try to apply the concept to something other than food. For example, much of the world’s iron comes from mines in remote desert portions of Australia. It would be crazy to argue that all the steel in California should have to come from in-state iron mines, which would be more destructive. It would also be crazy to argue that iron miners in the Pilbara should only get to eat whatever food can be grown in the Australian desert.

Some places, like California and parts of Spain, are good at growing lots of food. Other places, like the UK, are good at other things. There’s nothing wrong with this; letting people do what they’re good at is a good thing. It doesn’t help people in the UK to deprive them of a greater variety of food, and it doesn’t help Murcia to deprive it of a place to sell the food it can grow. This is literally the entire point of trade.

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