Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Matt Ridley on the localist fallacy

"Buy local" activists promise rich, prosperous communities that get wealthier by isolating their residents from trade. This is very much at odds with Matt Ridley's TED talk about the palpable benefits of trade. I did not know that trade preceded agriculture until watching this interesting talk:

Ridley also recently wrote about the myth that an environmentally sustainable culture would rely on local production and not trade. He also takes a potshot at the idea that we need to lower our standard of living by eliminating consumer choices and luxuries while recounting the survival stories of North Korean defectors:

They lived free from the evils of consumerism, indeed in the late 1990s they were so free of consumerism that their children or parents starved to death before their eyes. They never faced the paralysing agony of choosing between bagel brands, indeed for a lot of the time they ate meals based on stewing grasses and the husks of corn cobs. They had few possessions at all, let alone SUVs. Their pets needed no grooming, because they had been eaten. And they lived as locavores off the land, in all its organic purity, recycling their waste so that the local farmland stank of ‘night soil’. All around Chongjin by the 1990s the wildlife had been trapped, the wild plants picked, the grasses cut for food and even the bark of trees stripped to make flour.
Perhaps that's not fair; after all, these forced-locavores did not have an infrastructure arranged to produce food and had to make due without tools or machinery. However, that's something the localists always gloss over - their ideas always assume a future technology will produce goods on a small scale as cheaply as at a large factory.

The angry responses to Ridley's post seem to be making the argument that the North Koreans are a poor example, as their "living off the land" strategy is using extremely inefficient means to gather food. But not so fast, localists. They routinely ignore the issue of efficiency and economics of scale. Their entire argument has been on the source of goods, so Ridley simply extended that logic to an extreme to show the fallacy.

For example, I recently needed six copies of a 40-page document. I could have made them all locally by printing them off my computer. Indeed, I had the machinery to do it. But I didn't; I printed one copy and used a photocopier to make the other five. This involved leaving the house and paying for the new copies. Why did I do this? Keep in mind the printer is like a small farm, and the photocopier is a distant corporate farm.

I knew it would be cheaper in the long run. My printer uses very expensive ink and large photocopiers are made to be cheap. The gas money I used didn't change anything.

To step outside this metaphor, I made the copies at a location near the supermarket, so the time and money driving there wasn't very big, otherwise there would have been a large opportunity cost from the time it took to get the copies. This doesn't compromise the metaphor, as buying a potato from Idaho doesn't require actually driving there to get it.

The localist movement speaks of utopias, but everywhere their solution is tried is a horror. Ridley continued in his post:

There is something terribly wrong with the standard litany we recite about the environment. It just is not true that extravagant western lifestyles come at the expense of nature. The more I see of the world, the more persuaded I am that human prosperity is actually good for wildlife, because it leads to investment in things that boost biodiversity. Things like productive farms and sewage treatment and well stocked stores and fossil fuels and lawn sprinklers and bird feeders and sport fishing lobbies and national parks. Things that make it unnecessary to use the local forest as a source of fuel, the local valley as a source of food and the local stream as a dump for waste. Things that value a moose as something other than a meal.

The oft repeated recommendation of the environmental movement that we live more locally, live off the land, live with fewer choices, fewer inputs, fewer resources and fewer possessions would in fact result in devastation not just for human life but for wildlife too. Going back to nature would be a disaster for nature.

I wish I had put it that eloquently.


  1. I'm actually taken aback by Ridley who seems to think he can just walk through a state/national park and think that nature is fine. He blatantly ignores the fact that environmental destruction goes hand in hand with industrialization - it's just conveniently put out of sight - or even camouflaged, like planting trees on a sidewalk.

    To say that our western lifestyles boost biodiversity completely ignores science as the number of living species has dramatically decreased in the last century. The correlation between rapid growth in human population/industrialization and extinction should be apparant as there is also ample anthropological evidence of species wiping out when humans are introduced to areas ( Hell - it even ignores our own sense of sight as when you look at an industrial farm it's just acres and acres of ONE type of plant, not a trove of different fruits, vegetables and animals.

    Aside from cultural and aesthetic value, a diverse biosystem provides numerous advantages while a reduction in biodiversity can have catastrophic affects for life in general. You cannot possibly suggest that flattening miles of rain forests in Brazil - home to countless forms of life - to create cattle farms actually boosts biodiversity. Is it better than everyone else running their own little farm in the cities - probably. But it's still not good and it is still a crisis that needs to be addressed.

    Let me clarify: I don't disagree with you when it comes to localist food production inefficiencies; industrial farming may indeed be better (or rather less harmful) than local farming, but because we've exhausted the only known alternative it doesn't give us the green light to be complacent - especially considering the exponential growth of human consumption. I think a lot of people who condone industrialized food production consistently ignore its faults - as does Ridley - while trying to quell localists. It's not enough to just denounce localism - as it is derived from the good intentions of others aimed at fixing a serious problem. Rather we should take the ideology behind localism and - with other innovations - apply them to industrial farming.

    (Then again - we're fans of specialization - so maybe you're just playing your part in that whole process :-P )

  2. Jeremy, I wouldn't say Ridley is ignoring the idea that industrial agriculture causes environmental damage - I'd say he's refuting it.

    You're right that relative efficiency is not a reason to get complacent. But I don't feel where are complacent. Industrial agriculture has an incentive to make environmental innovations, but that isn't really the focus here.