Monday, August 30, 2010

New York Times flooded with localist letters

As I learned from a recent Cafe Hayek post, the New York Times had a bountiful harvest of letters in response to Stephen Budiansky's critical piece on a major environmental argument of localism, which I wrote about here and here.

In the normal order of things, most of the localists used the "yeah, but" tactic, where they were willing to admit that Budiansky's demolition of food miles was correct, but then claim that was never the "real argument" for local purchasing. It's exactly like chopping off the head of a hydra - two more grow in its place.

Localists advocate a ton of different arguments; economic, environmental, community, quality and safety are the most popular ones. Unfortunately, this gives them the ability to hop off any destroyed argument and cling to a new one.

I compare it to debating a creationist or conspiracy theoriest. Creationist debate Duane Gish is known for quickly switching topics and peppering the debate with unconnected assertions so fast that his opponent would need a few hours to respond to each of his arguments.

This same tactic can be observed in the 2008 "Buy Local" debate at the University of Vermont between economist Russ Roberts and localist author Bill McKibben. McKibben swamped the debate with a list of arguments that he demanded Roberts respond to individually - an impossible task in a debate with time limits. McKibben then proceeded to criticize Roberts for not responding to each of his points.

The correct response to such a demand is to ask for the very best argument, and prevent your opponent from changing the subject.

Not all of the letters the Times printed were critical of Budiansky. I especially liked the contrast the editors made by printing two different letters next to each other. First Eric Burnette of Louisville, Kentucky wrote:

That said, most Americans should not expect to have tomatoes in January. Eating seasonally is part of appreciating the diversity of local food.
Followed by the letter from Steven Grossman of Silver Spring, Maryland, which read:

Most of us older than about 45 can remember when fruit in winter meant canned pears dripping in oversweet juice. In the absence of other alternatives, it served a purpose, but it was expensive and not the best item nutritionally.

Nowadays you can go to a supermarket almost anywhere in America — in the coldest months of January and February — and get citrus fruits, fresh grapes, strawberries, tomatoes, melons and so on. Once seasonal delicacies, they are available year-round.

I guess it really comes down to if people want to live as slaves to Mother Nature. If "appreciating the diversity of local food" really meant going without things like coffee or chocolate, I would expect the locavore population to start drying up.

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