Local ground and rhetorical ground

Benjamin Cohen writes on Grist this week (“What bean-counting ‘contrarians’ miss about the local-food movement”) about some issues I’ve been mulling over since getting involved in the “local food movement” a decade ago — namely, the terms of the debate. Cohen takes on writers who have reduced ethical consumption to a single metric — typically greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or energy efficiency — and who have then used that metric to deny the value of eating local. The problem with this approach, Cohen says, is that no single metric can assess the value of something as complex as a food system; as he puts it, “regionally configured food systems are about more than energy.”

So, for example, Stephen Budiansky argues that the damage done by the fossil fuels he consumes driving back and forth to the farmer’s market negates the good he does by buying food locally; Cohen responds that Budiansky takes fossil fuel use as a given — something most local food activists would like to change — and deliberately removes taste, freshness, and community from his rhetorical framework.

I’d go further in my critique, and it’s a critique that cuts both ways. The core problem with many of these “contrarian” arguments is precisely the rhetorical framework they choose, yes, but it’s a rhetorical framework that reflects a more pervasive mindset; it’s the attempt to reduce a complex human activity to quantitative data. It’s the apparent need to seem to justify everything with science — not scientific thought, but some sort of data or conclusion that seems to have the stamp of science. In far too many fields of inquiry and debate, the person who has data is assumed to have won the argument, any argument, over the person who does not — regardless of the quality of the data, regardless of its source, regardless of its pertinence to the issue at hand. The availability of data thus defines the rhetorical framework for the argument. Arguing with someone who demands that all propositions be supported by data is not fundamentally different from arguing with someone who demands that all belief be justified by holy scripture. Each may be as arbitrarily assembled, each assumes a limited epistemology, and each may be cited for a variety of purposes far beyond the intent of its original author.

Yes, global warming is something to worry about. We should strive to reduce our footprints, and we should be aware of false economies. But the danger of reducing food systems to GHG data or to energy consumption is that it leads us to try to live and eat by a standard of efficiency that is the very standard of industrial production that built our current food system, the one we’re trying to change. Many environmentalists, myself included, base their environmentalism on the belief that nature has intrinsic value beyond any value humans assign to it and can therefore quantify; its value cannot therefore be reduced to data. I also believe that human beings and their relationships have intrinsic worth, which means that community has value that can’t be measured in dollars or in tons of CO2.

An economist might respond that anything can be, and is, bought and sold, but that reveals more about the economist’s own values than about the subject at hand. To take a personal example, I have, for various reasons, rather less disposable income than I had a year ago. I therefore can’t spend as much money at the farmer’s market this season as I did last. My “willingness to pay,” as an economist would call it, is obviously diminished. But does that mean I value local food and community less than I did in 2010? To draw that conclusion merely reduces the definition of value to one that can easily be quantified; it redefines the terms of inquiry to make inquiry easier — or to make it possible to justify conclusions one has already reached. If it were merely lazy, it would be bad enough, but ideas have consequences. That insistence on expressing all value in monetary terms is precisely the mindset that is destroying communities, nature, human health — and therefore precisely the mindset that local food activists ought to oppose.

Unfortunately, locavores have invited responses like Budiansky’s by tallying up unfounded numbers of their own, like “food miles.” That term quantifies the distance an item of food has traveled from initial production to the end consumer. So, for example, asparagus from Chile in my local Whole Foods has something on the order of 5,000 food miles; the asparagus I bought this morning at the Durham Farmers Market has about twenty. That’s great propaganda, but what does it mean, exactly? Chile is down there, Creedmor (where the farm is located) is right up here: I knew that. But the numbers say nothing of the farms, their methods of agriculture, their inputs, the lives of the farmworkers, the taste of the asparagus, or the fact that I’ve been buying produce from this same farm since about 1995 and the woman who owns it knew my daughter when she was a baby. And how do you measure food miles for, say, a can of Campbell’s condensed soup? Do you add up the miles for each ingredient and multiply by that ingredient’s relative weight in the can? How do you quantify in food miles the absurdity of being served a bottle of apple juice, in Asheville, North Carolina, an almost literal stone’s throw from a dozen major apple orchards that sell cider by the side of the road, pressed and packaged by Mott’s from fruit originating in (the label told me) China, Brazil, Canada, and/or the U.S.? It gets silly, frankly, and it’s open to easy attacks by people who have better, more meaningful data — like lifecycle energy inputs, or, frankly, simple dollars and cents — that can be twisted to their purposes, and against which we have no defense, because we’ve ceded the rhetorical ground.

Sun Tzu spent whole chapters of The Art of War discussing the importance of knowing and choosing the ground for a battle. “The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy,” he wrote, “but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.” It’s good advice even if your battle is purely rhetorical. If we’re going to argue for communities, for place, for nature, for human beings, then it is imperative that we not cede the terms of the debate to those who would destroy them.