“An Environmentalist on the Lie of Locavorism” crossed my desk the other day. It’s a pretty eye-catching title, pitting “An Environmentalist” against local eating and urban farming, darlings of greens and urban planners everywhere – and calling them liars, to boot. That is a pretty big brag.
But it didn’t take much reading to see Will Boisvert’s environmental vision needs a very strong pair of glasses. His myopia is in the difference between Green and Sustainable – two words that could use a little definition. (I am not picking on Boisvert for any particular reason, this sort of mistake is rampant in “environmental” writing.1 His article just happened to tick me off at a time I felt like writing about it.)
Sustainable, on the other hand, gets beaten around the ring – mostly by people who throw their hands in the air and say, “Sustainable. What does that even mean?” Its meaning is quite simple, really.
It means able-to-be-sustained.
It means, for all intents and purposes, that whatever you are talking about can keep on doing what it is doing, and can do so essentially forever. The sun is a sustainable energy source, because it will keep rising in the east, essentially forever. A sustainable fishery is one that would give us surplus fish every year, essentially forever. A sustainable economy would keep providing for the needs of participants, essentially forever.
So, when someone throws their hands in the air, it is probably because they just don’t like the answer – the meaning is really quite easy to understand.
Now, the problem is that many green solutions sound great, but aren’t sustainable: nuclear energy, electric cars, the hydrogen highway, substituting renewables for coal-fired power,4 vertical farming, urban density, public transit – these are green(er), but not sustainable. Green seldom means good for the planet, or good for the environment, it means less bad.
So green can be a continuum. Burning two gallons of gas is better than burning three gallons. Burning one gallon is better than burning two gallons. But something is able-to-be-sustained – or not.5 Bill Rees, of EcoFootprint fame, says that sustainability is like pregnancy – you either are or you aren’t. There is no grey area.
NASA is always taking new pictures, but what never changes is the starkness of that little blue droplet surrounded by deep space. What never changes is the inarguable obviousness of the edges of our planet. We live on a finite world.
Because we live on a finite planet everything that makes up our planet is also finite.
So, I googled Will Boisvert, trying to see if he understands limits. I found someone who has argued passionately in favour of the nuclear industry. Boisvert often bases his support of nuclear on decarbonization, so it seems likely he believes in Climate Chaos and wishes we could prevent that. Good for him. I can speculate he is writing his columns from the communications office of a uranium mining company, but that is only speculation.7 He says he supports nuclear, because it can decarbonize our power supply.
But, while he talks about carbon, which mostly comes from fossil fuels, he never talks about peak oil. Nor, in all his writing about how nuclear is the only real option, does he address the limits to the supply of radioactive materials.8
So it seems like Boisvert does not get that we live on a finite planet, and that is why he totally misses the point of local eating.
Boisvert’s argument against locavorism is entirely one of how many gallons of diesel it takes to move a tonne of produce to market. This is the logic that says it is better to eat New Zealand lamb or Mexican tomatoes. Add in the coal9 or natural gas burnt in greenhouses to grow your tomatoes-on-the-vine in January, and the trucked-in Mexican tomato looks even – ahem – greener.
And if only we had an infinite supply of diesel, these arguments may be right – but we don’t, so they aren’t. They are all wrong. A Mexican tomato is less bad than a coal-fired greenhouse tomato, but it is still bad. Bad. Boisvert et al. have seemingly willfully misunderstood the argument, because locavorism was never about your January tomato.
Locavorism is about living within the edges of that little blue droplet. If you want a tomato in January, in August you should cut a nice, ripe tomato into thin slices, sprinkle on a little salt, and dry it in a warm but shady place. Locavorism is about the rhythms of the seasons in the place where you live. It is not about having a tomato whenever the hell you feel like, nor about eating lamb when it is not lambing season.
So yes, it may be less bad – greener – to eat a tomato from Mexico rather than a hothouse tomato grown up the street in Edmonton. But neither of these two options is able-to-be-sustained. Both of these options fail as the supply of fossil fuels fails. What does not fail is eating from your bioregion. Gorge yourself on tomatoes in harvest season or enjoy jars from your pantry, but fresh tomato year-round is not sustainable.
You can see the meaning of the word is quite easy to understand, it is just the answer we don’t like – you can’t always get what you want. The concept of sustainability is very clear, even if is hard to weed out the greens. If you want to separate the two, just try to unpack it as far out as you can. Play elaborate what-if games, imagine scenarios. Plan for the seventh generation.
And stop calling New Zealand lamb sustainable.