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Michael Pollan’s Sustainability Arguments Unsustainable In
Context Of Economics

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 20, 2007

Michael Pollan is the author of numerous books related to the food industry and sustainability issues. Most famously he authored, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which the publisher describes this way:

What should we have for dinner? The question has confronted us since man discovered fire, but according to Michael Pollan, the bestselling author of The Botany of Desire, how we answer it today, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, may well determine our very survival as a species. Should we eat a fast-food hamburger? Something organic? Or perhaps something we hunt, gather, or grow ourselves? The omnivore’s dilemma has returned with a vengeance, as the cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet confronts us with a bewildering and treacherous food landscape. What’s at stake in our eating choices is not only our own and our children’s health, but the health of the environment that sustains life on earth.

In this groundbreaking book, one of America’s most fascinating, original, and elegant writers turns his own omnivorous mind to the seemingly straightforward question of what we should have for dinner. To find out, Pollan follows each of the food chains that sustain us — industrial food, organic or alternative food, and food we forage ourselves — from the source to a final meal, and in the process develops a definitive account of the American way of eating. His absorbing narrative takes us from Iowa cornfields to food-science laboratories, from feedlots and fast-food restaurants to organic farms and hunting grounds, always emphasizing our dynamic coevolutionary relationship with the handful of plant and animal species we depend on. Each time Pollan sits down to a meal, he deploys his unique blend of personal and investigative journalism to trace the origins of everything consumed, revealing what we unwittingly ingest and explaining how our taste for particular foods and flavors reflects our evolutionary inheritance.

The surprising answers Pollan offers to the simple question posed by this book have profound political, economic, psychological, and even moral implications for all of us. Beautifully written and thrillingly argued, The Omnivore’s Dilemma promises to change the way we think about the politics and pleasure of eating. For anyone who reads it, dinner will never again look, or taste, quite the same.

You can read the introduction and first chapter of the book for free, right here.

Actually, although Pollan is a gifted writer, one thing he is not is surprising. Hint — he is in favor of doing things the sustainable way.

He has become something of the Poet Laureate of Sustainability for The New York Times, with pieces such as these:

November 4, 2007
Weed It and Reap
The New York Times

April 22, 2007
You Are What You Grow
The New York Times Magazine

January 28, 2007
Unhappy Meals
New York Times Magazine

October 15, 2006
The Vegetable-Industrial Complex
The New York Times Magazine

This past Sunday, he had a piece in The New York Times Magazine entitled, “Our Decrepit Food Factories,” which you can read in full right here.

His focus is on trying to salvage some meaning for the word sustainability:

The word “sustainability” has gotten such a workout lately that the whole concept is in danger of floating away on a sea of inoffensiveness. Everybody, it seems, is for it whatever “it” means. On a recent visit to a land-grant university’s spanking-new sustainability institute, I asked my host how many of the school’s faculty members were involved. She beamed: When letters went out asking who on campus was doing research that might fit under that rubric, virtually everyone replied in the affirmative. What a nice surprise, she suggested. But really, what soul working in agricultural science today (or for that matter in any other field of endeavor) would stand up and be counted as against sustainability? When pesticide makers and genetic engineers cloak themselves in the term, you have to wonder if we haven’t succeeded in defining sustainability down, to paraphrase the late Senator Moynihan, and if it will soon possess all the conceptual force of a word like “natural” or “green” or “nice.”

Confucius advised that if we hoped to repair what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of the names.” The corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their proper names, he maintained, and its renovation begins with the reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts. So what about this much-abused pair of names, sustainable and unsustainable?

To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.

The rest of the piece is quite interesting but mostly conjecture, trying to link “factory farms” to MSRA — anti-biotic resistant staph — infections and the collapse of bee colonies to the practice of bringing bees to California’s central valley to pollinate the almond crop. All very intriguing and certainly falling in that large category we call “interesting, if true.”

But with all the focus on sustainability, it strikes us that his efforts to define the word “unsustainable" is important and, also, that his definition is unsatisfactory:

What [unsustainable] means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends.

This definition denies the nature of economics in which the sustainability of a practice, as with the supply of an item, is directly related to the price.

So, if we are using, say, oil for energy and we are taking it out of the ground faster than new oil is being created, this would, according to Pollan, be unsustainable.

Yet, in reality, we will never run out of oil. Why? Simple: as we continue to use inexpensively available oil, the price will rise, and as the price rises, several things happen:

On the demand side:

1) Higher prices lead to conservation and thus lower demand than what would have existed if prices remained lower.

2) Higher prices lead to different choices being made — say how long a commute is acceptable or the energy efficiency of an appliance. This reduces demand further.

3) The return on investment in research to save energy is higher and thus attracts more investment, leading to more advances in reducing demand.

On the supply side:

1) Higher prices justify expensive exploration under progressively more difficult conditions, thus continually increasing the amount of recoverable oil available.

2) Higher prices justify the use of techniques to increase yield from existing oil fields, thus continually increasing yield.

3) Alternative energy sources immediately become competitive with some uses of oil and thus take over market share.

4) Higher prices justify the investment in research and development on alternative energy so these options become more competitive over time.

The net on all this is simply that the price-setting mechanism is such that supply and demand must always be in balance — so we will never run out of oil.

Sustainability has to always be viewed in this broader context. It makes perfect sense for a society to use up the “low hanging fruit” first and then move on to more expensive options.

In the article, Pollan says this:

For years now, critics have been speaking of modern industrial agriculture as “unsustainable” in precisely these terms, though what form the “breakdown” might take or when it might happen has never been certain. Would the aquifers run dry? The pesticides stop working? The soil lose its fertility? All these breakdowns have been predicted and they may yet come to pass. But if a system is unsustainable — if its workings offend the rules of nature — the cracks and signs of breakdown may show up in the most unexpected times and places.

From this, he goes off to explore MRSA and the bee colony collapse, but his point, that, for example, the use of a pesticide may not be sustainable because one day insects may acquire a resistance to that pesticide, is not really an argument at all.

After all, we could release lady bugs to kill insects and, as the survivor insects are those selected for the trait of being able to avoid lady bug detection, that method may one day no longer be effective.

By this criteria, nothing can be certain to be effective forever.

We are more inclined to turn to Stein’s Law first pronounced in the 1980s. Herbert Stein was an economist, author and Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. He developed Stein’s Law in response to the argument in relation to a balance of payments deficit that this condition “simply could not go on forever”:

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

Dr. Stein was a sharp cookie and his point was that merely because one believes something can’t go on forever, there is no reason to say we have to do something about it. What we mostly have to do is make sure that we stay out of the way of the pricing mechanism.

Want a shortage of energy? Just impose price controls. Want a shortage of food? Ban the practices that people have identified as unsustainable.

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