Our Philosophy

Solvitur ambulando - It is solved by walking

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Local > Organic

It takes a while sometimes to become confident enough in our own capacity for broad systems thinking to feel comfortable making such generalizations, but the more time I spend thinking about these two increasingly popular labels the more confident I feel making them.  A simple food chain perspective can be an illuminating place to begin our thought experiment, and it has become an increasingly common mental pattern for me over the last five years.  

One of the more common tropes in sustainability thinking seems to have otherwise heavy energy users dissecting specific topics or products or activities for ways to make themselves feel better about their day-to-day energy use.  To use the current dichotomy under discussion as an example, the thinking often seems to be that "eating organic is good for the planet, period."  The fact that the organic asparagus in question came from Chile, out of season, seems to be a secondary matter.  Not so fast, I say.  In food chain terms, you've got a relatively high-energy market crop to begin with: cutting asparagus is something that generally has to be done by hand, or by very specialized machinery, and the resulting product has to be handled very carefully between field and market.  All of this would be fine if it were being done in a family garden in the back yard, served up fresh on a lunch salad, or grilled for dinner.  But then we wouldn't be eating asparagus in November, and it wouldn't have been shipped thousands of miles in the process.  Here, "organic" simply becomes a way to soothe our conscience about putting richy imperialist tidbits on American tables whenever and wherever we feel like it.  It doesn't require any sacrifice, no discipline, no behavioral innovation.  Even if the production process on the far end was organic, enriching the soil in which it was grown year after year, all that good work is undone in a long-range shipping and distribution system, with all the fossil fuel burned to make it viable.  We have to consider the NET impact of such a food chain, not just the cultural practices that originally produced the food.  Simply eating organic doesn't ameliorate the greater damages wrought by a high-energy long-range supply network.

Another looming example of systems thinking gone awry is the current "Obamacare" debate.  Health care in the United States has its share of problems, to be sure, but a lack of centralized management wasn't one of them.  In essence, we've taken a system already in need of a major overhaul, in need of major behavioral innovation, and added a new level of organization to the top of its food chain.  Any ecologist worth his salt, as well as plenty of non-ecologists, will know that adding another link to the top of a food chain drastically increases the energy contained in that food chain.  I would hesitate to say that it doubles it, but with the increasing metabolic losses that are inherent in all food chains as one moves up the ladder, coupled with a whole new predator at the top feasting on the former, slightly less metabolically-inefficient, top predator, it's significant.

To illustrate this idea, consider a simple oceanic food chain composed of an autotrophic phytoplankton forming the base of the pyramid, eaten by pelagic krill, krill that are in turn eaten by small schooling fish, and those small fish finally eaten by a tuna.  Totally inventing numbers to save time and simply demonstrate a well-known universal pattern, let's say that the phytoplankton are completely (100%) efficient, turning sunlight and dissolved gases, combined with free minerals in the ocean water, into carbohydrates and cellular structure.  No net metabolic losses there, but this is the only producer in the food chain.  Climb up one level to the krill that eat the phytoplankton and we begin to lose metabolic efficiency; let's say the krill convert phytoplankton to more krill at a 67% efficiency.  That is, for every three pounds of phytoplankton consumed, two pounds of krill are made and maintained.  Still pretty good, but then up one more level to the schooling fish dining on the krill, and let's say our conversion efficiency drops to 50%.  That is, for every two pounds of krill consumed we get one pound of the small fish.  Keep in mind that the krill already lost 33% of the original energy represented by the phytoplankton via their metabolic processes, and now the small fish have lost 50% of that already-reduced amount.  Now we come to the tuna.  They bust up the schooling fish violently, spending a fair amount of the energy they acquired from their last meal in the process, chasing down the little fish, and maintaining a warm body in the process.  Yes, tuna are practically warm-blooded, and that carries a considerable metabolic cost of its own.  Let's assume the tuna convert the schooling fish to more tuna at a 33% efficiency.  That is, in order to make and maintain a pound of tuna, three pounds of the small fish must be consumed.  Now remember that the small fish had already used up 50% of the energy represented in the krill they ate to make and maintain themselves, and that those krill had already used up 33% of the energy represented in the phytoplankton to make and maintain themselves.

This is getting fairly pricey in terms of system energy.  A little quick math shows that we're already down to only about 11% of the original energy represented in the phytoplankton remaining in the tuna stocks.  I.E. in just three consumer stages 89% of our original energy base has been lost to metabolic maintenance of the food chain, and it gets a lot worse every time we go up a level.  For the purposes of our healthcare discussion, let's assume that this is analogous to the U.S. healthcare food chain prior to the enactment of Obamacare: fraught with the inefficiencies inherent to and unavoidable in a multi-level food chain, but more or less sustainable within the current resource environment.  And now let's add another top predator to the food chain above the tuna.  Let's say the small school of tuna just got hammered by a pair of mammoth blue marlin, and that these marlin convert tuna to more marlin at a 25% efficiency.  That is, every pound of marlin requires 4 pounds of tuna to make and maintain it, which reduces our system output from 11% to less than 3% .  This is in essence what centralized management of our healthcare system introduces to its own food chain.  Increasing metabolic loss is inherent in all food chains as you move up the pyramid, and fewer and fewer individuals on any given level can be supported by the levels below. 

Which would all be fine if we were living in a system with an increasing energy base!  That, however, is not our reality.  And it requires a gargantuan suspension of disbelief to protest that fact.  For all practical purposes, we've been living on piles of free energy - provided by half a billion years of ancient sunlight and the incomprehensible power of geologic processes - to make and maintain the extremely long and energetic global food chains that bring us Chilean asparagus in November, and increase our population exponentially.  A finite planet with finite resources and a growing population simply doesn't lend itself to lengthening food chains that require significant increases in embodied energy to create and maintain.  Quite the opposite actually.  There's no need to dissect and analyze the minutiae of the Obamacare plan's ins and outs.  Like incorporating 22 federal agencies under the banner of the Department of Homeland Security in late 2002, Obamacare simply adds another even-higher-energy level of organization, complete with its increasing and unavoidable metabolic losses of operation, to an already overstretched healthcare food chain.  It can't happen; not that it shouldn't happen, it just can't.  From a systems perspective, the only way to make this work is to either shred a whole bunch of other federal agencies (or the federal government itself) in the process, or to magically strike it rich again in the energy lottery.  A quick and honest look at EROEIs across our potential energy resource spectrum is all it takes to send the latter packing.  The former is inevitable in time, but I doubt there are many people drawing a paycheck from the agencies in question who will be amenable to the idea.  Especially when all they're getting out of the deal is more expensive healthcare.  There simply isn't enough free energy in the system to support another trophic level riding atop the healthcare pyramid.

No, the landscape before us is a bit more terrainy than that.  A future largely organized around steadily decreasing access to energy, and increasing price volatility, will be one where resilience becomes more strongly emphasized than efficiency.  The perceived efficiencies of large centralized organization will slowly give way to local, dispersed resilience strategies with local management.  Like an airplane pilot who refuses to remove the redundant spark plugs from his plane's engine in order to reduce weight and save fuel, it just won't seem like a good idea anymore.  As John Michael Greer is quick point out, we over-build bridges for very good reasons.  Producing a growing share of our food in our own back yards, less commuting to work, more farmers markets and fewer supermarkets, more bicycles and fewer cars, more garage workshops, more garden medicine, more village breweries, these are the things that inevitably happen as food chains lose their energy support.  And they foster a resilience over efficiency paradigm.  Once "organic" became standardized it became exploitable within the current high-energy long-range food chain.  Organic sells, and it sells big these days, but where organic once meant buying veggies from your neighbor at the farm stand, it now means looking for the little green and white USDA Organic stamp.  An expensive stamp, a stamp which, more than anything else, means another trophic level piled up on top of the already teetering long-range food supply chain, with its inherent and unavoidabe metabolic losses.  Like DHS and Obamacare, that's not where we need to be looking for our answers.  It's part of an imperial system based on cheap abundant energy that becomes less a part of our reality by the day.

By contrast, when you buy local you are consciously choosing to cut out the middle man, maybe radically cutting out the middle man, shortening the food chain involved by choice, reducing or eliminating level after level of system metabolic loss and expense, which ultimately creates a healthier, less expensive, more resilient overall system.  We've seen how simply cutting the top level off the food chain can have a monumental impact on the whole system's embodied energy.  3% > 11% > 33.5% > 67% > 100%, as you cut each top trophic level off of our example food chain.  Properly considered, an "organic" but long-range supply chain can have a far more deleterious impact on system fitness than a short, not-quite-organic direct sale from the producer.  If we can get it local AND organic, that's a win-win for sure, but if faced with a local OR organic decision, don't be too quick to jump on the organic bandwagon...

In this light, "local" is actually more organic than "organic" that traveled a long way to involve itself in your decision making process.  Organic means "of, related to, or derived from living matter."  If the food chain in which you choose to participate is local, or is shorter than the next option, that means it uses less energy top to bottom, and it will have less impact on the whole living biosphere.  It therefore promotes living matter, promotes life.  And honestly, I don't think it gets any more organic than that.

Just my .02
Tripp out.


  1. Yeah, I'm past the false dichotomy of organic/local. It's a distraction from the real question of being intentional in all we can, and aiming at the highest sustainability in each choice we make. Granted, it gets complicated, but that's the point, we should think about it, not brainlessly following herd patterns. Thus the need to educate ourselves, in order to more fully understand all the ripple effects of our actions. "Organic" is just one metric in the overall evaluation of how sustainable something is.

    I'm with you on the food chain energy loss point, kind of like a first level cut at emergy analysis. I'm just not sure I follow the analogy into the arena of Government as a next level of predator. I think of it as more of a next level of complexity ( of which we are peaking also) Ideally, government regulation could be just that, functioning like a negative feedback loop, moderating energy use, or any other variable. Unfortunately, it has not proved to be very efficient at providing regulation, instead being a net loss to the system. ( and net gain to corruption).

    I was also hoping you might give a brief update on the move back to the woods, though I imagine you are scrambling with getting ready for winter. Too bad the larger project didn't work out.

    1. Mr. Carrow, thanks for the comment! Though I'm not sure I see where you draw your distinction. Another level of complexity seems pretty synonymous with another trophic level on a food pyramid to me. I think you're right: that government SHOULD function like a negative feedback loop, moderating energy use (or what have you, all generally analogues of energy anyway), but instead of this "weightless" regulatory phantasm that fits our ideal, any real government is made up of humans, complete with all their inevitable and unavoidable metabolic expenses - in this case, gas to commute, power bills, 401(k) monies and management, cushy federal retirement packages, lunches out, and so forth. Oh, and private charter flights to Bimini with one mistress or another...

      I'll catch the blog up with our latest mishap, and our happy return to the woods, very soon;)