Every little bit counts

There is a growing push back on the idea of environment posturing. The idea that your efforts to make any change in the manner in which we recycle or tackle how we impact our environment is ultimately futile. The thinking is that in relation to larger negative contributors, your efforts are largely in vain. It has become fashionable to berate people for the apparent contradiction in how they choose to affect positive environmental change. The example often used, is that someone always has a friend that travels to the other side of town, in their VW diesel emitting double cab, to pick up their bespoke biodegradable packaged pouch of organic fruit. To muddy the waters further, it has also become fashionable to posture while uncomfortably sipping on a soggy straw.  All the while spitting out pieces of flaked paper that is hellbent on gaging you by the throat. As usual, it is one of those times where intention matters  Condemning it as a form of virtue signaling ironically becomes a form of selfsame virtue signaling. It’s an endless recursive loop. On the surface of this it seems paradoxical. But is it?

There are many examples of these types of arguments. In farming free range pigs, I often get accused of them being less efficient in terms of both feed conversion and financially. They apparently use land less efficiently too. Because of this they must be less efficient and more damaging to the environment. Well, not so quick. The external costs, which I will admit are incredibly difficult to calculate accurately in terms of money, differ considerably in each system. There has to be some cost that the animals itself is bearing by being confined. I would add to that the cost of boredom and the inability to do things that would come naturally to a pig, things like rooting or wallowing. At very least these should be seen as an opportunity cost. I am aware that not everyone will agree.

The fact that the indoor environment is artificial is not in itself a problem. Have a look at how they raise pigs at the Rodale Institute. In an exclusively indoor system however there is definitely a cost to keeping pigs healthy, the drug cost being the obvious, but in addition to that, the cleaning and environmental manipulation costs need to be pointed out. Keeping pigs warm on cold concrete is a cost. Keeping the same pigs cool in a hot shed, equally so. These are all seasonally and area specific.

There are other considerations too like removing pig waste. It would only be fair to take the land and water used for such disposal into account. The toxicity of this would be determined by its size and also its ability to biodegrade or bio-digest such waste. There is a benefit to using this waste as a form of crop food or energy source, but the ability to process it needs to be taken into account, this should include storage, transport and all equipment. When evaluating external costs, is it fair to attribute health related illness due to poor nutrition, to the manner in which we farm? It’s starting to become insurmountably complicated to weigh up the different options. That is if you are still keen to play that game.

One of the more interesting and contentious aspects to how these different approaches are evaluated, is what time period should be used? Do we look at the short term degradation of farmland as proof that it does not work or do we take into account the time it takes if that land were left barren to recover? How do we apportion the costs to the idle land recovery time?

 Another aspect of time, is also future technological advances. We are now fully down the path of complicated. It is here that I want to tie it back to your friend and his VW. My argument is that the inefficiency of going to the other side of town today, is more than compensated for in future. By supporting people who are willing to try and forge a solution to a problem they feel strongly about is your recognition of the problem. It is also an endorsement of their proposed solution. Market forces will always be used to tally up the score at the end of the day. That is how we progress. You see, in a year or two the guy on the other side of town is either larger and more efficient due to your support. Or he has gone bust. Market forces are an unforgiving and cruel mistress. They are also crucial to advancing that which we truly want. As apposed to that which we say we want.

I have yet to meet someone who would not prefer free range meat. I am also always surprised when I see it at a braai, mostly because it is so uncommon.