Thursday, April 9, 2009

Y'know? Part 3 of a series on Energy

Supporting organic farming is great--or is it?

The core problem with organic farming is that its yields are lower. I've seen numbers run the gamut from a mere 20% to 50% and sometimes more, depending on where the study was done and which crop was assessed, but the fact remains that, in order to produce the same amount of food as conventional methods of farming, you have to plant more food. If you're growing non-GMO foods, you must also contend with the possibility of a crop that's significantly weakened by non-optimal growth conditions (drought, heat, cold).

Growing food takes energy--moving water, machinery, fertilizer, etc. Therefore, organic farming takes more energy, and therefore lies in direct conflict with our earlier premise of using less energy/water.

Aside: I support organic farming, but that's because most of our organic produce comes from a small-scale local farmer. On that scale, the benefits of not poisoning the environment outweigh (at least, I think so) the detriments of additional energy expenditure. But the point of that little rant about organic is not to say that it's bad, but rather to make people realize that it's not all good.

This micro-dilemma illustrates one of the problems with our environmental policy: we don't know what we want. Actually, for the most part, we don't know that we don't know what we want. And that's a problem, because it makes successful policies impossible to implement.

Do you want to save water? Then stop supporting farming in the deserts of California--even if they are organic. Do you want to cut back on the use of fossil fuels? Support a carbon tax, or sign up for more nuclear power stations (and in the meantime increase research funding for better breeder reactors).

You'll notice I don't mention anything like turning off the tap when you're not using it. They help, but not nearly on the scale that shutting down--or starting up--an entire industry would (beef comes to mind). And when it comes to conservation measures, scale matters. One paper cup of coffee doesn't strike anybody as the difference between life and death, but scale that up by a few million, and it's no wonder doomsday conservationists love to point out how we're drowning in our own sh*t.

"Industry" is the scale that the federal government operates on, and so to effectively change policy, that's the scale environmentalists are going to have to start thinking on, too. And there's the rub: on an industrial scale, most of the best environmental policies are the worst PR--heh, it's a good thing Greenpeace doesn't read this blog, advocating nuclear power as the most environmentally sound and all that jazz.

The other stickler is the knowing-that-we-don't-know bit that I discussed earlier. This will present the biggest issues to any serious attempt at changing federal policies for how we want to safeguard our resources. It's easy to say, "Energy independence," but hard to acknowledge that this may mean paving over deserts with solar collectors and actually using Yucca Mountain for the purpose for which the $13 billion project was intended. "Resource conservation" sounds good--until you realize that it means stopping the subsidies being sent to grow millions of dollars' worth of produce in the desert.

Right now we don't know what we want to achieve, so deciding whether any of these sacrifices are worth it is difficult at best, and political suicide at the most probable. Here's hoping that we'll figure that out, and soon.

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