On the benefits of the Division of Labor:
Think Globally, Act Locally, Live Poorly
By Vedran Vuk
“Think Globally, Act Locally” has been a slogan with many different incarnations in the environmental movement. The most recent one urges consumers to buy locally grown food in order to reduce emissions from long-distance transportation. Further, by supporting local farmers, the economy is boosted as well as the environment.
Personally, I’ve never understood why this theory doesn’t apply to every item. For example, why not buy locally made furniture? After all, furniture is transported by trucks too.
Beyond choosing to buy other locally produced items, this campaign prefers buying local food over many other choices. For example, wouldn’t taking the bus have a bigger environmental impact than eating locally and driving to the farmer’s market?
Sadly, logical consistency has always been the environmental movement’s Achilles heel. Global warming is blamed for both hot and cold temperatures. When it’s a tomato, buy local, but when it’s an armoire, don’t worry about it. It’s all very confusing to me.
However, these are minor problems. The movement’s biggest pitfall is the possibility of widespread success. Suppose that everyone starts buying only local food. The economy would take a huge hit.
With most spices gone, many restaurants would close immediately. Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese restaurants dependent on foreign spices would tank over night. Service industry unemployment would explode. At best, many former cooks could exchange their positions for back-breaking low-pay farm work. Then there are the distribution channels – think of how many jobs would be lost there.
Next, expect food prices to climb, followed by real estate. Food is transported over distances due to the cost and production advantages of certain farmland. Many locations simply don’t have the land or climate necessary to support farming on a grand scale. Imagine the land needed to feed New York City. And with thousands of acres converted to farmland near urban centers, the reduced supply of land would skyrocket rent and real estate prices.
If applied on a large scale, “Think Globally, Act Locally” would result in limited choices, increased unemployment, elevated food prices, and exorbitant real estate.
Another problem for the theory’s coherence is the built-in localism, isolationism, and nationalism. Having lived in seven states and two countries, I’ve realized that hardworking people everywhere deserve jobs. If one only considers the local economy, then how does that fit with thinking globally?
There are plenty of people who hate to see jobs going overseas. Perhaps that’s understandable. But this idea takes it a step further. One would have to hate seeing jobs go to Iowa! Speaking of Iowa, this slogan only considers economies not dependent on agriculture. This philosophy practiced nationwide would transform agricultural hubs currently producing much of the nation’s food into dust bowls.
If I don’t care whether someone else has a job, why would I care about their environment? How can someone want others to have a clean environment but no job? That doesn’t seem very thoughtful or compassionate at all. It seems a lot closer to radical environmentalism than the soft impression one gets from the motto at first.
But, to be fair, at least the phrase involves voluntary action. I would fear “act locally, force globally” much more, for example. These people are free to fractionally help the environment on their own time. But in the big picture, it’s an untenable philosophy for everyone.
Locally grown food much of time is fresher and tastes better, I agree. But we have to remember that this food is a luxury – not a lifestyle to be followed by the entire population. This phrase needs a little less acting and a lot more thinking. Applied on a grand scale, it would be an economic catastrophe.