Food and Energy Are Still Too Cheap   (June 12, 2009)

The tremendous waste of food and energy in the U.S. reveals that these essentials are still too cheap to be conserved/valued.

I know you hate it when I come up with some outrageously contrarian view (come on, you know you love it!) and so let's consider the notion that food and energy are still absurdly cheap in the U.S.

Why is this contrarian? Joining "green shoots/ recession is ending" as a popular rote-repeated cliche is "food is so expensive 'poor people' can only afford McDonalds and macaroni and cheese."

If food is so horribly expensive, why do I find huge quantities of perfectly good untouched/unopened food in trash bins? Yes, I am a dumpster diver, mostly because I hate to see perfectly good food/stuff dumped in the landfill.

Recently I pulled out: steaks (the costly kind sealed in plastic), high quality ground beef, unopened spaghetti packages, half-used spices, an unopened bag of frozen mahi-mahi and numerous cans of soup, etc.

OK, so somebody's roommate moved out and they promptly threw away all the guy/gal's food, including unopened steaks, ground beef, pasta, canned goods, etc. Note that they couldn't be bothered to give the stuff to a food bank--they just dumped it. I find this all the time; it is not a rarity.

Yes, the cans were past the absurd "best by" date--but canned goods will last for years past the due dates. The food industry doesn't even test this stuff for actual longevity in the sense of "past this date, if you eat this, you die"--they just set the dates such that the consumer will be encouraged to toss it and buy new stuff.

I propose a new metric for the cost of food: the squeamish/cost ratio. If the squeamishness caused by the fact that someone else bought and/or touched this unopened food (horrors!) is outweighed by the value of the food such that it is consumed, then food is in fact expensive.

The corollary is the canned-good expiration date/cost ratio. If the chances of dying a horrible, lingering death due to food poisoning (note to consumers: your body has a mechanism for rejecting spoiled food called "vomiting") are finally outweighed by a rational calculation that the odds of said horrible, lingering death due to mysterious toxicity of canned food are actually remote, leading to consumption of "expired" sealed food, then food can be said to be expensive.

Other corollaries suggest themselves: if a head of lettuce is tossed because the outer leaves are wilted, if a pound of perfectly good veggies are tossed because one harmless bug was found on said veggie, etc., then food is still far too cheap.

Let me tell you what will happen when food is really expensive. People won't be going through trash bins looking for brand-new shoes and aluminum cans; they'll be pulling out whatever edible food has been tossed. Squeamishness will decline to near-zero.

If food were actually costly, somebody elese would have snagged all those goodies before I even got to the trash bin. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., even homeless people have the "right" to be squeamish: anything past its expiration date by even a day is tossed lest an organization be accused of treating their patrons as less worthy than any other squeamish American. Homeless people have been known (first-hand report from a volunteer) to reject sandwiches which don't meet their refined standards.

Let's face it: food is treated as expendable trash in the U.S.

Three of us were recently making a 400-mile drive after an exhausting week and so we stopped at Burger King for lunch (one of two annual visits to a fast-food emporium). It cost $11.30 for three sandwiches: no drinks, fries or other goodies. Seeing as how I can buy an entire bag of real food for $10-$15 in an ethnic market, that didn't strike me a "cheap." Fast-food is not "cheap" by any metric except perhaps toxic calories.

As for energy: when galoots in oversized pickups and SUVs are drag-racing off the line when the traffic light turns green, energy is still far too cheap. When gasoline hit $4.50/gallon, I observed the first faint glimmerings of conservation. When gasoline hits $10/gallon (and it will, sooner than most expect) then conservation might actually take hold.

I know the idea that food and energy are expensive is dearly beloved; we prefer self-pity to the conclusions drawn from observable behaviors. Take a look around; do some dumpster-diving and watch how people are driving. Those behaviors indicate food and energy are still incredibly cheap in the U.S. When food actually becomes expensive, people won't be throwing away pasta because the bag was opened by another mortal who actually cooked some of the contents; they will be snatching the half-full bag up as a found treasure.

Hopefully your local library has a copy of Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front by Sharon Astyk.

A few classics in case you missed them:

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century James Howard Kunstler

The Future of Life E.O. Wilson

Globalization and Its Discontents Joseph Stiglitz

On Peak Oil:

Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak

The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies

The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World

Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy

On chemical/toxins overload:

Our Stolen Future: How We Are Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival

On the demographic time bomb about to explode:

Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future

The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know about America's Economic Future

On collapse of advanced civilization:

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Jared Diamond)

The Collapse of Complex Societies

A realistic appraisal of alternative energy:

Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air

Our previous lists of hot reading and viewing can be found at Books and Films.

Of Two Minds is now available via Kindle: Of Two Minds blog-Kindle Of Two Minds reader forum (hosted offsite, reader moderated)

"This guy is THE leading visionary on reality. He routinely discusses things which no one else has talked about, yet, turn out to be quite relevant months later."
--Walt Howard, commenting about CHS on another blog.

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