On April 10th & 11th, Western Washington University hosted a Food Justice Conference. I sat on a panel Saturday morning on local food availability. Afterwards, Toni and I sat in the audience for another panel discussion about the economics of local food. The first panel discussion raised some issues of availability and the need for active consumers, but the lack of engagement to the current economic crisis and the ongoing food distribution crisis was simply alarming. The second discussion was a little more animated, but had the qualities of a classroom discussion, rather than a call to action. The two panel presenters were an "environmental" economist and a book author. Since the economist is a well-known prof at Western and on several task forces dealing with future issues in Whatcom County, I expected a little more hard analysis. Yet, his approach is still based on hemming and hawwing (and I don't mean the actor in the crappy Antonioni film). To my question on applying the calorie measure to energy usage to give a real measure that crosses all platforms, he simply stated that it depends on what you want to measure. Here is my thinking on the use of calories.
We measure energy by the ability to do work. For example, a horsepower is the equivalent of the work done by a draft horse pulling something. [Now before I get any more snotty comments from nerdboys trying to score cheap points - yes I know that one horsepower = 33,000 foot pounds per minute. I am using an example that is readily available to anyone to make a point.] If your car has 400 horsepower, it is the equivalent of having 400 horses under the hood pulling you, and the ton of metal in which you are sitting, down the road. Quite a waste, isnt't it? It is even more appalling if you are just going half a mile down the street to get a pack of cigarettes at the convenience store. But how would you compare the energy usage if you just walked to the store and back? This is where we need a metric that crosses all platforms. ["Crossing all platforms" is a particularly rich rhetorical sound bite I am fond of using lately, since we all know how the Internet is available on Macs, PCs, or Linux-based hardware - i.e. it crosses all platforms.] Calories are a measure of heat and caloric values are available everywhere, even on the packaging of the food you buy. Although this use of calories is a misnomer because they are actually kilocalories (the amount of heat needed to raise 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius, rather than 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius), it is similar to the use of dialects and creoles in language. In other words, consistent current usage argues for just using it instead of arguing over precision. This so-called "large" calorie is the same across all cans of peas or bags of flour, so why not use it, even though the nerdboys will quibble?
A more precise measure of energy usage is the joule, first developed by James Joule in the 19th century as an exact mechanical equivalence of heat (he must have been a nerdboy). It can also be used to measure electricity. A joule is the energy expended by a force of one newton moving an object for a distance of one meter. A newton is named after Isaac Newton and is the force needed to accelerate one kilogram one meter per second. It should not be surprising that the use of acceleration comes from the co-inventor of the calculus, or that it obviates the problem of breaking the inertia of a body at rest. In electrical terms, a joule is the energy needed to pass a current of one amp through a resistance of one ohm for one second. A joule is a more precise measurement than a calorie, simply because the heat needed to raise a kilogram of water one degree Celsius actually increases slightly as the temperature increases. So, the amount of heat needed to raise the water from 14 to 15 degrees is slightly larger than the amount needed to raise the water from 10 to 11 degrees. It should be obvious why Joule developed a measure that used acceleration on a curve rather than a simple linear rise. However, is a large-scale adoption of a trickier method of measuring energy really necessary? Doesn't the calorie measurement work well enough? I think it does. It has not become necessary for the whole world to adopt the metric system, for example. The English and the metric systems have rough equivalents and international commerce moves right along with only minor glitches. So it is with using calories to measure energy. By using calories, we get a better measure than carbon footprints. For example, if I am not burning a fossil fuel to plant potatoes, how do I measure my human labor? The answer is calories. So I have settled on calories as a measure that crosses all platforms. I can get a rough equivalence for human labor, gasoline consumption, horses pulling a plow, pumping water out of the ground, embedded calories in a piece of steel that forms the fender of a tractor, etc., etc., etc.
The problem with economists is that they are very selective in what they measure. Thus, you could have the supposed "environmental" economist on yesterday's panel uttering such nonsense as it is more efficient to grow cucumbers in California on large farms and ship them across the country because the economies of scale lower the cost of producing and transporting the cucumber. The economist and the author both chimed in on the concept of local food being "dangerous" and should not be accepted as a valid environmental benefit without extensive studies. When pressed for a simple measure, such as calories, they both hemmed and hawed.
Here's the bottom line. Everyone who can read has been well aware of the environmental degradation that results from the profligate American lifestyle. Yet there is a simple measurement of energy that crosses all platforms and will actually tell you how efficient human labor is, compared to using fossil fuels to grow monoculture crops. This simple measure cannot even be accepted by an "environmental" economist, nor by an author who writes books on the problems. Yet the economist and the author get their salary check and royalty check at the end of the month. Meanwhile, I grow food and I cannot make a fair wage selling that food.