Sunday, July 8, 2012

"Is not" journalism and our excessive tolerance of silliness

On Marketplace yesterday, Pierre Desrochers, author of the Locavore's Dilemma, presented his case against locavores. It did not go well.

There are good arguments against the locavore movement, that it's a distraction, that it isn't scalable, that it's a solution only available to the well-off, that the superiority of local produce is largely due to suggestion, that there's no good business model to support it, that frozen vegetables are actually more nutritious. I don't necessarily agree with all of these, but they're serious arguments that an advocate of the locavore movement have to address.

Desrochers doesn't make any of these arguments, nor will you see him addressing issues like asymmetry of information or monocultures. Instead we get what we so often get from contrarians, shrill and unadulterated silliness. The bar for these "is not" pieces is so embarrassingly low as to barely exclude grunts and spit bubbles. In this case, Desrochers' "arguments"* depend on the following assumptions:

1. Almost everyone will become a locavore;

2. Rather than trying to eat more locally grown food, locavores will eat nothing but local;

3. Even in times of shortage and crop failure, there will be no imports;

4. and despite all of this locavores will continue eating the exact same food in the same seasons.

On top of this, Desrochers doesn't even seem to have kept up with the debate. Consider this:
It's better to grow tomatoes in the Florida sun than in a heated greenhouse in upstate New York because the energy required to transport them 1200 miles is only a fraction of that required to heat greenhouses for several weeks. 
Florida tomatoes are literally the worst possible crop  to use as an example here.
In addition to being tasteless, Estabrook also points out that compared to tomatoes from other sources or from a few decades ago, the modern Florida variety have fewer nutrients, more pesticides (particularly compared to those from California), and are picked with what has been described as 'slave labor' (and given the use of shackles this doesn't seem like much of an exaggeration). 

Estabrook's book got a tremendous amount of press and it's hard to imagine that anyone who encountered any of that coverage would use Florida tomatoes as an anti-locavore example.
By the same token it's hard to imagine that anyone who had been following the discussion of the trend toward fewer varieties of crops with more geographic concentration would use blights and pests to support the status quo as Desrochers does.

I don't want to spend too much time on the locavore debate (if that's what you're looking for, Felix Salmon's a good place to start ). What interests me here is the journalistic phenomena of is-not-ism, We start with a trendy, over-hyped movement. For bonus points, its promoters tend to be self-satisfied, upper class liberals, they kind who annoy even other liberals.

At this point, if you can get someone with reasonable credentials to write an "is not" book taking the opposite position, that's really all that's required. The actual content doesn't matter. Commentators of similar persuasion will promote the book (even those who are smart enough to see through it).. Mainstream media outlets will give the authors airtime in the name of openness and balance.

>But openness to new ideas is only a virtue if it's accompanied by some sort of critical facility. We need to start recognizing silliness again and, more to the point, we need to start demanding more.

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