13 November 2009

Energy, it’s what’s for dinner!

Despite the progression through each unit, it always comes back to being an issue of food for me. Here’s why –

When thirsty, a glass of water and a can of coke, more often than not, represents the same thing to a consumer with the only palpable difference being felt in the wallet or at the waist. But let’s think about the origins of each thirst quencher and how exactly they got within reaching range of the person about to drink it.
The tap water, in a glass, was most likely pumped from the water treatment plant which draws from surface or ground water. It travels through copper, steel or plastic pipes put there by a company at the time of construction. Looking at the clear liquid in the glass, there is nothing you can’t see. No labels, no ingredients besides some natural harmless contaminants, its water—simple enough.

The story of a can of soda is different. Disregarding the negative factors associated with soda consumption such as health care issues and government subsidies on corn production, looking at it from a pure energy stand point – the production of soda is a huge waste. Soda is made using corn-syrup sweeteners and other ingredients that use tractors, synthetic fertilizer and processing factories. Every step of the way, the production of the beverage consumes fossil fuel and other energy. In other words, the United States uses up to ten calories of fossil-fuel for every calorie of processed food, such as soda, that it produces. This excludes the energy used for the transportation of the soda to the consumer or the making of the aluminum can in which it is held.1

Our constant depletion of natural resources for energy frequently comes hand in hand with human rights violations. Recently, visiting Pak Mun Dam, a hydropower project in Ubon Ratchathani province, Thailand, has made me re-think the term ‘clean’ energy. Before, dams seemed like a harmless and renewable source of electricity in comparison to ‘dirty’ energy such as oil. However, Pak Mun Dam has lead to the flooding of farmland and an alarming decrease in wildlife, which consequentially lead to a loss of livelihood and degradation of culture for local people. A development project which was meant for increasing the quality of life for Thai people and supplying enough energy to allow the country to catch up to its Western counterparts, has in fact done the opposite. ‘The dam is also one of the most studied, in part because it had all the features of a failed development policy: no participation of local people in the decision making process, a flawed Environmental Impact Assessment, government misinformation, construction carried out in the shadow of martial law, careless World Bank oversight, ill-conceived mitigation plans, and the destruction of an entire river ecosystem upon which river communities depended.’ 2 The issues associated with the dam have fueled one of the longest running protests in the world, with a current lifespan of 30 years. Upon reflection, ‘clean’ seems to be an inappropriate adjective for this hydropower generator.

Let’s face it— energy needs to come from somewhere. While greater minds than my own figure out the most effective and sustainable ways of increasing energy supply, we as consumers can do our part in lowering its demand. Instead of thinking about energy conservation on a surface level such as turning off one’s computer when leaving the room, we can also think about how we feed ourselves, not only in regards to whether we drink soda or not, but how we eat in general.

It takes no energy, besides the sun’s and your own, to grow food in a garden and bring it to the dinner table. Now consider the energy one consumes while purchasing food in a supermarket. Driving to the store to purchase a frozen processed meal, re-freezing it and later heating it up – it all requires energy! Beyond that the food is contained in plastic and/or cardboard that goes through its own cycle of production. Not too long ago people didn’t eat the way we do today and somehow they managed to survive and thrive.

Food is a fundamental human need. It binds us together. Our energy conservation can begin from changing the way we eat. I am learning to follow the bread crumbs and am realizing that my choice of eating habits is part of living a sustainable lifestyle. The question that always arises for me is – Why do I have to leave the world’s most consumerist nation to learn about my own consumerist fetish?

1. Jenkins, Katie, Lyndia McGauhey, and Wesley Mills. "Pak Mun Dam - ENGAGE Wiki." ENGAGE Wiki - ENGAGE Wiki. Web. 06 Nov. 2009. .
2. Manning, Richard. "The Oil We Eat." Harper's Magazine Feb. 2004: 37-45. Print.

Ana Kostioukova
Claremont McKenna College


Matt said...

Ana, I think you made a lot of good points in your blog. We often tend to get bogged down in thinking of what is the right form of energy to provide a country. Is a dam better than a coal or nuclear power plant? Can dams be built better without hurting locals? These are difficult questions that we do not have the authority to answer. Furthermore, even if we did, we would not be in the position to help. Instead, we should focus on what we can control, the demand side of energy. Energy is something we take completely for granted. In this ‘commodity fetish’ we just see the product not the labor and energy that was put into making it. Food is a perfect example, although not the only one. Even the simply more obvious ones help. Just unplugging your outlets and turning off your lights when you are not using them can make a difference. All these small things can add up, which lessen the demand side and make the supply side problem easier to handle.

Dalya said...

Ana, I really enjoyed this blog and I found myself in complete agreement with you. In our energy lecture Dave used the term ‘earth slaves’ and talked about the sense of power that arose from the creation of electricity. In a materialistic, consumer world one could argue that we are not actually obsessed with things but rather the energy and the amount of energy used to create those things. The more energy someone has, the more power they have, literally and figuratively. The developed world’s need to consume is therefore actually a subconscious response to energy productivity since we never think about the process of production, only the final product. The key is moderation, while there is no way to limit the amount of energy a certain household can consume and our lifestyle maintains that we are always using energy, it is about lessening our dependency by creating awareness. Food is a great place to start!

Sagar said...

Ana, I think that your blog has many good points. Talking about the interconnectedness of food and all the other units and issues that we've learned is a great connection to make. Personally I do the same thing with health. In Rasi Sali the issue of energy and food is very prevalent. The fact of the matter is that many times projects arise in the name of development, but in the end they just create a endless cycle that those that are effected by the projects can't get out of. In the case of Rasi Sali, the land in which many of the villagers were farming on in order to eat became flooded, forcing the villagers then to being buying food, tapping to the small amount of income they have in order to eat. If they can't eat, they get sick. If they get sick, they can't work. If they can't work, they can't make money. The circle then comes back, if they can't make money, they can't feed their family.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your idealism, but I have some problems with potential underlying assumptions that you did not bring to light.

Why should I have to stop drinking my coca cola? Sometimes I think the idea of just 'limiting' our consumption is a scapegoat for not actively organizing to challenge corporate interests that have a stranglehold over our government.

Reducing the demand is a passive approach to bringing about change. It also partially suggests that we as consumers are to blame for what has been created. What I mean to say is...Should I feel guilty and constrain my needs and desires while the corporations of the world charge forward? I think this caricature of consumers as passive, meek and compromising is something we should crush. Changing your consumer habits does not make you an activist, it makes you a different kind of consumer.

We should be organizing ourselves and holding corporations accountable...We should be changing legislation...and I think we should be drinking coca-cola while we do it!

Why do I have to feel guilty for a system I did not choose to be born into? Screw moderation. If you want to change the world you need to organize and hit hard.

Changing your consumer habits isn't going to "solve" anything. It might be more responsible and support local farming efforts, but it is not taking on the structure that allows the capitalist system to continue its perpetuation of systemic oppression.

I'm not saying capitalism is good or bad. I'm saying that moderation and selective eating habits is a privileged position to hold...and it reflects your own socio/economic background more than an effective strategy for change.

One thing that stands out to me in your blog is that there is corruption in this world, and there are powerful/rich interests that influence decisions that have concrete outcomes in the lives of people. What is an appropriate response to this?

What are all of you going to do once you get home? Shop at different stores? Was that all it was about?

Anyhow. I enjoy your blog and the thoughts you all are posting, but I wonder if you cannot be challenging each other more. I see a lot of assumptions and people being a bit too nice to one another.

And while you're thinking about that...I'm going to go drink a soda.

I await your response.

Anne said...

Ana, this was beautifully written and I like that you break down so clearly the process of accessing our food and water. Discussing energy use through food is highly relevant because for the average American, food is the largest contributor to individual carbon footprints.
I recently read an article about a social experiment related to food and energy. In Sweden, a group is labeling foods with the carbon dioxide emissions associated with their production. For instance, consumers at the super market can decide to buy a certain hamburger with 1.7 kilograms of CO2 emissions or a chicken sandwich with 0.7 kilograms of emissions. Over the next few months researchers will examine whether or not the additional information will affect consumer food choices. And what could it mean if such labels could go one step further and suggest what kind of social impact that excessive energy use implies?
On another note, ‘Anonymous’ brings up an important point in that just because we feel that we are beginning to understand our place within food systems, that doesn’t mean that we should resign ourselves to merely adjusting our personal consumer actions. I think that one of the most important things we are taking away from this program is that achieving social change requites mobilizing groups of people to counter-act the existing structures, and I have no doubt that the students in this group have the capacity and the drive to begin enacting that change. But I think that the comment dismisses the impact that individual actions can achieve, because more often than not, these actions are not limited to an individual. Psychological studies show that the best way to incite people to recycle is to make them feel like everyone else in their neighborhood is doing it. Choosing to vote with your dollars shouldn’t be a self-righteous crusade against people who enjoy a Big Mac, but it could be a means of suggesting alternatives or raising awareness about issues for your family or friends. Belittling these actions underestimates the degree to which human social, cognitive, and emotional factors affect our buying decisions.

Ana Kostioukova said...

Thanks so much for your post Anonymous! I think the best way to reinforce personal opinion is to question the foundation of such belief through regular challenge. I have read your response several times, and I apologize for the length but these are issues I am very interested in. Here is what I think –

The argument I made in my original blog was founded on an energy stand point, and I believe that all the responders, thereafter, read it as it was written. No argument was ever made in support or non-support of large corporations before your anonymous post. Therefore, you offer an opposition to an argument that was never made. Regardless, I glad that my blog has made this progression through its responses.

Big corporations are not inherently bad, nor are they solely responsible for the inefficient food system our country finds itself in today. However, the reasons it would be wise to choose conscientiously between the companies to support are too vast to be covered in a blog response to my own blog. If you want to discuss these issues further a great blog to refer to would be Kara Heuman’s from October it’s titled “Are agricultural subsidies the way to go?”

You mentioned in your post that “there is corruption in this world, and there are powerful/rich interests that influence decisions that have concrete outcomes in the lives of people.” I agree with that statement but one needs to be careful when making sweeping allegations. Companies want to make money, and often the allocation of money, power and resources are their only goals. However, I do not believe they go about intentionally causing harm. Actions have consequences. Therefore, the negative impacts are mostly things that ‘just sorta happen’. However, I am going to assume that you specifically mean— aware but negligent companies that practice limited corporate responsibility. I do not want to bite off more than I can chew, therefore, I would like to bring the focus back to practices in the food industry specifically. That being said –

The goal you established in your response is to challenge corporations, and bring about the decrease in the methods and production of products that cause a string of negative impacts most consumers are oblivious to. To influence a change in the market of these products there needs to be a shift, or non-price determination of change, of the supply or demand curve. (Products and their production methods would technically have to lie on different graphs. However, when discussing these issues in a loose economic context they do not need to be plotted separately.)

Consumer awareness would influence an inward demand shift of such products, causing a decrease in quantity and decrease in price. Your methods of decreasing such products in the market through the challenge of corporations and government legislation would be categorized as an inward supply curve shift. This method would decrease the quantity and increase the price of such products. The use of both of our approaches would lead to the most impact. A shift in the demand and supply curves would lead to a decrease in availability of such products unilaterally. Whether price on such products would increase or decrease would be determined by each curve’s size of shift. Either one of our approaches would work. Perhaps yours would be a more efficient solution because while decreasing the quantity of such products in the market, your approach would also be influencing the consumers away from purchasing them under rising prices. However, often methods look good on paper but are limited in scope when considering their practicality. (continued...)

Ana Kostioukova said...

You stated in your blog that we should be “organizing to challenge corporate interests that have a stranglehold over our government.” I would have to agree, however, how are you going to go about doing that? Organizing a march to the capitol building? The process of changing legislation and law in the United States through legislation is slow and painful to say the least. For example, the allocation of funds to Pakistan, a country whose stability is labeled as the highest priority in the security of our own country, took several grueling months of processing through House of Representatives and the Senate.

The issue of food corporations and their methods is far from being a number one security concern. I would venture to say that it is actually not on the radar of most people in the U.S. at all. Further big businesses, the lobbyists and our government representatives are close associates. There will have to be a lot of public pressure for us to have any chance at changing legislation. Although I agree with you that eventually our infrastructure needs to change, we must realize that this route maybe more difficult to organize for without taking the preliminary step of spreading awareness and changing consumer taste. The movement must first gain momentum.

If you want to influence a relatively quick change you must reduce the demand instead of the supply. Big companies are incredibly sensitive to consumer wants. How else would you explain all the new ‘organic’, ‘fair trade’ and ‘green’ versions of old products? Even if they don’t want to listen, they have to because their salary depends on it. This leads me to a point I severely disagree with you on. I think in no way should people who are rallying for the change in the food industry continue drinking soda. Why would businesses succumb to public pressure if their sales have not changed one bit? The people have spoken with the vote of their wallet. The companies are just giving people what they want and trying to meet the public demand of the good!

I cannot think of a better way to organize huge amounts of people, with the least amount of effort, towards achieving the most amount of change besides spreading awareness and changing public consumer taste, starting with your own. I believe that actions speak louder than words. If I preach one thing and act on another, I would fall into hypocrisy, a characteristic which is synonymous to “passive and meek”. Further, I think that being fatalistic to the approach that personal action would not bring about change is a scapegoat for laziness. Is reducing demand through personal choice “a passive approach to bringing about change”? Not at all, but rallying and talking about change while not doing a single thing about it on a personal level – is.

***Anne, I enjoyed reading your response! I am so glad you mentioned the Swedish study. It sounds a lot like the idea I mentioned earlier in the semester about nutrition facts and how that idea of being aware of what you are consuming could be expanded. People buy unhealthy food that has cholesterol, fat, sugar etc. and still choose to ingest these ingredients with full awareness. Others choose to buy these foods less frequently, and a few choose against consuming them at all. This social pattern can be expanded to other ‘unhealthy’ products that use poor environmental and/or social production methods. This kind of easily accessed information while shopping allows the consumer to make a conscious choice, rather than an unaware decision. I am glad somebody is making headway towards this concept. Also you are right on with the psychological/ social implications of living by example?

Anonymous said...

Hi Ana,
Thanks for your post. I think you made some good points, and I especially appreciated this comment in your response to Anonymous:

"If you want to influence a relatively quick change you must reduce the demand instead of the supply. Big companies are incredibly sensitive to consumer wants....Even if they don’t want to listen, they have to because their salary depends on it....Why would businesses succumb to public pressure if their sales have not changed one bit? The people have spoken with the vote of their wallet. The companies are just giving people what they want and trying to meet the public demand!"

I think that because of globalization and the rising power of transnational corporations--and the diminishing power of governments to control/regulate these corporations--our choices as consumers are becoming more and more important.

The current neoliberal economic globalization patterns have been consistently taking power away from democratic governments and handing it over to businesses; governments all over the world are being strongly encouraged to cut their social spending or any sort of social interference, including laws that would protect the environment or workers' rights.

And as humans' power to influence world-affecting decisions through the GOVERNMENT is shrinking, I think that more and more of our INFLUENCE in what happens in the world comes from how we spend our money. Right now, money and profits are what have the most influence in the world, I think.

Many of our speakers have made this explicit connection here in Mexico this term--that power to determine the fate of our world and the well-being of the world's people and workers is being taken away from the governmnets and given to CONSUMERS.

So more important than even pressuring the government on issues of workers' rights, etc, is NOT buying that can of soda--or insisting on only buying a fairly traded, organically produced can of soda. Because we are now increasingly voting with our pocketbooks.