Sunday, September 11, 2011

When Great Ideas Go Astray

Sustainable farming is an interesting economic discussion topic. On the one hand, it ties in with the environmental movement, which is an externalities and large government movement. On the other hand, you have government intervening in a free market in the form of agricultural subsidies, which is interesting to small government, free-market economics supporters. The result is an issue that should be perfect for unifying the fiscally liberal and fiscally conservative to make a massive change. Yet it's not. In fact, it's not even talked about.

We can spend months arguing over whether or not to cut the ~$100 million we spend on the National Endowment for the Arts, but the ~$20 billion on agricultural subsidies, those aren't interesting to politicians. There are numerous reasons why; campaign contributions from corporate farms and the short term increase in food prices that would result being the biggest two; but at the end of the day those of us who consider ourselves to be in that movement need to take some responsibility for our failure as well. We parade out hippies, vegans and Al Gore as our ambassadors.

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms has the potential to be a better ambassador. Polyface Farms is firmly in the sustainable agriculture camp, but he's got that southwest rancher personality to him, so he also appeals to the crowd that liked Bush Jr. as well. Robb Wolf recently put up a series of videos from an interview with Joel for the blog that I definitely recommend checking out. However, one of them in particular, linked here, got me a little riled. In this particular video, Joel brags about his 10 values, which include that he will not service anywhere outside of a four hour radius of the farm, does not advertise his farm, and does not have sales targets.

On the surface, this may seem commendable to some. As a farm grows bigger and services a larger area, one loses "connectedness" to the source of his food, which Joel deems as a cause of unsustainable food practices. I refuse to concede this point, however. Sustainability has nothing to do with farm size. In fact, there will always be economies of scale as a farm gets larger, whether a farm chooses to produce its food sustainably or not. Taking advantage of these economies of scale has the potential to make the high quality, sustainably grown meat more cost competitive, increasing the amount of it that people will opt to consume over factory farmed meat, and thus decreasing the environmental footprint of meat production overall. That's the beauty of capitalism, when you align the economic incentives (growing your farm to increase profits) with the environmental incentives (getting people to choose grass fed meat over grain fed meat), everybody wins.

Let's take this thing to its logical conclusion for a second. Imagine that the world becomes aware of the health problems caused by eating grains, and as a result, there are protests and riots and class action law suits against the US government, the summation of which cause a removal of all agricultural subsidies. Along with this, we see a massive increase in demand for the foods that are actually healthy, and we have to start thinking about growing this stuff on a mass scale. If we are not equipped with the processes, the equipment, the experienced people who have scaled this type of business before, we will not be ready on the supply side.

Take it out even further; we've figured the logistics of growing this stuff sustainably, but now it's 100 years later, the average life expectancy is over 90, and there are 20-30 billion people in the world. We have a real overpopulation problem that needs to be addressed. But do we have the political theory there to deal with it? Have we invested enough money in space travel and biosphere research to start expanding to other planets? Or build self sustaining satellite planets? Or are we instead going to go to war, like we have throughout history? Because that's the result of running out of resources, empires and wars. We need to start having these debates, to start working on solving these problems.

Rather than take a leadership role in this battle by beginning to tackle some of these questions, Joel has instead chosen to put a cap on his business. To sacrifice his personal gain for the sake of the common good. The rub of course, is that he's not sacrificing his personal gain for the sake of spending time with his family, or choosing to stay out of the limelight. No, according to his statements in the video, he is making these choices because they are  In the paradigm of a morality of altruism, this is the virtuous choice. But this is why altruism is a false sense of virtue. Scaling his business up, Joel could not only begin to start solving these problems, but in the process he could help publicize the sustainability aspect, and to some extent even begin to publicize the ancestral health movement, contributing to the saving of millions of lives in the process. Instead, he chooses to be "good."

Joel Salatin is a good man, but he has an opportunity to step up and become a great man. A man who effects change on the world. Instead he chooses mediocrity. Good enough. The choice is his, and his alone, but there is a right reason and a wrong reason to make that choice, and his reason is not a respectable one. There will always be a premium on achievement in a capitalist society because of what achievement represents with regard to technological progress. It's time to acknowledge the source of this progress: productive men creating value and being rewarded in kind for this value creation.


  1. Stumbled by here after a mention in the comments of

    Great post! I do hope an innovative, sustainable rancher reads it and takes it to heart, if not Joel.

  2. There are certain disagreements that I can overlook, but a disagreement on something so fundamental is hard to let slide. The stakes are just too high. I would put someone like US Wellness Meats into the category of a company that is a little more pro-capitalist while maintaining similar values around sustainability.

    Thanks for commenting.