11.30.2010

Urban ecology doesn't care about your locavore agenda


I'm not sure how well this comes through on the blog, but Sol and I (and, I think it's safe to say, many if not most of the people in our program) have fairly nuanced views on the subjects that people normally associate with "sustainability." Green architecture, recycling, organic foods, hybrid cars, and a host of other topics that spring to mind when someone mentions sustainability tend to be partial solutions to complex problems, and the ways in which they interrelate and sometimes even interfere with each other can be very difficult to disentangle. A really lovely example of this comes from today's NY Times article about urban beekeepers' honey turning red:
Where there should have been a touch of gentle amber showing through the membrane of their honey stomachs was instead a garish bright red. The honeycombs, too, were an alarming shade of Robitussin.

“I thought maybe it was coming from some kind of weird tree, maybe a sumac,” said Ms. Mayo, who tends seven hives for Added Value, an education nonprofit in Red Hook. “We were at a loss.”

An acquaintance, only joking, suggested the unthinkable: Maybe the bees were hitting the juice — maraschino cherry juice, that sweet, sticky stuff sloshing around vats at Dell’s Maraschino Cherries Company over on Dikeman Street in Red Hook.**
I think this a really lovely illustration of how the ways in which we like to conceptualize "doing the right thing" and "acting sustainably" are often based on very tenuous understandings of how science and complex systems actually work. Proponents of eating locally make many claims about its benefits that are often unproven, or difficult to test, or sometimes even known ex-ante to be false. That's not to say that eating locally is not a good thing; it's to say that the answer to that question is complicated and depends on factors that vary with geography, the food in question, what you consider to be 'local,' etc.

Which is why this is such an interesting little article. Urban apiculture has become very popular of late and, I'd say, is probably on bar a pretty good thing; the value from having more pollinators around alone is probably fairly high, and if people are getting good honey out of it all the better. But pursuing local food as a sort of monolithic good is bound to fail, sometimes in predictable ways like the disconnect between local net primary productive potential and local demand, and sometimes in unpredictable ways such as having your honey turn up shades of Red Dye No. 40. Food production is inextricably and definably a part of the local ecology, and when your local ecology is urban that means you're going to end up with different outcomes than out in farmland.

So, if this post were to have a moral (and not to pick on these beekeepers because, like I said, I think urban apiaries are pretty net beneficial), it's this: don't take as received wisdom what those around you claim is "sustainable"; don't claim that the solution to a sustainability problem you've currently settled on is fool-proof or even the right one; and internalize the fact that the world is a complex place and thus anyone who claims they've figured out an answer to a major problem and are "trying to do their part" to advance sustainability should be able to robustly prove that that's true or else humbly say that they don't know.

* Note: Photo copyright New York Times 2010.
** I'd just like to say that, as a native New Yorker, I'm not very surprised that Red Hook was causing trouble.

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