"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


I dislike NIMBYism most of the time. I really hate the sort of localism that seems to believe that if everybody opposes undesireable local infrastructure everywhere then global problems will magically be solved.

Even organic agriculture is a flavor of this. The idea is that if every farmer goes organic there will be no more pesticide use seems to trump the fact that if every farmer goes organic most people will have no food.

Clearing out my paper inbox today (finally having a little slack) I came across a NIMBY flyer opposing a new landfill in East Austin. As a new East Austinite, I'm learning to get my back up about everything being sited here. Our local neighborhood association has a fight brewing about 110 assisted living units, the question being "why not on the west side"? (The answer being, duh, there's more property value to threaten there, and duh squared, don't half-crazed veterans want to live somewhere they can catch a bus or buy non-organic foods...?)

This flyer alleges that Travis County, (Austin area) accepts solid wastes from 33 neighboring counties, of which 22 have no landfill at all. Even Bexar county (San Antonio, a much larger city) has only two landfills and sends trash up this way. Or so they claim. Yet the organization ("Don't Dump Travis") offers no way to check their claims and doesn't even show up on Google.

I don't know as county boundaries or even national boundaries are the right way to think about this, but it seems very odd and inappropriate that a new landfill be targeted for the fastest growing and second-most-populous county in the region.

That it's on the east (poorer and flatter) side of town is no surprise.

Why Austin at all, though? I'd really like it to be possible to get more data from more or less authoritative sources. Perhaps the Bexar sites are larger than ours, for instance?

I can't get worked up about this without better information. In any case it's an example of the foolishness of acting locally to the exclusion of acting globally. (circular-filed)


Dano said...

Even organic agriculture is a flavor of this. The idea is that if every farmer goes organic there will be no more pesticide use seems to trump the fact that if every farmer goes organic most people will have no food.

Um, no. Even in the Dennis Avery-type arguments, organic is ~80% as productive. Some row crops maybe 70-75% Of course, the difference comes from fossil fuel-based inputs, including for pumping aquifers.



Michael Tobis said...

Nitrogen. Phosphorus.

If you want to be "kosher except for Chinese food", maybe, though I have some doubts. Mineral fertilizer is required to maintain the earth's current population as I understand it.

It was interesting to see "Farmer John" in The Real Dirt on Farmer John try to divert attention from the fact that his soil had been exhausted and he needed to (sustainably) buy the land across the highway just to keep going.

John Mashey said...

So, do they do NIMBY, or the even more powerful BANANA?
Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything

Anonymous said...

Afaik the rampant use of chemical fertilizers causes huge phosphorous and nitrogen runoff to rivers and eventually the sea. The Baltic is almost dead. There is a huge dead spot in the Gulf of Mexico.

So it's not just a local issue.

Of course, organic farming causes runoff too, especially since you need more area to grow the same crops, some have argued that it causes more in total.

And if you want to go back to no fertilizers, you need to grow clover intermittently to add nitrogen, perhaps every other year...

Anonymous said...

Michael, together with dano I'm also not that sure whether we would not have enough food if all farmers went organic. I just finished a post in my own blog (sadly in German) yesterday dealing with this issue. Back in 2000, George Monbiot published an article in the Guardian titled Organic Farming Will Feed the World (Here's a more convenient version with footnotes). He's quite convinced that the losses due to organic vs. conventional agriculture are more a myth than hard fact. I think to some extent it depends on how you define "organic". When it's the strict standards like those set by the European Union (which are not that strict, by the way), it might be true. When you refer to something labeled "sustainable agriculture", Jules Pretty showed us two years ago that you can even improve yields while reducing pesticide use and improve water efficiency. There are other studies showing that organic maize farming can be as productive as conventional farming. The FAO is a bit indecisive about this, apparently. Their bottom line seems to be that fertilizer is the bottleneck (as you suggested), while pesticde use could virtually be eliminated switching to sustainable or organic farming (note also that erosion would be reduced, while water efficiency is being increased, and also fertilizers leaking into near rivers or lakes is strongly reduced). However, Jean Ziegler states that at the moment, we could easily feed 12 billion people with the yields we have, hence even a 30% (or whatever) reduction due to organic agriculture wouldn't be a problem at all. What IS a problem is distribution of food, market failures, meat consumption, and our newly fancied biofuel thirst. That said, I'm still not sure what the exact yield ratio of conventional vs. organic agriculture would look like. But I would not be so pessimistic that it wouldn't work as you are.

Dano said...

Ich bin einer Nils Fanatiker (Ich habe viel Deutsch vergessen).

The long-ago refuted argument that organic causes runoff too is contained in my Avery-type argument. Anyway,

Some years ago, I had a GF whose job was to get farmers in the Central Valley to go organic. The farmers were so happy after they got their systems down that during the summer we didn't go to the store much, as her farmers would give her produce when she paid them a visit. I learned to can because of this.

We have been brainwashed that industrial ag will feed the world. This is bullsh*t. Organic is labor-intensive, and this is a problem in a capitalist economy.



Anonymous said...

I fully agree with you, dano. I find your argument (as well as Monbiot's) convincing that organic farming is just not as easy convertible into capitalist modes of accumulation and rationalisation, and hence downplayed. Cuba is a good example on how organic production (in this case, out of pure necessity) can guarantee enough food production, the only problem being the increased labour intensity (which is not that big a problem im Cuba).

C W Magee said...

The thing that really pisses me off is when NIMBYs shut down wind farms, as happened all over the greater Canberra region in the mid-2000's. Because, you know, people's show horses don't get the sleep that they need to jump properly with all those rotors whooshing around. So let's just keep being the most coal-dependent country on the planet...