Fast food may be cheap off the shelf, and there is certainly no doubt it tastes great – that’s how it was designed to be. However excess is no good for anyone. Just because liposuction or a valve replacement becomes cheap and easy, this does not excuse gluttony when health risks could be avoided. Just because energy is cheap and easy doesn’t mean I need a flimsy and useless shelter that looks good but almost always needs climate control. Just because it can be made for next to nothing doesn’t mean I need a car as big as all out doors. You cannot justify over consumption alone on the relative availability of energy.
This seems to be the mentality of both our history with fossil fuels and seems equally prevalent within the circles of advocates of arguably the next phase of high grade reliable energy; nuclear. What is obvious with this attitude is the quick turnover of produce, the divide between the “have”s and “have not”s and definitely a failed promise to improve the lives of all of our species. As like with fast food, it seems that we’re engineered to want not only to keep up, but ultimately out do the Jones; where the brave work by Doctors without boarders and others are extreme cases of altruism.
Indeed, if all this abundant cheap energy really led to the improvement of the standards of living of our species, it would be hard to condone poorer people turning to highly processes fast food because it’s made cheap. Working close to a decade in retail, I saw first hand on a daily basis heavily overweight parents, their obese children and a mountain of junk food for the weekly consumption – all more or less coming to the same resulting price and without a doubt removing the preparation time in the kitchen. As discussed in the previous section, I had what turned into a pointless rant with some Hungry Nuclear Consumers (from here on HNCs), one of which argued that industry long ago cut the fat and was working more or less efficiently enough. I couldn’t disagree more.
Eating with the lights out – don’t cut yourself
About two months ago I wrote a piece titled, The distance in consumption, in which I explored our relationship with food. In short, we harvest two things; energy and material. Almost all the energy we ingest was originally collected from the sun via photosynthesis and a diet in legume and grains, with complimentary additions provide all the material ( and Smil, 2008). The higher the trophic level (food web) the species product is and the more the product has been modified from it’s natural state, the more inefficient the product is for it’s nutrient content (which in most cases is designed for it’s flavour and is compatibly lower in nutritional value than more natural produce ). We’ve all heard someone chuckle how in temperate regions, the price of tropical imports are compatible to produce that should be locally grown. If your weekly shop is entirely from a large supermarket chain, you would also be inclined to purchase more packaged good rather than fresh produce that are noticeably more expensive and definitely require more time in preparation.
Why buy a couple kilograms of potatoes (or, I’d argue, sweet potatoes) and bother with the peeling and cutting when frozen potato portions are cheaper and ready to be cooked?
How on earth is this even possible? The more you look into what you eat and where it comes from, the more you understand what some of the HNCs label as efficient – it solely rests on the back of cheap and abundant energy. This is to say, when travel, storage and processing are not an issue, a company is more cost effective when it finds an area where labour is cheap, taxes are low and environmental regulation is a low priority. Thus the company can reduce it’s expense on wages and taxes as well as reap the benefits of cheap material exploitation and poor waste management policies. By reducing these costs, while being supported by cheap and abundant energy, it becomes more cost effective to transport produce great distances and store them for indefinite time spans than to deliver fresh local produce. In fact, the chain from farm to supermarket is saturated with so many middle men that it is far from profitable for the farmer. When you venture to a place like the Central Markets in Adelaide and begin to learn a thing or two about the store owners, you find a different culture. Many of these stalls have a relationship with local farmers. The food is cheaper and much much fresher.
By comparison, the future as desired by certain HNCs is one of unimaginably cheap energy. So much so that labour could be ignored and the only question between producers and governments will be, “how much will you regulate my practices?” Regardless of the energy requirements, we could find ourselves replacing scores of ecological services, for little more than entertainment purposes. Why farm when we can synthesise food? The HNCs promoters of an abundant nuclear future may have their orders ready for the ever bigger SUV, but I cannot help but worry. Our track record with cheap energy is one of affluence beyond excess. It should not be a case of limiting the use of energy, but the ever invigorating question of how to use it better.