Environmentalism and the Division of Labor

Opposition to the world-wide division of labor, which creates so much wealth, is not new.  Ghandi, for example, was a strong proponent of maintaining home-based weaving and manufacturing in a wrong-headed defense of individual "self-sufficiency" against the rising tide of division of labor.  It was a philosophy that would keep Indians poor for another several generations, until they finally began entering the modern economy.  Anti-Globalization advocates, famous for trying to destroy downtown Seattle, have also tried to halt the global division of labor.

Most recently, reversing the global division of labor has become an environmental cause, with buy-local movements springing up all over.  Of course, the success of these efforts would be the express train to poverty -- there is a reason we don't manufacture clothing in every county in America, and it is demonstrated in part by this mess.

The argument these buy-local advocates use is that the global cross-transportation of goods is creating environmental problems, including more CO2.  They also argue that keeping production close to consumers would cause consumers to bear whatever environmental costs there are in manufacturing.  These arguments are absurd.  This might be true, if everything else were held constant, most particularly manufacturing efficiency (but probably not even then).  But of course these other elements would not be held constant.  The efficiency losses from loss of scale alone would dwarf savings in manufacturing costs.  And much of transportation costs are incurred moving extractive resources (eg coal, iron) and these transport costs would only go up if manufacturing destinations were more dispersed.  And all of this is without even discussing division of labor.

Today I saw a story about trash that really hammered home this point:

Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish produced. The average household in the United States generates one third
less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico,
partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste. Turning a live chicken into a meal creates food waste. When chickens are processed commercially, the waste goes into marketable products
(such as pet food), instead of into a landfill. Commercial processing of 1,000 chickens requires about 17 pounds of packaging, but it also recycles at least 2,000 pounds of by-products.

When you push animal-slaughter down to the household level, there is a huge loss in efficiency and increase in environmental impact.  Note how industrial farming, a huge bete noir of modern environmentalists, greatly improves recycling and reduces waste.  Yes, industrial farming seems to have a large environmental impact, but that is in many cases just because it is all in one place and visible.  Blowing these operations up does not reduce the damage, it just spreads it around and makes it less visible.  This kind of narrow-focus static analysis has become fairly typical of today's environmentalists.

  • http://www.atlasblogged.com Wulf

    When you push animal-slaughter down to the household level, there is a huge loss in efficiency and increase in environmental impact.

    Well we're all supposed to be vegetarians anyway, right? Then I'm sure your argument falls apart like an overripe tomato.

    /sarcasm

  • Rhonda Whitney

    What the environmentalist would say:

    Your industrial farming comparison assumes that there would be as many households consuming chicken at a household production level as there currently are with industrial farming.

    A better comparison of waste levels would be industrial farming at high quantities and household production at lower quantities; more waste per chicken but fewer chickens consumed. People would consume fewer chickens under household production because they would be more expensive (higher opportunity cost).

    Looked at this way it is unclear which system generates more waste. However, it is still clear that industrial farming generates more output for consumption.

    The question is: is the additional output of chickens worth the possible overall increase in waste?

    This is not an easy question to answer since the people receiving the benefits of more chickens are not always paying the total cost of the increase in waste. E.g. chicken waste run-off in rivers.

  • Rhonda Whitney

    What the environmentalist would say:

    Your industrial farming comparison assumes that there would be as many households consuming chicken at a household production level as there currently are with industrial farming.

    A better comparison of waste levels would be industrial farming at high quantities and household production at lower quantities; more waste per chicken but fewer chickens consumed. People would consume fewer chickens under household production because they would be more expensive (higher opportunity cost).

    Looked at this way it is unclear which system generates more waste. However, it is still clear that industrial farming generates more output for consumption.

    The question is: is the additional output of chickens worth the possible overall increase in waste?

    This is not an easy question to answer since the people receiving the benefits of more chickens are not always paying the total cost of the increase in waste. E.g. chicken waste run-off in rivers.