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Environment, Energy, Economics

amanda.simone's picture

After bringing the complex debate over growing genetically modified potatoes to life, Ruth Ozeki’s novel All Over Creation closes with a technicality, albeit a crucial one. Will Quinn, an Idaho potato farmer weighing the benefits of growing genetically engineered NuLife potatoes over traditional spurs, considers leaving potatoes all together and shifting to organic hay. For most farmer’s like Will, it comes down to growing whatever will make a living. Regardless of the potential reduction in needed chemical inputs or the possible health and environment threats that are tied to the GMO debate in the story, Will has no choice but to follow the consumers’ demand to get by:

“Will was anticipating some problems selling off his NuLifes, Cass had told me. There were boycotts of genetically engineered products in Europe that were eroding the market, and prices were down. McCain, the largest Canadian potato processor, had decided to go GE free, and Frito-Lay had followed suit. Will was saying to Geek, ‘I’m not going to plant them if people don’t want to buy them… Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid potato but, but I ran the data, and I can’t see any appreciable gain in yields. I’m betting there won’t be much savings in inputs either… Heard there’s an organic dairy moving in over by Idaho Falls that might mean a new market for hay. Thought I might check it out...Philosophically speaking, I’ve got nothing against growing organic, you know. Problem is, you can’t eat philosophy’ (Ozeki 411).”

If Ozeki is indeed coming out against genetically modified crops through this novel, the ending of her book seems to suggest that free markets in the United States will reject what is unhealthy for the biodiversity of the planet and potentially our bodies as well. The decreased demand for GMO potatoes that Will Quinn describes forces him to meet the demand for organically grown crops, which have less of a detrimental effect on the environment. This would be considered a success of the market to rival Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s thesis on market failure; the market simultaneously addresses the needs of the people and the environment.

Oreskes and Conway, in their short science fiction novel The Collapse of Western Civilization, instead argue, through a vision from the future, that the cause of climate change was the inability of capitalist economies in the 20th and early 21st centuries to satisfy the people’s needs as well as the needs of the planet and environment. Free markets fail to take into account the environmental costs of industries and transactions, deemed external costs. The definition the authors provide is presented as an archaic term that is no longer relevant to the future society, for they have advanced beyond our naive, “magical,” “quasi-religious” economic philosophy (Oreskes 59):

“external costs In capitalist economic systems (see capitalism; invisible hand), prices for goods and services were based upon what the market ‘would bear’ (i.e., what consumers were willing and able to pay), without regard to social, biological, or physical costs associated with manufacture, transport, and marketing. These additional costs, not reflected in prices, were referred to as ‘external’ because they were seen as being external to markets and therefore external to the economic system in which those markets operated (see market failure). Economists of this era found it difficult to accept that one could not have an economy without the resources provided by this ‘external’ environment (Oreskes 56-57).”

Because we act as if the “magical” invisible hand, another term that is archaic in the year 2300, will naturally balance our otherwise unregulated markets, we ignore these external costs that burden “the social, the personal and the environmental,” according to the authors critique (Oreskes 59).

But in some instances it seems that the market is not failing to take these costs into account. In recent interviews I conducted for the culminating project, food distributors that service Bryn Mawr’s dining halls attested to the fact that sustainable procedures are also profitable. These include sourcing local produce to cut down on carbon footprint, using motion sensing lights in their warehouses to save electricity (lights turn off automatically when people leave), and rainwater recycling. Not only do these environmentally conscious initiatives garner satisfaction and loyalty from customers who desire the sustainable, green brand, they also save the company money on gas, electricity, and water. So then why isn't everything moving toward sustainability?

The difference is that energy consumption is advantageous to cut down on because energy is so expensive. But energy production is it the opposite for that very reason. So although it makes economic and environmental sense for Will to grow organic and for food distributors to source locally, it will never make sense for coal and oil industries to become sustainable. Until we address it, this will always be our biggest market failure. My take away from all of this is that if we can only do one thing realistically to slow the onset of climate change disaster, I contend that it be to shut down the non-renewable energy industries (and replace them with renewable sources). The end of the carbon-combustion complex, as Oreskes and Conway call it, would be a win for the planet and everyone on it. But you know who it would hurt the most on a day to day basis? People like Will Quinn who are just trying to make a living.

Works Cited

Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2014). The Collapse of Western Civilization: A view from the future. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ozeki, R. L. (2003). All over creation. New York: Penguin Books.



Anne Dalke's picture

you begin and end this draft of your essay with the lack of choices faced by farmers like Will Quinn, who are “just trying to make a living,” and so have “no choice but to follow the consumers’ demand to get by.” Inbetween, you trace Oreskes and Conway’s argument about the failure of the free market to simultaneously address the needs of people and the environment. And you counter their story with a report on some of the interviews you’ve done, in which food distributors are explaining some of the ways in which the market is taking environmental costs into account. This is all pretty complicated, and I’m a little puzzled by the order in which you take up these points (why not O/C, then your interviews, then Will?)

Anyway, you end with your own take-away: that we must address our biggest market failure, by shutting down the carbon combustion complex. What surprises me, though, is that you follow this strong claim with a return to the day-to-day hurt such a shift will cause farmers like Will. Not sure I understand why you make that last move. Jobs change. Ways of doing jobs change. Industrial farming can become another form of farming, just as energy needs can become reliant on renewable resources….We all, always, have choices. Why cling to old, no-longer (not ever?) workable ways? Why conclude by focusing on the pain of such necessary shifts?