Sunday, May 18, 2008

Book Review: Priceless

Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing by Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling

Book description: As heartless as it sounds to express in dollars and cents the value of human lives, health, or the environment, cost-benefit analysis requires it. More disturbingly, this approach is being embraced by a growing number of politicians and conservative pundits as the most reasonable way to make a variety of policy decisions regarding public health and the environment. By systematically refuting the ill-advised economic algorithms and illogical assumptions that cost-benefit analysts flaunt as fact, Priceless tells a "gripping story about how solid science has been shoved to the backburner by bean counters with ideological blinders" (In These Times).

I have to thank Herman Daly for assigning this book for his class. I doubt I ever would have discovered it without him. In their book, Ackerman and Heinzerling critique the political and economic impetus to assign a price tag to everything -- even a human life (which is, incidentally, $6.1 million, according to the U.S. EPA).

The problem with our current system is the fact that "money talks." In order to play on the same field as the business interests, environmentalists and advocates have been forced to place economic value to things that should be without price. The wonderful institution in the Executive Branch, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) demands it, even. In order to leverage political change, a number must be given. And you can be sure that the people on the other side of the debate have their own numbers to wave about -- though it seems that lately, they have been relying on the ambiguous "it will hurt the economy" argument.

So this had led to a system in which things that have infinite value are given a price tag. The authors note this phenomenon with not only a human life, which extends to human health, but natural resources and safety. So if the price tag associated with an action is more than the price tag given to the benefits, then said action is not cost effective and OMB can say it should not be done.

Pretty handy way of arguing what not to do, ain't it? Who cares about health, safety, and the environment anyway, when it's not cost effective to do so?

Something else to ponder -- if a human life is worth 6.1 million dollars, then theoretically, a murderer could pay $6.1 million and get off scot free.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

Book description: Michael Pollan takes readers through the history of four different meals from farm to table: industrialized fast-food, industrialized organic, local, and one he obtained himself through hunting and gathering.

The more industrialized, urbanized, and commercialized a society is, the greater is the disconnect between the consumer and where exactly his food comes from. In the Western world, the majority of us get our food from a grocery store where the meat is handily dismembered and sealed in slick plastic, milk is delivered in cartons, and we can buy entire meals in a box. We never see the animals that provide us with the milk, eggs, and steak we consume and we never harvest our own fruits and vegetables. It really is no wonder that when I was a child I could not connect the chicken on the TV with the chicken nuggets I loved -- in fact, I still have trouble with that today.

Pollan's journey to discover the origins of what we eat was at times horrifying, at times inspirational, and completely fascinating. As a vegetarian I felt I already had a fairly decent understanding of what exactly enters our food supply chain. I knew about the cruelty of factory farms and the overabundance of corn in our processed foods. As an environmentalist I understand the reasons for wanting to eat lower down on the food chain and more locally. Pollan's book reaffirmed this, as well as adding previously unseen facets to my understanding.

The book lays out the facts and what he saw with, in my opinion, very little pushing toward any one conclusion. (That he saves for his next book, In Defense of Food.) But I came away with a much deeper respect for food in general and the realization that if I wanted to be socially and ecologically conscious with my diet, perhaps even Whole Foods wasn't the way to go because while organic, it is by no means local.

I will definitely be picking up In Defense of Food because I am very interested in Pollan's thoughts on this subject. In the meantime, my community is finally getting a farmers market so I can now buy local without even getting into a car!

(As an aside, I had the great fortune to hear Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, who featured heavily in the eating local section of The Omnivore's Dilemma, comment at a federal advisory committee. He was extremely passionate as well as a very nice man to speak to.)