Charles Pillsbury III

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Eat Local, Drive Global?

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Note: If you can’t tell by how long this is… I go into a bit of a long discussion of local and global thinking. If you’re just here for family updates you can skip this post, it’s just the usual Charles thoughts on the world. 

I do a fair bit of reading: blogs, novels, non-fiction, magazine articles, etc.  Occasionally two things will hit near the same time that have a strange sort of relationship.  Recently it was these two bits:

Car manufacturers and batteries.

Organic Food vs Local Food.

The gist of the first is that one of the reasons manufacturers are slow to move to battery powered and hybrid cars is that they have to make safe and durable cars able to handle vast varieties of weather conditions and driving scenarios.  Battery technology isn’t always the safest (remember all those exploding laptop batteries that were recalled?), and to make a car durable it is usually heavier and requires more power to move it.

The gist of the second article is a look at Organically grown produce vs Locally grown produce (though you can often get both).  Organic is good because it has been grown without pesticides and if it kills the bugs it may not be good for you. Local is good because it hasn’t been trucked or flown half-way around the world/country losing freshness, flavor, and nutrition while pumping pollutants into the environment due to the transportation.

What I took away from both is how we are largely a convenience society (not the biggest revelation in the world) and how that has an effect on the way we purchase/consume/live.  We’ve gotten used to being able to have “fresh” strawberries/tomatoes/corn year-round because when it’s out of season in the US we can always buy our produce from New Zealand or Peru.  Might we be better served re-training our eating habits to match closer what is locally in season. We’ll eat more fresh food (and real food instead of just pre-packaged foodstuffs), which in turn should help us live healthier lives, and also support our local economies (and when our local economies have money in them there’s a better shot at some of it coming back our way).  One of the ideas in the Time article was for CSA’s (community supported agriculture) where you buy a “share” in a farm’s output and then every week go pick up your produce.  You’re not donating money to the farm, you’re buying the fresh food without having to go out and pick and choose from the farmer’s market (or the grocery store).  My wife and I have discussed giving it a shot with one of the local CSA’s this summer.  For more information on where to find a CSA check out localharvest.org

Now, to the car scenario (which is what prompted me to write this in the first place).  If the logic holds that the above reasons are why car manufacturers aren’t moving to more electric/hybrid/better gas mileage cars is largely due to what the American consumer has grown accustomed to, then I have a proposal of sorts.  Make different cars.  My family mini-van is a practical vehicle for putting all the kids in for trips to the grocery store or church, it’s not the most practical for my daily commute to work.  In Bermuda and the Bahamas you’re more likely to see people on a Vespa than in an SUV. This is because the Vespa is a practical car for that environment. 

What I think the car manufacturers need to look at (or a new manufacturer should consider entering the market with) is more regionally appropriate cars designed for, and sold to, specific regions and functions.  This may mean a more generalist frame to configure cars various ways, or more entirely different designs on the books but made in smaller numbers each year.  While our current system addresses this to some degree with the sub-compact, compact, SUV, truck, minivan sort of breakdown I think there is room for improvement by taking into account the way people use their cars most.  The VW Bug was such a prolific car because it addressed the way many people used their cars (to get from point A to Point B as cheaply as possible). 

There are two ways to approach this, and I think both are valid:  regionally specific needs and use specific needs. 

Regional:
While cars in the northeast have need to be resistant to snow and ice in great quantities and over time, it’s a waste of weight (and gas mileage) for those same features to be on my car here in Atlanta, GA. Likewise the optimum design for a system to be used in Arizona (better A/C) will be different than that in Maine.

Use:
I don’t expect the automotive industry to be turned on its collective ear, there are many people who have need of a minivan as it’s designed today, or a truck, or an SUV even.  But, what there is room for is more specialized cars made simply and cheaply to serve very specific purposes.  Rather than making every truck on the market something people actually consider using to commute through interstate traffic, make a truck that’s cheaper and does one job very well.  Same goes for commuting vehicles.  If I’m commuting I want something that can be safe on the interstate but gets reasonably good gas mileage and transports 1-2 or 4-6 adult people comfortably(depending on carpool or not).  It doesn’t need extra features, just a little legroom for the passengers.  If I’m taking my family somewhere there doesn’t need to be as much leg room (little kids), but there does need to be storage, and probably more features like extra plugs for DVD players or extra AC controls, the sort of thing a “normal” minivan might have. 

I think it would behoove the automotive industry to set up base operations in a few of the major metropolitan areas of the US (and the world) as well as some of the more rural ones to determine how people need to use their car in various areas of the country/world and then look at designing to fill those functions (people in Atlanta need a car for a different style of traffic than those in Sarasota, FL).  Some of this will actuatlly tie to the hybrid or electric car movement and some of it may end up just designing more practical cars for the region.  I would hope that by designing something for the climate and environment where it is to be used would allow a more efficient and practical design (much like there’s no need for a roof in GA to be able to handle the same snow-load one in upstate New York or the same earthquake stability as one in California).

Summing Up (or trying to anyway):

Let me be clear that I’m not saying “local good, global bad”.  I’m saying that we need to be looking at how we actually live our lives and that the systems in place have grown over time into what they are (be they car or carrot), but that doesn’t mean they’re the best systems possible.  Just as the education system isn’t designed for the world we live in (but that’s a rant for another day), maybe we’ve overlooked possible approaches to the way we get our goods and services in other areas. It may be those approaches are improvements, and it may not, but there is room for some shake-up in our systems to possibly improve the way our world works. 

In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond talks about the benefits to the movement of grains and domesticated animals across the world in areas where they worked and where they didn’t.  When Europeans went into sub-Saharan Africa there was a need to look at things differently if they were to survive in those environments. Likewise the modern world, and its people, need to look at the global economy differently than we did 5,10, or 20 years ago.  That doesn’t mean we can ignore that people don’t live globally, they live on a local level and that’s where the decisions get made.

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March 20th, 2007 at 8:42 am

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