Sunday, March 09, 2008

Diet globalization and its discontents

The Sunday NY Times published a longish article on the effects of diet globalization, specifically how global growth and biofuel production is driving a demand for wheat and other grains that is difficult to slake. Midwestern farmers are doing well, but the price of bread has risen everywhere, with a big impact on places like Nigeria, where bread is relatively new.

What's difficult to unpack here is how the notional impact of globalization (people coming to believe they should be able to live in a certain way) intersects with the economic realities of scarce resources. Despite (or perhaps because) bread is a relatively new arrival in Nigeria, a Lagos merchant says "I must eat bread and tea in the morning. Otherwise I can't be happy." At a time when first-world consumers are obsessing about the carbon footprint of their food purchases, the emerging world bourgeoisie predicates its sense of self on the presence of commodities from across the world, the environmental externalities of which are quite suspect.

It's just the same as the Chinese and Indian merchant classes wanting cars, needing to replicate the standards of living of the West, but with food.

And it's not like we in the West have given up much either, though the raw economics of the upcoming downturn may help us along.

All in all, it returns me to my longstanding point about Green Baywatch cultural diplomacy: the developing world gets its notion of what a lifestyle should be from us, so we should use mass media to disseminate an idea of what a sustainable lifestyle might look like. The problem is, however, that if America's place in the world has been inexorably reduced courtesy of Iraq, the rise of China and India, and a lengthy credit-driven downturn, nobody will listen to us anymore. And if our ability to produce world-dominating piece of shit soap operas like Dallas and Baywatch has been eroded by the rise of reality TV domestically and cheaper Latin American telenovelas internationally, we can't even find the world's ear.

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