Okay, all forms of bourgeois smugness are enraging, including, I suppose, the locavore movement and the sudden new interest in farming the backyard. I’ve noticed contrarians popping up in the media with increasing frequency, wanting to stick it to my ilk by arguing that the real virtue lies in the alleged efficiencies of massive factory farms.

The most recent example of this was a Freakonomics blog post of a few days ago by Stephen J. Dubner titled “Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?” Dubner moves in an eye-blink from his own inability to make orange sherbet at home to the conclusion that food-growing is best left to professionals. No, not to the adorable, dirty-pantsed 25 year-old idealists at your farmer’s market, but to super-efficient agribusinesses.

Well, what can you say about a guy who would add food coloring to homemade sherbet, as Dubner admits to doing, apparently without shame?  Except that he is

  1. Probably not interested in or knowledgable about food, and
  2. Possibly too trusting of corporations, including the one that convinced him that a vial of orange chemicals is a foodstuff.

I suspect that these two blind spots explain certain flaws in Dubner’s thinking when it comes to pulling food out of the backyard.

Here’s what’s wrong with the economic argument against kitchen gardening employed by Dubner:

1. It assumes an equivalence between homegrown produce and industrial produce when there is none.  Dubner quotes approvingly from an email he received from a reader: “I love gardening, but it takes me more time and overall investment to get inferior produce to what I could buy from a professional farmer nearby.”

This reader is no gardener, and the giveaway is “inferior.” Homegrown is almost never inferior–not in terms of flavor, nutritional quality, or energy and environmental costs–certainly not when compared to a factory-farmed product. The homegrown is vastly superior on all counts, and supremely efficient in that it converts land that would otherwise be wasted into productive use. Until economists start working all of these factors into their models, any equation proving the supposed efficiency of bulk-shipped industrial food over locally-grown or homegrown is total nonsense.

2. The argument assumes that extreme specialization is the ideal way to organize human society.  In other words, it’s a waste of time for non-farmers to garden instead of doing whatever brain work it is that they do best. Don’t get me started on the sense of entitlement underpinning this argument.  Nobody who cleans floors for a living ever rhapsodizes about the beauty of specialization.

But there is another problem with the idea: It assumes that it’s good for society, for all of us to be utterly powerless outside our own areas of professional expertise. 

It’s possible to see this of ideal of specialization fully realized in the American suburbs of 2008, where there are vast numbers of people who literally cannot do anything for themselves. They cannot cook, or lift a hammer, or garden, or walk–made so helpless by our culture that they have no life skills at all other than the few demanded by their employers. As a result, they are as dependent as babies on the big corporations that house them, feed them, transport them, climate-control and amuse them.  And they like it that way and think that this is how every right-thinking person ought to live.

The problem with a society of such super-specialists is that it is not adaptable.  Apply any strain at all–a dog peeing on the manicured lawn, children making noise on the street, somebody dinging the car in a parking lot–and super-specialists, in my observation, become as panicky as toddlers. 

Well, given that we now appear to be running out of cheap energy, this is a world where serious change is almost certain. Cheap factory-farmed produce is already no longer cheap. Adaptability may very well be key.

Personally, I like knowing how to do stuff, especially how to grow beans and cook them beautifully. These activities are extremely enjoyable, and so meaningful that I would no more outsource them than I’d outsource the raising of my children. They connect me with the whole of human history, which, let’s face it, has been largely about scrambling to find the next meal. 

Such primitive knowledge gives me a certain confidence that if our cushy civilization should ever fail me, I am ready for anything. Undoubtedly, this readiness is an illusion. But let’s just say that I’m readier than people who consider themselves too highly evolved to garden.