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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Reading for naught
May 10, 2010 - 2:40pm

On the way to campus this morning, I happened to catch "The Environment Report", from UMich. What struck me was a brief item about how US consumers attribute too much virtue to the "organic" label on commercial food products. An experiment, run at Cornell, found that "those who ate cookies with the organic label rated those cookies to be lower in calories than those who ate cookies without the organic label." In the snappy repartee as the story ended, the reporter and the host agreed that we all need to spend more time reading food labels.

That's nuts.

Anyone who needs to read the fine print on the package to know that an Oreo marked "organic" is still junk food is a potential Darwin Award recipient. Empty calories don't take on nutrative value by virtue of being grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Neither do they somehow disappear. Sugar is still sugar. Surprise!

Which is not to say that I doubt the experimental results. There's a Manichean simplicity in our culture. The commercial media has certainly fed it (white hats versus black hats, dime novels, Horatio Alger, the Hays Code, John Wayne meets Mel Gibson meets Russell Crowe). When everything boils down to Good versus Evil (most often expressed as a variant on "us versus them"), then the very existence of multidimensionality in problem definition goes away. As does the requirement for thought. Organic equals good. No trans-fat equals good. Pick the peanut butter that advertises itself as cholesterol-free.

I suspect our Manichean tendencies go back way before Bat Masterson and Ned Buntline, much less Tom Mix. The media didn't create this simplicity of mind, they merely played into it. And it's hardly unique to American culture; it's easy to see in pretty much every form of fundamentalism (religious, nationalistic, economic, whatever) anywhere in the world. I just wish there were a better way for such fine universities to do more to at least characterize the problem after all these years, rather than just observing and reporting it.

And no, I'm not picking on Michigan and Cornell. Greenback is no different. At least, not enough different. Not yet.

 

 

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