My plan to save the planet keeps bumping into the seen and the unseen. Almost no one would argue with the great lesson of the stoic philosopher Epictetus. The world divides into that which depends on me, and that which does not. For the stoics, the lesson was that I shouldn’t worry about that which I can’t control. Instead I should focus on making good choices over those things and events I can control. Right there is where the trouble begins.
Part of the problem is my intuition is not especially helpful in guiding me through the complexities of modern life. What is cause and what is effect, what matters and what doesn’t is so hard to know. Food miles are a worry, right? Maybe. Probably not is the actual answer. And yet, there is a whole movement committed to buying local. Existential despair follows, what should I do? How can I be a responsible consumer?
An old Greek, a Frenchman and a Chinese philosopher walked into that great Wan Chai bar Tai Lung Fung. And anyone who thinks or feels knows that Hong Kong is a great place to look into the future. Name it and you can eat it in Hong Kong, but everything has a food mile. And it doesn’t matter. No, I mean it really doesn’t matter, because it isn’t food miles that matter. Almost any ingredient I could try and produce in Hong Kong would have more negative environmental consequences than if I buy it from somewhere else. When I was a kid people locally produced milk for me and the small number of Gweilo who ate porridge oats. You can produce milk in Hong Kong it just isn’t as good, cheap or as environmentally sensible.
The same story applies to lamb. I have eaten some of the best lamb ever in Hong Kong. At great financial and environmental cost someone could grow sheep in New Territories. New Zealand just does it so much better. Lamb grown in New Zealand is better value, better for you and better for the environment. The resources required there are so much less than the environmental consequence of transporting it. Local isn’t better. That is what that clever Frenchmen Frédéric Bastiat meant when he said it is about the seen and the unseen. Funnily enough, the same story is true in Britain. The food miles mean a whole lot less than factors of production. Eating lamb transported from New Zealand in London is better for the environment than lamb from Scotland. It hurts but its true.
If you were to believe The Lex Column in Tesla's promise in Hong Kong fails to deliver (The Financial Times) you would be wondering if there is anything in your power that you can do to reduce your impact on global warming. The problem is not Tesla. Oh there maybe problems with the Tesla. How much embedded energy in a Tesla and its batteries? But, that isn’t what concerns the FT here. Rather, it is the power station emissions in Hong Kong are so much worse than the emissions from any conventional car choice. Here again with Bastiat and his seen and unseen. When you buy a car you are actually buying a system and not an object. The consequences of your choices are just damned hard to understand. But wait there is more! All your life choices are linked in the systems of your existence. The good news for Hong Kong residents is that city residents use so much less resources and energy per person, and the denser the city the lower the energy use per capita. When we choose to live in Hong Kong we are already having less environmental impact than someone living in a Chicago suburb. Given anyone living in Hong Kong drives so much less than your average Tesla driver, despite the FT article ‘rational investors’ might be thinking about it a lot more than the Lex Column.