A decade ago, a barrel of oil fetched little more than $10. While the bargain-priced oil gushed, SUVs roared out of dealer lots and carbon emissions rose steadily. To a lot of people concerned about climate change, the time seemed ripe for a steep jump in oil prices.

We’re in for some roughage.

Photo: iStockphoto

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The end of cheap oil would usher in a new era in which people learned to value energy, understand the ecological costs of burning it, and conserve. Pricy oil would send a “market signal,” teaching us profligate Americans to consume less, and more thoughtfully.

Or so a lot of greens thought.

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For years now, similar thinking has centered on food. Food prices dropped steadily in the post-World War II years, and today Americans spend less (as a percentage of income) feeding themselves than any other people on earth. And cheap food is not merely an American phenomenon. As The Economist recently reported, global food prices, adjusted for inflation, fell by three-quarters between 1975 and 2004.

But to a multitude of people — including writers Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Barbara Kingsolver — the triumph of cheap food amounts to a Pyrrhic victory.

Their argument — one I have made myself — goes like this: to remain profitable while churning out astonishing amounts of cut-rate fare, the food industry has to shrug off the costs of (in economists’ terms, “externalize”) all sorts of environmental and social damage. In other words, cheap food requires companies that can exploit labor, animals, and natural resources ruthlessly.

Natural resources being finite, such exploitation is, by definition, unsustainable. Then, of course, there’s the problem of quality. By making cheapness the main goal of food production, we court the maladies of overconsumption: diabetes, heart trouble, and all the other ills that have surged in the past generation.

Well, we critics of cheap food will have to find something new to carp about: Food prices are on the rise for the first time since the early 1970s.

In a recent cover story, The Economist proclaimed “The End of Cheap Food.” Globally, the magazine reports, food prices have jumped a startling 75 percent since 2005. To explain the rise, The Economist points to “America’s reckless ethanol subsidies,” which have dramatically driven up the price of corn and other grains. More long term, The Economist cites rising demand for meat in China and India, which “in turn pushes up demand for grain,” since “it takes 8 kg of grain to produce one [kg] of beef.”

The esteemed British newsweekly claims that this trend “presents the world with an enormous opportunity.” By revaluing food, the argument goes, we can raise rural incomes, which would lower agriculture subsidies in the United States and Europe and relieve poverty in the global south, where the majority of people are still trying to scratch a living off of the land. And if recent critiques of cheap food are correct, heightened food prices might be expected to usher in an age of heightened consciousness: Maybe people will think twice before gulping a double cheeseburger and a 20-oz. Coke.

But before we celebrate, it might be worth revisiting what became of similar claims for the end of cheap oil — and try to apply those lessons as we move into a new era for food.

Pricy oil, more carbon

Many green activists lamenting the SUV boom in the late 1990s would have been elated to hear that oil prices would be pushing $100 per barrel within a decade — an all-time high even in inflation-adjusted terms. Only the most cynical among them would have predicted this sad fact: the unprecedented spike in oil prices has done nothing to stem global carbon emissions, much less slow down climate change.

Rather than substantially change the way we live, we’ve been able to keep consuming like mad in this era of expensive oil — because industry has successfully globalized and shifted to cheaper and even dirtier forms of energy. And with no effective global agreement to curtail carbon emissions, the result has been a free-for-all.

While oil prices moved up over the past decade, consumer products like flat-screen TVs, computers, and MP3 players got cheaper and more ubiquitous than ever. These products, increasingly made in China and other parts of Asia, have benefited from a surge in consumption of coal — a fuel that spews more greenhouse gases than petroleum at a fraction of the price.

Between 2001 and 2006, global coal consumption leapt 30 percent — with the great bulk of that increase coming from Asia, the global economy’s manufacturing hothouse. And that massive transfer of carbon from underground to the atmosphere has essentially erased any environmental benefits of pricier oil. (Global oil consumption, by contrast, grew by 9 percent over that period.)

The Wall Street Journal recently called this the “Wal-Mart effect,” naming it after the corporation most associated with linking Asia-made products with U.S. consumers, “For every extra dollar taken from [U.S.] drivers’ pockets at the pump in the form of higher prices in recent years,” the Journal reports, “low-cost exporters from China and elsewhere have put roughly $1.50 back in the form of cheaper retail goods.”

And it isn’t just the coal binge that has made the past decade a dire one for carbon emissions, despite the steady rise in oil prices. Ten years ago, few oil companies cared much about Canada’s tar sands, home to a rich store of energy that’s expensive to extract. That’s a good thing, because harvesting energy from tar sands obliterates landscapes while releasing as much as 40 percent more carbon than conventional petroleum.

But with oil hovering well above $80 per barrel, the tar sands have become quite attractive. In a recent New Yorker article (abstract here), Elizabeth Kolbert reports that the major oil companies plan to invest $75 billion in infrastructure to exploit the tar sands.

Even without that massive outlay, they’ve been quite resourceful at harvesting that dirty energy for our cars. “Thanks in large part to what’s happening in the tar sands,” Kolbert reports, “Canada has become America’s No. 1 source of imported oil; the country supplies the United States with more petroleum than all of the nations of the Persian Gulf combined.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the end of cheap oil has not amounted to a climate panacea. In fact, carbon emissions have accelerated. According to New Scientist, emissions grew four times faster between 2000 and 2005 than in the preceding 10 years.

Pricy food, less devastation?

If the end of cheap oil has so far been a bust for the environment, can the end of cheap food do any better? Will pricier food result in more conscious consumption, lower obesity rates, and fewer environmental impacts from careless decisions about which foods to buy and eat?

The answer is probably not — at least not without decisive government action. Remember, when oil prices rose, carbon emissions rose too, in the absence of any effective global policy to hold back greenhouse-gas emissions. President Bush effectively gutted the Kyoto treaty by opting out of it in 2001. After that, any profitable energy source, no matter how destructive, became fair game for producers.

By 2007, a harried Canadian official was telling Elizabeth Kolbert that, “There is no environmental minister on earth who can stop the oil from coming out of the [tar] sand, because the money is too big.”

We’re already seeing similar environmental effects from heightened food prices. In the Midwest this year, a jump in corn prices predictably sparked a 15 percent hike in corn acreage — even though corn is our most environmentally destructive crop. In Brazil, home to the world’s most precious rainforest and its most biodiverse savanna, soaring prices for soybeans have sparked vast deforestation. By plowing under forestland to grow soy, we’re sacrificing an invaluable carbon sponge to produce a monumentally inefficient cattle feed and car fuel.

Nor does pricier food seem set to turn the tide on our diet-related health problems — at least not among low-income people, who are disproportionately prone to obesity, diabetes, and other such conditions. Food prices, it turns out, are rising unevenly. A recent study from the University of Washington found that prices for calorie-heavy, processed foods have been rising slowly or even falling, while those of nutrient-dense foods like fresh produce and meat have been rising fast.

That means that low-income Americans, already squeezed by heightened energy prices and mortgage rates, will face even more pressure to get the bulk of their calories from junk food.

But if the “end of cheap food” is already shaping up to be a disaster, there’s no reason to despair. Bush threw energy policy to the free-market dogs, but we could take a different direction with food. Christopher Cook, author of Diet for a Dead Planet, floated an interesting idea on Gristmill recently: “a New Deal for food that reinvests funds in sustainably grown, healthful produce grown by a diversity of farmers.”

Sure, no U.S. policy shift would directly affect planting decisions in Brazil or other sensitive regions. But after failing so miserably with regard to energy, might the U.S. owe it to the world to take a leadership role on food?

Exactly what would a “New Deal for food” look like? That’s something we should all think about as we head into the new year.