Saturday, May 22, 2010

One world

My wife is getting in the mood for our summer in Ireland. She came home from the supermarket with a package of "Bantry Bay" frozen mussels in garlic sauce, from Bantry, County Cork. A little touch of the Ould Sod, she said.

As it turns out, tiny print on the side of the package tells us where the mussels came from. Chile! That's right. Mussels harvested on a sea farm on the western coast of South America, transported to Ireland, packaged, transported to the United States, and sold in our local. I'm glad I don't know the details -- the history of growing, harvesting, freezing (and thawing?) and saucing. One places one's trust in the system and hopes for the best.

Onions from Argentina, tilapia from China, water from Fiji. There may not be a country in the world that doesn't supply a product for our local supermarket. Even with all that moving around, the food is fresh and cheap. As for why it's fresh and cheap -- maybe it's best not to inquire too closely.

There's much to be said for eating local, but there's also something to be said for the integration of economies.

Americans have an exaggerated sense of exceptionalism. A large number of us seem to believe that the world beyond our borders is a benighted wasteland, inhabited by miserable wretches who want nothing else than to come here. It's true that there are less fortunate places in the world, and the United States has an enviable record of domestic tranquility and scientific and technical innovation. Most Americans I know are as nice as you'll find anywhere, and I love the congenial mix of races, cultures and sexual orientations you'll see walking down Boston's Newbury Street. I feel fortunate to have been born here.

But I feel fortunate, too, to live part of each year in Ireland and the Bahamas, each of which offers pleasures and privileges I don't find at home. Of the developed nations, the United States has the highest income inequality, the lowest degree of social mobility, poor health, low educational outcomes (especially in science and math), most expensive medical care, low life expectancy, highest homicide rate, more people in prison, greater mental illness, shorter vacations, poor retirement benefits. We rank low in perceived quality of life and general happiness, number 20 of 21 in childhood happiness. In fact, it's hard to find any statistical indicator that favors average, middle-class Americans above their counterparts in, say, France, Norway, New Zealand or Japan. Still, that doesn't stop many of us from wrapping ourselves in the flag and looking down our noses at people who live elsewhere.

My granddaughter, a high school student, participated this year in an exchange with a Spanish girl. They took turns in each other's home and school. When they showed up together at our house, it would have been hard to tell from their dress, accessories and demeanor who was the American and who the Spaniard, and they did a pretty fair job speaking each other's language. What they studied in math and science was, of course, exactly the same.

Eating local may have much to recommend it. Thinking local may be dangerous.