The Taco Problem: Local Goods With Global Implications

Sunday, day three: One of the major themes this year has been sustainability. Though this isn’t a new idea, the term has slipped through panelists’ lips like an elephant on ice. And although the issue is a major topic of conversation, one thing is obvious: sustainability is not a practice.

This is nowhere clearer than around the conference’s many events, in the various gift bags and hanging from each attendee’s neck: most of what is being given away here will be thrown away. SXSW is a microcosm of America: a big wasteful beast parading as the future.

Today’s keynote from Valerie Casey’s was called Systems Design and Inspiration. Casey is a consultant in the area of organizational processes, helping organizations, government and companies optimize their behaviors in a sustainable way. Often, she said, change is only possible when a unit’s internal structure is changed. Applying this rule to SXSW itself, the event will never be environmentally friendly if it continues to allow sponsors to waste paper, plastics and energy so rampantly.

Casey (site) referenced an enlightening case study from a research project done by students at California College of the Arts’ URBANlab, which broke down how far the ingredients of a locally bought taco traveled. The 19 ingredients traveled a total of 64k miles, or about 2.5 times around the globe.

Again, let’s apply this to South by Southwest. A few days prior to the event, the New York Times published a story deeming Austin the breakfast taco capitol: “When it comes to breakfast tacos, however, Austin trumps all other American cities,” the paper reported. Since arriving, all we’ve heard about are these breakfast tacos. Locals eat them every day, but for the 15,000 attendees who have descended on the city, it’s a safe bet half are jonesing for the “local” dish. I’ve had no fewer than four since arriving.

If URBANlab’s calculations stand up (and let’s assume that Austin’s tacos use a combination of locally and internationally sourced ingredients), food I’ve consumed has potentially traveled 256,000 miles &#151 or 10 times around the earth.

Certainly, tacos aren’t the only food with such a well-stamped passport. Rather, much of what we eat, wear, and otherwise rely on has traveled unfathomable distances to land in our laundry hampers and refrigerators. The problem is all anyone at South by (and at home) is doing is talking about how astonishing that is. Including me. Worse yet, the sum total of hearing and talking about tacos has made me hungry for another &#151 and so the wheel turns.

My only hope is to find a locally brewed beer and a locally distilled shot of vodka to wash away the weight of my desire for tacos. Who knew that indulging in a local treat would have such global implications? I’ll have to submit that as a panel idea for next year’s conference.