Convenience is expensive. For as long as I recall, and probably generations earlier than that, advertisers have promised that their products will save time. We all know how that turned out. Gas or electric stoves and ovens, refrigerators, washing machines and driers, other major appliances, and a host of other smaller gadgets saved housewives so much time that they can get jobs outside the home. And they have to in order to pay for all the stuff.
Once, everyone had their own garden, and most people kept chickens and other animals for their food. They had to chop wood to cook it. Then we got grocery stores to supply basic ingredients and utilities to provide cleaner and easier fuel.
Eventually, we got fast food companies, because folks have become too busy to cook even in their modern, convenient kitchens. Next came drive-through windows so no one even has to get out of the car to get the food.
What does all this convenience cost? In no particular order, we have fuel costs, land use costs, and health costs. There are pollution costs, too, but I will need to mention them in more than one place within these three.
Firewood cost energy: energy to chop down trees, to cut them into logs , to transport the logs, to chop them into firewood, to carry the firewood to the kitchen, and to dispose of the ashes. The muscles of humans or working animals accomplished all of these tasks. Like the trees themselves, the energy was renewable.
I wouldn’t want to have to go back to those days, and hardly anyone else does, either. Public utilities have proved a boon to everyone, but they are expensive. Besides what everyone has to pay in their monthly bills, there are environmental costs. Electricity generation depends largely on coal, a dirty fuel that in various ways pollutes air, water, and land.
We also have automobiles and trucks that mostly run on petroleum products. Unlike coal, the United States cannot produce all of the petroleum it uses. So besides the pollution costs of burning gasoline or diesel fuel we have the economic costs of importing petroleum and the geopolitical costs of having to buy it from our ideological adversaries.
Now imagine a line at a drive-through. The one at a Biscuitville near my house sometimes extends out into the street, causing traffic problems. Think of how much gas each car uses in inching all the way around the building until they receive and pay for their order!
Land use costs
One big problem with the old reliance on firewood has been solved: the accumulated ash is no longer the most bulky waste taken to the dump (or later, landfill). Fast food places alone account for a lot of paper, plastic, and food wastes that have to go somewhere–too much of it strewn along highways or in peoples’ yards.
The fast food restaurants themselves require land both for the stores and parking lots. While they are often welcome additions to the communities in which they are built, they not infrequently touch off controversies over zoning. The large chains that own many of them regularly update individual stores, sometimes demolishing them to rebuild larger buildings or move to another lot.
All that construction rubble has to go to the landfill. The English idiom to throw something away disguises the fact that there is no such place as “away.” We are running out of suitable sites for new landfills. No one exactly clamors to have one built near their homes.
That became particularly necessary when drive-through lanes first became popular. They put constraints on the design of the store’s interior. They also require more land. After all, the store cannot sacrifice too many parking places for the drive-through.
What is the current obesity epidemic besides a cost of convenience? We don’t expend physical effort on food preparation when we eat at a fast food place. The food is designed to be easy to eat. It tastes good and doesn’t require nearly as much chewing as “slow” food.
It is also loaded sale, fat, and sugar. A single fast-food meal may have half a day’s allotment of calories and salt. That doesn’t mean it satisfies our hunger. If it fills us up initially (not guaranteed), it does not keep us full for long. Most of us eat too much and exercise too little.
Even parking the car, going inside, and standing in line requires more of our own energy than sitting in it and burning up gasoline instead. Some people can walk to a fast-food place from their homes or hotel rooms. Do they? But many stores sit on pedestrian-unfriendly land.
Now that our culture has begun to take a fresh look at health, food, exercise, and sustainability, it is time to take a careful look at the conveniences in our lives. Have they become too expensive? And shouldn’t we at least give up the drive-through window and walk into the store for our take-out food?