Michael Pollan, Energy, and Change

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (one of the best recent anthropology books in my mind, even if it’s not by an anthropologist), has an essay out today, Why Bother? It is part of the New York Times Magazine themed issue, The Green Issue: Some Bold Steps to Make Your Carbon Footprint Smaller.

In his essay Pollan sums up how we, as normal people with normal powers, might change our approach to energy dependence. In particular, he focuses on overcoming the sense of helplessness we often feel, arguing cogently that this sort of “dependence” has been instilled through increasing social and economic specialization and a universalist approach in economics and politics.

Pollan points to the importance of local doing, to How and not just Why, as a central way to break the specialization and universalist trap. By focusing on mindsets, behaviors, experiences, and life roles (sound familiar?), Pollan gets at the everyday dimensions of life that can work as much change as technology or global accords. We just have to do it ourselves, even as we cultivate new ways to encourage and support these everyday processes.

(Still, for those of you who prefer a more political economy take on the problems we face, see Pollan’s highly recommended pieces You Are What You Grow and Weed It and Reap, taking on the US food bill, agribusiness, and energy-dependent processed food.)

Here’s an annotated version of Why Bother?

Early in the essay Pollan writes, “For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do. Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking — passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists — that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it.”

Pollan turns to the writer Wendell Berry for analysis: “For Berry, the deep problem standing behind all the other problems of industrial civilization is ‘specialization,’ which he regards as the “disease of the modern character.” Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: we’re producers (of one thing) at work, consumers of a great many other things the rest of the time, and then once a year or so we vote as citizens. Virtually all of our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to the environmentalist, political action to the politician.”

Pollan then focuses on the issue of energy production and dependence at the individual level as a crucial yet not quite understood issue facing us: “Cheap energy, which gives us climate change, fosters precisely the mentality that makes dealing with climate change in our own lives seem impossibly difficult. Specialists ourselves, we can no longer imagine anyone but an expert, or anything but a new technology or law, solving our problems. Al Gore asks us to change the light bulbs because he probably can’t imagine us doing anything much more challenging, like, say, growing some portion of our own food.”

Besides specialization, we also live in our broad translational economy: “Since the cheap-energy mind translates everything into money, its proxy, it prefers to put its faith in market-based solutions — carbon taxes and pollution-trading schemes. If we could just get the incentives right, it believes, the economy will properly value everything that matters and nudge our self-interest down the proper channels. The best we can hope for is a greener version of the old invisible hand. Visible hands it has no use for.”

Pollan then gets to one of his most crucial points in the essay. He does not provide some moral answer to Why Bother? He moves from an exhortation to a consideration of how. It is such an important move to get beyond the sort of global, population-level Why’s that have ruled us from many centuries in terms of politics and economy and law.

He writes, “If you do bother, you will set an example for other people. If enough other people bother, each one influencing yet another in a chain reaction of behavioral change, markets for all manner of green products and alternative technologies will prosper and expand. (Just look at the market for hybrid cars.) Consciousness will be raised, perhaps even changed: new moral imperatives and new taboos might take root in the culture. Driving an S.U.V. or eating a 24-ounce steak or illuminating your McMansion like an airport runway at night might come to be regarded as outrages to human conscience.”

This sort of behavioral change, awareness and moral imperatives can add up on their own: “What I’m describing (imagining would probably be more accurate) is a process of viral social change, and change of this kind, which is nonlinear, is never something anyone can plan or predict or count on… Going personally green is a bet, nothing more or less, though it’s one we probably all should make, even if the odds of it paying off aren’t great. Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will. That, after all, was precisely what happened in Communist Czechoslovakia and Poland, when a handful of individuals like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik resolved that they would simply conduct their lives “as if” they lived in a free society. That improbable bet created a tiny space of liberty that, in time, expanded to take in, and then help take down, the whole of the Eastern bloc.”

Pollan then presents us with one specific proposal, building off his recent book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.

The idea is to find one thing to do in your life that doesn’t involve spending or voting, that may or may not virally rock the world but is real and particular (as well as symbolic) and that, come what may, will offer its own rewards. Maybe you decide to give up meat, an act that would reduce your carbon footprint by as much as a quarter. Or you could try this: determine to observe the Sabbath. For one day a week, abstain completely from economic activity: no shopping, no driving, no electronics.

But the act I want to talk about is growing some — even just a little — of your own food. Rip out your lawn, if you have one, and if you don’t — if you live in a high-rise, or have a yard shrouded in shade — look into getting a plot in a community garden. Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.

As he sums up at the end, growing your own food can work its own changes on your life: “At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen. Chances are, your garden will re-engage you with your neighbors, for you will have produce to give away and the need to borrow their tools. You will have reduced the power of the cheap-energy mind by personally overcoming its most debilitating weakness: its helplessness and the fact that it can’t do much of anything that doesn’t involve division or subtraction. The garden’s season-long transit from seed to ripe fruit — will you get a load of that zucchini?! — suggests that the operations of addition and multiplication still obtain, that the abundance of nature is not exhausted. The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.”

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