Sunday, April 20, 2008

Why Bother?

Michael Pollan with a wonderful essay in the New York Times arguing for the importance of personal choice in making a difference in the face of climate change (and an argument that can easily be extended to a wealth of other environmental, social, and economic factors). Pollan's essay touches on issues that have long troubled me. Among the positives are framing environmental responsibility as a fundamentally moral choice (albeit, in the positive sense of moral, not the finger-wagging, school-marmish sense) and framing environmentally responsible acts as pleasurable (for me, living in a city, for Pollan, planting a garden and growing your own food). More vexing is how to convince people to embrace personal change when confronted with the overwhelming sense that the problem is too large to impact, or when faced with concerns of developed countries somehow falling behind in a consumer arms race with their counterparts in China (the traditional bogeyman) or elsewhere. And kudos to Pollan for re-raising the profile of Wendell Berry, an essayist who deserves a much wider following. Read on:
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.

Thirty years ago, Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and writer, put forward a blunt analysis of precisely this mentality. He argued that the environmental crisis of the 1970s — an era innocent of climate change; what we would give to have back that environmental crisis! — was at its heart a crisis of character and would have to be addressed first at that level: at home, as it were. He was impatient with people who wrote checks to environmental organizations while thoughtlessly squandering fossil fuel in their everyday lives — the 1970s equivalent of people buying carbon offsets to atone for their Tahoes and Durangos. Nothing was likely to change until we healed the “split between what we think and what we do.” For Berry, the “why bother” question came down to a moral imperative: “Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.”

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.

As Adam Smith and many others have pointed out, this division of labor has given us many of the blessings of civilization. Specialization is what allows me to sit at a computer thinking about climate change. Yet this same division of labor obscures the lines of connection — and responsibility — linking our everyday acts to their real-world consequences, making it easy for me to overlook the coal-fired power plant that is lighting my screen, or the mountaintop in Kentucky that had to be destroyed to provide the coal to that plant, or the streams running crimson with heavy metals as a result.

Of course, what made this sort of specialization possible in the first place was cheap energy. Cheap fossil fuel allows us to pay distant others to process our food for us, to entertain us and to (try to) solve our problems, with the result that there is very little we know how to accomplish for ourselves. Think for a moment of all the things you suddenly need to do for yourself when the power goes out — up to and including entertaining yourself. Think, too, about how a power failure causes your neighbors — your community — to suddenly loom so much larger in your life. Cheap energy allowed us to leapfrog community by making it possible to sell our specialty over great distances as well as summon into our lives the specialties of countless distant others.

Here’s the point: 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. We can’t imagine it, either, which is probably why we prefer to cross our fingers and talk about the promise of ethanol and nuclear power — new liquids and electrons to power the same old cars and houses and lives.
Read the rest.


Eli said...

I read this tonight as well and was very happy with all of it. He gets the balance of moral imperative to "wholesome goodness" just right, and pushes through the uncertainty and rationalizations to find a piece of the responsibility each of us can bear.

In addition to talking about the pleasures of environmental actions, Pollan also avoids finger-wagging school marmishness by showing that everyday environmentalism can be a communal effort -- something that connects us to our neighbors and like-minded others.

But the thing I liked most was that the article put the contrarian "freakonomics" data-types (the "specialists") in their place. There will always be the economist or other professional who produces a study showing that ideas with good intentions have bad results (e.g. New Zealand produce better than local), and this provides comfort for passivity, and makes moral choices ambiguous. To my mind, the economists have done this to many aspects of public policy. Pollan goes to essentials to bring out a sense of individual responsibility amidst the data complexity.

Ritik Dholakia said...

Good point. One of the challenges in all of this is how to quantify your impact, if you really care about making a difference. The imprecision (both in environmental and in so much social policy) in being able to measure impact poses one problem. The use of selective science and studies to muddy the waters is another major problem. Not that science shouldn't be skeptical, but honest scientific skepticism and contrarian skepticism aren't quite the same thing.