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Friday, May 2, 2008

Responsible-eating advocate Michael Pollan asks a pertinient question in the recent NYT Magazine issue devoted to reducing readers carbon footprint: Why bother?


Let’s say I do bother, big time. I turn my life upside-down, start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low I need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard, trade in the station wagon for a hybrid, get off the beef, go completely local. I could theoretically do all that, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?


His answer:


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. Not having things might become cooler than having them. And those who did change the way they live would acquire the moral standing to demand changes in behavior from others — from other people, other corporations, even other countries.


I give Pollan a lot of credit for trying hard not to come across as a scold in this essay, and he is certainly one of the most persuasive writers about environmental topics for those not already convinced. But it’s hard not to notice how inconvenient and, in the case of getting a hybrid, pricey it is to “bother big-time” and maintain the standard of living Americans have come to take for granted and people around the world, judging by their consumer behavior, want to emulate. Pollan’s not particularly novel answer to the question doesn’t seem to take that into account, and that’s one of the reasons it seems so inadequate. It costs time, money and energy to avoid what our economy has made superlatively easy—a wasteful approach to life made exceedingly comfortable. Pollan blames cheap energy and specialization for fomenting this lifestyle, but what sort of energy would foment the shift to where people suddenly are trying to set a virtuous example? A sudden surge in righteous arrogance? Not having things is never going to be cool—it’s poor people who don’t have things. The rich have elaborately expensive ways of not seeing to have things, and the striving middle just needs to consume in every direction, burning carbon all the way, trying to cover all the bases. The “cheap-energy mind” that Pollan sees as the problem is equivalent to bourgeois consciousness, and it won’t be surrendered. It would be akin to surrendering the class status one has worked hard to achieve. Could planting a garden compensate for that loss, as Pollan urges us to believe at the end of his essay? It seems more likely to do so if adopted as a hobby and urged as a kind of spectacular leisure, not as an ascetic sacrifice for the good of humanity. People probably don’t want the fate of humanity hanging over their heads while they try to learn to garden.


Following Wendell Berry, Pollan notes “the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even,” But I don’t think it’s exactly a character issue in the sense that people are too lazy to choose to live better—it’s not reasonable to expect every person in a culture to anchor their character in rejecting the way of life that is embedded in every aspect of society, that is rooted in the assumptions that make it virtually every institution and every code of conduct we’ve absorbed since childhood. Consumerism is the crucible in which our character is formed, and it hinges on the pursuit of convenience and the amassing a swell collection of identity-building goods. It’s not easy to choose to reject the only life that seems feasible, even when it’s made clear how destructive and unsustainable that way of life is. It is easy to understand the logic of the environmentalists’ case and be convinced, it’s easy to feel convinced to try to bother, but then confronted with the monolith of culture not designed for such good intentions, it’s much easier to fall back into the mind-set that is in harmony with the material culture we must in the end make our lives out of. Rejecting that, all we know, seems like to much of a sacrifice in the small quotidian moments where the important decisions about how one really lives day-to-day are made.

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