Gardening: Do No Harm Coping

Michael Pollan’s “Why Bother?” article is at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/magazine/20wwln-lede-t.html?em&ex=1209009600&en=d8cc9200fb79ea20&ei=5087

What would I have to show for trying to do a few things to add less to global warming:

“A sense of personal virtue, you might suggest, somewhat sheepishly. But what good is that when virtue itself is quickly becoming a term of derision? And not just on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal or on the lips of the vice president, who famously dismissed energy conservation as a “sign of personal virtue.” No, even in the pages of The New York Times and The New Yorker, it seems the epithet “virtuous,” when applied to an act of personal environmental responsibility, may be used only ironically. Tell me: How did it come to pass that virtue — a quality that for most of history has generally been deemed, well, a virtue — became a mark of liberal softheadedness? How peculiar, that doing the right thing by the environment — buying the hybrid, eating like a locavore — should now set you up for the Ed Begley Jr. treatment.

…There are so many stories we can tell ourselves to justify doing nothing, but perhaps the most insidious is that, whatever we do manage to do, it will be too little too late. Climate change is upon us, and it has arrived well ahead of schedule. Scientists’ projections that seemed dire a decade ago turn out to have been unduly optimistic: the warming and the melting is occurring much faster than the models predicted. Now truly terrifying feedback loops threaten to boost the rate of change exponentially, as the shift from white ice to blue water in the Arctic absorbs more sunlight and warming soils everywhere become more biologically active, causing them to release their vast stores of carbon into the air. Have you looked into the eyes of a climate scientist recently? They look really scared.

Whatever we can do as individuals to change the way we live at this suddenly very late date does seem utterly inadequate to the challenge. It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous [N.B.!], cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live. Why? Because the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.

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.

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.

…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.

The “cheap-energy mind,” as Wendell Berry called it, is the mind that asks, “Why bother?” because it is helpless to imagine — much less attempt — a different sort of life, one less divided, less reliant. 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.

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.

…Havel himself has suggested that people begin to “conduct themselves as if they were to live on this earth forever and be answerable for its condition one day.” Fair enough, but let me propose a slightly less abstract and daunting wager. 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.”

Pollan suggests gardening for some of your food. It’s the best idea, I think, a liberal can come up with to address ecological damage.

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