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23 April 2008

Why Bother? and the cheap-energy mentality

In the NYT Magazine for last Sunday, Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto (in the UK published as In Defence of Food - The Myths of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating) has written a really brilliant comment piece called "Why Bother?". He poses the question that so many pose, and then immediately give up - in the face of the enormity of environmental peril and climate change: how can my actions possibly make a difference? Pollan says his heart sank when at the end of Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, his exhortation is for everyone to change their light bulbs. (Yeah, that really does bite. Thanks for that, Al.) After making a rather weak appeal (in my opinion, but I guess one does have to choose ones words, and the article is already four pages, very economically worded) to out-of-fashion concepts like virtue and community, he turns to the even more out-of-fashion Wendell Berry, a man with whom we should all be (but possibly some of us are not) familiar. Berry was the originator of the "cheap-energy mentality" critique. This is getting more to the heart of the matter, as Pollan points out that it is cheap energy, the division of labour, and the resultant atomisation of communities that both contributes massively to global warning and at the same time, makes changing our ways so impossible, and even impossible to think about or understand.
Then, thankfully, after laying out the utter hopelessness of the case, he turns to hope. You can only do what you can do, and he does give reasons why we should do it. So the task now is to decide - what is the most effective thing to do, the most urgent, and also fully within the realm of possibility? (Hint: it's not light bulbs, it's not "carbon offsets" and it's not writing a cheque or joining a club.) The answer is to grow your own food. Yep, just exactly what all us hippies said to do way back in 1970. Damn shame we were all too high to make a coherent point.

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