Michael Pollan has a practical and a philosophical problem.
Pollan, the Cal journalism professor, has written two influential and original books on the ecological effects of food production and consumption. He may be the most important thinker on our relationship to food since Alice Waters. Recently, Pollan wrote a piece in The New York Times, entitled "Why Bother?" in which he worried about the difficulties of leaving the smallest footprint in our food choices. The article evoked the most critical practical and philosophical issue facing our society today: "Why be good?"
Pollan's work on food production and consumption is a must-read for those who try to be mindful of the effects of life activities on themselves and others. But, practically, things are complicated. For example, which is the better choice — organic grapes carried in fuel-guzzling transports from Chile or beautiful Central Valley grapes grown with pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers? Adding the conditions of workers into the calculus, do you shop at Whole Foods, whose labor practices, along with those of Wal-Mart, are decimating the middle-class status that grocery workers and their unions fought so hard to secure, or go to the unionized Safeway where the organic selection is much more limited? When your kid's school runs a program to bring canned goods to distribute to a food bank or soup kitchen, do you buy and send canned green beans that have been grown industrially? The result is that 21st-century malady — severe option paralysis.
Even if you believe you are making the ecologically right choice in your diet and other activities, two major problems loom. First, is the question of whether there is still time to reverse today's ecological damage even if we do "do right"? Secondly, why should we limit our activities when, as Pollan writes, "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."
When the result of personal attempts to ameliorate the harm to the planet from one's diet is excruciatingly complex and possibly ineffective, why should one bother? Advocating the philosophy of small actions, Pollan's solution is to grow a garden. Through ecologically positive actions such as gardening, he hopes, viral do-goodism will spread and spark a prairie fire of virtuous behavioral change. This is a hopeful and beautiful solution. However, if climate change is increasing at the speed that some scientists claim, a firm belief that God will protect her creation is probably a more rational position than Pollan's viral contagion of positive acts.
So why be good? This may be the most important question in contemporary society. American government and society today are engaged in an orgy of self-interest. If an action is unlikely to have an immediate payoff for you or your loved ones, why do it? Of course, we must always wrestle with the question of what is good. But first we must decide if we want to be good at all. Why care about others? Considering this question may seem to simply be navel-gazing that we do not have time for in our busy lives, but attention to this question is the only way to begin to unravel the mess that seems to make moral action so difficult.
The religions of the world, east and west, have long wrestled with this question. Their answers include "God commands you to be good" and "if you are not good, you will suffer here or in the afterlife." Such beliefs provide a soothing moral grounding for being good, and whether right or not, often provide a positive foundation with which to consider the moral decisions of life. Non-religious people have a much more difficult time with this question. For the more caring, it feels pleasurable to be altruistic. This is great, and works for me, but it highlights the unresolved issue of whether good is objective or relative. What if being bad feels good?
For me, the answer is to understand our crucial relationships to others. There is mounting scientific and philosophical evidence that positive human relationships are central to the human condition. That is, in an evolutionary sense we are hardwired to work with and care about others. Humans advanced by working together. It made a difference how your cave mate fared; everyone was needed for the hunt. To work with others, the other must be convinced that we are willing to take their feelings and well-being into account. So, for me to do well, you must too. This evolutionary thesis directly challenges today's mantra of destructive individualism.
While Pollan makes a contribution by asking "Why Bother?," his proposed solution sidesteps meaningful communal responses. The only way to tackle social problems is to work with others, not in isolation in your backyard. We must focus not on "What Can I Do as One Person?" but "What Can We Do as One People?" Any solution that is based on "me" instead of "us" will not solve the problems Pollan raises — or others we face. Social problems cannot be resolved without a conscious and open emphasis on the other. If the evolutionary thesis is right, this attitude best comports with the human condition.
Climate change is a global problem. A global movement is possible. Like it or not, we must reach out to our Chinese doppelgängers. Locally this means that we should take time from our Berkeley gardening to consider ways to unite with those in East Bay housing projects who do not have a sunny spot in which to plant. This is not an easy task, but individualism alone will not get us out of this mess. Our fate and our humanity are tied to others, our actions must be too.