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Michael Pollan: Why Bother?
April 19, 2008 7:48 PM   Subscribe

Why bother? "That really is the big question facing us as individuals hoping to do something about climate change," by Michael Pollan.
posted by stbalbach (69 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Spoiler: there are reasons to bother.

I'm really, really excited about moving to my new apartment in a couple of weeks, which not only is close enough to my office for me to walk to work every day, has enough of a yard--and sunlit!--for my girlfriend and I to start growing a garden. I'm just hoping that there will be enough time left in the growing season for us to get some good vegetables for late-summer cook-outs.

And, eventually, we're gonna have to figure out this canning thing . . .
posted by thecaddy at 8:06 PM on April 19, 2008


Thanks, stbalbach. That was heartening.

I still can't fucking stand compact flourescent bulbs, though.
posted by jokeefe at 8:29 PM on April 19, 2008


I still can't fucking stand compact flourescent bulbs, though.

Don't worry, full-spectrum LEDs are coming.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:37 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


start growing a garden

EarthBox. I have 16 stalks of corn, 16 bean plants, 2 tomato plants and 8 green pepper plants - on a third floor porch in about a 5' square space. All you need is sun and a water hose. No experience, few hours of work from planting to harvest. And good fresh heirlom seeds from Seed Exchange (a non-profit community seed exchange).

time left in the growing season

most vegetables are 60-90 days to harvest and can grow through mid October (depending on zone).
posted by stbalbach at 8:37 PM on April 19, 2008 [20 favorites]


Life (mostly) off the grid. An interesting Nytimes video.
posted by kuatto at 8:50 PM on April 19, 2008 [5 favorites]


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?

Because, dumbass, if you don't do those things then there will be twice as much CO2 emitted, since it's not like if you don't cut back, that Chinese person won't be doing those things anyway. Plus, although China's CO2 emissions are going up, they are still far below the U.S's on a per-capita basis. And, given the urban density, they may never reach US levels.

That said, It is going to take some government action to sort this stuff out. In particular, carbon taxes (or cap 'n' trade) will have to be put in. Once the "externality" of CO2 release is priced in, things will start to shift automatically through market forces. That means gasoline might cost a lot at the pump, but the price of E100 and other biofuels would stay the same. That means the cost of electricity from a coal plant would go up, while the cost of electricity from a wind-farm would stay the same.

We also, seriously, need to address the CO2 release in the developing world as well.
posted by delmoi at 8:57 PM on April 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


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?

Not just softheadedness - 'elitism.' This question ended up not being the point of the piece, but it's something I've been thinking about lately in the wake of the latest lob of 'elitism' in the US Democratic nomination process. People engaged in leading social and environmental change struggle with and fend off this powerful label a lot. It's one of the few things you can call someone in modern-day America that still stings. But being someone with disposable income and having choices about the way it is spent is not, in itself, elitist. It might be elitist if the disposable income was used to further the status quo or draw attention to one's own consuming patterns. But a lot of people with that kind of income are doing the serious moral inquiry into systemic problems that others are unable or unwilling to do. The very fact that they're willing to do it is not softheaded and not elitist. In fact, I admire people who concern themselves with moral questions and try to take what action is in their power, when they do so sincerely.

I love that this piece winds up with gardening. Gardening, even on a tiny scale, is an amazingly transformative act. Pollan mentions that "40 percent" of American produce during WWII was grown by regular folks in Victory Gardens - he's absolutely right, and what's more, the Americans of 1940 were not, as a whole, that much better informed about gardening than today's urban American. The government had to explicitly teach gardening through pamphlets and programs - most Americans had embraced modernity and the idea of growing stuff in dirt and canning it was already pretty exotic, something from Grandma's time. They managed it. Today, the Victory Garden idea is resurfacing in the sustainability movement as a way to achieve victory over environmental and cultural damage.
posted by Miko at 9:03 PM on April 19, 2008 [5 favorites]


Because it's the right thing to do. Because leading by example works. Because you might not be able to change the world but you can change your little corner of it.

It's the Republican party/ Christian ideal of manifest destiny coupled with the advertising industry that has created this philosophy of ignorant mass consumption. See it for what it is and maybe it will be a little easier to put cynicism aside and do the right thing.
posted by photoslob at 9:04 PM on April 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


I heard an interesting segment on science friday (NPR) that was a response to Bush's plan to stop the growth of US CO2 output by 2025. The guest made the point that the U.S. must do much much better (more like 2015, I believe she said, with continued reduction beyond that point), because we not only need to reduce our own emissions, but we need to offset the growth of emissions from developing countries as well.

In 2002, Bush actually promised that our growth would continue only until 2012, but apparently something has changed his mind since then. The new plan to stop growth by 2025 has been heavily criticized by other countries, and the next president is likely to do something more. Even John McCain supports a cap and trade program (among other things).
posted by !Jim at 9:09 PM on April 19, 2008


Neat video, kuatto.
posted by Miko at 9:16 PM on April 19, 2008


I want to garden a little, even though I have a CSA this summer that's going to keep us in vegetables till October. I just don't know how to keep the squirrels away from anything I plant. Those assholes were chewing on my tulip bulbs last fall!
posted by sugarfish at 9:27 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


One of the things that has bothered me with the post-Inconvenient Truth green talk is how it is tied to a critique about American's consumption. Let's put aside the arguments about how pernicious consumer culture is for a moment. It seems to me that any environmental movements and initiatives that assume consumption habits are the root cause is simpleminded at best. That whole framework ignores the production side of the equation, which—at least on a logistical level—would seem much easier to affect change than on the consumption side. Even simply having more muscular regulatory bodies would probably do more to affect change than if a million Americans suddenly turned into bike-riding vegans overnight.

But I guess us Americans have internalized neoliberal economics so completely that even the idea of having regulatory bodies as anything but anemic is so strange and alien that we can only conceive of solving this problem at the level of the consumer.
posted by Weebot at 9:42 PM on April 19, 2008 [8 favorites]


Regarding lighting choices:

I've got a single full-spectrum LED lightbulb from Lemnis Lighting, a Dutch company, in a lamp. It is neat, although it's not quite the warm yellow of an incandescent.

Cost: $60. Power usage: 4 watts. Longevity estimate: 35 years. Brightness: 230 lumens. Real-world brightness: about a 25-30W incandescent. It's apparently the brightest on the consumer market, and it's expensive, yeah. I say give it another five years, and we'll have 60W to 75W equivalents on the market for maybe $10 apiece.

Also, there is no mercury in LED bulbs, although the quantity in CFLs is debatable. Some lady in Maine was quoted $2,000 for a hazmat cleanup when she broke a CFL on her carpet. Apparently it was a giant overreaction. But I don't want to do anything more than reach for the dustpan if a bulb breaks, yanno?

Light quality: I don't know how this LED bulb compares to CFLs, as I don't own any of those.

The link to the manufacturer's site has a little movie of a Bay Area news segment showing the bulb in action, and a brief shot of the innards.
posted by Jubal Kessler at 9:56 PM on April 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Aside from an Ikea hanging lamp that has 5 15 watt mini-bulbs, I have nothing but CFL's. I've only changed one bulb in over two years (aside from that damn lamp). That alone, I love. Give me convenience or...

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?

That passage alone gave me pause for a bit. What does it imply? That as rich white Westerners we should sacrifice in order to allow brown foreigners to live better than us? I know that wasn't Pollan's point, but I can see many a Joe Redneck following that logic.
posted by sourwookie at 9:56 PM on April 19, 2008


Well, it's hard for me to digest, but look how the folks in my hometown answered a question about global warming. Frightening, really.
posted by bradth27 at 10:02 PM on April 19, 2008 [6 favorites]


$60 light bulbs? Are you serious?
posted by xmutex at 10:13 PM on April 19, 2008


Well, it's hard for me to digest, but look how the folks in my hometown answered a question about global warming. Frightening, really.

Yikes! I live a mere mile from the Assemblies of God World Headquarters but at least our paper would have at least one dissenting opinion.

No. We have enough resources that it’s not a major threat.

Im guessing she's never heard of the Ogallala Auquifer. *Fingers in ears* "La la la la la la la....."
posted by sourwookie at 10:14 PM on April 19, 2008


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?

With this rhetorical comment, Pollan was setting up his argument for why this kind of thinking doesn't work.
posted by etaoin at 10:21 PM on April 19, 2008


$60 light bulbs? Are you serious?

He's an early adapter.

But think about it: they last 35 years, as opposed to a typical incandescent bulb rating of 750 hours. That gives you about a 1 year lifetime at 2 hours of use per day. So you'd buy 35 incandescent bulbs in the lifetime of one LED bulb. Incandescent bulbs cost, what? $1 each? So taking lifetime into account, the LED bulb is about twice as expensive as an incandescent bulb. Now consider energy use: the LED uses 4W while a comparable incandescent uses 25. At 750 hours per year, that's 3 kWh vs. 18.75 kWh. So the LED bulb saves you about 15 kWh per year, for a total of 525 kWh over the 35-year lifetime of the bulb. Residential electricity costs run about $0.1/kWh in the US, so you're saving another $52.5 in electrical bills. And that's assuming constant prices for electricity over the next 35 years: in reality they'll almost certainly increase significantly. But using this conservative estimate, the LED bulb saves you at least 20 bucks over its lifetime, even at early-adapter prices.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:36 PM on April 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Agreed, Weebot. This is my girlfriend's research domain, and she rationalizes it like this: if individuals are encouraged to act conservationally, those individuals are likely to take those attitudes to work and make changes there.

If the government attacked the environmental problem primarily by regulating industries more tightly, it would go right to the heart of the most terrible "environmentalism will destroy our economy" fear of anti-environmentalists. It probably wouldn't actually destroy the economy, but it would be hard to fight the fearmongering.

Not to say that regulation of industry isn't necessary, but that it can't be the only thing we do.
posted by breath at 10:41 PM on April 19, 2008


It's a big problem of our world, I think this planet is more unsuitable for human to live
posted by wonghonam at 10:47 PM on April 19, 2008


This is such a fatuous and unconvincing article that i really don't even know why I bother plucking these two examples, at random, to lie glistening upon the butcher paper in their own juices:

you can grow the proverbial free lunch — CO2-free and dollar-free

Um, no. No, you can't. Gardening is fine and all, but this assertion is nonsense, and the author knows it. Do I detect the echo of an editorially excised literally?

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.

Yeah, right. This argument has been made, and made, and made again at every level of every anti-consumerist subculture the West has produced since the dawn of industrialization. It has yet to work.

Furthermore, by introducing this meme into mass culture, a whole new cycle of branding opportunities is set in motion: by carefully branding one's consumer choices as Green, one obtains social status at the expense of one's neighbors!

That Prius costs more than the non-hybrid, but it's worth it: I am saving the world. And also advertising that you have, or had, a surplus of between seven to twelve thousand dollars to invest in that personal branding decision. Which, as you certainly know, goes to the income and profit side of the accounts of a global automobile manufacturer! Yes! Saving the planet by enriching the industrial manufacturing and distribution system while STILL getting to lord it over hapless Jones, over there!

So, sure, let's all walk or bike to work. I'm certain that the illegal immigrants who will inherit the demonetized suburbs won't resent the astronomical hypervaluation of city-center real estate and will absolutely subscribe to a value system which makes it illegal to own a ar unless you can afford a Range Rover with that high-rise condo - for your dogs, of course, as I heard a nice fellow remark this morning on Car Talk. They won't mind at all.

Am I offering solutions? No. But I am calling bullshit on this crock. Rolling virtue into a suite of personal branding options is NO WAY to kill consumerism. The way to kill consumerism is to kill the economic system that creates and depends upon it, and God knows it will involve suffering and economic upheaval, not solely tending our own gardens.
posted by mwhybark at 10:55 PM on April 19, 2008


It might be elitist if the disposable income was used to further the status quo or draw attention to one's own consuming patterns.

See, the problem is that around here, I see a lot of happy, crunchy upper middle class white folk driving Priuses, shopping at Whole Foods with their hemp bags, and wearing their post-consumer fleece.

And while that's all well and good, it's just as much about them flaunting their wealth as it is for the guy with the Hummer towing his 30 foot speedboat to the lake wearing whatever high end clothes he wears.

I don't think that sort of "elitism" is sustainable. What I am starting to think, though, is that Americans will have to start making hard choices soon, entirely based on economics. And that's when the folks who've recycled, gardened, and tried to live sustainably are going to do very, very well while everyone else (re)discovers the thift store, the bicycle, and the backyard garden.

As for gardening, it's only a matter of time before that makes its big comeback. Last year I grew tomatoes in containers, and surprisingly, they did very well, even though price-wise I didn't do all that well compared to the store. And that's with someone who had never been able to successfully garden, and did it all with dirt and one too many calls to the extension office.

If produce starts really getting expensive (and it just might, considering how taut the supply lines are right now), the Victory Gardens will start again.
posted by dw at 11:02 PM on April 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


I just don't know how to keep the squirrels away from anything I plant.

Them's good eating.
posted by dw at 11:03 PM on April 19, 2008


Um, no. No, you can't. Gardening is fine and all, but this assertion is nonsense, and the author knows it.

I had a spreadsheet last summer where I compared the amount I spent on growing the tomatoes vs. the equivalent cost of the yield at QFC. In the end, they cost me about 25c a pound more to grow them myself.

Now, this year I've already bought the soil and pots, so that should move me to break-even. But then, the price of tomatoes could drop. Or the price of water could rise.

But no, it's not a free lunch. And it's a silly assertion to say it is. OTOH, there is a point where it is cheaper to grow your own, but you're still going to pay for water, fertilizer, and tools.
posted by dw at 11:09 PM on April 19, 2008


The way to do right is the right way to do.

Did your tomato spreadsheet take into account the things you might have done had you not been gardening? A garden is also for turning off electronics and leaving the car cold and staying in one place with the buzz of bees. A garden is for forgetting spreadsheets.
posted by pracowity at 11:33 PM on April 19, 2008 [7 favorites]


Dw-- I hear you. My investment was larger last year, but my yield was huge (28 tomato plants, 24 pepper plants, 2 cantaloupe vines, 2 squash vines, a patch of corn, and untold basil, fennel, cilantro, dill and oregeno plants).

My investment will be much smaller this year, and I have a better idea how to maximize yield.

Im a center city apartment dweller and I brought in over 200 tomatoes the first year I ever tried.

I'm a gardening noob, but I'm encouraged by my initial success.

(as far as pests go, I built a bed up about a foot to a foot and a half above the ground with walls made from demolition detritus. No rabbits, the occasional squirrel, and bugs were at a minimum. )
posted by sourwookie at 11:38 PM on April 19, 2008


DW--25c a pound more to grow them yourself?

Hell, at 30 cents a tomato, at least a buck a bell pepper (I let a lot of them go red), 1.29/lb for squash, 2-3 dollars per melon, and 2.50 per quarter ounce of fresh herbs from my local store I came out well ahead.
posted by sourwookie at 11:43 PM on April 19, 2008


But using this conservative estimate, the LED bulb saves you at least 20 bucks over its lifetime, even at early-adapter prices.

You gotta discount your cash flows, dude.

The present value of $1/year for 35 years @ 3% is $21 to purchase the incandescent bulbs versus $60 for the LED.

The present value of $1.50/year for 35 years @ 3 is $32 for the extra electricity used by the incandescent bulbs versus $0 for the LED.

So, the incandescent bulbs end up costing $53 against the LED's $60.

Of course, this doesn't take into account changes in the price (and availability) of incandescent bulbs or electricity. It also doesn't take into account alternative plans, like using incandescent bulbs for one or two more years, then buying a LED.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 11:51 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Breath: Not to say that regulation of industry isn't necessary, but that it can't be the only thing we do.

I think it's the one option that hasn't been tapped to any real degree—look at how we are still fighting over CAFE standards—which is somewhat unsurprising, since the policy trend in the United States since Reagan has been towards deregulation. I'm not saying that the regulation of industry is the only course of action, but I that it's a tool that has been criminally underutilized. At this point, I don't consider any major policy initiatives without a regulatory component to be a serious attempt to control climate change. That is not to say that consumption habits don't matter, but that consumption habits are more of an incidental problem than a root one.

If I were a more cynical man, I'd say that the framing of climate change as an problem of personal consumption habits is a way for conglomerates to frame the issue as a failure of the consumer instead of a failure of the conglomerates. If the sea-levels rise, it'll have nothing to do with corporate stonewalling and political subterfuge, oh no! It'll be because each and every one of us were insufficiently ascetic.

But I'm only cynical enough to float the suggestion.

Also, what's your girlfriend's field of research, out of curiosity?
posted by Weebot at 12:03 AM on April 20, 2008


Kudos to Axel Rose for not releasing Chinese Democracy thus far. As a result, the CO2 in 300 million cans of Dr. Pepper remains sequestered.
posted by Tube at 12:10 AM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


So your tomatoes cost a bit more. Did you price in your drive to the store and the stress factor? What did they taste like? How do you value taste.? Did they taste like wet cardbord polished with wax? or was biting into a fresh home grown tomato a bit of an epiphany; A "wow that was good" moment.? Those sorts of moments don' have a price.
posted by adamvasco at 1:14 AM on April 20, 2008


mwhybark:

The author even admits this:

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.

All of this could, theoretically, happen. What I’m describing (imagining would probably be more accurate) is a process of viral social change, and change of this kind, which is nonlinear, is never something anyone can plan or predict or count on.


Following this the author descends into spirituality and what ifs. Not the great start of an effective effort to reduce emissions. Expecting all the world to suddenly think exactly like you do is a plan that usually fails. Worldchanging.org described it as the Mythological Universal Conversion Event. I've posted about it previously.

That's the real problem with the strategy of voluntary simplicity: it depends on the entire planet, or at least nearly the entire planet, agreeing spontaneously to all forgo the myriad pleasures and enticements of modern wealth and live in a simpler, perhaps truer way. This is what I think of as the Mythological Universal Conversion Event. Needless to say, the Mythological Universal Conversion Event hasn't yet arrived. If you still believe it's coming, that's fine: I don't.

posted by zabuni at 1:17 AM on April 20, 2008


If I were a more cynical man, I'd say that the framing of climate change as an problem of personal consumption habits is a way for conglomerates to frame the issue as a failure of the consumer instead of a failure of the conglomerates. If the sea-levels rise, it'll have nothing to do with corporate stonewalling and political subterfuge, oh no! It'll be because each and every one of us were insufficiently ascetic.

Quite cynical indeed. No doubt there is that element of the equation. But it's worth noting that many of the green things you can do on the manufacturing side boost efficiency as well, so there's a direct financial incentive for industry to go along this route, especially if there are government incentives to reduce the pain of upfront costs. Instead of paying extra to clean up your emissions, you retool your process so you don't waste as many resources.

Also, what's your girlfriend's field of research, out of curiosity?

Sustainable manufacturing. So her thing is helping manufacturers make smart decisions about their processes.
posted by breath at 2:12 AM on April 20, 2008


Well, it's hard for me to digest, but look how the folks in my hometown answered a question about global warming. Frightening, really.

If the people out in "the sticks" have a problem with us thinking they're god damn morons, then maybe a good first step would be to not be such god damn morons.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 2:49 AM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Pollan failed to mention an important point-- it's a good idea to get used to reducing your energy consumption because energy is going to continue to become more expensive. Personally, I look at is as good practice.
posted by miss tea at 4:57 AM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Look at it" sorry.
posted by miss tea at 4:58 AM on April 20, 2008


You can't fight human nature.

If the plan for "saving the planet" is to get everyone to buy in, to change their behaviour, to stop doing things that they enjoy, and accept a lower standard of living than that which they previously had, then, I have to tell you, I hope there's a plan B.
posted by standbythree at 5:22 AM on April 20, 2008


A crude (or crude-and-natural-gas) price crisis is more likely to lead to an expansion of coal-fired electric plants than it is to a wave of conservation -- not exactly what environmentalists are looking for.

It could pave the way to long-term carbon emission reduction -- increasing the use of coal would require conversion of large parts of our combustion-based infrastructure (gasoline and diesel engines, gas-fired heating, etc.) to a transmitted-electricity basis (electric and plug-in-hybrid cars, all-electric homes, etc.) When cleaner sources of electricity generation arise and reach scale the coal can be taken out.
posted by MattD at 5:41 AM on April 20, 2008


a lower standard of living than that which they previously had

How is gardening and fresh produce a lower SOL? As China and India rise to America's SOL, the demand for resources causes a rise in prices, and a lowering of SOL. Indeed, the current food crises is not because there is less food being grown (although some for bio-feul), but mostly because there is more demand for western style food in the East. Meat in particular takes a lot of resources.
posted by stbalbach at 6:01 AM on April 20, 2008


I recently attended an informal demo/comparo of LED bulbs, ranging in price from $60 to $90. About halfway through, the CEO of an LED manufacturer showed up and proceeded to give an hour long dissertation on the subject. He's of the belief that while LEDs' lumens-to-watt ratio is excellent, mating LED bulbs to existing Edison sockets isn't the best application of the technology. This is in part because of the significant heat that's generated -- you'll notice the LED bulbs have pretty hefty heat sinks at the base -- and in part because LEDs don't throw light in the same diffuse manner as incandescents or CFLs. Those heat sinks are a big reason for the high cost of LED bulbs, and until there's a better solution, the cost isn't likely to drop all that much. And adding an opaque globe diffuses the light, but with a loss of overall efficiency.

At the moment, he thinks that if you're going to put an LED in an existing socket, put it in a location that's difficult to reach (because you won't have to change it for a long time) and/or that's cold. LEDs apparently love cold weather. A garage or outdoor location is ideal.

In the meantime, he's a big fan of CFLs for everyday home use. And we can thank Wal-Mart in part for CFLs become so inexpensive so quickly; they made their typical move of "encouraging" manufacturers to drop the price and in exchange made a big push to blow them out the doors. You can get them for what, less than a dollar a pop these days?
posted by schoolgirl report at 6:32 AM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think this article's pretty good for what it is, a suggestion. Not a solution, which it seems like some people are looking for and faulting this article for not providing. All of this almost seems like a case of Wile E. Coyote running off of the cliff--we're going to fall just as soon as we look down but we're afraid of finding out how far below us the ground is.

Personally, I want to get a garden started because I know I'll be interested in the process of it. You know, growing my own food. I really doubt I'll feel smug and superior because I'm branding myself green, as if that somehow makes me better than anyone else. Can't it just be for the sake of the activity itself, does there always have to be some sinister motive? My friends call me cynical, but come on, it's gardening!

Yes, large companies are responsible. Regulation is direly needed. But even if people decide to start growing their own food because it's hip and virtuous to be green, isn't it still good that they're doing it? Even if it's just a drop in the bucket?
posted by palidor at 6:54 AM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


> Michael Pollan: Why Bother?

Y'know, one of the few problems I have with Pollan's article is his title.

I'm not sure that most of the US does rhetorical irony well, especially since the asshole VP that they elected twice thinks that reducing emissions and 'saving the planet' are the selfsame 'personal virtues' that Pollan critiques in his article.
posted by vhsiv at 7:25 AM on April 20, 2008


Delmoi: Because, dumbass, if you don't do those things then there will be twice as much CO2 emitted, since it's not like if you don't cut back, that Chinese person won't be doing those things anyway.

This is not quite true. The two of you are competing for a limited resource. Therefore, price is driven by demand. Once one of you two stops consuming, the price will go down, to the point where the other person will consume more, or possibly a third person will start consuming.

This means that even if you get a million people to stop, say, consuming oil, it will not even make a dent on global oil consumption.

Also Pollan, as I understand him, basically says that the main reason to bother is to raise consciousness. In that sense, I suppose being an energy hog and jetting around the world or living in a huge house can be largely evened out by being a consiousness raiser. Which is more or less what Al Gore does.
posted by sour cream at 7:43 AM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


My only gripe with this fantastic post, and your useful follow-up, stbalbach, is that you've clued me in to the Seed Savers Exchange in mid-April, when I'd have needed to start growing tomatoes from seed in early March. Any chance of getting a timely reminder next year?
posted by felix betachat at 7:49 AM on April 20, 2008


Feliz: put it on your calendar for next year. SSE is awesome and so is FedCo. Do you have a farmer's market near you? If so, pay a visit early in the season. Most farmers sell seedlings as a way to make some income before there is any produce available, and many organic/sustainable farmers buy seed from those organizations, so you can sometimes find those same varieties.

This year things got away from me, but we might start a seed exchange over on MetaChat next year.

Back to the tomatoes that cost .25 more a pound to grow: wha'? How do you figure that? If you have to build a garden the first year, I suppose there are expenses, but that is a one-time investment. I'm fortunate to have a garden that was already built when I inherited it, but my tomatoes are...absolutely free. I save the seed from the year before. I don't use any soil additives other than compost. And I rarely need to water. That might not be the case everywhere, but one of the main reasons I garden is that good Lord, the food is cheap. Baby spinach, 2.99 for six ounces at the store? I had baby spinach continuously for six weeks last year, pounds and pounds of it. Again, the $1.79 seed packet was the only cost. The same metrics applied to the chard, lettuce, herbs, zucchini and squash.

Are you counting your labor in there? I don't do that. For one thing, it's fairly decent exercise to weed and tend the garden. I pay a gym to be able to do exercises that garden work replicates - carrying stuff, bending over repeatedly, squatting and standing. I get sunlight. It's a really pleasant pastime. Since my plot is in a community garden, it's also social time, plus I learn a few things from the other gardeners there.

I'm just trying to figure out how you could garden that would create more expensive produce than at the store or the market. It seems almost impossible to me.

This is my girlfriend's research domain, and she rationalizes it like this: if individuals are encouraged to act conservationally, those individuals are likely to take those attitudes to work and make changes there.

This is somewhat true in practice. Institutions, including corporations, are made up of individuals, and those individuals can be in a position to influence the institutions' values. This has been true at a nearby college, where students are getting the dining services to buy from regional farms, composting waste, and buying only fair trade for the t-shirts and sweatshirts. On an institutional level, those choices begin to have a larger impact. My museum just built a LEED-certified building and we switched to CFLs - since we have 37 buildings that stay lit year-round, there's a noticeable difference in our energy usage. These changes are still small, but they do show that people who can make decisions about institutions can have a huge impact if they themselves already share the values.

As to the hypocrisy of people who drive Range Rovers and feel virtuous because their soy latte is in a recyclable sleeve - I don't worry too much about that. It doesn't stop people who are genuinely working hard at sustainability from doing their work, and in the short term we can use their consumer demands to make positive changes. I think it's a mistake to assume that those obviously shallow efforts are all that is going on. People are never perfect, and unless you're homesteading totally off the grid, it's inevitable that our behaviors will have some degree of, er, "impurity" even if we're hardcore activists. Working toward progress on all fronts remains important - if it becomes trendy for the knee-jerk rich, so be it - they're always going to be into something, but by the time they've moved on perhaps their interest will have provided some capital for long-term change. Recycling always comes to mind as an example for me: I can remember life before recycling, and when it was proposed in my town, it was supposedly the work of spoiled, rich, liberal environmentalists who thought they were better than us. There was no way people were going to be able to sort their trash! Too hard! Where would you keep it! It would smell! How inconvenient!

And yet, the town said "it saves money, and if you don't do it, we'll fine you." They dropped off the containers and the rest is history. Not that recycling is a fabulous solution (too much waste in the first place), but the arc of introduction by environmentalists in partnership with city officials, identity-based opposition, enforcement and education, and gradual adaptation into total acceptance is a hopeful example for any sort of broad systemic change. It did work.
posted by Miko at 8:10 AM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


bradth27: Man, that was depressing.
posted by Miko at 8:12 AM on April 20, 2008


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 do all these things and a lot of the others mentioned in the article, when possible, just because it improves the quality of my own life. The fact that it's also reducing greenhouse gas emissions is really just a bonus.
posted by flug at 8:24 AM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I went back to the spreadsheet and I got it backwards: It cost 25c LESS to grow them myself. About $3.65/lb. Mea culpa.

And admittedly, Seattle is an awful place to grow tomatoes. Last year I planted mid-May and didn't have any ripe ones until the first of September. Off of two early girls, a cherry, and an heirloom green grape I got 33 lbs total.

And yet, I'm trying bell peppers this year, which make tomatoes in Seattle seem positively easy to grow.

Are you counting your labor in there?

Nope. Capital costs (pots, soil, fertilizer, trellises) plus water. And yes, water -- it usually doesn't rain (much) in Seattle from the Fourth of July to Labor Day.

As for the "not driving" offset, I'm a five minute walk from the grocery store.
posted by dw at 9:34 AM on April 20, 2008


There's a fair bit of electronics in each CFL. Electronics made using resources that are going to be completely used up within the next two decades -- nickel, copper, iridium, tantalum, stuff like that.

I don't think we can have a world where the global standard of living is even remotely Western-style.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:03 AM on April 20, 2008


Electronics made using resources that are going to be completely used up within the next two decades -- nickel, copper, iridium, tantalum, stuff like that.

Nickel and copper are nowhere close to being used up. It's gallium and tantalum we have to worry about.
posted by dw at 10:09 AM on April 20, 2008


Nope. Capital costs (pots, soil, fertilizer, trellises) plus water. And yes, water -- it usually doesn't rain (much) in Seattle from the Fourth of July to Labor Day.

OK. You can reuse your pots now, I'm guessing? Sounds like you're container gardening - anything can be a container (#10 coffee can, recucled plastic pot, milk jug with soda bottles punched into the bottom, crate lined with trash-bag plastic). For stakes I just use scrap fence posts which can be reused every year. For fertilizer, just compost. And you still have your soil, I guess. So these costs won't continue - very little investment in the garden required after you get it started - especially if you recycle your seed starting pots. You will definitely get much more yield by starting earlier indoors so you are setting out tall seedlings in May. As for water, you can re-use graywater from rinsing dishes or put out a couple rainwater buckets - if you live somewhere that has gutters and downspouts, you're golden.

Gardening, I'm afraid, is like every other hobbyish pursuit - there are businesses glad to tell you need all sorts of things and sell you the stuff to do it: nice tools. All sorts of additives. Fancy pots and garden accessories. Soil testing kits. Special gloves and shoes. But if cost is a concern, gardening can be done so very cheaply that anyone, even really broke people, can do it. It's just a matter of resourcefulness. Of course, if you want nice garden stuff and have the money to get it, no reason not to go crazy - it's certainly a nice thing to do that pays back a lot of reward for the cost.
posted by Miko at 12:42 PM on April 20, 2008


"milk jug with soda bottles..."

Yeesh. Obviously, milk jug OR soda bottles WITH HOLES punched in....

Back outside for me, I'm not able to write right today.
posted by Miko at 12:43 PM on April 20, 2008


I read this in the paper this morning. It's ok, I guess -- gardening is, on the whole, a good thing; it is hard to argue against it without sounding like a really unrepentant green-o-phobe.

But I did have two real problems with the article. The first is rhetorical -- his decision to make the "evil twin" Chinese. That kind of cheap nativism is what I expect from a guest on the O'Reilly show, not from a writer of Pollan's quality. There is enough stoking of the anti-Chinese fires already at the moment; the question of whether or not to plant a garden should not have to rely on nationalism and xenophobia. (But then again, his example of the 1940s Victory Gardens is illustrative -- when times are scary and the world is threatening, home gardening is a comforting retreat, both economic and moral support for the Homeland.) In real life, Pollan's evil twin is not a newly-industrializing Chinese guy -- it is some guy named Fred, who lives in Westchester County or Chevy Chase, who commutes two hours a day in a Yukon but might buy a hybrid in a couple of years, and who is really enjoying his new granite countertops and in-ground pool. China is not the problem -- we are our own problem, and should maybe get our own house in order before painting the Chinese as the environmental villains of the century.

The second was alluded to already -- his hope for broad-based societal change from individualistic action. Doesn't happen, hasn't happened, won't happen. You do "right things" because they are right, not because everyone will see you and copy you -- they won't. You create societal change the old-fashioned way -- mass mobilization, or elite deal-making, or with threats and economic leverage that are translated into political action. If you want Victory Gardens, you need to recreate the apparatuses that made it possible (basically, a combination of New Deal institutional infrastructure, the WW2 national planning and control bureaucracies, and the mobilized institutions like university extension offices, local Civil Defense volunteers, and the mass media). Whatever Victory Gardens were, they were not organic and grass-roots, or based in individual moral behavior.

So yes, more gardening is a very, very good thing. I deliberately don't keep track of my gardening expenses, because it isn't free but the flavors are so good I don't care what it costs. But I think that the lessons of the 1970s (and other decades, too) are very clear, in that individual action does not translate into political change absent effective organizing, compromising, and coaltion-building -- all the things that Pollan's article ignores in favor of a feel-good connection between gardening and creating change.
posted by Forktine at 1:45 PM on April 20, 2008


flug
Even the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan?
posted by Sangermaine at 1:47 PM on April 20, 2008


anything can be a container (#10 coffee can, recucled plastic pot, milk jug with soda bottles punched into the bottom, crate lined with trash-bag plastic).

Not for tomatoes. I was going to use 10 gallon paint buckets, but the extension service told me 15 gallons or else it will outgrow its pot. I used 15 gallon nursery pots, which are durable and relatively cheap ($7 apiece).

For stakes I just use scrap fence posts which can be reused every year. For fertilizer, just compost. And you still have your soil, I guess.

I don't have a yard; even the little dirt I do have is heavily shaded. Thus the containers -- I'm growing them on the deck, which gets almost full sun (except when the 75 foot willow in the neighbor's yard shades it 3 hours a day). Also, no space for the compost, and anyway the city hauls all my food scraps and yard waste away as recycling.

And then there's this other little problem -- the deck is off the third floor, but the faucet is off the shaded patio... on the first floor. The problem of running a hose up 20 feet and the logistics of turning it on, going up two flights, watering, and turning it off was just too much for me. In the end, I just hauled gallon watering cans in and out.

You will definitely get much more yield by starting earlier indoors so you are setting out tall seedlings in May.

I cheated and bought tomato seedlings.

Of course, if you want nice garden stuff and have the money to get it, no reason not to go crazy - it's certainly a nice thing to do that pays back a lot of reward for the cost.

Well, last year's moderate success has lead me to expand -- more tomatoes, but also peppers, carrots, beans, basil, and strawberries. It means more water hauling unless I can find a way to get a rain barrel to the third-floor deck. But it'll be worth it. The heirloom green tomatoes were worth it.
posted by dw at 4:42 PM on April 20, 2008


dw: Seattle, rep ra zent!

What a fucked-up 'spring' for the garden, huh? I went for raised bed this year, in the spirit of bitter skepticism I strive for in all things. So far it's worked out great, as far as the bitter skepticism is concerned. I have it all wrapped in plastic (OH NOES PETROLEUM PRODUCT) for the nonce.

Reading up on how to's has been interesting, I guess the local compost outfit, Cedar Creek or whatever is not a usual thing in most areas of the country - commercially available compost tends to be single-industry waste meal, and you have to mix it yourself. Woo hoo, way to go, Prius-drivin' homegardening Seattle.

In all seriousness, maybe we could fold a seed exchange thingy into a meetup? After all, gardening hereabouts is much like falling off a log, and neurasthenic computer geeks can do that as well as anyone.

Miko: The seed exchange sounds awesome, as I imply above.

Be advised, I'm a hater: don't mistake my interest and participation for approval or agreement. I don't bite, though. I mostly find social interaction funny and fun, and our monkey need to be aligned in matters of utter nonsense such as values and goals just makes it that much more ridiculous. This monkey emphatically included.
posted by mwhybark at 5:23 PM on April 20, 2008


Woo Seattle! If you need seeds, Librarina and I have a mess of extras, mostly from territorial and some saved from last year and the year before. In particular, I've got more seed potatoes than I can use (lousy 2# minimum order!) in lots of delicious flavors. We might have extra starts as well. Not sure how that'll shape up as we get the garden in.

Also, this time next year, we expect to have khaki campbell ducklings as well. Poultry are like mega-gardening and nothing kickstarts your compost like good old fashioned shit.
posted by stet at 7:08 PM on April 20, 2008


Also, there is no mercury in LED bulbs, although the quantity in CFLs is debatable. Some lady in Maine was quoted $2,000 for a hazmat cleanup when she broke a CFL on her carpet. Apparently it was a giant overreaction. But I don't want to do anything more than reach for the dustpan if a bulb breaks, yanno?

Yup. I broke one while screwing it in earlier this year. Haven't had any health problems yet. Feel free to monitor my MeFi comments though--if they stop for a while (say a month) then you might want to start worrying.
posted by A dead Quaker at 7:12 PM on April 20, 2008


stet- it sounds like we need to have a green thumb meetup. Although there is little I can add, unless I can start covert gardening in the green area outside my apartment that is in rocky soil, and heavily shaded.
posted by mrzarquon at 10:02 PM on April 20, 2008


In all seriousness, maybe we could fold a seed exchange thingy into a meetup?

Sure, though I don't have any heirloom seeds to exchange. I'm due a trip to Swanson's, though.
posted by dw at 10:15 PM on April 20, 2008


Oh hell, screw that heirloom stuff: I'll be bringing a bunch of seeds, some of which I paid for, some of which were given to me, and some of which I stole from, respectively, alleys, Kubota Garden plants, and Butchart Garden plants.

I know literally nothing about gardening. I actively resent having to learn about it, so please, keep your superior knowldege to yourselves. All I know is I can't possibly cultivate all these seeds and it's wrong to hoard surplus value.

As Al Gore has informed us. ;)
posted by mwhybark at 11:23 PM on April 20, 2008


WTF? Inline spelchek saw 'knowldege' as legit. Man.
posted by mwhybark at 11:25 PM on April 20, 2008


I know literally nothing about gardening. I actively resent having to learn about it, so please, keep your superior knowldege to yourselves. All I know is I can't possibly cultivate all these seeds and it's wrong to hoard surplus value.

I spent most of last summer on the phone with Swanson's or WSU. Eventually, they explained to me that tomatoes need a lot more water than I was giving them. That apparently I was giving them less than half of what they needed.

That's just how genius I am with plants. I managed to not kill them thanks to the woman at Swanson's who will no longer return my calls.
posted by dw at 11:34 PM on April 20, 2008


Not for tomatoes

It will work, dw, despite what the extension service says. Really - I've done it, and also grown tomatoes in a 5" deep plastic flower box. They have produced long before they were outgrowing their pot, at least in my climate, though who knows - it might be really differeent where you are, with less sunlight and all. The only way to know is to experiment. There's ideal and then there's what's possible - don't worry too much about it! But it sounds like your setup is good to go, so no worries. I just wanted to make sure people knew that it is possible to garden with almost no investment at all.

Tomato seed is really easy to save, so be sure to set some aside to trade next year. Just take a ripe tomato that you're going to use for salsa, bruschetta, or something else similarly mangled. Slice it in half and squeeze the pulp out over a split-open brown paper bag. Spread the pulpy seed stuff over the bag and place it somewhere dry and out of the wind. After a week or so you can just fold it up, put a rubber band around it, and set it aside for next year. And oh yeah, write the variety on it so you can tell what's what next year.
posted by Miko at 7:44 AM on April 21, 2008


I should clarify that by 'stole' i mean 'gathered seed bodies,' not 'shoplifted.'
posted by mwhybark at 8:51 AM on April 21, 2008


I totally thought you meant "stole." I was all "wow, ballsy anarchist."
posted by Miko at 8:54 AM on April 21, 2008


It will work, dw, despite what the extension service says.

Heh. When I turned the soil over during our strangely warm Saturday two weeks ago (80F, then it snowed this last Friday/Saturday? WTF?) I spent a lot of time pulling out tomato roots, which had pretty much filled the 15 gallon bucket.

I wish I'd saved one of the green tomatoes, but with the harvest so quick (the month of September) we just plowed through them.
posted by dw at 9:56 AM on April 21, 2008


China is not the problem -- we are our own problem

Well if you view the planet as one gigantic organism where what you do in Brazil, India, Mexico, United States, Canada &c then China is very much a problem, but this is true every where else to varying degrees. Nations can control the land you live on to a certain extent but they can't control the air around us.

What does it imply? That as rich white Westerners we should sacrifice in order to allow brown foreigners to live better than us? I know that wasn't Pollan's point, but I can see many a Joe Redneck following that logic.

Ever heard of collective action problems or the Prisoners Dilemma? Nations play this game. Japan is unwilling to reduce emissions further because they worry China won't hold up its end of the bargain under Kyoto. Canada has used similar arguments against the United States. If you act first, in all likelihood you will suffer some hardship if no one else holds up their end of the bargain. So we wind up in this weird stalemate where nothing gets accomplished.

The article read more like the central points of "lefty" thinking; "Don't trust The Establishment! Raise your consciousness by planting a garden ... " I'm very much a lefty though now I'm far too old and cynical to believe individuals will do the right thing on their own.
posted by squeak at 10:16 AM on April 21, 2008


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