Everyday choices depend more on culture, infrastructure, economics, and values
I see Maywa beat me to the “I really like Michael Pollan, but … ” post. I too was disappointed with Pollan’s answer to the question of “Why Bother?” As in, why bother taking personal steps to reduce one’s contribution to climate change? I will say this, though: the article did sharpen my thinking about why I think we should bother.
One of the things I’ve always admired about Pollan’s writing is his knack for delivering sly polemic that hangs equally on scientific arguments and common sense. It’s a neat trick that makes simple acts like reading an ingredients label seem slightly radical and even fun. I read his stuff and think, “Of course I want to get on board with this. Why wouldn’t I?”
Like Maywa, I was dismayed by Pollan’s disparagement of “grand schemes” to address climate change. But beyond that, I was struck by the fact that the essay seemed to teeter on the edge of the sort of petty moralism that infects a lot of thinking on this topic. Where was the sense of fun?
When I consider my own (highly imperfect) conservation efforts, it seems clear that I’m guided not by morals but by values. That is, not by a sense of right and wrong, but by a sense of what’s important — to me, personally. The difference between values and morals might seem slight, but a lot turns on it.
Quite often, morals can be kind of a drag: you shall or you shan’t. Values are affirming: I feel good when I can express my values (and unhappy when prevented from doing so). Morals are exclusionary: people who don’t share your morals are, almost by definition, bad. Values are inclusive: it’s possible and even common to admire values that you don’t yourself possess.
The article approvingly mentions morality (and its synonym, virtue) eight times. It mentions value once — in a negative light. Pollan highlights the economic concept of value to criticize carbon pricing and other schemes that attempt to “nudge our self-interest down the proper channels.”
On the contrary, I think this dual meaning of value — economic and personal — perfectly encapsulates why the concept is such a powerful one. Economic and personal values can reinforce and even catalyze one another. Why bother cutting our carbon footprint? Because action increases our commitment to our values. Because action signals to other citizens and politicians the depth of those values. Because values are transmitted socially. Because we’ll get where we’re going a lot faster, and more happily, if we’re committed for more than just pocketbook reasons.
This might seem like a very minor reformulation of Pollan’s message, but it would have done a lot to make a flat message more compelling. U.S. citizens abroad often note the dramatically higher rates of recycling, bicycle riding, or other “green” habits in other countries. Does anyone suppose that such habits arise in response to moral imperatives? Of course not. Culture, infrastructure, economics, and values shape these everyday choices more than morals ever could.