November 2007

Arts & Letters


By Robyn Davidson
Michael Pollan’s ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ & Bill McKibben’s ‘Deep Economy’

It would be interesting to know how many trees and how much oil (petrol for the delivery of, aviation fuel for the author promotion of, ink for the printing of, machines for shredding the remainders of), have gone into the plethora of books bringing us the bad eco-news in the decades since Silent Spring. It would be interesting to know whether the information contained in such books has moderated the habits of privilege of this most materially advanced era of all time, or changed any important policy decisions in a multinational boardroom.

I've read a lot of such books over the years. I admire the people who researched and wrote them, am in broad agreement with their conclusions, but I cannot say that they have radically altered the way I live. I know about nature's principles (no free lunches), and I've never liked the aesthetic of consumerism. But I do travel in aeroplanes. I wouldn't care for a life without aeroplanes in it.

And that's the problem, isn't it? How to give up something you've become habituated to, that underpins the structure of your life, even when you know it's bad news for your grandchildren. (Or children. Or your own future.) How to imagine a society based on the ethics not just of moderation, but of self sacrifice. How to extricate yourself from, or even begin to comprehend, the infinitely complex chains of consequence that constitute modern life.

Environmental books worry a lot. Yet they are almost always redemptive. I don't think I've read a single one that suggests it's too late: ‘That's it, Modern Man. Down oblivion's toilet with you and all your works. The only choice now is whether your civilisation ends in bangs or whimpers.'

The two under review - The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World, by Michael Pollan (Allen & Unwin, 450pp; $23.95), and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben (Palgrave Macmillan, 272pp; $45) - follow the usual format. They are well researched and written with passionate dedication. They use catchy metaphor or structural gimmick to carry the frightful information forward. That information is hair-raising, appalling, yet each suggests that if we just ... change ... (soon, very very soon), we will scrape through. Some kind of formula is given, by which to bring about this change. Bill McKibben's is localism. And in a different sort of way, so is Michael Pollan's. But really, what they are suggesting is a complete overhaul of a global economy based on the fossil fuels whose combustion we can no longer afford, but whose replacement remains technologically, economically and politically more challenging than any transition in modern history.

Bill McKibben is a well-known, well-read, well-travelled American environmentalist. He is the author of the bestseller The End of Nature (1989), and has refined, over the years, what he believes to be the only long-term solution to the ravages of the global economy. Localism is not a new idea. Small is Beautiful was back in that plethora somewhere, too. And the rather Protestant idea that an honest, communitarian life in the country, with neighbourly neighbours all abjuring meat and sharing world-views, is what we all should, indeed now must, aspire to, has been a dominant aesthetic in much of the ecology movement.

McKibben is, in fact, a practising Protestant, so we know where he's coming from. And of course he is right when he argues that the cult of continued economic growth is not making us any happier. It's a suicidal system that is destroying the ecological foundation upon which civilisation rests, and according to recent studies is making us more miserable, in spite of giving us the ability to buy and chuck out more junk than our parents would have thought possible. True. All true. And it may yet come to pass that humans will end up in small communities, struggling to survive, as our ancestors did, because the global economy has been undone by its own fatal flaws. Aeroplanes will be out, along with cars and the possibility of seeing New York again with sunset drenching its glassy walls. It might be a ‘natural' life, but hardly a cause for joy.

I have nothing against the simple rural life, for those who wish to pursue it. It certainly cuts down reliance on fossil fuels (no more delivering bottled water across half the globe, to people who already have perfectly good tap water), and eases the kind of existential loneliness that often plagues modern man as he forges his individuality in a world that's increasingly alienating. But I find it hard to believe that local, steady-state economies are the solution to all that ails our planet and our species. Or if it were, that people would accept it.

Way back in 1967, when I lived with a group of radical biologists in Queensland, all older than me and holding university degrees from various countries, we often spoke of how to live with what we knew: that it was already too late for many species, many ecosystems, possibly even for civilisation itself. So much beauty and uniqueness was being lost to the crassest kinds of development; and in an endgame with nature, humans must inevitably lose. I remember one friend saying that the best hope was that people would adapt to the impoverished world that lay ahead. They wouldn't know what had been lost, so they wouldn't grieve over it. But it grieved me then, and it does still. In my short lifespan I have seen the landscape I love steadily deteriorating, losing its soil, its water, its rich diversity.

It's taken 40 years for the information available then to percolate far enough into the social fabric that a conservative politician would finally declare that global warming, for example, is a problem. That time lag makes me wonder whether humans are redeemable. When even the UK's Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees - a man not given to hysteria - states publicly that he thinks we have less than a century ahead of us, it's time to worry.

The great hope of postwar modernity was that everyone would eventually be able to enjoy its benefits. Its grand ideologies - communism and post-Fordist capitalism - might break a few eggs along the way, there might be a bit of uncomfortable fallout in the short term, but ultimately the lowly would be raised and able to participate in the generation of wealth. It would be hard to argue with, say, a Chinese peasant, used to living on subsistence agriculture, now employed in one of those extraordinary new cities and able to purchase a car, that this hope hasn't been achieved. The gamble as to whether the material advantages can reach the multitudes, before the concomitant ecological and social fallout puts an end to the dream, is being played not just with lives but with Life.

The free-market wallahs tell us that twenty-first-century modernity is going to be worth it and everyone will benefit. But even according to their own statistics, the trend seems to be in the opposite direction. Against the background drama of bits of Antarctic shelf shearing off, continents desiccating and diseases spreading, America's environmental follies continue. The present administration has overturned regulations to protect the environment, has ceased to enforce long-fought-for air- and water-pollution legislation, and has been obstructive on global warming. (Or rather, climate change, as Mr Bush was coached to say by advisers.) It was not so much ideology as the steady payback to the logging, mining, industrial farming, fossil-fuel and other industries that put the president in power.

If we all can cut down on the hidden costs of the goods we buy (the fossil fuels needed to deliver them) by choosing local produce, well and good. If we can adjust our material expectations downward a bit, marvellous. This is sensible, and will make a difference. McKibben takes us around the world, showing us local projects that have successfully stepped outside the global loop. It can be done! But his thesis reveals its weakness when he visits a young Chinese girl working in a factory to save money for her family. He buys a large stuffed toy for her in the market and she is overcome, having never dreamed of being able to possess such a desirable object. The local solution just isn't going to work for her. Because she wants what McKibben and the rest of us already have: the possibility of choosing the good life, which might include flying around the world in aeroplanes, promoting Local.

Pollan takes us on a different journey, along the American food chain from soil to table, and it is funny in so far as you are shown how lunatic industrialised food production is. He concludes that it is not only ecologically insupportable and shrinking the incomes of farmers (who are killing themselves the world over), but also making consumers sickly and fat. His particular structural gimmick is that he eats a meal culminating from each of four possible food-production systems.

It's not surprising that it was a Frenchman who said, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are." If he was right, Americans are corny. Corn makes its way into almost everything that goes down the collective gullet. Corn starch, corn oil and most critically, corn syrup are key ingredients in anything processed you can think of: toothpaste, beer, yoghurt and tomato sauce. Salad dressings and vitamin pills. Farmed fish transform corn into flesh. Feedlot cattle turn corn into porterhouse.

In the first section of the book, we follow the humble cob along some of its processing byways. Beginning in Idaho, in a vast flat cornfield, we learn the illogical system whereby huge monoculture farms, having swallowed up smaller, mixed farms, are now caught in a production trap in which the more they produce, the less money they make. We eventually make our way to the eight-mile length of feeding trough of a feedlot pen in Kansas. Along the way we are taught something of how this gargantuan agricultural industry is controlled by just a few companies whose raison d'être, naturally enough, is profits, not human or animal health.

The process of shipping, processing and trucking food across distances demands capital, and the bigger a company is, the cheaper it is for that company to be in business. So small distribution and supply companies are swallowed up. When the number of companies controlling the gateways from farmers to consumers is small, they have tremendous power over both the growers and the people who eat their produce.

Predictably enough, Pollan chooses, as the culinary outcome of this system, a McDonald's cheeseburger. But before we eat the burger, we meet the steer he has bought (destined for just such a burger), which stands in a pen, up to his hocks in shit, eating the only thing available - corn enriched with pharmaceuticals and animal render - even though his stomach is not designed to digest it, because it will make him grow fat for slaughter (while increasing the ‘bad' fats in his flesh), in spite of the indigestion he suffers, for which he is constantly dosed with antibiotics, which bring about the evolution of super-resistant bacteria or are washed into the toxic lagoon you can see from the cattle pen: a lake of feedlot wastes that farmers cannot use, containing heavy metals, hormone residues and persistent chemicals that end up in waterways downstream.

Pollan stands beside his steer, looking out over the shit lagoon, and thinks:

Follow the corn from this bunk back to the fields where it grows and I'd find myself back in the middle of that 125,000-square-mile monoculture, under a steady rain of pesticide and fertilizer. Keep going, and I could follow the nitrogen runoff from that fertilizer all the way down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, adding its poison to an eight-thousand-square-mile zone so starved of oxygen nothing but algae can live in it. And then go farther still, follow the fertilizer (and the diesel fuel and the petrochemical pesticides) needed to grow the corn all the way to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf.

The rest of the book pursues alternative eating strategies. There's industrialised organic farming, from which he derives a meal of chicken and salad. He asks,

In precisely what sense can that box of salad on sale in a Whole Foods three thousand miles and five days away from this place truly be said to be organic? And if that well-traveled plastic box deserves that designation, should we then perhaps be looking for another word to describe the much shorter and much less industrial food chain that the first users of the word "organic" had in mind?

A rhetorical question, but you get the feeling his answer would be yes.

The most enjoyable meal is the one from Polyface Farm, which is everything you would want a farm to be: self-sustaining, run with intelligence and a keen understanding of how biological systems work. Here, livestock and crops are connected in mutually beneficial circles. When extra labour is needed (for a chicken cull, let's say), neighbouring farmers come by, rather than migrants shipped in from far away. Chickens are killed quickly, and purchased, on site.

In the end, Pollan and McKibben reach the same conclusion. We have to extricate ourselves from dependence upon fossil fuels. We have to eat less processed food and more locally produced organic food. While we will have to pay more for that food, it will be better food. And the hidden costs of cheap food, such as farmers' subsidies, will no longer have to go to the taxman. It's a good vision, but it's tainted by that Chinese girl holding her stuffed toy. Or closer to home, by all those Australian single mothers who have neither the spare time nor the spare dollars with which to participate in the slow-food movement.

Alas, people don't seem to change until a really big disaster forces them into it. And the problem with ecological disaster is that it spreads out through time. It doesn't suddenly threaten, like an asteroid, say, or a nuclear war. The postwar environmental movement that Rachel Carson helped inaugurate oscillated between utopian enthusiasm and environmental catastrophism. Hope and crisis fed off each other. It has been argued that the disaster-mongers of that movement have a lot to answer for, in that they have cried wolf too often, thus lulling people into a false sense of security and lending credibility to the PR departments of those monolithic companies that keep our political parties afloat.

Since then, environmental activism and its literature have concentrated, for the most part, on the hopeful side, directing the movement toward solutions. Yet environmental problems are proliferating, and the stories that fill the newspapers today are more disturbing than any before. Open water at the North Pole, acidifying oceans, acute water shortages predicted for an increasing number of people: reports like these have become a regular ingredient in the uncertainty of contemporary life.

If we're to get through, there will have to be a transformation, not just of food production and eating habits, but of business and government, of culture and consciousness. Meanwhile, we muddle along, waiting for technological advance to bail us out, hoping to hell that Lord Rees is wrong.

Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson is a non-fiction writer. She is the author of the award-winning books Tracks and Desert Places, and the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 and The Picador Book of Journeys.

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