Thursday, April 22, 2010

Charlotte Allen takes on Michael Pollan, among others

Charlotte Allen takes a look at Real Simple: Not Really Simple (via Rod Dreher)

Going simple: another fad for SPWLs and BoBos? Eco-chic. But then she begins to link various people under this "movement." Ms. Allen mentions Michael Pollan:
Hunting is usually taboo in the simplicity movement because it involves guns (hated by the professionally simple) and exploitation of animals (ditto). However, if you're hunting boar in the upscale hills ringing the San Francisco Bay so as to furnish yourself a "locally grown" boar paté, as does Berkeley professor and simplicity movement guru Michael (The Omnivore's Dilemma) Pollan, or perhaps to experience an "epiphany," as another well-fixed Bay Area boar hunter recently told the New York Times, you're doing a fine job of returning to the simple life.

If Mr. Pollan hunted with a gun would the criticism to be lessened? Should we criticize him and others because they have experiences that others who live in the Bay Area cannot have? Advocates like Mr. Pollan would like to make society more aware of its dependency on farms and food producers, being big believers in public education. They are also generally supportive of efforts to get the community (especially the poor) involved in the production of food.

How valid, then, are Ms. Allen's characterizations of those who embrace this "simplicity movement"? Do they really believe themselves to be superior to those who live simply because they are poor and without means, or involuntarily? Perhaps there is some desire for status and pride involved, but shouldn't we also look at their actions and their circumstances as well? Why do we need to judge them solely on the motives we attribute to them? (Maybe we can easily infer their motives from their actions, but what if we can't?) Do we get a complete picture of them as people? It is easy to attack the affluent for their latest fashion. But is there some truth to what they are embracing? And should we be lumping all of these people together? Should we not be looking at the principles of action, rather than disparate people? But that would require focus and precision in one's thinking.

Here, as in elsewhere, she is critical because of the economics of "simplicity" or of localism:

Simplicity movement people always seem to shell out more money than the not-so-simple, usually because the simple things they love always seem to cost more than the mass-produced versions. On a website called Passionate Homemaking that's dedicated to making, among other things, your own cheese, your own beeswax candles, and your own underarm deodorant, you are also advised to cook with nothing but raw cultured butter from a mail-order outfit called Organic Pastures. The butter probably tastes great. It also costs $10.75 a pound - plus UPS shipping. At farmer's markets, where those striving for simplicity like to browse with their cloth shopping bags, the organic, the locally grown, and the humanely raised come at a price: tomatoes at $4 a pound, bread at $8 a loaf, and $6 for a cup of "artisanal" gelato.
This sort of judgment, that what enables people to have cheap food is the best, ignores the other sort of goods that are sacrificed in order to maintain that existence, many of which cannot be measured in dollars, except maybe indirectly. (The costs of bad health, and so on.)
her own recommendations? what does she accept or defend as intrinsically good (as opposed to what is merely practicable)?

More excoriation of Mr. Pollan follows:

But it has been only in the last decade or so that the simplicity movement has come into its own, aligning itself not only with aesthetic style but also with power. Thanks to the government-backed war against obesity (fat people, conveniently, tend to belong to the polyester-clad, Big Mac-guzzling lower orders) and the "green" movement in its various save-the-planet manifestations, simplicity people can look down their noses at the not-so-simple with their low-rent tastes while also putting them on the moral defensive. Thus you have Michael Pollan, whose zero-impact ethic of food simplicity won't let him eat anything not grown within one hundred miles of his Bay Area home, and preferably grown (or killed, milked, churned, or picked) himself. He bristles with outrage not only at McDonald's burgers, Doritos, and grapes imported from Chile (foreign fruit destroys people's "sense of place," he writes in The Omnivore's Dilemma) but even at Walmart's announcement in 2006 that it would start stocking organic products at affordable prices. Walmart, like factory farms, SUVs, wide-screen TVs, and outlet malls, is usually anathema to the simplicity set, but here you would think the giga-chain would be doing poor people a favor by widening their access to healthy, less-fattening produce. Not as far as Pollan is concerned. Instead, as Reason magazine's Katherine Mangu-Ward reported, Pollan worried on his blog that "Walmart's version of cheap, industrialized organic food" might drive the boutique farms that served him and his locavore neighbors out of business.Are his concerns legitimate or not? Does she address whether there might be a real difference between industrial "organic" agriculture and truly sustainable organic agriculture, and their products?
What sort of recommendations does Ms. Allen make? Does she concede that there is anything wrong with our political economy? Ms. Allen tends to be an example of unthinking mainstream conservatism that we must rid ourselves of--a conservatism that seeks to keep the corporatist, unsustainable status quo. Beware of those who make a living claiming to speak for the people and feel outrage on behalf of the people. The people can speak for themselves, and if they hear both sides of the story, they may be more likely to agree with Mr. Pollan than with Ms. Allen. If Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution can be successful in West Virginia, what will happen if people are educated about how they get food and the quality of that food (by watching movies like Food, Inc.)?

Ms. Allen continues with a discussion of the simplicity movement in relation to the virtues and the moral life:

The problem with the simplicity movement is that its proponents mistake simplicity, which is an aesthetic lifestyle choice, for humility, which is a genuine virtue. Humility is an honest acknowledgment of one's limitations and lowliness in the great scheme of things and a realization that power over other human beings is a dangerous thing, always to be exercised with utmost caution. The Amish, as well as monks, Eastern and Western, cultivate humility because they know they have a duty toward what is larger than themselves. Leo Babauta of the foregone grooming products cultivates simplicity because it makes him feel "happier," as he writes on his website. For humble people, their own happiness or other personal feelings are secondary.

Furthermore, no virtue is a real virtue unless it is available to everyone. Simplicity doesn't fall into that category. If everyone decided to hunt boar in the Berkeley hills like Michael Pollan, it wouldn't take long for boars to become extinct. Furthermore, simplicity, because it is a lifestyle choice, necessarily means that its practitioners have to have the financial wherewithal - and usually plenty of it - to make the choices.

If you can't afford fine grooming products, you're not practicing simplicity by going without; you're just plain poor. Not so for humility, for even the poorest of the poor can be humble - or its opposite, irritatingly full of themselves.

Finally, simplicity is fundamentally indifferent to others. It's all about the experiences - "primal connections" or what have you - of its practitioners. Simplicity movement people don't care, for example, how other people would get around if you took away their cars in the name of "going green," or how they would feel about being forced to compost their garbage, as they're already forced in San Francisco, or how they would eat if factory farms were put out of business as so many simplicity-loving folks would like. Not so with humility, which is always outwardly directed.

Is simplicity a virtue? The lifestyle is consistent with the practice of virtues, especially that of moderation (or frugality). One must know the difference between a necessity and a luxury, and what can be rightly obtained and what cannot--for example, the growth interest in "fair trade." Thus, the virtue of justice is also involved. But we should also be concerned with the question of sustainability, to which Ms. Allen herself alludes. Is hunting boar in the hills of California what is simple? Or the experience itself of hunting one's food? (I think Mr. Pollan did this as a part of research for The Omnivore's Dilemma; I don't think he still does this, does he?)
If we should be concerned with the sustainability of hunting wild boar, then why shouldn't we be concerned with the sustainability of industrial agriculture as well?

Pride is a problem for mankind, but it is not the problem that simplicity first of all seeks to address. Rather simplicity is a way of exercising moderation, particular justice, and general justice. Once again the fundamental problem of Ms. Allen's piece is apparent -- she fails to give a proper definition of simplicity. Even if she had enough examples (and I don't think she does), the induction from the many does not yield a definition of what she is attacking. Does Mr. Pollan think that taking away cars overnight will solve some problems without introducing others? Some advocates are more at ease with a "liberatarian," free-market solution than others--allowing alternatives to compete freely with the corporations. It is a question then of whether government can be forced to stop playing favorites with the corporations.

If our profligate behavior impoverishes the ecological system, degrades the environment, and hurts the community at large, why should not the law compel that we act against wastefulness? Would Ms. Allen say that conservatives should avoid advocating for any legislation, in the name of humility? Is she more libertarian than I think?

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