Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A frightful hobgoblin

A vapid post on Freakonomics (which elsewhere enthuses about Chrysler subsidizing gas for purchasers of its giant toy trucks) sent me back to Why Bother?, an article by Michael Pollen about facing up to climate change which appeared in April but which I hadn't found time to read before. Pollen thinks clearly and has a good turn for phrase. For example:
Cheap fossil fuel allows us to pay distant others to process our food for us, to entertain us and to (try to) solve our problems, with the result that there is very little we know how to accomplish for ourselves. Think for a moment of all the things you suddenly need to do for yourself when the power goes out — up to and including entertaining yourself. Think, too, about how a power failure causes your neighbors — your community — to suddenly loom so much larger in your life. Cheap energy allowed us to leapfrog community by making it possible to sell our specialty over great distances as well as summon into our lives the specialties of countless distant others.

Here’s the point: Cheap energy, which gives us climate change, fosters precisely the mentality that makes dealing with climate change in our own lives seem impossibly difficult.
Pollen concludes, essentially, that Il faut cultiver notre jardin and eat its contents. This is right of course (if not exactly a surprise from this writer), but it is not enough. Change the light bulbs, plant the garden: yes, definitely; but I also want to go with Vaclav Havel (quoted by Pollen as follows): we should “conduct [ourselves] as if [we] were to live on this earth forever and be answerable for its condition one day.” [Or, in the more plausible rhetoric of Dennis Leigh and Alasdair Gray, 'Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation'.]

A word that eludes Pollen (and perhaps Wendell Berry on whom he draws) is 'alienation'. Perhaps this is because the spectre of Karl Marx gives so many Americans the willies. But, as Jonathan Wolff illustrates in a remarkably compact and accessible interview, the concept is rich and useful.

Thinking about alienation and its consequences today doesn't mean we should take 'scientific socialism' and so much other garbage seriously or that we should forget the horrors inflicted by some who claim to have followed Marx. It does mean we have to go further than light bulbs and onion bulbs (including, as philosophers like James Garvey help to articulate, in our thinking about future generations).

What would Marx have thought about gardening, guerilla or otherwise? If Jonathan Wolff and the Japanese scholar to whom he refers are right, the passage in The German Ideology about hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, rearing cattle in the evening, and engaging in criticism after dinner is the product of a joke by Marx at Engel's expense.

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