Monday, April 21, 2008

The Virtues of Greenness

This nicely written Michael Pollan appeal certainly hooked me by leading off with a subject dear to my conservative heart. Yes, I can forgive a little Al Gore worship in exchange for some strong Virtue-talk. I know, predictable, coming from the guy who summarized an entire book on the subject a year and a half ago.

It's unfortunate that Pollan's defense of virtue flags at the end of the piece, but that's what I'm here for--to help him carry his cargo into port. The article starts with the question "Why bother?" That is, why should we put so much effort into (as the faddish vocabulary has it) "reducing our carbon footprint" when, put frankly, we can't make a damn bit of difference? Hey, that's a good question, and Pollan at least implies at the outset that the answer might be "virtue."

I forgive him for all but dropping virtue by the end of the piece--after all, virtue as a paradigm gets the same reaction in our public discourse as a corpse slung over one's shoulder. You're carrying that thing? So, okay, Mr. Pollan, drop the corpse and get back to the kind of talk that makes people nod in agreement--good old utilitarianism. Speculate on some utopian scenarios even you admit are unlikely: maybe our example will light the way for hosts of others; "consciousness will change"; I could be the next Vaclav Havel. One way or another, let's delude ourselves into thinking that our personal behavior will change the world.

Your first answer was best, Mr. Pollan. And you know it, because there was that whole diversion into the sour fruits of specialization in the middle of your piece, which flowers into this little beauty near the end:

Still more valuable are the habits of mind that growing a little of your own food can yield. You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support... At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen.

"Habits of mind." There's Aristotle's definition of Virtue.

Why bother with virtue? Well, for one thing, it's an activity that is just as at home in good times as in bad. Riding in our collective handbasket, the temperature getting hotter and hotter, one can still persist in doing the right thing, consequences (and all the rest of it) be damned. All a consequentialist can do is stare bleakly at said consequences with all their inevitability. It's precisely the anti-utilitarian quality of virtue ethics that make it useful in times of oncoming disaster, from the collapse of civilization to darkening days in a concentration camp.

Another wonderful aspect of virtue is that it's not a tut-tutting, finger-wagging sort of morality. It doesn't set a bar and tell you the point of your life is to clear it or else. ("Get that footprint below 5 tons or you're a planet killer!") The goal is excellence, a destination forever in front of us. The achievement is not getting there, but just taking a step or two toward it. Why bother? Because at the end of the day--or at the End of Days--look at what you accomplished!

Finally, virtue is the brightest path out of our global darkness because it actually leads toward a light. Utilitarianism wants to lead us back into gray clouds; it avoids the Great Nothingness only because the Great Muddle has a touch more... somethingness. Mr. Pollan may or may not see it this way, but he can't help but recognize that what all morality comes down to is a question of Human Nature. Why bother breaking out of consumerism? Could it be because we are not mere consumers?! There really is no other answer, but the answer requires swallowing a pill that our narrow modern throats find to be awfully big: We human beings have an identifiable nature. We have an environment in which we flourish, a scale within which we were meant to live, a field of view beyond which our senses cannot penetrate, and a destiny that outstrips any reduction such as "consumerism."

Perhaps Mr. Pollan could finally shed his utopian optimism with the help of someone like G.K. Chesterton who wrote as well about the growing of things:

The man who makes an orchard where there has been a field, who owns the orchard and decides to whom it shall descend, does also enjoy the taste of apples; and let us hope, also, the taste of cider. But he is doing smething very much grander, and ultimately more gratifying, than merely eating an apple. He is imposing his will upon the world in the manner of the charter given him by the will of God; he is asserting that his soul is his own, and does not belong to the Orchard Survey Department, or the chief Trust in the Apple Trade. But he is also doing something which was implicit in all the most ancient religions of the earth; in those great panoramas of pageantry and ritual that followed the order of the seasons in China or Babylonia; he is worshipping the fruitfulness of the world.

Funny, "worship" is another thing that serves us equally well in times of darkness and of light.

There's an element of virtue ethics that I've left unaddressed--one that does somewhat resonate with Mr. Pollan's burbling about "setting an example" and societal cascades like those that overthrew communism in Poland--and that's the communal aspect of virtue. But there will be plenty of time for that. Doomsday is coming and I'm in no hurry.