Can a literary trend do harm?

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When it comes to the “going green” movement, Elizabeth Kolbert thinks so, and she writes about it in the New Yorker.

Kolbert takes issue with the spate of books in which people document their attempts at voluntary simplicity. A few examples from the genre:

In “No Impact Man,” author Colin Beavan lives with out electricity, a car, and even toilet paper in New York City, as he seeks to reduce his carbon footrpint over the course of a year.

In “Farm City” Novella Carpenter documents her attempts at keeping a farm in the middle of downtown Oakland and ultimately attempts to survive eating only from her urban lot for a month.

And in “Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 mile diet,” Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon attempt to source everything they eat within 100 miles of their Vancouver home.

So what’s wrong with inspiring others through example? Kolbert argues that these are merely stunts. She says they are the modern equivalent of Henry David Thoreau’s time on Walden Pond, aimed, just like Thoreau’s, at selling books.

The nouveau Thoreauvians have picked up from “Walden” its dramaturgy of austerity. Their schemes require them to renounce (if only temporarily) various material comforts–cars, elevators, Starbucks–that their neighbors take for granted. Renunciation sets them apart and organizes their lives in the name of some higher purpose. The trouble–or, at least, a trouble–is that it’s hard to say exactly what that purpose is.

Kolbert goes on to say that each of these books comes with a structure it must adhere to – a month or a year of making no carbon impact, eating from your yard, or eating locally. The problem is that these conceits drive the authors to do things that make no sense. The authors of “Plenty” end up making a 12 hour journey to the sea to harvest their own salt. Colin Beavan turns off his radiators, and lives off the residual warmth from his neighbors’ apartments. What’s the point? According to Elizabeth Kolbert, “The real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.”

What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”

However what Kaiser fails to address is the impact of each of these authors’ books. While standards are being put in place for the energy efficiency of buildings, and the fuel efficiency of cars, it’s much more difficult to legislate an individual’s consumption. No one likes being told what they can and cannot do. So if one person’s actions manage to inspire 500 or 1000 or maybe even 10000 others to take steps to consume less, who’s to say they didn’t make a difference?

The other frustration in all these attempts to “go green” is the math. People are constantly trying to calculate their impact, but it’s almost impossible to do.

For instance, these environmental authors, for all their good intentions, are sending millions of people to websites, selling hundreds of thousands of books, and are each engaged in national book tours involving numerous plane flights and time on the road. How can they possible figure out whether they’ve done more good than harm?

How can any of us, really?

  • Joanna

    I can’t say anything about Impact Man, not having read it, but I did just finish Novella Carpenter’s book, and Kolbert’s characterization of it as “a stunt” is rather silly. First of all, the book is brilliantly written. I never buy hardcover books, but I shelled out 30 bucks for this one based on a excerpt I read in a magazine because of its gorgeous prose. Secondly, the book is not a stunt, not just about the “test” of eating only local for one month, although that is a section of it. It’s a memoir, about life choices in a particular place and time: growing food and raising animals in the crappy part of Oakland, in the heart of the foodie Bay Area, a generation after the “back to the land” hippie movement, of which the author’s parents were a part. In the book, the author talks about all of the things Kolbert chides her for ignoring: looking for purpose, urban poverty, making a difference, being part of a community effort, the history of the place, including the Black Panthers’ food programs (to which she contributes her garden surplus, by the way). What she doesn’t do is pretend that she has “the answer”; she doesn’t write with grandiosity. We have plenty of preachers; storytellers have something to offer us as well.