By Randy Hayes, Great Transition Initiative
In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan describes his personal journey of stepping away from processed and packaged foods toward cooking from scratch and highlights the grievous consequences of industrial modernity in the daily arena of eating and drinking. Specialization, Pollan argues, “breeds helplessness, dependence and ignorance and, eventually … undermines any sense of responsibility." Cooked persuasively illuminates how the industrial mindset fosters the domination of nature and distorts public governance and offers, instead, justification and guidance for a healthier way of eating and a richer life.
But is this a significant book for those dedicated to getting humanity in sync with nature's ways? Speaking of the allure and benefit of cooking, Pollan explains, “Perhaps what most commends cooking to me is that it offers a powerful corrective to this way of being in the world—a corrective that is still available to all of us." Is cooking then a vital ingredient for a socially just and ecologically sound society?
Pollan, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has been a prolific and effective messenger for food and sustainable agriculture issues, with such popular books as The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. People with such a wide platform have a vital role to play in broadening a movement beyond the choir. In this sense, Pollan has been an eloquent ally in the great transition to a better world.
Calls for meaningful action for social change too often become reduced to requesting yet another donation or letter to unresponsive politicians. Herein lies a role for cooking, “a magic that remains accessible to all of us, at home." Cooking your own food builds self-reliance and community. It is an available tool for personal transformation and, by promoting an affiliation with nature, progressive environmental change. Ever stumble when trying to tell friends or colleagues what they can do to help save the day? By combining more local food and more time in the kitchen, one can wrest a modicum of societal control away from corporate executives to regular folks. This is at least part of the solution to confronting the contemporary social and ecological crisis.
Pollan has done his homework, rigorously rooting his arguments in ecological science. He discusses food preparation in a clear, readable way that conveys the ecological realities (and histories) in which such practices are embedded. Cooked shows how buying local foods and patronizing farmers' markets supports an ethic of living in communion with nature and how mindful cooking and purchasing can enhance the rhythms of everyday life and connect us to seasonality, while also shifting money away from corporate processors toward farmers. The mainstream industrial food sector currently captures 80 percent of the financial profit, with only 20 percent going to the farmers. Localization keeps more money circulating in the community, rather than flowing away to the bank accounts of corporate executives who will likely invest it in yet more destruction. Such food localization supports the switch to an economic paradigm better attuned to the well-being of people and nature.
To understand the value and practice of cooking, Pollan apprentices himself to local artisans to learn their craft. The resulting anecdotes provide examples of healthier food options as well as sustainability fixes to the food system writ large. However, the book does not dwell on how this relates to the larger economic model or the urgency of the planetary crisis. If millions and millions were to shift their dietary practices, the positive social and ecological effects could be huge. Unfortunately, however, collective action is only a subsidiary concern for Pollan.
When Pollan does mention the pending planetary catastrophe, he does so for the most part in terms of “climate change." Certainly, this is one of the most serious planetary problems we confront and those working to convert the energy system to 100 percent renewable energy are to be saluted. Climate change, however, is but one facet of the current catastrophe of industrial agriculture. This system of farming has also been a major contributor to habitat loss and the sixth great extinction. Artificial fertilizer and pesticide runoff have created four hundred dead zones in an ever-acidifying ocean, an especially alarming phenomenon since the ocean supports the life at the bottom of our food chain that is so critical to maintaining the integrity of the web of life. Even without climate change, industrial agriculture would be implicated in the demise of several aspects of the biosphere's interconnected life support systems.
A thoroughgoing shift to ecological farming or agroecology, is what we need, as called for by thinkers such as Frances Moore Lappé and Pollan himself in other works. Cooked is a slower simmering soup. The local color of Pollan's anecdotes makes for an enjoyable read and, indeed, is what attracts most readers. However, advocating a lifestyle switch that involves more cooking falls short when the planet's life support systems are getting shredded and singed.
That said, this book offers much to learn, including the biochemistry of food and how cooking helps us survive. When we are resting, our big (if not always wise) brains consume 20 percent of our energy intake. Microbes give soil its vitality and agency. A third of our food involves fermentation, a process that can help preserve food—a useful bit of knowledge if the historical bubble of refrigeration bursts. After World War II, some of the ocean-killing synthetic fertilizers were made from munitions and new pesticides were developed from nerve gas. Industrial agriculture, moreover, has unintended negative consequences for human health, not just the environment: the gusts of chlorine gas that whiten flour also expunge the health providing beta-carotene that creates the original color.
Cooked is neither a cookbook for the kitchen nor one for a social movement. However, it works well as a general introduction to the downsides of corporate-led industrial food production and processing. The book may gloss over how the prevailing economic model allows for—indeed fosters—such overwhelming industrial food damage to planet and people. Yet there is quotidian agency and enrichment in disconnecting from the industrial food mindset and eating healthier. Cooking from scratch, especially from local foods, is a meaningful way to aid natural systems. As each subsequent generation falls deeper into the spell of digital screens, cooking offers a way to reconnect directly with the natural world and a daily reminder of nature's abundance and the renewability of food. Cooking, as Pollan's anecdotes remind us, takes time, as does becoming less of an industrial consumer and more of a creative producer. But it is never too late to start.
Cooked is strongest when it conveys the personal pleasure and better health that ensues when we take responsibility for our own cooking. After finishing the book, I found myself making a simple, healthy soup instead of starting on this review as planned. Pollan's words have impact. Effective messengers are needed. Cooking led to a tasty meal and perhaps more to come.
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By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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