Eric Garza

Musings on food, energy and adaptation

The Foundation of Integrity

CucumberI’ve never been particularly keen on celebrating my birthday so had hoped it would slip quietly by this past week, but instead found myself at a good friend’s house one evening where she made it abundantly clear she wasn’t letting the occasion pass. Knowing I don’t tolerate gluten well, and not being overly fond of gluten-free baked goods herself, she playfully substituted a birthday cucumber for a birthday cake, complete with a candle poked through its prickly skin for me to blow out. Blowing out the candle had to wait, of course, until after she sang me happy birthday not only in English, but also in Dutch, of all languages. She’s got a great sense of humor, and an exquisite voice.

Later on she mentioned she’d read my recent post on Activism and Integrity and enjoyed it. The feedback I’ve received from the post inspired me to reflect further on the topic of integrity, on the agreement between people’s values and their behavior. I’ve long believed that people’s behavior is always a perfect representation of their values, and if the values their lifestyle advertises are different from those they claim to espouse then either they’re mistaken about what their values really are or they’re lying. When choices must be made – and indeed we have to make them all the time – we weigh our many and sometimes conflicting values against one another, and in the end we bow to those that are strongest.

In deciding whether to attend a climate action rally, for instance, I weigh the benefits of professional networking, sharing ideas and perhaps strategizing about how to stop the next oil pipeline against causing greenhouse gas emissions by flying to the rally and supporting the companies that want to build the pipeline by buying and using their fuel. There’s a selfish element to this decision, as I’m weighing benefits, such as professional networking, that accrue to me personally against costs, such as the emissions themselves and the climate impacts they supposedly herald, that are borne by a larger population. There are elements of time and uncertainty here too, as by choosing to attend I demonstrate that I value possibly reducing emissions in the future rather than actually reducing them today by not attending. Values, choices, trade-offs…

Life is complex. We’re forced to make trade-offs all the time. This is compounded by the reality that, to paraphrase author Robert Heinlein, people aren’t rational animals, they’re rationalizing animals. Any choice we make that advertises a set of values that might paint us as being more selfish or more short sighted than we’d prefer can easily be rationalized as for the greater good, or at least for the greater good over the longer term, maybe. If Homo sapiens is good at anything, we’re good at inordinately valuing abstract visions of the distant future, often, and unfortunately, at the expense of the real world, today.

Those who choose to do something about a mismatch between the values they’d prefer to be known for and their behavior have two options: leave their behaviors as they are and be more honest about their values, or take a closer look at their behaviors and revisit the trade-offs they made that lead to them. Crafting internally consistent values and lifestyles is the basis of integrity, not just for activists but for all of us. If we can’t be honest with ourselves about what we really value, where does that leave us? We’re living a lie. If we aren’t willing to adjust our choices to express the values we want to be known by, how do we bear the burden of the cognitive dissonance this creates? Upon what do we build family, community and polity if not on integrity, on crafting lifestyles that perfectly reflect our values?

From Fire to Fermentation: A Review of Michael Pollan’s Cooked

I’m blessed to be part of a wonderful circle of friends who gather periodically for potluck suppers, and I’ve become well known for bringing venison dishes, particularly what, for the longest time, I’d been calling venison barbecue. The recipe was simple: add the meat, a few animal bones and a little ginger and garlic into a pot with enough water to cover everything, then cook it on the lowest heat possible for about six hours. The meat falls apart, and as I separate it by hand I mix in a little store-bought barbecue sauce and call it done. People eat it, are generous with compliments, and stroke my ego a bit; a nice deal.

CookedWhile friends were quite happy calling my recipe barbecue, others might not be so pleased with that label. Barbecue, to some, refers to a very specific recipe made of slow roasted pork, not venison, and by slow they mean s-l-o-w, as in roasting for 20 hours or more. This information, along with a lot more, came from a splendid book I recently finished: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, written by Michael Pollan.

The book, like others Pollan’s written, benefits from his exceptional storytelling. In the first section, entitled ‘Fire’, I found myself engrossed in the story of Ed Mitchell, one of only a few African-American barbecue pit masters in the US south and one who champions traditional barbecue preparation using heirloom breeds of pigs rather than those raised in confined feedlots. The story of Mitchell’s trials, tribulations and notoriety was a fascinating one, as was Pollan’s tales of cooking with the man at two events. The final section on fermentation is equally engrossing, as Pollan introduces his readers to Sandor Katz, an author in his own right and champion of a range of fermentation methods. This final chapter focuses on the process of fermentation, particularly on vegetable ferments like sauerkraut and kimchi, but also investigates dairy ferments and brewing beer. I’m not much of an alcohol drinker, but I know many are so this segment should delight.

While Pollan does talk recipes, the book overall seems more about the cultural basis of cooking, including the elements of gender politics, social hierarchy and consumerism connected with the practice. The detailed descriptions of cooking methods and Pollan’s own cooking experiences serve as intriguing reads throughout the book, but I found the philosophical elements of the book most engrossing. Among the fascinating ideas Pollan puts forwards is that the myth of Prometheus, when you boil it down, is really about humans separating themselves from other animals by cooking their food. Cooking has become something of a ritual, one that non-human animals don’t use but that humans certainly do. And not only has cooking become something of a ritual, it’s also one many cultures associate with social hierarchies: a theme touched on repeatedly is that men – like Ed Mitchell, and Michael Pollan – cook meat, the most highly prized of foods, while women cook other lesser offerings. Coupled with a more philosophically charged book like Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat, Pollan’s Cooked would be even more tantalizing.

Early in the book Pollan cites Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human as the starting point of his philosophical exploration. I have to admit this made me groan. And it wasn’t a light, gentle groan offered half in jest, but rather one of those deep, full-body groans that fill the room with lament so thick you can feel it against your skin as you head for the door. Wrangham’s thesis is that learning to cook our food is what gave our ancient ancestors access to enough calories to allow our brains to grow and our culture to develop, paving the way for us to evolve into anatomically modern humans. I struggle with Wrangham’s thesis for many reasons that I won’t delve into here, but I will say that Pollan’s repeated references to Wrangham don’t drag Cooked down too much. Pollan’s book stands strong on its own, and provides an engrossing, if not long, read for those interested in the philosophy and preparation of food.

Activism and Integrity

Just a leafMy first mentor was a Zen Master. I gained her acquaintance at Argonne National Laboratories, of all places, where the Zen community I was part of at the time rented space for retreats. Despite her calm, centered demeanor – or perhaps because of it – I found her terrifyingly intimidating. Of all the people I’d met in my life, she embodied self-confidence and self-awareness to an unmatched extreme. Even worse, she was honest about who she was and who she wasn’t, openly admitted her shortcomings, and maintained no façade. Meeting someone so blatantly, unabashedly real was… unnerving.

Why, you might ask, am I starting a post on activism by talking about mentoring? The answer to this question is simple: I believe activists have a lot to learn from effective mentors.

Mentoring is typically a one-on-one relationship wherein the knowledge, values or habits of the mentor hopefully rub off on the mentee. While the relationship between activists and the people they seek to influence is rarely one-on-one, the goal of activism remains identical to that of mentoring: to pass on knowledge, values or habits. I would also argue that the prerequisite for being a successful mentor and a successful activist are the same: integrity. Integrity, put simply, is the state of being honest, of living the set of moral principles one claims to espouse. The mentor must carry themselves in such as way that the mentee accepts them as a worthy source of whatever’s to be transmitted, and if the mentor’s integrity can’t inspire at least a rudimentary level of trust and legitimacy the relationship won’t amount to much.

Although there have never been as many activists alive as there are today, I feel like activism, as a social force, is floundering. I sensed a tacit acknowledgement of this in a recent piece by environmental activist Bill McKibben, titled We Want People to Change Their Minds, where he addresses the attempts of global warming skeptics to undermine climate activists’ work by calling them hypocrites. Hypocrites for investing in fossil fuels to power their own lifestyles and to drive and fly them to climate rallies, conferences and summits around the globe, even as they advocate for divestment from the companies that produce and process those fuels and attempt to stymie those companies’ investments in infrastructure and resource development. Hypocrites, additionally, for advocating the enactment of policies that will constrain people’s behavior in ways the activists themselves are unwilling to model. And hypocrites, more generally, for advocating a post-carbon lifestyle that diverges, often by a wide margin, from the lifestyles they choose to live.

Truth is, while the skeptics’ intentions may be anything but pure, they’re spot on in their accusations of hypocrisy. And this fundamental lack of integrity among climate activists – their unwillingness to live their purported values – has consequences for how effective they can hope to be in their work. It’s not really about getting people to change their minds, as McKibben asserts, it’s about getting people to change their actions, their lifestyles. Reducing atmospheric CO2 concentration to 350 ppm, for example, isn’t going to happen unless a lot of people change their behavior. In activism as in mentorship, people change their behavior in the presence of role models they look up to, role models with integrity. If individuals within an activist community lack the integrity to serve as legitimate role models, to whom can people turn for a positive example? The Zen Master with whom I practiced lived the changes she wanted to see in me, and this integrity formed the fertile ground that supported my own personal development.

Truth be told, my goal here is not to belittle Bill McKibben, nor is it to scold climate activists in particular or activists more generally. My goal is to invite people to look at the role integrity plays in activist pursuits, particularly those that ask people to change their behavior or to submit to legislative acts that seek to constrain it. How can activists expect to be taken seriously when they willfully behave in ways that run counter to the ideals they advocate? What’s going on in the mind and heart of an individual who claims to hold one set of values, but whose lifestyle advertises a very different suite? How effective can a group of activists expect to be when they’re unwilling to live the changes they work so hard to impose on others? I think these questions are worth sitting with, for activists in particular, but really for everyone.

In the age of point-and-click activism where it’s easy for individuals to get lost in large, anonymous cyber-crowds, I think the importance of integrity has gotten lost. Looking back through history – at Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and many others – it’s clear that the most effective activists knew the value of integrity and worked hard to maintain it not only in themselves but also among those they worked closely with. If I may be so bold, I predict that only when activists again wake up to the importance of integrity as a foundation for their work might the tide turn in their favor. I hope this piece inspires some serious introspection among activist crowds, if for no other reason than to renew the power of activism in the 21st century.