Friday, April 23, 2010

Random thoughts on yesterday's Michael Pollan lecture

Michael Pollan made a presentation at Pacific last night, Earth Day. I admit that I have never made time to read any of his books, but I feel a connection to his work. After all, both of us have written things that have drawn the ire of Harris Ranch. More importantly, my wife, many of our friends and relatives are big fans, so I feel like I know his books from all the conversations he has sparked in our household. I was grateful for the opportunity to hear from him in person.

Unlike Cal Poly, Pacific thought it was O.K. to give Pollan an "unchallenged forum" for his lecture. I learned last night that one of Pollan's articles ("Power Steer" from the New York Times Magazine) is on the reading list of our first-year seminar. After reviewing the common reading list of the "What is a Good Society?" first-year seminar, I was impressed to learn that every student at Pacific reads Garret Hardin's classic "Tragedy of the Commons" in their first year among other classic articles. (I am far removed from teaching freshman seminars here, but wish I had taken such a class myself as a first-year undergraduate.)

So, what did I think of his talk? I mostly agree with him, although I am not as critical of industrial agriculture as he is. I don't particularly care for some of his measures of productive efficiency that play well with the audience. His fossil fuel piece has good points but is a little deceptive and overdone in parts. For example, those fossil fuel calories aren't just substituting for direct "sun" energy, but they are often substituting for human energy in the form of labor. What is the source of that human energy/calories? How many farm worker health problems are those fossil fuels preventing? I was also surprised he didn't talk about ethanol, which is a HUGE issue related to his themes about corn and energy.

Despite these quibbles, I completely agree with his main action points - the top one of which is to kill the farm bill and our current subsidy program.

As an econ nerd, the most thought-provoking part for me was his discussion of Earl Butz, the prominent Purdue agricultural economist who was Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture. I wasn't expecting an agricultural economist to play a villian role in his speech.

As an interested and informed semi-outsider to agricultural economics, I have some thoughts and frustrations about where this field is going. (I am basically 1 graduate course away from being able to say I have a specialization in ag econ, and almost went down this career track, but haven't attended conferences or read the journals in a decade.) In an unusual act of restraint for this blog, I just deleted some speculation on this subject from the post. I have no doubt agricultural economists themselves have thought about these issues a lot more critically and with much better information than I have.

It's a conversation to have over a beer. My first question is why are almost all the labor and development economists in UC ag econ focused on international issues rather than the Valley?* I offer a free beer to any academic agricultural economist who wants to talk about this and more the next time they are in Stockton, or perhaps as they are passing through on their way to/from the south Valley.

*The notable exception to this is Philip Martin at UC-Davis whose work has helped me understand a lot about the Valley. But I want more of this, and Martin got his Ph.D. in 1975, so I'm guessing this department hasn't hired a regional labor, economic development specialist in three decades!


  1. I am glad you brought up the lack of regional focus on the Valley in it's public universities. I have often wondered what the political science, anthropology, and economics professors at Fresno State are studying and why we don't hear more academic reports related to the region. Keep up the good work!

  2. One hopes that your freshmen read beyond The Tragedy of the Commons to find the more recent thinking on managing common pool resources. They might discuss the work of Elinor Ostrom, one of the two co-awardees of the most recent Nobel Prize in Economics. She and others have focused upon bottom up, self management by local
    communities. The examples of successful management of such “common property regimes”
    provide contradiction to Hardin's assertion that the only means of avoiding over-exploitation and
    the tragedy of the commons is top down control by private ownership of the property or by government control.

  3. Danny,
    To be fair, Fresno State isn't really a research school, and I am not real familiar with it and can't comment on what they do. It will be interesting to see UC-Merced as it grows and matures. I just think the big ag. econ. programs in the state need to direct some more resources to labor markets and the economic development struggles in California's ag. dominated regions.

    I agree with you, and my praise for this reading list was probably a little excessive. Hearing that Pollan was on it sparked my curiosity to actually look at the reading list for the first time. I can imagine the arguments about what is and what isn't on this common reading list.

    I think students will get exposed to Ostrom and other ideas if they move on in these areas. As for myself, I never was assigned Hardin until I was a graduate student and already had a lot of theoretical and more recent knowledge on the topic, and I didn't care much for Hardin at this point. But that wasn't the right time to read the article, it should have come much earlier in my studies (although you could argue there wasn't even much original in Hardin even in the 60's). It is a very influential piece, and I'm just pleased to see everyone at least get introduced to the concept of the commons.

    Thanks for the comments.


  4. Jeff: And thanks for your response to my comment! Hardin was my evolution prof at UCSB back in '66, and I have taught the ToC in the environment parts of my university lectures in ecology for many years. He was a complex figure (especially when it came to human population) and fascinating to have been around. Discovering Ostrom-like work in the 1990s was a revelation, and I now include the material at appropriate times in my ecology classes.