Getting to Less

Why Hope Jahren’s new ecological manifesto reminded me of a cookbook.

Living sustainably is, as they say, a growth industry. Any grocery store I choose to visit offers products made with organic-certified, ethically sourced ingredients. In Los Angeles, where I live, many now also have a section of the meat department given over to a diversifying array of plant-based replacements for ground beef and chicken. My power company lets me buy in to wind or solar sources for my electricity. I can wrap my food in beeswax-infused cloth instead of plastic, clean with products containing nothing more than soap or alcohol and some botanical extracts, light my living room with LEDs, and commute in a car that needs refueling only once a month — or never. All of these products and services aim for lower environmental impacts than their alternatives — but none of them help me buy less food, or use less electricity, or get to work without driving myself.

This is the paradox of the twenty-first century so far: Americans like me (college educated, inclined to feel responsibility for my actions’ effects on other people) can calculate our personal environmental impacts in granular detail and draw on whole product categories in a personal quest to reduce those impacts. But even a sustainability-minded middle-class U.S.-based urbanite imposes a dramatically larger cost on the world than most people in poorer countries. For many of us, too, reducing the environmental impact of a single product amounts to permission to use more of that product — my fifteen-mile commute is okay if it’s in a hybrid; my daily turkey sandwich isn’t so bad if it’s free-range. Give it more than a moment’s thought, and you’ll start to wonder whether the sustainability choices on offer are up to the monumental task of slowing climate change or the destruction of natural habitat worldwide.

According to The Story of More, a new book from the biological geochemist Hope Jahren, our future as a species hangs on that question. Jahren’s scientific wheelhouse is tracing large-scale flows of energy and nutrients, and The Story of More is mostly a semi-systematic catalog of how human populations, and our use of the world’s resources, have grown over the last fifty years. This exhaustive exploration of the numbers underlying climate change, the destruction of natural habitat, and the acceleration of species extinctions may put the average reader in mind of a world almanac transcribed into a two hundred page surprise credit card bill. For me, from the moment I saw the title, and with mounting certainty as I turned each page, The Story of More recalled nothing so strongly as a very particular four-decade-old cookbook.

The Story of More enumerates the astonishing consumptive power and ecological costs of twenty-first century society with no small degree of flair. Jahren is a virtuoso of perspective-shifting comparisons: The state of Iowa contains nine times as many hogs as it does Iowan humans. In 1969 we required about a basketball court’s worth of land to grow a bushel of corn, while today’s agriculture produces a bushel of corn on the acreage of two parking spaces. The fuel efficiency of a typical passenger jet is about four hundred feet per gallon. In a given year, one out of every five bushels of grain grown worldwide is converted into biofuel; total annual biofuel production is enough to offset just a few days’ worth of fossil fuel use.

“Starvation,” Jahren writes, “is caused by our failure to share what we produce, not by the earth’s ability to provide.”

But in spite of the numerical fireworks, Jahren is as concerned with the moral weight of human resource use as its physical dimensions. As The Story of More emphasizes and re-emphasizes, the majority of resources are used by a minority of people, in the richest nations of the world. This is how upwards of eight hundred million people can go hungry every day in a world that produces vastly more food than it did fifty years ago. “Starvation,” Jahren writes, “is caused by our failure to share what we produce, not by the earth’s ability to provide.” Fighting climate change and habitat destruction is closely linked to reducing the inequities between those of us in the richest nations and the rest of the world, because if the richest among us don’t work to use less as the poorest use more, the world will burn all the faster.

Copies of the More-with-Less cookbook and The Story of More
Copies of the More-with-Less cookbook and The Story of More

This sentiment is where The Story of More intersects with a weathered spiral-bound volume on my kitchen shelf. The More-with-Less Cookbook was the brainchild of Doris Janzen Longacre, a lay leader in the Mennonite Church with training in home economics and nutrition as well as theology, who was moved by a world food crisis of compounding famines and shortages in the early 1970s. Mennonites — followers of a relatively mainstream variant of the Christian tradition that includes the Amish — had long centered their missionary work on famine relief and development aid. Janzen Longacre decided that a recipe book focused on helping readers “eat better and consume less of the world’s limited resources” could help: If you use less, you can share more.

My own copy of More-with-Less is a twenty-fifth anniversary edition, which my parents gave me sometime in college, anticipating that I’d sooner or later have to start cooking for myself. The contents include lots of staples — granola, breads, tomato sauce for pizza or spaghetti, chicken soup, apple crisp — but also artifacts of midcentury Mennonite tastes like ham loaf, rhubarb (gelatin) salad, and shoo-fly pie; and all interspersed with recipes brought home by missionaries and overseas service workers, adapted to North American groceries. Over the years, I’ve made the breads and shoo-fly pie and lentil-cheese bakes, as well as More-with-Less versions of moussaka and a “West African Groundnut Stew” containing crunchy peanut butter. (It’s actually quite good, though it helps to double the spicing.) I still haven’t got up the nerve to try the recipes for chapatis or yakosoba.

Janzen Longacre assembled More-with-Less by soliciting recipes from Mennonite congregations across the US and Canada, and annotating them with guidelines and suggestions about nutrition and expense-saving. Some of these tips are what I was raised to consider basic skills of homemaking: turning leftover vegetables into a casserole, or extending chicken stew into soup for a second night’s dinner with the addition of a little stock and some rice. Some of them are as much products of their time and place as the gelatin salads: one contributor explains that she purchases wheat direct from a local farmer by the bushel, then grinds it at home for use in “hot cereal and whole wheat bread recipes.”

The Story of More turns out to vibrate on almost exactly the same cultural frequency as More-with-Less, thanks to frequent (and delightful) asides into Hope Jahren’s own upbringing in rural Minnesota. But where Janzen Longacre’s cookbook is motivated by Christian duty, Jahren makes a broader, secular case for reducing consumption. For almost every aspect of global resource use, she describes improvements we have made in providing for human need since More-with-Less was first published — the flowering of the Green Revolution in agriculture, greater energy-use efficiency, increases in solar and wind energy production. Yet these gains in productivity and environmental friendliness have been, by and large, matched and overmatched by continuing increases in consumption — particularly by those of us who were already using the most.

This is the implicit answer The Story of More makes to a very standard objection to calls for living less consumptively — an individual’s choices are a drop in the global ocean of need and want; only systematic, government-scale changes will effectively slow climate change and habitat destruction. Over the last five decades, as Jahren describes, government regulation and technological innovation have indeed reduced how much land and fossil fuel it takes to support the lifestyle of an average citizen in a wealthy country — but that average lifestyle has become more extravagant at the same time. Electric cars and ethically raised meat are still quite capable of destroying the living systems of our planet, unless we can innovate our way to actually using less.

Using less, that’s the rub. Never in my adult lifetime can I recall a national politician who successfully, explicitly advocated for Americans to truly use less — or for regulations or infrastructure that would help us to. The very idea that any good or service (health care, incandescent light bulbs, hamburgers) might be rationed or restricted by anything other than sheer market forces (ability to pay) is derided as Marxist madness by the Right and too often conceded as indefensible by the Left. Forty-four years ago, Doris Janzen Longacre published her cookbook as, she hoped, the seed of a less-consumptive counterculture. Today, Hope Jahren looks back on half a century of systematic and technological change, and concludes that such a counterculture is the only thing that can save us. And both still seem to be hoping for a collective will we don’t know how to summon.

And yet maybe, after all, we can get there. I am sitting at my desk finding an ending to this essay in the midst of the fifth week since the city of Los Angeles collectively decided to stay home and close down a substantial fraction of its economy to slow the spread of an emergent pandemic coronavirus. The success and thoroughness of “social distancing” varies across the United States, but strong majorities of Americans continue to practice and support the measures — a collective sacrifice without precedent in my lifetime. This crisis is acute; climate change and habitat destruction and global inequity are a much slower slide to worsening conditions. But maybe we’re building the moral muscle that can meet those more enduring challenges. There’s no reason that personal efforts to reduce consumption need to detract from work for systematic changes — arguably they’re part of the same project. What is political organizing, after all, but collective action — and collective action is what can make small individual choices add up to something truly meaningful.

The Story of More concludes with a series of appendices that, briefly, outline responses to the cost of modern wealthy lifestyles. The specific actions are not the exhaustive list you might expect, but how much detail does anyone need at this phase of the climate crisis? Use less — gasoline, or meat, or electricity; examine your values, do the research, and consider what you might do beyond more of the status quo. As Jahren points out, the flipside of the disproportionate resource use we enjoy in wealthy countries is that we have more opportunities to make meaningful cuts. “Start in your own home and expand from there,” she writes. “I promise you’ll be surprised at how far abroad it takes you.”

On the last Friday night before Los Angeles battened down for coronavirus, I invited a few friends over for dinner. I made a doubled More-with-Less moussaka recipe, swapping “meatless ground” protein for beef. We ate together and watched a particularly silly classic movie, and then parted ways (we didn’t know, then, for how long). Over the coming week, I ate leftover moussaka for multiple dinners. I cubed and roasted the eggplant that hadn’t fit in my casserole dish, and I simmered it with leftover herbs and a spare onion and some stray carrots to make vegetable stock, enough to add flavor to the pasta I cooked for weeks into the coronavirus shutdown. It was a vanishingly small thing, in the course of the pandemic and the continued rise of global temperatures. But if nothing else, the dividends of that last dinner party have helped to sustain me.

A Pyrex casserole dish of eggplant moussaka, placed on a stovetop
A Pyrex casserole dish of eggplant moussaka, placed on a stovetop
The moussaka

Evolutionary biologist, runner, gay. Writings in Slate, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the LA Review of Books, and the Stranger.

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