I finally read Michael Pollan’s piece called “Why Bother?” in last week’s NY Times Sunday magazine. It’s been sitting on my nightstand all week.

Just a few paragraphs and I was already arguing with Pollan in my head. I wasn’t convinced that his enlightened eating practices might be cancelled out by someone buying their first car in China. I mean, he’s an American writer who’s probably flown a million air miles to promote his books, and I’d guess that his emissions far outpace those of your basic Chinese worker making a per capita $227 per month.

Of course Pollan was mostly just working up to his point that the problems facing us seem far beyond anything one person can tackle. That sweeping laws and incentives won’t solve our problems quickly or completely. And he’s absolutely right that we still have to try, individually, to make a dent. One solution is in composting. Another is growing our own food in a sustainable manner.

Irony is, there are people who’ve been doing this for about the last ten thousand years, among them the Chinese.

Being ethnically Chinese, I’m all too aware that my people have their problems. The scale alone of these peoples’ economic ambitions poses a super-threat to the environment. But there are also hundreds of millions of Chinese living in subsistence fashion in the rural countryside, as they have for millenia. These folks, who are sometimes called peasants, have survived by farming tiny plots of land intensively and organically.

Nice twist, huh?

So I think that Pollan is right in calling for a transformation of how we live here in America. But I think we also need to appreciate and respect that plenty of people all over the world have been living close to the earth for centuries. They just never thought to call it sustainable living.