Specialization Not as Recent as You May Think

Michael Pollan recently wrote a provocative and thoughtful essay called “Why Bother?” in The Times Magazine about whether it’s worth it to make individual behavior changes to fight climate change. There were a lot of pieces of the essay that Freakonomics readers would find of interest, and perhaps would quarrel with.

Here is a particularly compelling section about Wendell Berry‘s view of specialization:

For Berry, the deep problem standing behind all the other problems of industrial civilization is “specialization,” which he regards as the “disease of the modern character.” Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: we’re producers (of one thing) at work, consumers of a great many other things the rest of the time, and then once a year or so we vote as citizens. Virtually all of our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to the environmentalist, political action to the politician.

As Adam Smith and many others have pointed out, this division of labor has given us many of the blessings of civilization.

Specialization is what allows me to sit at a computer thinking about climate change. Yet this same division of labor obscures the lines of connection — and responsibility — linking our everyday acts to their real-world consequences, making it easy for me to overlook the coal-fired power plant that is lighting my screen, or the mountaintop in Kentucky that had to be destroyed to provide the coal to that plant, or the streams running crimson with heavy metals as a result.

But is specialization really the culprit — or, more pointedly, is specialization as modern a concept as is commonly thought? Consider this passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Berachot 58a), which predates Smith’s tale of the pin factory by some 1,500 years:

Ben Zoma once saw a crowd on one of the steps of the Temple Mount. He said, Blessed is He that discerneth secrets, and blessed is He who has created all these to serve me. [For] he used to say: What labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound [the sheaves], he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground [them], and sifted [the flour], he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me.

And how many labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained a garment to wear! He had to shear, wash [the wool], comb it, spin it, and weave it, and then at last he obtained a garment to wear; whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house, and I rise in the morning and find all these before me.

(Hat tip: Leon Morris)

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  1. Ben says:

    I agree with the sentiment that a lot of the problems we have today do come from us being disconnected from the consequences of our actions, but I don’t think you can fault specialization for that, I think people need to be more proactive and less lazy, people need to think the choices they make through.

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  2. jonathan says:

    Any student of ancient Rome knows that specialization was the norm in craft and trade and that the average Roman relied on various large agribusinesses for food. Streets were named for the craft practiced in them.

    Smith’s and Ricardo’s work described in rigorous terms existing human behavior not on theory about what should or might be – in contrast, for example, to Marx.

    Berry makes an interesting observation but I assume it was intended to be more provocative than wholly true.

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  3. Scott says:

    I think it is also a side effect of how kids grow up. The ‘specialization’ of children is often to learn and have fun and let adults take care of any problems. When you grow up like that, you aren’t used to recognizing the consequences of what you do or don’t do, because adults take care of them. And you probably don’t appreciate all the work that goes into that very deeply. Instead what children learn to appreciate is often getting the most for themselves, in college and work after that.

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  4. Jeffrey says:

    I don’t think this is a case of picking one side or another. I very much agree with the sentiment of Mr. Berry, but don’t think that specialization in and of itself is a bad thing. I just think that very much like capitalism in general, there is a sort of hyper-specialization that removes humans in modern society from the totality of our very existence. Absolute focus on one mere specialized profession/sector/etc. is damaging to the soul and creates an ignorance as to the externalities of all sectors to which we are not specialized. The key: balance.

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  5. Laura Benson says:

    I don’t think that specialization as it was 1,500 years ago had the same kinds of implications for the environment as it does today, and I don’t beleive Pollan was trying to imply that what we all need to do is produce individually every product that we may need (certainly there is room for local farmers, bakers and tailors in an ecologically sustainable economy)
    Specialization today has been taken to such a ridiculous place today that even national economies are becoming specialized (service economies versus industrial). When the products you are consuming have various parts from multiple continents that come together to be constucted in some third location that is unlkely to be the country you live in…I think it’s pretty fair to argue you are just a little more removed from the real-world consequences of those products than Ben Zonna was.
    When things become so specialized that you dont know the who, what, where or how of a product, thoughtless consumption becomes a whole lot easier.

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  6. kebko says:

    From Michael Pollan’s article:

    You begin to see that growing even a little of your own food is, as Wendell Berry pointed out 30 years ago, one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems…actually beget other solutions…

    and

    The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum…

    Ironically, these are actually the same lessons I learn whenever I engage in specialization & the market economy. I’m happy to consider these lessons inside my garden. If only Mr. Pollan noticed these lessons when they occur outside his garden.

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  7. tim says:

    You can give Emile Durkheim’s “Division of Labor in Society” a read. He discusses how specialization has increased over time, and consequently created more solidarity in the world due to the dependence on others that it fosters.

    Long and somewhat monotonous, but full of knowledge and insight.

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  8. Bertilak de Hautdesert says:

    Perhaps you aren’t well socialized with the new baby boomers, the swelling ranks of youth, but there is most certainly a hipster ethic that is often luddhite, and promotes resuse, fewer possessions, bicycle riding and vegetarianism. It is also predominately white or white-acting liberals exclusively. Everyone else suffers from requited material envy, as many find ways to buy more things, and unrequited envy as other look upon the first group.

    The social script calls for the derision of the few that are not running in that race, just as you say it does, since earning material goods is no easy task. There is a lot of competition, which requires a lot of continuous psychic priming. How easy then, is it to declare sour grapes? And how much do you want to tell yourself not to do that if you are in the thick of competition? The truth is everything is priced on the value system of the requited and unrequited, and very little is priced for the people that Pollan invokes, so it is not as simple to say sour grapes as it seems.

    I believe the origin of this script comes from the era when some so-called civilized races had been adapting to a low resource/high population ratio. The cultures became asset-centric and even people became viewed as assets (either performing assets or non-performing assets). Then new land were discovered and these assets-management civilizations redefined asset-management as asset-acquisition-management, and off we went creating the world’s largest marketplace. Meanwhile communities that developed in high resource/ low population ratio societies were viewed as non-performing assets and were marginalized. These marginalized civilizations had a tendency to view everything in terms of relationships, were more socialistic, and that relationship perspective was even extended to resources. That meant when they formed relationships with asset-minded folks, they usually found themselves “tricked” by the lies and omissions of those that viewed them in terms of assets. It’s unfortunate that those relationsips could not be respected in an asset-relationship equilibrium, but they weren’t.

    What will happen is that poor and marginalized people will suffer first as prices rise due to continuous supply disruption. The wealthy will see this as the poor not trying hard enough and enact harmful tough-love programs. Eventually the market will contract enough that wealthy people will be willing to consider the possibility of global warming and they will try to profit from it. I’m not sure that profitting from it will help end it, but if rich people can become richer from reducing our carbon footprint and ending global warming, or at least “feel” richer with the same wealth then we may be saved from extinction.

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