Search the Site

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)