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Life Ain't a Picnic (Or a Garden)
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I am only halfway through Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” but that’s far enough to appreciate Tyler Cowen’s critique of the book in Slate. Cowen respects the moral weight of Pollan’s arguments, but says they’re simply impractical:

The ideas are powerful, but the garden is not a useful way to think about food markets. Pollan does not acknowledge how much his garden construct is historically specific. Early crop-growing, circa 5000 B.C. or even 1700 A.D., was no fun. The labor was backbreaking, and whether it rained, or when the frost came, was often a matter of life or death. And proper gardens — as a source of pleasure rather than survival — became widespread only with the appearance of capitalist wealth and leisure time, both results of man’s dominion over nature. The English gardening tradition blossomed in the 18th century, along with consumer society and a nascent Industrial Revolution.

In other words, the garden ideal is possible in some spheres only because it is rejected in so many others. It is the cultures of the scientists and engineers that have allowed gardens — and also a regular food supply — to flourish in the modern world.

Right now I’m also reading a book called “The Primacy of Politics,” which is Sheri Berman’s argument that the real story of the 20th century is the reconciliation of democracy and capitalism. (It’s amazing; will blog more about it later.) Nowadays we assume they fit neatly together (triumph of liberalism in all spheres, End of History, etc.), but not that long ago, the assumption was reversed: People thought they were totally incompatible.

So this makes me wonder: Maybe the next great reconciliation we’ve got to forge is between health and morality and efficient, industrial-scale agriculture?

November 2, 2006 / Uncategorized

4 comments

When you’re finished with the book, you’ll renounce this heresy, and understand that Cowen’s argument is bashing a total strawman. Pollan’s not advocating anything nearly so simplistic as Cowen represents it here. Maybe he did back in 1991, when he wrote the book Cowen spends half the article whining about.

Sorry, to expand on that, Pollan’s final meal isn’t at all supposed to represent his “model for responsible eating,” as Cowen puts it. As soon as he finishes describing that meal, he says it was completely impractical to produce, that it required a surfeit of time and resources the average person would not have, and that he’ll probably be eating another McDonald’s combo meal before he goes on another such excursion.

Looked at from the broadest possible angle, Pollan is decrying a lessening of two things: knowledge and diversity. We (both consumers and food producers) don’t know enough about our food, or the way it’s produced, he says. Industrial food producers have no idea of the benefits they’re forestalling or the pathogens they’re creating by circumventing processes refined by nature over millions of years (e.g. making cows eat grain). And consumers are so far removed from the food production process that we don’t really have any idea what it is we’re consuming.

And of course, if there’s a villain in this book, it’s monoculture. Industrial food production tends to drive out biodiversity in favor of the fewest number and variety of crops necessary, until one day we discover everything we’re eating is actually just processed corn. The hero of The Omnivore’s Dilemma isn’t Michael Pollan, out hunting for morels. It’s Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, who cultivates an ecology so varied and precise that each piece of it sustains every other. And in the process of maintaining that ecology, Joel Salatin is acquiring knowledge an industrial farmers could never have about how nature actually enriches food in all the best ways.

If Pollan’s making any direct argument about market economics, it’s probably this: it can teach us many things, but not how to farm well.

Peter says…

This is so great; that book is totally on my list, but if you guys keep talking about it I won’t even have to read it. It’s like listening to Sam Harris’s Long Now talk; I just got his whole book in an hour!

(Disclaimer: opinionated vegetarianism follows.) For a cutesy version of the “become an educated meat consumer” lecture, I recommend “The Meatrix“. Maybe you’ve gotten the URL before and didn’t give it much thought; it’s kind of silly and simplistic. But watch it again; when you get down to it the idea that no one seems to care where their food comes from is really pretty simple in the first place, it’s just massively under-appreciated. And I think the “red pill/blue pill” message is apt; most people don’t know because some part of them doesn’t want to know. But I look around and see more and more people shopping at Whole Foods or farmers markets or whatever and it seems like we’re due for some scrutiny of that most sanitized, most processed of processed foods: supermarket meat.

For the less cutesy version, PETA has several videos I think everyone ought to try to sit through. I’m not a big PETA fan, but what they did in this case is basically just hand held undercover reporting and that seems legitimate to me. I’m not going to link to that stuff because it’s seriously messed up. But I’m hoping to find time to post a more thorough discussion of this stuff on my site, so maybe then I’ll actually post the links.

Ha hahahaha… if Matt keeps talking about it, I won’t have to finish it either! 🙂

Seriously, great comment.

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