November 2, 2006
Life Ain't a Picnic (Or a Garden)
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?