Michael Pollan was one of those interviewed for Food, Inc., and while I differ with the whole project, he really seemed to me to be among the sane ones. Couple that with the fact that his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is well spoken of, I thought I should do a series of posts reacting to his arguments. (Although, if his introduction is anything to go on, I suspect that the real differences are in the premises, not in the arguments.) At any rate, let me begin by quoting him with partial approval. He referred to the “American paradox — that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating heathily” (p. 3). I want to argue that this is not just an odd juxtaposition, but there is a deep connection between the two. A lesser theme in my writing on this topic is “lighten up, everybody.” Just in passing, the disagreement here is that he seems to be confusing unfit with unhealthy.
Pollan points to something I have thought about quite often over the years. As the human race spread out from the region of Eden, they had to eat as they went. And this meant a great deal of intrepid experimentation. Who was the first to fry an oyster? Who was the first to try that mushroom, and then this one? Periodically, one of the fellows would keel over, and the rest of humanity would look at one another and say, “Well. Now we know.”
But in order to keep track of this cause and effect business, you have to approach it with the simplicity of the Neanderthal. You eat a particular thing and die within 24 hours. Everybody else takes notes. But modern man has lost his grip on the nature of cause and effect, and likes to do statistical analysis. Modern man is too clever by half. This confusion results in us living 40 years longer than our great grandfathers did, being fully convinced the entire while that we are being poisoned to death. Maybe it is homeopathic poison. For some reason, Pollan tips his hat to this bizarre approach.
“The cornucopia of the American supermarket has thrown us back on a bewildering food landscape where we once again have to worry that some of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. (Perhaps not as quickly as a poisonous mushroom, but just as surely.)” (pp. 4-5).
Just as surely? Poisoned people in modern times should not live twice as long as the unpoisoned ones in days of yore. Or so it seems to me.
The second thing I would like to note from the introduction illustrates the controlling nature of our assumptions.
“One of the themes of this book is that the industrial revolution of the food chain, dating to the close of World War II, has actually changed the fundamental rules of this game. Industrial agriculture has supplanted a complete reliance on the sun for our calories with something new under the sun: a food chain that draws much of its energy from fossil fuels instead” (p. 7).
My initial response to this would be “cool.” What a great use of fossil fuel. But the assumption here is that getting energy from the ground to feed people is bad, or at least unnatural. Fossil fuels are “finite and irreplaceable” (p. 7), and so Pollan argues against using them the way we are doing.
But why? First, we don’t know that they are irreplaceable, but if they are, we can then figure out some other energy source to use to drive our farm equipment. The hidden assumption that Pollan appeals to is that we “ought” to be using energy from the sun to grow our food, and that we “ought not” to be fooling around with other stuff. But why?
Pollan is advancing his agenda in an era when numerous people simply “know” this. That means that Pollan can use it to get traction. He can reason from this as a premise because many of his readers will happily grant that premise. But I don’t want to. What would be wrong, in principle, with combines that are driven by small nuclear reactors? Then we would be getting agricultural energy from the atom, not from fossil fuels, but still not from the sun. Did God ever tell us not to do that?
And closer to home, did He ever say that it would be better for hundreds of thousands of people to die of starvation in the Far East than for us to abandon the sun as the source of all our agricultural energy? As with many other worldview arguments, the real business here concerns where your feet are, what you are standing on, and not necessarily what you say.