Michael Pollan

January 23, 2011

So January Oh Eleven is shaping up to be food ethics icons month, which gives me an opportunity to go back to a blog topic I had thought about last year. Back on April 12, 2010 a noted food author came to Michigan State University to give a talk in the university lecture series. Diane and I were invited to the pre-lecture dinner and were able to have a fairly intimate conversation with him—intimate, that is, if a table of 15 or 20 people can be considered intimate conversation. I had been called upon to give the introduction and field questions after his talk due to a last minute injury to my colleague Mike Hamm. Then I got on an airplane the next day, flew to Rome for a meeting at FAO and wound up getting stuck there when the volcano erupted. I was distracted and never wrote my blog about getting to meet Michael Pollan.

Although this was my first face-to-face with Pollan, I had spoken with him on the telephone a few times, including a very long conversation as he was working on a piece that was eventually published in the New York Times Magazine under the title “An Animal’s Place” back in 2002. I remember being very disappointed that I did not get so much as mention by name, much less a quotation in that article. But in my less self-absorbed moments I understand that getting in a shout out to everyone you talked to during the course of writing an article is less important than writing something the average reader actually wants to read. Other academic-types have been less generous to Pollan, dissing him for failing to cite sources in much the same vein that I carped about Vandana Shiva earlier this month.  But being scrupulous about assigning credit is not what gets you to iconic status, and frankly we need icons like Pollan and Shiva.

Pollan writes with cleverness and grace. He has done more to raise general awareness about food issues in the the American public than any other individual since Julia Child. And unlike Julia Child, Pollan takes on difficult ethical problems. He does not give simplistic answers to these problems either. His work is full of nuance and he is not beyond telling people that he does not know what to think about a particular issue. He states pretty directly that his goal is to start a national conversation about food, not to finish it. For all these reasons, I’m very comfortable endorsing Pollan’s work, especially for general interest readers who are a lot less interested in the philosophic subtleties than I am. I know a lot of college professors who have used Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a textbook in their classes on food ethics, and I think that’s just fine.

It is, in fact, only at a fairly deep philosophical level that Pollan and I part company. In my book The Agrarian Vision, I write that for all his dissatisfaction with industrial farming methods in the end, Pollan is just another industrialist. What I mean is that his way of thinking about food issues is typical of the ethical thinking that has become commonplace since the industrial revolution. My book argues that there were better ways to think about all types of environmental issue (not just agriculture) that were fairly commonplace in the past. The last great philosopher who was able to present an agrarian argument was G.W. F. Hegel, who suggested that farming societies were the basis for virtues such as citizenship, family solidarity and sustainability. (Or at least so I believe.)

This is not to say that we should go back to Hegel, or that we should take a politically conservative view. (I say this here because a recent reviewer of The Agrarian Vision interprets me that way.) But I do think that recovering the way that thinking through food systems made asking questions about humanity’s dependence on nature seem natural and obvious would be a good thing. And like Hegel, I see this dependence as stretching deeply into cultural matters. It’s not just a matter of eating healthy foods and enjoying the aesthetic benefits of fresh vegetables. The way we make our world materially ultimate affects the way that we understand ourselves as citizens and as moral beings.

You won’t find this in Pollan and maybe that’s just as well. My views are not very good conversation starters, as much as I would hope that the conversation will eventually get around to them. And I am fully aware that I might just be wrong about the need to recover an old way of thinking in order to think in a truly new kind of way. So I will stick with Pollan and recommend him to people who want to think more critically about their food and where it comes from, as well as to people who have never given this possibility a second thought.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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