Michael Pollan

[WRITER]

“THE NINETY-NINE-CENT HAMBURGER, CHEAP AS IT LOOKS, IS ACTUALLY INCREDIBLY EXPENSIVE TO SOCIETY, TO NATURE, AND TO PUBLIC HEALTH. IT SEEMS TO ME WE HAVE TO MOVE TOWARD A PLACE WHERE WE’RE PAYING THE REAL COST OF OUR FOOD, AND WHEN WE DO WE CAN BEGIN TO MAKE BETTER DECISIONS AS A SOCIETY.”
Problematic ways of looking at food:
As fuel
As a cure-all
As a good bargain
As a raw material

Michael Pollan is a nature writer of sorts. Throughout his career, his subjects have been places where people live and work, where humans take part in nature instead of just watching passively. This stands in distinction to a strain of nature writing that concentrates on wilderness. To put the contrast in simple terms: while someone like Bill McKibben camps, Pollan gardens.

Before joining the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, as the Knight Professor of Journalism a few years ago, Pollan was an editor at Harper’s magazine for about a decade. At Berkeley, he organizes the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism, where the likes of Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, and Raymond Kurzweil come to discuss the science-environmental nexus, and where such topics as President Bush’s science policy, the future of food, human biotechnology, alternative agriculture, and nanotechnology have recently been the focus of intense panel discussions. Perhaps more to the point, Pollan is most notably the author of four books—the first three of which are The Botany of Desire, Second Nature, and A Place of My Own—and currently serves as a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

A lot of people seem to have personal experience with food, so when you write a book about it, a lot of those people want to ask you things. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan’s fourth book, is about four different ways to make a meal—through the industrial food chain, the organic food chain (think Whole Foods), local farms (not always the same as organic), and by hand (hunting, gathering, that kind of stuff). We spoke about the book and his broader journalistic ambitions via telephone, on several occasions, even when in the background his son needed help with a Huckleberry Finn reading assignment, and even when he was fielding calls about E. coli outbreaks near and far. We talked about ecological thinking, farm policy, and why people don’t think agriculture means food. We were unable, though, to avoid surmising that any such conversation is ultimately about culture, politics, and economy.

—Benjamin R. Cohen

*

THE BELIEVER If the problem is consumption, a consumer-based philosophy, then it seems like in the newer organic model, like in Joel Salatin’s case, on one read it’s not really solving the problem. His solution is just to have a better consumer and not to work on the problem of consumption itself. So if overconsumption is either caused by or is part of the same process as overproduction—like the high-yield mentality—then just making a different consumer isn’t getting at that.

MICHAEL POLLAN: I don’t know how far you can go in solving problems by changing patterns of consumer behavior, though I think you can go pretty far. But I do think it requires us to reconsider what it means to be a consumer. We’re getting our ideas about what that means from marketing and advertising, that being a good consumer is getting a “good deal” on price and having your desires satisfied as quickly as possible, but there are other ways to conceive of your role as a consumer. You can conceive of your consumer decisions as incredibly creative. Or as incredibly political. So that the typical definition of the consumer, that character, is not necessarily the only one that there might be. We tend to look down on this character, even though it’s most of us, and we accept the critique of who this consumer is, and how limited his viewpoint is.

But just as we talked about reinventing high-capital technology, can you imagine reinventing what a consumer could be? Could it be someone who brought his political values to the buying decisions as well as his basic desires for sweetness or intoxication or whatever, and who understood that buying a food that was cheap but irresponsibly priced was a short-term thing to do, and probably not wise in the long term? And, he realized when he was buying food he was making decisions about the local landscape and people in his community and his long-term health? Imagine consumers making decisions informed by all these other considerations, not just the information on desire coming from an advertiser.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Benjamin Cohen is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia. He’s also taken to coauthoring The World’s Fair at scienceblogs.com/worldsfair. He lives near Charlottesville with his wife, Chris, and two children. They all continue to be exceptional.

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