Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Omnivore's Dilemma, the

Mykle and i were traveling in China. I'd brought Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, and The Rainbow Stories by Bill Vollmann. Mykle had The Omnivore's Dilemma, and one other rather thick book that is seventh and final in a very well-known series. By the end of the trip we'd both cleared our list, and Mykle went to the shop to get something for the ride home, and i snagged Omnivore's Dilemma.
I'm not going to summarize OD, because i think everyone knows that it's a justified diatribe against the monoculture of Corn in industrial agriculture and the concomitant non-sustainability & general crappiness of that industry.
I am, however going to join what is probably a pretty large camp and criticize Michael Pollan for a certain glaring blind-spot in his criticism of the non-sustainability of industrial agriculture. And this is that his entire exploration has an unstated focus: How do we achieve sustainable farming methods for the production of meat ? ie, it's specifically farming which results in steak on the table that he's interested in, and clearly illustrates how many problems that generates, yet never broaches the topic of perhaps eating way, way less meat. He even has an entire chapter titled "the ethics of eating animals", which presents and discusses several 'ethical' issues around human carnivorism, but never once raises what in my mind is the primary ethical issue here: environmental responsibility.
I am also going to rage against his rhetorical and prose styles. They are god-awful. Here are a few sentences which each begin not merely paragraphs, but entire sub-chapters: "To contemplate such questions from the vantage of a farm .." "Part of me did not want to go." Or here, the first sentence in chapter 20, "The Perfect Meal": "Perfect?! A dangerous boast, you must be thinking." These of course are stylistic quibbles, but i read for prose style at least as much as content. Pollan's rhetoric is similarly sloppy. One technique he uses frequently is to introduce us to a slogan of some sort and then repeat that slogan over and over, until a chapter and a half later it's been transformed from slogan to actual fact. A particular case of this is the phrase "you can't change just one thing [in a farming ecosystem]", meaning that if you raise chickens and cows, you can't just add more chickens and expect there to be no effect on the cows. This is certainly good advice, and very likely true. It's not the truth or utility of this particular slogan which i'm against, but rather the fact that it's introduced as a slogan and leaves as a rhetorical argument. I was also pretty disappointed by Pollan's presentation (if not his understanding) of natural selection. The book is rife with personification of nature and even specifically of natural selection, constantly using phrases such as ".. helped them to displace the native plants and animals allied with the Indian" - huh ? plants allied with Indians ? Or: ".. in fact it makes just as much sense to regard agriculture as a brilliant (if unconscious) evolutionary strategy on the part of the plants and animals involved to get us to advance their interests." - there's so much wrong with that sentence from a scientific point of view that it's difficult to know where to begin.

Anyhow. So, in summary, i think it's a good book which certainly presents a lot of interesting information (except in the chapters about hunting and mushroom gathering - that's interesting, but not very) but it's horribly written and has some serious rhetorical blind-spots.


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