Here is part two of sixteen installments from “This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology” / How we find our way to a humane and environmentally sane future. Each installment will be posted at www.thisishopethebook.com.
Though “This Is Hope” covers many subject areas, these modified excerpts focus on Michael Pollan’s book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, and the damage it has done to our understanding of ecosystems and the food choices needed to protect them.
The Most Important Dilemma: Problems with Flawed Choices
A popular movement in food culture deserves attention from the perspective of human ecology. Its proponents describe themselves as omnivores. Like all omnivores, they choose to eat both plant- and animal-sourced food. However, these omnivores call for tweaking, not ending, carnism to make it acceptable. They oppose some critical excesses of industrial agricultural practices and ill-considered consumer behavior, but do not challenge the appropriateness of carnism itself. Switching to locally sourced, organic, grass-eating cattle meat over the grain-fed industrial animal product is the kind of change that leaves them satisfied. These reformed omnivores allege their dietary choices are environmentally sustainable and humane. There is no foundation to either claim.
Michael Pollan is perhaps the most popular omnivore reformer since his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma was published in 2006. A professor of journalism and skilled writer, he performs an important public service because he draws millions of people into thinking about agriculture and how we choose the food we eat.194 He brings more people to the table, so to speak. Tragically, he and the reformed omnivore movement that responded to his messages remain stuck in a current human ecology that is neither adaptable to ecosystems, thus unsustainable, nor moral in its treatment of individuals from other species. I will refer to them simply as omnivores from here on.
Pollan rallies us to consider our food choices. He shares his discoveries about the absurdities of industrial corn production and its connections to factory farming. He rallies to the dangers of monocultures and pesticides. This is great stuff. I recommend his books. But it is not long before his carnist worldview becomes evident in the aberrations and biases found in some of his most important presumptions and conclusions in Omnivore’s Dilemma. He falls short of doing justice to the great questions he raises about our food choices.
In Dilemma, Pollan uses inappropriately applied terms and unfounded concepts about ecology, ecosystems, animal behavior, the motivations of vegans and vegetarians, and the few philosophers he chose to represent them. And after a few perfunctory acknowledgments about their goodintentions, he becomes unpleasantly dismissive of vegans and vegetarians.
The first clue to the book’s conclusions arrives quickly on the initial pages. “But in the end,” Pollan writes, this is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kinds of pleasures that are only deepened by knowing.… Many of these species have evolved expressly to gratify our desires, in the intricate dance of domestication that has allowed us and them to prosper together as we could never have prospered apart.”
With one broad stroke of his personal and deeply anthropocentric worldview, he dismisses humanity’s history of horrific treatment of billions upon billions of sentient beings and ecosystem losses long before factory farming existed. He asserts that this “intricate dance” has been beneficial to the sentient species farmed for their meat because they now exist in large numbers. This author considers they are “prospering” when we artificially induce their short productive lives that “gratify our desires” but gives no accounting of their innate value. Population equals good in this simple equation. He asks us to believe the absurdity that all of the suffering and abuse we have rained upon them would be—if choice were possible—the choice domesticated individuals from other species would make just so they could now exist in the billions.
Norm Phelps, author and founder of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, pulls back the curtain on similar unexamined worldview assumptions about our relationships with domesticated species. “Unsupported by evidence, the ‘volunteers for death’ theory is a self-serving justification for modern-day animal slavery and slaughter projected backward in time so it can masquerade as legitimate scholarship. It is the interspecies equivalent of claims that African slaves were happy in their servitude because it spared them the risks and uncertainties of freedom.”
As Phelps is reminding us, if Pollan’s criteria were applied to human slaves, we would see it as racist. When it is applied to other species, it is called speciesism.
Next, part 3: Pollan’s Dance of Death