Part 9: Cross Pollination

Pollan declares that he intends to take the “approach [of ] the diner as a naturalist might, using the long lenses of ecology and anthropology,” while employing “the shorter, more intimate lens of personal experience.” My charge is that he cannot do this without evaluating his choices from a more thorough consideration of ecological, as a naturalist would, and anthropological outcomes. This includes examining more deeply the legitimacy and appropriateness of carnism itself and whether being an omnivore within today’s ecosystems is a moral and survivable human adaptation to Earth.

He makes an appealing argument for us to reduce some of the environmental impact involved in animal agriculture, but cannot bring himself to stop it altogether. Instead, Pollan romanticizes our human history of carnism in general, and hunting and other cultural practices in particular. The traditions he defends are destroying the planet. He cannot claim to look at this issue thoroughly as an ecologist might, nor make a credible claim of waxing anthropological given his unexamined impacts, like the GHGs spewing from omnivore choices, upon other people geographically distant from his dietary choices. This “short lens … of personal experience” strikes me as being nothing more than an extension of his own cultural, anthropocentric wet blanket that he drapes over the entire enterprise.

Omnivore’s Dilemma needed to include, at minimum, a studied comparison of carnist omnivorism to an alternative vegan human ecology. Bypassing that need allowed him to retreat to where his personal traditions live. Pollan’s central theme is that we face a dilemma about how we choose our food in the midst of plenty. It can be addressed with a basic knowledge of vegan, organic (veganic), whole foods nutrition. Instead of a fair, side-by-side comparison of omnivorism/carnism to veganism, he chose to describe vegetarians, who also have more to ponder about dairy, leather, and eggs, and by inference vegans, as urban eccentrics wholly detached from “the real world.” He never wavers in his allegiance to carnist omnivore culture and the worldviews that support it. Whether he likes it or not, his undeniable storytelling craft has bolstered food epicureans and their enabling chefs, gluttons who treat him as an icon. There is a communications media happy to grant all of them absolution for the destruction and suffering omnivore choices create.

A telling critique of Omnivore’s Dilemma comes from B.R. Meyers, contributing editor for The Atlantic at the time, in his book review titled “Hard to Swallow.” He wrote: “For centuries civilized society took a dim view of food lovers, calling them ‘gourmands’ and ‘gluttons’ … They were even assigned their own place in hell … force-fed for eternity.… [F]ood writers’ hostility to the very language of moral value and Pollan’s use of language [is] to side step and diminish people like you and me who are calling out for different answers to the questions Omnivore’s Dilemma raises.”

Although he proscribes “eat mostly plants,” Pollan distances himself from advocating a vegan diet even in the face of overwhelming proof he visits, but only briefly as a seeming formality. He wrote, “People feel like they have to take sides on this plant/animal divide, and I don’t think we do. [Mother Jones interviewer, “There’s no dilemma?”] “No dilemma.” Pollan advocates we get chickens out of cages, reduce the consumption of animal-sourced foods, especially those produced under industrial conditions, and increase access to healthy foods for the underserved poor in cities. These are a few of the many other unquestionably good changes he promotes. Pollan gives the industrial botanical agriculture and industrial animal agriculture a well-deserved kick in the pants but he fails to offer adequate justice for ecosystems, people who depend upon them, and the billions of sentient beings he approves of wasting.

He may still see past his self-imposed limits and come to a vegan conclusion. Pollan appreciates how the power of our food choices creates both the worst and the best outcomes possible. Despite his failure to understand the rest of those connections, we can use some of the seeds he has been planting—unwittingly—for a vegan new human ecology even as he denies the need for it.

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