The Rumpus Interview with Michael Pollan



“I think historically modern economics, capitalist economics, tends to erode moral categories… And this is where I think the right gets capitalism wrong. They kind of assume that there is a moral equivalence or moral valence to capitalism, but I tend to think that economics erodes all the kind of cultural taboos and inhibitions and values it comes into contact with.”

Ever since the publication of his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan has been fielding questions about food. These questions regarding how we eat—indeed, how we remake a food system that’s a detriment to the environment and human health—remain urgent and unsettling. But it’s not implicit that writers, like Pollan, who provide us with new insight and ways of seeing, are obliged to offer answers to our abiding questions. Is it, after all, the writer’s responsibility to solve the problems brought to light on the page?

Pollan’s writing has been called lyrical, erudite, eye-opening, and slyly parenthetical. And before he became known as a “food writer,” Pollan was variously referred to as a subtle environmentalist, an heir to Mark Twain, a philosopher, a humorist, and a writer of the informed pastoral. He’s political, though certainly not a politician, and a writer who has found himself, not incidentally, at the center of a movement. His most pointed book to date, In Defense of Food, will be out in paperback on April 28.

Rumpus: I thought a lot about whether I should start this interview with a food question, as that seems sort of obligatory and I don’t want to disappoint anyone who expects you to talk about food, but I’m inclined to talk about other things. Could we try that?

Pollan: Sure, yes. Sounds great.

Rumpus: Okay, then. Let’s try to tackle economy and morality and then maybe link that up to a conversation about Nature narratives. I think we can use Wendell Berry as a starting point, since we’ve talked about him from time to time and he so often calls attention to economic and moral systems and the language of things. I recently reread his essay “Imagination in Place” in which he argues against referring to land as “capital” and the people who work it as “labor.” To get us started, could you talk about whether you share that view?

Pollan: I haven’t really thought about those particular words. I mean, “capital” and “labor” are usually thought of as terms that come from the tradition of Adam Smith and Karl Marx and are really creations of the industrial age, although “capital” was tied to the word “cattle” originally. Cattle was the first form of capital. You know, Berry’s point is that we should not be taking these metaphors of machines, these industrial metaphors, and applying them to biological systems. And he says that you get into trouble when you do. To the extent that those words are reflective of our tendency to look at land and see a factory or a potential factory and to see the farmer as a laborer rather than as someone who’s a member of a biotic community or a steward—yeah, I think there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying. I think these words do influence the way we see things and the metaphors really do matter.

Rumpus: So you’ll go down that path with Berry, as I think you started to do in your Times piece, “Why Bother?” You mentioned this idea Berry has about “specialization” or “the division of labor” being the deep problem standing behind all of the other problems of industrial civilization. But Berry regards “specialization” as “the disease of the modern character.” With that in mind, would you depart from Berry and say that the modern economy is divorced—or separate—from morality?

Pollan: Well, I don’t think economics have anything to do with morality. I think the economy is just another system and sphere entirely.

Rumpus: Wedding the two would be problematic for you then? An economic agenda derived from a set of moral values?

Pollan: Like, could you join them?

Rumpus: Yeah, a moral, capitalist economic system.

Pollan: I think historically modern economics, capitalist economics, tends to erode moral categories. I mean that was the argument, and think it’s a very persuasive argument, of Daniel Bell in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. And this is where I think the right gets capitalism wrong. They kind of assume that there is a moral equivalence or moral valence to capitalism, but I tend to think that economics erodes all the kind of cultural taboos and inhibitions and values it comes into contact with.

Rumpus: Because capitalism points to profit?

Pollan: It’s putting profit first and making money the measure of all things. You know Daniel Bell was a neo-conservative making that case, arguing that economics tends to erode religion, tends to erode people’s impulses to act out of altruism rather than greed. So I think there’s a real tension between these systems, between capitalism and morality. That’s not to say these systems aren’t powerful and useful, but to assume that capitalism can somehow assure moral behavior or character, that’s just a pipe dream, I think.

Rumpus: Still, we tend to talk about our economy in moral terms. Would you agree?

michael_pollan_ragesossPollan: Yes, I think we do. We’re always projecting our moral categories on things. I think that’s inevitable. But capitalism places no particular value on morality. Morality in the market is enforced by contract and regulation and law, because morality is understood to be in conflict with the motive force of greed and accumulation. It’s sort of romantic to pretend there’s no tension there, but I don’t think there’s much evidence for there not being tension.

Rumpus: Did you happen to read the David Owen article in the New Yorker last month? It’s called “Economy vs. Environment.”

Pollan: No, I haven’t read that one.

Rumpus: I don’t want to ask you about an article you haven’t read, but maybe the idea of “economy vs. environment” is provocative enough to address. Owen argues, in so many words, that economy has to be sacrificed to some extent to save the environment. How do you feel about that?

Pollan: Well, I mean, that’s a good question. There is a real effort to align economic growth with becoming green. It’s the Thomas Friedman school of things, this idea that you can unleash these powers that will drive certain change, that you can align economic interests and the environment. It would be wonderful if it’s true. But I think we need to make changes whether it’s true or not. The fact is that there are fundamental tensions between the biological reality of the planet right now and the economic reality. To some extent you can adapt the economy, create a new set of rules and incentives to send it down a better track, but finally people in the first world are going to have to consume a whole lot less. Green stuff or black stuff, whatever it is.

Rumpus: The idea of a “green economy” is really palatable, though.

Pollan: I think it’s very politically comfortable to suggest that you can have a non-zero-sum solution to both the global economic crisis and our environmental problems, but my guess is that the non-zero-sum solution is wishful thinking. We could have a greener economy, even a greener consumer economy by changing the rules—whether it’s by taxing carbon or trading carbon, I’m not sure what—but in the end there’s just a fundamental problem with the sheer amount we’re consuming. Fossil fuel is a very special thing. There is no other fossil fuel out there. Yes, there’s solar energy, but whether it can underwrite the kind of lifestyle we’ve had remains to be seen. So if you’re a politician it’s very useful to say that we can have economic growth and at the same time green the economy, but writers just have to face up to the fact, whether it sells or not, that there are some fundamental tensions between the economic order and the biological order.

Rumpus: I was re-reading some passages from Botany of Desire and a particular sentence grabbed me. You were talking about our Nature Narratives, and you said, “There’s the old heroic story, where Man is at war with Nature; the romantic version, where Man merges spiritually with Nature (usually with some help from the pathetic fallacy); and, more recently, the environmental morality tale, in which Nature pays man back for his transgressions, usually in the coin of disaster.” If someone told you that our current problems—the food crisis, the energy crisis, the health care crisis—somehow epitomized the environmental morality tale, how would you respond?

cornfield_istockPollan: I think that’s the narrative in which a lot of things fit. Look at industrial agriculture. You use too many antibiotics on your cattle to get cheap meat, and suddenly you have antibiotic-resistant staph infections popping up all over the Midwest. But that’s evolution. I mean, you could put a moral spin on it and say, oh, we got what we deserved. But it’s just the feedback loop inherent to evolution. You spray too much pesticide and a resistant bug emerges. Now if you have a moral cast of mind, you’ll say, well, oh, boy, Nature is paying us back, getting even with us for using all that pesticide. The situation certainly conforms to the environmental morality narrative. But that doesn’t make the narrative true.

Rumpus: I’d love to talk a bit about your writing. As I prepared for our conversation today, I thought a lot about the trajectory of your book writing career. I thought about Second Nature, A Place of My Own, and Botany of Desire. Each of those books is very finely shaped—the four parts of Botany of Desire are like four beautifully crafted extended essays—and obviously those first three books display a particular aesthetic sensibility and lay bare the sort of big questions that fuel your writing. But then you wrote Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, which I think represent a major shift. Whereas your first three books are concerned with the personal/spiritual, your two most recent books shift focus to the communal/political. I don’t know if you see it that way.

Pollan: Yes, I think that’s true.

Rumpus: Then could you discuss how you see your work as having evolved? And specifically, how do you see the subjects of your writing informing the mechanics of your prose?

Pollan: Well, you can see how Botany of Desire got me to food. It’s kind of implicit there that if you’re interested in our relationship to Nature, you’re going to have to deal with the food system in some way because it’s the elephant in the room when you’re talking about the human relationship to the natural world. But the food story gets political really fast and there’s almost a demand from the audience to think about food in political terms. Many, many people were dissatisfied with the ending to Omnivore’s Dilemma because instead of offering prescriptions for what we should do as a society I went hunting and collected mushrooms.

Rumpus: They felt you were obliged to offer solutions?41bgerqvwsl

Pollan: Some people felt that I’d really let them down. When you get into certain issues, people feel you have a certain obligation to talk in terms of solutions. With Omnivore’s Dilemma, I was writing a sort of Botany of Desire ending, and I think a lot of people reading wanted a different kind of ending, which, in a way, I provided with In Defense of Food. I mean, In Defense of Food is somewhat programmatic. It offers you a lot of practical advice and tells you how to apply all this information you’ve learned about the food system to your own life. But I feel a strong allegiance to that other kind of writing and want to get back to it. To writing more personally and without feeling like I’ve got to offer programs.

Rumpus: More literary, then, and less political? Less journalistic?

Pollan: Well there’s a real question as to whether Botany of Desire is really journalism or whether Second Nature is journalism. A legitimate question. You have to really expand your definition of journalism to make those books fit because they aren’t newsy, and they don’t really speak to public problems, except indirectly. But then you get to Omnivore’s Dilemma and it very much is journalism. You know, one of the things that happened after I finished Botany of Desire is that I started teaching in a journalism school. I suddenly had that kind of identity reinforced all the time—I’m a journalist. Perhaps that had an effect. It was also the subject matter, but looking at it a little autobiographically, I think there’s something to the fact that when I wrote my first three books I was working as an editor at Harper’s Magazine. I’d had for a long time a place where I could do my political work, and I’d felt that I did my political work more as an editor and less as a writer. Writing was about something else.

Rumpus: You left Harper’s in mid-nineties?

Pollan: I gave editing up and became a full-time writer, and then I think that the exercise of my political muscle became something I started to work out more in my writing. So it’s a shift in my work for sure. But I wouldn’t want to call it a progression because that would be to say that I’m going to keep going down that same path and I may well not. I have book ideas that are very, vehemently not political. They might disappoint some readers, but I feel like I’ve been drawn into a very political movement—this food movement—and I’m very interested in it and share its values, wish it well, and want to do what I can to help, but I’ve got other interests. When I look at the writing experience of those five books, I would have to say the most satisfying for me was Botany of Desire, in terms of doing the kind of writing and thinking I really love to do. And so that is something in my mind. I want to do another book that’s more in that voice than this public, political voice I’ve used more recently.

Rumpus: So the presence, or perhaps the volume, of your political voice necessarily determines the mechanics of your prose, no?

botanyPollan: Botany of Desire is very unpointed in a certain kind of way. I mean, there’s an organizing conceit, but the chapters don’t have arguments. They meander. They’re associative. There are all these breaks. It’s not a straight line book by any means. And I really love that. I love writing that way. I love writing those really long chapters where you don’t really know where you’re going to come out or where you’re going to transition. In Defense of Food is the most direct, pointed book I’ve ever written. It’s streamlined, has an argument, presses against something. It’s a polemic. So different forms for different topics and different forms for different times in your life. And there are different forms to be discovered, or at least I would hope.

Rumpus: Is there something you’re working on now that you feel comfortable talking about publicly? Do you have something in the works that will be a clear departure from food politics?

Pollan: I’m kind of playing with a couple of book ideas right now. I told one interviewer that the next book would not be about food—actually, I didn’t say that, I said I’m playing with some book ideas that are not about food—and suddenly I got a whole lot of grief about that. I haven’t decided on a book idea yet. But pretty soon I’m publishing a piece in National Geographic about orchid sex, and that’s going to be out in September, and that’s a real departure from food. In a lot of ways it’s like Botany of Desire as a piece. I’ve also been working on some documentary projects, a film called “Food Inc.” and a PBS version of Botany of Desire

Rumpus: A gallery in New York had one of your wife’s paintings (Judith Belzer) on display for a Botany of Desire-themed exhibit, right?

Pollan: Oh yes, that’s right. The New York Horticultural Society put on a show and it was supposedly inspired by Botany of Desire. Some of the work there was on the theme of coevolution and Judith had a painting in the show. Actually—something kind of unusual—at Berkeley this month there’s a theater guy from New York who’s doing, not exactly a musical, but a theater piece involving music based on Botany of Desire. The first reading of the show is going to be the week after next, and that’s going to be kind of wild. So other projects, other books. I don’t yet know exactly what the books will be about. I’ve got political ideas and anti-political ideas, so we’ll see. I may do both.

Adrienne Davich grew up in Las Vegas and Reno. She likes Elvis impersonators and street shows. More from this author →