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Food Writing: Michael Pollan

November 12, 2014

Perhaps the most popularly read American environmental writer in the last 10 years, after Bill McKibben (the editor of American Earth, author of The End of Nature, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone on climate change issues) is Michael Pollan. He is a journalist and author–an excerpt from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is included in our anthology, and Singer and Mason refer to Pollan and this book. Since that book, Pollan has achieved an even wider audience with works such as In Defense of Food and more recently, Cooked. He is the go-to-writer for thoughts on the current state of our food system, featured prominently in the documentary Food, Inc., as well as in the earlier documentary we will be watching, King Corn.

For some further reading into Pollan’s views on food, link to this article “Michael Pollan Explains What’s Wrong with the Paleo Diet.”

One of Pollan’s suggestion is to eat more microbes (as well as more plants, less meat). Here is a fascinating article Pollan wrote on microbes–a model for a current focus in environmental writing and ecocriticism that explores a biocentric vision or revision of the world. I think of this as an updated version of Leopold’s history of the world from the vantage point of atoms.

Given the popularity of his writing and recommendations, Pollan has drawn the ire of the food and animal industry–particularly for his influence on college students and their food choices–apparently known as “Pollan-nation.” Here is some taste of that, “Big Meat vs. Michael Pollan.”

Here is a video from the that Pollan linked to and asked: how did we ever eat before Food Science? We can link this to the ways Wendell Berry criticizes the shift from animal husbandry to animal science. When and why did food become a science, Pollan asks?


Equal Consideration: thinking environmental ethics

November 8, 2014

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University

Lawrence Buell, our guide to ecocriticism, has argued that there are four components of an “environmentally oriented work.”  In large part, the argument focuses on the ways that the imagination in and of a text, what we typically associate with a work of literature (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama) necessarily involves an ethical orientation. Environmental literature, in other words, demands ethos, not just pathos or logos. The following is taken from his book The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Harvard UP, 1995). As we read further into various philosophies of environmental writing, from Abram and Berry to Singer and Mason and beyond, consider how Buell’s categories are relevant and insightful. Additionally, as you being to explore (and what I call ‘compost’) ideas for your final project, you can use these categories to develop the environmental orientation of your project.

  1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
    1. examples Buell offers: Forster’s Passage to India; any novel by Thomas Hardy
  2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
    1. example: Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” in contrast to Shelley’s “To a Skylark” or Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale. “
    2. “Cradle is more concerned with the composition of a specific place, and Whitman’s symbolic bird is endowed with a habitat, a history, a story of its own.”
  3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
    1. example: “By this standard, Wordsworth’s ‘Nutting’ comes closer to being an environmental text than his ‘Tintern Abbey,’ insofar as the function of landscape in the latter is chiefly to activate the speaker’s subjective feelings of rejuvenation and anxiety, whereas the former reminiscence prompts him to retell a self-incriminating tale of his youthful violation of the hazel grove.”
  4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.
    1. Susan Cooper’s Rural Hours … is a more faithful environmental text than any or her father’s Leatherstocking romances (Last of the Mohicans, etc)    [The Environmental Imagination, 7-8]

We might first review our readings to this point by providing examples from our texts. Where have we encountered the sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or given? Where have we seen the senses of human history implicated in natural history? And now, as we turn to Peter Singer and Jim Mason, in what ways does The Ethics of What We Eat develop its ethical orientation? Where are you most and least compelled by that orientation.

One ethical orientation we have just read is Wendell Berry’s. Consider the conclusion of “The Pleasures of Eating.” This ethical vision differs from Peter Singer’s in crucial ways. It is, to give it one word, anthropocentric. Berry admits this in places such as “Preserving Wildness.” So we can think about Berry as a counter to Singer’s ethics and his biocentrism. But, perhaps the case (like any good counterargument would show) is more complicated than that. Does Singer agree in points with Berry’s ethical vision, or at least give it consideration?

A keyword and concept of Singer’s ethics, particularly related to his philosophy developed in his groundbreaking book Animal Liberation (1975), is “equality of consideration.”

Equal Consideration versus Animal Liberation

Many people often use the terms animal rights and animal liberation interchangeably. This might be all right sometimes, but in a strict sense animal liberation is made up of two different approaches to liberating animals: equal consideration of interests and animal rights.

Singer advances animal liberation through equal consideration of interests. Although he often talks about animal rights he does so only as shorthand, what he really means is liberating animals by giving them equal consideration.

Equal Consideration versus Animal Rights

Considering the moral interests of all animals equally is not the same as giving rights to animals. If you maintain that animals and humans have the same moral rights that forbid harm to them, then you cannot, say, experiment on them. However, if you maintain that animal and human interests are morally equal regarding experimentation then you can experiment equally on humans as on animals. If you are not prepared to experiment on one then you cannot experiment on the other. []

For some further background on this ethical position of “animal liberation,” not the same thing as animal rights, link here.

Finally, we can revisit William James from 1899, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” the beginnings of an ethical position for treating others, all others (including nonhuman), not equally, but respectfully given the very fact that we are not equal, not the same, but fundamentally different, individual, plural. You can think of this as the beginnings of a principle that some have called “animal pragmatism.”

OUR judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.

Now the blindness in human beings, of which this discourse will treat, is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.

We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals.

Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other!—we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will toward you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life? The African savages came nearer the truth; but they, too, missed it, when they gathered wonderingly round one of our American travelers who, in the interior, had just come into possession of a stray copy of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and was devouring it column by column. When he got through, they offered him a high price for the mysterious object; and, being asked for what they wanted it, they said: “For an eye medicine,”—that being the only reason they could conceive of for the protracted bath which he had given his eyes upon its surface.

The spectator’s judgment is sure to miss the root of the matter, and to possess no truth. The subject judged knows a part of the world of reality which the judging spectator fails to see, knows more while the spectator knows less; and, wherever there is conflict of opinion and difference of vision, we are bound to believe that the truer side is the side that feels the more, and not the side that feels the less….

And now what is the result of all these considerations and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.





Wendell Berry: essays of renewal and reclamation

November 5, 2014

In addition to his significant writings in nonfiction, largely essays such as “The Making of a Marginal Farm” about his own experience living on and restoring the land, or the more recent “Renewing Husbandry,Wendell Berry is known as well for his poetry and fiction. This is omething you might be interested in pursuing for further reading with your final project in mind.

But it is Berry, the essayist, we give most of our attention to in this course. And so, with the genre and tradition of the essay in mind, I suggest that we can approach Berry’s agrarian–one might even call it, pastoral–vision from three perspectives that also comprise an essay. In the terms of classical rhetoric, a writer or speaker can appeal to an audience in one of three ways, ideally engaging in all three: ethos (credibility, character of the speaker), pathos (empathy, engaging the feeling of the reader), and logos (evidence).

In “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” a well-known essay that is first published in The Orion magazine, we see Berry focus on loss and restoration, on land and love, on responsibility and reclamation–in both the cultural and agricultural senses of those words. [Indeed, the subtitle of one of his many collections of essays is: Essays Cultural and Agricultural] The idea of loving the land seems crucial to Berry’s vision. So, too, being responsible to the land on which we live, the place from which we are from. We heard this initially from Leopold. As Berry puts it memorably, he is not talking about a pastoral vision, about “living an idyll.” What he has in mind is something more…basic, if not boring:

One’s relation to one’s subject ceases to be merely emotional or esthetical, or even merely critical, and becomes problematical, practical, and responsible as well. Because it must. It is like marrying your sweetheart.

What do you make of Berry’s notion of love as a model for environmental ethics? How might we locate this in the terrain of environmental writers (Thoreau…Burroughs/Muir…Leopold…Dillard) we have explored thus far?

Seems to me that in both cases, the case of mourning a loss and the case of marrying a sweetheart, there is a relation to the natural world (not the world made by machines) that Berry seeks that locates responsibility in some sort of heartache or love. What could that mean? One answer could take us back to “Solving for Pattern.” Berry has in mind a responsiveness that he names pattern–and defines, in some specific senses of the term, organic. Another answer could take us back to Thoreau: “I love a broad margin to my life”-though for Thoreau, that also means not farming all the time.

In “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” Berry calls the farm–and I would say as well, the essay–a “reclamation project.” Berry’s philosophical-rhetorical-poetic project, I would argue, can be characterized with the various words of return, words with the prefix “re,” that he often uses quite deliberately: reclamation, restoration, renewal, remedy, responsibility–and ultimately, the keyword relation.” These words mark places where Berry’s ethos emerges with his logos and pathos. For good reasons these essays sound like a jeremiad, essays or narratives denouncing and decrying the current state of society; but like the prophet speaking from the margins of the society, Berry understands that we can learn from the margins–ironically–about how to restore to the  center the complexity it lacks.

The margin reappears in Berry’s essay “Preserving Wildness.” This is an essay to return to and think more about and use, perhaps, as a mentor for a final project. For now, I would highlight for our initial discussion of Berry two places where he elaborates further his understanding of love and of margins. In both cases, in redefining and repurposing some words we otherwise and more commonly (Thoreau might say, too cheaply) use, I think we also find an example of his underlying premise, that the natural and the cultural, the human and the non-human natural world, for better and for worse, are inextricably linked.

523: I would call this a loving economy, for it would strive to place a proper value on all the materials of the world, in all their metamorphoses from soil and water, air and light to the finished goods of our town and households, and I think the only effective motive for this would be a particularizing love for local things, rising out of local knowledge and local allegiance.

529: Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins. The margins are of the utmost importance. They are the divisions between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins–lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like–are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are set on human intention.

Living in these margins, marrying one’s sweetheart may not be as boring as I had presumed. Berry’s invocation of love–as in marriage, as in “loving economy”–weaves together his ecological philosophy, poetics, and rhetoric. Love, he argues, is what moves us. In the preface to Home Economics, the collection in which “Preserving Wildness” is published, Berry writes of his essays in the root sense of the genre: “my essays as trials, not because I think that they render verdicts, but because they make attempts, trying out both their subjects and my understanding. Often, too, the try my patience.”

Berry was recently awarded the Jefferson medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can read the lecture he gave in Washington, “It All Turns on Affection.” In it, he explores and attempts a case for the ways imagination (call it poetics) leads to sympathy (call it rhetoric) and ultimately to his key value (philosophy), love and affection for one’s place: “As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.” You can watch a video of the lecture here.

For a sense of Berry’s voice and vision–listen to this reading, introduced by Bill McKibben.

For a reference point on Wendell Berry’s philosophical, poetic, and rhetorical influence in current environmental writing and thinking, consider Michael Pollan’s panegyric that positions Berry (in contrast to Thoreau and wildness) as the important voice in the current environmental focus on the food system, “Wendell Berry’s Wisdom”:

It was Wendell Berry who helped me solve my Thoreau problem, providing a sturdy bridge over the deep American divide between nature and culture. Using the farm rather than the wilderness as his text, Berry taught me I had a legitimate quarrel with nature–a lover’s quarrel–and showed me how to conduct it without reaching for the heavy artillery. He relocated wildness from the woods “out there” (beyond the fence) to a handful of garden soil or the green shoot of a germinating pea, a necessary quality that could be not just conserved but cultivated. He marked out a path that led us back into nature, no longer as spectators but as full-fledged participants.

Obviously much more is at stake here than a garden fence. My Thoreau problem is another name for the problem of American environmentalism, which historically has had much more to say about leaving nature alone than about how we might use it well. To the extent that we’re finally beginning to hear a new, more neighborly conversation between American environmentalists and American farmers, not to mention between urban eaters and rural food producers, Berry deserves much of the credit for getting it started with sentences like these:

Why should conservationists have a positive interest in…farming? There are lots of reasons, but the plainest is: Conservationists eat. To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd. Urban conservationists may feel entitled to be unconcerned about food production because they are not farmers. But they can’t be let off so easily, for they are all farming by proxy. They can eat only if land is farmed on their behalf by somebody somewhere in some fashion. If conservationists will attempt to resume responsibility for their need to eat, they will be led back fairly directly to all their previous concerns for the welfare of nature. –”Conservationist and Agrarian,” 2002

That we are all implicated in farming–that, in Berry’s now-famous formulation, “eating is an agricultural act”–is perhaps his signal contribution to the rethinking of food and farming under way today.

Knowing Berry’s critical views of food and animal science, one can only imagine what he would say of this short video from the Food Science trade group. Pollan links to this, asking: How did we ever eat before food science?


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