Michael Pollan, Michael Moore Moments, and Humankind’s Future

I was surprised and gratified to see Michael Pollan’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times: Big Food Strikes Back: Why Did the Obamas Fail to Take On Corporate Agriculture?

Why surprised? Because so much of what passes for political reporting in this election season is undermined by boorishness, hypocrisy, dog-whistling, race-baiting, and misogyny; whereas Pollan’s essay is carefully developed, illuminating, and actually useful to those who seek to responsibly understand and influence humankind’s shared-fate future.

Pollan is playing the long game. Yesterday’s essay follows-up on an open letter of similar length and depth published eight years ago, a month before the election that sent Barack Obama to the White House. The NYT titled the open letter Farmer-in-Chief, and addressed it to the President-Elect. Yesterday’s essay is a disappointed but clear-eyed assessment of how and why President Obama failed to take Pollan’s 2008 advice nearly far enough. It wasn’t because the President-Elect didn’t get it.

A few days after the letter was published, Obama the candidate gave an interview to Joe Klein for Time magazine in which he concisely summarized my 8,000-word article:
“I was just reading an article in The New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the meantime, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our health care costs because they’re contributing to Type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity.”

(It warms my heart that the POTUS-to-be prefigured the title of my 2015 novel in his 2008 interview. Emphasis added. It’s the little things.)

Cornfield in South Africa (By Lotus Head from Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa — sxc.hu, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=134554)

I was interviewed a few days ago by Joanna Manqueros on her “Music of the World” program on KPFA, a public radio station broadcasting from studios in Berkeley, not far from where I work. Joanna read a passage from Consequence, and we discussed how the passage she read from addresses the complexity of communicating the essentials of agricultural politics and policy — complexity that led Michael Pollan to write 8,000 words in 2008 on the topic, and nearly 6,000 more yesterday in follow-up and reassessment.

Here’s a transcription of that part of my interview with Joanna (starting just shy of 16 minutes into her show if you want to listen):

Joanna: Let me read a little bit of what the character sees, and why he starts to get pulled in this direction of doing this radical action. It says:
Christopher watched out the window as they accelerated onto Highway 101 and sped south, following a steady march of telephone wires strung atop pocked wooden poles. He tried to visualize the surrounding acres as wetland, teeming with wildlife in the centuries before the state was logged, drained, burned, and given over to cattle and monocropping. At least the farms were smaller here, he thought. And a lot more of them grew organic than in the Central Valley. It was a start.
What’s going on there?
Steve: Well, Chris is — letting go of exactly what’s happening in the plot there — Chris is driving through … I guess it would be Sonoma County at that point … and looking at the small farms there. And what he’s observing, if you’d read a little bit further, is that really there’s nothing obvious about these small farms, that they tend more toward organic, and that they tend less toward monocrop — although I suppose you can see that it’s not the same plant for acres and acres and acres on end, as you would see, say, if you drove through, Nebraska, where corn or soy are pretty much your only choices.
But one of the things he’s reflecting on is how difficult it is to convey in a dramatic way, in a way that penetrates the teleconsciousness of the nation, that penetrates the chatter of the news cycle, to talk about the kind of long term and deep problems that evolve in environments that are monocropped, or where pesticide is leached out of soil into aquifer or into water that feeds cities. You don’t see that right away. There’s not a Michael Moore moment that you can film, or dramatize in a demonstration, in some kind of guerilla theater.
And so he’s reflecting — Christopher is more than anything else a propagandist. He’s been asked to write a manifesto to justify this vaguely-defined — to him — action that Chagall is going to take. And he’s thinking about how hard it is to vividly explain to people what’s wrong with monocropping, what’s wrong with putting genetically engineered creatures into an evolved biosphere that has taken, literally, hundreds of millions of years to come to its equilibrium.

There might be science, politics, and policy that can still avert the most horrific effects of the accelerated poisoning that humans have inflicted on our biosphere over the last couple of centuries. Pollan lays out some key, deeply intertwined threads of the answers we need to be looking for in his paired essays’ 14,000 words. Consequence depicts characters engaged across a spectrum of diverse approaches to correcting our species’ broken trajectory, tactics that range from reasoned dissent to all-out disruption or even destruction.

From where I sit, humankind would do well to wrap our collective minds around the objectives laid out by Pollan, and the paths he suggests toward turning ourselves in constructive directions; and likewise would benefit from explorations of actively-engaged characters, hearts, and moral frameworks that could move us to grapple with the enormity of threats to our common future. I hope that readers find in Consequence an example of such an exploration — one among many.