There are four things that I so appreciate about Michael Pollan.
First, he is a gifted story teller. Story is a much more powerful medium for change than polemics and rhetoric. It draws you in and moves your heart, even before you realize that your head is slowly in concert as well. Pollan's stories are simple but powerful. His simple explanation of why this Idaho potato farmer farmed the way he did, or his historical narrative of the rise of industrial corn and soybean production is captivating. He gives just the right amount of detail, all of which is necessary to capture the larger point that he is making. While you may forget exactly what his point is two days later, you will still remember that image of thousands of "free range chickens" cooped up in a hot smelly building with two small access doors to a yard outside, none of birds daring to explore that space because they've been behaviouralized to remain indoors for those last two weeks of their short lives.
Second, he makes complex concepts simple, without being simplistic. This dovetails with the point above: most of us don't have the capacity to make sense of the multifaceted, interconnected food production and distribution systems that have evolved to the point where the vast majority of people have no idea where their food comes from. But we certainly understand the absurdity of the United States shipping cookies to Denmark, while Denmark ships basically the same exact product back this way. His simple illustration of how much oil it takes to make the patty on a McDonalds hamburger was visually memorable, and simplified a fairly complex concept of comparing energy input vs. how much you get out.
Third, he's not strident and alarmist. So many who speak on environmental concerns, food security, and climate change are so polemic, you feel a need to take whatever they say and dilute it by 75% in order to get the right level of seriousness. Even seemingly boring old Al Gore (I'm not busting on Al -- just one example) can ratchet up the rhetoric to a degree that even those in his camp start to say, "This feels a bit like hyperbole." Rather than motivate the largest group, the loudest voices may actually alienate a significant portion of the great middle because they don't appear credible in all their intensity. Pollan's humor and seemingly detached even-handedness gives him a large measure of credibility. He's entertaining to listen to, and you don't feel like you've been stepped on after he's done, but you are suddenly motivated to go out and plant some more carrots and buy your own chickens and give them a big batch of homegrown greens and grains.
At least that's the kind of evenhanded approach that speaks most powerfully to me.
Finally, he doesn't offer cheap solutions or simplistic answers to complex questions. He makes you sit in the tension, but then offers compelling examples (like Salatin's Polyface Farm) that move us toward a larger vision of what could be. It's a great big complex world, and the industrial agricultural systems we see today will not move overnight toward sustainability and environmental health. But small movements on the fringe offer an alternative, and as these movements continue to scale up, we will begin to see viable alternatives to the destructive and unsustainable models that dominate our food systems. I'd much rather listen to a speaker that says, "I don't have all the answers, but here are a few suggestions toward a better future", than to listen to someone who offers a one-sized fits all solution that is simplistic and non-transferable to other contexts. In this way, Pollan invites us into a conversation about what the future might look like, rather than sets himself up as a prophet who has all the answers if we will only buy his latest book. That is tremendously attractive to me.
"The rule of no realm is mine. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, these are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail in my task if anything that passes through this night can still grow fairer or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I too am a steward. Did you not know?" Gandolf
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