Michael Pollan is a rising star in the world of food. His recent book, In Defense of Food, was reviewed on Evangelical Outpost not long ago, he appears in a film now in theaters, and in a soon-to-air PBS documentary. He’s garnered attention on speaking tours and in a variety of articles, including this article by John Schwenkler at The New Atlantis. Schwenkler elaborates on In Defense of Food‘s central thesis – that our forsaking of folk wisdom to worship at the altar of decontextualized science is harming us, not simply in how we conceive of food (as Pollan argues), but in all areas of our lives.
The scientific perspective on food encourages us to understand what we eat solely in terms of its constituitive parts, reducing it to “nutrients.” This excludes folkways that approach food more holistically. Because common sense cannot address food in terms of its caloric content or chemical construction, it has been bypassed in favor of expert opinion. But expert opinion is more and more returning to the value of inherited wisdom, things older generations came to know without scientific justification. Yet again, it turns out we should have listened to our mothers.
Schwenkler’s argument is reminiscent of the recent best seller Blink. In it, author Malcom Gladwell argues that instantaneous intuition, which outpaces reason and seems to defy available evidence, often provides a subtle and reliable analysis of situations, one we couldn’t otherwise perform consciously. There are all sorts of ways in which an individual may have a way of doing things which she can’t justify, but which may well be to her benefit. Why shouldn’t this be so for cultures? It seems as if Pollan and Schwenkler would have us hesitate before throwing over “the way things are done” in favor of “progress.” They each offer examples of how America is returning to the roots from which it too hastily cut itself off.
Schwenkler, like Pollan, champions “not the kind of wisdom, whether real or merely apparent, [that is] dreamed up within the walls of the laboratory or the ivory tower, but rather the piecemeal accumulation of folk intuitions and commonsense tricks that encourage personal and societal flourishing in ways that abstract theories and appeals to first principles very rarely can.” He argues that “it is often at our peril that we allow such conventions to be displaced.” He notes that from child-rearing to city planning, we as a culture are realizing that our blind faith in engines of progress and modernity have often done us a disservice, one which our cast-aside old wives’ tricks and folk wisdom can remedy. From “free range” kids to farmers’ markets, things like eating local and trusting parents’ intuitions is gaining grassroots support over the prepackaged and oversystematized.
To be fair to the previous generations who got us into this streamlined, scientistic, systematized global economy, it must be said that life informed by the scientific advances of the modern world has its advantages. Things like the polio vaccine are just as much derived from science-centered progress as TV dinners. And though we may rightly blame such “progress” for the latter, it is best not to overlook the real progress of the former. Of course, neither Schwenkler nor Pollan are dismissing a century’s worth of development out of hand, but in their rush to affirm those goods which the last century has overlooked, they may do some overlooking of their own.
It cannot be ignored that the attempt to return to the way our grandmother thought of food and place is a move forward. There is no way that modern institutions, which are steeped in science, can be erased or undone, and we ought to be wary of replacing the old system with a new equally unhealthy one.
Pollan has acknowledged these dangers. In an interview with Organic Gardening magazine, Pollan notes that organic is in danger of being co-opted by the same money-driven engines that created the problems organic farming professes to address. Any revolutionary movement is in danger of absorbing (or being absorbed by) the worst of the status quo, and no solution for the food industry is safe from its abuses. Neither Schwenkler nor Pollan explicitly answer how we can go back while moving forward. How the organic movement spread without utilizing the industry which it repudiates; how can the higher cost of organic justify itself to the poor; and whether it can work to help world hunger, or is doomed to be the hobbyhorse of the wealthy leisure class are all as yet unclear. The general movement toward organic and local produce would do well to step carefully, working toward real, necessary change to our foodways, without rejecting what good has already been gained. ‘