The omnivore's next dilemma: Michael Pollan on

What if human consciousness isn’t the end-all and be-all of Darwinism? What if we are all just pawns in corn’s clever strategy game, the ultimate prize of which is world domination? Michael Pollan asks us to see things from a plant’s-eye view — to consider the possibility that nature isn’t opposed to culture, that biochemistry rivals intellect as a survival tool. By merely shifting our perspective, he argues, we can heal the Earth. Who’s the more sophisticated species now? (Recorded March 2007 in Monterey, California. Duration: 17:31.)

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It’s a simple idea about nature and I want to — I want to say a word for nature because we haven’t talked that much about it the last couple days. I want to say a word for the soil, and the bees, and the plants and the animals. And tell you about a tool — a very simple tool — that I have found, although it’s really nothing more than a literary conceit, it’s not a technology, is very powerful, for, I think, changing our relationship to the natural world and to the other species on whom we depend. And that tool is, very simply, as Chris suggested, looking at us, and the world, from the plants’ or the animals’ point of view. It’s not my idea, other people have hit on it, but I’ve tried to take it to some new places.

Let me tell you where I got it. Like a lot of my ideas, like a lot of the tools I use, I found it in the garden. I’m a very devoted gardener. And there was a day about seven years ago. I was planting potatoes. It was the first week of May. This was New England, when the apple trees are just vibrating with bloom. They’re just white clouds above. I was here, planting my chunks, cutting up potatoes and planting it, and the bees were working on this tree. Bumble bees, just making this thing vibrate.

And one of the things I really like about gardening is that it doesn’t take all your concentration. You really can’t get hurt. It’s not like woodworking. And you can — you have plenty of kind of mental space for speculation. And the question I asked myself that afternoon in the garden was — working alongside that bumble bee — was, What did I and that bumble bee have in common? How was our role in this garden similar and different?

And I realized we actually had quite a bit in common. Both of us were disseminating the genes of one species and not another. And both of us, probably — if I can imagine the bee’s point of view — thought we were calling the shots. I had decided what kind of potato I wanted to plant. I had picked my Yukon gold or yellow fin or whatever it was, and I had summoned those genes from a seed catalog from across the country, brought it. And I was planting it. And that bee, no doubt, assumed that it had decided, “I’m going for that apple tree, I’m going for that blossom, I’m going to get the nectar, and I’m going to leave.”

We have a grammar that suggests that’s who we are. That we are sovereign subjects in nature: the bee as well as me. I plant the potatoes, I weed the garden, I domesticate the species. But that day it occurred to me, What if that grammar is nothing more than a self-serving conceit? Because of course the bee thinks he’s in charge — or she’s in charge. And — but we know better. We know that what’s going on between the bee and that flower is, That bee has been cleverly manipulated by that flower. And when I say manipulated I’m talking about in a Darwinian sense, right? I mean it has evolved a very specific set of traits — color, scent, flavor, pattern — that has lured that bee in. And that bee has been cleverly fooled into taking the nectar, and also picking up some powder on its legs and going off to the next blossom. The bee is not calling the shots. And I realized then, I wasn’t either.

I had been seduced by that potato, and not another, into planting its — into spreading its genes, giving it a little bit more habitat. And that’s when I got the idea, which was, well, What would it be, what would happen if we kind of looked at us from this point of view of these other species who are working on us. And agriculture suddenly appeared to me not as an invention, not as a human technology, but as a co-evolutionary development in which a group of very clever species — mostly edible grasses — had exploited us, figured out how to get us to basically deforest the world — the competition of grasses, right? — and suddenly everything looked different. And suddenly mowing the lawn that day was a completely different experience. I had thought, always — and in fact had written this in my first book — this was a book about gardening — that lawns were nature under culture’s boot. That they were totalitarian landscapes. And that when we mowed them we were cruelly suppressing the species and never letting it set seed or die or have sex. And that’s what the lawn was. But then I realized, No, this is exactly what the grasses want us to do. I’m a dupe. I’m a dupe of the lawns, whose goal in life is to out-compete the trees, who it competes with — who they compete with for sunlight. And so by getting us to mow the lawn, we keep the trees from coming back, which in New England happens very, very quickly.

So I started looking at things this way and wrote a whole book about it called The Botany of Desire. And I realized that in the same way you can look at a flower and deduce all sorts of interesting things about taste and the desires of bees — that they like sweetness and they like this color and not that color, that they like symmetry — what could we find out about ourselves by doing the same thing? That a certain kind of potato, a certain kind of drug, a Sativa indica-cannabis cross has something to say about us, and that, wouldn’t this be kind of an interesting way to look at the world?

Now, the test of any idea — I said it was a literary conceit — is what does it get us? And when you’re talking about nature, which is really my subject as a writer, how — does it meet the Aldo Leopold test, which is, Does it make us better citizens of the biotic community? Get us to do things that lead to the support and perpetuation of the biota rather than its destruction. And I would submit that this idea does this. So let me go through what you gain when you look at the world this way, besides, you know, entertaining insights about human desires.

As an intellectual matter, looking at the world from other species’ points of view helps us deal with this weird anomaly, which is intellectual — and this is in the realm of intellectual history — which is that we have this Darwinian revolution 150 years ago — ooh, mini-me — we have this intellectual — we have this Darwinian revolution — in which, thanks to Darwin, we figured out we are just one species among many. Evolution is working on us the same way it’s working on all the others. We are acted upon as well as acting. We are really in the fiber — the fabric of life.

But the weird thing is, we don’t — we have not absorbed this lesson 150 years later. None of us, really, believes this. We are still Cartesians — the children of Descartes — who believe that subjectivity — consciousness — sets us apart. That the world is divided into subjects and objects. That there is nature on one side, culture on another. As soon as you start seeing things from the plant’s point of view or the animal’s point of view, you realize that the real literary conceit is that. Is this — the idea that nature is opposed to culture. The idea that — that consciousness is everything. And that’s another very important thing it does. Looking at the world from other species’ points of view is a cure for the disease of human self-importance. You suddenly realize that consciousness — which we value and we consider the — you know, the crown of — the crowning achievement of nature — human consciousness — is really just another set of tools for getting along in the world. And it’s kind of natural that we would think it was the best tool. But you know, as — there’s a comedian who said, “Well, who’s telling me that consciousness is so good and so important? Well, consciousness.” So, when you look at the plants, you realize that they’re other tools, and they’re just as interesting.

I’ll give you two examples, also from the garden. Lima beans. You know what a lima bean does when it’s attacked by spider mites? It releases this volatile chemical that goes out into the world and summons another species of mite that comes in and attacks the spider mite, defending the lima bean. So, what plants have — we have consciousness, tool making, language — they have biochemistry. And they have perfected that to a degree far beyond what we can imagine. And their complexity — their sophistication — is something really to marvel at. And I think it’s really the scandal of the Human Genome Project. You know, we went into it thinking, 40- or 50,000 human genes, and we came out with only 23,000. Just to give you grounds for comparison — rice: 35,000 genes. So who’s the more sophisticated species? Well, we’re all equally sophisticated. We’ve been evolving — evolving just as long. Just along different paths. So: cure for self-importance — way to sort of make us feel the Darwinian idea. And that’s what I really what I do as a writer, as a storyteller — is try to make people kind of feel what we know. And tell stores that actually make us — help us think ecologically.

Now, the other use of this is practical. And I’m going to talk — I’m going to take you to a farm right now. Because I used this idea to develop my understanding of the food system. And what I learned, in fact, is that we are all, now, being manipulated by corn. And the talk you heard about ethanol earlier today — to me — is the final triumph of corn over good sense. It is part of corn’s scheme for world domination. And you will see the amount of corn planted this year will be up dramatically from last year, and there will be that much more habitat, because we’ve decided ethanol is going to help us. So — but let me — so it helped me understand industrial agriculture, which of course is a Cartesian system. It’s based on this idea that we bend other species to our will, and that we are in charge, and that we create these factories, and we have these technological inputs, and we get the food out of it, or the fuel, or whatever we want. Let me take you to a very different kind of farm.

This is a farm in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. I went looking for a farm where these ideas about looking at things from the species’ point of view are actually implemented. And I found it in a man — the farmer’s name is Joel Salatin. And I spent a week as an apprentice on his farm. And I took away from this some of the most hopeful news about our relationship to nature that I’ve ever come across in 25 years of writing about nature. And that is this. The farm is called Polyface. Which means — the idea is he’s got six different species of animals as well as some plants growing in this very elaborate symbiotic arrangement. It’s permaculture — those of you who know a little bit about this — such that the cows and the pigs and the sheep and the turkeys and the — the — what else, what else does he have — all the six different species — rabbits, actually — are all performing ecological services for one another, such that the manure of one is the lunch for the other, and they take care of pests for one another. And I can’t — it’s a very elaborate and beautiful dance, but I’m just going to give you a close-up on one piece of it, and that is the relationship between his cattle and his chickens, his laying hens. And I’ll show you how if you take this approach, what you get, okay? And this is a lot more than growing food, as you’ll see. This is a different way to think about nature, and a way to get away from the zero sum notion that — the Cartesian idea that either nature’s winning or we’re winning, and that for us to get what we want, nature is diminished.

So, one day, cattle, in a pen. The only technology involved here is this cheap electric fencing, relatively new, hooked up to a car battery. Even I could carry a quarter-acre paddock, set it up in fifteen minutes. Cows graze one day. They move, okay? They graze everything down — intensive grazing. He waits three days. And then we towed in something called the egg-mobile. The egg-mobile is a very rickety contraption. It looks like a prairie schooner made out of boards, but it houses 350 chickens. He tows this into the paddock three days later and opens the gangplank, turns them down, and 350 hens come streaming down the gangplank — clucking, gossiping, as chickens will. And they make a beeline for the cow patties. And what they’re doing is very interesting. They’re digging through the cow patties for the maggots — the grubs, the larvae of flies. And the reason he’s waited three days is because he knows that on the fourth day or the fifth day, those larvae will hatch, and they’ll have a huge fly problem. But he waits that long to grow them as big and juicy and tasty as he can because they are the chickens’ favorite form of protein. So the chickens do their kind of little break dance, and they’re pushing around the manure to get at the grubs, and in the process, they’re spreading the manure out. Very useful. Second ecosystem service. And third, while they’re in this paddock, they are of course defecating madly. And their very nitrogenous manure is fertilizing this field. They then move out to the next one, and in the course of just a few weeks the grass just enters this blaze of growth. And within four or five weeks, he can do it again — graze again — he can cut, he can bring in another species, like the lambs, or he can make hay for the winter.

Now, I want you to look really close-up onto what’s happened there. So it’s a very productive system and what I need to tell you is that on a hundred acres he gets 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 25,000 dozen eggs, 20,000 broilers, 1,000 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits, an immense amount of food. You know, you hear, Can organic feed the world? Well look how much food you can produce on 100 acres if you do this kind of — again, give each species what it wants. Let it really — realize its desires. Its physiological distinctiveness. Put that in play.

But look at it from the point of view of the grass, now. What happens to the grass when you do this? When a ruminant grazes grass, the grass is cut from this high to this height. And it immediately does something very interesting. Any one of you who gardens knows that there is something called the root-shoot ratio. And plants need to keep the root mass in some rough balance with the leaf mass to be happy. So when they lose a lot of leaf mass, they shed roots. They kind of cauterize them. And the roots die. And the species in the soil go to work, basically chewing through those roots, decomposing them. The earthworms, the fungi, the bacteria. And the result is new soil. This is how soil is created. It’s created from the bottom up. This is how the prairies were built: the relationship between bison and grasses.

And what I realized when I understood this — and if you ask Joel Salatin what he is, he’ll tell you he’s not a chicken farmer, he’s not a sheep farmer, he’s not a cattle rancher: he’s a grass farmer, because grass is really the keystone species of such a system — is that, if you think about it, this completely contradicts the tragic idea of nature we hold in our heads, which is that, for us to get what we want, nature is diminished. More for us, less for nature. Here, all this food comes off the farm, and at the end of the season there is actually more soil, more fertility and more biodiversity.

It’s a remarkably hopeful thing to do. There are a lot of farmers doing this today. This is well beyond organic agriculture, which is still a Cartesian system more or less. And what it tells you is that if you begin to take account of other species, take account of the soil, that even with — with nothing more than this perspectival idea — because there is no technology involved here except for those fences, which could be — you know, they’re so cheap, they could be all over Africa in no time — that you can — that we can take the food that we need from the Earth, and actually heal the Earth in the process.

This is a way to reanimate the world. That’s what’s so exciting about this perspective. When we really begin to feel Darwin’s insights in our bones, the things we can do with nothing more than these ideas are something to be very helpful about.

Thank you very much.