The omnivore’s dilemma

While some of the books I have been reading are about revisiting the basics of what we know about the brain, cognition, the genetic code, and other information science topics, there is another "back-to-the-basics" book I just finished which is about the sources of food and the choices before us called "The Omnivore’s Dilemma." Reading this book has made me, in part, return to my roots, since I grew up on a farm and so I have had exposure to the true source of our food, and, in part, re-energize my attempts to improve the nutritional profile of the food I eat. I have had great success in improving my diet over the years, but this book has really made me feel like I’ve come full circle since I am now incorporating food from local farms, as well as organics. Other books I have read recently have been on urban planning (such as Jane Jacobs’ books), peak oil, and reducing one’s carbon and ecological footprints, and so I feel like I’ve put a major piece into place for a lifestyle that that seeks to maximize my efforts in contributing to solutions to all the identified problems with health and the environment that we hear so much about but often feel unable to do anything about.

 The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

I really enjoyed Pollan’s comprehensive survey of so many aspects of the food industry and the psychology and emotions attached to food. Here and there I found connections to my other readings on the structure of the brain (are we hardwired to be hunters?) and the use of language in constructing stories for everything from modern advertising to get us to buy certain food products to ancient religious food taboos recorded in sacred texts that may have had roots in cultural memories of negative food experiences.

Many animals seem to have natural aversions to certain substances that they will not consider food, such as their own species. Whatever hardwiring has gone into our evolutionary history is probably the source for so many our hygiene taboos and religious practices. One great insight I gained was from Pollan’s description of how to treat the elaborate rules found in the Bible– people in the past were dealing directly with the mess, danger, and disgust associated with close contact to their food sources. In today’s society, such taboos seem a little alien. It’s not surprising then to see why visiting an abattoir is a good way to convince people to become vegetarians– our elaborate food rules have been replaced by a sanitized, commercialized, industrialized barrier that has abruptly severed our ancient ties to our food sources. Pollan quotes from Aldo Leopold’s "A Sand County Almanac": "Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry."

The description of how artisanal farming cannot mix with industrial farming is particularly interesting because it describes a methodology that celebrates a type of efficiency that respects the environment and the whole cycle of life:

…. Yet the artisanal model works only so long as it doesn’t attempt to imitate the industrial model in any respect. It must not try to replace skilled labor with capital; it must not grow for the sake of growth; it should not strive for uniformity in its products but rather make a virtue of variation and seasonality; it shouldn’t invest capital to reach national markets but rather focus on local markets, relying on reputation and word of mouth rather than advertising; and lastly it should rely as much as possible on free solar energy rather than costly fossil fuels.

Pollan has an interesting take on the food taboos– we learn best about dangerous food from other people much better than we can from books, pictures, or written descriptions. This teaching transaction may be "so fundamental, so primordial that we’re instinctively reluctant to trust it to any communication medium save the oldest." There are so many senses involved, so many core aspects of our social behaviour with such a critical function such as eating. Perhaps we need to take this into account when we think of all the modern new ways of communicating. There is something to be said for public place, and social interaction, and a shared learning experience tied to our roots of who we are and need to be. Despite the examples of the inadequacies of written information, there might be a lesson here for libraries. We need to think of the value of public space when we think of libraries. We need to think of human contact and social interaction as essential ingredients in the functioning of our public libraries. And we need to connect our libraries with our communities, and see this connection as an organic process that makes our lives complete and takes into account all of life’s stages.

The omnivore’s dilemma is that there are so many food choices that is it difficult to say what is good. The problem of determining "what is good" can extend to many other spheres in life, and I think the value of Pollan’s book is that it drives home the need to maintain our awareness of ourselves as biological entities, tied to the earth and water, and that these connections form powerful bonds that we should not let out of our sights.

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