Michael Pollan - In Defense of Food - and the Original Green

farm fields in the Dorset countryside in England

   I was at Michael Pollan’s Books & Books lecture last night in Coral Gables. I’ll spare you the normal raft of accolades, because if you know his work, then you know how good it is. What was striking to me last night was how closely the themes of his talk paralleled those of the Original Green. Here’s a sampling:

   He proposes “orthorexia” as an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, and notes that Americans have actually become far more more unhealthy precisely at the time that our concern with nutrition has expanded. The Gizmo Green is an unsustainable obsession with artifacts (light bulbs, Priuses, etc.) reputed to confer sustainability upon us, while at the same time, our appetite for energy and material resources becomes all the more gluttonous.

   Pollan lays out “Nutritionism” as a way of looking at food through a scientific lens. It has four tenets, each with parallels to sustainability:

   1. What is important in food is the nutrients. Food is the sum of its nutrient parts. Similarly, Gizmo Green breaks sustainability down into energy-consuming equipment and resource-consuming materials, and tries to make each more efficient. Originally, sustainability was a much broader proposition than just equipment and materials. As you can see here, real sustainability is a far more comprehensive than Gizmo Green... which is only a very small part of the solution.

   2. If what matters to food is invisible (nutrients) then you need a priesthood (nutritionists) to tell you how to eat. For the first time in world history, a species (humans) needs specialists to tell them how to eat. The exact same story has occurred in architecture. Once, except for the great monumental buildings, the townspeople built the towns. And those Original Green towns were highly sustainable, often persisting for centuries or even millennia. Sustainability spread in a highly organic fashion, mimicing the processes of life. But today, we need a priesthood of “green architect” specialists to tell us how to build. Only one problem... we’re still going the wrong direction, consuming more and more energy and resources each year. This is because they’re all specialists, looking at the problem as engineering rather than holistic design.

   3. The world can be divided into “good nutrients” and “evil nutrients.” Problem is, they’re switching sides every few years. Architecture has a similarly transient story... because mainstream architecture has rejected tradition, architecture has become a series of little revolutions, heart-poundingly approaching the speed of a fashion cycle or a fad diet. Such architecture is clearly incapable of delivering sustainability because it doesn’t stay around long enough to sustain anything.

   4. The whole point of eating is health. You’re either helping or hurting your health. Similarly, the whole point of sustainability is carbon. You’re either carbon-positive or carbon-negative. Except that neither is true... these are only small parts of the picture.

   There are other parallels as well. Traditional regional cuisines varied widely, based on locally available ingredients, climate, and culture. Almost completely parallel (and as a really good analogy) traditional architecture varied widely, based on regional conditions (like available materials and craft sets,) climate, and culture.

   Food once consisted of things you grew from the ground or harvested from trees... buildings, too, were once constructed of things you dug from the ground or cut from trees. But today, the ingredients list of both our food and of our buildings have lengthened tremendously. These ingredients are often things that we can’t spell, and that often didn’t even exist when our grandparents were our age. This means that we can’t make most of the ingredients of either our food our our buildings ourselves; rather, they must be fabricated by the industrial food system or the industrial building system.

   How about safety? Originally, there were rules of thumb for cooking and eating, just as there were for building, so that the townspeople could build the town, and Mom could make dinner. But today, we need specialists to put it all together, and we have no authority to tell them that what they’re doing isn’t good enough, because they’re the experts and we’re not.

   Pollan, however, proposes to bring back the rule-of-thumb mechanism, introducing several in In Defense of Food, all plain-spoken and easy to understand, such as “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Caveat: he excludes “edible food-like substances” (think Chicken McNuggets) from his definition of food. Or try these: “Don’t eat any food that has more than five ingredients.” “Don’t eat food advertised on TV.” “Don’t eat food with ingredients you can’t spell.” or “Don’t buy your food where you buy your gas.” I concur... not only with these rules of thumb, but with the idea that rules of thumb are a powerful tool for change. After Earth Day - What’s Next? What Can I do? contains my top ten rules of thumb for achieving sustainability.

   Some of Pollan’s points, however, weren’t just parallel to the Original Green... they were actually elements of the Original Green. For example, he’s a huge advocate of local food. Any supporter of the Original Green knows that local food is the cornerstone of Nourishable Places, and that Nourishable Places are the first foundation of sustainable places... and that you can’t have sustainable buildings unless they’re build in sustainable places. So if you can’t eat food from there, you can’t sustain life there in a healthy fashion long into an uncertain future. Bottom line... Pollan’s work should be considered essential reading in any discussion on real sustainability. Check out the Nourishable Places Bookshelf in the Original Green Bookstore... most of his books are there.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 - 10:48 AM


Applause applause! I was heart sick to miss his talk, so really appreciate your insightful analysis.

Thursday, May 14, 2009 - 10:22 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks very much!

Monday, June 15, 2009 - 10:21 PM

Brian Reeves

I too have  read "In Defense of Food" and I agree entirely that Michael Pollan's themes are part of the original green! Another book of importance that I've read recently, which I noticed is in your bookstore is Bill Mckibben's "Deep Economy". I think it is important because the theme of local economies so actively pursued throughout the book, was the livelihood that built the fantastic places of old such as Pienza, Brugge, or Stockholm which at that time were fully immersed in the original green.  Would it be pertinent to have these two authors speak at CNU 18?

Thursday, June 18, 2009 - 12:35 PM

Steve Mouzon

Absolutely! Do you have any connections to get either of these authors to CNU18?

Thursday, June 18, 2009 - 07:58 PM

Brian Reeves

To be honest, I don't have any connections. However I can give it a try and see what happens. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Who would be the best person to contact at CNU?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009 - 03:53 PM

Steve Mouzon

Brian, that's OK... the biggest hurdle is simply finding someone with the time, commitment, and energy to pursue this sort of thing. Almost everything good that has initially been accomplished within the New Urbanism has been done by people who were self-appointed. I would suggest contacting Steve Filmanowicz (sfilmanowicz@cnu.org) and volunteering your efforts. Please keep us apprised as you move forward.

Thanks! ~Steve

Sunday, June 28, 2009 - 02:21 PM

Brian Reeves

Thanks Steve. I appreciate your help and I will keep you updated.


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018