Sunday, June 16, 2013

Michael Pollan. The Botany of Desire (2001)

     Michael Pollan. The Botany of Desire (2001) Pollan looks at the relationship between humans and four domesticated plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. His begins with the thesis that these plants have become successful in the evolutionary sense by becoming domesticated. Just as bees and flowers have co-evolved, so have these domesticated plants and we humans. That is, we have adapted our social behaviour and technology to these plants. They supplied a human want; we reciprocated by cultivating them. We plant, water, fertilise and protect them. Not a bad bargain, for the plants. At least in the short term of a few millennia.
     Domestication works only when plants have sufficient genomic variability that they can produce variations that satisfy some human need or desire. That’s why trees, by and large, have not been domesticated, merely managed. The same principle holds true of domesticated animals, too, of course, as Jared Diamond has argued in Guns, Germs and Steel, a book that Pollan lists as one of his sources and influences. It’s helpful to take Pollan’s plant’s eye view, since it reminds us that we are not, after all, in control of nature. The Judeao-Christian take has been that God gave us the Earth to rule it. Fűllet die Erde, und machet.sie euch unterthan, it says in Luther’s version of Genesis: Fill the earth and make it subject to you. No doubt this view intertwines with the western notion that reason should rule over the passions of the body, and with the Christian suspicion of passion and bodiliness.
     Pollan begins with the thesis that domestication has been as much an advantage for plants as for humans. But when he has done tracing the history of the potato, it’s clear that the thesis needs a subtle refinement: we do not domesticate nature or any natural being. We can at best co-operate with them. His description of modern agribusiness, of monocultured crops growing (if that’s the word) in sterilised soil is terrifying. This business model is unsustainable, and will kill us. The hybris of thinking we can make nature do what we want will do us in. It’s part and parcel of the mindset that sees economics and ecology not only as disjoint but as in opposition. I think this mindset is insane. Genetic engineering will provide at most a short-term fix. Adding genes Bt-coding genes to potatoes, corn, and other crops will merely, eventually, produce beetles that are immune to Bt. It’s only a matter of time. Update 2013: this has already happened with corn.
     Although Pollan did not set out to write a tract against industrialised, corporate agriculture, that’s what his book morphed into. It’s to his credit that he didn’t rewrite the book as if that insight, stumbled on after many months of research and writing, had been his from the beginning, He takes the reader along the same path he took. What starts out as an entertaining survey of gardening and agriculture carried by a history of four emblematic plants becomes a plea for a truly ecological sense of economics. We should, I think, all know that the common root of these two words, eco-, is Greek for “house” or “home”. If we don’t keep our house in order, we will have no home.
     Not that the Earth will mind. One species more or less makes little difference. There is always something in the gene pool that will produce a creature to fill whatever niches are left empty by our disappearance. *** (2006)

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