The Botany of Desire: Michael Pollan Explores Big Agriculture
Cannabis, tulips and what a potato has to do with our sense of entitlement.
By Maria Popova
While the world was busy getting excited over yesterday’s much-anticipated DVD release of Food Inc., an arguably more compelling revelation of truth about food was taking place. Because Food Inc. is a fine film full of eye-opening and well-researched information, but it, like many similar documentaries, has a serious preaching-to-the-choir problem due to the self-selection bias of its audience, composed mainly of people already familiar with the issue and interested in its resolution. These are the people who would go see a limited-release indie film in theaters, or actively pursue the DVD. But what about those who lack the awareness and thus the interest in issues that clearly impact them and should thus warrant that awareness and interest?
Yesterday was also the much-less-trumpeted DVD release of the excellent PBS series The Botany of Desire, which explores how humans have used the plant world to gratify our desires. Featuring the brilliant food advocate Michael Pollan, one of our big cultural heroes about whom we’ve gushed many times before, the series isn’t sensationalistic or alienatingly focused the large-scale, institution-level pitfalls of big agriculture.
Instead, Pollan peels away at the issue through four tangible case studies of everyday plants whose evolution we’ve manipulated ruthlessly in our quest for gratuitous self-fulfillment: Marijuana, gratifying our desire to change consciousness; the potato, filling our need for control; the tulip, reflecting our yearning for beauty; and the apple, which started from Kazakhstan’s forests and ended up as the universal fruit, satisfying our craving for sweetness.
The Botany of Desire is a fascinating and rich exploration of the human relationship with the plant world, an eye-opening reflection of the ugly sense of entitlement governing many of our social, biological and moral choices. Of course, how much such awareness translates into actionable change is a separate issue altogether, one behavioral psychology has been trying to tackle for ages. But it’s a step — and we strongly encourage you to take it.
Published November 4, 2009