Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Fatophobe's Dilemma

I recently wrote about my difficulty reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

I had a hard time getting through this book, mainly because early on, the author plunges into fat fearmongering (fatmongering?). He even brings up the "omg type II diabetes in children!" That particular topic really irks me; it's complicated, but, essentially, there aren't more kids with Type II diabetes, necessarily, it's that nobody was actually looking for it until recently. Now that they ARE testing kids for it, they're finding insulin resistance (and therefore high blood glucose levels) in kids undergoing a growth spurt.

Why? Okay, basically, growth hormone induces insulin resistance, so when kids have a lot of growth hormone going through their systems--and this is especially strong right at puberty--they are going to have a higher blood sugar level than they did prior to the growth spurt. Now, with the "omg kids are fat" scares out there, they're testing as many kids as possible (especially if they aren't skinny) for fasting blood glucose. And, as you can guess, when the kid hits a growth spurt or hits puberty, suddenly his levels are higher than before. Instead of saying, "Hey, this kid is having a growth spurt," the child becomes a patient--one that conveniently needs expensive monitoring and medication--for the rest of his life. Oh, and, there's no telling what effect it will have, long-term, to be dicking around with these kids' biochemistry. I guess we'll find out, right?

So, anyway, that's not the least of this book's obsession with yucky fat people, but it's one of the problems I encountered early on. It's interesting, by the way, that he places an immense amount of mistrust in the corporate food chain, but doesn't even blink when spouting off medical statistics that were likely funded by the pharmaceutical food chain. But I digress.

There are a LOT of good points in this book. Modern corporate farming is unsustainable, almost irreparably damaging to the land, and not giving us much variety in our diets. It's true that most of the North American food chain begins with genetically modified, petroleum-fertilized, monocultured corn. It's true that the meat in North American grocery stores has mostly come from animals that were fed lots of antibiotics, garbage (literally), and hormones, and that they suffered immensely (although, Eric Schlosser did a better job of describing the factory farmed animal point of view in Fast Food Nation).

It's also true that the Organic movement has become a few rules shy of the same industrial farming that it was intended to improve upon. Once it went corporate, "organic" is too often about doing the very least you can do in order to legally use the label--in other words, industrial farming techniques are tweaked just enough to get that label, without sacrificing the "efficiency" of factory farms or industrial crops.

I was glad I stuck it out to the latter half of the book, where the author visits an extremely sustainable farm that produces a variety of foods without the need for pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, or even animal suffering. I will say that this section makes the book well worth reading, and it would be great if he'd write a follow-up (without the fat-hate!) discussing how to implement such techniques across the nation. It's farming, the way it once was, and the way so many people have forgotten, as they suck the corporate teat and become addicted to the chemical "blessings" contained therein. Working with the nature of plants and animals, instead of regarding their biology as something to be conquered and worked around. Harnessing their ecology instead of tightly micromanaging their every life's moment. It's a beautiful thing, I'll admit.

The last part of the book was kind of, well, ridiculous and macho. I was very put off by his exploration of vegetarianism, which seemed to last for about half a day, where he read Animal Liberation and responded angrily to parts of it that suggested that animals might have the ability to suffer. He eventually decided that animals evolved to be our livestock in order to take advantage of our ability to culture them and ensure the continuation of their species. In fact, throughout the book, he assigns a consciousness to evolution, going so far as to claim that corn took advantage of human beings. This tells me that he really doesn't have a firm grasp of evolution, and I disagree that success for a species' continuation is a good enough reason for the enslavement and torture of its individuals. The question he failed to ask here is whether or not he would endure suffering in order to continue on the family name, if he knew for a fact that his offspring, and his offspring's offspring, and those thereafter, forevermore, would have lives of unabated pain and suffering.

He quoted someone (but did not name the person) thusly: "The pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon." Perhaps "The pig" as a species--but a species does not have a consciousness. It does not suffer. It is simply a construct that we have created to help us define a group of living organisms--and it is not even as rigid a construct as some people believe. The edges of a species can blur with its range (like North American rat snakes, hoo boy), and a species can change over time, dividing into multiple species (as with African cichlids), or dying out (mammoths, passenger pigeons). To assign a species some sort of will and consciousness is a human fancy, an anthropomorphizing of a concept that serves only to rationalize the author's desire to eat animals without having to be concerned for the way that animal lived and died.

So, in that regard, he is remarkably shallow, and I was put off by his later implication that vegetarians who avoid the guilt of eating meat are less spiritually aware than those who face that guilt and live with it, like we're some kind of naive little children who are putting the responsibility on other people by our choice not to bear the burden ourselves. He seemed to think that, with his one day of being a "vegetarian", he suddenly knew what it was like. There were tedious complaints that being a vegetarian alienates a person, making them a difficult guest, and practically anti-social, since vegetarians reject what "helped make us what we are in a physical as well as social sense."

You see, because cavemen gathered together around a fire to cook and divide the meat, those who don't participate in this ritual are hacking away at the fabric of society. Or something. And that we might as well give up sex, since, due to modern technology, we can live without eating meat and reproduce without having sex (because, you know, having consentual adult sex is a form of pleasure that causes all KINDS of animal suffering--which could be prevented, by the way, if the cats would just stop staring; it's their own fault they suffer!).

Anyway, I digress yet again. The last part of the book describes the author's foray into mushroom hunting and wild pig shooting. Wild mushrooms are all kinds of wonderful, and while they are difficult to obtain, I won't begrudge the author's enjoyment of them. However, I take exception to his notion that hunting anything with a gun (especially today's fancy-pants guns) makes him a primal manly man. Sorry, dude, but you're 100% modern techno-hunter. Get over it. It also doesn't mean you're "off the grid", because the gun was probably made in China or someplace like that, and your ammunition came from a cardboard box. You certainly weren't out there in a loincloth, so all that hunting gear had to come from somewhere.

I'm not making a statement that hunting is evil or anything like that; I'm just saying that going out and shooting your own food does NOT mean you haven't tossed money (and probably a lot of it) at a corporation somewhere. I fully acknowledge that, because we've introduced pest species (like the wild pigs in the south and in Northern California) and eliminated apex predators, there is a need for it. So don't get on my ass about that.

To sum all this up, there were a few parts of this book that were worthwhile. There was a lot of it that was navel-gazing bullshit that made me roll my eyes. There was also a lot of it that pissed me off, either because of the fatphobia or because of the anti-vegetarian stance. I would recommend that, if you read this, check it out from the library instead of wasting your money on it.


Vive42 said...

i love your coining the phrase "fatmongering"!!! think it'll catch on? it captures the daily hysteria on the news perfectly, i think.

also i agree- saying that domesticated animals survive well when taken on the level of species has no bearing on the moral argument for or against vegetarianism. i don't think there's any moral defense of factory style farming as it's practiced today.

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to be rude, but it looks like this information might be useful:

A monger is someone who promotes or profits by the promotion of something. It's the archaic form of "salesman". Thus, the word "fearmonger" is used to describe entities which profit by promoting fear.

A fatmonger would be one who deals in, promotes, or profits by promoting fat. The term would apply more accurately to Fat Activism than to the media, which is still banking on fear and hysteria (fearmongering).

Since it bears the obvious association with the word "fearmongering", it isn't a word I would ever use to describe the FA movement.

RioIriri said...

I didn't find it rude at all. Thank you for the correction. I used the mishmash of terms without really thinking about the meaning of the result. :)

Tari said...

I have similar concerns with a lot of the slow/sustainable food and other greenie movements - always there's this "HFCS processed factory farmed food making everybody fat and diabetic" hysteria, as if eating non-GMO whole foods would change all that instantly. It's an absurd conclusion, because we just don't know what would happen if we could make that kind of switch. More importantly, why is that the best motivation to shift our choices around food - isn't saving the freakin' planet a good enough motivator?!

Sarah said...

Tari. . . is it the best motivation logically? Probably not, but people tend to act locally first and if they get into change and progress because they were thinking of themselves . . . I think motives are less important than action. Just a thought.

Rioiriri, thanks for the book review! Hope you are well.

Anonymous said...

Wow, it's a good thing I didn't go ahead and buy this book.