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Hungry for the Good Life: Exploring Michael Pollan’s Vision of Ethical Eating in America

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Title: Hungry for the Good Life: Exploring Michael Pollan’s Vision of Ethical Eating in America
Author: Turkus, Sarah
Department: Haverford College. Dept. of Religion
Type: Thesis (B.A.)
Issue Date: 2010
Abstract: This thesis examines the model of ethical eating that Michael Pollan, along with others in the movement for reforming our food system, proposes as an alternative to the standard American eating model. Conventional American food consumption is fueled by industrialized agriculture and factory farming, and advocates of the movement strive to educate the general public about the negative implications of practices common in the food industry on our health, the condition of the environment, and the wellbeing of farmed animals. By analyzing Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I show how his vision of ethical eating reflects an ethical system regarding care for these three points of interest. I propose that Pollan operates as a prophet trying to mobilize the people towards the good life that we could have. In contrast to the good life, I show how Pollan and others have characterized the current American food system as representative of the fallen state of our society. I present the arguments that conceive of current American culture as demonstrating a deficit of values or a corrupted national mindset. The path to achieve the good life, as suggested by Pollan and others in the movement, involves shifting the norm to consumption based on locally and organically grown or produced foods. Pollan presents this simple model for the good life as a way that every individual can take responsibility for the connections between their daily consumption and their ethical obligations. The ethical system implicit in Pollan’s message is assumed to be universally accepted. However, there are various limitations to Pollan’s proposed mechanism for a national transition to the good life, and I explore the debates within the ethical eating movement regarding these issues. Critics of Pollan, such as Julie Guthman, take issue with the fact that Pollan’s message is one of individual solutions rather than large-scale reform efforts. They argue that these individual solutions are elitist, because sustainable local foods are difficult to access in many cultural and economic contexts, and organic foods are much more expensive than conventional goods. Allegations of elitism are founded on the premise that purchasing a ‘personal organic bubble’ is only a feasible option for Americans of a certain class standing. Additionally, there are debates within the movement regarding whether individual solutions are prudent, as opposed to organized efforts to reform the government’s influence on the food system via the Farm Bill. Guthman and others are also critical of Pollan’s mechanism for inciting change, which is to educate everyone with alarming horror stories about pesticides and animal cruelty and then to assume that, having been enlightened, everyone will feel compelled to change their ways. I examine, through Guthman’s arguments, the implications of such an assumption – that once educated, everyone would be driven to the same vision of the ideal good life. I argue that Michael Pollan wants all Americans to reform the ways in which they think about their eating habits, to realize that eating is an ethically-charged act, and to consent to his ethical model. Though an enthusiastic leader, I problematize Pollan’s leadership role based on my conjecture that ‘spreading the good word’ is not a prudent strategy for achieving the kind of large-scale reform that Pollan is looking to achieve. Therefore, I conclude that ‘the good life’ that Pollan and other ethical eating advocates envision is perhaps farther out of reach than they would like to think. However, in an attempt to contend with the hopelessness that Roger Gottlieb fears is paralyzing Americans into inaction, I observe how venues and organizations in the local Philadelphia area are working to improve access to ethically-sound foods, as well as how I can hope to move forward as an active ethical eater.
Subject: Food habits -- Moral and ethical aspects -- United States
Subject: Pollan, Michael. Omnivore's dilemma
Subject: Food preferences -- Moral and ethical aspects -- United States
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Turkus, Sarah. "Hungry for the Good Life: Exploring Michael Pollan’s Vision of Ethical Eating in America". 2010. Available electronically from

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