Michael Pollan’s a sharp writer, and we generally love his stuff here at Utne when we’re not printing mildly critical pieces like “The Food Police: Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos.” Anybody who can turn sustainable eating into a catchy seven-word slogan (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) and talk about agriculture without sounding like a Farm Report host has a rare talent. But I almost choked on my açaí bubble tea when I read a Q&A with Pollan on the great new website Yale Environment 360 and found him uttering these words:
“You know, eight percent of the American landmass we’ve kind of locked up and thrown away the key. That’s a wonderful achievement and has given us things like the wilderness park.”
Where do I start with this? I suppose by pointing out, as one commenter did, that less than 5 percent of the U.S. land mass is actually federally designated wilderness, and less than 3 percent if you’re talking about the contiguous U.S.
Then I’d point out that such wilderness isn’t “locked up” at all. It’s available for anyone to visit, even New York Times food writers. They can use it for activities ranging from hunting and fishing (the ultimate sustainable food sources) to hiking, camping, rafting, skiing, snowshoeing, birdwatching, and many other things. They could even use it simply to look at. To appreciate. To marvel at.
The other problem with the phrase “locked up” is that by employing it Pollan parrots the language of the extractive industries that consider every acre unavailable to them to be “locked up.” Pollan is a master of the soundbite, so it’s natural that he gravitates to catch phrases, but he ought to be aware that this one hits the ear of many environmentalists like an F-bomb and undercuts his credibility with anyone who really knows wilderness issues.
Geez, you’re probably thinking, settle down: He said setting aside wilderness was a “wonderful achievement.” But I read some sarcasm into that statement, especially because he went on to say:
“This is one of our great contributions to world culture, this idea of wilderness. On the other hand, it’s had nothing to say of any value for the ninety-two percent of the landscape that we cannot help but change because this is where we live. This is where we grow our food, this is where we work. Essentially the tendency of the wilderness ethic is to write that all off. Land is either virgin or raped. It’s an all or nothing ethic. It’s either in the realm of pristine, preserved wilderness, or it’s development — parking lot, lawn.”
Pollan has been airing this polarized critique of the wilderness ethic since writing his book Second Nature five years ago, and frankly it seems like it’s time for him to start seeing the nuance in the debate. Certainly there are wilderness lovers who oppose oil drilling in ANWR yet gladly till their yard to plant tomatoes. Certainly there are mall developers who take fly-fishing trips to remote wilderness destinations. To paint backcountry hikers and organic farmers as somehow locked in mortal battle is to vastly oversimplify a complex issue.
Besides, U.S. politicians of all stripes seem to disagree with Pollan that we’ve spent enough time on this silly wilderness designation stuff. Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that 12 bipartisan wilderness bills are expected to pass this year, adding as much as 2 million acres of land to the federal system. I suggest Pollan lace up his hiking boots, visit some of these parcels—remember, the door’s open—and from a distant mountaintop ponder just how much organic farmland has been lost to the misguided purveyors of the wilderness ethic.