The imaginative conservative must not just be a person  who parrots the slogans of other conservatives without understanding the details and the truths which are often two-sided coins or even multifaceted gems. Rather, the imaginative conservative must see things from different angles, must be able to plan, must see the interactions among religion, history, philosophy, and current events…

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (450 pages, Penguin, 2007)

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Mr. Michael Pollan takes us on a fascinating journey through food chains. These are not the food chains of biology books, but those that produce our food. The dilemma itself is that an omnivore like a human can eat anything, yet can become anxious deciding what to eat because potential foods can cause illness or death.[1] Looking at three levels of agriculture in this book gives us a microcosm not only of food but of thinking, of philosophy, of belief, although that is not the thesis presented.

Most food grown in the US today comes from factory farming, or as Michael Pollan and many others call it, industrial agriculture. Petroleum-intensive monoculture predominates, fed by fertilizers and protected by pesticides. Animals are fed foods that they have not really been designed to eat, and foods for us humans are transported long distances. The family farm has been replaced by a system where the cow waiting to be slaughtered for meat spends the end of its life in the feedlot, a type of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO),[2] eating corn instead of grass, and walking around in manure. There is less variety on the farms, and the ecosystem suffers great damage. Fertilizer running off farms into the Mississippi River has caused algae to grow and use so much oxygen that a dead zone the size of New Jersey has formed in the Gulf of Mexico.[3] Brains are not required for this type of farming, as buyers, and the US government through agencies such as the USDA, tell the farmer what to do. It is like an assembly line, where each person has a rather simple task to perform. Cultivars such as number 2 field corn are commodities,[4] used for feeding animals, for high-fructose corn syrup, and for ethanol,[5] running in rivers throughout the country, with the farmers planting more and more as the prices are depressed due to overproduction. The middleman and the food industry, not the farmer, reap the financial benefits. Much is subsidized by taxes and therefore the taxpayer, so government policy is key to the system.

Organic agriculture, while shunning pesticides and overuse of certain fertilizers, needs to be marketed. The system takes over, turning organic into industrial organic. The free-range chicken, for example, might have access for two of its seven weeks to the outside, yet never ventures from the flock into the great unknown after living the first five weeks of its life indoors.[6] Then the finished product could be transported long distances to be marketed by a major American supermarket chain. What organic really means when the term is applied to food thus becomes a subject for debate.

Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Swoope (pronounced swope), Virginia, is quite a different story. Mr. Salatin is a Bob Jones University graduate,[7] a Christian, a conservative, a libertarian, and an environmentalist.[8] Refusing to ship his products long distances,[9] Mr. Salatin and his son, along with interns, go “beyond organic”[10] to a self-sustaining system. Moving chickens to where cows have just been, for example, allows the chickens to feed on bugs in the cow droppings, making for tastier chickens and for less disease. Stacked farm enterprises called “holons” are moved around.[11] Pigs, beef, eggs, turkeys, chickens, rabbits, berries, sweet corn, and tomatoes[12] are raised without pesticides or industrial fertilizer. Mr. Salatin’s family can sit down and eat a meal with hardly anything not grown on their farm. It requires intelligent planning and constant observation. It is labor intensive, but it helps save the environment rather than destroy it. And the food is of better taste and quality than factory farmed food.

Perhaps we can see a metaphor of our own thought processes here, a microcosm of how we function in our world today, and a warning against laziness of mind. There is, of course, the fascist philosophy of leadership by an elite. Your job in life is rather simple. Do not ask questions, only obey. Be part of the industrial assembly line of industry, or of agriculture, or of the state’s political agenda, of life in general. Efficiency resulting in short-term gains is the goal as the long-term effects are ignored. This is represented by industrial agriculture.

What about industrial organic? Although pesticides and fertilizers are not used in such copious quantities if at all, there is still the transportation of the goods to far-away places, even other countries, and of course the marketing. It is really new wine in old wineskins, organically produced food shipped and sold like its non-organic counterpart. Organic farms might start out small, but they have to grow to compete. Large organic farms produce the food, for, as in non-organic farms, it is easier for a supermarket chain to deal with a large operation than with several small operations. This represents a middle ground approach.

Does the conservative face a dilemma today? It is easier to support a political party than to really think through every issue, realizing that no party has all the answers, and in fact, no party is totally biblical. Simply calling oneself pro-life, or conservative, or even using political appellations, could simply resemble industrial organic food. The idea is right, but it is still middle ground. It is like the person who attends church or synagogue once a week but who lives the rest of the week as if religion did not really matter. When a person considers himself knowledgeable about US history based on a book, a sermon, or a seminar, this is like organic industrial. Correct beliefs in this case are based on convictions which have not been thought out as much as read or heard and believed. But is this real conservatism?

In the political arena of the early 1980’s, Jerry Falwell rallied American evangelicalism. His views were certainly conservative, but it seemed that many pastors who had never seen the inside of a college classroom outside those of their own Bible schools were becoming overnight experts on US history. This is not a criticism of Jerry Falwell himself or even his message, but rather of the way in which some of the clergy and many parishioners took his word without thinking things through. To disagree with what he was saying could in some circles be considered nearly a heresy against the church. Truths with more than one side were not really understood, but whom to vote for was clearly taught, even if churches had to be careful not to run afoul of the law not to endorse a candidate from the pulpit (or risk losing tax-exempt status). This was conservatism, but dumbed down for the masses.

To really think, to plan, to commit oneself totally, to refuse compromise, that is the Joel Salatin method, and that should be the mark of a true conservative. In a world where oversimplification in both food production and human thinking have their negative consequences, the imaginative conservative must not just be a person who votes for the conservative candidate and listens to a weekly sermon. The imaginative conservative must see things from different angles, must be able to plan, must see the interactions among religion, history, philosophy, and current events, just as someone farming as Joel Salatin does must see the interactions among grass, grubs, cow dung, and chickens in the field.[13]

A conservative can do what he wants in a free country, and that includes supporting conservative causes. But should he think, speak, write, and act in ways that show an intense knowledge of interactions, or should he parrot the slogans of other conservatives without understanding the details and the truths which are often two-sided coins or even multifaceted gems? That is the conservative’s dilemma.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. London: Penguin Books, 2007, pg. 3.

[2] Ibid, pg. 67.

[3] Ibid, pg. 47.

[4] Ibid, pp. 58-59.

[5] Ibid, pg. 63.

[6] Ibid, pg. 172.

[7] Ibid, pg. 207.

[8] Ibid, pg. 124.

[9] Ibid, pg. 133.

[10] Ibid, pg. 132.

[11] Ibid, pg. 215.

[12] Ibid, pg. 125.

[13] Ibid, pg. 126.

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