The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Michael Pollan's The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Michael Pollan

Born and raised in Long Island, New York, Pollan attended Bennington College and received a Master’s Degree in English Literature at Columbia University. He has since worked as a magazine editor and writer, notably as executive editor at Harper’s from 1983 to 1994 and as a contributing writer and editor at The New York Times Magazine from 1995 to the present. Pollan began writing about gardening and agriculture after exploring it as a hobby, and has since become one of America’s most prominent voices on issues relating to the modern food system. He is the author of eight books, five of which were New York Times bestsellers, and he has won numerous awards, including being named to Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in 2010. Pollan has served as the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism since 2003.
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Historical Context of The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Many of the organic farmers Pollan encounters developed their political ideals from the radicalism of the 1960s, which saw small-scale, sustainable farming as a way of maintaining a healthy relationship between humans and the world around them. The mid-twentieth century saw the development of new and more efficient synthetic fertilizers, but landmark dissenting works like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) also drew attention to the negative effects of such technological breakthroughs and helped found the environmentalist movement. But as Pollan shows, the utopianism of this historical moment later gave way to more practical considerations. The 1960s’ dream of sustainable collective agriculture looked increasingly less plausible in a globalized economy that required shifting vast amounts of food across long distances. Pollan also writes about two significant movements in twentieth-century political thought: animal rights and vegetarianism. In particular, Pollan engages closely with the work of Peter Singer, the world’s foremost philosopher of animal rights. Singer is a utilitarian, meaning that he believes the most ethical action is the one that maximizes “utility”—in the case of animal rights, maximizing the happiness of animals and avoiding hurting them. For him, this means treating animals (in many cases) as having equal rights as humans. Ultimately, Pollan finds this point of view too extreme. He also becomes skeptical of vegetarianism, a movement which steadily gained ground beginning in the 1970s, as a result of increasing ethical and environmental concerns about the eating of meat.

Other Books Related to The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Pollan’s food-focused investigative journalism joins a long line of non-fiction works in this genre, beginning most famously with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906). Sinclair’s book exposed the brutal and unsanitary conditions in the American meat industry, drawing public attention to a previously under-scrutinized sector of the newly industrialized and prosperous American economy. Pollan’s account of the short and miserable lives of animals on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) recalls Sinclair’s shocking depiction. Pollan’s work is also similar to more recent works of investigative food journalism, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001), an exposé of the American fast food industry. Finally, the concluding section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is indebted to works in the nineteenth-century American transcendentalist tradition, a group of writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. With its dream of an entirely self-sufficient meal created solely from hunting and gathering, this final chapter recalls Thoreau’s most famous work, Walden (1854), a reflection on the human capacity for self-reliance in the natural world.
Key Facts about The Omnivore’s Dilemma
  • Full Title: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
  • When Written: The early 2000s
  • Where Written: Berkeley, California
  • When Published: April 11, 2006
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Setting: A variety of farms and food-related sites across the United States: the first section largely in the Midwest; the second in Virginia, California, and Washington; the third in the Bay Area of California.
  • Climax: Of the four meals chronicled by Pollan, the fourth and final one is the most climactic, since it is the product of the most direct and local food chain possible.
  • Antagonist: The industrial food system
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Teaching Tools. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was also adapted into a popular young readers’ edition designed to make his analysis of the food system accessible to younger people.

Multimedia. As a result of his success as a writer, Pollan developed a documentary series for Netflix that premiered in 2016. Cooked explores what ancient and modern cooking methods can tell us about the human relationship to food.