Events at Berkeley, Mind & body, People

The day Michael Pollan knew ‘something was cooking’ in Berkeley

In a Q&A, Michael Pollan discussed his time at Berkeley and the value of storytelling. He'll speak May 3 at Zellerbach Playhouse with KQED Forum’s Mina Kim.

Portrait of author and professor Michael Pollan, sitting with his head resting on his hand looking straight ahead
"The thing that makes me proudest is the success of my students, hearing from them about their achievements and staying in touch," Michael Pollan said in a recent interview. "I teach because I love mentoring young people."
Christopher Michel for Michael Pollan

Writer Michael Pollan has influenced how we eat, think, write, save the planet, and now, with his co-founded Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, contemplate our very existence. He’s the bestselling author of nine books, including The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and How to Change Your Mind. After two decades on campus, Pollan is so integral to our Berkeley identity, it’s hard to imagine he’s not currently teaching at Berkeley Journalism. (He’s teaching Harvard undergrads these days.) Fortunately, you can still find him on campus, checking out books at Doe Library, and on May 3, at Zellerbach Playhouse, in conversation with KQED Forum’s Mina Kim. The event is a celebration of his life’s work and the launch of the Michael Pollan Narrative Journalism Fund at Berkeley Journalism.

Recently, Emeritus Professor Michael Pollan spoke with Berkeley Journalism’s Andrea Lampros. This interview is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Andrea Lampros: You seem to embody the best of Berkeley, shaping how we think about food, health, the environment and now psychedelics. How did Berkeley influence your growth as a writer and thinker?

Michael Pollan: There was so much to learn about the food system in Berkeley, especially about alternatives to it. And I remember, even before I got there, interviewing Alice Waters. [Former Berkeley Journalism Dean] Orville Schell, who recruited me, of course had what used to be called Niman Schell meat company, and in fact he was a helpful mentor when I was starting to write about the food system. Plus, I was coming to a place that took food seriously. Back in 2003, which is when I actually started teaching here, that was not true on most of the East Coast. I don’t know if I could think of another university where someone specializing in food systems would be considered a legitimate candidate for a tenured professorship in science journalism. I felt like I was coming to a very comfortable place where my work would be supported, and indeed it was. I wrote most of The Omnivore’s Dilemma in those first years. Through the network of the Bay Area food community, I met the foragers who taught me about mushroom hunting. The man who taught me about hunting and took me out hunting for wild boar. [Waters] frequently catered our events.

So when did you know it was all coming together around food?

I put together a panel in 2003 or 4 [with] Alice Waters, Carlo Petrini, who was the founder of Slow Food from Italy, Wendell Berry, Eric Schlosser, … Marion Nestle. I was new to campus, and I booked Wheeler. Capacity of 700 seemed fine. We had a reception that Alice catered in the courtyard [of the J-School]. We had a group of us walking over. And you know, I am hoping for a nice turnout. There are 2,000 people in the plaza, most of whom could not get in! It was really an embarrassing moment because I was not prepared for it at all. It was really a magic night. The enthusiasm, the energy, that’s the night I knew something was cooking around this issue.

Students still come to Berkeley Journalism because they think you’re teaching. What were some of your best teaching moments?

One of the classes I taught several times was called Following the Food Chain, and it was a course in longform writing. It was half learning about the food system and how it worked and half writing a substantial piece of narrative journalism around food. It was really fun to teach. We had a serious snack every week. It was a three-hour class, so at the break, everyone had to prepare one snack over the course of the semester. They would bring some food [and] tell a story about the food and themselves. And you had to be ready to eat it. I remember one kid, I think his name was Zachary, he brought in all of these Semifreddi’s baguettes, and everyone was very happy to eat these baguettes. And then it was time for him to tell the story. And it was a story about dumpster-diving.

Oh, no. Did you eat before he shared his story?

We were well through the baguettes when we learned they came from the bottom of the dumpster. And he was talking about dumpster-diving and the whole culture. Another time, Samin Nosrat audited the class, and she of course made a beautiful snack that consisted of these lasagnas. But she also brought in a tablecloth and silverware and plates. We took field trips to farms. We went to watch lambs being slaughtered outside of Dixon. It was a very hands-on class. It was great fun to teach. And many people ended up writing about food.

The narrative journalism program you established with Adam Hochschild, Deirdre English and Jenn Kahn is super-significant for the school, and you’re establishing a fund to keep it going. What do you say to future journalists who are pursuing longform journalism today?

There’s a lot of pressure to write shorter articles. We are in an attention economy that makes the longform article harder to get people to read. On the other hand, what we taught and what we’re teaching are techniques to get people to do something they’re not doing every day, which is a sustained work of attention. I work very hard on the endings of my articles. I really want to get people to the end. I work really hard on suspense. I want people to keep turning the page. To me a successful article is whenever I get evidence that someone got to the end. You can tell when you talk to them. I remember when I wrote “Power Steer,” which is an 8,000- or 9,000-word exposé on the meat system. Because I wanted to offer some hope at the end of this very dark article, I insisted that we have a little section on grass-finished beef, that there was an alternative, another more sustainable way to grow a steak. 

To me a successful article is whenever I get evidence that someone got to the end.

Michael Pollan

I remember going to a butcher in Oakland after the piece came out and asking if they had any grass-fed meat. The butcher threw up his hands and said, ‘What is going on here? You are the sixth person this week who has asked me about grass-finished beef.’ And I was, like, ‘Yes!’ — not because I wanted to help these ranchers, but because I wanted them to get to the end of my article. It was the writer’s vanity.

Tell us why you like Berkeley more than Harvard.

My loyalties will always be with public universities. The main reason I like teaching at Harvard is that I get to teach undergraduates, which I didn’t get to do at Berkeley. The diversity of the people at Berkeley is a huge plus. The fact that there are so many first-generation [students]. … It’s a scrappier institution in every way. And physically, I love it. I love what a hodgepodge of buildings it is. The fact that there’s a stream running through campus and a forest on campus. I have always liked the feng shui of Berkeley.

What feels like your greatest achievement at Berkeley?

The thing that makes me proudest is the success of my students, hearing from them about their achievements and staying in touch. I teach because I love mentoring young people. I still work with Berkeley students, in one way or another, the ones who reach out to me, particularly those interested in food and agriculture. I get together with them informally. I get as much pleasure from the student publishing as anything else I do. The success of my students is really gratifying. And it’s not an easy time to be a journalist. The people who do it do it because they are dedicated. It’s not an easy path. … Writing for a living is not for the faint of heart. You have to really want to do it, and you have to not want to do anything else. Fortunately for me, fortunately for our country, people are still coming along who want to do it.

You were speaking about this moment being a heavy one for journalists, but it’s heavy for everyone right now, with the election year, polarization and global crises. Can you say anything to comfort us?

I think it’s part of our job to find those islands of hope, even in the darkest stories we’re working on.

Well, there are always psychedelics! … One of the things I teach, which is very contrary to the ethos of investigative journalism, is that it’s very important we find whatever hope there is in the stories we’re working on. Readers, especially young readers today, don’t want to be left in a state of despair at the end of an article or at the end of a documentary. Going back to that story about grass-finished beef: People wanted to grab on to something they could do that would make them feel better about what they just read. … I have gravitated toward stories where we are empowered as readers, as consumers, as citizens. 

One of the reasons I really liked writing about food was that there was something very positive people could do. We have options. You can opt out of the industrial food economy. Yes, you need a little more money to do it, and in some places it’s harder than other places. And even though it’s inadequate for solving the whole problem, voting with your fork is powerful and has created an alternate food economy in the last 20 or 30 years. And psychedelics, too, is a subject where change is happening really quickly. And although there are all sorts of headaches and problems, the resurgence of substances in our society offers a lot of hope to people who are suffering and to people who want to change for whatever reason. … I think it’s part of our job to find those islands of hope, even in the darkest stories we’re working on.

I consulted writer Adam Hochschild about the one question — off the top of his head — he would ask Michael Pollan. He said, “Ask him, ‘Why the switch from food to psychedelics?’” It has to do with the natural world, right?

Yeah, plants. If you go back to a book I published right before I got to Berkeley, The Botany of Desire, I was looking at our relationship to plants, a coevolutionary relationship. They changed us, and we changed them. I looked at several different desires that plants evolved to gratify humans: Beauty is an obvious one, food is an obvious one, but changing consciousness is a less obvious one. I looked at cannabis and got very interested in why do humans have this desire to change their consciousness? Why is that adaptive? Is that adaptive? The common denominator in all of my work is our relationship to the natural world. The absurdity of that phrase! We are part of the natural world.

How did you know psychedelics would be a thing?

That’s just kind of the journalist’s finger in the wind. That’s what we get paid for, sensing where the zeitgeist is going. I really like writing about a subject when I am at the beginning of the learning curve. I don’t like writing as an expert. If you read my articles on food, in most of them I start out as kind of an idiot. I don’t know anything. I have questions. I don’t have answers. It’s a journey of discovery and the story of my education. I like writing that way, … but at a certain point, it’s disingenuous. You become an expert. You have written several books on the topic and researched it deeply. The other thing that was happening is that I don’t like a crowded beat! And food suddenly got crowded. A lot of people were writing about food, really good people, some of whom I have mentored and some not. I like to have more space around me. … Now, I am learning all about neuroscience and consciousness. I am back at the beginning again. That’s where I like to work. You have to move on at some point. Otherwise, you’re an op-ed writer.

And with the Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, you’re supporting others to explore the topic.

Yeah, we’re kind of at that point we were with food journalism. Where we’re building a new journalistic beat. This is going to be a really important subject from a business point of view, from a mental health point of view, from a health care delivery point of view, from a philosophical point of view, and also what we’re going to be learning about the mind. And what we want to do is equip journalists to cover it well, which means skeptically, because there is definitely some exuberance infecting coverage of psychedelics right now.

Common Google search questions include, “Does Michael Pollan eat meat?,” followed right after by, “Did Jesus eat meat?”

Well, I don’t know about Jesus!

You obviously have a lot of influence.

I don’t really like to talk about my diet because people will think I’m being normative and saying, “This is what you should eat.” After writing about the industrial meat system, I stopped eating industrial meat. I am very limited in the meat I eat. But people’s eating choices are shaped by their circumstance and their health. I eat mostly, I won’t say 100%, but mostly, a plant-based diet. But I am not into telling anyone how to eat. What I do is a product of my circumstance and my health and what issues I’m dealing with. I really admire the work of small farmers who are raising animals for food in the right way. I don’t want to say anything that would discourage people from supporting those. I do feel you need animals on farms for farms to be truly sustainable, and if we’re going to have animals on farms, we’re going to eat them. I do think the carbon footprint of eating meat the way we’re eating it is indefensible.

Are we doing enough to address the climate crisis?

The answer is no, we’re not. All the work I have done and a bunch of other climate journalists to shine a light on meat, I don’t think the rates of meat-eating have gone down yet. We see the rise of alternative products like Impossible Burgers and cell-cultured meat, which may or may not be a real thing. There’s a lot of interest in figuring out alternatives. There’s a resurgence of plant-based foods, some of dubious providence and some perfectly wholesome. We have a long way to go. On the other hand, 10 years ago nobody talked about meat-eating in the climate conversation. In An Inconvenient Truth, the first one, there wasn’t a word about agriculture. It was all about changing light bulbs and energy generation. Now, I think there is a widespread recognition that agriculture is a big part of the climate problem and a potential part of the climate solution.

Even if you wear crimson instead of our Berkeley blue, please tell us you’re not moving to Boston.

I am still in Berkeley, and whenever I give up teaching at Harvard, I can imagine teaching a course at the journalism school or the university. I would like that very much. In fact, I am walking over to the library today to pick up a book.