Film Review: The Botany of Desire

I watched The Botany of Desire recently. I haven’t read the book by Michael Pollan that the documentary is based on, and I don’t think I will anytime soon.

The movie invites us to think of humans as just another animal in the global ecosystem. Pollan suggests that we, like bees, have evolved to help propagate other species including plants. He uses the case studies of apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes as evolutionary success stories.

Busy Bee

Copyright 2011 Wraij Photography

If you’re looking for a quirky documentary about plants, agriculture or the consumption of plants, this is a cute film with some interesting and chuckle-worthy factoids. You just have to ignore the fact that it doesn’t make any sense.

The idea that the choices humans make have a large impact on the earth’s plant life is a ridiculous understatement. The main point of the film seems to be – at least until it contradicts itself – that human desire is not only an influence on plant evolution, it’s an evolutionary tool that plants manipulate to get us to grow them. In other words, plants WANT to be domesticated.

Here’s a clip:

By the way, I love that the author’s name is close to “Pollen.”

Unfortunately the underlying logic doesn’t hold. Pollan quickly crosses the line and starts to equate the mass consumption of plants with doing nature’s bidding. He confuses capitalism with the evolutionary process, and the mass production of plant products with the natural propagation of a species.

In the section about tulips, for example, we see that there is a multi-billion dollar tulip industry devoted entirely to the production of these ornamental plants. Why does the industry exist? According to Pollan it’s because tulips have genetically evolved to be beautiful and appealing to us.

What a relief! In that case, it’s not really our responsibility that the mind-blowing amount of resources devoted to growing, distributing and selling these inedible, perishable plants could very well be devoted to reducing world hunger. No, it’s actually because the plant is so beautiful that we can’t help ourselves. It’s genetics. The tulips made us do it.

Funnily enough, nowhere does the film suggest that cows have greatly benefited from the fast food industry. According to this ‘human desire as evolutionary tool’ model, the cow’s ability to satisfy our hunger and thirst has naturally inspired us to turn them into muscular super cows who live lives of luxury, receive top-notch medical care, and have enjoyed a population explosion thanks to our advanced industrial farming methods.

Yep. Pretty ridiculous. We aren’t enslaving nature, it’s really enslaving us!

This isn’t the first time people have used genetics to defend the status quo and it certainly won’t be the last time.

To its credit, the film eventually talks about the dangers of monoculture, and explains why an organic farmer growing a diverse range of potatoes is good for the ecosystem, whereas industrial agriculture, genetically modified foods, and the demand for McDonald’s fries is creating the potential for an ecological collapse along the lines of the Irish Potato Famine.

According to Pollan’s logic though, if people desire McDonald’s fries so much that we only grow one kind of french fry potato and damage the ecological diversity of the planet, it’s really the potato’s fault for being so darned tasty with ketchup. (In fact, we should probably blame the potato for this whole obesity epidemic too.)

Somehow, even while pointing out our folly, the movie seems to excuse the massive excesses of industrialized consumer society as ‘nature’s way.’ This is not only naive, but an incredibly harmful attitude. It conveniently makes over-consumption not just nature’s will, but nature’s fault.

Besides all that, it seems a bit human-centric to assume that plants are sweet, beautiful or otherwise simply to “gratify our desire,” even if it is just to satisfy their own incredibly selfish plant needs. After opening with the suggestion that we are no different than honey bees, the film keeps reminding us how special and important we are that plants would choose to manipulate US so effectively.

The film dances around the real point, but fails to come out and say what is painfully obvious: ‘humans are incredibly greedy.’

But you don’t have to take my word for it… You can watch the entire film here.


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