Despite our culture’s reflexive reverence for things that are “natural,” we should all be mindful that just because something is “natural” does not necessarily mean that it is good.
The word “natural” has deep cultural and psychological cachet, and the association of nature with goodness has been a recurring idea throughout human history -- especially during times of rapid scientific and technological change: at the height of the Hellenistic period in classic Greece, for example, Aristotle and his disciples were parsing the pros and cons of “appeals to nature”; as the Industrial Revolution took root in the 19th century, leading thinkers like Henry David Thoreau rejected industrialism by founding the back-to-nature Transcendentalist movement.
Given these historical patterns, our culture’s infatuation with naturalness seems only, well, natural. But our predisposition toward the “natural” can blind us to the darker side of nature.
Deniers of global climate change, for example, often explain their skepticism with talk of how greenhouse gas emissions are natural. And they’re not wrong! Greenhouse gasses are natural, but that doesn’t mean that releasing them into the atmosphere in massive amounts is a wise idea. Not surprisingly, many of the same people and groups who are sowing doubt about climate change used to deflect the deadliness of cigarettes by insisting that tobacco is “natural” too.
Meanwhile, in our supermarkets, “natural” foods are a more than $40-billion-a-year industry, despite the word “natural” having literally no meaning in this context. Consumers often opt for “natural” medicines, which they believe will have fewer side effects, even though those drugs are under-regulated. And whether or not shoppers know what “GMO” stands for, they are nonetheless inclined to avoid eating “genetically modified organisms” -- which makes a certain kind of sense, except that humans have been genetically manipulating our food supply from the dawn of civilization; our methods have just gotten more sophisticated. Agriculture itself is an unnatural innovation.
Now we are facing a public health crisis in Southern California because well-meaning parents are electing to not vaccinate their children. There are numerous socio-cultural reasons why parents make this choice, but it usually comes down to concern about the safety of the vaccines and a preference for more “natural” health solutions. These parents are not wrong in their assessment that vaccines are, in some ways, unnatural: no amount of scientific research or reassurance can change the reality that vaccines are complex chemical cocktails that combine natural and synthetic elements that are then injected directly into children’s bodies.
Unfortunately, the natural result of avoiding vaccines and other unnatural advances in public health is the outbreak of preventable diseases. With whooping cough and measles making a comeback, it’s worth remembering that in the recent past, the average American only lived till what we now consider middle age, and parents in industrialized Western countries could expect to lose 1 in 5 children by the child's first birthday. Is that really something we should aspire to?
And yes, it is true that vaccination isn’t the only cause for our country’s dramatically improved health, but it is the only cornerstone that remains controversial. After all, one of the 20th century’s other great public health advances was the proliferation of clean water and sanitation -- but nobody seems to have a problem with the unnaturalness of indoor plumbing.
In short, we live in a profoundly unnatural world, and though that world is still full of injustices and imperfections, it is nonetheless a place of wonders. People are living longer, healthier, happier lives, and even with such a long way left to go -- climate change won’t solve itself -- we must also remember how far we’ve come, if for no other reason than so we don’t fall back.
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