Levinovitz’s thesis is that “natural” carries with it a theological valence that smuggles in the idea of goodness. What is natural is willed by God, even for people who don’t seem to care about God’s will. In a secular age, people will still overpay for “natural” candles with scents called “Church”…When we say something is natural, we are not just saying it is, we are saying it ought to be how it is. That can be used to tacitly justify all kinds of stuff that wouldn’t otherwise pass rational scrutiny—like five dollar water.
A review: Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science by Alan Levinovitz.
What do people mean when they talk about stuff being full of “chemicals”? Isn’t all matter made of chemicals from one part of the periodic table or another? What do they mean by “unnatural” chemicals? Synthetic goos of various sorts?
Things can get messy when the question of what’s “natural” comes up. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s good. It also doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means so many things to so many different people that it’s only useful if looked at with extreme care, if not meaningless. It’s a word that has become—as Kingsley Amis liked to declare terms muddied through thoughtless overuse—junked.
Alan Levinovitz is just the person to unjunk it, in his new book Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. The book offers a nuanced view of what “natural” means in different contexts and shows what’s so troublesome about the ideas of natural birth, natural ability in sports, human nature, natural law, and more.
One chapter on natural foods explains the history of vanilla, which it turns out is an almost completely unnatural product of artificially inseminating orchids. Fake (unnatural) vanillin tastes just as good, and is a petrochemical. Environmentalists might reflexively assume the much more expensive and rare real stuff from orchids is better, until they learn it’s produced by cutting down the rainforests of Madagascar. Levinovitz uses this example to explain that while the “whole foods” and Whole Foods enthusiasts of the world say you should not eat anything your great-grandparents wouldn’t recognize, food science has on the whole made what we eat objectively more tasty, less toxic, and less slave-labor intensive. Bucolic farms are still nice, but screw your commandments, Michael Pollan.
You won’t come away with the idea that the “natural” label can just be thrown out—though, if you see the word “natural” on a literal label you’re probably being scammed. One particularly funny illustration from the book: “A typical ‘raw water’ company, Tourmaline Spring of Maine, touts its ‘sacred living water’ as ‘verified naturally pure by science’ and ‘filtered by mother nature to a degree that no man-made machine is capable of replicating.'” This water costs five bucks, which is five bucks more than a barrel of oil right now. But it is “‘flawless, gem-grade water’ that ‘is bubbling up of its own accord through gemstone-lined vaults in one of the most ancient mountain ranges of North America.'” One of the most ancient? You can’t afford not to buy it!