SEPTEMBER 16, 2020
IN A PIECE for the winter issue of Commune magazine, Madeline Lane-McKinley looked at a viral story about wombats rescuing hordes of animals from the wildfires ravaging the Austalian Outback. The story goes that these wombats were not only allowing non-wombats into their homes, but were actually herding animals — even predators — into their systems of tunnels: “It was as if,” Lane-McKinley tells us, “the wombats had transcended their instincts, in order to become the den mothers and herders of the apocalypse.”
But alas, she writes, this viral fantasy of animals transcending their natural states in order to save nature itself obscures the real “utopian kernel” that is the essence of the situation. Wombats create complex burrows with dozens of entrances and live mostly solitary lives, but they are largely unbothered by interspecies squatters. As Lane-McKinely puts it, “Sharing your burrow is just what you do when you’re a wombat.” And so there is a lesson to be learned, maybe some version of a happy ending.
“Again and again, the question of our proper relationship with nature is reframed in the same way: Should we obey nature or transcend it?” writes Alan Levinovitz in the introduction to Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. What constitutes this shifty category of “nature” and what is contrary to nature are concerns which are as much shaped by us as divined by us. And although this is a fairly well-worn topic, its characteristic tirelessness means there are plenty of opportunities for new approaches.
In Natural, Levinovitz works on breaking down the “oppositional binary between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural,’” which, he says, “inhibits constructive dialogue about humanity’s most pressing problems.” The greatest challenge to his project: “[T]he appeal to natural goodness is among the most influential arguments in the history of human thought.” Daunting, to be sure. But Levinovitz has a compelling take. While the concept of “naturalness” is commonly defined as separate from (if not in opposition to) the supernatural, Levinovitz argues that these ideas are one and the same. “[D]espite appearances, ‘natural’ is a religious term. The impulse that guides so many shopping carts and parenting decisions is thoroughly theological.”
Unwavering devotion to the more natural option belies a moral and even dogmatic judgment. So many consumers have come to understand the “natural” tag as plainly indicative of the better choice, whether it hangs on a cleaning product or the process of labor and delivery. In many cases, even if we understand that we are being marketed to, it’s difficult to imagine that a “less natural” product or process could be the better choice.
Levinovitz finds a good deal of fertile ground in asserting that nature is neither an absolute nor a “static object, but rather a story that takes place over time.” And so to call something “natural” or to understand something as “natural” is to participate in (or understand something in terms of) a “powerful narrative metaphor.”
“Invoking Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is standard fare in arguments over controversial science,” writes Levinovitz. But, significantly, the “real villains in Shelley’s story are neither Dr. Frankenstein nor his artificial creation — or at least not just them but also the intolerant, torch-wielding villagers.” After all, what about agricultural products that can be produced in lab environments when their “natural” production would otherwise involve environmental degradation?
Natural is full of clever turns and reportage in the service of surveying and challenging one broad, central idea. Levinovitz finds his place among the professionally curious like Diane Ackerman and Michael Pollan, and interrogates the difficult binary — or nonbinary — by backcountry camping in Yellowstone National Park, exploring the cultural histories of bears, wolves, buffalo, and their relationships to the park; he looks at the history of nature metaphors in economic theory; he explores the problem of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports and the issue of categorizing transgender athletes in Olympic competitions. He visits sites, speaks with experts, and interweaves personal anecdotes, relating the story of his own child’s birth and his and his wife’s somewhat automatic desire for a birth free of medical interventions.
But what is this automatic desire? “Natural birth promises a better mythic narrative.” Again and again, Levinovitz shows that no matter how natural birth advocates might see themselves, they are driven by a blind faith in nature’s design that is nothing other than religious. Design, of course, implies a designer. This is a “linguistic conceit” which is “ineradicable from colloquial speech,” a fact no better illustrated than when Levinovitz points out that “[e]ven books that don’t favor natural birth still talk about nature as an agent with our best interests at heart[:] […] ‘stick with nature’s model when you can’; ‘nature’s way of preparing you’; ‘nature has your baby’s back.’”
There are powerful fantasies at play, and the fantasies, as Levinovitz traces them, lead to destructive, colonialist ideas of “others” who did things “elsewhere” and with sacred knowledge that looks more than a little like animal instincts or superhuman thresholds for suffering. These fantasies potentially participate in undoing progress from which women mostly benefit. Demonizing pain relief, modern obstetrics, and so forth, however “unnatural” these things are, has the effect of “pulling women back toward an era when they were meant to suffer silently and gladly for the sake of their children.”
Put simply by obstetrician and author Amy Tuteur, whom Levinovitz interviews: “When people talk about natural health, they’re talking about a nature that existed only in their minds.” And he ties up this first argument as he does with most of them: by situating himself somewhere in the middle, making sure that everyone is at least a little bit right. In ultimately insisting that there is no ultimate, no absolute, Levinovitz must prostrate himself at the feet of a different kind of god: uncertainty.
In a standout chapter entitled “Deepak Chopra’s Condo,” Levinovitz digs into the links between class and rhetorical frameworks of naturalness. The question of what is natural here ventures into dangerous realms of purity and commodification. He visits the Muse Residences high-rise building in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, where buyers are encouraged to upgrade their multimillion-dollar luxury condos to “wellness residences,” designed in consultation with New Age icon Deepak Chopra. These condos offer “advanced water purification; dynamic lighting for circadian alignment; whole-home IAQ sensor platforms to detect air pollutants; and even ‘hand-picked Chopra finishing selections including mood aligning paint colors mimicking nature.’”
Health and wealth align in some combination of the prosperity gospel movement and a William Gibson dystopian nightmare. Quoting Joe Colistra, a professor of architecture, Levinovitz builds “deep skepticism about the luxury approach to wellness building design,” making plain the absurdity of walling oneself off from an unnatural, unhealthy world. Quoting Colistra, “What’s primary to health is social connectivity. […] So the goal is to create neighborhoods […] with great parks and schools and transit. Affordable inter-generational living is hard to come by.”
Levinovitz loops in Gwyneth Paltrow’s luxury lifestyle brand and the absurdity is complete. Chopra and Paltrow and their people would have us believe that in order to surround oneself with and consume what is “natural” and “pure,” one must live in a multimillion-dollar condo and burn $72 candles and drink water from amethyst-infused water bottles. As funny as it seems, anecdotally, this is part and parcel of one of the biggest global crises that we collectively face. And Levinovitz at least seems to get this.
By exaggerating the benefits of circadian-rhythm condo lighting and naturally sourced homeopathic candles, Chopra and Paltrow distract from expert consensus on strategies that will improve everyone’s quality of life, strategies that are necessarily communal and affordable across income brackets.
And so it’s a little disappointing when he undermines the argument, saying “[t]here’s nothing wrong with buying expensive natural products and living in a purified condo.” He is being strategic, and as he goes on to explain, his greater concern is that these consumer choices should be thought of only as “aesthetic preferences, not purifying rituals.”
But isn’t there something wrong precisely because the very identity, the purported nature of these things is that they are purifying and that purity is therefore cast as exclusive? And isn’t there something wrong because real global health is threatened by the sort of massive wealth disparities that make these markets viable?
Indeed, this is Alan Levinovitz’s point. The popular nature of Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science means a few gentle chidings and teasings where there could otherwise be fire and brimstone, even as the two are sometimes one and the same. Levinovitz ends “Deepak Chopra’s Condo” by quoting the 32nd of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, on the practice of purchasing salvation: “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”
There may be nothing entirely wrong with an allegedly natural process or product — as long as we are aware that the nature part is a myth. But maybe we can avoid hell on earth if we live a little more like wombats, even if it’s all a fantasy either way.