Nature vs. “natural”

Natural. It seems like almost everyone has one of two reactions to things that are being called “natural” — such as “organic” food.

First reaction: That means it’s good. It’s what nature intended for us.

Second reaction: That’s one of those empty words that are used to sell people stuff; the other opinion above is practically superstition.

Mine is usually the second reaction. That statement is undoubtedly more true. Yet, one might wonder. We are screwing up a lot of things by going “against nature” in a sense. We’re disrupting the environment and out own health by doing things purposefully, intentionally — which, strangely enough, is the opposite of natural — that go against the natural, previously established balance of things. I am not too optimistic about technology being able to fix all our problems when its use has caused them before. What we’re facing are problems of rational action. We’re having difficulty reaching our goals without causing more harm than good in the long term. And to be rational in this sense, we’d need to do things more “naturally”… in some sense.

Why, then, do I remain critical of the use of the term “natural” such as it is used in a context like that of organic farming? Let’s look first more closely at what the problem is when we do things wrong because we do them against nature, as it were. Maybe we want to be more healthy, and therefore we avoid germs, and then we end up getting allergies because an exposure to different microbes in early childhood would have been necessary to prevent that. Maybe we want more welfare, and we start exploiting natural resources, and then, before we know it, the environment has been ruined. Maybe we want our plants to grow better and use a pesticide and it kills the bees as well.

The problem is always that we only see some small part of the total situation, with the rest of it quietly working in the background out of sight. And then we try to change just one factor and end up changing others we didn’t even know of. We can’t see the whole picture, the holistic or contextualist view.

Well… that’s just why I’m critical of “natural”. It’s doing much the same mistake: just focusing on one part of the system and entirely missing the whole.

Nature is a complex system of interlocking parts. The system as a whole works when the parts interact in the right relationship. It usually finds some kind of balance after every change — albeit in a rather brutal way; remember that natural selection works on the basis that not every organism survives. The same could be said of our health and well-being. And we often go wrong when we disrupt this balance by fiddling with just one part of it. So nature is not just a heap of parts from which you can pick up one thing or add another and not otherwise change it.

Well, what does the “natural” movement do? It picks up single parts. What “natural” usually means, after all, is that something is of natural origin. You pick up some part of nature and put it somewhere else — and think that it must be good there as well because it’s from nature.

“Organic” is a perfect example of this. When the term was introduced, it involved a belief in vitalism: that living things are made up of a different kind of stuff than nonliving ones, and therefore things of natural origin are better for you than artificial ones. We know now that this is absolutely not true. Everything is made up of compounds of the same atoms. It’s the organisation that makes living things different. And, indeed, the organic people like the Soil Association now say that they are concerned with the whole system, as I described it above. This would be good if it were true, but it’s not. They’re still stuck with principles going back to the idea that natural origin = good. For example, it would be good to be careful to consider and test the effects of genetically manipulated crops on the environment… But they don’t do that, they just reject all GMOs outright supposedly on the simply false basis that they are untested. Ask scientists working in the field and they’ll tell you GMOs have to extremely rigorously tested before you’re allowed to do anything with them. That still doesn’t prove that they’re absolutely safe, but the organic people treat them as absolutely unsafe. Is this really for any other reason than that they feel so unnatural?  On the other hand, if something is of natural origin, you can do almost anything with it without considering whether it might be safe. It’s a common misconception that organic farming isn’t allowed to use pesticides. It is. They just have to be of “natural origin”. If you can get the poisonous chemical from a natural plant, then it’s all right to spray it on your crops artificially.

(This is what I call the “paradox of holism”: Most things that are being marketed as being holistic actually involve some very narrow perspective through which everything is viewed, such as supposedly treating the whole person by only touching the feet.)

Remember what I said about the system of nature. It’s not just a collection of parts that are all good and “natural”. It’s a balanced system where the relationships of the parts matter. You could take rabbits of natural origin and introduce them to a new area and totally disrupt the ecosystem. In other words, natural origin means nothing. We should be trying to act in harmony with the system as a whole, both in our own health and considering the health of the ecosystem. We should not be taking bits of the system out of their place and pretending they carry a magical aura of “naturalness” that makes them good.

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