A babbling brook gently coursing through a cool, forested glade. Wide open fields with gently swaying, tall grass. The warm golden glow of the sun as you walk along the shore. The gentle rustling of leaves. Clear, crisp, frigid air. The bounty of an autumnal harvest; bushels of ripe wheat being hoisted onto a cart by a robust rural beauty while a doe-eyed, bay coloured horse gazes towards a gently turning windmill, below an azure sky. Flora and fauna in picturesque Darwinian equilibrium with one another.
This is what many of us imagine when we think of ‘nature’. Pure, unadulterated and Edenic; yet to be caressed by the corrupt hand of humanity. Something more wholesome and better for us.
Our rosy and life-giving perception of nature is based on the residual afterglow from the enlightenment during the 18th and 19th centuries and still permeates our current thinking about the natural world and our relationship to it. Consider the pastoral paintings by John Constable and Thomas Cole and their depictions of the natural world. Christian ethics are also partly to blame with the famous passage in the Bible: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”. To have dominion, you must subdue, modify and make the environment safe.
Such unrealistic, romantic imaginings have led in a direct line to our current cultural obsession with the ‘natural’ and ‘nature’ and our modern adverse reaction to anything that is perceived to be manufactured or produced as having negative consequences for our health.
But make no mistake. Nature wants you dead. Has always wanted you dead, and without our modern ‘unnatural’ medicine and health measures there is a significant chance that you would be.
Indeed the natural world has probably killed countless numbers of your forebears over the centuries and even millennia. You only have to walk among the headstones in a Victorian or Edwardian cemetery to see this for yourself. Your great-grandparents probably mourned multiple young children from their brood who would have been taken cruelly by diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, typhoid, mumps or the myriad of other contagions that have been consigned to the history books, at least in the Western world.
According to some estimates, the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918 could have killed upward of 100 million people making it the biggest loss of life in human history, even surpassing the two World Wars. The bubonic plague in the medieval period in Europe carried off a third of the population during its most virulent outbreak in the 1340s. In more contemporary times smallpox killed over 300 million people, in the 20th century alone, and left countless millions scarred for life. Polio felled presidents and paupers for centuries before it was brought under control by scientist Jonas Salk and his ‘unnatural’ vaccine.
Even when it comes to agriculture, natural and organic is seen as better for us. This is true to an extent. However, without the ‘green revolution’ in agriculture during the 1960s, humanity would have been faced with the equine spectres of the black horse of famine, followed closely by his pale stable-mate and both their associated riders.
Even when we leave behind genuine existential issues such as disease and famine, the vast majority of humanity would be in a state of moderate to severe discomfort all the time, without intervention against nature. Consider hay fever. I, myself suffer from this. Although far from life-threatening, as long as I don’t merrily skip through an entire field of blooming rapeseed, it’s a constant irritation. My unnatural anti-histamines may not be derived from nature and be manufactured by ‘big pharma’, but they are however far more effective than a scraping of beeswax on my naval cavity at mollifying the symptoms. What will the consequences be of the long-term ingestion of taking such medication? We can’t tell at the moment, but I do know the real and constant irritation of having constant cold-like symptoms from May to September.
Chlorination of our water sources is viewed as another concept as anathema to our notion of nature as a benign giver of life. Water filters abound in alternative, trendy and ‘New-Age’ circles. You’re quite right to be concerned by the addition of chemicals to your drinking water. However, until the middle years of the 20th century, truly potable water was non-existent. We, of course, could opt to remove the chlorine and return to the heady days of cholera outbreaks. I use the term ‘heady days’ lightly, as for many people in Yemen in 2017, where over 200,000 people were infected with cholera, this is still a sordid reality. Again, I’m willing to take the slight chance that the minuscule 0.1 to 0.5 parts per million of chlorine in my drinking water is better for me than catching a life-threatening water-borne disease.
Indeed it is probably only because such life-threatening epochs have been consigned to history books and documentaries that we now have the additional time and energy to consider such post-materialist and post-survivalist issues as the already safe contents of our drinking water. It wasn’t always so.
In 2004, Robert Fogel, the economic historian, titled his book The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death. Multiple cohorts of humanity have managed to achieve just this. We should feel blessed that we live at such a singularity where technology, politics and science have allowed us to live relatively free from communicable disease.
Instead of enjoying this we chase and campaign against imaginary spectres as if they are existential threats to our bodies rather than modern miracles
that keep us safe, free and healthy; ideas that much of humanity does not have the luxury of considering due to living in the natural world.