I am so tired of reading books by people whose historical frame of reference is <100 years. (I am not thinking of peer-reviewed histories here. I’m talking about general-interest non-fiction, which is my usual “just for fun” bedside table reading. But I’m of the firm belief that non-fiction should be based on research and grounded in research and a reasonable perspective. Even polemics must be based in fact.) What has my brassiere in a twist now, you may well ask?
I just read a book by an environmental journalist in which I found myself, much to my surprise, cheering enthusiastically for old-fashioned, highly patriarchal allopathic medicine and the folks who brought you Better Living through Chemistry in the twentieth century. (I know!) The author of this book portrays the modern human body as a victim of its environment, uniquely permeable by compounds and synthetic hormones invented only during or after World War II. Whereas of course the real history of public health in the U.S. going back to the beginning of the republic is one of tremendous success, this author can see only the BPA, the DDT, and the endocrine disruptors that our bodies now harbor, as though “natural” bodies were the only things that existed up until 1945.
Lead is all-natural. So is arsenic. Black lung disease is a very natural consequence of coal mining. And don’t forget our friends, the dysenteric diseases that probably still kill more children than any other causes globally, naturally!
If more of us are dying of cancer and heart disease, it’s because many, many fewer of us are dying from diptheria, scarlet fever, measles, mumps, rubella, plague, influenza, malaria, common bacterial infections, polio, typhus, childbirth, “childbed” (puerperal) fever, malnutrition, scurvy, &c. &c. &c. I don’t know if anyone before the invention of our modern battery of vaccines felt their bodies to be invulnerable, or impermeable by the environment. (I don’t know too many people who feel this way now–after all, isn’t being permeable and open to external manipulation exactly how vaccination works? I’m not sayin’–I’m just sayin’.)
Can we please give up the fetish of the natural? I don’t happen to believe that there is any such thing as the natural, except for a lot of misery I’m thrilled that I don’t have to deal with, like high rates of infant and maternal mortality, just for example, or life before anesthesia. (Now, that was “all natural,” friends!) Invoking “nature” or the natural is purely an ideological move. It may serve an end with which I sympathize, or it may serve an end with which I completely disagree, but let’s just recognize that the natural is an ideological construct. The natural does not exist outside of the human mind.
I’m not thrilled about hormones in the water, or BPA in my water bottle, or severe neurotoxins in my body fat, but I won’t let it keep me up at night. The more I learn about the distant past, the happier I am that I never had to live there. I feel like I won the f^(king lottery every day of my life to have been born when and where I was born, a middle-class American in the late middle of the twentieth century. Think about how lucky that was, to come of age after polio and (mostly) before the AIDS crisis! I will probably live to die of heart disease, or cancer, or kidney disease, or sclerosis of the arteries. Hooray! I’m not exactly looking forward to it, but I must acknowledge how relatively fortunate I have been to have survived this far. A long life is toxic, friends, and downright unnatural when you look at the sweep of history. You won’t get out alive.