Many people today have the idea that “natural” is synonymous with “better.” It is this idea that I want to call into question in the current post, and perhaps restate in a more agreeable (to me) way in the next post.
Let’s use two convenient examples, which most readers will be familiar with to varying degrees: exercise and eating. Today I got my new “barefoot” running shoes, after much deliberation, followed by a brief spurt of impatience between placing the order and their arrival (for such is the capriciousness of the human condition). As I was trying them out it would have been very easy to have self-congratulatory thoughts of how much better it was for my body and soul to be running in a more natural way, except for a couple of snags. First and most obviously, these are shoes. While they do allow my muscles to move in a more natural (in the sense, now, of unrestricted) way, if my utmost priority was being “natural” I would not wear shoes at all.* Now you could argue that I was forced into this because of the fact that I was running on pavement, and you would be right. But I was running on a special trail designed for runners and bikers, and I regard this combination of special shoes and special pavement as vastly superior to running barefoot through the woods. Furthermore, I was listening to my iPod the entire time.
The point I am making is that nature is not an unencumbered good. The true essence of nature is making trade-offs between varying levels of good and bad, and how one defines good or bad depends on the circumstances. As an example of the latter idea point, consider if our goal was to grow food. I would much rather have dirt in which to grow food rather than to try growing it on the special pavement of the running trail. In this case, dirt is better than pavement. It is also true that bare dirt is better than forest, but a hydroponic system may be better than both. What I regard as good depends on my goals; what I regard as bad depends on the problem I am trying to solve.
The problem that you are trying to solve changes as your capabilities of solving problems changes, which brings us to our second example. For many in the developing world, the problem that food solves is a lack of calories. In America today, often the problem is too many or the wrong kind of calories. We can be more selective about the calories we choose, picking fruits and vegetables that are healthier than cheeseburgers and milkshakes. But if the problem is one of taste, the latter options could be regarded as superior and if the problem is one of lacking calories they almost certainly are better.** Organic vegetables are in a sense more natural than those treated with synthetic pesticides, but this is undermined by the fact that they are transported to a very convenient grocery store–picking them out of the fields myself, which would be more natural,*** would also significantly reduce my desire for them.
Taking these two examples together, the final idea of this post is that we have greater capability now than ever before to choose between the aspects of nature that we regard as good/desirable and those that we designate bad/undesirable. As usual, the issue that I am taking here is not with the behavior but with the mindset. Wear your barefoot running shoes and eat your organic vegetables, but don’t be swayed into thinking that it is the most natural outcome. Natural is not always better.
*Indeed I have known individuals who go to this logical extreme, but I do not regard extreme logic as to anyone’s credit except in extreme circumstances.
** It seems plausible to me that one reason we regard fruits and vegetables so highly today is that a) we have access to a greater variety of them than at any time in history and b) we have a greater number of tasty ways to prepare them. These initially resulted, for Europeans, from conquering colonies in the Americas and developing a spice trade with the far east. An Irish family feasting on boiled potatoes with salt and pepper would seem horrendously monotonous to us today, but was remarkably novel in the context of the 18th century.
*** But not the most extreme form of nature, since agriculture itself is a human development, and could in that sense be regarded as synthetic.