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Natural by Alan Levinovitz review – the seductive myth of nature's goodness | Books


The world was under lockdown and I was playing at being an outlaw. From the comfort of my sofa, I traversed alligator-infested swamps, skinned beavers and made a poultice from herbs. The video game was Red Dead Redemption 2, a simulation of the rural American midwest, where the player is free to roam through a fictional ecology. During the many hours I spent playing the game, it became clear to me that this wasn’t just an escape from reality, but its inversion. The nature I was consuming on screen – a vibrant landscape that existed to be mastered, harvested and utilised for human gain – was the opposite to what existed outside: a landscape that, insofar as it had been shuttered by a zoonotic virus, showed how our mastery of nature could eventually return to master us.

A few pages into his book Natural, Alan Levinovitz identifies this contradiction: “Again and again, the question of our proper relationship with nature is reframed in the same way: should we obey nature, or transcend it?” What Levinovitz, an associate professor of religion, calls “natural goodness” is all around us, from food packaging to “clean eating” documented on Instagram, to the belief that natural detergents are better than their artificial equivalents, to an unthinking dichotomy between urban (artificial) and rural (natural). It’s a logic often suffused with religious piety: clean, good, natural things are contrasted with the unclean and unnatural, mass-produced and industrial. As Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company Goop puts it: “Clean, for us, is about avoiding potentially toxic ingredients.” Citing the anthropologist Mary Douglas, Levinovitz notes that deeming one thing natural and another toxic is about far more than cleanliness; it’s about imposing a moral order on the world around you.

Levinovitz cautions against pursuing moral answers in nature’s mirror. Nature “sounds great in theory, but in practice it’s a mercenary ethic that anyone can hire to fight for their cause”. Natural theologians saw in nature an order and hierarchy closely related to the existing distribution of political power and private property, transforming the cruel “is” of nature into the prescriptive “ought” of politics and religion – often with dangerous effects. But the pursuit of what is deemed “natural” or “pure” is also associated with class privilege, as when middle-class parents who refuse to vaccinate their children perceive that vaccines are unnatural interventions. “We have a God-given immune system”, one anti-vaxxing mother told the sociologist Jennifer Reich (this argument was notably absent in discussions of herd immunity).

The idea of nature as a moral teacher was famously elaborated by thinkers such as William Wordsworth, Henry Thoreau and John Muir, who believed that by appreciating nature we could become better people, or make better decisions about how to live. The idea of nature-as-teacher still persists – one example of this is the popularity of “natural births” among prospective parents. The value of a “natural birth” has become a kind of disciplinary myth that encourages women to endure the volatile, individual, painful experience of childbirth without epidurals or pain relief. An array of bestselling books proffer this divine narrative of childbirth, where biology and theology are wound together in opposition to the sterilised context of the modern hospital.

A common argument among advocates of natural birth is that having babies was less dangerous in the past – they just slipped out. The epitome of this illusion is a viral video, viewed over 79m times, of a 39-year-old Utah doula giving birth in an isolated creek in an Australian rainforest; she wanted to have her baby “in the wild”. As Levinovitz rightly notes, the idea of “natural” childbirth contains the seed of an imagined “primitive” population – where “indigenous” births are thought of as easier and more authentic than their medicalised alternative, their mothers more resistant to pain. Yet tales of “painless parturition” were historically used as a convenient justification for colonial atrocities. In its fervour for natural births, the western birthing establishment bears the imprint of this retrograde thinking, and takes for granted the importance of medical services that not all women can access.





The value of a ‘natural birth’ has become a kind of disciplinary myth.



The value of a ‘natural birth’ has become a kind of disciplinary myth. Photograph: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images

Searching for moral teaching in nature leads one to questionable principles. But it’s also futile. When Timothy Treadwell, the bear lover and activist documented in Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, spent a decade cultivating relationships with bears in Alaska’s Katmai national park, he met an unfortunate end: Treadwell was devoured by the bears, his partially eaten corpse discovered by rangers. “What haunts me,” Herzog intoned during the film, “is that in all the faces of the bears that Treadwell filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy … I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” If you stare at nature hoping for answers, nothing stares back.

Levinovitz concedes that he is fascinated by the question of whether our “hunter gatherers had it better”, which leads him to spend time with a Peruvian indigenous group. Confirming his suspicion that the line between nature and artifice is impossible to draw, he finds that the group exists after all in the modern world – they even use cell phones. This visit is the book’s weakest point, and reads like an excerpt from an undergraduate anthropology essay. On his quest to challenge the distinction between natural and non-natural, Levinovitz himself identifies a faultline between the supposedly more “natural” group and the “borrowed” technologies they use, including metal axes and plastic containers. He doesn’t ask whether the Peruvians themselves subscribe to a division between nature and modernity.

Levinovitz gallops through many examples of the natural-equals-goodness association, from bitcoin enthusiasts to bodybuilders. His concluding call is to embrace an idea of nature that is less steadfast and monotheistic – one founded on the admission of “philosophical confusion”, where the criteria for goodness depends on context. This is a useful corrective to lazy thinking: “Naturalness is a continuum, and it can be very difficult to decide where something exists on that continuum,” he concludes. Yet debates about the intrinsic value of nature or what can be called “natural” fail to engage effectively with the more pressing issue of the climate crisis, and feel oddly ahistorical. We find ourselves in our present predicament because we have imagined “nature” as a domain separate from “society”, an organising principle that justified the domination of the biosphere for human ends. When plastic has been deposited in the fossil record and a plastic bag has been found at the bottom of the Mariana trench, is what’s “natural” still the right question to be asking? Surely only if it strengthens the more urgent inquiry into how our exploitation of the world must stop.

Natural: The Seductive Myth of Nature’s Goodness is published by Profile (RRP £20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on online orders over £15.

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