The Appropriation of Natural

Natural is an increasingly common buzzword used to market products, especially products consumers don’t need but are encouraged to want. This week two writers commented on the “pseudoscience” and “absurdity” that surrounds the word natural.

A  revised version of Jerry Coyne’s post, “Is Whole Foods a Bastion of Pseudoscience?” was published in The New Republic as “Why Do Liberals Tolerate Pseudoscience at Whole Foods?”:

Whole Foods is an American-founded “natural” grocery store, specializing in wholesome and organic foods, that has now expanded into Canada and the UK. . . . But there’s also a dark side to Whole Foods, at least as described in an article by Michael Schulson in The Daily Beast: “Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience.” The accusation is that the store sells homeopathic remedies and other foods and “drugs” that make medically unsubstantiated claims.

Coincidently, Udo Schuklenk latest article in the Kingston Whig-Standard discusses “The absurdity of labeling things as ‘natural’”:

Try it yourself when you have a minute. Use any Internet search engine that tickles your fancy and search for ‘natural.’ In-between news items on natural gas you will find that ‘natural’ is a very common feature in advertisements for all sorts of beauty and health products as well as in value judgments about all sorts of human activities.

Schuklenk points out that the “romantic view of ‘mother nature’ taking care of its own” that is implied by the words nature or natural does not always mean benign. He provides examples: malaria carrying mosquitoes, crocodiles and venomous spiders. Schuklenk also points out,

Something else is weird about the idea that non-human nature is nice of sorts, yet anything us humans produce is watched with suspicion by fans of ‘natural’ products.

and criticizes the attempt at personification that promises if you use natural health products, ‘Your body will thank you,’ a phrase that takes talking to yourself to an absurd level. Schuklenk ends by showing how the argument for nature/natural can affect legislation and societal attitudes:

There is another kind of nature that is deployed in other debates. Some have argued against assisted dying because that would constitute a human intervention in our natural process of dying. Well, here is my message to you: Our natural process of dying typically is a pretty nasty one. Disease is unpleasant. That’s why we invented medicine. Get over it. There is nothing wrong with using modern medicine to ease our way out of a miserable death. It is also quite all right to interfere with other natural processes such as cancer busily growing in our bodies. Similarly, there is nothing unnatural about folks having sex with others of the same sex. Happens all over nature, human and non-human. This tells us nothing about the question of whether that’s desirable, but it does tell us that arguments from nature are as pointless here as they are in advertisements for beauty or health products.

Coyne points out that the products at Whole Foods are expensive:

Because of its high prices and the demography of its shoppers (young wealthy people), the store is sometimes called “Whole Paycheck.”

Schuklenk makes it very clear that the assumption, especially the religious assumption, that if it’s natural, it must be good will end up costing society a high price.

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