by Nathanael Johnson
The tagline to this book is “A skeptic’s quest to discover if the Natural approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing and the Environment really keeps us Healthier and Happier”. I was intrigued and wondered where he would wind up.
In the introduction, these lines spoke to me: “…In this age of global warming, killer germs, and obesity, it’s easy to feel as if we’ve somehow slipped out of synch with the global ecosystem. But it’s just as easy to dismiss that feeling by pointing out all the good that our industry has brought. We’ve got more stuff. We live longer. Everything gets better and easier. I suspect most of us are actually stuck somewhere in the middle: We recognize the good that technology has conferred, but also have a gnawing sense that something is missing or awry. This sense is persistent, but frustratingly vague. Call it “ecological anxiety”.
You know you’ve got it if you are occasionally concerned that hormone-mimicking chemicals are leeching from takeout containers into your food, but have found that plastic is too useful and too ubiquitous to avoid; if you’re left cold by encounters with the medical system, but aren’t really sure you believe in that alternative practitioner your friend recommended; if you sporadically pay more for food marked “GMO free” or “All Natural,” but only if it’s not too much more; if you use eco-friendly laundry detergents, but still dry your clothes with an energy-guzzling machine rather than a line, and travel on airplanes and basically just live in the oil-hungry civilization you were born into, because: What are you supposed to do? Go all Ted Kaczynski and move into a shack in the woods?”
I thought that pretty much nails where I’m at and I suspect, where many of us are at.
What the author attempts to do is take an unbiased look at modern medicine in America, agriculture and food production and issues surrounding the environment and come to conclusions about what’s real, what’s hype, what’s measurable, what isn’t. What he descovered is that almost nothing is simple, clear-cut, unambiguous or definite. Each side has strengths and shortcomings and many, many issues are contextual. This reality is perfectly encapsulated by Forester Don Harkin, who we meet in the chapter “Seeing the Forest”. Don’s favorite phrase was variations on “it depends on what you want”.
The author struggles mightily with his dissatisfaction at the complexity and ambiguity he encounters. He very much wants to reach a series of clean, clear conclusions that can then drive his decisions and point of views going forward. But instead of achieving discrete epiphanies about “environmental policy”, “natural medicine”, etc. he comes to a much more elegant, albeit complicated, realization, borne out of his research into a land management project for the ‘Inimim Forest in California.
A diverse group of people with very different and often directly opposing worldviews, priorities, educational backgrounds and temperaments, worked together over some 6 years to create a mutually acceptable land management plan for supporting and managing a tract of forest, and engineering it such that it would continue to thrive, sustain it’s ecological diversity and pay for itself, with money left over. The process was protracted and initially quite painful. But the beauty of the process, as he discusses, was revealed when “People found that it was impossible to cleave to their abstract convictions when they were talking about something so tangible in their backyards. They could all see what worked and what failed, and this provided a check on idealogically driven debates. As they talked, the rednecks and hippies got to know each other and became less guarded. Compromise became conceivable. Curiosity replaced militant certainty.”
The author comes of feel a sense of trust in people — something he recognizes he lacked. He realizes that intolerance bedevils hardcore advocates of pretty much anything; that underneath certainty and simplicity there nearly always lurks a belief that humans are fundamentally weak and/or evil and problems must be solved via some abstract but unerringly correct authority (be it NATURE or THE FREE MARKET, etc.). The problem with Abstract Idealogies, as he discovers, is that they fail at real life problem solving. Problem solving actually occurs, he learns, when people set aside abstractions, knuckle down, and genuinely work the problem. Varying points of view, when respected, lead to creative and far more satisfying solutions.
Amen to that!