This essay, on the romanticisation of nature, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 10 May 2020, under the headline ‘Let’s stop romanticising nature. So much of our life depends on defying it’.
Cormorants are hunting fish in the now clear waters of Venice. Wild boars roam the avenues of Barcelona and wild goats the streets of Llandudno. Above Los Angeles are blue skies. From smogless Delhi, you can once more glimpse the Himalayas. ‘The Earth is healing, we are the virus,’ runs the meme spreading fast across the internet. It’s a sentiment echoed by many policymakers, commentators and celebrities
‘Nature is sending us a message,’ said the UN’s Inger Andersen. ‘From the point of view of Mother Nature,’ the journalist Fintan O’Toole suggests, coronavirus ‘makes things better.’ Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, agrees. ‘Mother Nature has sent us to our rooms… like the spoilt children we are,’ she tweeted. ‘She tried to warn us but in the end she took back control.
Perhaps Ferguson needs reminding that ‘taking back control’ has meant condemning hundreds of thousands of people to death, hundreds of thousands more to losing their livelihoods, and threatening, in the words of the UN World Food Programme’s David Beasley, ‘famines of biblical proportions’.
We should remind ourselves, too, that what is now seen as unnatural and sinful was, not so long ago, celebrated as natural and authentic. Ever since the pandemic broke out in Wuhan, Chinese wet markets have been denounced as despicable and vile. Yet when Alan Levinovitz lived in China, ‘wandering through the open-air stalls felt liberating and authentic, a welcome change from sterile supermarkets where the chicken lies behind glass, plastic-wrapped by faceless corporations’. Here was ‘meat in its natural state: unrefrigerated, unprocessed, unpackaged, uncooked and sometimes unslaughtered’.
Levinovitz, associate professor of religion at James Madison University, had already finished writing his new book, Natural, before the pandemic was unleashed. It is, nevertheless, an indispensable read, not least for all the ‘humans are the virus’ memers.
Concepts of ‘nature’ and of the ‘natural’ have, Levinovitz shows, become synonyms for ‘God’ and the ‘holy’. Humans are sinners not because we have disobeyed God but because we have violated nature, our teacher, in whose wisdom we must discover the moral rules by which we ought to live.
Such a moral appeal to nature has long been the means of justifying particular human laws and structures. From interracial relationships to homosexuality, certain activities are deemed as transgressing natural boundaries and so to be forbidden. A ban on interracial marriage, as a Pennsylvania judge observed in 1865, was necessary to prevent the ‘corruption of races’.
Many supporters of interracial and same-sex marriage ironically also appeal to nature. Racial mixing, 19th-century campaigners argued, is found throughout history. Non-human species, contemporary LBGTQ activists insist, also exhibit same-sex attraction. ‘Natural goodness,’ Levinovitz observes, is ‘a mercenary ethic that anyone can hire to fight for their cause.’ It’s one of the qualities of both God and nature that he or she is always on our side.
It’s not just supposedly aberrant lifestyles that are condemned as unnatural. From IVF to genetically modified food, from vaccines to cloning, critics view many scientific and technological advances as the desecration of nature. How nature is becomes seen as a template for what humans ought to do. And yet so much of human life – from the aspirin we take to alleviate pain to the fridge that helps prevent milk from souring – is a recognition that natural processes often work to our disadvantage, and the moral stance would be to keep them at bay.
The romanticisation of the ‘natural’ is, Levinovitz notes, rooted in privilege. Only those who enjoy a lifestyle sufficiently protected from the ravages of nature have the licence to romanticise it. In countries with robust health systems, people have the dispensation to opt for natural childbirth, or alternative medicines, or to reject vaccines. In much of the world in which ‘natural’ childbirth is an imposition on women, not a choice, both maternal and infant mortality rates are staggeringly high. It is poverty that condemns so many in the global south to rely on traditional medicine or to live without vaccines.
After reading in the New Yorker about how much better was the ‘natural’ parenting style of the Matsigenka, a Peruvian Amazonian tribe, Levinovitz travelled to Peru to see for himself. He was disappointed that they lived not in a ‘state of nature’ but with solar panels and mobile phones. He asked a local whether he was ‘happy about having electricity’. ‘He looked at me with confusion,’ Levinovitz recalls: ‘‘Yes,’ he said flatly, as if explaining something to a child. ‘Now we can see at night.’’
Of course, those who are most desperate for the unnatural wonders that people in rich nations take for granted – electricity, clean water, transport, refrigeration, medicines – are also those most at risk from the depredations brought about by industrial society. Last week, at least 11 people were killedand hundreds hospitalised after an explosion and gas leak in a chemicals factory in the Indian town of Visakhapatnam.
India remains haunted by memories of the terrible Bhopal disaster of 1984, when an explosion in a pesticide factory led to the release of deadly methyl isocyanate gas. Half a million people were exposed to the toxin, and up to 16,000 may have died. Almost 40 years on, the site is still not detoxified.
It is the poor, whether in rich countries or in the global south, who most suffer from industrial pollution, are most imperilled by climate change and most threatened by the consequences of the coronavirus. This is not because humans are violating nature, but because societies are structured in ways that ensure that innovation and development remain the privilege of the few, while depredation and ill health are the lot of the many.
Challenging both the lack of development and environmental devastation requires not fatuous claims that ‘humans are the virus’ but confronting policies that limit innovation, impose inequality and put profits before people. It is the ‘bad’ of the social, not the ‘good’ of the natural, that we need to address.
The painting is ‘Still life with a skull’ by Paul Cézanne.