The word “natural” is thrown around a lot these days, by itself or within a phrase like “natural health,” “made with natural ingredients,” “natural parenting,” etc. I don’t generally use the word, because although it seems simple, it can be a loaded with implications and assumptions. However, I often struggle to find an appropriate, equally succinct word.
What does “natural” actually mean? According to Dictionary.com, it mainly means:
1. existing in or formed by nature (opposed to artificial)
2. constituted by nature
3. of or pertaining to nature or the universe
Mostly things to do with the word nature, which means:
1. the material world, especially as surrounding humankind and existing independently of human activities
2. the natural world as it exists without human beings or civilization
Here lies my problem with these words. Our culture generally defines humanity as wholly separate from nature (nature, which includes other animals)—even as above or against it. The iconic “man conquering nature.”
This dichotomy purports that humanity is superior and nature is inferior. We are better than nature and deserve better, so we have declared war on it. We win battles when we build successful dams, and lose them when hurricanes devastate cities. We “own” land, livestock, and pets. It is our default state to control our environment by living in the climate-controlled indoors, and to control our bodies by doing all we can to stifle their fluids and smells.
The final definition of “natural”—uncultivated—might be more useful. Forgetting for now that it also means uneducated or uncultured, let’s have it mean untouched or unaltered—like natural (i.e. unprocessed) sweeteners, natural landscape, that sort of thing. The problem with this definition is that, when scrutinized, it rules out not only agriculture but also the classic example of beavers building dams.
Using the word natural in the phrase “natural foods” is presumptuous and meaningless, such as agave “nectar,” which I blogged/linked about before. Wikipedia says it well:
“The term is assumed to imply foods that are minimally processed and do not contain manufactured ingredients, but the lack of standards in most jurisdictions [including the U.S.] means that the term assures nothing.”
“Fundamentally, almost all foodstuffs are derived from the natural products of plants and animals; therefore, any definition of ‘natural food’ results in an arbitrary exclusion or inclusion of food ingredients; likewise, since almost all foods are processed in some way, either mechanically, chemically, or by temperature, it is difficult to define which types of food processing are ‘natural’.“
(I like the term “real food,” mostly because of its elements of snark and absurdity.)
Calling things “unnatural” can be equally ironic, such as when my practice of not shaving, as a woman, is deemed unnatural.
Several years ago, a friend (who was a farmer) frequently ranted about things that were “unnatural” (e.g. oil tanks, the Internet) and therefore bad. Her intention was usually clear, but sometimes, when I asked her to elaborate (both on what defined “unnatural” and why it was inherently bad, and what made agriculture, for example, “natural”), she stumbled and was not really able to discourse it. She—like all of us—held a lot of unquestioned presumptions.
I brought this up with another farmer friend of mine, and asked him what he thought about the “natural”/”unnatural” distinction. He said that he didn’t really think about things in terms of natural and unnatural, but rather in terms of what worked and what didn’t. (He meant this in a sustainable, earth-and-living-things-friendly kind of way.)
This was helpful to me. The thing is, we live in a civilization that is arguably unfriendly to the well-being of not only non-human animals but of many humans as well. We were raised in a society whose conventional wisdom states that we are separate from and better than “nature.” We were enculturated into a system of practices that comes from and supports this way of life. Anything we do is arguably a response to this.
There are human activities that, while called “unnatural” (which can mean, as we’ve established, anything or nothing), work, when they help to counter destructive cultural norms. There are also human activities that, while called “natural,” don’t work, when they are marketing ploys by profit-hunger corporations deviously devised to sucker consumers into pumping even more money into our nefarious exploitive capitalistic system by conning them into thinking they’re actually doing something good for the earth and/or themselves.
When folks that I know are well-meaning and not evil capitalists use the word “natural,” I don’t question it as much. There is a generally-agreed-upon if not vague definition of the word that is more or less the aforementioned “uncultivated.” But when things are assumed and taken for granted and therefore easily co-opted, I think it’s important to unpack them a little.
The real question is, where do those damn beavers and their dams fit in?