Chinese wet markets offer meat in its natural state: unrefrigerated, unprocessed, unpackaged, uncooked and sometimes unslaughtered. When I 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.
Similarly, Chinese medicine represents a natural alternative to the pills pushed by Big Pharma. Gnarled roots, ground herbs, wizened mushrooms, and exotic animal parts line the traditional pharmacy’s walls. These claim to be Mother Nature’s cures that will realign us with her rhythms, unlike the synthetic chemicals that, according to some, will end up making society sicker.
Now, of course, we are reckoning with the catastrophic shortcomings of unregulated open-air wet markets. Calls for change within China will hopefully lead to safer food standards and reduced exotic animal trade.
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But beyond reforms of specific practices, there is a broader lesson to be learned, one that humans persistently ignore: natural does not necessarily mean better.
Clearly we have some way to go, since responses to the pandemic have framed it as a ‘punishment from nature’ for our unnatural lifestyle.
Circulating on social media is the idea that ‘humans are the virus’, yet the arguments towards this are suspiciously general, theological catch-alls: they take every human sin, and discover that all of them contribute to the current crisis.
Is industrial agriculture one’s focus? Then it is to blame for the coronavirus. Likewise for overconsumption and climate change.
The ultimate version of this approach, now a viral meme on social nature, is simply to blame humans for all disharmony in nature. The virus isn’t the problem, since viruses can’t sin. They are a part of nature – perfect and harmonious unless humans interfere. We, the sinners, are the virus.
‘Sending us a message’?
“Nature is sending us a message,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme. Or, as the Duchess of York tweeted: “Mother Nature has sent us to our rooms… like the spoilt children we are. She gave us time and she gave us warnings. She was so patient with us. She gave us fire and floods, she tried to warn us but in the end she took back control.”
Though ‘nature’ may look like a secular term, this framing is fundamentally a religious one. Religious leaders throughout history have framed natural disasters as God’s punishment – even today, prominent figures blame coronavirus on ‘unnatural’ sexuality, just as they did with everything from hurricanes to HIV.
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In this view, God is synonymous with nature, and ‘natural’ means whatever has been ordered by God. The opposite of natural is anything chosen by humans that does not align with the divine order – and it leads inevitably to suffering.
Understandably we want to believe natural forces are benevolent. That’s why studies show we tend to overestimate the risk of actions perceived as tampering with nature, from nuclear power plants to lab-grown meat. We know what happened when Dr Frankenstein tampered with nature, or, as it’s often put, when he ‘played God’.
Natural isn’t always better
The urgency of living in harmony with nature has never been more acute. But we should not make the mistake of believing that living in harmony with nature requires living naturally. After all, the technology required for renewable energy is far less natural than simply burning wood. Refrigeration and freezing prevent spoilage and food waste.
Humans are, as the author HG Wells put it, unnatural animals. Our success in saving infants and the elderly contradicts nature’s intentions, and few would deny the morality of our unnatural efforts. And yet, given the susceptibility of the elderly to COVID-19, the narrative of nature’s punishment makes for a ghastly conclusion about whether we should continue with our successes.
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Nature is not a benevolent deity with ‘intentions’, and natural is not a synonym for holy. Understood as an absence of human intervention, naturalness is neither good nor evil.
Now more than ever, understanding the difference is crucial for the health of humanity, and the planet. The time has come to abandon our false faith in natural goodness and confront the complexity of what it means to be responsible unnatural animals in a natural world.
Natural: The Seductive Myth of Nature’s Goodness by Alan Levinovitz is out now (£20, Profile Books).