Saturday, February 19, 2005

Premises and Conjurations

Hang on, folks! Being my first weblog, take-off's likely to be a bit shakey.

The purpose of this new endeavor is to begin a serious inquiry into the full truth of the natural world.

In the first place, what is "nature"? Words are important.

C.S. Lewis calls natural "a word to conjure with," and it truly is. Just think of the grocery store. NATURAL! is emblazened on the label of almost everything these days. One of my favorite products is "natural" peanut butter. The essential property I require is exclusion of processed sugar (cane sugar or corn syrup). But is "natural" peanut butter truly natural? Even something as elemental as peanuts ground into a uniform paste (I prefer smooth) doesn't spontaneously appear in the virgin forest, even outside of a jar.

On a similar line, for many years I've occasionally visited the "natural" food store (typically a shee-shee establishment whose aisles are plied by self-righteous DINKs) and have noticed a lamentable trend. Long, long ago, it was quite obvious that many of the manufactered food products sold there were cobbled together by a small--or at least somewhat aesthetically challenged—cadre of back-to-nature (that word!) types. The labels were awkwardly printed and unprofessionally packaged, but (even more importantly) the list of ingredients was very, very simple. The products I bought contained no processed sugars, or sucrose or dextrose.

Nowadays, the situation is rather different. These same products are slickly packaged, but even if the packaging remains unchanged, the lists of ingredients have doubled or tripled in length, and now include sugar(!)—albeit ciphered as "dehydrated cane juice" (oh, am I fooled!). The underlying cause (as I read somewhere a while ago) is that the big food manufacturers recognized the trend among consumers to gravitate toward "natural" products so they bought up the small "mom and pop" natural food operations (who, it should be noted, agreed to sell). As when anything is commercialized, the first thing to go is integrity. Quantity (the bottom line) over quality: "How many units are we selling? What dividends are we paying our stockholders?"

I assume the goal of the original proprietors (the "mom and pop") was to supply a product to help people. But when sales figures become the priority, that noble purpose readily flies out the window. Making a product that people will buy becomes the goal: what they desire, instead of what is truly good for them. Often these coincide, but they are not identical. Now before someone calls me an elitist or a snob, please note that people often desire things that are bad for them. Whether or not you think it should be outlawed (a laughable proposal just a few decades ago), everyone admits that smoking is unhealthy, for example. Manufacturers appeal to the desire to appease the consumers' immediate appetites, instead of working for what Tocqueville calls their "self interest, rightly understood."

We Americans are a superficial people. We want everything pre-packaged and ready for immediate use without our having to "waste time" in fine deliberation. Thus the harried professional lacks time to examine the label of, say, that "natural" granola, sweetened by the ubiquitous "high fructose corn syrup" (that ingredient worth a post in itself), instead of with fruit juice or honey that used to fulfill the same function in that granola, or still does in its more expensive, less slickly packaged competitor. He feels good buying a "natural" product, regardless of the truth of that label.

The point is that there is an enormous ambiguity in the meaning of the word "natural," and that nailing down its meaning has an immediate import for your and my lives. I've already written quite a bit here, so I'll save exploration of the particular meanings of "nature" for the next post.


This may be awkward. I want to be thorough about documenting sources, but I also don't want to encumber the reader with the clutter of parenthetical annotations. I hope this is clear enough.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (New York: Harcourt, 1988), ch 1, p 12.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.

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