Friday, May 30, 2014
NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.
I was reminded today of one of the more bizarre aspects of environmentalism. My mother had gone shopping and was telling me what groceries she had found. One item she mentioned was "fruit drink". After saying that she laughed and said "Well, it's not real..." I smiled and replied "You mean it's imaginary fruit drink?" of course, what she meant was not that it was imaginary, but that it was not really made directly from fruit, but was flavored "artificially". But her first description, of the food being "fake" reminded me of the most bizarre, and most openly mystical, terms in all of the environmental lexicon, "natural".
The problem here is that the term "natural" simply has no definition. The most obvious meaning "coming from nature" is obviously meaningless, as all items everywhere come from nature, as there is nowhere else from which items can originate. Unless they fall to Earth from space, or appear magically from another world, they must come from "nature" in some form. The second most probable definition, "being taken from nature without processing" is equally untenable, as the term is applied to soaps, cooked foodstuffs, clothing and many other items which do not occur in nature in that form. Which leaves one wondering, what exactly does "natural" mean?
The confusion over the term can be shown with a few examples. Let us take an example where it would seem "natural" does not apply, pesticides. Let us say I make pesticides by taking several pyrethrin chemicals, combine them, and sell them. Most would call that "unnatural". However, if I dry chrysanethemums, powder them, and sell the pyrethrin containing dust to use as a pesticide, it is "natural". Even more bizarre, if I were to take that powder and use some method to distill the pyrethrins, it could still be called "natural". On the other hand, in my first example, even if the chemicals used came from chrysanthemums at some point, it is no longer "natural". Why? Who can say?
And the same applies to a host of other similar examples. Ammonia which is sold as such, is an "unnatural" fertilizer, ammonia from animal urine, even if distilled to concentrate the ammonia, is "natural". Cross pollinating plants to change their genetic structure and enhance certain attributes is natural, doing so by genetic manipulation -- even if the results are indistinguishable -- is not. Food which is irradiated to remove germs is "unnatural", even if no test can distinguish it from other "natural" food. And so on.
Basically, I think the definition is this: Natural means that it has only undergone processing that can be done by your average hippie in his back yard, otherwise it is "unnatural". Or, to be more accurate, the more efficient the process, the less likely it is "natural".
Now, what makes this particularly silly is that many supposedly scientific environmentalists hold to this absurd "natural" paradigm, which is essentially a mystical definition. No one can distinguish ammonia distilled form urine from ammonia distilled from inorganic sources. And in many cases there is no way to distinguish "organic" from "non-organic" food. And even "genetically engineered" foods are impossible to identify, or at least it is impossible to tell whether a plant was produced by selective breeding or engineering in most cases. The whole "natural" term is a meaningless, mystical term, meaning nothing more than "I don't like it" or "it is good". (See "GMO? So What?", "Organic Absurdities", "Certainty and Pop Science" and "A Misleading "Right to Know"", for some specific examples in my earlier writing.)
Of course, many environmentalists recognize this, and do not involve themselves in this issue,s ticking to the more scientific seeming issues such as AGW, but the fact that many environmentalists do believe in this issue, and worse, the government has legislated based on this absurd distinction, should make anyone who values reason doubt the validity of many pronouncements on environmental issues.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/08/17.