His book is subtitled The Seductive Myth Of Nature’s Goodness — fighting words indeed. Nylon or rayon as good as cotton or linen? Organic carrots not innately superior to Walnut Whips? One might assume he was being contrarian just for the sake of it.
Actually, he’s not. Levinovitz is merely presenting the evidence for and against ‘natural’ things versus ‘unnatural’ things, and he allows his readers to make up their own minds. His book is full of fascinating observations, facts and stories that will make you think again about topics you thought you had already made up your mind about.
Levinovitz concedes that he is fascinated by the question of whether our “hunter gatherers had it better”, which leads him to spend time with a Peruvian indigenous group. Confirming his suspicion that the line between nature and artifice is impossible to draw, he finds that the group exists after all in the modern world – they even use cell phones. This visit is the book’s weakest point, and reads like an excerpt from an undergraduate anthropology essay. On his quest to challenge the distinction between natural and non-natural, Levinovitz himself identifies a faultline between the supposedly more “natural” group and the “borrowed” technologies they use, including metal axes and plastic containers. He doesn’t ask whether the Peruvians themselves subscribe to a division between nature and modernity.
Levinovitz is waspish about economists “picking and choosing whatever biological principles happened to best fit their economic ideology”, but the book does much more than sneer and scoff — and this is what makes it interesting. Levinovitz is a convert; not to the cult of nature, but at least to respecting its value as a sort of religion. Ultimately he rejects what he calls the “mythic binaries” of natural versus unnatural. “We are truly unnatural animals,” he states. “Our home is made in an uncertain borderland.” It is a nuanced conclusion typical of a subtle and serious book.