Of course, we’re not just talking about crackers anymore. “Natural” is the adjective of choice for marketers of food, fertiliser, rash remedies, rat control, lollies, laxatives, sunscreen, soap, cosmetics, kitty litter and carpets.
But what does it actually mean?
In a nutshell: nothing. Bugger all. As far as advertising or packaging are concerned, there are no strict criteria for what qualifies as “natural” or not according to the Advertising Standards Bureau or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. As long as you’re not misleading people, you can pop the word “natural” onto your product or service to your heart’s content. In other words, if you claim that something you sell is natural, and none of your customers perceive it to be otherwise, you can lay it on as thick as you like.
The marketing mob would like you to imagine that any product bearing the word “natural” on its non-biodegradable packet has fallen plump and bursting from a huge, unbleached tree of immaculateness; its branches in the endless blue sky; its woody toes in the deep, redolent soil rich with virginal bilby droppings. They’d love you to think that using or consuming one of these products is tantamount to rolling naked on a carpet of daisies and sphagnum during a sparkly sun-shower.
But what if there are pinecones littering your daisy field? What if the sparkly sprinkles turn out to be cicada wee and your pungent, punctured body rolls straight over a cliff? “Natural” isn’t all refreshing streams and tasty vegetables. It’s cockroaches and Chlamydia and cane toads. It’s mildew and melanoma; funnel webs and fungus; parasites and pooh.
As soon as you start to think about what “natural” means, things start getting complicated. “Good” Natural and “Bad” Natural are not always clear-cut. Are margarine’s “plant seed oils” better than butter’s straight-from-the-cow creaminess? Is the Giardia lurking in our streams and rainwater tanks more palatable than the fluoride in our tap water? Is it preferable to get hit by a bus or eaten by a shark?
Frankly, I don’t care. If added preservatives mean I can keep bulk-buy biscuits in the pantry for an extra three weeks, fine. If artificial flavouring is cheaper, easier to produce and of a more consistent quality than the natural kind, I don’t mind. If the genes of vegetables have been tweaked to make them easier to grow in developing countries, I’m all for it. I’m not allergic to anything important and I learned a long time ago to ignore most adjectives on product packaging except “extra-large” or “chocolate-coated”.
But some people care. Some people care very much indeed.
These are the people who seem to be permanently on some kind of raw food, low-everything detox regime These are the people who tut at you when you reveal that you put food scraps in the rubbish bin instead of feeding them to your worm farm or posting them to poor children. They shun farmed fruit and vegetables because they swear they can hear the screams of harvesting — even over their unvaccinated five-year-old’s demands for breastmilk.
You won’t see these people buying “100% Natural” rice crackers from the supermarket. There’s a chance you may find them comparing nuts at their local growers’ market, perhaps showing off the new jumper they knitted from fallen free-range wallaby hair on eucalyptus-twig knitting needles. These people can do without packaging, pasteurisation and polyester. They have no desire for hamburgers, hot sauce or hand soap. These things are just not natural.
Presumably, when such a nature lover falls from the second storey of their recycled timber yurt and breaks their femur, they lie around waiting for it to heal while friends bring them apples and yoghurt. When they haemorrhage during a home birth they mutter something smugly about how unprocessed it feels before exsanguinating all over their packed earth floor. And when they develop Listeriosis from drinking raw milk they simply shrug and throw up a lot. Because it’s natural.
All right. Bit of an exaggeration. I’m willing to accept that many of the things that humans have done to the Earth have been horrendous, and that we’ve manufactured some extremely bad, damaging, pointless stuff. You only need to look at the ecological and social ravages resulting from the production of petrol, paper products and Hello Kitty merchandise. But without a bit of environmental diddling we wouldn’t have genetics, GPS or gin. AND OH LORDY HOW GOOD IS GIN?
Just one other teensy little thing. Humans are natural. We are organic. Anyone who contends that humans are the antithesis of nature cannot ignore that they are, in fact, part of it. Who’s to say that the most natural thing for humans to do isn’t to make seedless watermelons and self-parking cars and anti-caking agent E356? Maybe we’re not the nicest part of nature, but I’m not too jazzed about snake bites or toe fungus either.
Now that I’m thinking about toe fungus, I don’t think I want these rice crackers anymore.
I love this thing called Nature, with its jasmine scent of Spring;
With its moonlit nights and stalactites and lambies gambolling
With its violent hot eruptions and its caves of smooth blue ice;
With its winds and tides and saccharides, it’s really rather nice.
But there’s a little phrase, by which my ears are most offended;
And though I’ve tried, I can’t abide “the way nature intended”.
Oh, I might be too pedantic, I could take a small step back;
This barely needs my frothing screeds but damn, I’ll have a crack.
Does Nature really have intent? Does it express desire?
Has it had a plan since time began? To what does it aspire?
Has it even been consulted? Was its sage opinion sought?
Do we just suppose what Nature knows, without a second thought?
And where does humankind fit in? Are we a part of nature?
I’m quite sure you’ll find us in the scientific nomenclature.
So just where is the distinction between “natural” and us?
Should organic food and being nude become ubiquitous?
Should we tweak a corn crop’s DNA or kill a beast for food?
And does Nature think that squeezing drink from cows is simply rude?
Are we messing with a grand design by quaffing a Chablis?
Should we only eat what’s at our feet and fallen from a tree?
Should my polar fleece be scrapped because it’s made from bits of plastic?
Should I let my smalls be prone to falls ‘cause Nature hates elastic?
Should the Bedouin cast off their thawbs? The Inuit their parkas?
Should we duly ditch each stifling stitch and run around full starkers?
Should the hope of couples deemed infertile never be restored?
And should broken bones and kidney stones be utterly ignored?
Are those babies born with holes in hearts all part of Nature’s plot?
Should we just stand by and watch them die? Perhaps we’d better not.
Maybe Nature has intention, and it wants us to be smart;
To make cooking fire and copper wire and clothes and books and art;
To create a word like “Nature” and the concept that it fits,
And to use machines or other means to argue it to bits.