(My review on goodreads)

Despite the blurb and the praise on the back cover, this book is about a bit more than just a rejection of the wellness craze. To be sure, Ehrenreich starts by proclaiming her decision to avoid unnecessary medical care and adopt an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. And she goes on to question the idea that we should all deprive ourselves of every “guilty pleasure” from now until our death, just in order to stretch out the years. And she skewers the purveyors of quack medicines and supplements. But it’s when she gets to “mindfulness” that the book really gets underway.

To thoroughly dissect the idea of mindfulness Ehrenreich takes apart the idea of “self” - not just the sort of Cartesian self that has become a fixture of modern Western thought, but other kinds of “selves”, such as the immune system, macrophages, other cells that seem to have agency - that is they exhibit non-random and non-deterministic behavior. And in breaking down the idea of a human “self” she also questions the objective existence of a “society”. This is good stuff.

She has the technical chops for this book: a Ph.D. in cellular immunology. So she looks into the idea that all we have to do is “listen to our bodies”, and eat foods that promote a healthy immune system, and then we will live and be healthy to a great old age. She knows better: there is evidence that a healthy immune system is not always on our side, and that the diseases of old age are quite possibly triggered and made worse by our immune system turning on us.

And she has a long history of looking at how systems behave and misbehave: by nature or experience she is disinclined to accept neolieral nonsense about how it is always personal decisions that drive outcomes. She quite rightly has contempt for the affluent snobs who blame poor people for their poor health: “Well, if they didn’t eat at McDonalds they wouldn’t be so obese and they wouldn’t die so young”. Yeah. And probably poor people should buy $1000 gym membersips and have steady white-collar jobs that don’t wreck their joints by age 50. Silly poor people.

If she has any advice it is to keep good habits (eating, exercise, no smoking, etc.) - within reason. Accept that you are going to die. If you are in your 60s or above you’ve lived long enough that you don’t need to panic about the idea of death. Don’t ruin your life postponing your death: for one thing, it probably won’t work, and for another - why make yourself miserable?

Finally, a factoid: the person who had the longest recorded lifespan died at age 122, in France. She was wealthy, and active nearly all her life, with teniis, horseback riding, fencing, etc. She ate meat and butter and pound cake, and she smoked both cigarettes and cigars. So you anti-smoking fanatics can just put that in your pipe. And smoke it. And remember Jim Fixx while you’re at it.



Book cover

Metadata Info

  • Title: Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer
  • Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Published: 2018
  • ISBN: 1478961260
  • Buy: Amazon search
  • Check out: Seattle library
  • Rating: 4.0 stars