If you’ve ever searched the internet for helpful guides to weightlifting, working out, or even just getting fit, you’ve assuredly been the target of a barrage of algorithmically aimed videos from shirtless, extremely buff fitness influencers. Within that onslaught, you may have noticed a subgenre of videos focused on whether the most successful of these musclebound creators are “natty or not.”
A barb in the side of every influencer in this community, the question simply asks whether the pectorals, quads, and glutes on display are the product of “natural bodybuilding” or steroids. The obsession with this question among influencers is somewhat jarring. Bodybuilding, at its highest stage—the annual Mr. Olympia competition, to be held in Orlando this year—stopped worrying about “naturalness” long ago. The most famous bodybuilders of all time—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Coleman, and the like—all pumped their bodies into ridiculous shapes with proprietary mixes of training, protein, and “supplements” to reach the top of their field. While many steroids have remained on Controlled Substance lists, which forces competitors to remain quiet about consumption, their use in practice was both obvious and required. The point of Mr. Olympia, after all, is showing off genuinely astounding human outliers.
But for the internet bodybuilders, fitness influencers, and “natural” supplement pushers of today, admitting that their physiques are the byproduct of anabolic steroids, human growth hormones, or other performance enhancers would detract from their goal: to make viewers and consumers believe it would be possible to achieve similar results through the “one easy trick” that the influencer is willing to share. And yet, getting ahead in an oversaturated world of workout regimens, dietary supplements, and life hacks often requires an extra push, or rather jab, to make the muscles pop. To no one’s surprise, steroid use is quite common.
So what does bodybuilding have to do with the environment? Plenty.
The concept of “natural” has long figured into appeals to consumers across many sectors. For the fitness influencer, their own naturalness serves to blind viewers from the reality that the bodies on display are the result of years of work, pounds of protein powder, and often unrealistic levels of effort and dedication. For other products, ideas, and solutions, appeals to nature take advantage of the commonly held belief that natural things are better, healthier, and more sustainable. So effective is this strategy that “natural,” “nature,” and similar claims to the correct order of things are everywhere in our world.
Because of its ubiquity, perhaps, “natural” has become a rather loose concept. Rarely is it taken to mean something derived whole cloth from the natural world. And although it’s often meant to invoke “good,” natural things are not inherently better or worse than anything else—some natural things kill people and some natural things, like penicillin, save lives. Further, despite their invocation of some older, more universal way of being, many “natural” ideas (see: natural bodybuilding) are just as new, contextually dependent, and manmade as whatever they stand in opposition to.
For those advocating “natural solutions” to problems related to how we farm, how we eat, or how we produce energy, then, nature and its referents can effectively launder bad ideas, making them more attractive to laypeople, policymakers, and consumers. Such naturalization risks the raising up of false solutions to the very real challenges facing our society. It allows scam artists, grifters, and bad faith interlocutors—perhaps the only truly natural things out there—to make money off their snake oil.
It’s way past time to curb our enthusiasm for the “natural” and try to find the pulse of the real. For our bodies, our minds, and our climate.
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In common environmentalist discussion, “natural” refers to conditions, systems, and processes that exist in the absence of human influence or intervention. Natural refers to the way that things exist, grow, and interact in the environment without being impacted by human activities such as pollution, deforestation, or the use of chemicals.
Environmentalists often use the term “natural” to contrast with the idea of the “artificial” or the “manmade.” They believe that the natural environment is an important part of our planet and that preserving and protecting it is essential to the well-being of humanity and the future of the planet.
In environmentalist discussions, the term “natural” is often used to describe things like forests, wetlands, oceans, and other ecosystems that play a critical role in maintaining the balance of the earth’s environment and supporting life on the planet. Environmentalists believe that preserving and protecting these natural systems is critical to maintaining the health of the planet and mitigating the impacts of climate change and other environmental challenges.
In common environmentalist discussion, “natural” is also used to describe methods, products, and technologies that are based on natural systems and processes, such as renewable energy sources, organic farming, and conservation practices. These methods and technologies are seen as a way to reduce the impact of human activities on the environment and to promote a more sustainable and environmentally responsible way of life.
Nature, a fallacy?
In his recent book, “Natural,” scholar of religion Alan Levinovitz points out appeals to the “natural” all over our commercial, social, and economic lives. From childrearing and birth to dieting, consumer goods, and free market economics, pundits, grifters, and sincere advocates are quick to call on their targets to embrace what is natural as opposed to what is “artificial.” While, in some cases, those calling for a more “natural” approach to life are not wrong to eschew the harms and side effects of the synthetic, the category of “natural” or “real” has no actual bearing on whether something is better, more sustainable, or more ethical.
But, as Levinovitz argues, “faith in nature’s goodness” takes on an almost religious overtone. Nuanced arguments against “natural” goodness are often useless and easily waved away by “nature worshippers” for whom “naturalness” is its own source of truth.
In a famous essay from 1995, environmental historian William Cronon illustrates the problem with this kind of thinking in a discussion about the idea of “wilderness” as land in a state of nature. He writes, “Wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall.” And if nature can only exist where humans do not, then humans themselves are artificial.
Once nature is defined in opposition to humanity, it becomes easy to use it to justify exploitative behavior like removing populations from landscapes to preserve their pristine quality, as Cronon argues, or advocating for population control, more broadly, as a solution to climate change. And then, once “natural” is used to idealize anything back in the human world, it requires the mental erasure of great swathes of humanity, history, and progress; to choose “natural food” over its alternatives at the supermarket is a denial of the sheer amount of human labor, will, and technology that goes into any kind of agricultural production—whether foraged or cultivated, organic or not, large-scale or small-scale, or even grown in cultivated meat vats.
It is appropriate, then, that the appeal to nature is recognized as a classical logical fallacy. And yet, the fallacy persists.
From “organically grown” to “ancestrally built”
Few things in human life are as inflected with the idea of “natural goodness” as food. From local organic farmers to big box stores, foods are labeled as “natural” to entice buyers and make them feel healthy and righteous in their choices. After all, who would want to eat something unnatural?
While “natural food” has a long history, a lot of the contemporary discourse around what foods should be conceived of as “natural” or “unnatural” can be traced back to the organic food movement, and specifically to Jerome Irving Rodale—an early American proponent of organic food and the founder of the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania.
Rodale was born in 1898 in New York City. He reportedly spent periods of his youth dealing with various illnesses, and was deemed not “fit for duty” for the U.S. military during World War I. To improve his health, Rodale became interested in finding a diet that could combat the chronic illnesses that he and many of his other contemporaries faced. Rodale identified, wrote about, and ultimately created a publishing business to promote an agricultural and dietary revolution that could move past the evils at the center of modern food production. In 1947, Rodale founded his eponymous institute in Emmaus, and laid the groundwork for a culturally powerful organic agriculture movement.
In his lifetime, Rodale railed against both modern medicine and modern agriculture. He argued against the use of vaccines, and instead promoted more “natural” prevention techniques against diseases like polio—namely, to eat “protective foods like meat, fish and poultry.” As historian Maria McGrath argued in a 2014 article for The New Republic, even though Rodale was wrong about his “natural” remedies and practices, his ideas remain influential in today’s main alternative food movements, led by advocates like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan.
As of late, Rodale’s influence can also be found in far stranger corners, particularly in the overlap between online bodybuilders and “carnivore” dieters.
In this particular world, there is probably no figure as interesting as the Liver King. Born Brian Johnson, the so-called Liver King promotes himself as the “CEO OF THE ANCESTRAL LIFESTYLE.” His tenets for “primal living” include good sleep, barefoot walking to connect to the earth, frequent exposure of the body to the cold and to the sun, and maybe above all, eating a mainly carnivorous diet that’s heavy on organ meat. Johnson records his lifestyle, advising his followers—who he calls “primals”—on the right way to live, to eat, to rest, to be happy.
And there are, apparently, lots of primals. In a 2022 interview with GQ’s Madeleine Aggeler, Johnson claimed to have made over $100 million a year through Ancestral Supplements—his supplement company, which sells, among other things, desiccated organ meat in capsule form. His commercial success has been matched with a growing fan base of around 1.8 million followers on Instagram, over 4 million followers on TikTok, and a constant flow of appearances on the many podcasts aimed at men concerned with what they see as a waning of masculinity in the modern world.
Always shirtless, Johnson would seem like a rare kind of food influencer—he is loud, massively muscly, and constantly filmed eating grotesque amounts of organs—but he is not alone. Paul Saladino, a former medical doctor, and now well known as Carnivore MD on social media, is another good example of this phenomenon. An advocate of animal-based diets, Saladino has become a prominent online critic of seed oils—processed oils from canola, sunflowers, and other grain seeds—claiming they are “the biggest driver of chronic disease.” He instead proposes a diet that is made up of things like “well-raised ruminant meat and organs, fruit, honey and raw dairy.”
Saladino and Johnson share several things in common … beyond just shirtlessness. They are also both constantly talking about a fictional past, where humans—particularly male humans—were strong, and well fed on meat and organs, not weakened by modern life. Both want a “return” to a simpler, and in their opinion “healthier,” time. To borrow a phrase from Johnson, the two hope “to put back in what the modern world has left out.” It may be easy to dismiss both men as comedy—or an ever-so-slightly less off-putting version of Alex Jones’ attempts to sell “health” supplements to aggrieved white men. But, like Jones, the two are exceedingly popular, able to speak to an audience that’s sick of modernity and sick of changing social norms around masculinity. Their promises of health and fitness are clearly seductive.
But more than that, Saladino and Johnson’s appeals to our “natural” diets and ancestral lives command attention because they are nothing more than tricks that you can play on your own body, on the modern world, and on a socioeconomic system that takes labor from you your whole life with little reward. They represent a win-win formulation. You can eat your meat and be healthy too. You can be a “strong man” and be righteous. You can live in modernity but eschew its tensions and contradictions simply by stating that you’ve stepped out of it and become your natural, primal self.
Unfortunately for Johnson, natty he was not. A leaked private email detailing the Liver King’s expansive $12,000-per-month steroid program put the lie to Johnson’s “ancestral message.” In his case, then, the scam is doubled. On the one hand, his body is the product of decades of exercise and performance-
enhancing substances, making his “primal” diet a clever marketing strategy for his offal supplements; on the other hand, his appeals to “primal” and “ancestral” living were a grift all along, using the naturalistic fallacy to prey on those who feel just a little ill at ease in the modern world.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as one “species appropriate” or “natural” diet. Cuisines, as historian Rachel Laudan has shown, have long been shaped by trade, politics, culture, and regional availability. While our Paleolithic ancestors assuredly ate differently than we do—or even our grandparents did—to claim one diet as more or less “natural” than another is to abandon reason in favor of fallacy.
This is true for more than just diets. Climate solutionism is full of appeals to nature. For example, advocates who argue that afforestation programs, agricultural soil sequestration, or even negative-emission whales can help save our climate tout the “naturalness” of these solutions often without regard to their actual efficacy. That these processes are “nature based” means very little when it comes to engaging the problem of climate change—a problem that requires industrial-sized answers. As Juzel Lloyd of the Breakthrough Institute has argued, solutions ought to be judged by their actual effectiveness—as measured by clear metrics—not by their aesthetic virtues or some sense among advocates that the people, typically in poorer countries, who would be likeliest to have to resort to nature-based solutions in the face of global climate change are somehow “more connected to nature” anyway.
In “We Have Never Been Modern,” the late philosopher Bruno Latour argued that dualistic conceptions of nature and society were a fable of modernist thinking—that the world, in fact, ought to be understood more as overlapping sets of hybrids than as clearly demarcated and competing categories.
Latour’s hybridity, like Cronon’s non-pristine wilderness, can serve as a tonic against the anti-
modern thinking underlying Rodale, Johnson, Saladino, and the many less frenetic advocates who call for a return to “nature” and “natural solutions”: instead of exploding and seeing past the false dualism of human vs. nature, those who worship the “natural” or the “ancestral” attempt to simply put it on its head. As Levinovitz argues in “Natural,” mystifying categories like “nature” won’t help us; we must see the nuance in the world and let it guide us in making the right decisions for our bodies, our societies, or our climate.