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merging discourses and practices around healthy human bodies have begun to intersect with the environmental politics of the Anthropocene, which seek to ameliorate our relationship with “nature” and the non-human. We have seen the development of new ecological conceptions of the human body and health strategies that emphasize the need to restore and “re-wild” our bodies that have become separated from nature. In our current geologic epoch, now being referred to as the Anthropocene, scientists acknowledge that human activities have had a significant global impact on Earth’s ecosystems. From a changing climate to drastic reductions in global biodiversity, these disruptive and often detrimental impacts have been viewed (in part) as a result of humankind’s increased separation from the wild. Scientists have noted disruptions of the human body’s ecosystem in addition to global ecosystems. The human microbiome, or the diverse and sizeable community of microbes contained within (and on) the human body, has changed in parallel with the phases of the Anthropocene, particularly in response to changes in dietary and consumption practices (Gillings and Paulsen, 2014). For example, oral microbiota from fossilized dental calculi show a marked change in bacterial diversity and composition based on the increased consumption of cereal grains in the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural diet (Adler et al. 2013). These microbial perturbations are now being linked to medical conditions whose frequency has increased since the rise and spread of modern, industrialized agriculture post-WWII, such as allergies, type 2 diabetes, and obesity (cf. Bendiks and Kopp, 2013; Luoto et al. 2013; Musso et al. 2010). In light of this evidence, how does one create and maintain a healthy body in the Anthropocene? Who and what is involved in the work of the body’s ecology?
To explore these questions, this article considers the social reproduction of intimate bodily ecologies, focusing on recent health trends that call for the “re-wilding” of bodies through diet and lifestyle, including human microbiome health interventions and the Paleo Diet and Ancestral Health movements. These “re-wilding” health trends have added care for our non-human companions and health collaborators to our “life’s work” (Mitchell et al. 2003). These new concepts of health suggest that we can build ourselves a healthy, “wild” bodily ecosystem despite the acknowledged environmental crises of the Anthropocene at larger scales, eliciting a sense of techno-optimism at the scale of the body’s ecosystem. This article explores the implications of our ecological lives’ work across scales and argues for a political ecology of health analysis, including a move beyond human/non-human and nature/society binaries in the “social” of the social reproduction of health and healthy bodies.
The Body as an Ecosystem and the Political Ecology of Health
In 2013, famed “foodie” Michael Pollan encouraged New York Times readers to “say hello to the 100 trillion bacteria that make up your microbiome,” proudly announcing that some of our best friends are now germs (Pollan, 2013). After 100 years of trying to eliminate bacteria, new concepts of health that embrace the microorganisms are currently transforming health practices and dietary regimes, with recent health discourse emphasizing the importance of the human microbiome to eradicating illness and maintaining health. In May of 2016, the White House announced the launch of the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI), a collaborative effort between federal agencies and private-sector stakeholders to advance our understanding of microbiomes with initial funding totaling over $500 million (Handalsman, 2016). Imbalance in the human microbiome resulting from loss of our microbial “allies” has been implicated in a variety of illnesses including autoimmune and allergic disorders (Bendiks and Kopp, 2013), obesity and metabolic disorders (Luoto et al. 2013; Moloney et al. 2014; Musso et al. 2010), gastrointestinal disorders including irritable bowel syndrome (Alonso and Guarner, 2013; Kennedy et al. 2014), and even psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia (Cryan and Dinan, 2012; Luna and Foster, 2015; Nemani et al. 2015). Due to the significant diversity of illnesses that may be linked to our microbial counterparts and far-reaching possibilities for intervention, human microbiome research has been noted as one of the fastest-moving and most dramatic areas of scientific progress in decades (Barnard, 2014).
The transition from seeing bacteria as primarily threatening invaders to necessary, and often endangered, symbionts has offered up a new concept of the human body. Instead of a vessel vulnerable to the unwelcome invasion of these tiny assassins, the body is increasingly conceptualized as an ecosystem (rather than a more mechanistic or reductionist view of the body) with its own unique endowment of microorganisms, some of which are essential to the function of the system as a whole. Recent biomedical literature uses language that invokes ecological thought, referring to the “microbial ecosystem,” the “human ecosystem,” “gut ecosystem,” and the issue of “biodiversity loss,” not to mention the word “microbiome.” Popular media also invokes the notion of the body’s “ecosystem” in discussions of health and disease and emphasizes a need to “re-wild” our bodily ecosystems in the interest of health.
Photo Credit: Top, www.wearewildness.com ; Bottom, www.danielvitalis.com
The shift in the human-bacteria imaginary catalyzed by human microbiome research raises new questions concerning what constitutes a human body; where does the human end and the non-human begin? What does this shifting human/non-human, nature/society boundary mean for bodies, health and dietary practice? The emerging field of the political ecology of health among geographers has grappled with these questions, particularly the role of nature in health (cf. Jackson and Neely, 2015). For Mansfield (2008), “health is inherently a nature-society relationship” (1015). Science and technology studies (STS) scholars have also addressed the aforementioned questions, investigating new biomedical and broader life science understandings of life, health and bodies (cf. Haraway, 1990, 2008; Latour, 2012), including our relationship to non-human, microscopic life such as bacteria (cf. Braun 2007; Hird, 2010). However, Guthman and Mansfield (2013) point out that neither of these disciplines alone has adequately addressed these questions. Political ecology literature largely ignores the body, while STS literature tends to ignore the environment (Guthman and Mansfield 2013). As a result, Guthman and Mansfield (2013) call for a “political ecology of the body” that pays attention to the ecological processes both within and around the body. Political ecology of health literature understands health in terms of nature-society relationships, bringing nature into discussions of health and bodies (cf. Jackson and Neely 2015). Jackson and Neely (2015) outline a suggested practice for the political ecology of health, one that includes the insights of medical anthropology, STS, and history of medicine, framed around the perspectives of partial and situated knowledges, Marxist-feminist approaches (notably, social reproduction), and more-than-human geographies of health. In building a framework to theorize the health of the body as an ecosystem, I have found the contributions of social reproduction theorists and of more-than-human geographies, highlighted in Jackson and Neely (2015)’s approach to health, to be particularly useful.
The Social Reproduction of the Body's Ecology
Social reproduction is often succinctly summarized with Katz’s (2001) definition as, “the fleshy, messy, and indeterminate stuff of everyday life,” a quote which speaks clearly to health and the body. Yet, ironically, health is a significantly undertheorized topic in social reproduction literature (Henry, 2016). Jackson and Neely (2015) bring social reproduction into conversation with health, proffering social reproduction as a valuable concept for its ability to bring together, “Marxist attention to scarcity, global political economy, and everyday life, with the personal-is-political insights of feminism,” in order to interrogate the processes that (re)produce healthy and unhealthy bodies (56). This attention to scale in the (re)production of healthy bodies, from the “personal” to the “global,” is essential to theorizing the health of the body as an ecosystem.
Social reproduction unveils the concept of mutual dependency as a condition of human life and a factor in the unequal distribution of conditions of flourishing that render some bodies more precarious than others (cf. Strauss et al. 2015). With the unfolding importance of the human microbiome in matters of health and a resultant shift in the perceived boundary between the human and non-human at the scale of the body, the concept of mutual dependency and its influence on the relative precarity and health of bodies must be extended to include our non-human, microbial co-creators. Jackson and Neely (2015) have pointed out the need for this attention to non-human actors in health suggesting that, “health and sickness are more-than-human; they are ecology” (48).
Human microbiome research and the idea of the body as an ecosystem confirm the need for a political and ecological approach to health, one that is articulated in part by attention to scale, mutual dependency, and the more-than-human to better understand who does the work of the body’s ecology. While this paper’s attention to the work of the body’s ecology sits nicely alongside Marxist-feminist scholars’ use of social reproduction to investigate and challenge notions of work, including health and care work (often feminized, often unpaid or seen as “non-work”; cf. Henry, 2016), this paper does not engage a more traditional Marxist-feminist analysis of this “work” (e.g., attention to class, race, and gender dynamics; though there are certainly arguments to be made regarding their role in the work of “re-wilding” bodies). Instead, this paper primarily engages with social reproduction in order to break open the human/non-human and nature/society binaries in the “social” of the social reproduction of health and healthy bodies. This paper attempts to do so in two complementary ways: 1. By showing how recent health trends require us to think of health ecologically and extend care to our non-human co-creators in order to (re)produce healthy, productive bodies, and 2. By highlighting how non-human actors are themselves essential to the work of (re)producing healthy human bodies.
Re-Wilding Bodies and Health in the Anthropocene
Environmental politics in the Anthropocene have been concerned with what we have done to nature and in turn what this adulterated nature will mean for the health and well-being of humanity (cf. Cook and Balayannis, 2015). Lorimer (2017) notes that, “securing the human through control of unruly ecologies is one of the defining objectives of the period becoming known as the Anthropocene” (1), an era marked by challenges to nature/society and human/non-human binaries and the idea of a “pure nature” (cf. Castree, 2015; Lorimer, 2012). Since the “Great Acceleration” that began in the 1950s (i.e., rapid globalization, exponential world population growth, the rise and spread of industrialized agriculture), we have witnessed the rise of social movements, such as the “back-to-the-land” movement (cf. Brown 2011) and the alternative food movement (cf. Goodman et al. 2012), that have focused on bringing the body back to nature in the interest of both human and environmental health. More recently, the Paleo Diet and Ancestral Health movements and human microbiome health interventions have brought the idea of wildness to these social movements, bringing nature back (in)to the body with an interest in “re-wilding” our bodies to a presumably healthier, more wild state that predates the disruptions to the body’s ecosystem that have occurred during the Anthropocene.
“Re-wilding” is a relatively new conservation discipline that has emerged from the larger framework of restoration ecology that acknowledges the co-production of nature by human and non-human actors and emphasizes the conscious and conscientious intervention of humans to restore and maintain healthy ecosystems (cf. Greipsson, 2011). While traditional restoration ecology has focused on attempting to recreate past environments through the re-introduction of presumably native species, re-wilding focuses on restoring ecological processes (e.g., predation) that are missing or dysfunctional due to human disruption in order to create functioning ecosystems for the future (Moorhouse and Sandom, 2015). In other words, re-wilding creates an ecosystem that is more functionally natural, but one that may look very different than what previously existed (e.g., new populations from different genetic stock) (Moorhouse and Sandom, 2015). The adoption of concepts and terminology from the fields of restoration ecology and conservation biology in human microbiome discourse has brought these notions of nature and wildness to the scale of the body. Consequently, intervention strategies typically conceptualized and applied at the scale of larger biomes (e.g., forests) are now being applied to bodies, such as combating biodiversity loss of the human microbiome through re-wilding (cf. Coppola, 2014).
Perceived threats to the integrity of the body’s ecosystem abound in the Anthropocene: inadequate inoculation of infant microbiomes with their mother’s bacteria due to caesarean sections and formula feeding, inadequate nutrition and probiotic food consumption in the standard American diet, the excessive use of anti-microbial cleaning and personal hygiene products, chemical exposures in the food supply and built environment, and the sedentary lifestyles and general disconnect with nature characteristic of modernity. From the very moment of birth, the body is exposed to the precariousness of modernity and becomes an object for the practice of making “health,” which now includes cultivating a diverse, resilient bodily ecology.
Suggested strategies for managing the species diversity of one’s bodily ecosystem most often involve dietary adjustments and/or the consumption of prebiotic (nondigestible carbohydrates that act as food, or precursors, for probiotics) or probiotic foods or supplements to replenish or manipulate the body’s beneficial microbes, coupled with avoidance of unnecessary or excessive use of antibiotic drugs or hygiene products. The burden of responsibility is placed on the individual who must self-monitor, assess, and intervene in the body’s ecosystem. The idea is that the addition of beneficial bacteria should bring the body’s ecosystem back into balance, strengthening the immune system as a preventative measure, as well as resolving any of the exponentially growing number of acute conditions correlated with deficiencies in an individual’s microbiome. Specialized diets such as Donna Gates’ (2011) “Body Ecology Diet” and the popular Paleo Diet and its various offshoots emphasize the importance of restoring and re-wilding the human gut microbiome. However, advocates of the Ancestral Health movement take the idea of “re-wilding” beyond the constitution of the intimate ecology of the microbiome to include the entirety of the body’s ecosystem.
The Ancestral Health movement, including the popular Paleo Diet and its derivatives, also elicit the idea of the body as an ecosystem and encourage the “re-wilding” of the body and the microbiome in the interest of health. The Paleo Diet is purported to bring contemporary human bodies to a healthier existence by returning to the hypothesized dietary habits of pre-historic hunter-gatherer groups. An estimated three million Americans currently follow some version of the Paleo Diet, though it has been suggested this is a conservative estimate (Johnson, 2015). Paleo Diet rhetoric often pathologizes the relationship between health and the modernity of the Anthropocene (e.g. agriculture), claiming that civilization has outpaced evolution and created a world hostile to human biology (Johnson, 2015). Thus, the Paleo Diet promises to return contemporary human bodies back to nature and to a healthier existence by returning to the presumed dietary habits of pre-historic hunter-gatherer groups; in other words, back to a pre-Anthropocene body. Paleo Diet followers often attempt to bring the body back to nature through dietary and consumption practice alone, without having to abandon urban lifestyles or spaces. However, a significant number of Paleo followers claim that Paleo is much more than a diet, identifying with the larger Ancestral Health movement that places emphasis on lifestyle changes in addition to dietary alterations. These lifestyle changes include combating sedentary lifestyles and “unnatural” postures with diversified workouts (e.g., natural movement exercise) and less time sitting (e.g., using a standing desk), counteracting climate-controlled indoor environments with cold exposure and hot and cold hydrotherapy, and correcting circadian rhythms and achieving proper sleep (e.g., filtering out blue light from electronics after dark), among other suggested behavioral changes.
In addition to adjusting diets and lifestyles based on an evolutionary perspective in order to attain biological fitness or “health,” the Ancestral Health movement has also taken interest in the “re-wilding” of the human microbiome. Recent microbiome research studies comparing the microbial diversity of gut bacteria among modern-day African hunter-gatherer groups, notably the Hadza of Tanzania, to individuals in developed countries, has shown a much richer diversity of microbes in these hunter-gatherer groups (Schnorr et. al. 2014). This research has provided fuel for the fire of the Ancestral Health and Paleo movements, whose proponents are constantly seeking scientific validation to strengthen their argument that an evolutionary approach to health is imperative.
Both human microbiome health interventions and the Ancestral Health and Paleo movements have brought the ideas of wildness and “re-wilding” to the scale of the body. Sandom et al. (2013) state that, “re-wilding seeks to inspire a generation to set something right and to redress the major wounds of the past.” This use of the wild as a means to return to an idealized nature and lifestyle, free from the marring of modern civilization, has been noted by wilderness scholars such as Cronon (1995), who suggests that, “wilderness offers us the illusion that we can escape the cares and troubles of the world in which our past has ensnared us” (p.10). These re-wilding health trends suggest we are trying to escape the ecosystem we have created for ourselves in the Anthropocene, not only at the scale of larger biomes, but at the scale of the human body as well. In this respect, the body has become a new frontier for an environmental ethic of health and sustainability based on re-wilding. By requiring self-monitoring, experimentation and treatment through manipulation of one’s dietary and consumption practices, the burden of responsibility is placed on the individual to “re-wild” and manage the body’s ecosystem. Thus, while Rose and Novas’ (2008) concept of “biological citizenship” suggests that our biological life has become our life’s work, “re-wilding” health trends suggest that it is our ecological lives that have become the subject of our life’s work.
The current environmental crises of the Anthropocene are having an impact on the social reproduction of productive, “healthy” bodies. However, human microbiome research points toward not only ecological crises outside the body but within it. How will this internal, ecological crisis impact the social reproduction of healthy bodies? How can one create and maintain a healthy body in the Anthropocene? Who and what is involved in the work of the body’s ecology? This paper attempts to answer these questions by considering the social reproduction of intimate bodily ecologies, focusing on recent health trends that call for the “re-wilding” of bodies through diet and lifestyle, including human microbiome health interventions and the Paleo Diet and Ancestral Health movements. This paper attempts to show how these recent “re-wilding” health trends require us to think of health ecologically and extend care to our non-human companions and how these non-human actors are themselves essential to the work of (re)producing healthy human bodies. The “fleshy, messy everyday life” (Katz, 2001) of the body as an ecosystem and the “re-wilding” health trends included in our ecological lives’ work point toward the need for a political ecology of health perspective, including a move beyond human/non-human and nature/society binaries in the “social” of the social reproduction of health and healthy bodies.
Recent health trends that attempt to “re-wild” the body in the Anthropocene have added care for our non-human companions and health collaborators to the life’s work of the body as an ecosystem, suggesting that we (the human host) can condition our body’s ecology to provide an ideal habitat for our microbial companions. However, to push Hird’s (2009) inquiry, “who is to say, indeed, that bacteria are not selecting modes of human cultural and social selection that enhance bacterial thriving?” (55-6). Hird (2009) points out that bacteria are almost entirely absent from current formulations interested in, “the origins and parameters of, and possibilities for, sociable life” (133). In exploring the social reproduction of the body’s ecology, it becomes clear that we must reconsider the “social” and move beyond the human/non-human binary to better understand our ecological lives’ work.
The re-wilding health strategies discussed in this article are not (entirely) a romantic, “back-to-the-land” exercise, but rather a practice of making healthy bodies that acknowledges the overwhelming threats to the body’s ecosystem in the Anthropocene while still desiring the comforts provided by the precarious environment of modernity. Working with Murphy’s (2006) idea of “how to build yourself a body in a safe space,” by using an evolutionary perspective to argue for the superior health of our ancestors based on their diet and lifestyle, these health trends suggest that we can find insight for building ourselves a healthy, “wild” bodily ecosystem despite the acknowledged environmental crises of modernity at larger scales, eliciting a sense of techno-optimism at the scale of the body’s ecosystem.
The seemingly paradoxical techno-optimism of “re-wilding” at the scale of the body reinforces larger trends in the social reproduction of health that are changing the practices of making and the lived experiences of bodies and health, including: a distrust of the biomedical establishment resulting in DIY “health experts” who rely on self-diagnosis and self-experimentation and treatment, a model of provisioning and care at the level of the individual for their bodies and health through dietary and consumption practice, and a continued shift away from health being practiced in traditional spaces like hospitals to the home.
However, the idea of the body as an ecosystem requires us to confront this paradox. The “re-wilding” health trends discussed in this paper push us to think of health as ecology, where our non-human counterparts are vital to human thriving. Despite the realization that health is co-created by human and non-human actors across scales in the Anthropocene, we are still predominately staging our ecological crisis interventions at the scale of the body through the micromanagement of individual diets and lifestyles. At best, these “re-wilding” health trends can transform the body into a pedagogical site to (hopefully) foster an environmental consciousness that can then be extended beyond the body to larger ecosystems. At worst, our ecological lives’ work will retreat further into the spaces and bodies of the individual, turning our attention away from the larger political and ecological context in which our health (or lack thereof) is (re)produced and which desperately requires remedial action.