Wellness influencers don't understand history
Nature isn't always a friend. Let's stop pretending it is.
The #1 cause of death in 1850 was tuberculosis. The bacterial infection once known as consumption (thanks to the coincident weight loss that consumes your life) produces blood-containing mucus emitted during chronic coughing sessions. The one-two punch of fever and night sweats makes for rather dreadful evenings.
Tuberculosis killed one-quarter of the entire population of Europe in the 19th century. If you and four friends were infected with active tuberculosis (compared to latent tuberculosis, which infects one-quarter of the population even today), four of you were certain to die from it.
In 2019, 526 people in America perished from tuberculosis. Since the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine was introduced in 1921, tuberculosis’s death count was drastically reduced in nations that implemented vaccination programs.
The #2 cause of death in 1850 was dysentery. Fun fact: it’s known as the bloody flux thanks to the massive amount of blood-soaked diarrhea this bacteria causes to gush from your orifice. Perhaps more disturbingly, you’ll suffer from a feeling of incomplete defecation as you lie there dying of dehydration.
Massive improvements in public health measures, such as routine hand washing and food safety laws, made dysentery less of a problem. After the cause of this disease was identified in 1915—an E. coli relative called Shigella—the combination of antibiotics and antidiarrheals made this once-disastrous disease manageable. It’s not gone: the bacteria still causes up to 165 million annual cases. Yet if you have access to meds and live in relatively safe hygiene, you don’t have much to worry about.
The #3 cause of death in 1850 was cholera. You might have read a book (sort of) about it. This bacterial infection sometimes turns your skin blue as your anus becomes a geyser.
While a few well-intentioned vaccination programs failed, improved sanitation and sanitized water supplies made a tremendous difference. Citizens of high-income countries generally aren’t concerned with cholera, while oral rehydration, electrolytes, and antibiotics greatly aid those who can access them.
The #4 cause of death in 1850 was malaria. It’s still a bitch. Crazy to think $2 mosquito nets provide the greatest defense, but here we are. Getting your hands on cheap antimalarials like artemisinin could save your life if you get bit by that annoying little carrier. A few recent vaccine programs provide hope, especially for children infected with this nasty parasitic infection. And then there’s always robot mosquitoes to look forward to.
The #5 cause of death in 1850 was typhoid fever. If you live outside of India, typhoid is probably not top of mind. Joining that scorching fever are cramps, constipation, vomiting, and headaches. Symptoms can last for months if you can’t get your hands on antibiotics. Oral rehydration is a solid remedy as well.
A typhoid vaccine can remain efficacious for seven years. Again, public health measures aimed at sanitation and drinking water make it a relative non-issue in countries like America, where roughly 400 cases are reported each year, and often after foreign travel.
These diseases didn’t just appear in the middle of the 19th century. Most of these ailments are discussed in some of our earliest texts, meaning they likely predate writing. They just took a very, very long time to come to understand and treat.
Bonus stat: 39% of babies born in 1850 did not see their fifth birthday, either due to any of the above, or a whole host of other reasons.
That number in 2020 was .7%.
The Utopia you’ll never reach
I find broad points of agreement whenever I watch wellness influencers yell at me about the dangers of modernity. We don’t know about the safety of some household chemicals. Our food production and agricultural systems are, at times, nightmares. Popping a pill for every minor issue isn’t the best course of action. Male testosterone levels really are declining.
This is different from never popping a pill. Or ridding your freezer of all processed foods. Or avoiding every chemical sold on a supermarket shelf.
And definitely don’t tan your balls.
The wellness set suffers from a failure of imagination. They can’t imagine a time when their beloved nature would ravage our species as relentlessly as it did in 1850, or for millions of years before that. Living in accordance with nature usually meant running from nature as much as possible.
They also suffer from an overstimulated imagination. They believe nature is only here for our benefit, and if we would just wake up and live by Her rules, we’d be in perfect health forever. They can’t fathom that the only reason they’re able to record their supplement serenades is thanks to centuries of public health programs, medical research, and lots and lots and lots of failures that occasionally resulted in a breakthrough.
Humans don’t make the rules. We do everything possible to exploit gaps in them to our advantage.
The world is a terrible and hideous place. It’s also home to profound beauty and exquisite sensations. I’d certainly rather have lived however imperfectly than never to have existed at all.
All of the daily horrors we face—seven mass shootings in seven American cities over seven days as I write this—cannot distract from the fact that many of us live in privileged times. After millions of years of struggling, failing, and clawing our way up from the middle of the food chain, we produced 1 billion of us for the first time in 1804.
Last week we passed 8 billion.
We’re not doing everything right. By any stretch of the imagination. There’s so much work to do. And there likely always will be.
But to live in a 19th-century fable when medicine was food and food was always pure without recognizing that you’re only able to selfie record your parasite cleanse sermon and share it with the rest of the planet is in large part due to public health initiatives, technological revolutions, and modern medicine is to abide by a dangerous illusion.
Or maybe that’s just the myth you need to uphold to keep your affiliate links growing.
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I can't wait for that lab meat to become affordable to get more high-income country citizens off energy-inefficient animal meat. There's a lot of potential in this new technology. The products could even be personalized (almost like Star Trek's food replicator-style), and we could stop burning down rainforests to grow food which we then ship around the globe to feed to animals before we eat a fraction of them. It would also help lower the risk of zoonotic diseases.
I hope modern technology and the love and continuously newly-gained respect for our planet and fellow Earthlings will go hand in hand. However, wellness influencers are nothing but arms dealers, utilizing our fears to their capitalistic advantage. Big Wellness sucks. But it's here to challenge our species, causing lots and lots of failures that occasionally result in a breakthrough.
Thank you. Great article.