I'm starting this thread because today there were two posts asking for natural emulsifiers and natural dyes. There is a prejudice amongst Permies that natural is better than synthetic, and this may be totally reasonable, given the unforeseen consequences and side effects of the use of synthetic chemicals. But there is the rub -- just what is "natural" and what is synthetic? If something that is natural can be made synthetically in the lab, are the two the same, or is one method better than the other? If we are worried about how nature breaks things down and feeds the soil food web, are there unnatural molecules that we need to avoid?
Among chemists who study these things, there is a familiar history of isolating the natural product, identifying it chemically, seeing if it can be made synthetically in the lab, and then how it can be modified to a not-natural product. An obvious example is the difference between morphine and heroin. Morphine is a natural product that can be isolated from opium poppies; heroin is di-acetyl morphine, a product that does not occur in nature, but has to be produced in a laboratory by treating morphine with acetic anhydride. This also serves as a counterexample to the old ad slogan "better living through chemistry".
So post your questions here about the "natural" product you are looking for and I will try to give a direct answer. Not biased toward the chemical industry, just because I used to work in it, but also not biased toward natural herbs, even though I do grow and use quite a few of my own now.
Morphine is a natural product that can be isolated from opium poppies; heroin is di-acetyl morphine, a product that does not occur in nature, but has to be produced in a laboratory...
Perhaps a simple test for us laypersons is "If the word is Trademarked, then it was produced in a lab."
Until the Treaty of Versailles ended World War I, "Heroin" (as well as "Aspirin") were trademarks of Bayer Pharmaceuticals.
Part of the treaty stripped them of the rights for exclusive rights to those 2 names:
John Elliott wrote:Aspirin is probably an improvement over the "natural" product. It's a lot easier to swallow a couple of pills than to gag down some willow bark tea.
And for the majority of the world's population, easier to find.
Every 7-11 in the country has aspirin. Where's the nearest willow tree?
And will the owner shoot me if he sees me stripping the bark off while my campfire is burning a hole in his lawn?
John Elliott wrote:I'm starting this thread because today there were two posts asking for natural emulsifiers and natural dyes.
One of the reasons I prefer 'natural' stuff is that I have some hope of growing or gathering it myself. Aspirin may be more effective than willow bark, but I actually enjoy gathering sticks of willow and peeling the bark off so I can make tea. I'm very sensitive to pain killers - they tend to knock my liver out, so a cup of willow tea is often the only thing I'll allow myself. Well, that a swig of cherry brandy, but I can make that myself if I have to, too.
I think we need to be more precise in our use of language.
"Natural" has become a meaningless label on packaging. Also the line between natural and synthetic is blurry, there are examples out there that I could argue to be in both categories.
Rather than trying to figure out whether something is natural:
- Is it healthy to use/ be around? Is it toxic at the level I'm going to use it? (People Care)
- Does it generate pollution? Will it end up in the dump/ocean for thousands of years? Does it generate suffering? (Earth/Animal/People Care)
- Does it generate freedom/happiness/resiliency? Does it strengthen community? Can I make some myself? Can someone repair it in my community? (Return of surplus??)
I think we should evaluate products individually and see how they fit within our ethics. It does happen that a lot of synthetic products are fairly new, so we don't really know their effect. So maybe we should be more cautious with "synthetic" products than with products that have been used for much longer.
By the way, I once overdosed on some medicinal tea. 100% natural herbs. Had night sweats and fevers. Completely wiped out for a month. I'm still recovering after a year...
Sam Boisseau wrote:I think we need to be more precise in our use of language.
That's true; rattlesnake venom is 100% natural and Tylenol is 100% synthetic. Not all synthetic stuff is bad, and there is a lot of natural stuff that will kill you.
Where this fits into permaculture is how these things cycle through the environment. Teflon is synthetic and it doesn't have to be seasoned and cared for with the same attention as a cast iron frying pan, but teflon does NOT break down in the environment. When the human race has gone through another couple of stages of evolution, microbes will still be trying to figure out how to disassemble those fluorinated polymers. Natural things are known to break down and go through the various cycles of the environment, but such a general statement is not possible for synthetic molecules. I was hoping that in this thread we can come to an understanding of which synthetics we should avoid.
I guess you have to look at each product's lifecycle individually and see how it fits in your ethics.
For example I have a synthetic plastic crate that I use to store stuff in my house.
Is it bad for me? Probably not, and it fits its purpose pretty well.
Is it bad for the environment? I guess eventually it will break, and since I can't repair it it will end in the trash.
Is it bad for my community? I guess so, I could have paid someone to make a wooden crate instead of having something shipped from China.
So it looks like a bad decision to own that crate. Maybe I should have gotten a wooden crate. But then there might be a tradeoff in spending my money on an expensive item. Maybe I wouldn't have gotten a CSA share with my local farmer if I spent the money. Also I got that plastic crate for free. So maybe it's a good thing that I took it out of the waste stream. So now plastic is better than wood. But what if my neighbor was someone who only uses plastic crates? I could have given it to them and bought myself a wooden one.
Every situation is unique. I'd say go back to your ethics and do your best. Peel one layer at a time.
Diego Footer on Permaculture Based Homesteads - from the Eat Your Dirt Summit