I read Nathanael Johnson's investigative memoir All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier back when I was mired in a sea of downer books. It's not really a downer book itself, but I definitely learned some things in it that I found somewhat depressing.
Johnson's concept is simple. Himself the product of counterculture whose parents birthed him at home, tried to feed him natural foods (before doing such a thing was all the rage), and encouraged him to play outside rather than in front of the TV, he grew up to be somewhat skeptical of that lifestyle. When he married and faced the concept of fatherhood, he decided to review the arc of his own life and try to determine whether the "all natural" technique really was better.
The book is organized somewhat chronologically, opening with chapters on birth and eating, and moving outwards towards larger topics like the environment and agriculture. I enjoyed it--there was some interesting information and Johnson's writing was personable--but I didn't love it. In fact, there were a few chapters where I might have skimmed more than read (the environmental one comes to mind, although there was interesting stuff there too about how forests grow and change "naturally"). In the end, I felt, Johnson didn't really answer his own subtitle, although I never really expected him to. His conclusions about nature v. technology worked out to be somewhat "well, it depends," but at least he explains his findings well in his conclusion, arguing that too much dependence on either can lead us astray. All of that aside, here were a few of the tidbits in the book that really stuck with me:
"The total number of women dying was still minuscule compared to the turn of the century: Maternal mortality had gone from 6 deaths per 100,000 births to 14 per 100,000 births in 2006.* But more troubling than the total number of deaths was the implication that the best efforts of obstetrical medicine to improve health had perhaps done just the opposite. When the California researchers, speaking at a conference, got to the slide showing a graph of this increase, there were gasps from the audience of obstetricians.
The numbers hit home when I did the math and found that it had been safer to give birth in 1978 (when I was born), than it would be for Beth [his wife] to deliver in 2011, if the upward trend continued." (p. 12.)
I've just been looking through a chapter for the other quote I remembered, but can't find it, so I'll just say that two other parts of the book that stuck with me were the parts on agriculture (which have now put me off supermarket pork) and health care (about which the author says, if you need amazing technological care or surgery for a huge, weird problem, the U.S. is where you want to be, but if you want any sort of broader outlook or help simply for minimizing smaller health problems in general, our health care system is not for you).
An interesting read. And not really a downer, which was a nice change of pace.
*Somewhere in the book, although I can't find it now, he also clarifies that this increase is seen even after controlling for factors such as older mothers having babies and maternal obesity.