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Natural Causes:

Life, Death and the Illusion of Control by Barbara Ehrenreich

I was first alerted to this book when the author was interviewed by Kim Hill on her Saturday Morning programme on National Radio about three months ago. Barbara Ehrenreich is an American academic, concerned with health issues especially with regard to older women, although not exclusively. What makes her writing particularly pertinent is a matter of fact, debunking attitude, which although grounded in scientific research, is accessible to those of us who are without a medical or scientific background.

In essence, she argues persuasively, however hard we try, we do reach a time in our lives when death is inevitable, despite our best efforts to control it. Taking vitamins, following exercise regimes, and eating a proscribed healthy diet, may let us feel we have some control over our mortality. There are indeed, numerous companies which have sprung up reinforcing that very idea. Think of the various gym corporates and healthy living regimes that we are exhorted to embrace to prolong our lives. In some countries, and the author cites the US, extreme efforts at controlling our destinies includes freezing technologies. This allows the super rich, and it is exclusively this group, to be frozen and brought back to life to be cured at some future date. I can’t help but feel the subjects of this technology have not thought through all the ramifications of being re-born some two hundred years into the future. Thinking of ourselves as somehow so special that death must be avoided is an issue Ehrenreich addresses in this book.

Another aspect of technology that she examines is the one founded in Silicon Valley. This is promoted and eagerly embraced by people like Steve Jobs and companies such as Facebook. She cites a Silicon Valley research project that found in 2001, diagnoses of Aspergers and autism were shown to be rocketing. The new devices, designed and promoted to increase our “smartness”, are she considers, responsible for our “shrinking attention span”. We can all, I suggest, give anecdotal credence to that statement.

However the book is not necessarily a polemic. She has obviously researched this topic extensively, bringing an historical perspective to many of the rituals that surround our attitude to our bodies. She is also very funny which makes the book very entertaining. For example, going back to the fact that in the past that (male) doctors were the experts regarding women’s health. Some women in the 1970’s began to challenge that notion, by examining their own cervix. To do this they used a plastic speculum, thereby going against long established practice. One such doctor was appalled and spoke of the risk of infection in using an instrument that was not sterile. To which a feminist writer retorted, that yes, anything that enters the vagina should be boiled for at least ten minutes. Enjoy.


Revfiewed by Sally Quaddel