Natural . . . but not nice

We live in a time in which we are exhorted to worship or "live in harmony" with nature. Human beings are seen as despoilers of the earth who seem interested merely in causing wars and wrecking the environment. Many, adopting James Lovelock's Gaia theory, believe that humans are a parasitic presence on the planet. Our misanthropic consensus deems that which is man-made "bad" and that which is natural "good".

This is why organic food is seen as better than crops treated with pesticides, why orthodox medicine is spurned in favour of "natural remedies", why genetically modified "Frankenstein foods" are shunned, why bottled spring water is thought healthier than chemically treated tap water. On edible goods in supermarkets, "natural" is now one of the words most commonly employed to appeal to consumers.

Yet the south Asian earthquake is a reminder that nature is not a benign force; it can often be far more destructive than humankind. It is precisely because humans are not slaves to nature that we can overcome it, that we are able to live happier and healthier lives.

Earthquakes are "natural". So are cancer, short-sightedness and troublesome wisdom teeth. But hospitals, spectacles, dentists - and, indeed, aid and rescue operations - are fundamentally unnatural.