Why Are Anti-Vaxxers Obsessed With the “Natural”?

This Q&A on the anti-vaccination movement is the final piece in the 2020 Visions: Imagining (Post-) COVID Worlds series, which aims to reflect on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and to consider new futures that might be made possible in its wake. Series editors: Weishun Lu, Juniper Lewis, Richelle Wilson, and Addie Hopes.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-vaccination discourse has shown itself to be both pervasive and diverse. In this written correspondence, Dr. Traci Brynne Voyles and I discuss her 2020 article, “Green Lovin’ Mamas Don’t Vax! The Pseudo-Environmentalism of Anti-Vaccination Discourse.” Voyles identifies an uncanny rhetorical and political overlap between anti-vaccine discourse and mainstream environmentalism. A pure, untainted nature—under threat from polluting toxins—serves as a point of contact for these otherwise distant political contingents. But how does this conception of nature materialize? And how does it become common ground for environmentalists and anti-vaxxers? Voyles offers compelling answers to these questions, extrapolating her argument to our current epidemiological context. 

emery jenson: Dr. Voyles, you recently published a wonderful article on anti-vax attitudes, ableism, and what you call the “pseudo-environmentalism of anti-vaccination discourse.” Tell us a little more about this piece. What characterizes the pseudo-environmentalism you write about here? 

A selfie of a woman with a blue hat and sunglasses standing in front of a hilly landscape
Traci Brynne Voyles, associate professor and chair of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Traci Brynne Voyles: I wrote this piece shortly after the birth of my first child, which was when I became aware of how pervasive anti-vaccination attitudes had become among parents of my generation. However, the questions at the heart of the essay came to me many years earlier: once, when I was working on my first book project about environmental injustice and toxins, I described the environmental justice (EJ) framework to a relative, who immediately likened it to vaccination. It was surprising to me at the time how easily this person recognized anti-vaccination rhetoric in my description of EJ and likened toxic exposures in the uranium industry (the subject of my book) to what she described as “toxic shots.” 

As I conducted the research for this essay, I found overwhelming evidence that anti-vax rhetoric explicitly borrows from anti-toxins and EJ movements to make their case, even going so far as to claim Rachel Carson as a foremother of the anti-vax movement. This was the kind of framing that led to the infamous “Green Our Vaccines” rallies held in the early 2000s that popularized anti-vaccination claims that immunizations are somehow not “green.” 

I found that anti-vaxxers have effectively co-opted rhetoric from anti-toxins environmental campaigns to spread doubt about whether vaccines are safe (which, of course, they are). As one anti-vax org put it: “Vaccines are the final trigger to toxic overload” in a polluted world. This is done in anti-vaccination rhetoric in a way that is profoundly ableist. But my research showed that it is also deeply racist.

In fact, the notion of pure and unpolluted white bodies is a key part of how environmental racism proceeds. The protection of purity from any kind of contamination has been a mechanism by which toxins are diverted into nonwhite spaces and how this distributional injustice is rationalized as common sense (for example, in NIMBY campaigns). Framing anti-vaccination rhetoric as an objection to technological or chemical pollution of “pure” bodies—those of children in particular—fits in the genealogy of white supremacist racial projects that weaponize cultural notions of cleanliness, health, and good hygiene. It also, for what it’s worth, supports the highly illusory (though consequential) binary between technology and nature. 

Hyper-individualism is at the heart of these misunderstandings of vaccines and “natural” infection or “natural” immunity.

EJ: The anti-vaccination movement, as you show, produces an Other in the form of the autistic child. The movement as a whole foregrounds the trope of the healthy child and the relationship between child and mother. I’m reminded of Rebekah Sheldon’s question about mainstream environmentalism, which has also been critiqued as centering the figure of the child. She asks, “Why, when we reach out to grasp the future of the planet, do we find ourselves instead clutching the child?” Considering this similarity, just how “pseudo” is the pseudo-environmentalism of the anti-vaccination movement? 

TBV: This is an excellent question, and I think your framing is just right. Both of the approaches together underscore the flaws inherent in what environmental justice (EJ) scholars and activists refer to as “mainstream environmentalism,” as you rightly note. In this sense, the kind of environmental rhetoric deployed by the anti-vaccine movement draws on many of the most troubling components of mainstream environmentalism, which has often been framed as the protection of purity against pollution (writ large). Purity and pollution, as a wide range of scholars have shown, are not uncontested or stable categories but rather social constructs deeply shaped by larger forces such as racism, heteropatriarchy, classism, and nativism. So, anti-vaxxers’ use of environmentalist rhetoric only flows from “environmentalism” in the latter’s most problematic form.  

My interest in these issues in the essay flowed from these kinds of questions about the complex genealogies of environmentalism and what it signifies in different social and political contexts. The clearest explication of the limitations of “mainstream environmentalism”—and its troubling valences with racism—came from EJ activists in the 1990s, who pointed out the many ways in which mainstream environmental politics had been organized around white peoples’ lives, priorities, and understandings of nature. Disability studies scholars and activists have likewise pointed out how mainstream representations of nature and ideal human relationships to it have been based on ideas of normativity and normatively able human bodies.  

Anti-vaccination protesters smile and hold a sign that reads "Unvaxxed sperm is the next Bitcoin"
Anti-vaccination protesters draw attention to the value of “unvaxxed sperm” in Austria. Image by Ivan Radic, 2021.

These critiques together informed how I came to understand anti-vaxxers’ misuses of “environmentalism.” For me, the “pseudo”-ness of their interpretations of environmentalism reflects these fundamental flaws of mainstream environmentalism, but not environmentalism as a whole. In a sense, although anti-vaccinationists recognize themselves in environmental rhetoric, people who identify as environmentalists would not necessarily recognize their priorities in anti-vaccine discourse. They use environmental politics in a way that reveals the fundamental flaws—the “pseudo”-ness—of a particular iteration of environmentalism, but I hesitate to give overall that “environmentalism” entails to this narrow co-optation of a broad political coalition’s most problematic forms (this is particularly true because of anti-vaccinationists’ specific appropriation of EJ and anti-toxins rhetoric). 

EJ: As you make clear, anti-vax co-optation of environmental discourse delivers a sort of warped version of planetary health, where human health is fundamentally related to the health of our environment—albeit skewed through a racist and ableist politics of purity. How does this, I hesitate to call it this, distorted interdisciplinarity relate to the futures we need to imagine for environmentalism, especially as we contend with the ongoing effects of COVID-19? 

TBV: I think it’s a question of epistemology. “Planetary health” in the view of the most common kinds of anti-vaccine discourse is singularly interpreted through the epistemological lens of a particular kind of highly privileged (white settler) person. Just like how mainstream environmentalism has offered a limited perspective on what environmental politics can entail, mainstream notions of what constitutes a landscape worthy of protection have been highly limited to landscapes that are valued by the dominant culture: often places seen as “pure” wilderness, a fiction that environmental historians have done an excellent job of unpacking. “Planetary health,” on those terms, is just a culturally situated aesthetic. In other mainstream (capitalist) interpretations, planetary health is only valuable inasmuch as it translates into a profitable set of resources—forests become so many board feet of lumber, rivers equate to acre-feet of irrigation water, and so on. 

Framing anti-vaccination rhetoric as an objection to technological or chemical pollution of “pure” bodies fits in the genealogy of white supremacist racial projects.

Valuing nonhuman nature on its own terms, and in its deep and complex relationships to diverse human communities, is a key part of the future we must imagine for environmentalism. This means heeding diverse environmental epistemologies, especially those that offer more robust maps of human–nature relationships and more nuanced understandings of how to value the nonhuman world. In my research, that often means attending to Indigenous environmental epistemologies and the work of practitioners of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and so on. In this sense, it’s not about imagining a new future for environmentalism so much as it is about attending to, and platforming, the multitude of diverse environmentalisms that have always existed but been actively suppressed by colonial and racist power structures. 

COVID-19 seems to me to be a moment to take all of this very seriously as it relates to human health. From certain perspectives, the health of the nonhuman world depends on healthy human communities that care for and often cultivate the ecosystems in which they live. This diverges sharply from mainstream perspectives that see humans and nature as separate and also as in conflict with one another—think of all the purportedly environmentalist messages you’ve received that say that humans are essentially bad for the environment. I would argue that healthy human communities with reflexive and caring relationships to their nonhuman world have been absolutely essential to “planetary health.” The two are impossible to disentangle. The ways that the pandemic has revealed the ill health of many of our communities and social systems says a lot about how far we are from where we need to be.  

EJ: In your article, you write about how anti-vaxxers frame certain infectious diseases as “natural” or even “healthy.” To fall ill “naturally,” the logic goes, is preferable to immunization. Have you been able to keep track of how these logics have evolved within the context of COVID-19, especially as racist, xenophobic, and sinophobic discourses produce COVID-19 as a sort of unnatural Other?  

An old newspaper clipping with black text
During the 1918 influenza pandemic, “natural” cure became popular in North America. This is an advertisement for “Tripure” Water from the Windsor Ice & Coal Co., Ltd. Image courtesy of Archives of Ontario.

TBV: That was among the most fascinating components of anti-vaccine discourse for me—the notion that vaccines somehow represent chemical or technological pollution that is more dangerous than what are perceived as “natural” germs. I was especially taken aback by the vehemence of this belief among people whose lives and privileges are produced through chemicals and technologies that pollute less privileged peoples’ environments. Technology is not always the enemy of human or environmental health, though, like anything, it certainly can be when mobilized in capitalist and extractive ways. Nature is not just set of resources for profit nor a pastoral idyll for able-bodied recreation. Neither nature nor technology are represented in productive ways in this debate, and we can do so much better. 

I think you’re right to point to the irony of how “natural” and “unnatural” are being imagined in this discourse, although at many times in U.S. history we have seen how infectious diseases are blamed on nonwhite others, and immigrants in particular. I have not tracked these valences closely in the wake of COVID-19, except to marvel at the remarkable speed at which they rose to the fore. When I began this research, anti-vaccine sentiments really existed as a fringe debate about medical technology and autism, though it was more common among new parents than in any other demographic. I admit to being startled by the ease with which so many people, who presumably rely on medical expertise and technology in other parts of their lives, have taken such extreme and, demonstrably, life-threatening stances on vaccination. I believe that this quick ascendance of anti-vaccine sentiment, from fringe to fore, has really been made possible by its intersections with the same varieties of ableism, racism, and very narrow conceptions of environmentalism that shape a number of our other social problems.  

EJ: This interview is set to appear as the final installment of Edge Effects’ “2020 Visions” series, which reflects on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and considers new futures that might be made possible in its wake. A previous piece in the series quotes British prime minister Boris Johnson in a speech made before the country entered lockdown: “We must be humble in the face of nature.” How does the figure of nature appear in anti-vaccine discourse? What can we make of nature’s presence in this context? 

TBV: Humbleness is great—I’m all for it. But I think that the humbleness that is called for here is not of a helpful variety; the quotation suggests that humans are not part of nature and that human relationships to nature are essentially combative. Paradoxically, this is the kind of binary thinking about humans and nature at the heart of old Western visions of the wilderness as terrifying and destructive, and in need of control by human hands. 

Healthy human communities with reflexive and caring relationships to their nonhuman world have been absolutely essential to “planetary health.”

I might suggest another kind of humbleness: one that recognizes that our ecosystemic situatedness has always been a central feature of our lives, and that we cannot move forward in healthy ways without better understandings of how our actions impact the world around us and the role of the nonhuman world in shaping our own lives. Our interconnectedness, not our singularity, is what we should be (and what many people are) emphasizing. Unfortunately, it is singularity—hyper-individualism—that is at the heart of these misunderstandings of vaccines and “natural” infection or “natural” immunity

The individual who is imagined by anti-vaccine discourse is whole unto themselves, making an isolated risk assessment about imagined harm from the vaccine versus the ability of their own immune systems. If one has access to good health care, is able-bodied, and believes that the vaccine is untrustworthy for some reason, this risk assessment might seem to fall on the side of taking one’s chances with the virus. This falls apart entirely when the broader social and ecological context is taken into account—when disease ecologies (the ecosystem of the virus’s reproduction and spread) and human care for one another truly matter, the risk assessment is clear: get vaccinated.  

Featured image: Glass dropper bottles labeled “vaccine” on pink surface. Image by Nataliya Vaitkevich, 2021.

Traci Brynne Voyles is an associate professor and chair of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of The Settler Sea: California’s Salton Sea and the Consequences of Colonialism (2021) and Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (2015). Her current research explores the environmental history of childbirth in the long twentieth-century U.S. Website. Twitter. Contact.

emery jenson (they/them) is an editor, writer, researcher, and artist from Durham, North Carolina. They are currently a Ph.D. student in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a graduate affiliate with the Center for Culture, History, and Environment. Since graduating from Duke University in 2018, their research has focused on topics in the environmental humanities, queer theory, and psychoanalysis. Their last contribution to Edge Effects was “Why Pigeons Can’t Be Pigeonholed” (September 2019). Website. Twitter. Contact.