Barbara Ehrenreich Doesn’t Want to Live Forever
The muckraking writer tackles the inevitability of death in her new book, Natural Causes
Don’t ask Barbara Ehrenreich to give you the good news first. In her 2001 smash book, Nickel and Dimed, a ruthlessly precise account of stints she spent working as a waitress, maid, and Walmart clerk, she destroyed the comforting American delusion of a livable minimum wage. In Bait and Switch, time as a white-collar drone informed her broadside on the futility of ascending today’s corporate ladder. And a bout with cancer prompted her rollicking evisceration of the positive-thinking movement, Bright-Sided. All of this makes her new book, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer (April 10), seem nearly as inevitable as its subject. Brilliant, prophetic, and wickedly funny, the book showcases its activist author’s unique skill set. At 76, Ehrenreich is that crucial American voice: a working-class grandmother who actually is, like, really smart. Decades before her muckraking best sellers, she published The Uptake, Storage, and Intracellular Hydrolysis of Carbohydrates by Macrophages while pursuing a PhD in molecular immunology—encoding the unlikely epiphany behind Natural Causes.
Your new book gets back to your roots: the voracious white blood cells known as macro-phages. When scientists found that they actually help cancer cells, you had the core of your book’s thesis: that our bodies aren’t necessarily on our side.
Yes. When I first read the study in Scientific American, in 2007, I was just like, “Whoa. This changes everything!” It still amazes me that scientists seem so unfazed by what I call “macrophage treason.” I didn’t have any big plan or anything; I just could not get rid of that story, and I plunged into research.
Your process is immersive. For Nickel and Dimed, you wrote as a minimum-wage slave trying to live on that salary. You wrote about cancer as someone fighting cancer. Here, the immersion is in microscopic life.
Well, it always starts out that way. It’s very empirical. It’s all about evidence and what one can see or feel or is reliably reported by others.
You’re from a hardscrabble Montana family, your ex-husband was a Teamster, you keep blue-collar company—all this says, “Trump voter.”
Yeah. The stereotype of the working class that many media decision makers have is this bigoted Neanderthal type. I mean, my second husband was a warehouse worker, but he was in a discussion group with other warehouse workers and truck drivers that, when I met him, was reading Marx’s Grundrisse. And I’d never read that! I’d never finished Capital or anything.
Please tell me they didn’t read it in German.
No, no. But there’s no understanding of what goes on among some groups. They read, they think, they discuss. I come from a line of very, very smart—if I may say so myself—working-class people.
You wrote Bright-Sided during an economic period of “irrational exuberance,” which got a big fat correction as your book came out. Today, it doesn’t seem we’re suffering an epidemic of optimism.
Well, I guess I conquered that.
And, as a nation, we thank you.
[Laughs.] Now I’m speaking to this preoccupation with longevity. Ordinary people whose lives are governed by diet, the proper exercise, meditating, who plan their lives out according to these things.
Among your new book’s crucial points is that the leading health risk to Americans is poverty.
Yes. It’s one of these obvious facts that’s shocking when it’s published, like the rising mortality rates among white working-class men. Natural Causes takes down “positive thinking” and other shibboleths like “wellness,” and, ugh, “mindfulness.” I mean, I have friends who are “mindful,” but what many mean is they take some time to meditate. OK, that can’t hurt, I suppose. But if you’re talking about paying attention to stuff… Sure, be alert. But there’s a lot to be alert about.
I’m guessing you don’t get a lot of invitations to speak at college commencements.
[Laughs] I used to! I think it’s more that I’m aging out.
If Natural Causes has a positive message, it’s as a call to service: Do things with your life beside prolong it.
Yeah, but it goes a little further than that, to facing the fact that our species is going to become extinct, because all species do, so I can’t base my sense of continuity on future humans. The current scientific paradigm sees the universe as dead—the Descartes model of dead matter and mind or spirit. I’m saying, Take another look at matter. If a macrophage, so tiny it’s barely worth considering, plays a life-or-death role on its own, that should take you back as a scientist. Because now we’re looking at something that’s not dead, that has agency to decide whether to be latent or murderous.
I have a hard time seeing the agency of macrophages as enough to sustain one in his or her darkest hour.
Well, it may sound crazy, but now I see my world as alive. When I die, I don’t think a self or soul will go on. But I’m not dying in a barren world. I’m dying in a world of change and flux and beauty. What’s terrifying to people is imagining a world without them in it. In a mystical experience, the self drops away and it’s initially terrifying. But after that it’s … gorgeous.