Americans are afraid of germs. I spent more than four decades in the world before I came to live in California four years ago, but I had never heard of “double dipping” and the attached concerns. There is much more “filth fear.” Years ago when we lived in Delhi, India, I remember being utterly surprised when I learned that our American neighbors were bathing their newborn baby in water that they first had boiled. We had a baby ourselves at that time. The idea of boiling the bathing water had never crossed our minds. Now I understand where the inspiration for our American friends came from.
But filth is actually our friend and that is–paradoxically–going to make our world much cleaner and healthier.
Scientists have been debating the necessity of super hygiene for years. They relate the rising incidence of allergies in the western world, for instance, to underdeveloped immune systems due to lack of exposure to germs. There is another interesting example, as the British science weekly New Scientist, recently reported. It turns out that workers in dairy farms, who breath in a lot of dust consisting largely of dried manure, are as much as five times less likely to develop lung cancer. Researchers argue that the bacteria that they inhale through the manure actually appear to strengthen the body. And children who attend day care in their first few months are much less likely to develop leukemia than those who stay at home.
The water closet and the sewer system may have been the crucial inventions that enabled humans to live much longer. At the same time too much sanitization and infection-free living may be too much of a good thing.
That makes sense at a philosophical level. Many of the challenges that humanity faces today have to do with the fact that human beings have tried to dominate their environment, rather than live in peaceful coexistence with it. We are part of the fabric of life and our actions lead to reactions. We see that in the threat of global warming. We see that when we farm the lands with monoculture. We see that when the over usage of antibiotics leads to resistant bacteria.
It is a good idea to regularly wash your hands. It is not a good idea to do so with aggressive antibacterial soaps. Again, research shows that such soaps help to breed aggressive, resistant germs.
I think that the importance of filth and germs brings good news. Our environment would be much cleaner and healthier when we wouldn’t use so many heavy chemicals to sanitize our lives. Much the same as organic agriculture is healthier for our environments and our lives.
“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” it has been said. That may sound a little dramatic. But the message is clear: Our lives won’t be better if we kill all the bacteria around us–to the contrary. And you don’t even have to boil the bathing water for your baby.
Jurriaan Kamp is the founder and editor of Ode Magazine, the magazine for intelligent optimists.