This peculiar kind of rose-quartz neoliberalism has been quietly crystallizing for decades. Wellness in the 1650s simply meant the opposite of illness. Now, it encompasses both legitimate and sham medical treatments, workplace interventions, and luxury goods. It’s pervasive in real estate marketing (Deepak Chopra bought a condo in the “health-centric” Delos building in Manhattan) and tourism (New Mexico is no longer a hippie paradise—it’s a state-sized spa). Since 2010, interest in the word “wellness” has roughly doubled, according to Google Trends. Numerous forces drive this linguistic metastasis: In an unstable economy with little social safety net, maintaining a healthy body is a capitalistic necessity. The visible erosion of social norms under the Trump administration has pushed people to develop private routines, however arbitrary, to satisfy their cravings for control. And otherwise essential conversations about mental health, disability, and chronic conditions, when paired with frustratingly little scientific insight, have given rise to a questionable culture of cure-seekers. But wellness culture has also grown in recent years alongside more global anxiety: climate change.
The American obsession with inner stasis offers a perfect foil to the country’s increasingly wild CO2 emissions. In 2019, David Wallace-Wells became one of the more prominent climate writers to note the problematic trend. Wellness, he wrote in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, arises from “perception of worldly sickness uncomplemented by political commitment.” Wellness “gives a clear name and shape to a growing perception even, or especially, among those wealthy enough to be insulated from the early assaults of climate change: that the contemporary world is toxic, and that to endure or thrive within it requires extraordinary measures of self-regulation and self-purification.”
To some 2019 readers this may have seemed a stretch. But the past few months of Etsy mask orders and a nationwide home-buying frenzy have only exacerbated these tendencies: Stripped of political solutions to the degradation of the environment and the existential peril of climate change, Americans have joined a cult of personal empowerment through consumption. Implicit in many of our most desirable commercial goods, and in extreme cases explicit, is the promise that whatever happens to the Earth, its most optimized inhabitants can continue to thrive.
Gwyneth Paltrow did not invent the pursuit of purification. Rather, Goop is the most recent incarnation of a tradition that extends at least back to Galen. For millennia, most people subscribed to the miasmic theory of disease, which understood that illness was caused by “foul vapors” wafting up from fetid marshes, decaying organic matter, and general rot—best fought with distance. Just as the richest Romans spent malaria season in their mountain villas far from town, the 0.1 percent today retreated from Covid-ravaged cities to the seaside pastures of the Hamptons.
Disaster—or the threat of it—has always exacerbated the human desire for cleansing, although what “clean” means has changed with time. In medieval Europe, a sect of Catholic radicals began publicly whipping themselves as a form of penance, the blood on their back washing their sins away. The flagellants’ practice peaked during the Black Death, as growing numbers tried to drive the plague away. By the late twentieth century, cleanliness focused on the absence of more mundane elements—namely, chemicals: The advent of atomic weapons, the well-publicized use of chemical weapons in the Vietnam War, and the rising awareness of damaging insecticides like DDT contributed to widespread chemophobia, driving a preference for “natural” alternatives.
Today, many people also live with the persistent dread of a changing climate and an equally devastating sense of inaction. But by combining two separate civic religions—purification and consumerism—wellness has allowed people to purchase spiritual indulgences without modifying their behavior. Philosophy, the bath and body company, bottles “Hope” and “Purity.” A boxed set costs just $40.
As the locus of our fear shifted from divine wrath to industrial engineering, so have our solutions. Both earlier cleansing rituals and our contemporary obsession with the natural “allow their subscribers to maintain a sense of control over their own health by pursuing personal purity,” according to Eula Biss in her 2014 bestselling book On Immunity. Nineteenth-century Londoners might have resorted to “heavy curtains and shutters” to “seal out the smell of the poor and their problems. Our version of this shuttering is now achieved through the purchase of purified water, air purifiers, and food produced with the promise of purity.”
For an example of how this plays out today, look to Flint, Michigan. Following news reports of lead in the majority-Black community’s water supply, a majority of Americans reported they were concerned about the contamination of their tap water. But as ever, it was the wealthy, who are least likely to affected by these problems, that were the most able to take private safety measures, like in-home filtration. The rest of the country—unable to filter out generations of racist, classist policies with a 10-cup-capacity Brita—has continued to suffer.