Everything is on fire. Last month was the hottest month in recorded history. Wildfires are raging in Greece, Oregon, and California, dwarfed by a conflagration in Siberia bigger than all of them combined. The 2021 IPCC report documents that we are well past the worst case scenarios for climate change but is not specific enough in how it assigns responsibility. And the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rampage, the virus thriving in bodies inflamed by chronic illness. Our industrial food system contributes over one third of greenhouse gases and 40% of methane, and many of our most widespread, heavily subsidized crops and consumables are also major causes of inflammation. This all makes Inflamed, a new book by Raj Patel and Dr. Rupa Marya, a potent analysis of these compounding crises, and how we can repair and recover both our bodies and our planet.
“Your body is part of a society inflamed… Covid has exposed the combustible injustices of systemic racism and global capitalism… Inflammation accompanies almost every disease in the modern world: heart disease, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, obesity, diabetes, and more. The difference between a mild course and a fatal case of Covid-19 is the presence or absence of systemic inflammation.” (page 4)
The authors of Inflamed are a formidable team-up. Raj Patel is a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin and is the renowned author of Stuffed and Starved, The Value of Nothing and other cross-disciplinary deconstructions of our food system, as well as a filmmaker, public radio show host and scholar activist. Dr. Rupa Marya is a physician and Professor of Medicine at UC San Francisco who helped run a community clinic at Standing Rock, and is also a respected food sovereignty activist and public health advocate for her community. Together they have written a searing and detailed critique of healthcare and economics, and how so much of our ecological and medical malpractice is rooted in inherited and ongoing colonial systems of knowledge and power.
“To be clear, colonialism isn’t simply the physical occupation of land. It is a process, an operation of power in which one cosmology is extinguished and replaced with another. In that replacement, one set of interpretations about humans’ place in the universe is supplanted.” (page 14)
Popular discussions of colonialism tend to be framed by numbers of victim and power dynamics involved, from the disastrous U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, to the millions of victims of the Middle Passage and Manifest Destiny, or the tens of thousands of Herera and Nama who were killed by Hitler’s mentors in Southwest Africa. But it is the subtle ubiquity and global prevalence of colonialism that the authors are after, how it manifests in daily life, and how it’s victims tend to be the underclass, disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the Global North, and the poor and dispossessed across the Global South.
“In this book, we carry this theory of diagnosis a step further, locating the causal origin of disease in the multidimensional spaces around and beyond the individual body—in histories, ecologies, narratives, and dynamics of power. The inflammatory diseases we are seeing today are not the cause of the body’s dysfunctional reactions. They are the body’s correct response to a pathological world.” (page 13)
Inflamed is structured a bit like the biology and Pre-med textbooks I studied during my undergraduate years. Each chapter utilizes cutting edge research to dissect and reanimate particular bodily systems and the many ways that social injustice and ecological imbalances are directly linked to chronic inflammation and its results. From immunity, digestion and circulation, to stress, eating disorders and insomnia from overdue bills, police violence and low wages, to inherited traumas such as slavery and genocide that influence our epigenetics, the book also represents a praxis. While it unfailingly ties together political economy with epidemiology, anatomy and ecology, it also outlines a “how-to” framework for what a grounded, holistic healthcare analysis and care work could look like, replete with compelling interviews and examples. This is a far cry from Big Pharma profiteering off of our ailments with prescriptions that may never exceed our sky high insurance deductibles. And Inflamed is also a corrective for tendencies in the wellness sector that revolve around marketing expensive supplements, ketogenic diets and infrared saunas, while cozying up with Covid-19 denialism and anti-masking.
And while both authors identify as and discuss their South Asian immigrant/diasporic identities, the solutions and conversation they present are rooted in the Indigenous cultures, worldviews and knowledge systems that continue to survive the onslaught, but also build on the critical scholarship of abolitionist Black women such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis and Mariame Kaba.
“Most doctors—most humans, really—have unwittingly inherited a colonial worldview that emphasizes individual health, disconnecting illness from its social and historical contexts and obscuring our place in the web of life that makes us who we are.” (page 12)
The authors of Inflamed are relentless and visionary in their approach to the subject matter. In much of his scholarly and popular writing, Raj Patel is very narrative focused, peppering his chapters with a biting sense of humor and spry anecdotes. Inflamed, on the other hand, amplifies both authors’ storytelling talents. It is a torrential, almost dizzying cascade of research across medical disciplines, history and economics. Once a chapter starts, the authors just let it rip. The density and detail with which they illustrate their central theme is astounding, their interview subjects are fascinating, and the variety and number of sources is meticulous in documenting and backing up every assertion and claim.
Inflamed is a must-read, and not just for food system workers, medical practitioners or policy makers. It is rare that a book can bind such a variety of information into a cohesive, readable and highly relevant narrative. Inflamed is a wonderful jumping-off point for those who want to quench the flames of injustice and imbalance. And it is a field manual to guide us in avoiding the thought processes and practices that got us into this mess in the first place.