All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1976

Mother Nature: Friend or Foe?

Mr. LaDow, of San Diego, recently retired as a teacher of social studies in high school.

When, in his theory of natural law, John Locke suggested that a man is entitled to such land as he can “redeem from the state of nature,” our forefathers understood what he meant. Each plot which they wished to farm had to be reclaimed from the piney woods, native brush, or bogs, filled with the hazards of wild beasts or hostile Indians. Even today, in tropical climes, the plantation operator recognizes the jungle as an enemy, constantly poised to swallow up his fields, while its animals stand ready to destroy his crops. These people have known, as indeed farmers everywhere still know, that nature is an adversary worthy of constant vigilance. That is reason enough to respect Jefferson’s opinion that representative government is only safe when farmers hold a balance of power.

Now that over 70 per cent of our population live and work in cities, we are entertained with a different logic; or should we say propaganda? A TV ad warns us that “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Some of the most attractive programming, in that medium, narrated by its more popular and impelling voices, shows us the beauties of the wild while expounding upon the marvelous “balance of nature,” into which man intrudes in a manner which we are led to believe is totally inexcusable.

The raw realities of nature are now so remote to most of us that apparently the credibility of this message is not widely questioned. Having worn out our attention concerning the “War on Poverty,” and lost the subject of the Vietnam War, those who presume to tailor public opinion have found a substitute in ecology. Voting records in, and out of, our legislatures indicate that they have had recent success.

DDT, which has saved millions of human lives and helped us to develop an agricultural production unprecedented in history, is banned — largely on circumstantial evidence — in favor of untried substitutes. Construction has been brought to a near standstill by the demands of new committees with “environmental” requirements. Dredging of harbors is endlessly delayed, when not prohibited, due to official concern over the “food chain” of wildlife — a concern so belated, in any case, as to be almost comical, if it were not tragic in its lack of proportion. The oceans still teem with life and most of the world’s coastlines are still primitively pristine. Americans simply prefer beef, lamb, and pork and are relatively careless of their own fisheries. Changing tastes by law is a wasteful task.

But the most deadly impact of environmentalism has been upon the automobile industry, which is the hub of our entire industrial economy. This is not to suggest that nothing should be done about exhaust pollution; but it is to say that the matter has been approached with a celerity and lack of intelligence which boggles the understanding. There has been little recourse to Pericles’ principle: “We think before we act.”

The Situation Which Prevails

Just what is the “balance of nature,” anyway? It is nothing more than the situation which prevails in any given area at any given instant. An earthquake, volcanic eruption, tidal wave, flood, windstorm, rain, disease, or drought can drastically alter, or even eliminate it, at a moment’s notice. Nor can we assume that the other animals are more assiduous than we in maintaining a balance in nature. That most of them do not kill for fun is a matter of indolence, or prudence, rather than wisdom or foresight. Killing is work and dangerous too.

Left to themselves wild animals will also overgraze, or overkill, and run themselves out of food when their numbers grow too large. Lemmings are not the only ones to have practiced suicidal imbalance. Man is very likely the only animal with a wild enough imagination to see balance in the total scene. When we look at the fossil record and see how many species have vanished, what delusions of grandeur can drive us to dream that we can save “endangered species,” other than in a zoo?

One would think it unnecessary to point out that this effort is not intended to decry conservation or any efforts, reasonably pursued, to protect or improve the environment. However, the fashionable lunatic fringe of environmentalism has simply become a vehicle for further erosion of the free market, private property, and this best stand of human liberty on earth. Theirs is no effort to deter us from lamentable wastefulness. It is an attempt to dominate our free so-society — one more wedge of socialism. Not content with punishing our ill-doing, these illiberal extremists would “make us be good.” This is not conservation. It is more like revolution — by brainwashing.

The study of nature is, of course, man’s most pressing task, upon which our survival depends. Nature includes all things, living, dead, or inanimate, including man himself. There is nothing else then, but nature, to study; so let us not be accused of belittling such study or of being “unscientific.” The trouble is that too many scientists are being unscientific,-in pretending that things are not as they are, in order to further some hobby. Aesthetic pleasure is grand and everyone has the right, if not the duty, to luxuriate in his own particular Walden; but let us not institutionalize and politicize it into national madness. The “delicate balance of nature” is as ephemeral as a sunset. Let us leave it at that and clarify our study of nature, as science, as one of a worthy antagonist which we must bend to rational use: a splendid and beautiful servant, but an unrelentingly destructive master.

An Ancient Idea

The elevation of Mother Nature to sainthood, of course, dates to the most ancient times. Nature —male, female, or neuter — in the secular sense stands for all which is beyond our control and which eludes our total understanding. Awareness of this awesome ignorance, and ultimate helplessness, undoubtedly led to the development of the primitive pantheistic religions. The anthropomorphic Greek and Roman religions grew into a secular humanism which was eventually made captive by Christianity in its Roman triumph. Yet anyone who has read Fraser’s Golden Bough can see how persistent pantheism and magic had been, and it is not at all surprising that it continues to surface in the Christian tradition.

The most noted devotee of nature worship in modern times was, of course, Jean Jacques Rousseau.

In his Liberty — Book-of-the-Month Club selection, for June, 1930 — Everett Dean Martin, wrote: “Rousseau made liberalism a gospel of universal emancipation by the simple process of transferring the hope of freedom from culture to nature. Man in the state of nature was not only free, he was wise and good. The laws of nature are rational and benevolent, and from their contemplation arise the loftiest moral sentiments… Instinct and emotion, when not perverted by the artificial restraints of civilization, are voices of nature and guides to the good life. Hence in the struggle for liberty the man of nature is set in opposition to the man of culture.”

How near does this characterization of Rousseau’s attitude coincide with that of our current nature-worshipping liberals? Our “natural instincts,” untutored by such propaganda, would undoubtedly bid us to be suspicious, if not afraid, of nature. We very well know that the rattlesnake, water buffalo, tiger, or other beast which we view in safety on the television screen, could kill or rend us to pieces in a moment. The millions of people who have viewed the movie “Jaws” certainly do not appear to have reacted to the shark as a benign enforcer of the “balance of nature.” That so many of us apparently accept the views of ecologists would seem to be an aberration rather than a “natural reaction.”

The Concept Abused

Understood in its original intention, the term “Nature, or Nature’s God,” is a harmless signal of our ignorance and insignificance in the extent of the universe, and the Great Unknown whom we variously recognize as God. It is a guarantee for modesty and against hubris. However, it could have been unfortunate that our eighteenth-century mentors fastened upon the term “natural law” to underline their ethics. Had they called it “human law,” or “cultural law,” it is just possible that they could have avoided its capture by our recent “scientific” pantheists. These late comers seem not only ready to do in our eighteenth-century tradition of “natural law”, but also seem willing to destroy our material accomplishments —all in the name of a nature which never has existed as they see it and, at any rate, is irretrievably gone, as Rousseau’s “noble savage” saw it.

  • Mr. La Dow of San Diego, is a retired teacher of social studies with an ongoing concern for maximizing the freedom of the individual.