Nature Itches

It is man’s role to masternature, not to endure nature.  Thus theproper way to return to nature is to select a portion as one’s ownresponsibility to care for it.

I have spoken to the idea of themodel farm and that has morphed into the model watershed and that has morphedinto such portion as can be properly cared for through a modern village.  Such a village would consist of a high-riseto provide a modern living standard for all members and such land as necessaryto conduct various levels of activity to support the model section of thewatershed.

Even partial success removes mostof the risks inherent in nature. Carnivores are easily excluded and large animals are naturallychanneled.  Most importantly,responsibility does not stop at the fence line.

I suspect that we are goingthere.

Nature Itches - Not all it's cracked up to be.

Posted March 22, 2011

About the Authors

Sandy Ikeda is anassociate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of TheDynamics of the Mixed Economy:Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

I remember P.J. O’Rourke saying, “Nature itches,” on a televisionprogram a few years ago about his experience in getting back to nature.  Idon’t mean to diminish in any way the enormity of the multiple tragedies thatJapan is currently experiencing because of the earthquake and tsunami, but Ithought of that remark when a Japanese friend told me he hoped the Japanese peoplewould now depend less on imports and live closer to the land.
For the vast majority of us in the developed world, getting back, or atleast closer, to nature means a day or two in the mountains or at the beachwith plenty of sunscreen and insect repellent on hand.  Most of uswouldn’t think of doing either of these things without a thankful of gas and afully charged mobile phone.

More serious practitioners try in one way or another to lower their“carbon footprint” by cutting back on fossil fuels and electricity, believingthey can do this by using less heating or air conditioning, taking publictransport or bicycling to work, or growing some of their own food.  Someadvocate living in small houses – very, very smallhouses – which I find appealing.  Because the numbers of thesepractitioners is now pretty small, their impact is also small.  For themost part they are simply pursuing a lifestyle choice or a personal philosophy;or they’re trying to set an example for the rest of us to follow.

Prices and Property

I hasten to add that if property rights were well-defined and enforced,so that market prices adequately reflected the scarcity value of electricity aswell as the inputs that generate it, then the bad spillover effects ofconsuming resources — what economists call negative externalities — wouldbe minimal.  In that case, if we used more natural resources, we wouldbear the cost by paying for them.  It’s when prices consistently don’treflect those scarcity values, which usually happens when the governmentregulates prices and property rights, that overuse and pollution tend toarise.  As RonaldBailey wrote recently:

The main problem with energy supply systems is that for the last 100years, governments have insisted on meddling with them, using subsidies,setting rates, and picking technologies. Consequently, entrepreneurs,consumers, and especially policymakers have no idea which power supplytechnologies actually provide the best balance between cost-effectiveness andsafety.

But that’s not my main point here.

Getting Away from Nature

My main point is that the history of civilization has been mostly asteady movement away from the perils of depending directly on nature. Hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era lived closer to nature than the firstcity dwellers in Neolithic times, and by some estimates the world populationgrew from one million to five million inhabitants.  If we go purely byurbanization rates, Charlemagne lived closer to nature than Henry VIII(although your average Joe in both eras lived comparable lives), and Henrylived closer to nature than almost anyone in the developed world today. Indeed, if you had a time machine and wanted to live closer to nature, allyou’d have to do is dial back a few years, to say 1975, and you’d have achievedyour goal.  There would be fewer stages of production and a less extensivedivision of labor — and you’d be materially worse off.

Those in the developed world who are living closest to nature right noware small farmers who make their living from the land.  My father was oneof them.  Economic development means fewer of them in 2011 than in 1975because increasing economic opportunities have made it very costly to be inthat profession.  (Indeed, instead of farming, my father’s son is teachingand writing.)  But while running a farm has its own rewards, what allfarmers know is that nature can be a harsher, more relentless, and lessforgiving master than any flesh-and-blood boss the rest of us can imagine.

The Dangerous Margin

Living closer to nature, whatever that may mean to you, today seems tobe possible or even desirable only at the margins of civilization; that is,before this can happen, a lot of other people have to be working to provide themany things we take for granted. Thus spending some time where trees outnumberpeople can refresh the mind, body, and spirit; but except for the very hardyfew, this requires a reliable source of electricity nearby to light thedarkness and recharge our phones.  Living off the grid is a hard, grungybusiness, and it can’t be done entirely anyway.  (See my earliercolumn on this topic.)  To do it to any degree, in other words,means not living off the fat of the land, but rather using our incomes topurchase the creative output of generations of entrepreneurs.

We tend to accentuate the positive side of nature: its beauty, bounty,and breathtaking vastness.  As the tragedies from hurricanes andearthquakes in Haiti, Honduras, Indonesia,and now in Japanremind us, there are negatives too: the dirt, the discomfort, and thedestructive power.  If you want to live closer to nature, be prepared todie closer to nature.

Perhaps at the margin it might do many of us some good to sweat andshiver a bit more and to shower and consume a bit less.  But keep in mindthat it has been our species’ relentless drive to achieve ever greater comfortand convenience that has, where the rules of the game have permitted it,enabled us to distance ourselves from the dangerous uncertainties ofnature.  It has populated our world today with seven billion souls, theoverwhelming majority of whom are very, very glad to be alive.

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