The Awful Strife of Nature

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Environmentalism, it’s been said, is the ideological luxury of city dwellers in modern life, for anyone who lives just outside an urban or suburban environment knows the truth: nature is vicious and cruel and works relentlessly to make the life of man a living Hell.

I was reminded of this when looking at the horrible, bloody gashes on my brother’s domesticated cat, a sweet animal that lives in harmony with his superiors, the human family that owns and cares for him. The violence had been inflicted by another cat, a wild animal that is much bigger and lacks the mirage of conscience that we try to infuse in our pets.

The wild animal arrives at the back porch of this house nestled in the country on the edge of the West Texas desert. When no one is looking, the wild animal terrorizes the domestic cat, stealing food, slashing at his fur and skin, and generally try to rid the world of its competition for survival.

One would think it would be easy enough to kill it, but it is cunning beyond all expectation. I wandered through the mesquite and wild grass looking for him, rifle in hand, but he knew where I was going and hid magnificently. Once I gave up he would appear again as if to taunt me. I would go out with the gun again, and it would start all over.

As my brother and I waited in silence by the reservoir, I noted a skull sitting by the water. Where did this come from? Wild dogs, came the answer. They have been prowling for three months. They target the goats. Three months ago, there were 16 goats, domesticated and happy. Then one day the dogs arrived. At night, they hop the fence, and kill them and drag them away. Sometimes they ravaged them to the bone right on the spot, and leave the remains to bake in the sun.

Man’s best friend!

The goat herd was down to three. One missing goat made everyone particularly sad. It was undersized, born early, white with brown spots. It was brought close to the house and reared in safety. After several months, it was big enough to care for itself and it was allowed to roam with the others. It only took a day, however. It was the first one targeted in the season’s opening massacre. The baby goat was dinner for dogs.

Such problems as this dominate country life. When it’s not dogs and coyotes and wild cats, it’s other varmints such as raccoons and hyenas, not to mention snakes and scorpions. Flesh-eating birds devour the fish in the pond. Turtles compete for food. Then there is the plant life itself, which is far from innocent to the well being of people. Poison plants and thorny bushes dare us to walk outside areas we have tilled. They choked out new plantings. Then there is the weather itself, which seems to be constantly conspiring to make our lives miserable and foil our plans.

Generally the picture you gain from living in this environment for more than a few days is the very opposite of the "preservationist" outlook you get from environmental propaganda. If we are to survive in this cruel world, the only option is to tame it or kill it. It’s them or us. We hear about the precious and delicate balance of nature, how species help each to thrive in a mystical cycle of being, but all we witness is a "natural" kill-or-be-killed practice that is so awful you can hardly watch.

The cruel competition for survival is not limited to animals. It extends to plants, to all things. And it could easily characterize the actions of people absent the civilizing institution of exchange, ownership, and the marketplace — the scene of peace in which man uses his reason to create and develop, cooperate and flourish.

And what is war but the very opposite of this impulse, a reversal of reason and an attempt at practicing authentic "environmentalism" in which the choice is to kill or be killed?

As I thought of the lessons here, going through my head were the words of a speech delivered by Absalom Weaver in Garet Garrett’s novel Satan’s Bushel, a book of agricultural life with a speech by Weaver that has profound economic and political significance. For in this speech, he compares what is the same and what is different between man and nature. In so doing, he draws attention to aspects of nature that are completely forgotten amid the propaganda.

The setting is a gathering of farmers, who are being lectured by a government bureaucrat at the turn of the 20th century. They are being told to join the federal effort to coordinate wheat sales among themselves, as a means of driving up prices. The problem, as they see it, is that farmers were fighting for their livelihoods in an age of rising industrialization. How can they survive? The bureaucrat offered one way. Weaver offered another:

“This natural elm,” he began, with an admiring look at the tree, “was once a tiny thing. A sheep might have eaten it at one bite. Every living thing around it was hostile and injurious. And it survived. It grew. It took its profit. It became tall and powerful beyond the reach of enemies. What preserved it — cooperative marketing? What gave it power — a law from Congress? What gave it fullness — the Golden Rule? On what was its strength founded — a fraternal spirit? You know better. Your instincts tell you no. It saved itself. It found its own greatness. How? By fighting.

"Did you know that plants fight? If only you could see the deadly, ceaseless warfare among plants this lovely landscape would terrify you. It would make you think man’s struggles tame. I will show you some glimpses of it.

“I hold up this leaf from the elm. The reason it is flat and thin is that the peaceable work of its life is to gather nourishment for the tree from the air. Therefore it must have as much surface as possible to touch the air with. But it has another work to do. A grisly work. A natural work all the same. It must fight.

"For that use it is pointed at the end as you see and has teeth around the edge — these. The first thing the elm plant does is to grow straight up out of the ground with a spear thrust, its leaves rolled tightly together. Its enemies do not notice it. Then suddenly each leaf spreads itself out and with its teeth attacks other plants; it overturns them, holds them out of the sunlight, drowns them. And this is the tree! Do you wonder why the elm plant does not overrun the earth? Because other plants fight back, each in its own way.

"I show you a blade of grass. It has no teeth. How can it fight? Perhaps it lives by love and sweetness. It does not. It grows very fast by stealth, taking up so little room that nothing else minds, until all at once it is tall and strong enough to throw out blades in every direction and fall upon other plants. It smothers them to death. Then the bramble. I care not for the bramble. Not because it fights. For another reason. Here is its weapon. Besides the spear point and the teeth the bramble leaf you see is in five parts, like one’s hand. It is a hand in fact, and one very hard to cast off. When it cannot overthrow and kill an enemy as the elm does, it climbs up his back to light and air, and in fact prefers that opportunity, gaining its profit not in natural combat but in shrewd advantage, like the middleman.

"Another plant I would like to show you. There is one near by. Unfortunately it would be inconvenient to exhibit him in these circumstances. His familiar name is honeysuckle. He is sleek, suave, brilliantly arrayed, and you would not suspect his nature, which is that of the preying speculator. Once you are in his toils it is hopeless. If you have not drowned or smothered him at first he will get you. The way of this plant is to twist itself round and round another and strangle it.

“This awful strife is universal in plant life. There are no exemptions. Among animals it is not so fierce. They can run from one another. Plants must fight it out where they stand. They must live or die on the spot. Among plants of one kind there is rivalry. The weak fall out and die; the better survive. That is the principle of natural selection. But all plants of one kind fight alike against plants of all other kinds. That is the law of their strength. None is helped but who first helps himself. A race of plants that had wasted its time waiting for Congress to give it light and air, or for a state bureau with hired agents to organize it by the Golden Rule, or had been persuaded that its interests were in common with those of the consumer, would have disappeared from the earth."

Garrett provides this speech as a warning to producers tied to the land: they must be fighters or die. The warning to all of us is that we must understand that nature is only provisionally tamed. In truth, we live in the wild, and we are only a step away from being devoured by it.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org. Comment on the Mises blog.

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