Nature's Embrace?

by Don Boudreaux on July 7, 2006

in Myths and Fallacies

Cynthia Emerlye expresses a wish in this letter published in today’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

Thomas L. Friedman struck a chord of
guilt in me when he suggested that attention is a victim of our
electronics-filled digital age ("The Age of Interruption," column, July
5). I offer myself as an example.

I live in a stunningly
beautiful rural part of Vermont. My studio sits above a flowing stream.
Wildlife regularly pass beside my window. The other night as I worked
away at the computer, I was oblivious to it all.

Then the
electricity suddenly went out (something that happens often in the
country). I groped out of my "cave" looking for a candle, tripped over
the vacuum cleaner, and landed in front of the glass door.

cursing, I looked outside. The sky was blazing with stars, and hundreds
of fireflies danced above the lawn and through the meadow. I opened the
door and walked outside in a trance.

Such beauty and
tranquillity have been available to me every day, every evening, with
only a little attention required by me. Yet I have remained in my
self-imposed lockup chained to a flickering computer screen.

I am hopeful that we will all wake up someday, break these electronic bonds and walk into the waiting embrace of Mother Nature.

Cynthia Emerlye
South Pomfret, Vt., July 5, 2006

Here’s one of my deepest wishes — that one day the likes of Ms. Emerlye and others who romanticize nature will realize that without modern commerce and industry Mother Nature doesn’t warmly and lovingly embrace human beings; she strangles us in a death grip.

Consider, for example, Thomas Babington Macaulay‘s description of life in the 17th-century Scottish highlands — before anything beyond rudimentary commerce and industry reach there:

His lodging would sometimes have been in a hut of which every nook would have swarmed with vermin.  He would have inhaled an atmosphere thick with peat smoke, and foul with a hundred noisome exhalations.  At supper grain fit only for horses would have been set before him, accompanied by a cake of blood drawn from living cows.  Some of the company with which he would have feasted would have been covered with cutaneous eruptions, and others would have been smeared with tar like sheep.  His couch would have been the bare earth, dry or wet as the weather might be; and from that couch he would have risen half poisoned with stench, half blind with the reek of turf, and half mad with the itch.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England, Vol. 3 (Philadelphia, John C. Winston Co., n.d.), page 279,

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Patrick R. Sullivan July 7, 2006 at 10:59 am

Didn't New England just get something like 13" of rain in a few days?

RPjesky July 7, 2006 at 11:29 am

This should also be posted in "Reality Is Not Opitional," Don. These folks like Emerlye want all the benefits of our wonderful market system while living in the stone age.

This is the central problem in many people's thinking. They think we can unplug and have life go on as it is. They think we can raise the minimum wage, for example, and have the only effect be all poor people have more stuff. They think we can have the government buy everyone health care and have everyone adequately cared for. And on and on.

Prof. Boudreaux and Prof. Roberts know better than anyone else right now that our world is the result of a process and changes in the outcome of that process cannot not be changed as a matter of will or designed to be better.

dearieme July 7, 2006 at 11:59 am

It can be cyclical. In late neolithic Orkney, the good people of Skara Brae had stone houses with drains.

Constant July 7, 2006 at 12:32 pm

In Cynthia Emerlye's defense, everything apart from her last paragraph is defensible. Provided that we hold on to our "electronic bonds", we can enjoy nature without becoming victim to it.

John Pertz July 7, 2006 at 2:16 pm

Or Cynthia can simply step outside from time to time. I dont really see any need to revert to the pre industrial age simply because I am not getting enough "fresh" air.

DirtCrashr July 7, 2006 at 4:03 pm

Go to the light, Cynthia…

Swimmy July 7, 2006 at 5:02 pm

I don't see anything particularly wrong with this woman enjoying nature, or wanting others to enjoy nature. That's just a personal preference that she'd like to share. So long as she can also accept that I hate nature and would rather sit in an air-conditioned room while playing videogames and talking to my friends on the internet, we can all get along.

Adam July 7, 2006 at 9:56 pm

"Mother Nature doesn't warmly and lovingly embrace human beings; she strangles us in a death grip."

Normally I agree with just about everything posted here, but this sentence really reminds me of a line in the Simpsons when Mr. Burns says, "Since the dawn of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun."

I agree that over-romanticizing nature is silly and outright ignorant. Nature's a dangerous place and we're better off living as we do today than as hunter-gatherers. But for crying out, "Mother Nature strangles us in a death grip?" You're making her sound like our mortal enemy who needs to be eliminated.

I hardly think that saying it's a shame that we don't turn off the computer and get outside more often is insane. I don't think she's calling for a return to mud huts in fields. You're swatting a bug with an elephant gun here.

Adam July 7, 2006 at 9:57 pm

On that note, I think I'll go for a walk. :)

ben July 8, 2006 at 6:27 am

I believe the strong reaction is justified in view of the tremendous damage that the romanticisation of nature has produced and likely will continue to produce. Last I heard the decision to ban DDT, a decision grounded squarely in such romanticism and in defiance of evidence, had killed 30 million people and counting. Only Stalin and Mao have more blood on their hands than Rachel Carson and her ilk. Judging by effect, if not by intention, environmental worshippers are among humankind's great evildoers. Don's rebuke is therefore understated.

failingeconomist July 8, 2006 at 7:40 am

What? You mean Scotland’s not like that any more?

Adam July 8, 2006 at 10:28 am

Ben: I agree, but she didn't say anything about DDT. Would we condemn someone who calls for people to share what they have with others on the grounds that communism has killed 100 million people? Seems rather far-fetched.

Jim July 8, 2006 at 4:12 pm

I thought it was supposed to be satire when it first aired, but I guess some actually believe Mr. Burns when on 'The Simpon's' he told Lisa "Mother nature started the fight for survival and now she just wants to quit because she's losing"

ben July 8, 2006 at 5:50 pm


True, nothing about DDT was mentioned. But it's only a short step from believing people would be better off if they appreciated nature to writing rules that force that on them.

loikll July 8, 2006 at 8:56 pm

***The sky was blazing with stars, and hundreds of fireflies danced above the lawn and through the meadow. I opened the door and walked outside in a trance.***

Poor Cynthia doesn't realize that her very own ancestors didn't go out into the woods at night. THEY weren't stupid — That was a good way to be eaten by a wolves.

Besides they were in the habit of collapsing into slumber quite early after breaking their backs for 14 hours desperately trying to farm enough food to stave off starvation for another season. (When they weren't busy dying during childbirth and whatnot.)

I'm thinking her ancestors would be far more appreciative of "electronic bonds" than she is.

Wild Pegasus July 9, 2006 at 3:19 am


Interestingly enough, the hunter-gatherer humans who preceded the farmers did much less work than the farmers, or us, for that matter.


The DDT ban is, to a large extent, a myth.

- Josh

Russell Nelson July 9, 2006 at 4:04 am

Josh: true about the hunters, however they required 100 acres per person, while the agriculturalist only requires 1 acre per person. And … hunters are dependent upon game. That's fine until you experience a population crash, at which point you, the dominant predator, would experience a population crash as well.

ben July 9, 2006 at 7:12 pm


Where DDT has been used it has sharply reduced malaria, where it has not been used malaria persists, and when it is used but then stopped malaria returns. Don't believe for one second this is a myth.

We can argue all day about this, and I am happy to engage in that conversation, but I think the more fundamental concern is the reasoning that went into the decision. Environmentalists, knowing full well the effectiveness of DDT, and with the most scant evidence on environmental effects, knowingly sacrificed many lives for their cause. None of them their own.

Even if the evidence on environmental effects stood up, the scandle would hardly be any less. Untold suffering inflicted on the world's poor in exchange for the welfare of several bird species.

Jenna July 9, 2006 at 7:21 pm

I don't over-romanticize either side; I love parts of the natural world *and* parts of the industrial world. My option is a balance between the two: a humanistic naturalism.

Trumpit July 9, 2006 at 9:55 pm

The murder rate is exploding; the traffic congestion is abominable; the air is unbreathable; rents are too high; junk food oozes with artificial, toxic ingredients; people all hate each other; etc., etc.

The quality of life in L.A., where I live, is going into the toilet, Don. I've lived here all my life, but now I'll have to seek out a happier, healther place to live out my humble life. And it's all your fault, Don! Your belief in unbridled human freedom and capitalistic greed is squelching and suffocating my simple life. This is now an ugly city with ugly people, I'm trapped and I want out!

Don idealizes the contaminated, unliveble, alienated, industrial world just as that lady from Vermont idealizes the beauty and tranquility of nature. She finally woke up to smell the roses. Spending ones life in front of TV/computer screen playing video games is sick, Swimmy. Now I think I'll go for a walk in the cement jungle and think pleasant thoughts. My only freedom resides in my head because the real, unnatural, human-destroyed world is to bleak to face. I might as well be held prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Wake up and smell the roses, Don.

Timothy July 10, 2006 at 1:30 am

Man, I sure wish we were in the pre-industrial age. I mean, a life-expectancy at birth of 38ish years sounds WONDEROUS!

bbartlog July 10, 2006 at 9:49 am

I need to check the historical context a little more, but I believe Macaulay was exaggerating the benightedness of the Highlanders largely in an attempt to justify, post hoc, the brutality of the English Clearances. So while his writing works rhetorically I wouldn't put a lot of stock in its literal description of conditions.
In any case (while I too disagree with her closing paragraph) I think she makes a good point overall. There is something hypnotic and deadening about being online all the time, and it's nice to get out every so often.

ben July 10, 2006 at 10:49 am


Some rich irony in your comment. One, it is precisely because you live in a society with unbridled freedom that you have the right to live elsewhere. Use it. Two, because everyone enjoys that freedom, your comment about LA being unliveable is plainly wrong. 20 million people choose to live there, including you.

In a society without freedom your comment might have merit. Maybe.

Robert Speirs July 10, 2006 at 6:37 pm

The same Samuel Johnson who said, "He who is tired of London is tired of life" complained about the "perfect idiocy of country life" There is no tree as beautiful as a skyscraper. It occurred to me that only man-made things are non-fractal. There can be some strikingly beautiful fractal effects, but they are random, accidental, not expressive of anyone's will or effort. Man's creations reflect perfectly his thoughts and plans, for good or ill. To me, the divide between the "natural" and the man-made is deep and clear. And no primitive man would hesitate for a second before changing places with one of us.

bbartlog July 11, 2006 at 9:49 am

Oddly, google suggest that 'idiocy of country life' is attributable to Marx rather than Johnson. But I'll take your word for it. I somehow thought Dostoeyevsky. Though the same basic idea probably occured to all of them in any case…

thebizofknowledge August 22, 2006 at 9:58 pm

I stumbled upon this site as I was in the process of doing some online research. It seemed a radical reaction to Cynthia E's simple statement that there is beauty in nature and that we don't unplug long enough to even be aware of it.

aimsta August 13, 2007 at 3:00 pm

liberty, i'm with you.
i have a question for anyone willing to answer: do any of you hate nature? trees? i just met this guy who is a self-proclaimed nature hater. he hates trees, unless they are boxed in and prevented from growing "wild all over the place".
i just don't get it, can't relate one iota. maybe a fellow nature hater can explain to me in more depth.

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