January 4, 2021 Reading Time: 5 minutes

As pointed out by many, including the late Robert Nelson, many people over these past few decades have embraced environmentalism as their religion. One of the familiar tropes of the resulting dogma is that our pre-industrial ancestors “lived in harmony with nature” while we moderns live in conflict with it. This alleged conflict, we are warned, is destroying nature and, in turn, will destroy humanity.

Of course, the threat that this religion’s priests and votaries most incessantly herald is climate change caused by carbon emissions. “Addicted” (as the common accusation goes) to the inexpensive energy available from fossil fuels, we denizens of modernity sinfully acquire frivolous material goodies today at the expense of mass destruction, destitution, and death tomorrow. Our departure from our ancestors’ practice of living in harmony with nature spells our doom. And so salvation requires our return to our ancestors’ natural wisdom. Or so goes a popular environmentalist creed.

Humanity has Never Lived in Such Harmony With Nature as We Do Today

As is true with so much of the environmentalist dogma, the allegation that we today do not live in harmony with nature is mistaken. Deeply so. The reality is that we human beings have never lived as harmoniously with nonhuman nature as we do today.

To live harmoniously with nature is to understand and accept the non-sentient reality of natural forces. The greater this understanding and acceptance, the greater the harmony. Because we humans today know so much more than did our ancestors about physics, chemistry, forestry, meteorology, metallurgy, biology, epidemiology, and on and on with our -estrys, -ologies, and -urgies, we live so much more harmoniously with nature than did our ancestors.

Centuries ago, to be sure, people lived simplyif by “simply” is meant life, generation after generation, occupied with unchanging dull routines, and consumption limited almost exclusively to those tiny numbers of goods and services that can be produced from scratch by a few dozen villagers. Such ‘simplicity,’ alas, enables only subsistence. And human beings trapped in subsistence do not escape ignorance and superstition.

Let’s stop mistaking dull routines and the absence of complex patterns of production and consumption as evidence of lives lived in harmony with nature. It’s a myth – we might say an urban myth – that pre-industrial peoples lived with nature harmoniously, or more harmoniously than we today live with nature. Nature devastated our pre-industrial kin. Nature mercilessly plowed them relentlessly into early graves. Our ancestors’ failure to produce much material wealth was a reflection, not of their harmony with nature, but of their deep ignorance of – and, hence, conflictual relationship with – nature.

To dance to imaginary rain gods or to chant for a child dying of bacterial infection is not to live harmoniously with nature; it is to live with nature most inharmoniously. Nature all along did its thing – for example, it occasionally failed to water crops, and it often grew lethal bacteria within children’s lungs – while human beings who were as ignorant of nature as nature is of human beings, chanted, danced, built totems, burned leaves and twigs, sacrificed animals, all in fruitless efforts to solve the problems.

In a contrast that could not be more stark – and as evidenced by our scientific knowledge of how to irrigate fields, and how to produce and administer antibiotics – it is us today, in the modern globalized world, who live in much closer harmony with nature. We don’t pray for miracles. We don’t expect nature to change its logic simply because we arrogantly wish it to do so. We accept nature’s logic and work with it.

Natural forces are what they are. Praying for miracles is fruitless; these forces will do what they do. Only people who understand natural forces and how to counteract or reinforce or sustain or alter them with other natural forces can be truly said to live harmoniously with nature.

It is science, rational thought, wise skepticism, and critical inquiry that enable us humans to live in ever-greater harmony with nature.

The Nature of the Global Market

There is, however, one part of nature with which we today do live in a great deal of conflict – namely, the nature of modern society. A central feature of this society is each individual’s dependence on the knowledge and productive efforts of literally billions of strangers.

Every moment of every day every one of us in the modern world enjoys some good, service, or experience that is made possible only because countless strangers perform a complex series of astonishingly well-coordinated actions that have among their final results the goods, services, and experiences that are commonplace in modern life. From the alarm on your smartphone that awakens you in the morning, through the coffee and croissant that you enjoy for breakfast and the computer or other power tools that you use to work, to the hard shingled roof over your bedroom and the soft machine-woven sheets on which you fall asleep at night, you consume, each and every day of your life, a steady stream of the fruits of the labors of billions of strangers.

The unleashing and coordination of all this amazing productive effort is achieved only within free, entrepreneurial markets. Prices, profits, and losses emerge when buyers are largely free to spend their money as they choose on goods and services offered by entrepreneurs who are largely free to enter and leave different lines of production. These prices, profits, and losses daily guide these economic processes. The result is our fabulously prosperous modern world.

And while this unfathomably complex series of coordinated actions of billions of individuals from around the world isn’t without occasional glitches, testimony to the fact that it works smoothly and reliably is in your own massive material prosperity combined with your obliviousness to the nature of the market order that makes your prosperity possible.

Such obliviousness unfortunately leaves the globe-spanning market order open to attack. Too many people take its fruits for granted or imagine that its operations are far simpler than these really are. The results of this ignorance of the nature of a market economy can be cataclysmic.

I believe that we would have had no Covid-19 lockdowns if more people understood the complexity of the market order and more fully appreciated the magnitude of the material prosperity that this order makes possible. These lockdowns, and the deranged fears that fuel them, indiscriminately demolish countless unseen nodes of commercial interactions. Gubernatorial diktats obliterate business plans. Mayoral commands destroy businesses overnight. Government lockdown orders – and ongoing threats of such – severely obstruct the ability of entrepreneurs to innovate and of suppliers to compete to meet the needs of consumers. Unwarranted media and political hysteria over Covid severs many of the cords that form the complex web of supply relationships that are necessary for putting bread on our tables and roofs over our heads.

The market is no fragile flower. It can and does take a great deal of abuse without quitting on us. But nor is the market indestructible. By commanding people to steer clear of many commercial interactions – especially as these arbitrary commands morph from ones that were promised to last only a few weeks into ones that, we’re now told, might last for several more months – governments around the world are annihilating the global economy.

No widespread event in my lifetime comes close to the Covid lockdowns as an instance in which we human beings have so ignorantly and arrogantly chosen to live not merely inharmoniously with nature but in direct and hostile opposition to it. The final price we pay for this folly will be astronomical.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Associate Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research and affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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