Readying the Pitchforks For the ‘Common Good’

“You can chase nature out with a pitchfork, but she will always keep running back.”

This idea, from the Roman poet Horace, was the central idea of my book, Suicide of the West (now out in paperback, as I’ll never let you forget). 

Farmers understand this. A bunch of pastoral paintings and poems notwithstanding, farmers are closer to frontline troops in the war against nature. If you fail to tend to your crops, refrain from pulling weeds, tending to the needs of the soil, chasing off critters, etc., nature will take back what is hers. If a farmer abandons his land, it will not take long for nature to reclaim it. Wait long enough and, depending on the geography, future visitors will be surprised there was ever a farm there in the first place. There are parts of Maine where you can stumble onto the stone walls of old farms in the middle of the woods. Every few years, explorers in South America or Asia discover stone temples in the heart of the jungle, because the jungle always grows back. 

Human nature is special because humans are special. But the “nature” part is not something to trifle with. Without painstaking effort, what makes humanity special will be reclaimed by human nature itself. When the children in Lord of the Flies are left to their own devices, they do not adopt Robert’s Rules of Order to deliberate what is best for the group. They revert back to their nature. They become tribal, superstitious, and cruel. In The Walking Dead, the protagonists spend the first few seasons grappling with the reality that, absent the rule of law and the institutions of just authority, the protocols of the more fundamental laws of survival kick in: Strength in numbers, distrust of strangers, Us vs. Them. The zombies are simply a pulp fiction exaggeration of the dangers of jungle living, the real threat are other humans who see survival as a zero-sum calculation. “You’re the butcher, or you’re the cattle.”

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