Nature always bats last!

I’m not sure when I first heard “Nature always bats last,” but the idea stuck with me as more sensible than threatening, since Nature is merely a system without feelings about humans as a species, and there is always the possibility of some reaction to our many actions.

The key idea in the phrase is not that “Nature will win” but that we cannot always imagine how Nature (anthropomorphising here) will “react” to our actions.

But I never knew where this phrase came from, until I was asked to cite the source in a recent paper (pesky academics, asking you to justify your claims!). It didn’t take me too long to track down the source on the internet, and — lo! — it’s from a 1969 column (“Eco-Catastrophe!” [pdf]) by Paul Ehrlich.

Ehrlich was famous for his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, which predicted mass starvation on the basis of excessive population growth. He is also famous for being wrong in that book, as well as when he accepted the “sucker’s bet” from Julian Simon on whether people are good or bad for sustainability (read this and/or this).

And he is indeed again wrong, in some many annoying ways, in his 1969 piece:

  1. He extrapolates the dangers of DDT (a slow-moving toxin) into a catastrophic ecosystem collapse. Although Rachel Carson was right to identify the dangers of DDT to ecosystems in her 1962 Silent Spring, Ehrlich was wrong to assume that regulators would not just ignore the risk but (it seems) allow for a massive expansion of its production.
  2. He claims that waters and air would be catastrophically polluted when reactions were “in the pipeline”: Earth Day 1970, and the Clean Air and Water Acts of 1972.
  3. He misses the forcing effects of GHGs on climate, unlike his contemporaries.
  4. His obsession with (over)population blinds him to alternatives, as well as other risks (affluence, which he mentioned).
  5. He makes over-the-top claims, such as US life expectancy dropping to 49 years in [future] 1973, when it was 71 years in [reality] 1969, or that famines would occur (at the optimistic latest) by the 1980s. Although he gets some other idea right (politicians obsessed with GDP, ocean food chains crashing if plankton die, the USSR China offering aid in exchange for political loyalty and access to resources), the mix of mistakes and accuracies makes it look like he’s just guessing.

Indeed, he makes so many that a blogger at the Competative Enterprise Institute, which tends to lean to the looney right, has plenty of material to critique (before over-reaching to deny the risks of climate change).

This result is sad. I get it that Ehrlich was genuinely worried, but he undermines his useful point — Nature bats last for example — in his haste to rant about his never-ending talking point (population). That’s a one-handed failure to connect with his audience.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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