The End of Nature

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben, a young nature writer from the Adirondack region of New York, laments the loss of a pristine natural world untouched by human hands and capable of sustaining and renewing itself indefinitely. With the advent of such global environmental problems as acid rain, the greenhouse effect, the depletion of the ozone layer, and the massive destruction of tropical rain forests, humankind has lost its sense of nature as an infinitely renewable resource capable of absorbing any amount of human alteration. Whatever we think nature is—the external world, wilderness, the biosphere, the source of life, God—it can no longer be considered a force independent of human impact. The air, the water, trees, land, and oceans all have become increasingly subject to environmental degradation to the point that they have lost their natural resiliency. Earth, Gaia itself, is like a great organism suffering from the impact of man’s technological civilization.

In his title essay, McKibben laments the loss of the concept of wilderness, or unspoiled nature. Increasingly, everything in the natural world is in some way altered by human use. Along with the loss of the last remnants of pristine natural environment, McKibben suggests, we are losing our idea of nature, so that we can no longer appreciate the value of an unspoiled natural environment. Unspoiled nature is our Eden, our genesis, our point of departure. Surrounded by a monotonous, artificial landscape of urban sprawl, we feel the need for pristine nature, untouched by human presence. Such wilderness is valuable for its own sake, for its spiritual value, as Henry David Thoreau and other naturalists have argued. The existence of wilderness reminds us of those natural forces beyond human control, but such places are increasingly difficult to find.

Western man has traditionally viewed the natural world as a collection of natural resources to be developed—as sources of food, habitat, and raw materials—or as an adversary to be conquered rather than as a sacred, nurturing habitat in which humans take their place alongside other forms of life. Lacking primitive man’s sense of the sacredness of the natural world, the artist’s aesthetic appreciation of natural beauty, and the conservationist’s sense of prudent husbandry, we have heedlessly consumed and polluted the natural resources necessary to sustain the earth’s biosphere.

Awareness of an impending global environmental crisis suggests that the earth’s natural, self-regulating systems have reached the limits of their capacity to absorb manmade pollutants and are being seriously degraded by the deluge of toxic environmental pollutants. With the loss of the health of the natural environment, McKibben argues, humans will be forced to manage the entire planet as an artificial environment—as a convalescing patient whose health must be constantly monitored. This would be a profoundly depressing fact if it could be proved incontrovertibly true; most of McKibben’s arguments, however, are unprovable assertions based upon extrapolations from scientific evidence. Huge natural cataclysms have occurred periodically in the history of the earth, McKibben concedes, and aside from computer-generated models or extrapolations, there is no clear way of predicting the effects of possible human global alterations of the natural environment. The warning signs, however, of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, with dire forecasts of global warming, massive changes in weather patterns, melting of the polar ice caps, and a consequent rise in the level of the oceans, have given scientists pause for thought. In much the same way that studies of the global consequences of nuclear war led to the hypothesis of a nuclear winter, McKibben is warning of the equally serious cumulative effects of global atmospheric pollution from the burning of fossil fuels.

The problem with McKibben’s argument is that it is too absolute, too final. The “end of nature” is more slogan and hyperbole than scientific insight. Perhaps we are indeed reaching a great watershed in human civilization, akin to the introduction of domesticated crops or animals, as a result of which we will henceforth become stewards of a domesticated global environment; perhaps, however, the natural world is more resilient than McKibben imagines. He makes his case for global environmental crisis in terms of the scope and degree of man’s environmental impact, but is humankind not still, at least in some sense, a part of nature?

The untamed wilderness...

(The entire section is 1874 words.)