The End of Nature

by Bill McKibben

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The End of Nature

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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...

(This entire section contains 1874 words.)

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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 whose passing McKibben laments is perhaps as much an aesthetic concept as an ecological reality. He seems to be appealing to a romantic sense of wild nature as a repository of spiritual value—akin to what is celebrated in Thoreau’s The Maine Woods (1864) or in the American landscape paintings of Frederick Church. This natural sublimity, however, is not always peaceful or serene; it can be violent or cataclysmic as well, as in the case of volcanoes, avalanches, tornadoes, hurricanes, and forest fires. All nature is in a state of dynamic change, and evolution means that living forms must adapt to these changes in order to survive. There is no denying that man is destroying the habitat of many creatures and threatening their extinction through the sheer rapidity and scope of habitat destruction, but life is tenacious, and some forms of life have been able to coexist with man very successfully. It is certainly possible, however, that massive extinctions will occur because of the global destruction of habitat, and no one is sure of the long-term consequences for life on a planet with less diverse biota, since the complexity of living systems tends to produce stability and monocultures do not work well in nature.

What McKibben has assembled in The End of Nature is a careful and articulate synthesis of a series of global environmental concerns caused by Western man’s heavy energy dependence on fossil fuels and the rapid depletion of natural resources and habitats generated by a consumer economy. In a manner reminiscent of fellow contributors to The New Yorker John McPhee and Jonathan Schell, McKibben has assembled a detailed examination of the complex and uncertain global environmental consequences of unrestricted technological growth. There is a certain rhetorical justification for his approach, but some who need to hear his message may be put off by his gloom-and-doom scenario. McKibben writes with the self- righteous, almost sanctimonious, passion of a true believer; moreover, he graphically describes problems without offering much in the way of either collective or individual solutions.

McKibben seems to cast his analysis in moral or theological terms when the issue might better be seen as an economic problem. Ecology is, after all, the economy of nature, and our environmental problems occur at the intersection of human and natural economics. The American wastefulness that McKibben laments is a consequence of the gradual shift from producer to consumer households that has been occurring in the United States since the 1920’s. We have shifted from producing food, clothing, and household needs at home or locally to importing them from a distance—and we are purchasing and consuming these items in ever greater quantities. At the same time, in the name of progress and comfort, the consumer economy has shifted from human or animal energy to fossil energy, which we have also been conditioned to use in ever greater quantities. Reducing this monumental wastefulness will require an absolute reversal of our cultural habits and behavior, a complete change in our root values and assumptions. The alternative is to create a culture in which people find basic satisfaction in something other than material possessions, in which acquisitiveness can be replaced by some other, nonmaterial, goal or purpose for human life.

McKibben is correct insofar as he points to the pending environmental crisis as the end of the materialistic, growth- and consumer-oriented era of Western culture. If humankind is to survive as a species, the next century must bring about some radical changes in global human behavior. These changes must be predicated on the notion that maintaining the health of the global environment is our paramount concern. The total human population will have to be kept within the carrying capacity of the earth. All sources of ail; water, and land pollution will have to be minimized. We must find new ways to recycle waste products and restore damaged and degraded environments. We may eventually have to learn to adjust to potential long-term climate changes, such as might be created by global warming patterns. Environmental restraints must dictate all economic behavior.

The problem with any global restriction on economic growth, however, is that it would make permanent the present economic inequities between the developed and undeveloped nations. The rest of the world, as McKibben observes, hopes to emulate American standards of consumption and resents any implication that they should not be able to enjoy the same material comforts as the West. Yet any increase in the material standards of the Third World will necessitate a rise in global energy consumption. Is it possible, McKibben asks, to persuade the average American to use his car only one-fifth as much so that others may drive as much as he does? Such scenarios involve the redistribution of global wealth and energy. The environmental crisis is (for the West, at least) in part a crisis of affluence. Small may be beautiful for the ethical and the virtuous, but what about the desires of the average person? Can we (and our children) learn to be content with less? Are we capable of sacrificing some degree of present material comfort for the sake of unborn future generations, or will we choose to go down with the ship in our first-class accommodations?

The massive reductions in energy and consumption needed will necessitate rigorous changes in lifestyle, but the rural lifestyle that McKibben and his wife practice in their Adirondack cabin, with a woodstove, a garden, bicycles, and no children, is simply not practical or feasible for the majority of people. The energy crisis of the 1970’s demonstrated the limits to Americans’ willingness to reduce their driving, switch to smaller, more economical cars, or use public transportation. And even these small gains seem to have been eroded by the return to higher speeds and bigger cars in the 1980’s. Attractive cultural patterns for the future must be devised that will minimize the demands each of us makes on the earth’s diminishing resources.

McKibben’s arguments in The End of Nature ring with the same kind of finality as historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” delivered at the 1893 American Historical Association convention, in which Turner proclaimed the passing of an era with the closing of the American frontier. McKibben’s thesis about the end of nature has equally far-reaching implications. There is wisdom, however, embodied in the Chinese character for crisis: It means both danger and opportunity. The End of Nature clearly points out the unequivocal dangers of continued destruction of the earth’s environment; carbon dioxide accumulation, acid rain, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and other forms of pollution will wreak unforeseen global destruction. McKibben confesses to his own pessimism about humanity’s collective inability to change and fears that the “end of nature” may be permanent, but he manages to find some wry hope in the majesty of the night sky, beyond human reach. “The comfort we need,” he concludes, “is inhuman.”

Bibliography

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Forbes. CXLIV, October 16, 1989, p.46.

Library Journal. CXIV, October 1, 1989, p.114.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 22, 1989, p.1.

National Review. XLI, October 27, 1989, p.45.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, December 21, 1989, p.32.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, October 8, 1989, p.9.

Newsweek. CXIV, October 23, 1989, p.83.

The Sciences. XXX, January/February, 1990, p.44.