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The End of Nature.

The End of Nature

Read this book now because it will be talked about at cocktail parties, on college campuses, in environmental meetings, in church, in Congress, and wherever people are looking for an easy way to sum up our environmental problems. It has been selected by Book-of-the-Month and marked for publication in at least nine countries. The book's success will not depend so much on its intellectual merit or gripping prose, but on the way this New Yorker writer has wrapped an interesting idea in sensationalized science and advertised it with a title as catchy as "God is dead."

The interesting idea is that by conquering nature we have deprived ourselves of an important way of thinking. With nuclear bombs we put ourselves in a position to destroy most of nature, but we haven't. Instead, we have brought nature to her knees by other means. In McKibben's mind the ozone hole, global warming, and acid rain have made once independent and separate nature a slave to humankind and all its mistakes. Nature as we once thought of it has come to an end. Any change in our idea of nature will inevitably change how we think about ourselves.

Nature actually dies twice in this book. First, it dies because the assaults and insults of our pollution have broken its own slow system of geological change. Second, it dies because we replace independent nature with an artificial world of manipulated climate, engineered life forms, and commercialized landscapes. We no longer have a separate natural world against which to measure ourselves.

It is true that our own works, both good and bad, have brought us to the realization that nature is no longer an all-powerful force despite the occasional shocks of earthquake and hurricane. It is alos true that very little we look at is free of the human fingerprint. There is a lot of food for thought here, but McKibben is too upset by his own loss of innocence to help. He arrived at the realization that our idea of nature was changing when he looked into the news about global warming.

If we have set in motion a rapid warming of the earth's atmosphere, natural systems that developed over many thousands of years will change in a few decades. We are already making plans to control the risks by taking over the management of climate with massive injections of technology - giant satellite membranes to shade the earth, the massive pumping of remedial chemicals into the air, genetically engineered crops.

Even as this best seller was being printed, a few scientists were decreasing their estimates of global warming - both its speed and magnitude. McKibben may have jumped on a decelerating bandwagon. Nevertheless, we have made profound and possibly dangerous changes in nature on a global scale. It is time for some humility and deep thought. Here is where the book's central idea frightens McKibben into a fetal position.

He is obviously right when he says we have done damage to an old idea, "the idea of nature and all the ideas that descend from it." Now what will happen? Unfortunately McKibben goes to pieces and flees from the salvation of the thing he professes to love most.

McKibben suggests that we abandon our attempts to control nature and return to what the poet Jeffers called "organic wholeness of life and things." This is Mom and apple pie - we all want to be whole, but probably not McKibben's way. "The day has come," he writes, "when we choose between that wholeness and man in it or man apart, between that old clarity or new darkness." He's not very clear about when this old clarity existed, but obviously he means before the industrial revolution. Was that back when the world was flat, or when the shape of a root told you what part of the body it cured, or when mushrooms were seeded by lightning, or when the forests were inhabited by leprechauns and devils? These views are not minority positions of a kinder, gentler era. Mystical notions of nature as a place apart from human nature and immune to science has always led to such intellectual handicaps and always to a society in which those in touch with the mystery have the privilege of overruling reason and censoring its expressions.

The sense of a separate, all-powerful nature did not preserve nature at all - it motivated humans to work toward its conquest. Like every other species in the world, we wanted to conquer in the name of our own security. Now that we have triumphed, we are at last beginning to recognize how separate we are from the rest of nature. Now that we know we can conquer, now that we have won the supreme position for our species, we can do what no other animal or human society has ever done - work for the preservation of all creatures great and small. No one wanted to preserve grizzlies or pandas until our crops, our livestock, and our lives were safe from them.

Very little will be saved if we follow McKibben's solutions. Like so many romantics, he idealizes the noble savage. For the savage, of course, nature was not separate at all - it was full of human-like spirits. Without science everything in nature possessed a variation of the human mind. Unlike a country with an Endangered Species Act, National Wilderness areas, and gene banks, primitive societies cared little and knew less about species that were of no direct economic interest.

McKibben's solution is what he calls a "humbler world." Nothing wrong with humility until you get down to those few specifics he offers. It not only means getting back to that "old clarity" made possible by ignorance and innocence, but part of his prescription for a change in our values is to dismantle and dismiss science as irrelevant. "When one method of domination seems to be ending - the reliance on fossil fuels, say - we cast about for another, like genetic tinkering, much as Americans replaced slavery with Jim Crow segregation." This is a wacky equation.

Whatever benefits science and technology offer, McKibben proposes that "this could be the epoch when people decide at least to go no farther down the path we've been following." Anyone who thinks we can or will retrace that long path may love the nature of forests and mountains, but he knows very little about human nature. Along our path from savagery we have indeed strewn the way with environmental murder and mayhem. We are now equipped to murder every living thing on earth. We are also equipped to save. We are going to use all the science and technology we can develop. Now that we understand how fragile nature is, the world is beginning to focus on how to use its inventions.

For people without imagination all solutions must lie in the past. We are indeed an arrogant and messy race, but when you get over the shock of the risks we have taken, you can begin to imagine how we can use our talents. I predict that when McKibben gets older and chilly with his thermostat at 55 degrees, and when he really thinks about giving up the lucrative travel assignments he takes for the New Yorker, and when his wife approaches 40 without the children they want - that he will get down to the real issues and make an important contribution. Read this book and you'll see why.
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Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:Saving the past for the future.
Next Article:Shading Our Cities.

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