From the Archives: On Bill McKibben and The End of Nature

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            Environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben is on a speaking tour, and I’m sorry I’ll miss him when he stops in Kansas City, at UMKC, on Oct. 6. (He’s also in Columbia, MO, today, Oct. 4.) McKibben has been a consistent leader in the literature of alarm. I dug out my piece on his landmark book The End of Nature and was a little surprised to realize how current his arguments remain nearly 30 years later. You can recognize the awareness of the climate change debate that continues today, though without the ugly divisiveness we seem to be stuck with. The language is a little outdated (“global warming”) and McKibben can sometimes be precious (as perhaps was I) and predictably pessimistic to the extreme. But I thought it would be interesting to revisit the state of environmental consciousness-raising from the 1980s. This review of The End of Nature first appeared in The Kansas City Star on Oct. 15, 1989.


The end of nature that Bill McKibben addresses in his vitally important and terribly depressing new book is not so much the end of the world, but the end of the human idea of nature as being something bigger than we are – eternal, separate, permanent and immutable.

            That perception has come to an end, the end of nature has arrived, McKibben argues in a startling and deeply moving essay, because we have proved as a species that we have the God-like power to alter the Earth on a global scale.

            Of course, being both important and depressing will argue against its being widely read, but The End of Nature may be the one essential book published this year.

            Even as brooding as it is, the book, as an urgent call to action and a manifesto for humility, should wind up standing shoulder to shoulder with such mind-altering predecessors in natural history and philosophy as Thoreau’s Walden and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

            McKibben writes for The New Yoerker, where a long excerpt of the book appeared last month. He is not a scientist, but he makes the science and the scientific uncertainty that underpin his thesis meaningful and accessible.

            We have changed the planet – and there’s no turning back, he will make you believe – in our greed and gluttony for more and better. Our utter reliance on fossil fuels and other human endeavors have caused a buildup of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere that is inexorably warming the planet. It has done so in a mere 100 years, an iota on the scale of biological or even human time.

            Even if we completely change our habits now, McKibben writes – and what is the likelihood of that? – enough damage has been done and will become evident in the decades to come.

            Scientists may, and do vigorously debate whether global warming actually has begun but few doubt the soundness of the theory or the possibility of a grim chain reaction of corollary events that may change the way much of the Earth’s population lives – as sea levels rise, as temperatures stay high, as hurricanes become more forceful. One theory has Dallas experiencing half the year at 90 degrees or higher.

            And then, let’s talk about the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere. Or acid rain. Or other forms of global-scale pollution.

            “In our minds,” McKibben writes, “nature suffers from a terrible case of acne, or even skin cancer – but our faith in its essential strength remains, for the damage always seems local. But now the basis of that faith is lost. The idea of nature will not survive the new global pollution … By changing the weather, we make every spot on Earth man-made and artificial.”

            We can never again see nature as it was, he writes; we are doomed to accept the fact that all of it has our stamp, that nature, in the form of climate and weather and all the biological interactions dependent upon them, does not act independent of us anymore. Even if it cannot be proved that the drought of 1988 was a manifestation of global warming, it also cannot be proved that it wasn’t, and just the thought that we may have brought it about is unsettling. Was that rain? The question will go. Or was it something we did?

            McKibben considers the various cures for global warming – nuclear power, planting trees, an umbrella in space – and finds each of them wanting or bringing along their own problems. Plant trees, the environmental president tells us; trouble is, to absorb an adequate level of carbond dioxide we would need to plant an area the size of Europe and by shifting from open field to tree cover we would change the albedo, or the light-reflecting characteristic of the surface, and very likely increase the level of heat absorption.

            Such riddles and “feedback loops” face us at every turn, it seems.

            McKibben attacks the problems not only from a scientific perspective, but also culturally, philosophically, geopolitically and even theologically: Those who look for God in nature, he suggests, now can find only themselves.

            We take nature for granted, but our whole relationship with it has changed.

            “One reason we pay so little close attention the separate natural world around us,” he writes, “is that it has always been there and we presumed it always would. As it disappears, its primal importance will be clearer – in the same way that some people think they have put their parents our of their lives and learn differently only when the day comes to bury them.”

            If The End of Nature is relentlessly pessimistic, so be it. McKibben offeres a moral antidote to the feel-good, New Age notion of macromanaging the planet, of the technological panaceas – for and profit for all! – made possible in the coming era of genetic engineering.

            One (not I) might criticize McKibben for a “tree-hugging,” sentimental attachment to wildness and the mystery of nature – get with the program, Bill! – but one can’t help sharing his profound sense of loss.

            There is a danger that a reader may come away from The End of Nature feeling the same kind of existential despair experienced by the young Woody Allen character in “Annie Hall,” the one who tells the psychiatrist he has stopped eating because he just learned that the universe was expanding. What’s the point of going on? the boy concludes. Those susceptible to melancholic reflection are forewarned.

            But there is, perhaps a far greater danger in not facing up to the scenario McKibben has devised, to the questions about ourselves he has raised, and in the complacency we so easily embrace. It is time now to pay attention and to do something. The End of Nature is a kick in the head. And it comes none too soon. Read it and weep.