Friday, March 22, 2002

Review of the End of Nature by Bill McKibben

The End of Nature

Mr. McKibben’s book The End of Nature is one of four he has authored. His nature writings include articles from The New York Review of Books the New York Times, and Rolling Stone. His book contains an introduction and five chapters. The first two chapters make up the section titled “Part I The Present”, and the last three chapters make up “Part II The Near Future”. Mr. McKibben presents his case that man has, by his behaviors and attitudes towards the environment, ended nature.

In the introduction of this second edition printing, Mr. McKibben makes a poignant comparison of the environmental state of today versus the environmental state ten years ago. He says that the key environmental fact of our time is “the contrast between the pace at which the physical world is changing and the pace at which the human society is reacting.” He goes on to say that man can “no longer think of himself as a species tossed about by larger forces – now we are those larger forces. Hurricanes and thunderstorms and tornadoes become not acts of God but acts of man.” This is what Mr. McKibben means by the “end of nature”.

The first chapter of the book titled “A New Atmosphere” discusses the roles that burning fossil fuels, uncontrollable forest fires, chlorofluorcarbons, and livestock play in the increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. He references the work of NASA scientist James Hansen for the majority of this chapter.

The second chapter of The End of Nature is titled “The End of Nature”. In this chapter Mr. McKibben details his argument that nature has ended. He references the works of William Bartram, Bob Marshall, Henry Thoreau, and John Muir to define “nature”. As an example of the end of nature he talks about a hike he took out his back door. He describes the pristine landscape with “no trash, no stumps, no fence, not even a real path.” He says that from his vantage point one cannot see a road or a house. There is no evidence of man’s presence. Then, somewhere down in the valley, the snarl of a chainsaw fills the woods. He says that the invention of nuclear weapons “may have actually marked the beginning of the end of nature: we possess, finally, the capacity to overmaster nature, to leave an indelible imprints everywhere, all at once.” He closes the chapter by saying that man has “built a greenhouse, a human creation, were once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden.”

The second part “The Near Future” begins with chapter three titled “A Promise Broken.” He references Loren Eiseley’s discussion of earthly changes. “ There is a change, but it is a change at the slow pace of inorganic life, and the seasons never come and go too violently”. This “promise”, nature’s promise is a guarantee that has not been broken in four billion years – until now. Change is now measured by decades versus millennia. It is happening so fast that plants and animals cannot adapt to their new surroundings.

Chapter 4, “The Defiant Reflex” details man’s reluctance to make the changes necessary to preserve the nature that we have made for ourselves. Mr. McKibben quotes George Woodwell; “There is no question that we’ve reached the end of the age of fossil fuels.” He then goes on to say, “The choice of doing nothing – of continuing to burn ever more oil and coal will lead us, if not straight to hell, then straight to a place with similar temperatures.” He discusses our “addiction” to fossil fuels and our perceived “benefits” of using them. He goes on to discuss one of the perceived “solutions” to using fossil fuels – bioengineering. He says that the simple act of creating new forms of life is what changes the world. It puts man forever in the deity business – we will never again be a “created” being; instead we will be creators.

In the final chapter titled “A Path of More Resistance”, Mr. McKibben writes about the “rut” that man is in. The fact that the Western world is a place where we live rather well off makes us extremely resistant to change. He summarizes by saying this “rut” is not making the planet happy. The atmosphere and the forests are changing, and in some cases dying and these changes effect each of us. He says, “the end of nature sours all of my material pleasures. The prospect of living in a genetically engineered world sickens me. And yet it is toward such a world that our belief in endless material advancement hurries us.”

I found the book to be informative and inspiring. Mr. McKibben has an excellent writing style that incorporates both personal experiences of his life in the Adirondacks, and scientific data that paint a clear picture of man’s transgressions. I feel that the book’s informational value lies strongly within the introduction. It gives invaluable insight into the changes that have occurred in the ten years since the main body of text was written. Thus, rather than being a dated text, it offers an enlightening illustration of the path that man has chosen.

Sunday, February 24, 2002

Review of God's Last Offer by Ed Ayers

God's Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future

Mr. Ayres’ book God’s Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future is one of several he has authored or edited. He has been the editor of World Watch since 1993 and has written articles on the environment for publications such as The Washington Post, and USA Today. His book contains an introduction and nine chapters, and the notes at the end of the book double as a bibliography. Mr. Ayres takes a scrutinizing look at the environmental problems facing people in today’s world and gives the reader a much-needed sense of hope.

In the introduction titled, “A Diminishing Capacity for Astonishment” details an account of the travels of Captain James Cook to illustrate man’s “blindness”. Captain Cook’s ship approached the coast of Australia and encountered a group of Aborigines rowing in their small boats. This was the first known contact between Australians and Europeans. At first the Australians took no notice of the huge ship as it passed them by. There was no fear or even interest. Since the Australians made no hostile responses, the British continued by lowering themselves in to smaller boats in order to approach the shore. Suddenly, the natives that had paid no notice realized that something was happening, the reference point being the smaller ships. The natives recognized this as invasion. Most fled, but some stood their ground and shouted. Mr. Ayres likens this example to what is happening to society today. Right now things are happening that are so far out of our range of experience that, as a society, we don’t know how to react.

The first chapter of the book details the challenges in front of us. Mr. Ayres refers to these as “spikes” or “megaphenomena”. There are four, which he says man must deal with: the carbon dioxide spike, the extinction spike, the population spike, and the consumption spike. The unprecedented rises in carbon dioxide levels, extinction levels, population and consumption are what society is facing in the coming years and what scientists, global leaders, and environmentalists must slow down, and or halt for the well being of the future.

The second chapter of God’s Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future talks about the problem with information handling. Mr. Ayres uses the 1997 Red River media frenzy to illustrate how information can be mishandled or altogether overlooked. He talks about the issues arising from the flood that should have been discussed in the media events following the flood: What was the cause of the flood?, What are the chances of recurrence?, Does it make sense to rebuild? How is it related to the fossil fuel consumption? Instead of these asking these questions, reporters focused on human interest stories, and stories detailing the amount of damage. The need for good ratings overshadowed the need for good information. This lack of information and what Mr. Ayres labeled “false extremes” are part of the problem. A false extreme is established when corporate public relations managers try to shift frames of reference for the public on serious issues. Mr. Ayres also states that the level of specialization of knowledge has become a hinderance to scientists because they are unable to see beyond their field in order to view the big picture. He also says that a large problem is that what good information that is available often gets swallowed in what he calls the “informational black hole”.

There is however, information to be had. Mr. Ayres points out the value of history in chapter four “Ambushes of the Past and What They Tell Us.” He details different societies and how their population explosions, food shortages, and land use practices lead to their eventual ruin. Mr. Ayres also tells the reader to be wary about where their information comes from. With the readily available information on the internet it is extremely easy to get false and misleading information. He urges the reader to check and double check information for its validity.
In the eighth chapter, entitled “You”, Mr. Ayres discusses the steps an individual can take in order to assure survival. Personal security, development of community, and learning to deal with the economy of the future are key to survival. Mr. Ayres says “In the language of religion, God has given us an offer: to see the consequences of our actions and assume moral responsibility for them, or to be consumed by them.”

I found the book to be very informational, but sometimes difficult to read. Mr. Ayres’ writing becomes wordy at times making it very difficult to follow and sometimes distracting. His use of footnotes also proved as a distraction and the information would have been better served if it had been incorporated into the text. Many of the footnotes contained anecdotes that were extremely fascinating and helpful that would have breathed life into the somewhat dry and windy text. I was genuinely shocked at the number of spelling errors that I encountered. There appeared to be a problem with the typesetting, as every word that had double f’s was blank where the f’s belonged (i.e. e ort instead of effort).

Overall, even with the limitations noted above, I did enjoy the book and recommend it. I think that it outlines the world’s major environmental problems well, points out the pitfalls in information handling, and gives the reader a ray of hope for a better future. Humans can continue on their current path and take their chances, or we can stand up and take responsibility for what we have done to our planet and work together to find a reasonable, workable solution.

Saturday, January 26, 2002

Review of Fire and Ice; the greenhouse effect, ozone depletion and nuclear winter by David E. Fisher

In his book, Fire and Ice: the greenhouse effect, ozone depletion, and nuclear winter, Dr. David E. Fisher takes a problem solving approach to three of the world’s most pressing environmental problems. His book is broken into two parts, The Problems, and The Solutions. Published in 1990, just before the end of the cold war, the book deals with not only the greenhouse effect and ozone depletion, but also nuclear winter and it’s potential after effects in a time when total destruction was only a button push away.

The first chapter of the book is a concise summary of the problems mankind is facing. Dr. Fisher uses the story of the visit of Halley’s Comet in 1910 when people believed the end of the world was at hand. Cyanogen gas, which is deadly, had recently been discovered as a cometary component and the world was poised for destruction because Earth would reportedly pass through the comet’s tail. The destruction never came, but as Dr. Fisher points out, it led scientists to ponder the extinction of the dinosaurs. His description of this cataclysm (as he refers to it) then leads straight into World War II and the United State’s postwar plan for nuclear war: hitting Russia with 900 nuclear bombs, “ a number we were assured was enough to reduce Russia within two hours to a smoking, radiating ruin.”

Dr. Fisher systematically describes in easily understood terms how the greenhouse effect and global warming work. He uses examples like the eruption of Tambora to illustrate to the reader the potential detrimental effect of blocking out the sun. He describes sunlight’s components and discusses the importance of the ozone layer in blocking UV-B and UV-C from entering our atmosphere. He outlines the discovery of the role of CFC’s (chloroflourocarbons) in the breakdown of the ozone layer. He also discusses the role of CO2 , NOx , and SO2 as players in ozone depletion.

In chapter ten “The Long, Hot Summer”, Dr. Fisher makes a point which as a scientist, had never crossed my mind and has stuck with me ever since. In regards to the greenhouse effect, he points out that we all know that salt water has a lower freezing point than fresh water. He notes that if the earth gets warm enough and the glaciers start to melt, that the water that goes into the ocean would be fresh. The fresh water influx would dilute the seawater around the glacier, thus increasing the freezing temperature. This would likely cause more ice to form. This would potentially lead to an ice age.

Chapter fourteen “The Sky is Falling”, opens with a quote from Colonel Thomas H. Magness III “It would be folly not to believe that Chicken Little only has to be right once.” This chapter on nuclear winter discusses not only the environmental changes that it would cause, but the potential casualties that would result from mass starvation and radiation exposure.

In Part Two: The Solutions, Dr. Fisher outlines what can be done to save our planet, and ultimately our lives. We have already stopped production of CFC’s. We are attempting to limit the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Environmentalists are struggling to preserve what forest remains as carbon dioxide sinks. The author makes a poignant point about how little money is spent to save our world with a quote from Eisenhower: “The problem with defense spending in a democracy is trying to figure out when you are destroying from within what you are trying to protect from without.” Research into ways of saving the planet is costly and governments world-wide struggle with the commitment of funds. He talks about more fuel efficient vehicles (which we have seen more and more of in the later 1990’s), replanting forests, and exploring alternative fuels as a way of preserving what we have.

I found Fire and Ice to be an informative, dynamic, and exciting book about today’s environmental hurdles. Although today we don’t have to live with the fear of nuclear winter, the problems of the greenhouse effect and ozone depletion still loom over us. Many books dealing with these topics are cumbersome and boring. Dr. Fisher presents these problems in a clear and concise manner. He keeps the reader “entertained” and educated with stories and anecdotes that help the reader understand the significance of the problems. Each chapter begins with a quote like the one I used before. These quotes summarize in very few words the point of each chapter before the reader begins.

Fire and Ice: the greenhouse effect, ozone depletion, and nuclear winter is an important book in the environmental community. It outlines the problems and the solutions for healing our planet so that our grandchildren and our grandchildren’s children may have a safe world in which to live.