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.