My class & I have been reading Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) in anticipation of McKibben’s visit to Miami U on April 8th. The book is 16 years old at this point, but like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), it is still disturbingly current. (There is even a dead bird on the cover McKibben’s book, which harkens back to Carson with her roadsides “silent, deserted by all living things”—especially the calls of birds.) The End of Nature is rather more depressing, however, than Silent Spring—perhaps because we know that many of the most (obviously) egregious pollution problems are at least adequately dealt with, while our response to climate change appears to be not equal to the magnitude of the challenge. Within 10 years of Silent Spring, you had the Clean Air Act (1963), formation of the EPA (1970), a rewriting of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1972), and the Clean Water Act (1972). Within 16 Years of The End of Nature, the first book dedicated to the topic of climate change for general audiences, we have…inaction and denial, as well as some movement and momentum for change. Perhaps by writing this book, he thought we would be motivated to change and address the problem—the way the public outcry in 1962 led to regulatory action. (Oh well!)
His premise is that “nature” is dead because humans have altered the earth to the point that things that used to be beyond our control are within our ability to manipulate. It is an interesting idea that I am trying to inhabit a bit. Although I wrestle with this too. If we are to consider ourselves as members of the community (Leopold), then is it really in our ability to end nature? Forests generate change and create weather. (Although, of course, “good” weather.) Elephants change nature. Sure, the current changes in greenhouse gases are resulting in giant changes, global changes—we are a natural species capable of creating holes in the ozone layer. We create rather large problems that reveal our short-sighted idiocy at times. But does nature end? Odds are in favor of nature persisting, albeit in some altered form—and perhaps drastically altered—despite us. Most species alter the environment. But still, I think I get what he’s saying. Humans are filling the atmospheric tank with gases that will alter the course of the planet for centuries to millennia and that is fundamentally problematic to life as we’ve known it and to life as we’ve liked it.
He uses a rhetoric of fear, and I wonder how effectively that works on the short-sighted (most of us) humans. But, honestly, a rhetoric of optimism grounded in reality does seem a more challenging path to take. I buy the science, but I am playing close attention to how effective his approach is in capturing the imagination of people in a way that ultimately alters behaviors. Only a few of the students have started writing about this book in their blogs, but so far, they seem down on what they view as a pessimistic message in general (see here).