Peace and Environment News
* May 1990

Review: The End of Nature

"The End of Nature" by Bill McKibben, 1989; 217 pages; hardcover.

Reviewed by Christine Peringer

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben's The end of Nature deals with humanity's effect on our natural environment the same way that Jonathan Schell's Fate of the Earth presented the harsh facts of the potential nuclear destruction of life. Both books left me better informed, deeply saddened and wondering if the human species has too much natural ability to dominate (each other and our environment) without the wisdom to use such abilities for the promotion of life.

McKibben argues that we should stop focusing on the potential of lasting environmental devastation. Irrevocable changes have already happened. To avoid them we would have had to clean up our collective act many decades ago. We didn't and we still aren't, so more change is inevitable. Increasing levels of global warming, acid rain, depletion of the ozone are all examined as phenomena with impact now. In the past, mankind could spoil parts of nature, but the larger systems of sunlight, temperature, rainfall remained beyond our control. Now this has changed. He concludes that nature, "the separate and wild province, the world apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died," in fact no longer exists. There is no place on this planet where the effect of human activity is not felt. He points out that the term "greenhouse effect" is an apt analogy as it captures the idea that the earth is now encased in a man-made system. He examines the impact this has on him as a person. He probes his guilt (he's still not willing to leave his heated house and go live in a cave), the violation of his privacy (there is no escaping other people when nature has human fingerprints all over it), and the sense of failure in belonging to a species that has so altered something as divine as nature.


He maps out two paths. "The Defiant Reflex" is not to let this current problem get the better of us, but to develop better ways of managing the world. Conservation, reduction in use of fossil fuels, world government are examined as being parts of a macromanagement approach to reduce our negative effect on the environment. While describing various facets of such a world, McKibben labels it a second "end of nature."

The other path is a "more humble" way of living that postulates that humankind doesn't need to be in control. For this to happen requires a change in our thinking. Having less will no longer be a negative thought. But it is hard to imagine something that we just don't want to do. He is pessimistic about our ability to change our way of life. He believes personal environmentally-conscious changes are just good gestures. He believes there are no useful personal changes except to try to raise children different from ourselves, for which we lack time and ability. What will save nature is a social taboo against "progress." In a world where the "first world" is wedded to affluence based on progress and the rest live in poverty and look to progress for hope, he believes, that such a taboo will never emerge.

The first path strikes McKibben as inevitable. So he concludes again that nature is dead and will remain so. Future generations will not have known nature, so it is only us currently alive who will grieve.

"This we know: the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth.
All things are connected like blood which unites one family.
Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the son of the earth.
Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand of it.
Whatever he does to the earth, he does to himself."

Suquamish, Chief of the Seattle People of the U.S. Pacific Northwest in a letter to the U.S. President Pierce in 1855.

Converted December 20, 2001 - Lg

To follow up on this article, contact the author or the organizations/individuals mentioned; do not contact the Peace and Environment Resource Centre - we cannot provide follow up or contact information. This article is an archival copy of the printed one in the Peace and Environment News (PEN). Viewpoints expressed should not be taken to represent the opinions of the Peace and Environment Resource Centre, the PEN, or our supporters.

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