After many years, I finally went and read Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature. This book made quite a splash when it was published ten or fifteen years ago, and it is still mentioned often in discussions of global warming. Some see it as a clarion call to action reminiscent of Carson’s Silent Spring. Now that I’ve read it, I can say I understand what his point was – I always wondered how one could ever claim that nature was ending – and I can say that the book is extraordinarily weak.
Nature certainly can’t end, and it doesn’t matter whether we are here or not. He understands that, and, to give him credit, he understands the uncertainty involved in some of the scientific issues. His book is not an analysis of the claims and counterclaims on global warming or any other scientific question. It is basically a theological crie de coeur, an anguished wail of nostalgia and worry based on McKibben’s own personal theology of the sublime. He clarifies his title by saying that the end of nature means the end of an idea of nature, the idea of nature as something grand, sublime, separate from man, pristine and untouched by human civilization, and therefore spiritually uplifiting. Fundamentally, his view is that of American and some British aesthetes and intellectuals from the 19th century. (The image at the top of this post is a typical Romantic-sublime image of nature, painted by Albert Bierstadt.)
He never asks himself why this idea, one that is held by a tiny historical minority, is THE idea of nature that we must mourn. Of course, he’s perfectly right in assuming that this idea is widespread in our society, although not in quite the high-flown, intellectual form that is dear to him. Yes, we are all Romantics now, and that’s not too bad. That’s why we still have some national parkland left instead of having turned it all over to developers.
But in the end, McKibben is setting up a strawman to knock down. He galvanizes us with the outlandish claim that nature is ending. Then he tells us, of course it won’t end, but that the idea is dead. We can no longer look to the trees, the meadows, the deer, and find spiritual sustenance because it is all artificial. Why? Because we are changing the atmosphere, and therefore we have changed everything. Not to mention genetic engineering! The train of reasoning he advances is so simpleminded, so stacked to one side (in his mind, the employment of genetic engineering will inevitably lead to the elimination of natural forests to be replaced with geometrically regular plantations…) that I cannot take him seriously. His tract, and that’s what it is, has the merit of not pretending to be science. He’s that honest, but it does pretend to be philosophy, i.e, critical thinking, when it’s actually just an emotional rant, albeit a very polite one.
Basically, McKibben takes the Christian view of environmental issues. We are a fallen species, expelled from the Garden, and therefore all of our products and effects are in themselves tainted with sin and corruption. With the rise of industrialization, we have achieved the satanic power to royally foul our nest, and so we are recapitulating The Fall. He feels our pain.
Well, there are other ways of looking at it.