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McKibben'sd End of Nature illustrates problems of artificial nature


Written by Bill McKibben.

Random House.

226 pages, $19.95.


THE MESSAGE OF The End of Nature justifies its ominous title: According to Bill McKibben, true nature, which was independent of human influence, has been replaced by an artificial nature in whose processes human beings play a part.

This concept may not seem frightening but McKibben points out that the changes we have made, and are continuing to make, in the chemistry of our atmosphere are not the kind of environmental changes we have experienced in the past. We cannot escape them by fleeing to the woods. We have progressed beyond removing parts of the earth from the domain of true nature -- through farming, mining, construction -- to actually altering the global processes that define our environment.

The human hand acting on the earth is not a guiding hand but a clumsy hand. Most of our influence on climate, for example, has been inadvertent. The new natural world we have made -- complete with changing temperatures, sea levels, and atmospheric chemistry -- will be less predictable and perhaps more violent than the natural world of the past. The human race has evolved in the old natural world that brings hurricanes and other natural disasters; on a large scale this is quite predictable. McKibben tries to give a sense of the magnitude of the risk we take as we fiddle with the controls of "spaceship Earth" (an expression McKibben uses and an idea whose implications he should have discussed).

McKibben's incisive discussion of the components of the environmental crisis is broad but detailed, and illustrated brilliantly in terms both human and scientific. He presents problems on a human level, measuring the biosphere in units of the distance to his mailbox, and lists possible consequences of environmental degradation ranging from floods and famine down to worsening asthma and hay fever. Even those with a very good understanding of environmental problems will be fascinated by the first three chapters.

More insightful still is his discussion of what is preventing the human race from halting this destructive trend. Just as human beings have the mental capability to take control of the Earth to the extent that we have, the ability to reason should also enable us to change our habits and outlooks as well as our technology. International cooperation, careful evaluation of the idea of infinite technological progress, and questioning the efficiency of free market solutions are all necessary for the change that will have to come about. But the solutions will have to go even deeper.

McKibben shows how tightly bound up the destruction of the planet is in our lives. Our cars, our houses, plastics, and pesticides are as much a part of the world we know as are the trees, waters, and hills that we live among. McKibben sets forth plainly that the human race will need to decide between our material world -- houses, cars, clothes -- and the natural world. "One world or the other will have to change." McKibben envisions a "humbler world" where our material excesses will seem absurd. In this world, he thinks, human beings could take a less dominant relation to nature, and nature might once again establish itself as independent, constant.

While this vision is fascinating and comforting, McKibben himself does not seem to think it is likely. He recognizes that human beings value themselves and their interests primarily and that these values will likely win out. A "managed world" in which human beings control the climate, genetics, and ecology is the most probable solution short of ecological catastrophe. McKibben values nature for its own sake; this result appeals neither to him nor to the reader.

The ending is rather optimistic, considering that McKibben does not describe in any detail how we will go from our current situation of continued and increasing environmental destruction to either of his two possible worlds. The book does not present a doomsday picture -- nor does it present real solutions. Instead, the book exposes the nature of the environmental crisis and leaves the reader with a lot to think about.