It’s Not the End After All

No matter how many more—and better—books he may write, Bill McKibben is destined to be remembered for “The End of Nature,” his 1989 bestseller about the greenhouse effect and its effect on, well, Bill McKibben. Written on the heels of the “greenhouse summer” of 1988, when record temperatures first stoked popular concerns about global warming, the book was an improbable salad of popular science and apocalypse that initially appeared in the New Yorker, when that magazine still published journalism in the prophetic mode. This particular jeremiad argued that since civilization had now with its greenhouse gases altered the very air, “nature has . . . ended,” for there is no longer any place left on Earth untainted by man. This discovery, the author tells us, had a “faith-shattering effect.”

On closer inspection, it turned out that what McKibben was really mourning was not the end of nature per se, but the end of a certain romantic and scientifically meaningless idea of nature conceived as the pristine opposite of culture, as “the world apart from man.” McKibben’s biggest contribution to environmental thinking in “The End of Nature” was to unwittingly expose the harmfulness of this idea, which deserves much of the blame for America’s schizoid, all-or-nothing approach toward the environment; we possess the unique ability to worship Edenic wilderness while paving over everything else. Once you conclude, with McKibben, that all of nature is fallen—that even the rain falling upon Yosemite “bears the permanent stamp of man”—you are left with his counsel of despair: “If nature has already ended,” he wrote, “what are we fighting for?” Indeed. And in one of those sentences any writer would sell his first-born to have back, he declared that “fighting for it is like fighting for an independent Latvia”¦”

In the six years since the publication of “The End of Nature,” Latvia has won its independence and McKibben has had the good sense to turn back from the bootlessness of his conclusion—to decide that, fallen or no, nature might still be worth fighting for. “Hope, Human and Wild” is a useful and surprisingly optimistic book that proposes to leave behind “the increasingly sterile debate between wilderness and civilization” and in its place offer “a vision of recovery, renewal, of resurgence.” McKibben is not quite prepared to admit his last book might have been wrongheaded, but he is ready to roll up his sleeves and get down to the hard work of mending our relationship to nature. “I’m done mourning,” he tells us.

McKibben’s journey in search of environmental hope takes him to three very different places; the Adirondacks of northern New York, where he lives, the Brazilian city of Curitiba and the southern Indian state of Kerala. First stop is McKibben’s “home place,” where an astonishing and little-noticed process of ecological recovery has taken hold. Like much of the eastern seaboard, the forests of the Adirondacks were long ago clear-cut, for fuel and to make way for agriculture. But as the farms began to fail early in this century, the eastern forest regenerated itself with remarkable speed. Not only in McKibben’s remote Adirondacks but even in my own exurban Connecticut woods, the beavers, wild turkeys, deer and coyotes have returned in force, and even the black bears and mountain lions are making a comeback. The recovery of the eastern forest, though incomplete and threatened anew by logging, is an important and heartening environmental story, and McKibben tells it with verve, holding it up as an example of “the grace of nature if people back off, give it some room and some time.”

“We have been given a second chance,” McKibben writes, in one of several passages that stand in vivid contrast to the anti-humanist gloom of “The End of Nature.” When he asserts that the recovery of the Adirondacks shows that “the world . . . will meet us halfway” and “the alternative to Eden is not damnation,” one has the feeling he is arguing not so much with his readers as with his earlier self. No matter; McKibben’s willingness to rethink past positions is laudable.

McKibben believes we will not right our relationship to nature until we abandon our culture of consumption and fossil fuel—what he variously calls our “mall fantasies” and “Baywatch world.” (Make no mistake, it is not just our habits but our values that McKibben wants to transform; this might explain why he is so quick to dismiss the possibility that our technology might also offer hope.) But it is one thing to preach living more modestly, quite another to lay out exactly what this might mean—and McKibben is courageous enough to do just that. With his two forays into what used to be called the developing world, he tries to disprove “the idea that only endless economic growth can produce decent human lives.”

Of the book’s two “models of . . . post-utopia,” Curitiba, a city of 1.6 million in the south of Brazil, comes off as by far the more appealing and useful. Under the imaginative leadership of Mayor Jaime Lerner, the city has made impressive strides in solving a variety of urban problems, beginning with the revitalization of its public realm and ending with innovative schemes for feeding and housing the poor, making buses more appealing than cars and picking up the garbage. (For the same money it would cost to haul garbage out of the slums, the city exchanges bags of groceries for bags of collected trash.) Curitiba offers the world a fascinating laboratory of experiments in urban planning and social policy, and McKibben’s spirited account is a salutary reminder of what even a financially strapped government can do to improve the quality of life and the environment.

If this sounds like a distinctly unfashionable message to bear back to America in the Gingrich era, then McKibben’s dispatch from Kerala, a poor, rice-growing state on the southern tip of India, is liable to seem positively off the wall. Kerala might well be a sustainable Third World utopia—literate, egalitarian, healthy and well-nourished, all the while “living lightly” on the land—but it’s hard to see how much other places can reasonably hope to borrow from it. McKibben sees Kerala’s attainment of well-being and social equality without growth as proof that “sharing works,” yet the radical redistribution that is at the core of Kerala’s achievement would never have come about had it not been for the election of a communist government. And for all its hand labor and low technology, Kerala’s economy, ironically, is closely tied to the First World culture of petroleum: some 250,000 Keralians work in the Persian Gulf and send most of their pay home.

But if there are problems with some of the specific models that McKibben has turned up, these seem finally less important than the search itself. Environmental despair is easy, McKibben suggests; he should know. Environmental hope is much harder to nurture, and it hinges on exactly the kind of detailed, nuts-and-bolts specifics that McKibben has thrown himself into with such winning enthusiasm. Writing of bus-door designs and traffic flows, cooperative farms and garbage pickup schemes might be less stirring than prophesies of doom—and may find fewer readers as a result—but it’s a whole lot more valuable too.

 
 
Michael Pollan