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THE EARTH IS ENDANGERED, AND WE MUST RECLAIM IT
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THE EARTH IS ENDANGERED, AND WE MUST RECLAIM IT

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Every so often I read a book that makes so profound an impression that I am compelled, to the point of boorishness, to recommend it to everyone I know. The End of Nature (Random House, $19.95), by Bill McKibben, is such a book. Rarely is a work at once so depressing and engrossing.

McKibben writes regularly about science and nature for The New Yorker. He and his wife live in upstate New York, in the woods of the Adirondacks, where they take long walks, swim in the local pond in summer and ride bicycles. Their bucolic existence sounds idyllic, and ecologically sound. They are living the close-to-nature life so often cited, but not often practiced, during the 1960s.But as McKibben gathered material for his articles, he became increasingly concerned about the future of our planet. He is no prophet of doom, no shrill environmental fanatic. But as he inexorably builds his case - fact by fact, line by line - there can be little doubt that he is right. And the implications of the rightness of McKibben's argument are staggering, so staggering that I have not yet fully come to terms with them.

McKibben's thesis, to put it bluntly, is that we as a species have so badly messed up our environment that it will never be the same again. We have officially come, as he says, to the ``end of nature' - the end of the period in which nature existed as a separate, distinct, self-renewing and roughly predictable entity, the object of our awe. We have permanently altered nature - scarred it, really - and now it is ours to shape, for good or ill.

The chief culprit in this sea change is the great Industrial Revolution, in which we have all prospered, but during which we have belched masses of carbon dioxide into the environment. The price for this coal- and oil-fired excess is the ``greenhouse effect,' the accelerated warming of the earth that scientists now say is a certainty.

If you've read recently that there are serious doubts in some quarters about the greenhouse effect's existence, don't count on it. McKibben documents the fact that every scientist who's studied the problem agrees that it is real; the only disagreement is over its timing and scope.

We have already increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air by 25 percent in the last century, and that figure is expected to double in the next. Computer models based on these predictions estimate that the global average temperature will increase from 3 to 8 degrees F sometime during the next century.

When you're talking about averages, that's a very big increase - enough to make deserts where there are now green pastures, enough to melt glaciers and increase sea levels substantially, enough to make the proverbial long, hot summer a permanent fixture on the calendar.

Part of McKibben's point, though, is that we can't know what all the effects will be. (One reputable scientist even predicts that global warming will summon a new Ice Age, but I won't pause to explain that theory here.) All we know for sure is that the warming will occur, and that it will have totally unpredictable consequences - an even more unnerving thought.

Where today we can be reasonably sure of the change of seasons, and of the coming and going of months when we can anticipate hurricanes, tornados and other natural disasters, we will no longer be able to make such predictions. There may be hurricanes long after October, or there may not; chances are, though, that warmer ocean waters will make them more severe when they do come.

The list of mind-boggling possibilities goes on. When you add to the greenhouse effect the consequences of atmospheric ozone depletion, which McKibben does, you introduce another unknown: the penetration of increasingly deadly ultraviolet rays into our environment. Not only will we be warmer, we will also be exposed to harsh sunlight that will burn our eyes and skin. Heavier ultraviolet concentrations also have unpredictable effects on other species, both animal and plant, and none of them is very comforting.

Even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, no flaming environmentalist, has been urging a total ban on production and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs are chemicals used primarily in refrigeration, air conditioning and aerosol products; released into the air, they break down the earth's ozone layer.

Some studies show that ozone concentrations have already declined as much as 3 percent in the last 20 years, much faster than predicted. A 20 percent ozone reduction, which some are predicting for the next century if a ban isn't enacted right away, would mean that a two-hour stint in the sun would blister exposed skin.

Ah, you say, but humans have overcome great adversity in the past. Surely modern technology will devise some strategy for either slowing these phenomena or altering them.

That's partly true and, as McKibben points out, such strategies are already in the works. One of them is genetic engineering, which could give us varieties of grain more resistant to increased heat and to more ornery pests, and trees that will grow faster and taller. Genetic tinkering could also lead to plumper, more perfect chickens and assembly-line beef, all nourishment for a population kept alive longer by the latest medical technology.

There's also a school of thought that emphasizes environmental management as the key to the future. Noah-like, we would create special preserves for formerly wild animals; we would use all the technology at our disposal to manage agriculture, the weather and other ``variables.'

The only problem with this human-centered approach, apart from its Orwellian potential, is that it does not take into account the unknowns of the greenhouse effect and ozone depletion. These changes appear to be accelerating so quickly that even our vaunted technology may not be able to cope. We will still survive as a species, but at the expense of other life forms and in artificial settings that will have little resemblance to the nature-based existence we currently enjoy. The world's poor countries will not be able to partake of much of this high-tech wagon-circling, either.

McKibben's way out is more difficult: That we agree to scale back our energy-sotted lifestyles in order to slow the destruction of nature and restore a semblance of balance between man and the environment. This means gradually lowering the global population, too, because current population growth puts almost any solution out of reach.

Impossible? Perhaps. But doing nothing is a form of slow suicide, as McKibben and others see it. It's not just a question of forever changing (and, in some cases, eliminating) our cherished notions of nature, from walks in the woods to swims in the ocean. Without sounding unduly apocalyptic, it is increasingly a question of planetary survival, and the time to begin work on it was yesterday.

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