Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The End of Nature

Long, long ago, in scorching-hot 1988, Bill McKibben was busy writing The End of Nature, a book that cranked up the global warming warning sirens.  It was the first climate change book written for non-scientists, and it was a smash hit.  It makes an eloquent effort to convince those entranced by the dominant culture to radically change their thinking and lifestyles, this week if possible, because the biosphere is more damaged than we think.  It’s about living with great care, fully present in reality, and pursuing the healing sanity of voluntary self-restraint.

The root issue is that human cleverness has succeeded in creating so many brilliant ideas that we’re blindsiding nature.  This does not mean we’re eliminating all life on Earth.  It means that humankind has spawned powerful cultures that no longer blend in smoothly with the rest of the family of life.  The biosphere can no longer run on autopilot, because humans are fooling around in the control room and, despite good intentions, are piling up an impressive collection of devastating misjudgments.

If we look at the world of 500 years ago, we can observe a number of blotches resulting from human activities, but the atmosphere remained fairly close to its original condition, as did the oceans, and much of the planet’s land surface.  The seas were loaded with fish, and millions of bison thundered across North America.  Overall, the world largely remained the domain of Big Mama Nature.  It was able to shake off the punches from human activities.

In the last 200 years or so, this has changed.  Human cleverness is now capable of causing disturbances that are global in scale.  These include DDT, ozone holes, radiation, acid rain, and an unstable climate.  The dominant culture is discharging pollutants that affect the biosphere everywhere.  Humankind has (temporarily) forced nature out of the pilot’s seat.  This is what is meant by “the end of nature.”  Legions of radicalized consumers are now vigorously rocking the boat, to a degree that exceeds nature’s ability to compensate and maintain balance.

In recent decades, our techno-juggernaut has invented a new and improved way of suppressing nature, genetic engineering.  This represents an enormous advance in our mistake-making talents.  By fooling around with gene splicing, we are beginning to interfere with evolution’s autopilot.  Highly specialized mistake makers have pushed us beyond the amateur level of mere biosphere destroyers.  They now strive to control the future of the family of life, by fooling around with matters that were once the sole domain of the Creator.  What could possibly go wrong?

Genetic engineering gave McKibben intense nightmares.  It’s a technology with fabulous potential for creating multitudes of unintended consequences; bizarre surprises that the mad scientists could have never imagined.  Some manmade organisms might survive for millions of years, affecting the biosphere longer than nuclear waste.  Obviously, GMOs are absolutely unnecessary for our long and challenging return to balance with nature.

McKibben is a good thinker, a good writer, and a good-hearted human being.  He’s an environmental wordsmith who is also a Christian, providing a perspective that is not common in green literature.  The end of nature deeply offended his beliefs.  Many Christians don’t get much farther than the instructions to “multiply and subdue,” which imply that God made the world for us to dominate and exploit.  McKibben knew that the scriptures could be annoyingly inconsistent.  He was fond of the Book of Job, which teaches that humans are not the center of the universe, and wilderness is not ours to trash.

As the dominant culture furiously thrashes the planet, glaring questions arise — why doesn’t God stop us?  Did he die, or move away?  McKibben sidesteps the sixth chapter of Genesis, where God realized that creating humans was a huge mistake, because they turned out to be remarkably wicked.  God corrected his blooper by bringing “a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.”  Today, humans are the ones executing the end of nature, not the Creator.  No other species is so clever — or so willing to mindlessly imitate a pissed-off sky god.

The End of Nature is also notable because it does not reek with a pungent anthropocentric stink.  The path to healing requires the abandonment of human superiority, a deadly brain fever.  McKibben concurs with Dave Foreman, “Each of you is an animal, and you should be proud of it.”  It’s not easy for us to accept that we are delicious two-legged meatballs wandering around in the food chain, and that the rest of creation is at least as important as we are.

Green wordsmiths rarely reveal a profound love for the natural world, maybe because it’s unprofessional, or because they have no spiritual connection to life, the norm in this society.  The focus for many green thinkers is finding a way to maintain our “high standard of living” while leaving no scars on the ecosystem, an absurd and impossible quest.  Usually, their primary objective is generating enough electricity to keep their gizmos glowing and humming.  Food is lower on the list, and population reduction is nowhere to be seen.

Lately, hysterical electricity addicts have been hallucinating that nuclear energy is the silver bullet solution.  McKibben noted that if we quit burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, and switched to nuclear, our carbon dioxide emissions would only drop 30 percent, because much of our economy cannot run on electricity (ships, planes, trucks, trains, etc.).  Furthermore, carbon dioxide is only half of the greenhouse gases we are releasing.  Alas, there is no free nuclear lunch.

McKibben loved nature.  While writing, he lived in the Adirondacks, and he gushed with adoration for the surrounding forest and mountains.  Outdoors, he felt the presence of God far more than when he sat indoors among a congregation of holy rollers.  God created nature, not cities.  One of God’s great delights was annihilating cities, according to the scriptures.

McKibben confessed that he’s also an American who enjoys the cool things that modern living provides, and he has no desire to live in an unheated cabin.  Modern living is so comfortable.  Unfortunately, it’s beating the stuffing out of nature.  There is a vast chasm between the way of life we enjoy, and a sustainable life.  If we were rational, we would leap into “an all-out race to do with less.”  Instead, we desperately cling to a blind faith in technological miracles that will magically eliminate all need for living intelligently.

A memorable portion of the book describes the author’s sincere struggle to find answers, tirelessly wrestling with hordes of demons and inconvenient truths.  He tries so hard to find workable approaches, but there are no quick and easy solutions.  Centuries will pass before balance returns.  But our biggest obstacles are psychological, and radical change is not impossible, in theory.

The nations of the world actually cooperated in sharply reducing the use of DDT, and ozone-eating CFCs, because the risks clearly exceeded the costs.  Fossil energy is different.  Billions of people literally cannot survive without oil.  Therefore, the radical changes we need will not happen anytime soon, if ever.  We can continue living like there’s no tomorrow, or we can make a heroic effort to encourage a gentler collapse — McKibben’s preference.

To recharge his sanity, he enjoys stepping outdoors at night, and gazing at the stars.  The rest of the universe is still as wild and free as it ever was.  What could be more inspiring?

McKibben, Bill, The End of Nature, Random House, New York, 2006.  [1989]


Riversong said...

Speaking of the Book of Job, I had a visiting lecturer at my college many years ago, a philosophy professor from CA, named Herbert Fingarette, who might be said to be a radical. That is, he preferred to go to the root.

When he became interested in Chinese philosophy, for instance, he taught himself to read Chinese. When he wanted to understand the Old Testament, he learned ancient Hebrew.

One of the things he found in reading the original Book of Job, was that what is almost universally mistranslated as Job hearing "the voice IN the whirlwind", which gave him perspective and led him to let go of his false certainties, was in reality "the voice OF the whirlwind".

What gave Job the insight and wisdom to let go of his narcissistic insistence in his own righteousness was hearing the actual voice of Wild Nature.

Thom Hawkins said...

One of your best posts, Richard. Thanks.

What Is Sustainable said...

Thom, thank you! I hope you're mending well.

What Is Sustainable said...

Riversong, thank you! Eighteen years ago, when I was a young hope fiend in my 40s, I wrote a long and rowdy rant, Only the Poets Can Save Us Now. The following is a snip:

In 1945, a farmer named Mohammed Ali found an ancient jar near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Among the contents of this jar was a book containing the Gospel of Thomas. This gospel of Jesus' life had never been edited, corrected, clarified, or blessed by the official Holy Roman Church. Perhaps the words of the Gospel of Thomas are clearer and cleaner. Perhaps they contain less static from pagan cults.

In chapter 113 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is talking about the nature of heaven — God's kingdom. He said that it was not an event that would occur in the future. Here is what he said: "The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it." In other words, Heaven is where your feet are standing.

Jesus was baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit, went to the wilderness, and spent 40 days in the company of the giant trees, the wild animals, the birds and the bees, and the wee folk — the angels. This experience flooded his heart with profound knowledge that later sent shock waves through the civilized world. Heaven is all around you. Give away your wealth and live a life of unconditional love. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you — make the forest happy with your songs, and the forest will make you happy.

Forty days in the wilderness — five vital words — perhaps the most important words in the entire Bible. Five words that clearly describe exactly where the treasure lies, where the Holy Spirit is to be found, where the mystery of Heaven is revealed, where one can throw off the chains of civilization and find beauty, love, meaning, and salvation.

A weekend trip won't do it. A two week quest won't do it. It takes forty continuous days to unwind, to forget your past, to become purified, calm, trusting, loving, open, and receptive. It takes forty days to begin to catch mind-exploding glimpses of the perfection of Creation, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Seek and ye shall find.

The interiors of churches are imitations of the wilderness where Jesus quested, the sacred grove. The high walls are the massive tree trunks, and the high vaulted ceilings are the canopy of foliage. The music of the church represents the songs of the animals, the birds, and the breeze. The burning incense reminds us of the fragrance of blooming blossoms. The church is a poor imitation of the wilderness. I encourage you to do what Jesus did — seek out the real thing. Maybe you'll find what Jesus did.