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Mother Nature as a Hothouse Flower : THE END OF NATURE by Bill McKibben (Random House: $19.95; 230 pp.)

October 22, 1989|David M. Graber | Graber is a research biologist with the National Park Service

If you feel a wrench in the gut when both American and Soviet astronauts remark that from their space perches the Earth today appears pockmarked with deforestation, dulled by smoke and everywhere marred by human activity, then "The End of Nature" may be more than you can stomach. If my little description generates an irritated yawn, skip both the book and this review.

Bill McKibben has written a graceful, witty and tragic essay about the consequences of global warming caused by the Greenhouse Effect. His conceit is this: "An idea, a relationship, can go extinct, just like an animal or a plant. The idea in this case is 'nature,' the separate and wild province, the world apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died . . . The greenhouse effect is a more apt name than those who coined it imagined. The carbon dioxide and trace gases act like the panes of glass on a greenhouse--the analogy is accurate. But it's more than that. We have built a greenhouse, 'a human creation,' where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden."

McKibben is saying that we have crossed some invisible line in our relationship with the Earth. For better or worse, we now are living on a man-made planet. Until anthropogenic global warming, the changes we wrought on the landscape were local, however grand. Whether we hunted and fished, cleared land and farmed it, or built cities, planetary forces continued to operate as they always had. The seasons, the wind and rain, the sunlight operated beyond the scope of human meddling. If, God willing, a tract of land was abandoned, nature reclaimed it. Nature was boss.

But that is all changed. McKibben reviews the scientific evidence for global warming and finds it about as certain as scientific prognostication gets. He does a nearly impeccable job of delineating the scientific history of the theory--it goes back a century to Svante Arrhenius, who amazingly intuited this side effect of the Industrial Revolution practically at its birth. In 1957, Roger Revelle and Hans Seuss, of Scripps Institute of Oceanography, calculated that all this industrial CO2has nowhere to go but into the atmosphere; a year later, Charles Keeling began his momentous monitoring of global CO2levels at the South Pole and Mauna Loa that would reveal a steady annual increase.

Although the long-term implications were clear to quite a few scientists, it wasn't until the 1980s that James Hansen of NASA and Stephen Schneider of the National Center for Atmospheric Research began confronting Congress and the press with the consequences of this phenomenon: Mean temperatures will have risen 3 to 8 degrees by sometime in the middle of the 21st Century. This rate of change signifies a profound alteration of global climate, and in turn will radically alter agriculture, human occupation patterns and the distribution of the Earth's natural ecosystems. Most of this change will not be beneficial to the planet's human inhabitants. Ecosystems do not care what happens to them, but some of us may perceive the changes as a tragic loss of biological richness.

McKibben sees in this the death of wildness: "We have not ended rainfall or sunlight; in fact, rainfall and sunlight may become more important forces in our lives. But the 'meaning' of the wind, the sun, the rain--of nature--has already changed."

There is more. Our growing skill at genetic manipulation may enable us to tailor the life forms we wish to survive our altered planet. "What will it mean to come across a rabbit in the woods, once genetically engineered 'rabbits' are widespread? Why would we have any more reverence or affection for such a rabbit than we would for a Coke bottle?"

That is the gist of it. Books like this are supposed to end with an escape hatch. If we should all agree to use less energy and pollute less and . . . and then nature will survive. But as McKibben points out, it is too late. Global warming is already entrained; we are in for the ride, ready or not, and so are our innocent fellow travelers. Of course, as bad as things are, we always can make them worse. Nature may be finished, but there is still our own goose to cook. The climate will continue to heat until we sharply curtail the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Barring cold fusion or other nonexistent technologies, that requires a "reversal--not a cessation" of industrial growth.

I think McKibben's conceit is false. There is no chalk line between man and nature that we have crossed. We contaminated the planet with atmospheric hydrocarbons and metals beginning with the Industrial Revolution. The Atomic Age wrote another indelible signature in radioisotopes on every bit of the Earth's surface. DDT and its kin appear even in the Antarctic ice.

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