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It's Not the End After All : An environmental doomsayer recants, deciding that man can do a lot to protect and restore nature : HOPE, HUMAN AND WILD, By Bill McKibben (Little, Brown: $22.95; 227 pp.)

November 26, 1995|Michael Pollan | Michael Pollan is the author of "Second Nature: A Gardener's Education."

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."

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