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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

September 15, 1996|Chris Goodrich

THE ONLY WORLD WE'VE GOT: A PAUL SHEPARD READER edited by Paul Shepard (Sierra Club Books: $16 paper, 330 pp.). Some scholars trace the decline of man no further back than nuclear weaponry; others point to World War I, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Edenic Fall. Paul Shepard for years has fingered the birth of agriculture--usually assumed to be our species' initial great leap forward--because he believes that "For every man whose life was improved by that agricultural revolution, hundreds lost health, freedom, and social dignity . . . from the beginning, agriculture failed our species, and now . . . it is failing the modern world. . . ."

Those are fighting words in any discussion of man's earthly role and in this volume Shepard goes at it hammer and tongs, drawing on biology, myth, anthropology, art and, above all, developmental psychology and physiology to argue that man's biggest mistake has been to separate himself from nature. Shepard is one of those writers more commonly cited than read, so it's good to get a more complete view of him here, even if the book makes one yearn for the work of his many admirers (Peter Matthiessen, Barry Lopez), who evoke more, quarrel less and don't bury readers under innumerable theories and facts (two things Shepard often fails to distinguish between).

But if he isn't the most effective writer, Shepard's most important points ring true: That man's pride in being self-made is misbegotten, having resulted in a perhaps fatal insulation from nature, and that man's history is rationalization more than explanation, the attempt to justify a "juvenile" hope to control nature. Want to annoy someone who's environmentally incorrect? Hand this book over and await the explosion.

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