The End of Nature

English: Bill McKibben speaks at Rochester Ins...
English: Bill McKibben speaks at Rochester Institute of Technology about global warming, consumerism, the economy, and his organizations, 350.org and Step It Up. McKibben’s book, Deep Economy, was the common reading for all incoming freshman for the fall 2008 quarter at RIT. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Bill McKibben, Random House, @ 1989, 195 pages.

This book has been sitting on the shelf for a long time. I don’t remember when I bought it. It was published in 1989, which means much of the information is out-of-date, but it’s still an interesting read. McKibben’s central theme is that man’s activities have gone so far now [1989] that we are seeing a permanent end of nature—nature being defined as a force independent of man.

“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 word apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died. In the past, we spoiled and polluted parts of that nature, inflicted environmental ‘damage.’ But that was like stabbing a man with a toothpick; though it hurt, annoyed, degraded, it did not touch vital organs, block the path of the lymph or blood. We never thought we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces—the wind, the rain, the sun—were too strong, too elemental.”

This book contained several new ideas for me. One was that an explosion in the numbers of termites could occur from rising global temperatures. The logic goes like this. As temperatures rise, trees will be caught out of their climate zones and die. Termites will then move in and feast. Termites emit methane, like cows. So, global warming will be further fueled by methane from termites.

Also, methane ices are also expected to melt, releasing more methane.

And another reason not to engage in nuclear war: it would damage 30 to 70% of the ozone layer. (The ozone layer is what keeps us from being fried like toast.) And here, I was just worried about radiation poisoning.

McKibben also delivers the not so cheerful message that it is already too late:

“…scientists agree that we have already pumped enough gas into the air so that a significant rise in temperature and a subsequent shift in weather are inevitable.”

This 1989 book is dated. I found myself wishing I had a revised edition. One thing that did strike me as being very interesting primarily because I have a corn sensitivity and “corn” is one of those words that makes me stop and take notice was the following:

“Last fall, when American farmers finally harvested what corn crop there was and took it to the grain elevators, United States Department of Agriculture officials began to find a new trouble: corn samples from at least seven states—including Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, which grow close to have the nation’s crop—where found to be contaminated with aflatoxin, a fungus commonly found in topsoil. When overheated corn kernels crack, the mold rushes in. Aflatoxin is a potent carcinogen, known to cause liver cancer, and corn for human consumption can’t contain more than twenty parts per billion, while immature hogs are limited to a hundred parts per billion and mature cattle to three hundred.”

My dog had liver cancer. Dog food, like human food, is processed and has lots of corn in it. The animals we eat are fed high quantities of corn. I have to wonder if there is any connection, and also have to wonder if my dog was a canary in the coal mine, of sorts.

This book really picked up around the end when McKibben discusses genetic engineering. I have not kept up with the news items of this science even though I find them fascinating. And judging by what had already been accomplished by 1989, I am sure that my knowledge of what’s going on now is woefully out of date.

This is one of those areas where people are apt to say: This is complicated, you need to leave all this to the scientists. And to that I reply, since it has moral implications that can affect my family and me, I’m unwilling to do that. I believe that I have just as much right to think about and discuss these developments as I have a right to discuss rain and snow—and I’m not meteorologist. I am interested in the big picture. The picture of which I am a part. And it’s a gruesome picture indeed.

My tolerance for gruesomeness is kind of low, so I won’t get into vivid detail. Don’t get me wrong. McKibben doesn’t write anything that makes me want to close the book and walk away. This fairly long quote does a good job of explaining his point:

There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there. We like to imagine that we’ve already crossed a bridge or not yet come to it. Some people tend not to worry much about genetic engineering, for instance, because they think it’s an extension of traditional practices, such as selective breeding. But nature put definite limits on such activity: Mendel could cross two peas, but he couldn’t cross a pea with a pine, much less with pig, much less with a person. We could pen up chickens in atrocious batteries, but they still had heads. There were restraints, in other words—limits. And our understanding of what those limits were helped define nature in our minds. Such notions will quickly become quaint. The idea that nature—that anything—could be defined will soon be outdated. Because anything can be changed. A rabbit may be a rabbit for the moment, but tomorrow ‘rabbit’ will have no meaning. ‘Rabbit’ will be a few lines of code, no more important that a set of plans for a 1940 Ford…”

An this makes be think of the 2045 project:

“‘Eventually,’ says Stableford, ‘there may well be a complete breakdown in the distinction between living and nonliving—the boundaries between the two will be blurred and filled in by systems which involve both the machinery of life and the machinery of metal, plastic, and glass.'”

“It is the logical outcome of our defiant belief that we must forever dominate the world to our advantage as we have dominated it in the last hundred years.”

“The idea that the rest of creation might count for as much as we do is spectacularly foreign, even to most environmentalists.”

“Many of those who take the biocentric view are, of course, oddballs, the sort who would walk two thousand miles instead of flying.”

I’m not sure I see things quite the way that McKibben does. I am less likely to be so completely at odds with minor tweaks of our natural environment. But I too, would also hate to see an end of nature. Surrounded by mass plantings of monocultures and hiding from the cold in either my house or my car, I feel very disconnected from nature. Much more than I have in years. I am hesitant to say that nature does not exist any more in an unaltered form. I believe it still does in Idaho. But at least where I live, except for some raptors, coyotes, song birds, and deer, my view of nature seems largely diminished from where I grew up.

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