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Paradise Lost

The End of Nature

by Bill McKibben
Random House, 226 pp., $19.95

Global Warming: Are We Entering the Greenhouse Century?

by Stephen H. Schneider
Sierra Club Books, 317 pp., $18.95

Bill McKibben lives in the Adirondack Mountains, of New York State, in an isolated house some twelve miles from the nearest town. He works as a writer and spends much of his leisure time hiking in the surrounding woods. He regularly attends a Methodist church because he likes the fellowship, loves to sing hymns, and finds meaning in the Old and New Testaments. But he finds the presence of God mostly in the outdoors. He says that, like many people in the modern era, he has been troubled by a crisis of religious belief and that he has “overcome it to a greater or a lesser degree by locating God in nature,” declaring,

Most of the glimpses of immortality, design, and benevolence that I see come from the natural world—from the seasons, from the beauty, from the intermeshed fabric of decay and life, and so on.

For McKibben, nature proclaims eternity, an intricate harmony made particularly appealing by its permanence—“the sense that we are part of something with roots stretching back nearly forever, and branches reaching forward just as far.”

The End of Nature expresses a sensibility resembling that of the natural theologians of the nineteenth century, who searched assiduously for evidence of God in nature’s particulars. But the resemblance is superficial. McKibben is not a theologian, and, while he sees the earth as “a museum of divine intent,” he is not interested in its phenomena as keys to revelation or in its intricacies—how, for example, beetles live or mountains form—as specific evidence of design. What absorbs him is not so much the facts of nature as the idea of it, the idea of a nature that is raw, wild, untainted by man. To McKibben’s mind, we need unspoiled nature in its rounded seasons—“so that we can worry about our human affairs secure in our knowledge of the eternal inhuman.”

McKibben’s book ranges over features of nature around the world, but his sensibility is especially American, drawing from the powerful Edenic theme in American culture, from the American perception of the continent’s unspoiled natural environment as a garden of innocence. As he comments on a nineteenth-century traveler’s description of a lovely valley in the region of the Missouri River:

If this passage had a little number at the start of each sentence, it could be Genesis; it sticks in my mind as a baseline, a reminder of where we began.

Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who bridled when, at ease in a forest clearing, he heard the blast of a distant train whistle, McKibben resents the intrusions into nature of human technologies and their ravages. The quiet of the wilderness behind his house is daily broken by the screech of air force jets flying sub-radar practice runs. But while pesticides taint the water table, acid rain injures the trees and pollutes the lakes, and the Chernobyl accident irradiated vegetables in Europe, he believes that such abominations can be halted and nature returned to normal. He has observed that the air force jets return to base, that “most of the day, the sky above my mountain is simply sky, not ‘airspace.”’ He writes,

We never thought that 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.

But he now believes that we have wrecked it. The End of Nature is an attempt to explain how and why. The book travels both inward, through personal reflections, and outward, seeking to identify a crisis that is not only public but spiritual. It is part popular science and part poetry, a sensitive and provocative essay of alarm, a kind of song for the wild, a lament for its loss, and a plea for its restoration.

By the “end of nature,” McKibben does not mean the end of the world. He means the end of “a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it,” a demise begun by “concrete changes in the reality around us—changes that scientists can measure and enumerate.” Among the disturbing changes is the depletion of the ozone gas that normally forms a protective layer high in the earth’s atmosphere. Ozone is a molecule of oxygen made up of three oxygen atoms. Its depletion was first recognized in 1985 when a gaping hole was discovered in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The catalyst of the depletion was the release into the atmosphere of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a family of man-made chemical compounds that can perform various services, notably making spray cans spray and air conditioners cool. Ozone molecules are much less abundant than the type of oxygen essential for the breathing of living organisms, but they play an important part in the biosystem: they prevent much of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, which can be highly injurious to life, from penetrating to the earth’s surface.

One of the scientists who discovered the relationship between CFCs and ozone depletion is Sherwood F. Rowland of the University of California at Irvine. McKibben reports that, during the course of his work, Rowland came home one night and told his wife, “The work is going very well, but it looks like the end of the world.” For McKibben, what has truly, and more profoundly than anything else, brought about the end of the natural world is the greenhouse effect.

An ordinary greenhouse becomes warmer than the air outside it by trapping radiation from the sun. The sun’s rays, having entered through the roof glass, are partly reflected back up to the glass, which in turn reflects some of them back into the greenhouse space. In 1896, Svante Arrhenius, the eminent Swedish physical chemist, pointed out in a brilliant article, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature on the Ground,” that the earth and its atmosphere form a natural greenhouse.1 Carbonic acid consists of—and in the atmosphere dissociates into—water and carbon dioxide (CO2). The carbon dioxide comes from the joining of carbon and oxygen, one of the most common chemical processes on the earth. It occurs in the burning of carbon-abundant organic matter, including forests ignited by lightning or coal and oil fired by man.

Carbon dioxide is a trace chemical in the air, only a few hundred parts in every million air molecules, yet even that small amount acts like the glass in a greenhouse, trapping some of the solar radiation that constantly bathes the earth. Without the greenhouse trapping, the reflected radiation would escape into outer space, and the earth would be some sixty degrees cooler on the average than it is. But we can have too much of a good thing. Arrhenius, who wrote his article primarily to account for the type of climatic swings that had produced the ebb and flow of glaciers, calculated that a tripling of the amount of CO2 from then-current levels would raise Arctic temperatures as much as sixteen degrees Fahrenheit.

Although industrial growth has stimulated a steady increase in the burning of fossil fuels—and, as a result, a steady increase in the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere—CO2 concentrations have increased no more than 25 percent since Arrhenius’s day. The oceans soak up carbon dioxide, and so do plants and trees. However, the ocean does not have an infinite capacity for absorbing CO2, and even though trees and shrubby forests still cover some 40 percent of the earth, deforestation has been taking place at an accelerating rate. For example, McKibben points out that, in the century before 1975, the Brazilian state of Para lost 18,000 square kilometers of forest and in the decade after 1975 ten times as much. Almost half the rise in atmospheric CO2 since the beginning of the industrial era has occurred in the last thirty years. Moreover, other trace atmospheric gases that have also been pouring into the atmosphere—notably the CFCs and methane—intensify the CO2-induced greenhouse effect by between 50 and 150 percent.

Human beings have produced the CFCs, and human beings are at least partly responsible, if indirectly, for the methane increase, even though the gas is generated by a variety of natural processes—for example, the breakdown of organic matter by bacteria in such locales as rice paddies and the guts of cows and termites. It can be argued that people, by killing trees, have made more dead wood for termites to feed on. Certainly they have raised more and more cows and rice to nourish the rapidly growing human population.

The climatic impact of CO2 was a relatively obscure public issue as late as the mid-1970s. The attention currently being given to it owes much to the weather of the 1980s. According to a British study, the decade was already the warmest on record when the brutally hot spring and summer of 1988 came along, blistering streets in US cities, bringing drought and crop disasters to many farms, and feeding a seemingly endless fire in Yellowstone National Park. Suddenly, the greenhouse effect commanded alarmed consideration on the front pages, the broadcast networks, at celebrity benefits, and in the United States Congress, where, at a hearing on the subject in June 1988, Senator J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana publicly worried about the 101-degree temperatures in the capital and the ruin of soybean, corn, and cotton crops. In testimony at the hearing, the respected climatologist James Hansen declared that the warming of recent years was 99 percent likely to have been a greenhouse result. He said, “It’s time to stop waffling so much. It’s time to say the earth is getting warmer.”

Stephen Schneider, who is head of Interdisciplinary Climate Systems at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colorado, as well as a prominent climatologist, had been laboring for some years to draw attention to the greenhouse effect. He notes that

in 1988, nature did more for the notoriety of global warming in fifteen weeks than any of us or the sympathetic journalists and politicians were able to do in the previous fifteen years.

The provenance of that notoriety worries scientists like Schneider. The heat of the 1988 summer could have been a random event, a local statistical variation on a steady climate. It is scientifically indefensible to take it as hard evidence that the greenhouse effect has become an urgent reality. Even Hansen hedged about the significance of 1988, declaring that one year’s weather was not indicative of a climatological trend (while adding that the greenhouse effect “increases the likelihood of such events”). Scientific integrity aside, if a few relentlessly hot years stimulate public alarm about global warming, a few benignly cool ones might well dissolve the alarm into indifference. The press is fickle, and the kind of attention now paid the issue by people such as Bonnie Reiss, an enterprising activist and entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, might give an environmental scientist the shivers. While at a global warming conference, Reiss had what she calls “this great awareness…like ‘Field of Dreams.’ If you do this it will happen.” So she did it, rising to say of the onrushing global hazards, “Wouldn’t one mention of any of this on ‘The Cosby Show’ do more than all your scientific books combined?”2

  1. 1

    The paper, an extract from a more extensive version that had been presented to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, December 11, 1895, appeared in the Philosophical Magazine, 41 (April 1896), pp. 237–276.

  2. 2

    Anne Taylor Fleming, “Turning Stars Into Environmentalists,” The New York Times (October 25, 1989), p. C 8.

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