The End of Nature
Global Warming: Are We Entering the Greenhouse Century?
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.