In the opening lines of the Bible, having brought forth the world and everything in it, God makes his inaugural address to Adam and Eve. “Be fruitful, and multiply,” he tells them, “and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” God’s first, foundational decree explicitly casts the relationship between humanity and nature as one of separation and control. The whole sorry business with the serpent, the forbidden fruit, and the banishment doesn’t come about for another two chapters, but if you were in the mood for a little heretical revisionism you might argue, just for fun, that the true original sin can be located not in man’s first disobedience, but in God’s first command. The attitude toward nature that He defines and sanctifies with those words is, after all, precisely the attitude that led human beings to exploit nature so ruthlessly, and for so long, that the planet is now in danger of becoming unlivable for vast numbers of its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman. Our adherence to this view of the world and our place within it, in other words, has amounted to its own kind of Fall.
This fragment of Genesis appears in the final pages of Nathaniel Rich’s Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade. It’s quoted in reference to a work by the Brazilian-American conceptual artist Eduardo Kac, in which he translated part of the verse first into Morse code and then into DNA base pairs, before finally inscribing them into a bacteria culture, displayed in a petri dish at an Austrian gallery. “Visitors flashed the bacteria with ultraviolet light,” writes Rich, “introducing mutations, which were translated back into English.” Rich is interested in Kac’s work because it addresses the strained and complicated relationship between the natural and the unnatural. Rich’s premise, and Kac’s, is that this is an unsustainable distinction. To put it in biblical terms, the line between obeying God and playing God is as blurry as that between domesticating animals for agriculture and creating chimerical creatures in laboratories.
Kac is best known for GFP Bunny (2000), a work that involved splicing an albino rabbit with a green fluorescent protein (GFP) from a bioluminescent jellyfish, so that it appeared to glow bright green. The subsequent media controversy, Rich argues, tended to miss the most interesting aspect of the work, which was that there was nothing particularly radical about what Kac had done. The phrase “genetically engineered rabbit” is itself a kind of pleonasm, he points out, because pet rabbits are already manmade creatures, domesticated through many centuries of breeding practices and consumption patterns. The same can be said of so many of the animals we are most familiar with: cats, dogs, chickens, cows, and so forth. What we think of as natural is often as manmade, and as newly constructed, as the concept of nature. “What we still, in a flourish of misplaced nostalgia, call ‘the natural world’ is gone, if ever it existed,” Rich writes in the book’s introduction. “Almost no rock, leaf, or cubic foot of air on Earth has escaped our clumsy signature.”
The most radical plans to curb humanity’s all-consuming effects on the planet—the rewilding movement, for instance, or the biologist E.O. Wilson’s proposal to designate half of the world a nature preserve—necessitate extraordinary levels of human intervention. There is no going back to Eden, in other words. The only way is forward:
Even in the most optimistic future available, we will profoundly reconfigure our fauna, flora, and genome. The results will be uncanny. It will be difficult to remember that they will be no more uncanny than our carpeting of the American Southwest with lush lawns transplanted from the shores of the Mediterranean, our breast-augmented chickens, our taming of the world’s most violent rivers.
This book is a collection of essays—many of them published, over the last eight years or so, in The New York Times Magazine—all of which proceed from the premise that nature is (and always has been) what we make it. Its ten parts are arranged into three sections. The articles in the first part, “Crime Scene,” are about people living with, and seeking restitution for, the environmental consequences of corporate greed and stupidity. The second section, “Season of Disbelief,” features stories about people struggling to come to terms with the unwieldy dimensions of a changing natural world, from lab-grown chicken to the radically altered urban ecosystem of post-Katrina New Orleans (where Rich has lived since 2010). In the third, “As Gods,” he writes about a series of efforts to reengineer nature—restructuring coastlines, resurrecting extinct animals, and creating entirely new ones, like that glowing rabbit.
Rich’s previous book, Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change, was a deeply reported and tightly plotted account of the scientists who brought climate change to light in the 1980s and the fossil fuel industry lobbyists who prevented anyone from doing anything about it. That book was written in the Michael Lewis style—authorial self-effacement, with cinematic pacing and characterization—and told the story of a small band of extraordinarily dedicated functionaries who went up against a force of blank institutional evil. In this sense, it circumvented the difficulty of fashioning an engaging and cohesive narrative from a phenomenon as vast as climate change.
In The Second Body, the English writer Daisy Hildyard wrote that climate change brings about a “derangement of scale—a sense of confusion that is caused by the huge gap between the immensity of the human’s global existence and the smallness of your own private everyday life.” It disrupts the human habitat, she suggests, “in that our tiny homes and even tinier bodies are bearing down on distant, huge, unknown things, and vice versa”; the smallest half-conscious acts of one’s own body, “such as turning on the kettle, or turning down the thermostat, are transformed…into momentous political decisions which have global impact.” Global warming is caused by humans doing (and not doing) things, and it can only be negotiated by same; but its immensity challenges such traditional narrative concerns as plot and character. To think seriously about it is to risk a loss of faith in human agency.
Rich mostly deals with this problem by ignoring it. His stories are concerned with our strange new reality, but he tells them in a way that retains space for old-fashioned heroism. About the only thing that climate change does not threaten to disrupt and obliterate in his writing is the individual, and narratives built around the individual. Throw a stone through one of his stories, and you’ll hit a guy in a rumpled suit going up against some other, fancier-suited guy. Losing Earth was shoulder-to-shoulder rumpled-suit guys, and Second Nature, too, has its share. The first essay, “Dark Waters,” is, in this sense, classic Rich; it’s one of the book’s more enthralling sections, though it sits a little uncomfortably with the collection’s larger theme of the post-natural uncanny. It’s an investigative story about a lawyer who spends decades doggedly pursuing a case against DuPont for poisoning the water supply of a small West Virginia town with unregulated chemicals from one of its plants.
Robert Bilott, the lawyer at the center of the essay, is a rumpled-suit guy par excellence. When we meet him, he’s just made partner at a Cincinnati firm that specializes in representing chemical companies; a farmer named Wilbur Tennant turns up at his office and convinces him to take a case against DuPont, which happens to be one of the firm’s major clients. (Bilott is initially swayed because Tennant knows his grandmother and came to him largely through that connection.) The Tennant family sold part of their farm to DuPont some years previously. Since then, chemicals from the nearby DuPont plant have been causing the Tennants’ cattle to fall ill with weird illnesses, killing three quarters of the herd.
Rich’s evocation of this corporate pestilence is unsettling. These cows, he writes, “drooled uncontrollably. They birthed stillborn calves. Their teeth turned black. Their pink eyes glowered murderously. When they saw the farmers, they charged.” After Tennant’s sister-in-law encounters a cow in its last uncanny convulsions, making “the awfullest bellow you ever heard, the blood just gushing out of its nose and mouth and rectum,” she refuses to walk the property without a loaded gun. It’s not just the cattle, either: dogs and cats and fish are dying in startling numbers. And the deer, writes Rich, “lay down in groups, like members of a suicide cult.”
The poisonous substance in the water is called PFOA, a chemical unregulated by the EPA. Unsurprisingly for a chemical used in nonstick coatings like Teflon, it cannot be broken down or metabolized by the human body; it is what’s known as a “forever chemical,” which stays in the bloodstream and accumulates over time, causing cancer and other grave illnesses. Bilott discovered that DuPont had known for many years that PFOA caused testicular, pancreatic, and liver cancers in lab animals. When its scientists developed a less lethal alternative in 1993, the company declined to put it into production. “The risk,” Rich writes, “was too high: products manufactured with PFOA were worth a billion dollars in annual profit. After 3M ended production of PFOA, DuPont built a new factory to make the substance itself.” It’s quite a while since I’d been genuinely shocked by an instance of corporate psychopathy, but this certainly did the trick for me.
Like a lot of Rich’s work, the essay is structured and narrated in a broadly cinematic style. (In 2019 it was adapted into Dark Waters, an elegant, efficient corporate thriller directed by Todd Haynes and starring Mark Ruffalo as Bilott.) Rich writes of how Bilott, having obtained a court order for every document in DuPont’s possession relating to PFOAs, received more than 100,000 pages in dozens of boxes—a malicious technique known to lawyers as “burying them in paper.” Bilott gave up on lunch breaks and stopped answering his phone: “His secretary explained to callers that Mr. Bilott could not hope to reach his telephone in time, because he was trapped on all sides by boxes.” The essay, and the collection as a whole, is filled with such neat set pieces.
As with Lewis, you get the sense at times that Rich is casting his subjects as he writes. He has a revealing habit of introducing people with reference to films or actors. An ecologist who features in a story about a strange plague causing the mass putrefaction of sea stars is said to have “a private-eye quality”; if you put him in a “fedora and distressed suit he could pass for Jake Gittes,” Rich writes, alluding to Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown. There’s an environmental campaigner who gets described as “a Kris Kristofferson type.”
In an essay about an attempt to reclaim the rapidly retreating Louisiana coastline, a guy shows up bearing “a passing resemblance to Gérard Depardieu.” A few pages later, Rich suggests that the reader picture a Louisiana attorney named Gladstone N. Jones III as “a mid-career Fred Gwynne.” I belong to the presumably nontrivial portion of Rich’s readers who have no clue who Fred Gwynne is—at least I didn’t until I put the book down to go and look him up, and then cross-reference his face against that of Gladstone N. Jones III. I didn’t see much resemblance, but I did watch some clips of Gwynne’s performance as the country judge in My Cousin Vinny; it was an enjoyable enough way to spend a few minutes, though it hardly served Rich’s authorial purposes. (Conversely, I found myself hoping that Rich might at some point describe Bilott as looking like a more heavyset Mark Ruffalo. No dice.)
I recalled John McPhee’s admonishment of such shortcuts:
You will never land smoothly on borrowed vividness. If you say someone looks like Tom Cruise—and you let it go at that—you are asking Tom Cruise to do your writing for you. Your description will fail when your reader doesn’t know who Tom Cruise is.
Tom Cruise seems a safer bet than Fred Gwynne, but McPhee’s point stands. Over the length of the collection, I sometimes had difficulty keeping my rumpled-suit guys straight, struggling to distinguish a Kristofferson from a Depardieu.
Such shorthand in Rich’s essays can feel like a dereliction of the real work of characterization, which is not to say that his more considered descriptions disappoint. Here, for instance, is how he introduces Bilott in “Dark Waters”:
Bilott spoke cautiously, softly, with a lawyer’s aversion to making unqualified statements. Stress played around the corners of his eyes. He was at great pains to conceal the furious energies behind his composed demeanor, but on occasion, when speaking about some injustice done to him or his clients, an inner anger flashed through a sudden wince or scowl.
Ironically, Rich conjures Bilott well in noting that he tends to play a carefully rehearsed role as an “interchangeable corporate lawyer”—a role that did not come naturally to him because, unlike most of his colleagues, he did not attend an Ivy League college or law school.
What links “Dark Waters” to the collection’s deeper themes is the unsettling realization, building through the piece, that DuPont’s iniquity extends well beyond poisoning the water supply in rural West Virginia. Because of PFOA’s prevalence in a bewildering array of products—nonstick cookware, waterproof clothes, food packaging, carpets, electronics, dental floss—it is invisibly omnipresent in contemporary life. “If you are reading this during the first quarter of the twenty-first century,” Rich writes,
you already have PFOA in your blood. It is in your parents’ blood, your children’s blood, your lover’s blood. How did it get there? Through the air, through your diet, through your use of nonstick cookware, through your umbilical cord.
Most of us are aware that our bodies contain toxic substances heedlessly proliferated by ruthless corporations, but Rich’s writing slowly and patiently reveals the terrible uncanniness of what we already know.
It’s in this uncanniness, this pervasive sense of the post-natural, that he finds his most productive seam. One short but powerful section tells the story of Nate Park, the son of a central Illinois butcher who is working “to make his father’s calling obsolete” by creating lab-grown chicken that he hopes will be sold in Walmart and, eventually, replace actual chicken as a food source. It seems a tall order, but Park’s company is convinced it’s achievable. The plan is to first market this lab-grown meat in nugget form; “chicken nuggets,” Rich writes, “were the easiest way to introduce a skeptical public to cultured meat, especially because a nugget’s claim to being chicken was tenuous.”
Rich doesn’t explicitly make the point, but it leaves you wondering whether lab-grown chicken is any more uncanny, any less appetizing, than the meat that currently winds up on our plates. There is certainly nothing very natural about those debeaked, hormone-pumped aberrations that can barely stand upright for the succulent weight of their hypertrophied breasts. We’re already a long way from “nature,” and we have been for as long as anyone can remember.
In “Pigeon Apocalypse,” a virtuosic excursion into the so-called de-extinction movement, we meet a biologist named Ben Novak, who runs the Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, aimed at sequencing the DNA of the bird, extinct since 1914, in order to resurrect it and reintroduce it to the wild. Until the 1880s, the passenger pigeon was the most populous vertebrate in North America, accounting for 40 percent of the continent’s birds. One of the book’s most arresting passages details their insane prodigiousness in the American wilderness. Here is the explorer Zebulon Pike, writing in 1806:
The most fervid imagination cannot conceive their numbers. Their noise in the wood was like the continued roaring of the wind, and the ground may be said to have been absolutely covered with their excrement.
Flocks were calculated to have contained billions of these svelte, pastel-shaded creatures. Rich quotes a nineteenth-century Wisconsin hunter on the immense sound emitted by the flocks: “A roar, compared with which all previous noises ever heard are but lullabies”; he characterized it as “condensed terror.”
Scientifically speaking, bringing back an extinct creature like the passenger pigeon would be a difficult and complex project, involving a restructuring of the genome from surviving DNA, but by most accounts an eminently plausible one. The more interesting problems, though, are philosophical and ethical. If we have a moral responsibility here, what is it? Given that the creature went extinct thanks to our own actions, and given that we may soon have the power to bring it back, are we obliged to do so? Or are we obliged to do precisely the opposite, nature having already taken its course? And what, in this situation, does “nature” even mean? Was our obliteration of this species, along with many others, a natural phenomenon? And if so, would our sequencing its genome, recreating it in a lab, and releasing it back into an ecosystem it has been absent from for over a century be just as “natural” as our wiping it out in the first place? Our most sophisticated technologies, after all, are hardly less natural than a beaver’s dam, a termite mound, or a pigeon’s nest.
The implications of such an act of resurrection become even stranger when you consider that, were we to bring back the passenger pigeon (or any other lost creature), it could never be the same species as the one that went extinct, but rather some creative approximation. It would, in other words, be a man-made beast. So what might at first appear to be a restoration of a lost order of nature, an undoing of humanity’s desecrations, would really inaugurate an entirely new order, in which humans were essentially going around thinking up new creatures and setting them forth to multiply. As bizarre as this prospect might seem, Rich is careful to point out that humans have, as he puts it, “been in the business of making monsters for thousands of years.” We domesticated aurochs into cows, red jungle fowl into chickens, and wild boars into pigs. “People grow up with this idea that the nature they see is ‘natural,’” as Novak puts it, “but there’s been no real ‘natural’ element to the earth the entire time human beings have been around.”
The title of the final section of the book, “As Gods”—which contains “Pigeon Apocalypse,” along with a comparatively slight story about a project to radically extend human life spans via the genes of an immortal jellyfish, and a meandering tripartite dispatch from post-Katrina New Orleans—is an allusion to a quote from the writer Stewart Brand, the publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, which is often seen as setting the techno-utopian mood of the Internet’s early days.
The quote recalls Francis Bacon’s characterization of his scientific work, and by implication that of the scientific method itself, as rescuing humanity from its fallen state. Bacon saw science and technology as the means by which we could reclaim our former oneness with the divine. The “true ends of knowledge,” he wrote, were in
a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power (for whensoever he shall be able to call creatures by their true names he shall again command them) which he had in his first state of creation.
The path of knowledge that led us out of Eden will, if we follow it long enough, eventually lead us back.
Toward the end of the essay about the glowing green rabbit, a sculptor who works with living, lab-grown tissue tells Rich that the function of his art is to seek out “zones of discomfort,” exposing areas of life that people have not yet developed the language to describe. It’s a productive phrase for Rich, because it functions as an oblique description of his own project. “Enlightenment,” he writes, “lies not in renouncing reality but in seeing it more clearly. Art, even flawed art, helps us to understand our own place in an unfamiliar landscape.”
Though Rich’s book is hardly what you’d call a polemic, the stories in it gather toward an argument, which could be seen as a less nakedly utopian version of Bacon’s aims. There are over 7.5 billion of us on a rapidly warming planet; the seas are rising, the forests are burning, and every year hundreds of species go the way of the passenger pigeon. There is no reversing the Fall. There is no going back to whatever might be meant by “nature.” We must become “as gods,” not in order to return to a state of prelapsarian wholeness, but to move forward to some kind of livable future.