Nature vs. "Nature"

Reading Bill McKibben's The End of Nature 22 years after its release in 1989 is a revelatory experience. For one, it's downright depressing to realize that most of the popular and political debate over climate change hasn't progressed since then, and in some ways has regressed. This has profound implications for the public policies we need to address climate change -- no political support means no policies means no hope of a solution. While the science has only grown more firm, and more widely accepted within the scientific community (according to two recent studies, 97 percent of climate experts think humans are responsible for global warming), the debate, or at least the image of one, hasn't died.

But we already know this. What's even more thought-provoking is a fresh look at McKibben's underlying thesis in the book: that the greenhouse effect has resulted in what he calls "the end of nature." I won't go into the theory in too much detail (read the book -- he explains it well), but suffice to say that he believes that the moment we started messing with the earth's climate, nature as we once knew it (i.e., separate from man) came to an end. At the moment, there was no part of the earth beyond man's influence.

This notion, for me, was a bit of a smack in the face. I've never had the pleasure of visiting a part of the world completely untrammeled by mankind -- somewhere no one has ever been, or perhaps where only a couple people have traveled so lightly that they left no visual evidence of their presence. I've only visited wildernesses and parks charted by hundreds, thousands, or millions of visitors before me.

Yosemite, for example, is wilderness only in the sense that it is a national park receiving certain protections. I've backpacked in Yosemite's backcountry on four- and five-day trips on many occasions, yet never had the sense that I was experiencing true wilderness, or pure nature. I was experiencing 21st-century man's vision of wilderness, but not the wilderness that existed before man arrived. Humans, especially in the numbers that visit Yosemite, leave indelible footprints: trash, trail markers, footpaths, granite staircases, wooden boardwalks and rails, and more trash. Ecologies change, ecosystems are tweaked, species are impacted, diseases are introduced.

This is a facsimile of nature, a simulacrum: what I'd call "nature." The feeling has always dogged at me on my wilderness trips: I've never felt the freshness of visiting something new, of seeing a natural scene entirely unspoiled by man.

In the real world, that's totally fine; we can't all realize this desire without destroying it in the process. But I've always fantasized about such places, and that's the important thing. I've fantasized that somewhere, there are places like I've dreamed about -- pristine lakes and forests and rives and valleys. Maybe a square mile, a single acre, a square inch; maybe a family of beavers, a school of fish, a single bird; something that has no idea man exists. Something that has never felt, consciously or unconsciously or in any other way, the stamp of humanity. Something that exists as it did before we came along. This simple fact would ensure that our longstanding perception of nature -- something separate from man -- has reason to persist. I've always known that these are places I may never see, but the idea of them existing was a source of great hope.

McKibben's theory lays this perception to rest. Whether or not you buy into it, the seed is planted. The possibility is there. At this point you must decide: Does it matter? Can nature be nature if man has changed it, or is it now something else? In researching the book on the internet, I came across this comment on Amazon.com on the book's ten-year reissue:

"McKibben believed that man's ability to change the climate would eventually make it impossible for anyone to see nature as quasi-sacred and independent of human meddling. In reality, man's respect for nature will surely increase, not diminish, as the earth warms up. Coastlines will disappear, hurricanes slam into cities, and summers sizzle. Whatever else global warming will do, it will humble mankind."

Clearly, this person pays no credence to the notion that man's meddling in nature should change his opinion of it. I, however, disagree. Respect for nature? Maybe, but it's not nature, after all. It's a nature of our own making -- a nature we've tried, but failed at preserving. It's the Yosemite kind of nature: "nature." And as for mega-storms and desertification humbling mankind? Not a chance.

We've already seen it happen, with record hurricane and tornado seasons and heat waves and water shortages and famines and wet winters and cold summers and off-kilter weather patterns around the globe in the four years since this person posted this comment, and man has not been humbled. Here in the U.S., politicians and voters alike still argue about whether global warming exists, and, despite the multifarious benefits of improving our environment, about whether it's worth spending any money on clean energy in the midst of a recession.

At the same time, we're no more willing to sacrifice our creature comforts and modern conveniences for the greater or long-term environmental good, even in the face of potentially catastrophic consequences. If anything we've become emboldened in our fight to retain an unsustainable way of life, and developing countries have followed our lead, worsening the odds for all of us. Our shortsightedness knows no bounds.

Maybe, given all this, the nature vs. "nature" question is moot. Maybe I am a holdout from an era when the notion of unspoiled wilderness and pure, true nature was important -- say, 30 years ago. Maybe it is an old-fashioned idea. Maybe it was already dead when McKibben wrote his book. But it is important to me, and has been throughout my life. The version of nature that I love and visit frequently in the Bay Area and throughout Northern California is a partially preserved, reconstituted, diminished version of nature. It's "nature," yet I still cherish it.

Just as important, or even more important (I'm not sure which) was my expectation that somewhere, something out there in nature is still entirely intact -- that the natural order has been preserved, unaffected by man, on some scale. I've never believed that nature was ours to own and overcome, but that it is ours to enjoy, make use of, and preserve as a separate, worthwhile entity in and of itself, forever.

According to McKibben we've failed on that third point, once and for all, because there is no going back. This diminishes our ability to fulfill the first two tasks, and it shakes a long-held hope of mine to its core, perhaps destroying it. I'll have to think more about it. I'll have to make more trips into "nature" including at one of my favorite places, Henry Coe State Park, set to be closed next year, and roll these thoughts around like a pair of river rocks in my palm. I'm not sure what I'll decide, but I am sure that McKibben's argument is a crucial one, even 22 years later.

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