The huge amount of media attention lavished upon this year’s celebration of Earth Day was foreshadowed in the earlier enthusiastic reception accorded Bill McKibben’s environmentalist tract, The End of Nature. Deeply flawed as it is, McKibben’s book is also the latest incarnation of what Edith Efron has called apocalyptic environmentalism, an impulse in which “spurious knowledge is . . . used to rationalize [the] expectation of catastrophe.”
The discourse of apocalyptics is generally overwrought and hysterical. In this limited sense McKibben, a young staff writer for the New Yorker, offers something of an exception to the rule. The End of Nature is in part a lyrical evocation of the joys of unspoiled nature, and only in part a jeremiad directed against mankind for despoiling the environment and endangering the lives of many species (our own included). McKibben writes, moreover, in a graceful and informal style. Yet his chief aim is clearly to frighten us with what he regards as the likely consequences of ozone depletion, acid rain, and—in particular—the greenhouse effect.
McKibben’s book has been successful largely because of its alarmism. For this reason, it warrants comparison with another work by a New Yorker writer that made a tremendous splash less than a decade ago but is now quite deservedly forgotten: Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth. McKibben himself invites the comparison, referring to Schell’s plea for nuclear disarmament and noting that the “invention of nuclear weapons may actually have marked the beginning of the end of nature: we possessed, finally, the capacity to overmaster nature, to leave an indelible imprint everywhere all at once.” Schell can even be said to have anticipated McKibben’s argument in his observation that nature, “once a harsh and feared master, now lies in subjection, and needs protection against man’s powers,” and in warning specifically against “the peril of gradual pollution of the natural environment—by, for example, global heating through an increased ‘greenhouse effect.’ ”
Schell took elaborate pains in advancing a thesis that was never particularly controversial—namely, that full-scale nuclear warfare would be profoundly undesirable—and in propounding radical and simple-minded proposals for averting holocaust. Our “task,” he proclaimed, “is nothing less than to reinvent politics: to reinvent the world.” Ignoring the huge and obvious differences between totalitarian and democratic societies, Schell naively advocated the creation of a world government to guarantee peace: “Our present system and the institutions that make it up are the debris of history. They have become inimical to life, and must be swept away.”
With the benefit of not very much hindsight, Schell’s fears today seem quite hysterical, his proposed solution altogether irrelevant. Nor is hindsight really necessary. Schell’s argument rested on the assertion, borrowed from Bertrand Russell, that “unless we rid ourselves of our nuclear weapons a holocaust not only might occur but will occur.” Russell’s assertion had been refuted a generation earlier by Raymond Aron: “For the risk of a war that might be the suicide of all belligerents,” wrote Aron, Russell and those who thought like him “substitute the certainty of such a war.” And if nuclear war was less than likely in the late 40’s and early 50’s, by the late 70’s and early 80’s its prospects were much more remote still—which may be one reason for the hysterical tone of Schell’s doomsday scenarios.
For his part, McKibben can be said to share Schell’s proclivities; like Schell, he asks us to treat a remote possibility as an effectual certainty. Thus McKibben asserts baldly that “the scientists agree that we havealready pumped enough [carbondioxide] into the air so that a significant rise in temperature and a subsequent shift in weather are inevitable.” In fact, however, there is nothing like a scientific consensus on this issue. Leading meteorologists like Richard Lindzen of MIT and statisticians like Andrew Solow of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution deny that a significant temperature rise is likely. Increases in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide over the past century, they note, have failed to result in discernibly higher average temperatures. Similarly, a 1989 Marshall Institute report—” Scientific Perspectives on the Greenhouse Problem”—concludes that “current forecasts of global warming for the 21st century are so inaccurate and fraught with uncertainty as to be useless to policy-makers.” And according to a recent study in Science, ten years of temperature measurements by weather satellites have failed to find any evidence of global warming.
It is not even clear that global warming would be altogether undesirable if it were to occur; moderate temperature increases would certainly make some places less habitable, but they would also make other, chillier places more habitable. Whereas McKibben hypothesizes that as a result of global warming American food exports “might fall by 70 percent,” a study just published in Nature suggests that American farmers would gain $3.5 billion in annual revenues (and that America would have no problem feeding itself) even in the face of huge temperature increases of as much as ten degrees Fahrenheit. But no such considerations are allowed to qualify McKibben’s unassailable belief that the end is nigh.
If McKibben and Schell share the apocalyptic temper, however, it is also true that no two apocalyptics are exactly alike. Indeed, in this case the differences happen to be of some interest. Of the two, McKibben emerges in some ways as by far the more radical.
Consider the passage from The Fate of the Earth (quoted by McKibben) where Schell argues that nuclear peril “should be seen at the very center of the ecological crisis.” Schell justifies this position as follows:
Both the effort to preserve the environment and the effort to save the species from extinction would be enriched and strengthened by this recognition. The nuclear question . . . would gain a context, and the ecological movement, which, in its concern for plants and animals, at times assumes an almost misanthropic posture, as though men were an unwanted intruder in an otherwise unblemished natural world, would gain the humanistic intent that should stand at the heart of its concern.
Now, the “humanistic intent” Schell calls for here is precisely what is missing from McKibben’s book. The End of Nature deplores man’s interactions with nature, past and present, and attacks our dominion over nature in terms like these:
We sit astride the world like some military dictator, some smelly Papa Doc—we are able to wreak violence with great efficiency and to destroy all that is good and worthwhile, but not to exercise power to any real end.
In his opposition to man’s interference with nature, McKibben is a sort of fellow traveler of the “deepecology” movement. Deep ecologists accord to nature an ethical status at least equaling that of humans. They reject the anthropocentric (or “shallow”) ecological position which accepts human primacy over nature, and which seeks merely to make us better stewards of our environment. Their contrasting standpoint is well illustrated by Rutgers ecologist David Ehrenfeld, who wrote in 1978 to oppose medicine’s elimination of the smallpox virus. In Ehrenfeld’s view, it was wrong to discriminate in this way against a small virus whose only function is to prey on human beings. McKibben for his part asserts that efforts by geneticists to increase harvests and to weatherproof them are “awful”—an assertion not calculated to persuade the millions of poor people who today experience not the abundance but the penury of nature.
As against the prudential conservationist position which recognizes the obvious goods that accrue to us through the continued existence and expansion of wilderness areas and other natural preserves, while seeking at the same time to channel natural forces for the benefit of man, McKibben reports quite sympathetically on the deep-ecological views of the likes of Dave Foreman, a leader of the radical environmentalist group, Earth First!, who has said that “the industrial empire [is] a cancer on the earth.” Acting to root out that malignancy, Foreman was arrested last year for conspiring to cut down power lines. McKibben says nothing to condemn Earth First! for its general policy of “monkey wrenching”—violating the law (and, if need be, endangering human life) to sabotage the development of natural resources.
But then the basic moral and political premise of deep ecologists—that nature, like people, has rights—does not easily square with the notion of law, or indeed with the notion that government is legitimized by the consent of the governed. The difficulty is that only people-not trees and rivers—can vote, choose representatives, make their preferences known. And that is precisely why self-appointed representatives of nature like Foreman reject the relevance of popular consent; to them, representative democracy is unacceptably “anthropocentric.” Much to be preferred is the muteness of nature, whose “rights” can only be represented by those presuming to speak on its behalf.
In The Fate of the Earth Jonathan Schell wrote that one of the problems with the doctrine of nuclear deterrence was that it “is limited to living people—it leaves out of account the helpless, speechless unborn.” He invoked the need “to cherish the lives of the unborn. . . . Instead of being asked not to kill our neighbors, we are asked to let them be born.” Though one would be hard put to imagine Schell as a right-to-lifer, his bien pensant politics were quite compatible with a pronounced sympathy or the unborn of the species.
McKibben, by contrast, is attracted to the politics of zero—or, more precisely, negative—population growth. He suggests that human reproduction today is irresponsible. He and his wife, for example, want to have a child, but this is a longing that ought really to be overcome: “When the problem was that someone might drop the Bomb, it perhaps made sense to bear and raise sane, well-adjusted children in the hope that they’d help prevent the Bomb from being dropped. But the problem now is precisely too many children, well adjusted or otherwise.” More remarkably still, McKibben blandly reports “some deep ecologists” as saying that the world’s human population “shouldn’t exceed a hundred million.” Thus, in McKibben’s alarmist tract, the virtual disappearance of the world’s population—the very catastrophe Jonathan Schell wrote his alarmist tract to avert-emerges as an almost desirable outcome.
The rhetoric of love for mankind that underlay Jonathan Schell’s brand of nuclear apocalyptics was often overblown and empty-headed (“Let us love one another—in the present and across the divides of death and birth”). But for all of that, it was preferable to the callous and cold-blooded contempt for humanity characteristic even of so seemingly affable an environmental apocalyptic as Bill McKibben.