About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, July 20, 2009

#63 - The End of Nature

During less ungodly hours, I finished The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006). The deceptively short book (186 pages) is apparently somewhat of a classic in environmental literature; it was originally published in 1989 and was one of the first books to discuss global warming in a manner laypeople could both understand and care about. Little has changed with this republication except for the author's introduction.

I need a new approach to reading non-fiction. It's not that I don't want to read it -- if I didn't, I'd stop checking the books out -- but I need to stop trying to read it the same way I do a juicy novel, where you just sit down and turn pages without any conscious effort. Reading non-fiction, especially on a subject I don't yet know much about, is much more deliberate, at least for me. It's horribly dorky, but I find myself taking mental notes as if I were doing the reading for a college class. This must say something about my learning style, though I'm not sure exactly what it is.

Anyway, this was an interesting and fairly readable book -- a bit unsettling and/or depressing, but given the subject matter, that's probably to be expected. In some ways, the book seems oddly quaint, and not in a good way; McKibben cites 1988's dramatic heat wave and Hurricane Gilbert as an example of the bigger, more devastating weather extremes we might expect; and I couldn't help but think that in our contemporary, post-Andrew, -Katrina, and -Wilma world, we've all but forgotten about the "good old days" when Gilbert was a big bad wolf. It also predates most of the first Bush administration, let alone those that followed it, which have changed the terms of the debate a bit. In short, McKibben's argument is that nature -- that is, as a force independent of and uncontrolled by/ unaffected by human beings -- is already ending, and global warming isn't a maybe, someday, eventually problem, but one we need to deal with Right. Now. (See how well we've responded in the last 20 years?) The book is divided into two sections; the first, titled "The Present" provides a short history of humanity's (in particular, the United States') concept of "nature," and describes the current (as of 1989) state of our natural environment. The second, "The Near Future," tells us why we should care, and what we can do about it. Specifically, he offers two options: one, which he calls "The Defiant Reflex," involves finding new, man-made, technological solutions to save the earth (which, he argues, might stabilize the temperature, but would still mean the end of nature as we now know it); and a second, "A Path of More Resistance," which calls for a new relationship between humans and nature, one in which human beings aren't of utmost importance, but respect and preserve nature for its own sake -- rather than as something that exists just for us to enjoy on weekends and vacations.

I had visions of writing a thorough review, complete with summary -- but I'm behind again and the book's already gone back to the libe, so this will have to do. Again, it's short, very accessible, and (especially together with Storm World) a good introduction to environmental literature in general and global warming in particular. (In fact, I've already added McKibben's Deep Ecology to my list -- admittedly, not a very exclusive club -- and am even more convinced that I need to go back even further and read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring to see where it all began.) Read it if the topic interests you even a little bit, and you're up for something sobering; if you want a bit more info or convincing, check out this review first.

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