Aboard Febus in the West Indies: Thoughts about McKibben’s classic, “The End of Nature”

Dear Reader: I wrote this article as my editorial contribution while as Executive Editor of the CASBA Journal  way back in 2004. But the subject matter is as topical and as environmentally critical today as when I first composed the article. Enjoy!


Earlier this summer I was blessed to share the brilliant water, precise clarity, and tight quarters of a smallish sailing sloop named Febus, among the tiny dots of land know variously as the Antilles, or West Indies, places variously on or off the tourist track. Places where the languaDSCN0071ges are variously French, Dutch, and increasingly, English. Where the sky is humid, the seas toasty, and everyday cares seemingly remote. Along the way I read, quite deliberately, Bill McKibben’s classic 1989 essay The End of Nature.

McKibben described the impacts of industrial greenhouse gas production upon the global ecosystem. His conclusion: inasmuch as human activities are now the predominant contributors to earth’s atmosphere, we are, wittingly or not, responsible for the results. Wittingly or not, we now have assumed management responsibility for earth’s climate. Hence his title: the domination of human activities over nature signifies the real end of nature itself.

Henceforth human activities, human management, witting or not, will determine nature’s course. If human activity increases the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, the climate will change accordingly. If human activity decreases carbon dioxide production, the global climate will respond. Paraphrasing the old Outer Limits byline, We control the horizontal, we control the vertical. We can make it warmer, we can make it cooler.

His is an accurate description of the philosophical, moral, and pragmatic results of industrial technology’s domination over the natural environment, and the profound message is that the ecosystem itself is no longer a self-regulating entity independent of an single species, but rather a subset, a side effect, of human activities. Wittingly or not, our activities dominate, master, and administer to the global ecology and so the continued viability of every living thing on, above, or below the face of this once-virgin earth, not least our own small selves: this is the essence of McKibben’s essay. Yet as we all know our governments not only ignore this fundamental reality but instead ploddingly perpetuate what collectively is perhaps our most egregious and most fundamental denial.

Aboard Febus, drinking from our great sky dome whose CO2 content is rising, breathing in our warmer sea in whose waters dead corals lay, I took sustenance in the following and it became my mantra: we who would build with straw build on the side of lesser greenhouse gases, not more. Weighing in with our thoughts, deeds, and actions, our choice is on the side of a once-virgin Nature, a Nature that once upon a time was sovereign, beyond the base scrappings of any single species.

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