Once upon a time 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 languages 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 to 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.
Extrapolating from McKibben’s position, every government on this planet can be seen as not only ignoring this fundamental reality but instead as ploddingly perpetuating what we collectively, as a species, need to recognize as our most fundamental and most egregious denial, a denial of confidence in nature’s own ability to heal itself, a denial of confidence in our own original wellspring, by seeking instead to manage it.