Amid Nature's Glory, a Writer Urgently Warns of Its Passing

updated 10/16/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/16/1989 01:00AM

Bill McKibben hit the Manhattan fast track early and hard. Recruited directly out of Harvard by the New Yorker editor William Shawn, he was soon being touted as the magazine's most promising young talent. But when Shawn was unceremoniously fired in 1987, McKibben took the opportunity to slow down his life. At age 26, he quit his job at the New Yorker and with his wife, writer Sue Halpern, moved out of Manhattan to the Adirondack mountains in New York. There, amid the wooded splendor, he began to seriously research an issue that had first caught his interest as a magazine writer: the gradual suffocation of the earth by an invisible umbrella of chemical pollutants in the atmosphere. "It frightened me and shocked me that people weren't paying attention to it, "says McKibben. "I wanted to explain the scientific facts to people and also convey my love for nature." He has done both eloquently in his new book, The End of Nature, which he discussed with senior writer Susan Reed.

What do you mean by "the end of nature"?

An idea, a relationship, can become extinct just like an animal or a plant. In this case the idea is "nature," a world apart from man to which he adapted. In the past we spoiled and polluted parts of nature, but that was like stabbing a man with toothpicks: It hurt, but didn't touch vital organs. The idea of nature will not survive the new global pollution. We have deprived nature of its independence—and independence is its meaning.

What have we done to make nature so massively vulnerable?

The atmosphere has always contained a certain amount of carbon dioxide, which by virtue of its molecular structure traps sunlight to warm the earth. If there were no carbon dioxide, our world would probably be so cold as to be lifeless. A little bit of the greenhouse is a good thing. But today millions of tons of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorine compounds are being pumped into the stratosphere, and scientists predict that this will elevate the temperature of the earth from 3 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit over the next several generations.

How will that affect the earth?

There are an infinite number of possible effects. For example, the seas may rise seven feet or more as polar ice caps melt and the warm water expands, while the interior of continents may dry up because of increased evaporation. If the sea level were to rise one meter, storm surges would become crippling dangers to places like Galveston, Texas. In Massachusetts, up to 10,000 acres of oceanfront land might disappear by 2025. Heat waves in mid-American latitudes could run up to 130 degrees. Crops would wither; rivers could evaporate, severely upsetting commerce, irrigation and wildlife.

Might there be political effects as well?

In addition to endless physical conjectures, there are endless political ones. Some countries might conceivably see themselves as potential "winners" in a climatic change; the Russians, for instance, may decide, shortsightedly, that an increased harvest from a longer growing season is worth the risk of global warming.

What are the major sources of chemical pollution in the atmosphere?

Smokestacks, furnaces and car exhausts. The average American car driven the average American distance—10,000 miles—in an average year releases its own weight in carbon in the form of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The world was shocked when 11 million gallons of oil were spilled in the wreck of the Exxon Valdez. What they're not realizing is that if the ship had reached its destination safely and the oil had been burned in power plants and car engines, it would have released about 60 million pounds of carbon into the atmosphere.

How do pollutants affect the ozone layer?

Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, are now used to refrigerate 75 percent of the food consumed in the U.S. and to propel much of the world's aerosol spray. CFCs stay intact for a century or more and slowly rise into the stratosphere. When they get there, they destroy ozone, a molecule that absorbs incoming ultraviolet radiation from the sun. In 1985, the British Antarctic Survey at Halley Bay in Antarctica reported a huge hole, as big as the continental U.S., in the ozone layer above the South Pole.

Is anything being done about that?

The ozone hole was enough of a shock to spur many politicians to action. In 1987, 24 countries agreed to halve CFC production by the year 2000. Last spring British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called for a total ban on CFCs. Not all politicians agreed though. President Reagan's Interior Secretary, Donald Hodel, said that Americans worried about skin cancer or retina damage should simply wear straw hats and sunglasses.

How is the burning of the rain forests contributing to the greenhouse effect?

Trees are largely composed of carbon, and the dense, layered rain forests contain three to five times more carbon than an open, dry forest. The burning of the tropical forests, particularly the Amazon, releases up to 3 billion tons of carbon a year into the atmosphere, compared with 5.6 billion tons from fossil fuels.

Do you think it is too late to avoid a calamity?

If we continue to use energy without restraint, scientists say that we're likely to raise the earth's temperature 3 to 9 degrees within the next hundred years. Obviously it makes a hell of a difference whether it's 3 or 9. One number represents something unpleasant, the other something desperate. There's no mystery about what's going to happen. Still, I'm unwilling to say we're at the end. That would be like believing there's nothing after death, which I don't accept either.

What should we be doing?

We must act, in every way possible, and immediately. We must cut back on our use of fossil fuels. We must conserve, plant trees, perhaps even swallow our concerns and build some nuclear power plants. We must also limit population growth. The choice of continuing to burn more oil and coal is not a choice.

Will such adjustments be enough?

No. Changing the way we think is at the heart of the problem. As the effects of man's domination of nature become clearer, a few people have begun to talk about a biocentric view of the world instead of an anthropocentric one—a world in which people are a part of the world, like bears, instead of at the center, controlling everything.

How would that view translate into action?

I'm not intrinsically attracted to radical ideas anymore: I have a house and a bank account, and I'd like my life, all other things being equal, to continue in its current course. But all other things aren't equal. We live at an odd moment in human history when the most basic elements of our lives are changing. The damage we have done to the planet makes me wonder if there isn't a humbler alternative, one that would let us hew closer to what remains of nature, and give it room to recover, if it can. Unfortunately, most politicians agree that economic growth is a wonderful idea. But as conservationists have noted, endless growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

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