Has Nature Ended?

The question, “Has Nature ended?” can be as difficult to define as the answer is to be given. Humanity’s interpretation of what Nature is and what it represents has changed over the centuries. Through our social evolution “Nature” has taken on a multitude of meanings including locations, states of existence and even as one or more deities. Thus, in order to give a proper answer besides “Mu” it is necessary to take an instance of each definition and ask the question in the proper context.

The End of Nature is a book written by Bill McKibben in 1989. I’ve reviewed this book before, and while I’m not particularly keen on going over it again, McKibben seems to me to be an excellent representative of the viewpoint. In this work he expresses his distaste with the growing human population on the planet and the impact they have on his feeling of Nature:

In the summer, my wife and I bike down to the lake nearly every afternoon for a swim [. . .]. During the week we swim across and back, a trip of maybe forty minutes— plenty of time to forget everything but the feel of the water around your body and the rippling, muscular joy of a hard kick and the pull of your arms.

But on the weekends, more and more often, someone will bring a boat out for waterskiing [. . .]. And then the whole experience changes, changes entirely. [. . .]. It is not so much the danger [. . .]. It’s not even so much the blue smoke that hangs low over the water. It’s that the motorboat gets in your mind. You’re forced to think, not feel—to think of human society and of people. The lake is utterly different on these days, just as the planet is utterly different now.

– Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (p. 546)

His belief is that because mankind is somehow different and separate from Nature, any presence they have changes its meaning. He extrapolates this view of an altered Nature to the whole of the globe, a view that the entire planet is now fundamentally changed by our existence and influence. Later in the book he laments his own past actions against the environment (perhaps inevitably, as he is human), and engages in a guilt-ridden trek through the woods in a futile attempt to gain absolution:

We go to the woods in part to escape. But now there is nothing except us and so there is no escaping other people […]. Of course, the person I was fleeing most fearfully was myself, for I drive […], and I’m burning a collapsed barn behind the house next week […], and I live on about four hundred times what Thoreau conclusively proved was enough […]

– Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (p. 551)

Bill McKibben’s point of view seems to be that because human society is a thing separate, and different from his idea of Nature, its activities and expansion replace and change Nature into something entirely difference.

“Nature”, in the way I believe Bill McKibben defines it, can indeed be seen as a world apart, since we live most of our modern lives “away from the wild” in any significant capacity. Any time a person divorces their self from the daily routine it will seem alien regardless of what that new situation may be. It does not have to be Nature itself to feel this, though for the author, he may only get this effect from walking in the woods. Would he get the same feeling walking across the Sahara or the Arctic? He seems to view civilization in general as the thing that ends Nature, perhaps because modern humans do not ebb and flow with the blind hand of the environment as it is but instead seek to master it, defend themselves from it, and put it to use. His usage of the term “Nature” though is ambiguous as sometimes he uses it to refer to a physical location (the woods, a lake, etc.) and other times he refers to it as a philosophical ideal (being untouched and/or unknown to humanity). Though while it can be believed that he makes an error in conflating his feeling of Nature with particular locations, if it is to be answered whether Nature has ended or not, in this context the answer is a definite yes. Human society continues to grow and expand, and as a result the number of locales which have never known the touch of human influence shrinks daily. Now hat humanity at large had a negative influence on the ozone layer and had an effect on the global climate, there is nowhere left one can travel to and not think about how that locale has been altered by mankind.

While Nature as an idea may have ended if one follows the interpretation of McKibben, what about Nature as a physical environment? This point was partially covered already but was colored with the influence of the idea more than the places themselves. If Nature is viewed as synonymous with a physical environment where organisms can thrive, then the answer cannot be a resounding yes as before. Living organisms have the uncanny ability through natural selection and adaptation to fill every possible niche available. From arctic ice-worms to thermophiles in hot-springs, they will find a way to survive their locale. While mankind has the rare ability to alter its environment rather than adapt to it, the principle remains: life will find a way to survive.

As a direct or indirect result of the human species’ global success thus far (in regards to successfully growing in numbers), it has brought about numerous environmental changes that have both helped and hindered many of their fellow organisms. Domestication has created many new species and these species enjoy a greater success under human created environments than they would in the wild. Some in fact would most definitely become extinct without human intervention. For example, the bulldog has a high likelihood of becoming extinct in a single generation without human intervention. Due to breeding for larger skull sizes, the female bulldog is generally incapable of giving live birth to bulldog pups. A caesarean birth is almost always required. In contrast, pollution and expanding human environments alter and/or destroy existing locations which other organisms (including existing human communities) need to survive. This forces animals into extinction like the Dodo bird, or it forces them to evolve like the Peppered Moth. Either way it is clear that Nature has changed due to human influence, for better or worse.

For better or for worse? If the influence is for worse, than Nature may very well be on its way towards an end even if it has not happened yet. Rachel Carson’s influential 1962 book Silent Spring gives a grim insight into some of the results of maintaining civilization’s artificial environment. The main point of relevance to the topic is that in the struggle to maintain man-made environments, irreparable harm may result in the short term to ourselves and our own environment (centuries on an evolutionary scale). Because people change and develop their surroundings so fast, it generally does not give life a chance to adapt and evolve, and as a result it is at risk. Through radiation and chemicals, we cause damage at a fundamental level to living organisms. This damage occurs so extensively that it would take many generations to repair (Carson 7). Of course, with genetic destruction significant enough, “repair” is hardly a fitting word. Life would have to reinvent itself through harsh natural selection in the new environment, as these chemicals and the radiation does not disappear quickly. So as a result of our self-maintenance we may be unwittingly cutting our very legs out from under us.

While in the physical sense Nature may very well be on a path to its end, religiously it may have already been dead centuries ago. Animism, or an anthropomorphic view of a Mother Nature, or some Earth Goddess as an idea, fought its battle for the human heart and mind long ago. During the growth period of monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), Nature worship was viewed as paganism and its practitioners ostracized. A deistic view of Nature was transformed into a more mechanistic view of the world, subject to the commands of the new Deity and subsumed in its processes (Williams 37). Recently there have been some attempts at a revival of Nature related worship (Wicca and Gaia Theory), these are considered fringe beliefs by most societies.

Has Nature ended? As a religion it most assuredly could be said to be. Popular, modern belief systems seem quite divorced from the older ideas of Animism and the like. As an environment, it seems well on its way with pollution continuing to be a constant threat to the environment as a whole. Nature as an idea in a sense similar to that of McKibben may or may not have ended, but it is definitely not the same Nature our ancestors have enjoyed. Regardless of these contextual interpretations, perhaps what is more important is that despite these differences, what is more important is the question of what are the consequences of human civilization’s progress thus far, and what should the next step be?


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