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College Quarterly
Fall 2010 - Volume 13 Number 4
Nature's End: History and the Environment
Sverker Sörlin & Paul Warde, eds.
Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

This morning I spent a few hours leafing through some manuscripts that, by some admittedly lax standards, are certifiable “antiques.” One was a lecture given by Professor Herbert Dingle at the Royal Institute of London on the centenary of the Crystal Palace. He compared the scientific outlook in 1851 with that of 1951. You do not have to be either a particle physicist or a postmodernist to catch his point.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, he argued, the world was composed of definable matter which dutifully obeyed clear and comprehensible laws. The universe was orderly, and it was required of us only to learn its laws to achieve understanding of our surroundings and of our place in what was undoubtedly the “order of things.” A few years later, in 1857, the great French historian Ernest Renan (1823-1892) announced with utterly unfounded confidence that all the questions posed by science would be definitively answered by the end of his century. It was an optimistic time.

Dingle went on to say that, in 1951, scientific knowledge, as the Victorians understood it, had been erased. Einstein, Planck and Heisenberg had made it clear that science never proves anything with finality, and that we can have no unqualified knowledge of the nature of … well, nature. All scientists can do is render some hypotheses false, but as for the rest, the most we can hope for is a very high level of confidence that our predictions will pan out. So, when I stand in front of a class and toss a piece of chalk into the air, I can confidently predict that it will fall back down; but, as David Hume (1711-1776) informed us a scant quarter of a millennium ago, we can’t be absolutely  sure what will happen next until the chalk obeys what we call the “law of gravity.” Correlation has largely replaced causation and that little gremlin, contingency, lurks in the shadows ready to pounce on the unsuspecting. The fact that, in my experience, the law of gravity has always prevailed over a piece of chalk’s upward trajectory is no necessary reason to believe it always will and must. The laws of physics, like everything else are relative. They don’t apply everywhere or all the time. Just ask the denizens of a “black hole” or watch light “warp” around a significant celestial object.

Another old document was entitled “Twentieth-Century Version of the Apocalypse.” It was written by Franklin L. Baumer, an historian at Yale University with an abiding interest in religion. It was published in UNESCO’s Journal of World History in 1954. It made a fairly convincing case for the proposition that humanity has recently worried more than in the past about the “end of the world,” or at least about the decline and fall of civilization “as we know it.” Baumer had his reasons. It had been a tough few centuries for the human self-image. Galileo and others had conspired to show that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. Darwin had revealed that our species was more-or-less a biological accident. Freud had convinced us that our celebrated rationality wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. And, the combination of the Holocaust and the detonation of two atomic bombs certainly caused us to question the innate or even the evolved morality of our species. Writers from Spengler to Schweitzer and from Jaspers to Orwell raised the spectre of social dissolution and of incipient totalitarianism to match or exceed the tyannies of the immediate and distant past.

Sometimes pessimism took a religious turn. Some lamented the passing of high culture and great art. The so-called “age of anxiety” was well expressed when Germain Bazin opined in 1952 that we “are entering on a time comparable with the darkest periods of human history.” We were awash in Beatniks, existentialists and heroin-addicted jazz. Even Mitch Miller’s sing-a-longs could not totally hide the “nausea” of Sartre’s novels and the pervasive sense of “angst” that flowed beneath or within Disneyland, the self-advertised “happiest place on Earth.” We had seen displays of anguish before, in music (Mahler 6th Symphony) and in art (Munch’s “The Scream”); but something was different after the opening of Auschwitz and the flight of the Enola Gay.

Well, as it happened and contrary to some expectations, we have survived the last six decades. The alleged threat of “communism” is now an increasingly distant memory. We have successfully ignored various genocides. The starvation of millions of Chinese at the time of the “cultural revolution” barely registers, as does the plight of the “bottom billion” today. And yet, the intimations of various eschatologies and apocalyptic visions remain, this time perhaps with more justification.

We are no longer threatened by ideological enemies (unless the “clash of civilizations” and the “war on terrorism” are taken seriously). We have largely accommodated cultural shifts with only the most antediluvian amongst us imagining that feminism, gay marriage and Lady Gaga constitute a serious menace to morals and “values.” On the other hand, the damage we have done and are doing to the Earth seems more serious than any of our earlier exercises in self-mutilation. Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, known better to some of us of a certain age as Stalin, once chillingly observed that the death of an individual was a tragedy, but the death of millions is a mere statistic. The problem today is that the evident danger is not to an individual or even to a million, but to the entire biosphere. There is some worry that we may all become statistics.

We are coming slowly and painfully to recognize not only that we have carried on sustained attacks against nature for upwards of two centuries, but also that our wanton vandalism has turned into a major, relentless and accelerating assault in those past six decades. In the opinions of some pretty credible modern-day Jeremiahs, only the swift dismantling of the oil, coal and natural gas industries and the serious reduction of our reliance on the private automobile will help to save us, and that dependence on atomic energy will not do as a convenient substitute either. Absent our “addiction” to fossil fuels and the rejection of the false promise of economical, efficient and environmentally benign nuclear energy, global warming alone will bring us down. To complicate matters, of course, we are being constantly urged on by paid-off politicians, corporate hucksters and, as Chris Hedges puts it, “dimwits, pied pipers and fools” to ignore the obvious, have faith in the future and keep moving in the same deadly direction, only faster. One contemporary result is that, instead of taking our ecological problems seriously, the Obama-Harper administration in North America is contemplating a giant pipeline to run from the Alberta tar sands to oil refineries along the shores of the hapless Gulf of Mexico. That, says environmentalist Bill McKibben, “is like a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”

Of course, not everyone “gets it.” Some place their faith in technological solutions to technologically induced problems. Some prefer short-term economic gains to long-term devastation (after all, “they” won’t be around to suffer the consequences). Some try to balance competing interests and to wreck comprehensive initiatives such as the recently ruined Copenhagen Accord, while proclaiming a victory for the environment or a “made-in-Canada” solution to what is plainly a global problem. Some snort derision at the pessimists and proponents of doom and gloom. Some insist on keeping a positive attitude. Some just avert their gaze.

On the other hand, some do their best to alert us to the dangers of persisting in our present policies and practices. They, of course, run the risk of annoying those who cannot face what is increasingly being seen by scientists and attentive citizens as reality. They become upset with negativity. They don’t want to talk “politics,” which has become a euphemism for any public issue that causes embarrassment or guilt.

In this sense, Nature’s End is a political book. It invites us to attempt the rescue of ourselves. Its method is to remind us of our history. It implicitly understands Langdon Winner’s apt warning to people like us, who live in a technological society: “Technology,” he says, “allows us to ignore our own works. It is a license to forget.”

Environmental history takes away that excuse. Sörlin and Warde do not indulge in a benign retrospective of environmental thinking and ameliorative policies that languish in the past. The needs of the present and the immediate future are too urgent. The possibility of a distant future is at stake. Yet, they also appreciate that there are valuable lessons to be learned by examining and assessing our own evolution as environmental thinkers and activists. Their contributors provide prescience through the examination of the prologue to the present.

So, what’s new about what’s old? Assuming that we are at or near the end of our industrial rope (which I fully understand not everyone does), how are we best to identify, analyze and come up with actions that can save us from ourselves? How can an understanding of our dynamic disequilibrium set us up to stabilize ourselves and our world? The answers are not clear. This is not a “self-help” book. It has no uncontested formula. It is not an “Idiot’s Guide to Sustainability.” There are no easy answers. In fact, there are no simple questions. And the recognition of that conundrum alone makes this book worth reading.

In Nature’s End, the contributors present a wide range of topics and methods. Politics properly understood as thoughtful and conscientious attention to the well-being of the “polis” or the community—in this case the entire world and not the chopped up bits of real estate claimed by clans, tribes and nations—is given its due. So is biology, for the very best of intentions may not pave the road to hell but, then again, they may not lead anywhere at all. Without a firm grasp of how the biosphere works and will work—with or without us—we are apt to find ourselves trapped in an ideological cul-de-sac, with no map and, I suppose, no gas.

The nineteen authors in Nature’s End come from diverse intellectual backgrounds, but not extraordinarily different cultural traditions. They are mainly from Britain, but from Scandinavia and “commonwealth” stalwarts, Canada and Australia, as well. They are also energetic, creative and committed. They know that the world is in a mess and that it might take some experimental approaches just to figure it out, never mind to actually do something redemptive. Still, they are not wholly decentred. If they do not have a blueprint, they at least have a clue.

The clue is the need to reorient our angst, and especially our angst about angst. If there is one constant them in the human discussion of nature, it is the human hubris of thinking it is all about us. When we abuse our environment, we do so with only our damnable desire for dominion in mind. Nature has been falsely seen as an inexhaustible resource that has been put in place for our convenience and exploitation. The insanity is palpable. You can see, smell, touch and taste it. What’s worse is the fact that when we notice the dead fish, the thick smog, the melting ice caps and the expanding deserts, we still think it is all about us. This is not to deny that we are responsible for ecological degradation, but it is to ask that we stop beginning and ending the story with accounts of our own egotism.

Nature’s End puts nature and nature’s needs closer to the centre. It’s not that nature has needs in the sense of anthropomorphic or “spiritual” requirements for some sort of protoconscious, pan-global happiness and contentment. There is no nonsense about Gaia to be found. Nature is mute and ultimately purposeless. At the same time, terms such as ecological stability and biodiversity do have empirical meaning. The task of the book, then, is to keep the environment in focus as its authors set out their respective narratives on topics running from the consciously planned creation of waste in the Industrial Revolution to the crucial importance of the environment in creating the culture of Iceland, and from a “green rereading” of social issues like modern public health policy to ecological factors that spurred political unrest in colonial Mexico. Some of us might be surprised at the history of recycling that predates by a century and a half the mandatory sorting and sifting of household waste in order to promote diversion from landfill sites, and we might learn something from the cautionary story of how Victorian recycling initiatives gave way to the garbage society.

Nature’s End has come in for some criticism. Some of it is justified. The book contains too many errors to merit its price at almost $100.00 (we may hope for a cheaper and more carefully edited paperback edition soon). As for substance, it is good, some say, to try to make connections between the Earth and the people; however, explaining human society and culture with reference to our natural surroundings and explaining changes in our natural surroundings in terms of human society and culture can become a dangerously circular argument. Totality can result in tautology. This, of course, is always the case when anyone attempts an interdisciplinary study of anything. Where does the science separate from the social science? Where do the normative and the empirical connect? And, in both cases, with what consequences? Nevertheless, to acknowledge the questions is not to dispose of them.

Kenneth Burke, the American literary critic, once gave a pretty definition of piety. It meant, he said, the sense of “what properly goes with what.” The notion is apt here.

We do not have to accept all of the ominous warnings and dire predictions of those who are convinced of the impending demise of our species—our imminent return to barbarism, if not outright extinction. We do not have to imagine a planetary rupture instead of a theological rapture. We need not carry the emotional and intellectual burden of a sort of second “fall of man,” this time not from a mythical Eden, but from the giddy heights we achieved when invented the internal combustion engine, air conditioning, plastic wrap and cheese-flavoured dog food. We do, however, have the obligation to take some or most of the science seriously, to undertake to understand as much as can be understood, and to be prepared to adapt, even if we cannot fully anticipate what we may be called up to adapt to.

Embracing this project demands careful attention to contemporary chemistry and physics, at least in distilled versions complete with policy suggestions. It also requires an acute sense of how we properly fit in with what surrounds us in the living and non-living world. This implies a new kind of concentration. It should, in my view, involve what might be called “environmental history.” I do not mean by this the history of the environment (including anything from tectonic shifts to climate change—past, present and yet to come). I also do not mean the history of the influence of nature on human thought (e.g., how, if at all, did the dominance of the Sun as an environmental feature, promote monotheism in the Near East, whereas a diverse topography promoted polytheism in ancient Greece?). Rather, I mean the history of the infrastructural base of human activity (drawing energy from the biosphere) and the impact of human culture on that base (producing waste and consuming resources). It is the interaction between human and non-human nature and the interpenetration of both that is the pertinent scope of inquiry, with stronger attention to non-human (biological, meteorological and geological) phenomena than it has been our habit to unearth (so to speak).

By encouraging diversity in approach and subject matter, Sörlin and Warde have created a stimulating volume containing strong evidence of the vigor, ingenuity, open-endedness and passion in a crucial domain of study. There are plenty of opportunities for readers to engage in arguments with specific authors and their arguments. Indeed, the authors between its covers frequently disagree with each other. Out of the entire exercise, however, comes a sense of lively and invigorating intelligence seeking to sort our what knowledge is necessary to inform our more public debates, how to use the past as a guide to future thought and action, and what kind of research agenda is necessary not only to show policy makers how to make better policies, but also to demonstrate the necessity to do so if we are to be kept alive.


Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy and globalization in the degree programs of nursing and social work at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howardadoughty@yahoo.ca.

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