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A Path of More Resistance

Several years ago, Jim Stolz shouldered a pack at the Mexican border and hiked eight or nine hundred miles north to the Idaho mountains for a meeting of a small environmental group.

This, he told me as we sat by a stream three months later, was not all that unusual for him. Some years earlier, he had walked the Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine. “I spent the next two years going coast to coast. I took the northern route—I spent a couple of months on snowshoes through Wisconsin and Minnesota.” He’d never seen the Pacific till he got there on his own two feet. After that, he walked the Continental Divide trail. And then he began to lay out a new trek—the Grand West Trail, he calls it. It runs north and south between the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide trails, traversing the Grand Canyon and the lava plains, climbing over the Sawtooths. All it lacks is people. “I spent one nine-and-a-half-day stretch this trip when I didn’t see anyone,” Stolz said. “I see someone else maybe every fourth day.” In the course of his long walks he had twelve times come across grizzly bears, the continent’s grandest mammals, now nearly gone from the lower forty-eight. “The last one, he stood on his hind legs, clicked his jaws, woofed three times. I was too close to him, and he was just letting me know. Another one circled me about forty feet away and wouldn’t look me in the eye. When you get that close, you realize you’re part of the food chain. When we go into grizzly country, we’re going into their home. We’re the intruders. We’re used to being top dog. But in griz country we’re part of the food chain.” That seemed a quietly radical idea to me—the idea that we don’t necessarily belong at the top in every way. It seemed to me, thinking about it later, that it might be a good way to describe a philosophy that is the opposite of the defiant, consumptive course we’ve traditionally followed. What would it mean to our ways of life, our demographics, our economics, our output of carbon dioxide and methane if we began to truly and viscerally think of ourselves as just one species among many?

The logic of our present thinking—that we should increase in numbers and, especially, in material wealth and ease—leads inexorably in the direction of the managed world. It is, as a few rebels have maintained, a rut, a system of beliefs in which we are trapped. When Thoreau declared that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, it was to this rut that he referred. He went to live at Walden Pond to prove how little man needed to survive—$61.99 ¾ for eight months, including the cost of his house.

But most of us have lived in that rut without rebelling. A few, often under Thoreau’s influence, may have chucked their sophomore year to live in a tent by some wild lake, but even most of them returned to normal society. Thoreau’s explanation—that we think there’s no choice—may help explain this fact. But the terrible truth is that most of us rather like the rut. We like acquiring more things; the aphorists notwithstanding, they make us happy. We like the easy life. I was skimming through an old copy of The New Yorker not long ago and came across an advertisement, from what in 1949 was still the Esso Company, that summed up our century to this point. “The better you live,” it shouted, “the more oil you use.” And we live well. The world, as most of us in the West experience it in the late twentieth century, is a reasonably sweet place. That is why there aren’t more hippies camped by the lake. We like to camp, but for the weekend.

The only trouble is that this system of beliefs, this pleasant rut, seems not to be making the planet happy. The atmosphere and the forests are less satisfied than we are. In fact, they are changing, dying. And those changes affect us, body and soul. The end of nature sours all my material pleasures. The prospect of living in a genetically engineered world sickens me. And yet it is toward such a world that our belief in endless material advancement hurries us.

As long as that desire drives us, there is no way to set limits. We won’t develop genetic engineering to eradicate disease and not use it to manufacture perfectly efficient chickens; there is nothing in the logic of our ingrained beliefs that would lead us to draw those lines. Direct our beliefs into a new stream, and that stream will soon be a torrent just like the present one: if we use fusion energy instead of coal, we will still plow ahead at our basic business, accumulation, with all its implications for the natural world. If there is one notion that virtually every successful politician on earth—socialist or fascist or capitalist—agrees on, it is that “economic growth” is good, necessary, the proper end of organized human activity. But where does economic growth end? It ends—or, at least, it runs straight through—the genetically engineered dead world that the optimists envision. That is, provided we can surmount our present environmental troubles.

THOSE TROUBLES, though, just might give us the chance to change the way we think. What if they gave us a practical—as opposed to a moral or an aesthetic—reason to climb out of our rut and find a new one that leads in some different direction? A reason based on atmospheric chemistry, not Eastern spirituality. That is why Stolz’s phrase caught my ear, his notion that we might be no more important than anything else. If a new idea—a humble idea, in contrast to the conventional defiant attitude—is going to rise out of the wreckage we have made of the world, this is the gut feeling, the impulse, it will come from.

The idea that the rest of creation might count for as much as we do is spectacularly foreign, even to most environmentalists. The ecological movement has always had its greatest success in convincing people that we are threatened by some looming problem—or, if we are not threatened directly, then some creature that we find appealing, such as the seal or the whale or the songbird. The tropical rain forests must be saved because they contain millions of species of plants that may have medical uses—that was the single most common argument against tropical deforestation until it was replaced by the greenhouse effect. Even the American wilderness movement, in some ways a radical crusade, has argued for wilderness largely as places for man—places big enough for backpackers to lose themselves in and for stressed city dwellers to find themselves.

But what if we began to believe in the rain forest for its own sake? This attitude has very slowly begun to spread in recent years, both in America and abroad, as the effects of man’s domination have become clearer. Some few people have begun to talk of two views of the world—the traditional, man-centered—anthropocentric—view and the biocentric vision of people as a part of the world, just like bears.

Many of those who take the biocentric view are, of course, oddballs, the sort who would walk two thousand miles instead of flying. (Prophets, false or true, are inevitably oddballs. There’s not much need for prophets who are in synch with their society.) And theirs is, admittedly, a radical idea, almost an unrealistic idea. It strikes at the root of our identities. But we live at a radical, unrealistic moment. We live at the end of nature, the moment when the essential character of the world we’ve known since we stopped swinging from our tails is suddenly changing. 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 are not equal—we live at an odd moment in human history when the most basic elements of our lives are changing. I love the trees outside my window; they are a part of my life. I don’t want to see them shrivel in the heat, nor sprout in perfect cloned rows. The damage we have done to the planet, and the damage we seem set to do in a genetically engineered business-as-usual future, make me wonder if there isn’t some other way. 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. An alternative that would involve changing not only the way we act but also the way we think.

SUCH IDEAS are not brand new. Almost as far back as people have gathered in societies, there are records of ascetics and hermits. Thoreau diluted the religion in this strain of thinking and injected it into the modern bloodstream, but, as we have seen, he went to the woods to redeem man, not nature. (It is curious, in fact, just how little description of nature Walden contains.) His is an intensely anthropocentric account—man’s desecration of nature worried him less than man’s desecration of himself. Nature mattered, but as a wonderful text. “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature,” he pleads, “and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation.” Nature was a lesson.

The crucial next step in the development of this humble philosophy—the idea that the rest of creation mattered for its own sake, and that man didn’t matter all that much—awaited other writers. It is implicit throughout the works of John Muir, and sometimes it is explicit. In the journal of his thousand-mile hike to the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, there is a passage that stands in perfect contrast to Professor Baxter’s argument that men matter entirely and penguins not at all. Muir is writing about alligators, animals as revolting by our standards as any on the continent. He acknowledges that alligators “cannot be called the friends of man” (though he had heard of “one big fellow that was caught young and partially civilized and made to work in harness”). But that, he declares, is not the point. “Many good people believe the alligators were created by the Devil, thus accounting for their all-consuming appetite and ugliness. But doubtless these creatures are happy and fill the place assigned for them by the great Creator of us all. Fierce and cruel they appear to us, but beautiful in the eyes of God.” This is more than an ecological, Darwinian vision; it is a moral one: “How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures are in our sympathies! How blind to the rights of all the rest of creation! … Though alligators, snakes etc. naturally repel us, they are not mysterious evils. They dwell happily in these flowery wilds, are part of God’s family, unfallen, undepraved, and cared for with the same species of tenderness as is bestowed on angels in heaven or saints on earth.” Muir ends his swampy sermonette with a benediction that stands as a good epigram for this humbler approach: “Honorable representatives of the great saurians of older creation, may you long enjoy your lilies and rushes, and be blessed now and then with a mouthful of terror-stricken man by way of dainty!” Of the many heirs to this philosophical tradition, the most striking was Edward Abbey. A funny, moving novelist and an able critic, Abbey was, more than anything else, an apostle of a place—the desert Southwest, where he lived for many years. Abbey, who died in the spring of 1989, spent long stretches working for the government in various fire towers and ranger shacks—long stretches utterly alone. And alone in the part of nature—the desert—that seems least hospitable, most alienating. Though he loved the desert’s beauty, he also recognized its overwhelming alienness. In one of the essays in his first collection he wrote: “The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation. In its simplicity and order it suggests the classical, except that the desert is a realm beyond the human and in the classicist view only the human is regarded as significant or even recognized as real.” The idea of “a realm beyond the human” but still on this earth is at odds with our deepest notions, our sense of all creation as our private domain. It is no accident that Abbey wrote from the desert. If you lived in the Garden of Eden, or even in, say, Fort Lauderdale, it might be possible to think that the earth had been made for you and your pleasure. But not if you lived in the desert of the Southwest. If the desert was made for you, why is there so little water? It’s infinitely more plausible that the desert was made for buzzards.

No wonder, then, that in all the world the desert of the Southwest was one of the last places left more or less untouched. Prospectors had come and gone, and their traces could still be seen in the preserving sand, but when Abbey arrived most of the area lay in its natural state. As a result, he got to watch the developers, miners, and promoters lay their defiant siege to the land. Abbey wrote a novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, out of his anger at the uranium mines and the copper smelters fouling the clean air, and at the endless road building and river damming. Though it is an “action novel,” a wild account of a campaign of sabotage against bulldozers and dams, it crystallizes in a single scene the difference between our conventional, defiant view of the world and the biocentric vision.

Early in the book, Hayduke, the hero, decides to disrupt the construction of a road that is being laid out through the Arizona desert. As he follows the planned route, pulling up the surveyor’s orange flags, he comes to the stony rim of a small canyon. On the opposite wall, four hundred feet away, he could see the line of stakes, with their Day-Glo ribbons, marching on. “This canyon, then, was going to be bridged. It was only a small and little known canyon, to be sure, with a tiny stream coursing down its bed, meandering in lazy bights over the sand, lolling in pools under the acid-green leafery of the cottonwoods, falling over lip of stone into basin below, barely enough water even in spring to sustain a resident population of spotted toads, red-winged dragonflies, a snake or two, a few canyon wrens, nothing special. And yet Hayduke demurred; he didn’t want a bridge here, ever; he liked this little canyon, which he had never seen before, the name of which he didn’t even know, quite well enough as it was. Hayduke knelt and wrote a message in the sand to all highway construction contractors: ‘Go home.’ ” This canyon is not Yosemite, or even Hetch Hetchy—there is no way to rally a crowd to its defense by virtue of its splendor or its opportunities for recreation. It has no human use. If the road isn’t built, no one will ever come here. This canyon can only be paved over or be left alone to no constructive end. Abbey’s radicalism was that he chose the latter.

THE EUROPEAN GREEN PARTIES, the California versions of Eastern religions, the animal rights movement have all adapted parts of these ideas in recent years. But they’ve usually tied them up with other notions—socialism, say, or enlightenment. At least in its philosophy, the small but rapidly growing American environmental group Earth First! provides one of the purest examples of putting the rest of creation ahead of exclusively human concerns.

A decade ago Dave Foreman was wearing a suit and tie and working in Washington as chief lobbyist for the Wilderness Society. His thinking, though, was evolving in the same direction as Abbey’s. “The whole time I’d been in Washington I’d been radical philosophically—I believed in wilderness for its own sake. But for a long time I’d believed the best way to get more wilderness was to be reasonable, to take Republican politicians to lunch.” The Sagebrush Rebellion—the protests in the late 1970s by Western miners, ranchers, and timber barons led by men like James Watt who claimed that the small gains of environmentalists were too much—convinced him otherwise. “It made me realize we were fighting for crumbs under the table. I guess I came to the conclusion that the industrial empire was a cancer on the earth and that saving some dinky recreational areas was not enough. That we had to offer a fundamental challenge to Western civilization.” Earth First!—the group Foreman formed with a few friends when he left Washington and the Wilderness Society—is one of a few fledgling attempts to translate the philosophical radicalism of a Muir or an Abbey into action. Its motto is “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth,” and its symbol is the monkey wrench. The group has grown quickly in the West, partly because of this tough image. Its journal, for instance, includes tips for sabotage, or “eco-defense,” helpful hints that go well beyond Hayduke’s level of expertise. When disabling heavy machinery, for instance, sugar is completely passé. Rock-polishing grit, mixed in a ratio of four parts motor oil to one part silicon carbide, works much better. Or perhaps the government has put a dirt airstrip in a wilderness area near you: if you go out at night and liberally salt the runway, chances are deer, elk, and moose will soon come along and paw it up, leaving large holes.

Such “ecotage” has worked in some places and backfired in others, often making life more difficult for conventional environmentalists. (Foreman was arrested late in the spring of 1989 on charges that he had conspired to cut down power lines. An FBI informant had apparently infiltrated Earth First! and Foreman charged that the government was attempting to destroy the group.) Indisputably, Earth First!’s confrontational tactics have earned the group far more publicity than it could have gotten any other way.

But all the attention paid to the sabotage has usually overshadowed the group’s message, which is at least as radical as its methods. It wants a different world, where roads are torn out to create vast new wildernesses, where most development ceases, and where much of man’s imprint on the earth is slowly erased. Earth First! and the few other groups like it have a purpose, and that purpose is defense of the wild, the natural, the nonhuman.

The first time I heard Foreman speak, it was in a Sacramento, California, church basement. He began by ripping off his button-down shirt to reveal a black T-shirt with the raised monkey wrench emblazoned on it. He told of his days in Washington: “From my Wilderness Society experience, I began to wonder, Why preserve a wilderness area? Because it’s a nice place to go and relax? Because you can make pretty books of pictures of it? To protect a watershed? No. You protect a river because it’s a river. For its own sake. Because it has a right to exist by itself. The grizzly bear in Yellowstone Park has as much right to her life as any one of us has to our life,” Foreman told the crowd. “Each of you is an animal and you should be proud of it.” “There are fundamental problems of philosophy at the root of all of this,” insists Foreman. Most environmental groups discuss the need to “balance continued economic growth” with the “protection for future generations of our natural heritage.” Foreman says, “I have really thought about it and tried to look for good news, for signs that reform will work. And I have come to the belief that the flaw is fundamental, unreformable. We can have big wildernesses, and we can reintroduce extirpated species, but unless the fact that there are way too many people on the earth is dealt with, unless the idea that the world is a resource for us to use is dealt with, unless humans can find their way home again, then the problems will continue.” Foreman and others have a name for this idea of people “finding their way home”—“deep ecology.” In contrast to conventional, or “shallow,” ecology, which basically accepts the anthropocentric worldview of the industrial state and merely wants to reform it—to turn mankind into better stewards—deep ecologists, in Foreman’s words, “ask harder questions, such as: Where are we from? What is our relationship to the rest of the world? Are we really at the apex of evolution?” Their answers, not sand in the gas tanks of bulldozers, constitute “the fundamental challenge to Western civilization.” And, because we are all products and beneficiaries of that civilization, such ideas are a horrible challenge, even to those who think of themselves as environmentalists. When the Nation magazine printed an article outlining some of the tenets of deep ecology, it drew many angry letters. Deep ecology takes “the side of nature over culture,” complained an “ecofeminist” named Ynestra King in a long missive, and in so doing it overlooks “the structures of entrenched economic and political power within society.” Foreman “and his macho crowd … represent nothing more than the Daniel Boone mentality in ecological drag,” she said. But to her the real problem is that Earth First! and deep ecology represent a “deep insensitivity to human suffering.” And in a profound way she is right. It is an intensely disturbing idea that man should not be the master of all, that other suffering might be just as important. And that individual suffering—animal or human—might be less important than the suffering of species, ecosystems, the planet. It is disturbing in a way that an idea like, say, Marxism is not. It is not all that radical to talk about who is going to own the factories, at least compared with the question of whether there are going to be factories.

IN SOUTHWEST OREGON, in the country above Grants Pass, the Rogue and the Illinois rivers dash toward the Pacific through steep valleys, most of them part of the Siskiyou National Forest. A portion of this land has been officially designated the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, in honor of a rare orchid found only within its borders. A few years ago, though, there were still at least 160,000 acres without roads, without logging—and without protection. It was here that some of Foreman’s and Abbey’s followers were mounting a small part of this “fundamental challenge to Western civilization.” The land harbors bear, white-tailed deer, Roosevelt elk, wolf, wolverine, bobcat, mountain lion, mink, otter, beaver, and osprey; in the cold streams salmon and steelhead spawn. Most important of all, the area supports a mighty stand of old-growth forest. Old-growth, or climax, forest is a rare sight nowadays in the United States, where all but 2 or 3 percent of the commercially suitable forests have been cut at least once. It’s not simply that the trees of a climax forest are old; there are young trees, too, and dead, rotting trees—an endlessly complex ecosystem. But to a lumberman trees past their peak growth years are “decadent”; he wants to chop them down and install row-planted, single-species, “even-aged” plantations. “Trees are a renewable resource,” the “forest products” industry proclaims, but old growth is not. Its snags and broken crowns and its remote, unroaded inaccessibility make it crucial habitat for certain species; Oregon’s spotted owl will not live elsewhere, for instance.

The Forest Service decided, as it usually does, to allow loggers on this land—public land, which is owned by every American, as is half the land in the western United States. Its decision made some sense in the usual way of looking at things. There were loggers in the valley who needed work. The world needs a lot of wood. (You’re holding a branch or two in your hands right now.) And it’s rugged country, so no one much gets back there. It’s like the canyon in Abbey’s book: Why save it? To make it possible for loggers to reach the prime stands the Forest Service proposed to build, with taxpayer funds, a road along the shoulder of Bald Mountain into the heart of the area. The road would forever end this land’s chance of being preserved as wilderness and it would fill the valleys it crossed with trucks and noise and men.

I walked the half-finished Bald Mountain Road with a local man, Steve Marsden. Actually, we walked not on the road but on a ridge trail that runs about ten feet above it. A judge had ordered Marsden to stay clear of the road itself, a ruling he was willing to violate but not until it was really necessary. Anyway, it was much prettier up on the path, which sometimes wound off into the woods. An hour or so into our hike we stopped to rest. From where we sat we could see several Douglas firs, a Brewer spruce, a distant relation of the American chestnut called the chincopia, a number of sugar pine, an eastern white pine, a grand fir, a shasta red fir, a knobcone pine, and a rare tree called the Port Orford cedar that has been wiped out in much of the surrounding area by a fungus that rolls in on the logging trucks. “This may be the most diverse conifer forest in the world,” Marsden said. “A square mile contains seventeen cone-bearing species. It’s at a low elevation, so during the last Ice Age it didn’t glaciate. It doesn’t have the spectacular views like the Sierras or the Cascades, but from a biological standpoint it may be the most valuable forest in the country.” Valuable not so much to man—the bark of the Port Orford cedar probably doesn’t contain any cancer-curing compound. Valuable only to itself.

Marsden knows the territory well. “I was a road engineer for the Forest Service. I did reconnaissance work for roads where there weren’t any. I was out in primo territory all the time. And I told myself I was just doing my job. That’s how I thought, and that’s how a lot of guys think. A lot of the guys I worked with agree that the Forest Service is screwed up, but they sort of dissociate themselves.” Marsden eventually disdissociated himself; he simply couldn’t stand the way the Forest Service looked at the woods. “Wilderness rubs the professional foresters the wrong way,” he said. “You go to school all those years, you want to manage.” Until a judge stopped them, they were spraying Agent Orange–like herbicides from helicopters to keep down the shrubs. “To the Forest Service it’s like growing corn—you weed, you fertilize, you plant all the same thing.” And when it’s time to harvest, you clear-cut, stripping every single tree from a plot of land. “A clear-cut is worse than a forest fire,” said Marsden. “At least with a fire there’s some residual left. Most of the biomass doesn’t leave the area to make a split-level in San Diego.” When the Bald Mountain Road was first proposed, Marsden got together with other local environmentalists to try to save the road-less area. A letter from one of them alerted Earth First! and soon Mike Roselle, who with Foreman helped found the group, arrived in Grants Pass. He learned that there was much opposition to the road but that not many people were willing to put their bodies on the line; finally, two locals—Steve Marsden was one of them—agreed to go with him and lie down in front of the bulldozers.

This was no antinuclear rally. This was fifteen miles of twisting dirt road from the nearest town, with no reporters around to watch. And the opponents were not policemen trained to arrest people but heavy-equipment operators trained to rip up the woods. “We were shivering, scared to death,” said Roselle. “There was a friend of ours with a camera pretending to be media, because we hoped that might deter them a little bit. We didn’t know if we’d get six months or ten years. We asked the lawyers, and they just said, ‘Don’t do it.’ Well, on the first day we introduced ourselves to the construction workers. We said it’s nothing against you guys personally—we just don’t like this road, and we want to stop it. The next day we stopped it.” They were arrested, jailed, released, and they returned, this time with more accomplices. By summer’s end there were as many as forty-five blockaders; they avoided Forest Service roadblocks by hiking in at night along the path that Marsden and I were following.

Such demonstrations are nothing new, of course; people have sat down in front of bulldozers since bulldozers were invented. But the argument—the explicit idea that big isolated chunks of the planet have an intrinsic importance that outweighs any of man’s plans for them—is still rare. In any event, the protests worked, slowing construction for several months, until lawyers could win an injunction against the work. That is not the same thing as changing civilization, but then Rome didn’t decline and fall in a single day.

WHEN I WAS TRAVELING the West a few years ago, interviewing these people and seeing the scenery around them, I admired their guts and understood a lot that they said. But I am an easterner; I didn’t have any intuitive sense of what it meant to live in a place where battles over the land are constant. Back east, and in most of Europe, people have pretty much figured out the areas they will settle and control, which is just about everywhere. The few areas leftover—such as, for instance, the Adirondacks—are more or less protected, by law and by tradition. So, while I believed once I saw the site that the Bald Mountain Road was a bad idea (it would be hard for anyone without a cash interest, I think, to stand in that cathedral forest and decide to cut it down), I didn’t see stopping it as a matter of life and death. All the talk about fundamental challenges to industrial civilization struck me as a trifle overblown, loopy.

But I’ve since learned more about the greenhouse effect. Now, with the atmosphere changing thanks to our way of life, ideas like deep ecology interest me for more than philosophical reasons—they seem at least plausible. That is, they are extreme solutions, but we live in an extreme time. I cannot imagine any change more extreme than the change from four billion years of nature to year one of artifice. If industrial civilization is ending nature, it is not utter silliness to talk about ending—or, at least, transforming—industrial civilization.

We’ve taken, as individuals and as nations, certain moderate steps in the past few decades—created wildernesses, reintroduced eagles where they had been wiped out, cut the lead in our gasoline, and so on. But the world didn’t seem to be demanding basic changes in the way we lived. Perhaps now it is. Perhaps what was for Thoreau an aesthetic choice is for us a practical one; perhaps the choice is, figuratively, if not literally, between endless rows of headless chickens and some new, very much more humble way of life.

There have been other such dramatic moments in modern history—moments when a sea change seemed possible. Before the Depression socialism looked like a preposterously radical idea to most Americans, something to be either hunted down and squashed or discussed in abstract and philosophical terms.

And then came the crash, and it no longer seemed a priori ridiculous. As it turned out, Franklin Roosevelt appeared with what was probably a better, less radical solution: Social Security instead of socialism. But alternatives, simply because they are more moderate, are not always more correct. It could be that this idea of a humbler world, or some idea like it, is both radical and necessary, in the way that cutting off a leg can be both radical and necessary.

A HALF HOUR’S HIKE brings my dog and me to the top of the hill behind my house. I know the hill well by now, each gully and small creek, each big rock, each opening around the edges. I know the places where the deer come, and the coyotes after them. It is no Bald Mountain, no unlogged virgin forest with trees ten feet around, but it is a deep and quiet and lovely place all the same.

Only the thought of what will happen as the new weather kicks in darkens my view: the trees dying, the hillside unable to hold its soil against the rainfall, the gullies sharpening, the deer looking for ever-scarcer browse. And, finally, the scrub and brush colonizing the slopes, clinging to what soil remains. Either that or the cemetery rows of perfect, heat-tolerant genetically improved pines.

From the top of the hill, if I stand on a certain ledge, I can see my house down below, white against the hemlocks. I can see my whole material life—the car, the bedroom, the chimney above the stove. I like that life, I like it enormously. But a choice seems unavoidable. Either that life down there changes, perhaps dramatically, or this life all around me up here changes—passes away.

That is a terrible choice. Two years ago, when I got married, my wife and I had the standard hopes and dreams, and their fulfillment seemed not so far away. We love to travel; we had set up our lives so that work wouldn’t tie us down. Our house is nice and big—it seemed only a matter of time before it would fill with the racket of children.

As the consequences of the greenhouse effect have become clearer to us, though, we’ve started to prune and snip our desires. Instead of taking long vacation trips in the car, we ride our bikes on the road by the house. Instead of building a wood-fired hot tub for the backyard (the closest I’ve ever come to real decadence), we installed exciting new thermal-pane windows. Most of our other changes have been similarly small. We heat with our wood, and we try to keep the house at 55 degrees. We drive much less frequently; we shop twelve times a year, and there are weeks when we do not venture out at all. Though I’m a lousy gardener, I try to grow more and more of our food.

Still, those are the easy things, especially if you live in the country. And they’re as much pleasure as sacrifice. It may be icy in most of the house but it’s warm cuddled by the stove. I like digging in the garden, though it makes me more nervous than it did when it was pure hobby: if a storm knocks down a tomato plant, I feel slightly queasy. If we don’t travel great distances and constantly see new sights, we have come to know the few square miles around us in every season and mood.

But there are harder changes, too, places where the constricting world has begun to bind and pinch. It is dawning on me and my wife that the world we inhabit is not the world we grew up in, the world where our hopes and dreams were formed. That responsibility may mean something new and sad. In other words, we try very hard not to think about how much we’d like a baby.

And it may take even more. Sometimes I stand on top of the hill and wonder if someday we’ll need to move away, perhaps live closer to other people. Probably that would be more energy efficient. Would I love the woods enough to leave them behind? I stand up there and look out over the mountain to the east and the lake to the south and the rippling wilderness knolls stretching off to the west—and to the house below with the line of blue smoke trailing out of the chimney. One world or the other will have to change.

AND IF IT IS the human world that changes—if this humbler idea begins to win out—what will the planet look like? Will it appeal only to screwballs, people who thrive on a monthly shower and no steady income?

It’s hard to draw a detailed picture—it’s so much easier to picture the defiant future, for it is merely the extension of our current longings. I’ve spent my whole life wanting more, so it’s hard for me to imagine “less” in any but a negative way. But that imagination is what counts. Changing the way we think is at the heart of the question. If it ever happens, the actions will follow.

For example, to cope with the greenhouse problem, people may need to install more efficient washing machines. But if you buy such a machine and yet continue to feel that it’s both your right and your joy to have a big wardrobe, then the essential momentum of our course won’t be broken. For big wardrobes imply a world pretty much like our own, where people pile up possessions, and where human desire is the only measure that counts. Even if such a world somehow licks the greenhouse effect, it will still fall in a second for, say, the cornucopia of genetic engineering. On the other hand, you could slash your stock of clothes to a comfortable (or even uncomfortable) minimum and then chip in with your neighbors to buy a more efficient washing machine to which you would lug your dirty laundry. If we reached that point—the point where great closetfuls of clothes seemed slightly absurd, unnatural—then we might have begun to climb down from the tottering perch where we currently cling.

“Absurd” and “unnatural” are different from “wrong” or “immoral.” This is not a moral argument. There are plenty of good reasons having to do with aesthetics or whimsy to own lots of sharp clothes. (And many more and much better reasons to, say, drive cars or raise large families.) But those reasons may be outweighed by the burden that such desires place on the natural world. And if we could see that clearly, then our thinking might change of its own accord.

In this particular example, the thinking is more radical than the action. If we decided against huge wardrobes (which is to say, against a whole way of looking at ourselves) and against every family’s owning a washer (which is to say, against a pervasive individual consumerism), then taking your clothes down the street to wash them would be the most obvious idea in the world. If people hadn’t changed their minds about such things, these would be obnoxious developments—you’d need to employ secret police to make sure they weren’t washing in private. It wouldn’t be worth it, and it wouldn’t work. But if we had changed our minds, our current ways of life might soon seem as bizarre as the six thousand shoes of Imelda Marcos.

It’s normal to imagine that this humbler world would resemble the past. Simply because the atmosphere was cleaner a century ago, though, there’s no call to forget all that’s been developed since. My wife and I just acquired a fax machine, for instance, on the premise that it makes for graceful, environmentally sound communication—an advanced way to do with less. But if communication prospered in a humbler world, transportation might well wither, as people began to live closer not only to their work but to their food supply. Oranges all year round—oranges at any season in the northern latitudes—might prove ambitious beyond our means, just as the tropics might have to learn to do without apples. We—or, at least, our grandchildren—might come to use the “appropriate technologies” of “sustainable development” that we urge on peasants through organizations like the Peace Corps—bicycle-powered pumps, solar cookstoves, and so on. And, as in a less-developed country (a phrase that would probably turn into a source of some pride), more Westerners might find their work connected directly with their supper. That is to say, they would farm, which begins to sound a little quaint, a little utopian.

But conventional utopian ideas are not much help, either. Invariably they are designed to advance human happiness, which is found to be suffering as the result of crowding or stress or lack of meaningful work or not enough sex or too much sex. Machinery is therefore abolished, or cities abandoned, or families legislated against—but it’s all in the name of man. Dirt under your nails will make you happier!

The humbler world I am describing is just the opposite. Human happiness would be of secondary importance. Perhaps it would be best for the planet if we all lived not in kibbutzes or on Jeffersonian farms, but crammed into a few huge cities like so many ants. I doubt a humbler world would be one big happy Pennsylvania Dutch colony. Certain human sadnesses might diminish; other human sadnesses would swell. But that would be beside the point. This is not an attempt at a utopia—as I said, I’m happy now. It’s a stab at something else—an “atopia,” perhaps—where our desires are not the engine.

The ground rules for such an atopia would be few enough. We would have to conquer the desire to grow in numbers; the human population would need to get gradually smaller, though how much smaller is an open question. Some deep ecologists say the human population shouldn’t exceed a hundred million, others a billion or two—roughly our population a century ago. And those people would need to use less in the way of resources—not just oil, but wood and water and chemicals and even land itself. Those are the essentials. But they are practical rules, not moral ones. Within them, a thousand cultures—vegetarian and hunter, communal and hermitic—could still exist.

A pair of California professors, George Sessions and Bill Devall, listed what they saw as some of the principles of deep ecology in a book (Deep Ecology) they published several years ago. Although the work shows its West Coast origins at times (there is some discussion of how this philosophy could give us “joyous confidence to dance with the sensuous harmonies discovered through spontaneous, playful intercourse with the rhythms of our bodies, the rhythms of flowing water”), it is frank about the sharp contrast between the current worldview and their proposed replacement: instead of material and economic growth, “elegantly simple” material needs; instead of consumerism, “doing with enough.” It is frank, too, in its acknowledgment that deep ecology—that humility—is an infant philosophy, with many questions yet to be asked, much less answered: Exactly how much is enough? Or, what about poor people?

Those are hard questions—but perhaps not beyond our imagination. When we decided that accumulation and growth were our economic ideals, we invented wills and lending at interest and puritanism and supersonic aircraft. Why would we come up with ideas less powerful in an all-out race to do with less?

The difficulty is almost certainly more psychological than intellectual—less that we can’t figure out major alterations in our way of life than that we simply don’t want to. Even if our way of life has destroyed nature and endangered the planet, it is so hard to imagine living in any other fashion. The people whose lives may point the way—Thoreau, say, or Gandhi—we dismiss as exceptional, a polite way of saying there is no reason we should be expected to go where they pointed. The challenge they presented with the physical examples of their lives is much more subversive than anything they wrote or said: if they could live those simple lives, it’s no use saying we could not. I could, I suppose, get by on half the money I currently spend. A voluntary simplification of lifestyles is not beyond our abilities, but it is probably outside our desires.

AND OUR DESIRES COUNT. Nothing is necessarily going to force us to live humbly; we are free to chance the other, defiant route and see what happens. The only thing we absolutely must do is cut back immediately on our use of fossil fuels. That is not an option; we need to do it in order to choose any other future. But there is no certainty we must simultaneously cut back on our material desires—not if we’re willing to live in a world ever more estranged from nature. Both the defiant and the humble alternatives offer ways to adapt to the greenhouse effect, this total upheaval. They present us with a choice.

The obvious objection to this choice is that it does not exist: that man always pushes restlessly ahead, that it’s inevitable, biological, part of “human nature.” That is a cop-out, at least intellectually—that is, it may be true, but those of us who have thought about the question still have the moral burden of making a choice. Anyway, there are examples of civilizations, chiefly Eastern ones, that by choice spent centuries almost suspended in time. I can imagine a world in which we decide not to conduct genetic experiments or to build new dams, just as a few people in the late nineteenth century began to imagine forests that were not logged and so preserved the Adirondacks. As I said, I’m not certain what that world would look like. Probably it would have to develop an enormously powerful social taboo against “progress” of the defiant kind—a religious or quasi-religious horror at the thought of “improved chickens” and large families. And I’m not saying I see the path from here to any of the possible theres; my point is merely that, for the purpose of argument, I can imagine such a world. Possession of a certain technology imposes on us no duty to use it.

A second obvious objection is that perhaps we needn’t decide now, that surely we can leave it for some future generation to figure out. That is an attractive idea and a traditional one; we have been putting off this particular question since at least 1864, when George Perkins Marsh, the first modern environmentalist, wrote that by our tree cutting and swamp draining we were “breaking up the floor and wainscotting and doors and window-frames of our dwelling for fuel to warm our bodies.” I have tried to explain, though, why it cannot be put off any longer. We just happen to be living at the moment when the carbon dioxide has increased to an intolerable level. We just happen to be alive at the moment when if nothing is done before we die the world’s tropical rain forests will become a brown girdle around the planet that will last for millennia. It’s simply our poor luck; it might have been nicer to have been born in 1890 and died in 1960, confident that everything was looking up. We just happen to be living in the decade when genetic engineering is acquiring a momentum that will soon be unstoppable. The comforting idea that we could decide to use such technology to, in the words of Lewis Thomas, cure “most of the unsolved diseases on society’s agenda” and then not use it to straighten trees or grow giant trout seems implausible to me: we’re already doing those things.

One needs, obviously, to be wary of millennialism. And it’s perhaps not fair that those of us currently alive should have to deal with these developments. On the other hand, it wasn’t fair that our fathers had to go fight Hitler. The American Methodist Church has just adopted a new hymnal, and, along with the usual wrangles over sexism and militarism and so on, there was a dispute over a marvelous Civil War–era hymn by James Russell Lowell. “Once to Every Man and Nation,” it begins, “comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side. / Some great cause, God’s new messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, / And the choice goes by forever, / ‘Twixt the darkness and the light.” The hymnal committee reportedly decided against the tune on the grounds that it was unsound theology—that once was not enough, that it was never too late for a person to reform. But this was one of Martin Luther King’s favorite hymns, and in terms of public policy, if not personal salvation, I fear it may be all too true.

OF THESE TWO PATHS which one will we choose? It’s impossible to know for certain, but there’s no question but that the momentum of our age ceaselessly hurries us ahead, making it horribly difficult to choose the humble path and incredibly easy to follow the defiant one.

I have a neighbor, a logger whom I’ll call Jim Franklin. Jim honestly believes that the cause of acid rain in the Adirondacks is “too many trees,” the result of environmentalists’ setting too much land aside as wilderness. He has worked out a theory, something about the mat of pine needles accumulating on the ground, which I can’t begin to repeat even though I have heard it several times. “I told it to the forest ranger and he just looked at me,” says Jim, as if this were proof of the conspiracy. We believe things because we have a need to believe them. (That is not a novel insight, I realize.) Jim wants to log for economic reasons and for reasons that might be described as psychological or cultural, and he has constructed an idea to support his desire. But it is not a lie: he believes it to be true. Muir, on his thousand-mile stroll to the Gulf of Mexico, met a man in a particularly backward section of North Carolina who said to him: “I believe in Providence. Our fathers came into these valleys, got the richest of them, and skimmed the cream of the soil. The worn-out ground won’t yield no roasting ears now. But the Lord foresaw this state of affairs and prepared something else for us. And what is it? Why, He meant us to bust open these copper mines and gold mines, so that we may have money to buy the corn we cannot raise.” Though this argument has its obvious weaknesses, it is immensely appealing, just as the thought of a new genetically engineered cornucopia is appealing: it means we wouldn’t have to change.

And we don’t want to change. Jim wants to log as he always has. I want to be able to drive as I always have and go on living in the large house I live in and so on. The tidal force of biology continues to govern us, even when we realize (as no lemming can) that we’re doing something stupid. This genetic inheritance from millions of years ago when it did make sense to grow and expand can’t simply be shrugged off.

And the opposing forces are so weak. In a curious way, for example, some environmentalists have made it easier for people to ignore global threats. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a spate of horror books came out—books filled with the direst predictions. “At the current rate of population increase, there will be a billion billion people on the face of the earth, or seventeen hundred for every square mile,” wrote Paul Ehrlich. “Projecting this farther into the future, in about two thousand or three thousand years people would weigh more than the earth; in five thousand years everything in the visible universe would be converted into people, and their expansion would be at the speed of light.” While this was technically true, it was also so unrealistic that we could safely ignore it. The greenhouse effect, he wrote, might raise ocean levels two hundred and fifty feet. “Gondola to the Empire State Building, anyone? he asked. “Lake Erie has died.… Lake Michigan will soon follow it into extinction.” But that didn’t happen. Lake Erie rose again—still sick, of course, but not dead. The oil crisis eased and then turned into an oil glut. The greenhouse effect could realistically raise the sea level ten feet, which is plenty bad enough but sounds like nothing next to two hundred and fifty. With every unfulfilled apocalyptic projection, our confidence in the environmentalists has waned, our belief that we’ll muddle through been bolstered.

We’ll look for almost any reason not to change our attitudes; the inertia of the established order is powerful. If we can think of a plausible, or even implausible, reason to discount environmental warnings, we will. If a solitary scientist says, as S. Fred Singer did in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, that the greenhouse effect is a “mixture of fact and fancy,” we read it to mean that the whole business is nonsense. And if we can imagine a plausible reason to believe that it will all be okay—if someone tells us that we can “manage” the planet, for instance—the temptation is to believe him. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency, he made his shrillest attacks on the idea that we might be living in an “age of limits.” This notion, perhaps the first necessary recognition on the road to a new relationship with the earth, a first baby step on a thousand-mile journey toward deep ecology, had gained some small currency with Carter administration officials. But Reagan attacked it mercilessly. Occasionally, as when he announced that trees pollute, he got in a little trouble. But the country forgave him, because it wanted to believe him—wanted to believe that, even though the shadows seemed to be lengthening, it was “morning in America.” Unfortunately, optimism didn’t aid the ozone layer.

IN VERY LARGE MEASURE, our helplessness is a problem of affluence. The perceptive essayist (and farmer) Wendell Berry once remarked that because the agricultural life “made serious demands upon the human in return for benefits given, the industrial age was invented to avoid the return due for benefits incurred.” Now that most of us in the West are several generations away from that earlier way of life, our sense of entitlement is almost impossible to shake. That is why the energy crisis was so interesting: for a brief moment, it actually unnerved us. We carpooled—we gave up exclusive control of the radio dial. But it seems to have unnerved us only on an individual basis. We were afraid we wouldn’t be able to find gas, and upset that it cost so much. I remember thinking a few years ago, when for the first time in my motoring life the numbers on the gallon dial spun quicker than the numbers on the dollars dial, and Texaco started handing out water glasses, that this would be the real test of the meaning of the gas crisis. If people had perceived it as a warning of the earth’s fragility, of its essentially finite nature, then perhaps they would keep driving Toyotas when the price of gas came down.

In the summer of 1988, a month after the Senate testimony on fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect, in the middle of the August heat wave, on the same day that The New York Times ran a huge piece titled “The Planet Strikes Back,” the paper’s front page featured a story on the hot new cars. “Car Makers of the World Revive Horsepower Race,” it declared, citing the decision of Corvette to increase its power from 245 horsepower to a whopping 400, and the long waiting lists for a Ferrari capable of beating two hundred miles per hour. “Now, with fuel cheap, a fast car has again become a success symbol,” it concluded. “Performance is a hot topic,” the advertising executive in charge of the Dodge account told reporters. “People have money and they want to get back to driving the way it used to be—fun.” As a result of this reversion to form, the federal government that fall decided to relax fuel-economy laws. Since 1976 American car builders had been required to raise the average fuel efficiencies of new cars. By 1988 new cars were supposed to be averaging 27.5 miles per gallon. But the companies, citing consumer demand, said they would have to limit production of their biggest cars to meet the overall standard. Cadillac had added nine inches to its Sedan DeVille, for instance, and Buick had stuck nearly a foot on the 1989 Riviera—these were the cars people wanted. And so the Department of Transportation decided in October 1988, just weeks after the latest EPA report on the need to reduce fossil-fuel use, to cut the figure back to 26.5 miles per gallon.

Our tentative moves toward alternative forms of energy seem to have been just as halfhearted. Through the mid-1980s the United States was the world’s largest market for solar collectors. Then, in 1986, as oil prices fell, the federal government eliminated tax credits for putting the things on your roof. Sales volume dropped 70 percent, according to the Worldwatch Institute; twenty-eight thousand of the industry’s thirty thousand employees lost their jobs.

The point is, it’s easier, and thus “more fun,” to use oil for almost everything. Raking leaves, for instance. By 1987 Americans alone had paid more than a hundred million dollars to buy electric leaf blowers—machines that blow leaves around a yard, thereby replacing the rake. Never mind that they make a horrible racket, or that when you use one the chance of daydreaming disappears—and certainly never mind the thought that they give off greenhouse gases. “Blowers are far more efficient, because you’re harnessing gasoline, not muscles,” said John F. Cockerill of the New York Turf and Landscape Association in a recent article. “It’s a lot less tiring.” Was Wendell Berry exaggerating when he said that the Industrial Revolution was an attempt to avoid the return due for our benefits? After only a hundred and fifty years of our addiction to oil, we can barely comprehend change—it seems so scary. It seems like work, and like being cramped in a little car.

Van Wyck Brooks, the historian of literature, contended that most aristocratic Southerners felt the abolition of slavery to be both “right and necessary,” but they opposed it nonetheless. “The economic life of the South was founded on slavery, and the question seemed too difficult to solve.” I think the analogy is not overdrawn: we can engage in newspaper debates about the need for new national energy policies and so on, but our individual personal economies rely so heavily on the cheap labor provided by oil that change, and especially the radical change to something like the deep ecological model, almost can’t be conceived. Dr. Chauncey Starr, who is the president emeritus of the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry arm, pointed out recently that cutting in half the carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants in the United States would delay a greenhouse warming only a year or two. “What would you be willing to pay for that?” he asked.

We flatter ourselves that we think of the future. Politicians are always talking about our children, our grandchildren, and, as individuals, we do think about them, but in the same way that we think about ourselves. We lay aside money for them, or land. But we do not really think of grandchildren in general. “Future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions,” said a perceptive introduction to the United Nations report on Our Common Future. Future generations depend on us, but not vice versa. “We act as we do because we can get away with it.” IT IS EASY to lampoon electric leaf blowers. But this paralysis of affluence is dwarfed by the paralysis of poverty that afflicts most of the world. It’s not just Westerners, for instance, who want cars. In 1985, according to the researcher Michael Renner, only a little more than 1 percent of the population of the Third World owned an automobile, compared with 40 percent in the Western industrialized countries. “Yet the lure of owning a private passenger car—and the status, mobility, and better life its possession seems to promise—seem irresistible everywhere on the globe,” Renner went on to say. “As soon as income allows, many people accord high priority to buying a car.” As a result, both China and India have “embarked on policies that seek to emulate the motorized transport system of the industrial West.” It does not require much imagination to foresee the results for the atmosphere if, someday, the same percentage of Kenyans—far less than of Indians or Chinese—as Germans drive cars. Or if even half the proportion, or a quarter. In general, the average sub-Saharan uses one-eightieth as much energy as the average Belgian or Finn or American. Thus, in the words of a United Nations report, “any realistic global energy scenario must provide for substantially increased primary energy use by developing countries.” The thought that people living in poverty, be it desperate poverty or just depressing poverty, will curb their desire for a marginally better life simply because of something like the greenhouse effect is, of course, absurd. A cyclone killed three hundred thousand Bangladeshis in 1970. As soon as the water drained, people resettled the land. The willingness to take this sort of risk testifies to a hunger that can only increase if, as expected, the country’s population doubles. They are going to moderate their “lifestyles,” pare down their “desires,” in order to avoid releasing carbon dioxide? The subsistence farmers of the tropics, with no alternative method for feeding their families, will cease their slash-and-burn agriculture?

This overwhelming poverty, though, affects the rich as well as the poor, in that it keeps all discussions of solutions muted. On the one hand, it is inconceivable, at least this side of some genetically engineered bounty, that the peoples of the developing world could ever enjoy a standard of living like ours; there is simply not enough plastic and copper and so on to go around. If by 2025 energy consumption in every country reached the current levels of the industrialized countries, it would mean a load five and a half times as big as the present environmentally unsupportable one. On the other hand, it is politically—and humanly—impossible to say that the poor should be condemned to live without while we live with.

Since environmentalists cannot alleviate poverty by increasing the amount of goods, one would logically expect them to advocate a drastic redistribution of wealth. The environmentally sane standard of living for a population our current size would probably be somewhere between that of the average Englishman and of the average Ethiopian—each lives unreasonably. But this sort of talk would erode what support environmental concerns enjoy among the privileged. Do you want to use your car one-fifth as often so that five Ethiopians can drive theirs without damaging the air? Or even, assuming that you could double the efficiency of your car, do you want to drive half as much? Much easier to continue hoping that the pie is or will be large enough for all of us to have two slices; that way our enjoyment is impaired by neither limit nor guilt.

The most extreme counterargument—expressed by Robinson Jeffers in the advice “Be in nothing so moderate as in love of man”—sounds heartless because it is, especially coming from someone well fed and well housed like me. But it has certain virtues, such as intellectual honesty. In 1988, during the American summer heat, a New York Times editorial declared: “Sweltering through a 95-degree day is not a choice but yet another facet of poverty. If a civilized New York is a place in which everyone could come in from the cold, this torrid summer reminds us that it’s also a place in which everyone could come in from the heat.” A civilized New York—and, by extension, a civilized world, since an awful lot of places suffer 95-degree days—is a world in which poor people have air-conditioning. Nowhere does the editorialist suggest that all this new air-conditioning, by sucking up electricity, will increase the greenhouse effect, or that by releasing chlorofluorocarbons it will erode the ozone layer, though surely these would be greater catastrophes for the poor. And certainly he doesn’t suggest that we might be better off, rich and poor, doing with less air-conditioning in an effort to save the atmosphere. This last is not some fantasy idea. People, after all, lived at the latitude of Manhattan for many centuries without benefit of air-conditioning. But because “civilized” New York has decided that it likes air-conditioning, it now feels the need to extend air-conditioning, if only in its imagination, to everyone. This will not cool off the sweating homeless in New York, much less on the Indian subcontinent (where, if one were rationally allocating air conditioners, most of them would go). But it is the sort of thinking that could very well prevent anything major from ever being done here to curb fuel use. For example, S. Fred Singer, the greenhouse skeptic, writes that “drastically limiting the emission of carbon dioxide means cutting deeply into global energy use. But limiting economic growth condemns the poor, especially in the Third World, to continued poverty, if not outright starvation.” I am dubious about the actual depth of feeling for the Third World implied by such arguments—they mesh too conveniently with our desires. After all, limiting our standard of living and sharing our wealth would also help alleviate poverty, and an overheated, ozone-depleted world will probably be even crueler to the poor than to the rich. A humble path, in which the rich world meets the poor world halfway, seems to me to allow for far more justice than an ever-growing supply of air conditioners. We don’t need to choose between cruelty and the greenhouse effect; there are more rational, if more difficult, ways to show our love of our fellow man. But I have no doubt at all about the power of humanist arguments like Singer’s to stall effective action of any sort if we are reluctant to take such action in the first place.

THE INERTIA OF AFFLUENCE, the push of poverty, the soaring population—these and the other reasons listed earlier make me pessimistic about the chances that we will dramatically alter our ways of thinking and living, that we will turn humble in the face of our troubles.

A purely personal effort is, of course, just a gesture—a good gesture, but a gesture. The greenhouse effect is the first environmental problem we can’t escape by moving to the woods. There are no personal solutions. There is no time to just decide we’ll raise enlightened children and they’ll slowly change the world. (When the problem was that someone might drop the Bomb, it perhaps made sense to bear and raise sane, well-adjusted children in the hope that they’d help prevent the Bomb from being dropped. But the problem now is precisely too many children, well adjusted or otherwise.) We have to be the ones to do it, and simply driving less won’t matter, except as a statement, a way to get other people—many other people—to drive less. Most people have to be persuaded, and persuaded quickly, to change.

But saying that something is difficult is not the same as saying it is impossible. After all, George Bush decided in the wake of the 1988 heat that he was an environmentalist. Margaret Thatcher, who in 1985 had linked environmental groups with other “subversives” as “the enemy within,” found the religion at about the same time, after the death of the North Sea seals and the odyssey of the Karin B, the wandering toxic-waste barge. “Protecting the balance of nature,” she said, is “one of the great challenges of the twentieth century.” I’ve been using the analogy of slavery throughout this discussion: we feel it our privilege (and we feel it a necessity) to dominate nature to our advantage, as whites once dominated blacks. When one method of domination seems to be ending—the reliance on fossil fuels, say—we cast about for another, like genetic tinkering, much as Americans replaced slavery with Jim Crow segregation. However, in my lifetime that official segregation ended. Through their courage, men and women like Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer managed to harness the majority’s better qualities—idealism, love for one’s neighbor—to transform the face of American society. Racism, it is true, remains virulent, but the majority of Americans have voted for legislators who passed laws—radical laws—mandating affirmative action programs. Out of some higher motive (and, of course, some base motives, such as the fear of black revolt), whites have sacrificed at least a little potential wealth and power. It would be wrong to say categorically that such a shift couldn’t happen with regard to the environment—that a mixture of fear and the love for nature buried in most of us couldn’t rise to the surface. Some small but significant steps have been taken. Los Angeles, for instance, recently enacted a series of laws to improve air quality that will change at least the edges of the lives of every resident. Los Angelenos will drive different cars, turn in their gas-powered lawn mowers, start their barbecues without lighter fluid.

Most of my hope, however, fades in the face of the uniqueness of the situation. As we have seen, nature is already ending, its passing quiet and accidental. And not only does its ending prevent us from returning to the world we previously knew, but it also, for two powerful reasons, makes any of the fundamental changes we’ve discussed even more unlikely than they might be in easier times. If the end of nature were still in the future, a preventable possibility, the equation might be different. But it isn’t in the future—it’s in the recent past, and the present.

THE END OF NATURE is a plunge into the unknown, fearful as much because it is unknown as because it might be hot or dry or whipped by hurricanes. This lack of security is the first reason that fundamental change will be much harder, for the changes we’ve been discussing—the deep ecology alternative, for instance—would make life even more unpredictable. One would have to begin to forgo the traditional methods of securing one’s future—many children, many possessions, and so on. Jeremy Rifkin, in his book on genetic engineering, said there was still a chance we would choose to sacrifice “a measure of our own future security in order to represent the interests of the rest of the cosmos.… If we have been saving that spirit up for a propitious moment, then certainly now is the time for it to pour forth.” But now isn’t the time—now, as the familiar world around us starts to change, is the moment when every threatened instinct will push us to scramble to preserve at least our familiar style of life. We can—and we may well—make the adjustments necessary for our survival. For instance, much of the early work in agricultural biotechnology has focused on inventing plants able to survive heat and drought. It seems the sensible thing to do—the way to keep life as “normal” as possible in the face of change. It leads, though, as I have said, to the second death of nature: the imposition of our artificial world in place of the broken natural one.

The rivers of the American Southwest, in particular the Colorado, provide a perfect example of this phenomenon. Though Ed Abbey wrote about the entire Southwest, the one spot he kept returning to, the navel of his universe, was Glen Canyon dam. The dam, built a couple of decades ago near the Utah-Arizona line, is just upstream of the Grand Canyon. It backs up the waters of the Colorado into Lake Powell, a reservoir that rises and falls with the demand for hydroelectric power. The water covers Glen Canyon, a place so sweet Abbey called it “paradise”—and the description of his raft trip through the gorge shortly before the dam was finished makes the term sound weak, understated.

Since the degradation of this canyon stood in his mind for all human arrogance, its salvation would be the sign that man had turned the corner, begun the long trek back toward his proper station. (Blowing up the dam is the great aim of the Monkey Wrench Gang.) If we decide to take out the dam, it would signal many things, among them that perhaps the desert should not house huge numbers of people—that some should move, and others take steps to ensure smaller future generations. True, if we decide to take out the dam and the lake flowed away toward Mexico, it would “no doubt expose a drear and hideous scene: immense mud flats and whole plateaus of sodden garbage strewn with dead trees, sunken boats, the skeletons of long-forgotten, decomposing waterskiers,” Abbey writes. “But to those who find the prospect too appalling, I say give nature a little time. In five years, at most in ten, the sun and wind and storms will cleanse and sterilize the repellent mess. The inevitable floods will soon remove all that does not belong within the canyons. Fresh green willow, box elder, and redbud will reappear; and the ancient drowned cottonwoods (noble monuments to themselves) will be replaced by young of their own kind.… Within a generation—thirty years—I predict the river and canyons will bear a decent resemblance to their former selves. Within the lifetime of our children Glen Canyon and the living river, heart of the canyonlands, will be restored to us. The wilderness will again belong to God, the people, and the wild things that call it home.” Such a vision is, of course, romantically unlikely under any circumstances. But the new insecurity that accompanies the end of nature makes it even more far-fetched. As we have seen, the projected increases in evaporation and decreases in rainfall in the Colorado watershed could cut flows along the river nearly in half. As a result, noted an EPA report, the reluctance in recent years to build big dams, for fear of environmental opposition, “may be re-evaluated in light of possible new demands for developed water under warm-dry climate change scenarios.” Specifically, “climate change may create pressure to build the Animas-LaPlata and Narrows projects proposed for Colorado.” In other words, where Abbey hoped for box elder and redbud more dams will bloom. The authors of Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management are quite explicit about dam building. In a section on water conservation they put forth a lot of good ideas for fixing leaky mains and such, but they also sing the praises of damming rivers, a process that “can help satisfy a number of needs at once: it helps control flooding, provides the potential for generating hydropower, and stores water for a variety of purposes, including irrigation. The resulting reservoirs represent a multi-purpose resource, with potential for aquaculture and leisure activities.” A flood-washed paradise of cottonwood or a “multi-purpose resource”—that is the choice, and it is not hard to guess, if the heat is on, what the voters of Arizona will demand.

I got a glimpse of this particular future a few years ago when I spent some time along the La Grande River, in sub-Arctic Quebec. It is barren land but beautiful—a tundra of tiny ponds and hummocks stretching to the horizon, carpeted in light-green caribou moss. There are trees—almost all black spruce, and all spindly, sparse. A number of Indians and Eskimos lived there—about the number the area could support. Then, a decade or so ago, Hydro-Quebec, the provincial utility, decided to exploit the power of the La Grande by building three huge dams along the river’s 350-mile length. The largest, said the Hydro-Quebec spokesman, is the size of fifty-four thousand two-story houses or sixty-seven billion peas. Its spillway could carry the combined flow of all the rivers of Europe. And erecting it was a Bunyanesque task: eighteen thousand men carved the roads north through the tundra and poured the concrete. (Photos show the cooks stirring spaghetti sauce with canoe paddles.) On the one hand, this is a perfect example of “environmentally sound” energy generation; it produces an enormous amount of power without giving off so much as a whiff of any greenhouse gas. This is the sort of structure we’ll be clamoring to build as the warming progresses.

But environmentally sound is not the same as natural. The dams have altered an area larger than Switzerland—the flow of the Caniapiscau River, for instance, has been partly reversed to provide more water for the turbines. In September 1984, at least ten thousand caribou drowned trying to cross the river during their annual migration. They were crossing at their usual spot, but the river was not its usual size; it was so swollen that many of the animals were swept forty-five miles downstream. Every good argument—the argument that fossil fuels cause the greenhouse effect; the argument that in a drier, hotter world we’ll need more water; the argument that as our margin of security dwindles we must act to restore it—will lead us to more La Grande projects, more dams on the Colorado, more “management.” Every argument—that the warmer weather and increased ultraviolet is killing plants and causing cancer; that the new weather is causing food shortages—will have us looking to genetic engineering for salvation. And with each such step we will move farther from nature.

AT THE SAME TIME—and this is the second kicker—the only real counterargument, the argument for an independent, eternal, ever-sweet nature, will grow ever fainter and harder to make. Why? Because nature, independent nature, is already ending. Fighting for it is like fighting for an independent Latvia except that it’s harder, since the end of nature may be permanent. Take out Glen Canyon dam and let the Colorado run free, let the “inevitable floods” wash away the debris? But floods may be a thing of the past on the Colorado; the river may, in effect, be dammed at the source—in the clouds that no longer dump their freight on its upper reaches, and in the heat that evaporates the water that does fall.

If nature were about to end, we might muster endless energy to stave it off; but if nature has already ended, what are we fighting for? Before any redwoods had been cloned or genetically improved, one could understand clearly what the fight against such tinkering was about. It was about the idea that a redwood was somehow sacred, that its fundamental identity should remain beyond our control. But once that barrier has been broken, what is the fight about, then? It’s not like opposing nuclear reactors or toxic waste dumps, each one of which poses new risks to new areas. This damage is to an idea, the idea of nature, and all the ideas that descend from it. It is not cumulative. Wendell Berry once argued that without a “fascination” with the wonder of the natural world “the energy needed for its preservation will never be developed”—that “there must be a mystique of the rain if we are ever to restore the purity of the rainfall.” This makes sense when the problem is transitory—sulfur from a smokestack drifting over the Adirondacks. But how can there be a mystique of the rain now that every drop—even the drops that fall as snow on the Arctic, even the drops that fall deep in the remaining forest primeval—bears the permanent stamp of man? Having lost its separateness, it loses its special power. Instead of being a category like God—something beyond our control—it is now a category like the defense budget or the minimum wage, a problem we must work out. This in itself changes its meaning completely, and changes our reaction to it.

A few weeks ago, on the hill behind my house, I almost kicked the biggest rabbit I had ever seen. She had nearly finished turning white for the winter, and we stood there watching each other for a pleasant while, two creatures linked by curiosity. What will it mean to come across a rabbit in the woods once genetically engineered “rabbits” are widespread? Why would we have any more reverence or affection for such a rabbit than we would for a Coke bottle?

The end of nature probably also makes us reluctant to attach ourselves to its remnants, for the same reason that we usually don’t choose friends from among the terminally ill. I love the mountain outside my back door—the stream that runs along its flank, and the smaller stream that slides down a quarter-mile mossy chute, and the place where the slope flattens into an open plain of birch and oak. But I know that some part of me resists getting to know it better—for fear, weak-kneed as it sounds, of getting hurt. If I knew as well as a forester what sick trees looked like, I fear I would see them everywhere. I find now that I like the woods best in winter, when it is harder to tell what might be dying. The winter woods might be perfectly healthy come spring, just as the sick friend, when she’s sleeping peacefully, might wake up without the wheeze in her lungs.

Writing on a different subject, the bonds between men and women, Allan Bloom describes the difficulty of maintaining a committed relationship in an age when divorce—the end of that relationship—is so widely accepted: “The possibility of separation is already the fact of separation, inasmuch as people today must plan to be whole and self-sufficient and cannot risk interdependence.” Instead of working to strengthen our attachments, our energies “are exhausted in preparation for independence.” How much more so if that possible separation is definite, if that hurt and confusion is certain. I love winter best now, but I try not to love it too much, for fear of the January perhaps not so distant when the snow will fall as warm rain. There is no future in loving nature.

And there may not even be much past. Though Thoreau’s writings grew in value and importance the closer we drew to the end of nature, the time fast approaches when he will be inexplicable, his notions less sensible to future men than the cave paintings are to us. Thoreau writes, on his climb up Katahdin, that the mountain “was vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits. Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs.… Nature has got him at a disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty. She does not smile on him as in the plains. She seems to say sternly, why came ye here before your time. This ground is not prepared for you.” This sentiment describes perfectly the last stage of the relationship of man to nature—though we had subdued her in the low places, the peaks, the poles, the jungles still rang with her pure message. But what sense will this passage make in the years to come, when Katahdin, the “cloud factory,” is ringed by clouds of man’s own making? When the massive pines that ring its base have been genetically improved for straightness of trunk and “proper branch drop,” or, more likely, have sprung from the cones of genetically improved trees that began a few miles and a few generations distant on some timber plantation? When the moose that ambles by is part of a herd whose rancher is committed to the enlightened, Gaian notion that “conservation and profit go hand in hand”?

Thoreau describes an afternoon of fishing at the mouth of Murch Brook, a dozen miles from the summit of Katahdin. Speckled trout “swallowed the bait as fast as we could throw in; and the finest specimens … that I have ever seen, the largest one weighing three pounds, were heaved upon the shore.” He stood there to catch them as “they fell in a perfect shower” around him. “While yet alive, before their tints had faded, they glistened like the fairest flowers, the product of primitive rivers; and he could hardly trust his senses, as he stood over them, that these jewels should have swam away in that Aboljacknagesic water for so long, some many dark ages—these bright fluviatile flowers, seen of Indians only, made beautiful, the Lord only knows why, to swim there!” But through biotechnology we have already synthesized growth hormone for trout. Soon pulling them from the water will mean no more than pulling cars from an assembly line. We won’t have to wonder why the Lord made them beautiful and put them there; we will have created them to increase protein supplies or fish-farm profits. If we want to make them pretty, we may. Soon Thoreau will make no sense. And when that happens, the end of nature—which began with our alteration of the atmosphere, and continued with the responses to our precarious situation of the “planetary managers” and the “genetic engineers”—will be final. The loss of memory will be the eternal loss of meaning.

IN THE END, I understand perfectly well that defiance may mean prosperity and a sort of security—that more dams will help the people of Phoenix, and that genetic engineering will help the sick, and that there is so much progress that can still be made against human misery. And I have no great desire to limit my way of life. If I thought we could put off the decision, foist it on our grandchildren, I’d be willing. As it is, I have no plans to live in a cave, or even an unheated cabin. If it took ten thousand years to get where we are, it will take a few generations to climb back down. But this could be the epoch when people decide at least to go no farther down the path we’ve been following—when we make not only the necessary technological adjustments to preserve the world from overheating but also the necessary mental adjustments to ensure that we’ll never again put our good ahead of everything else’s. This is the path I choose, for it offers at least a shred of hope for a living, eternal, meaningful world.

The reasons for my choice are as numerous as the trees on the hill outside my window, but they crystallized in my mind when I read a passage from one of the brave optimists of our managed future. “The existential philosophers—particularly Sartre—used to lament that man lacked an essential purpose,” writes Walter Truett Anderson. “We find now that the human predicament is not quite so devoid of inherent purpose after all. To be caretakers of a planet, custodians of all its life forms and shapers of its (and our own) future is certainly purpose enough.” This intended rallying cry depresses me more deeply than I can say. That is our destiny? To be “caretakers” of a managed world, “custodians” of all life? For that job security we will trade the mystery of the natural world, the pungent mystery of our own lives and of a world bursting with exuberant creation? Much better, Sartre’s neutral purposelessness. But much better than that, another vision, of man actually living up to his potential.

As birds have flight, our special gift is reason. Part of that reason drives the intelligence that allows us, say, to figure out and master DNA, or to build big power plants. But our reason could also keep us from following blindly the biological imperatives toward endless growth in numbers and territory. Our reason allows us to conceive of our species as a species, and to recognize the danger that our growth poses to it, and to feel something for the other species we threaten. Should we so choose, we could exercise our reason to do what no other animal can do: we could limit ourselves voluntarily, choose to remain God’s creatures instead of making ourselves gods. What a towering achievement that would be, so much more impressive than the largest dam (beavers can build dams) because so much harder. Such restraint—not genetic engineering or planetary management—is the real challenge, the hard thing. Of course we can splice genes. But can we not splice genes?

The momentum behind our impulse to control nature may be too strong to stop. But the likelihood of defeat is not an excuse to avoid trying. In one sense it’s an aesthetic choice we face, much like Thoreau’s, though what is at stake is less the shape of our own lives than the very practical question of the lives of all the other species and the creation they together constitute. But it is, of course, for our benefit, too. Jeffers wrote, “Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is / organic wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man / Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.” The day has come when we choose between that wholeness and man in it or man apart, between that old clarity or new darkness.

The strongest reason for choosing man apart is, as I have said, the idea that nature has ended. And I think it has. But I cannot stand the clanging finality of the argument I’ve made, any more than people have ever been able to stand the clanging finality of their own deaths. So I hope against hope. Though not in our time, and not in the time of our children, or their children, if we now, today, limited our numbers and our desires and our ambitions, perhaps nature could someday resume its independent working. Perhaps the temperature could someday adjust itself to its own setting, and the rain fall of its own accord.

Time, as I said at the start of this essay, is elusive, odd. Perhaps the ten thousand years of our encroaching, defiant civilization, an eternity to us and a yawn to the rocks around us, could give way to ten thousand years of humble civilization when we choose to pay more for the benefits of nature, when we rebuild the sense of wonder and sanctity that could protect the natural world. At the end of that span we would still be so young, and perhaps ready to revel in the timelessness that surrounds us. I said, much earlier, that one of the possible meanings of the end of nature is that God is dead. But another, if there was or is any such thing as God, is that he has granted us free will and now looks on, with great concern and love, to see how we exercise it: to see if we take the chance offered by this crisis to bow down and humble ourselves, or if we compound original sin with terminal sin.

AND IF WHAT I FEAR indeed happens? If the next twenty years sees us pump ever more gas into the sky, and if it sees us take irrevocable steps into the genetically engineered future, what solace then? The only ones in need of consolation will be those of us who were born in the transitional decades, too early to adapt completely to a brave new ethos.

I’ve never paid more than the usual attention to the night sky, perhaps because I grew up around cities, on suburban blocks lined with streetlights. But last August, on a warm Thursday afternoon, my wife and I hauled sleeping bags high into the mountains and laid them out on a rocky summit and waited for night to fall and the annual Perseid meteor shower to begin. After midnight, it finally started in earnest—every minute, every thirty seconds, another spear of light shot across some corner of the sky, so fast that unless you were looking right at it you had only the sense of a flash. Our bed was literally rock-hard, and when, toward dawn, an unforecast rain soaked our tentless clearing, it was cold—but the night was glorious, and I’ve since gotten a telescope. When, in Paradise Lost, Adam asks about the movements of the heavens, Raphael refuses to answer. “Let it speak,” he says, “the Maker’s high magnificence, who built / so spacious, and his line stretcht out so far; / That man may know he dwells not in his own; / An edifice too large for him to fill, / Lodg’d in a small partition, and the rest / Ordain’d for uses to his Lord best known.” We may be creating microscopic nature; we may have altered the middle nature all around us; but this vast nature above our atmosphere still holds mystery and wonder. The occasional satellite does blip across, but it is almost a self-parody. Someday, man may figure out a method of conquering the stars, but at least for now when we look into the night sky, it is as Burroughs said: “We do not see ourselves reflected there—we are swept away from ourselves, and impressed with our own insignificance.” As I lay on the mountaintop that August night I tried to pick out the few constellations I could identify—Orion’s Belt, the Dippers. The ancients, surrounded by wild and even hostile nature, took comfort in seeing the familiar above them—spoons and swords and nets. But we will need to train ourselves not to see those patterns. The comfort we need is inhuman.

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