Outside magazine, November 1995
In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Rising Tyranny of Ecology, by Alston Chase (Houghton Mifflin Co., $29.95); The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds, by Diane Ackerman (Random House, $23); and Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth, by Bill McKibben (Little, Brown, $22.95). Increasingly, 1995 has become the Year of the Fault Line, with greens now splitting into two warring camps. On one side are the pessimists, who believe that humans may be on the verge of destroying the global environment. On the other are the optimists, who argue that we pose no immediate threat to the earth and may even be its savior. The already simmering debate approached full boil a few months back with the publication of Gregg Easterbrook's optimist manifesto A Moment on the Earth. And it is likely to heat up even more, thanks to provocative new books by three of America's best environmental writers, optimist Alston Chase and pessimists Diane Ackerman and Bill McKibben.
In In a Dark Wood, Chase, a contributing editor of Outside, launches a 400-page attack on the environmental philosophy that has dominated public opinion and policy over the past two decades. If only the environment could be liberated from human interference, the theory goes, it would reach a natural state of equilibrium. This widely held belief has given birth to a vast array of environmental laws, most notably the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, argues Chase, such laws are based on an entirely false assumption: "Random disturbance, not permanence or order, governs nature." In his forcefully argued book, Chase focuses on how protectionist ecology has affected the debate over the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Rather than being "an unchanging forest primeval" before the arrival of Europeans, he writes, the region's timberland was shaped by "natural and human disturbances," from dramatic climate changes to intentional burns by pre-Columbian Americans. Chase maintains that such disturbances, including present-day clear-cut logging, are not inherently bad for the environment and may be beneficial in the long term, even if they threaten the survival of dwindling species such as the northern spotted owl. Species extinction is a normal part of evolution, Chase observes, "and the extinction of one species was often a boon to another."
This may be true, but what about the survival of our own species? Chase largely sidesteps the question, but Diane Ackerman takes it up eloquently in The Rarest of the Rare, a beautifully crafted if frustratingly short collection of essays about her visits to obscure corners of the world to see vanishing species, from the golden lion tamarin of Brazil to the short-tailed albatross of the Pacific. "If extinction is normal, then those who champion a laissez-faire relationship with nature have nothing to fret about," she writes. "We'll lose some species, gain others. But people who cherish life on earth as it is now should be worried. The vanishing of so many other animals may indicate that we're not far from the brink ourselves." What makes Ackerman's book most pointed is that in every tale of impending extinction is a reflection of our own. And what becomes clear is that humankind's hubris, enunciated again and again in these stunning parables, may blind us, leaving us with the faulty impression that we are the mighty auteurs of an earth that is in fact running of its own sweet will--not ours.
Fellow pessimist Bill McKibben agrees: "Every crisis pressing in on us--from the greenhouse effect to population to species extinction--is a question about how large humans will be in relation to the rest of creation." McKibben is author of the 1989 treatise The End of Nature, a work that Chase attacks as having "spurred worries of calamity" while offering "little in the way of scholarly evidence." McKibben stands by his earlier book's dire warnings about global warming and other environmental threats, but as he explains in Hope, Human and Wild, "I no longer think fear is sufficient motivation" for humankind to make the necessary changes in its behavior. Thus he sets out on a fascinating journey through Brazil, India, and his home in New York's Adirondacks to find inspirational examples of people forging new relationships with the land.
Chase and McKibben have huge philosophical differences, but it's surprising that they come to similar conclusions. Both, for instance, are wary of the inefficiencies of central governments and the excesses of big corporations. And both place hope in the actions of local communities that have intimate relationships with their surroundings. "A truly ecological perspective recognizes that humans and their activities are part of nature," writes Chase. As McKibben puts it, "I sense that anything truly new will come not from the universities or the legislative halls, but from the meeting between human and humus, between community and countryside." Chase, of course, sees "the tyranny of ecology" as the ultimate threat, while McKibben frets about "the tyranny of desire." Perhaps they are both right: Somewhere between anorexia and gluttony we may yet find the proper environmental diet for a small planet. And these three excellent books are good places to start looking.