The End of Nature: How Did Things Get This Bad?

We're adding chemicals to our land and water supplies, pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and facing the planet's sixth extinction crisis. YVON CHOUINARD, owner and founder of Patagonia, wonders if we've borrowed more from nature than we can ever give back.


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The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described how we experience nature's “creative advance” as perpetual novelty. But nature generates its changes at a much slower pace than we now allow her and in more complex ways than we can easily recognize. We need to be more aware of what we do to the planet, do much less harm—and do it far more slowly.

We harm nature by what we add to it, how we alter it, and what we take away. We have added a number of chemicals that nature didn't have to absorb before the 19th century, and that we didn't have to deal with as health issues. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified 62,000 industrial chemicals in 1979, without screening or proscribing their use. Only a few hundred have even been tested. You carry in your own body traces of 200 chemicals unknown to your ancestors, some of them toxic in large amounts, others slow-acting carcinogens in small amounts. And a chemical present in your blood might have no affect on its own, but prove dangerous in combination with another. Untested interactions among the various chemicals released into nature can form up to three billion combinations.

Because we know so little, itc is difficult to track our disease back to their environmental source. Certain diseases have become prevalent in affluent countries at much higher rates than in the less developed world, and they may reflect a reduced physical resilience. These include inflammatory autoimmune disorders like asthma, allergies, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. Nonsmokers who reach middle age can now expect to have levels of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a precursor to emphysema, equal to that of smokers. Breast cancer rates for women have tripled during the past 30 years, and only five to 10 percent of breast cancers are considered hereditary.

Scientists are slow to link specific cancers to specific environmental causes, such as high-voltage wires, PCBs in the river, your cell phone. Few cancer catalysts have been studied as closely or confirmed as positively as cigarette smokes. But some environmentally caused illnesses can be traced: mercury poisoning, for instance, has been proven to result from eating too many large predatory fish, such as tuna and swordfish.

We have added significantly, through runoff from sewage and fertilizer, to the nitrogen and phosphorus in the water supply; the extra nutrients create algae blooms that choke off oxygen and kill fish. Half of the lakes in Asia, Europe, and North America suffer from this process, called eutrophication, as does much of the Gulf of Mexico.

We have altered nature.

The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, up by 19 percent since 1959, has now reached its highest level in 600,000 years and continues to grow, making hot air hotter, cold air colder, and increasing the ferocity of storms. Arctic winter ice deceases nine percent each decade, and every winter more of western Antarctica's ice shelves calve into the ocean. The Larsen B Ice Shelf alone was the size of Rhode Island and took only 35 days to collapse.

We have borrowed from nature what we can't pay back.

In 1960, humanity consumed about half of the planet's potential resource capacity. By 1987, we exceeded it. Twenty-five years later we are using the resource capacity of one and a half planets, though the pattern of consumption is unequal. Europe, proportionate to its population, consumed the equivalent resources of three planets; North Americans, seven. The consumers are unevenly distributed, and so is the consumption, though China and India, the world's most populous countries, now have sizeable, growing, appetitive middle classes.

Biologists agree that we're in the midst of the planet's sixth extinction crisis (the fifth was that of the dinosaurs). A 2009 study in Nature named biodiversity as the “planetary boundary” that humans have violated more than any other, among nine identified “Earth-system processes and associated thresholds, which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change.” Their proposed threshold for extinction was 10 species per million per year. We are losing species now at the rate of 100 per million per year, or 1,000 times (not a typo) the normal rate. Thirty percent of amphibians and 21 percent of mammals are among the most imminently vulnerable, including the polar bear, rhinoceros, tiger, giraffe, and gorilla. Twelve percent of bird species are threatened with extinction, as are 73 percent of flowering plants, 27 percent of corals, and 50 percent of fungi and protists.

Water withdrawals from lakes and rivers have doubled since 1960. As more of the earth's major rivers—on which huge populations depend—fail to reach the sea, the ocean's coastal eutrophic, or dead, zones expand. The dammed Colorado River is now rarely allowed to flow into the Gulf of California and its former delta is a toxic swamp. By 2025, no Chinese river will meet the ocean all year long, which will devastate wetlands, and decimate bird and fishlife. China's rivers will no longer be lifelines for her people.

Worldwide, wetlands diminish and disappear year by year, as do coral reefs and mangroves; major fisheries are collapsing. Loss of rainforst continues in poorer countries. Conventional plowing and planting without crop rotation has led to significant loss of topsoil—at the rate of one inch a year in the American Midwest. It takes 500 years for an inch of topsoil to form naturally.

The human consequences of ecological overreach are magnified in poor countries and in countries like China and India, which have large poor populations: shrinking resoources only aggravate the basic challenges of inadequate food, water and sanitation.

In short, the world is becoming a desert. Globalization, a man-made but not humanly controlled process, is largely responsible for the current speed at which life turns to sand. Globalization moves with great speed to identify, then harvest resources for human needs but crawls slowly to repair the devastation it has left in its wake. It is fast but stupid, brutal, and imprecise; to cull a tree, it takes out a forest.

Those who watch the forest be cut and raise their voice against it cannot be heard when the company that did the cutting does not belong to the community. And there is little community representatives can do. When local politics becomes subservient to distant economic power, the concept of citizenship, of its duties and possibilities, loses its meaning. The human commons loses its value; it too becomes a desert.

Because Yvon has his roots in climbing and surfing, as does our company, we can't leave undiscussed the loss of wilderness or wildness, which is as much a spiritual concept as a definition of place. By naturalist Margaret Murie's definition, wilderness is where the hand of man does not linger.

As men and women we are part of nature. If we were to have no experience of wild nature, or no way to know of it, we would lose entirely our sense of human scale. We derive our sense of awe from our ability to feel nature's force. We better know ourselves when we come face to face with the magnificence of the unknown. Emerson, Thoreau, and other transcendentalists learned and taught these lessons in New England in the 1830s though 1860s. They showed us that we can learn directly from nature about who we are and how to live.

After an accident left him sightless in a darkened room for eight months, John Muir, a native of Scotland, began his long walking journeys, first from Indiana to Florida, then famously to Yosemite. During his wandering years, Muir carried a tin cup, a handful of tea, a loaf of bread, and a copy of Emerson. (The two men were to meet one day in 1871 in Yosemite.) Muir's writings on the geology and botany of the Sierras gained him fame, respect, and economic independence. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to persuade Teddy Roosevelt to abandon the comforts of Yosemite's government camp and go off with him to sleep in bedrolls directly under the stars. That night might be regarded as the birth of the conservation movement: Muir talked Roosevelt into creating Yosemite National Park.

It might surprise some to know that, in 1971, Roosevelt's political descendant Richard Nixon, on signing the Endangered Species Act, said:

This is the environmental awakening. It makes a new sensitivity of the American spirit and a new maturity of American public life. It is working a revolution in values, as commitment to responsible partnership with nature replaces cavalier assumptions that we can play God with our surroundings and survive. It is leading to broad reforms in action, as individuals, corporations, government, and civic groups mobilize to conserve resources, to control pollution, to anticipate and prevent emerging environmental problems, to manage the land more wisely, and to preserve wilderness.

If the United States is the birthplace of conservation, of the very idea of wilderness as its own value, of nature as a teacher, we have not kept stride with the rest of the world. Forty years after Nixon gave that speech, we are still the leading practitioners of the kind of high-growth, material-intensive capitalism that is to blame for the destruction of nature. The respected Environmental Performance Index (EPI) in 2010 ranked the world's five top countries as Iceland, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Sweden, and Norway. Germany, the U.K., Franch, and Japan are all in the top 20. The U.S. has fallen to the 61st position.

This decline reflects American's growing environmental apathy. In a 2011 poll, Pew Research Center reported that only 40 percent of Americans considered protecting the environment a high priority, down from 63 percent 10 years earlier.

Will this continue? In the 1960 book Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System, an analysis of juvenile delinquency in an overorganized world Paul Goodman predicted the youth movement that would rise up in the decade that followed. The civil rights and women's rights movements also arose in response to conditions that looked unshakably stable and hegemonic at the time.

Any situation keenly out of balance eventually reveals itself to large numbers of people as absurd. So it will be with our own current social and environmental disequilibrium. The authors hope that those born in the 1980s and coming into their own now will, all their lives, pursue meaningful work and do the right thing, which is to say be responsible to other people and to nature. The authors hope they reject the official story told by governments and corporations that a healthy economy relies on the suppression of social, ecological, and individual health.

It's a competitive world: Will Iceland win?

Excerpted from Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley's The Responsible Company: What We've Learned From Patagonia's First 40 Years (Patagonia Inc).