McKibben’s “The End of Nature”

Because of the interest in my review of Bill McKibben’s Eaarth (#2 in page views for this blog), I’m posting my review of his first book, The End of Nature. The review was originally published, slightly edited, in the April 1991 issue of News & Letters. Tomorrow I’ll post another McKibben-related piece.

The End of Nature by Bill McKibben. New York: Random House, 1989.

The first fifth of this book is mainly about global warming caused by human activity, as well as acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer. There is a bit of discussion of the potential effects: disruption of climate and thus of agriculture, rising sea levels, extinction of species, human health problems. (This is developed in much greater depth in Global Warming by Stephen H. Schneider.) But to the author, the overriding consequence is the end of the idea of nature, by which he means that global alterations of the environment by human actions spell the end of “our sense of nature as eternal and separate” (p. 8).

The underlying cause of the “end of nature,” he argues, is a “binge, a half century of unbelievable prosperity and ease” (p. 86), which he blames on “an ideology…that man is at the center of creation and it is therefore right for him to do whatever pleases him” (p. 151). McKibben never explores the social relations that allow technology to be used in a manner that destroys both “man” and “creation,” nor even realizes that the decisions are not made by “man” but by a few people. So, following the ideology that calls itself “deep ecology,” he proposes “humility” and “limits,” meaning a vast reduction in living standards.

The pernicious nature of this ideology is most easily seen in the contempt the author expresses for working people in the U.S., whom he sees only as selfish consumers, and never as human beings who struggle for survival and for freedom.

Freedom is so far from McKibben’s mind that he dares to say, “our helplessness is a problem of affluence” (p. 197). Evidently–in a time characterized by concessions, two-tier wages, unionbusting, falling standards of living, increasing poverty and infant mortality, decreasing life expectancy for Blacks– affluence is all he cares to see from his hideaway in the Adirondacks.

McKibben’s greatest fear is that “we” will be “willing to live in a world ever more estranged from nature (p. 193–emphasis mine). But his refusal to challenge or even acknowledge the capitalist class nature of the society we live in makes it clear that he is willing to live in a world where we’re all estranged from other people, from our own activity, from ourselves. (And how could you be any more estranged from nature than when you make it an abstract Other, totally separate from–and opposite to–humanity?)

As opposed to Marx’s historically concrete analysis of force and domination in capitalist society being rooted in the domination of dead over living labor–machines controlling human activity instead of vice versa–domination in the minds of “deep ecologists” becomes a suprahistorical abstraction of human domination over nature:

“…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” (p. 174).

This abstraction gives the “deep” the delusion of being the most “radical” of all.1 What it amounts to, however, is a retrogression. Humans, no longer creative subjects striving for freedom, must bow to “nature,” as an abstract object. Daunted by the monumental task of overthrowing the social relations that underlie technology’s destructiveness, “deep ecologists” turn their backs on the actual, historical, ongoing struggles against capitalist civilization, and declare that civilization itself is the enemy.

The fundamental error lies in seeking a shortcut to the transcendence of humanity’s alienation from nature that skips over alienated labor, the alienation from one’s own activity. With that contradiction as ground, the dream of overcoming alienation from nature impels the “deep” toward a nightmare of humanity’s permanent alienation from all things human. The opposite to this vision of slavery is Marx’s vision of freedom:

“In fact, the realm of freedom does not commence until the point is passed where labor under the compulsion of necessity and of external utility is required. In the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of material production in the strict meaning of the term. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature, in order to satisfy his wants, in order to maintain his life and reproduce it, so civilized man has to do it, and he must do it in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production….The freedom in this field cannot consist of anything else but of the fact that socialized man, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power….But it always remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human power which is its own end, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can flourish only upon that realm of necessity as its basis.”2

The End of Nature comes to a fitting conclusion: “The comfort we need is inhuman” (p. 217). The last word of the book is “inhuman.” It might as well have been “unfreedom.”

–Franklin Dmitryev



1. See p. 187: “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.”

2. Capital, Vol. 3, Kerr edition, pp. 954-55.

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3 Responses to McKibben’s “The End of Nature”

  1. Pingback: Global warming, concepts of development, and capital’s momentum | Work of the Negative: A Marxist-Humanist blog

  2. Pingback: Learning to care about the environment |

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