Environmental scientist Bill McKibben’s “The End of Nature,” the first book for a general audience to warn about climate change, was greeted with as much skepticism as agreement when it first was published in 1989.
But over the ensuing 30 years, during which the book was published in 25 different languages, skepticism mostly has faded in the face of statistics. More than half of the greenhouse gas emissions that help drive climate change have been produced over those three recent decades, for example, which also have included the 10 hottest years on record.
Now McKibben is back with “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun To Play Itself Out?’ McKibben describes the “human game” as “the sum total of culture and commerce and politics; of religion and sport and social life; of dance and music; of dinner and art and cancer and sex and Instagram; of love and loss; of everything that comprises the experience of our species.”
That is a vast scope to cover in 304 pages, but McKibben does it by cutting to the chase. He revisits some of his and other early warnings about climate change and concludes that humanity, despite warnings and the technological capability to adjust, has failed to cope with environmental challenges because doing so would interfere with entrenched and intransigent economic interests.
He sees hope in rising awareness — he is a founder of 350.org, which has organized climate policy protests in every country except North Korea — and in the rising capability of solar power to replace fossil fuel power generation.
But this is not a cheery book. McKibben despairs that the levers of power are held by people who continue to embrace Ayn Rand’s philosophy of self over all as climate change wreaks havoc on some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations.
The question, McKibben believe, is whether it’s too late. Citing multiple scientific studies, he raises the prospect of oceans being too hot to support organisms that produce two-thirds of the world’s oxygen through photosynthesis, catastrophically violent weather, record-setting droughts and floods, migration of deadly infectious diseases, and on and on.
McKibben also peers into the future and sounds the alarm regarding the rapidly developing ability for humans to manipulate genes, thus seizing control of evolution from nature. Through the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR, it will be possible for parents not only to select against certain diseases for their children, but to select for anything from math wizardry to athletic prowess.
That is not just a subject of bioethics, but of humanity itself. As McKIibben says, pre-programming someone to understand calculus eliminates the thrill of achievement.
And, the further problem is that the expense of CRISPR manipulation exponentially will widen the global gap between haves and have-nots, and forever alter the social relationship between genetically enhanced and merely conventional humans.
“Falter” is a lot of darkness to digest and, of course, McKibben could be wrong. But it grows more obvious every day that he was right in 1989.
Patrick McKenna has been associate editor of The Times-Tribune since July 1990. He is a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, a role in which he helps to formulate editorial policy. As editorial and op-ed editor, he is responsible for most of The Times-Tribune’s opinion content and the author of most of the newspaper’s editorials. A 1978 graduate of Penn State, Pat started at The Scranton Times in March 1978. He has won multiple statewide awards for editorial writing, and the national WIlliam Allen White Award for Editorial Excellence. Pat is a Scranton native and lives in Clarks Green.