This past summer, I was invited to attend a conference on environmental writing in Middlebury, Vermont. As I don’t write much about environmental issues, I felt I was there under false pretenses, a kind of infiltrator. But my hosts were welcoming and I was glad to be in such a beautiful place, and eager, too, to hear the various lectures on offer. Dan Chiasson was to close-read a poem by Frost, Helen Macdonald to talk about hawks and hunting, and, finally, perhaps most relevantly, Bill McKibben would give the opening talk.
Expectations for that were high, of course. McKibben, one of the first climate activists, has become a kind of folk hero. Walking into the barn that evening, I picked up right away on the electricity, that particular agitated murmur you hear before certain events. This was going to be important: everyone felt it.
At first, McKibben came across as a kind of garrulous trail guide. For as it happens—I had no idea—he lives just down the road. He told us that he had basically walked a few yards up the hill to give this talk. And he made the most of that fact, introducing us anecdotally to the particulars of our immediate environment and describing a few of the local hikes we might take.
Of course, his various pointers and annotations were more than mere useful tips for an audience of nature-loving environmentalists— they were also his way of freeing us from our outsider’s view and planting us in that specific place. He went into some detail about the local flora and where to find the beaver dams; he warned us about where the flies were bad and told us which logging cuts gave the best long-range views. Only after his extended welcome did he step up to the lectern to read a few sections from his most recent book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
McKibben has never been one for reassuring titles. He has given us Enough, and then The End of Nature, which I read years ago, and which turned out not to be about the literal destruction of our environment (those books would come later), but rather about another category of loss. Our near-total domination of Nature—via in-depth mapping, resource exploitation, and every kind of technological penetration—has changed the way we relate to it. We’ve come to believe that in some way we possess it. For the first time in history, Nature is no longer the defining “other.” It is now something we use for our benefit. It is corporate-owned.
Depressed by what felt like a new truth, I tried for a long time to assimilate the implications. What could be more pessimistic? Now I know. Thirteen years later, with the publication of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, he answers that question.
As McKibben leaned over the lectern and began to read, I was braced for more bad news— there were so many crisis-level developments to be addressed. Everyone in that room had the same worries. We read the papers, watch the news. Our situation is not good and it’s getting steadily worse. Global warming, soil depletion, polar ice-melt, fracking, contamination and flooding, agricultural seed manipulation, and the rapid extinction of animal, fish, and insect populations—these crises have now created a web of connection that will be very hard to undo.
But on this night he took a different turn. Instead of focusing directly on the issues at hand, instead of being the pragmatist that he usually is, McKibben showed us what was in his heart. There was sorrow in his voice. We were hearing from the man who lives down the hill and he was telling us what he feels about the state of things. He almost seemed to be saying goodbye. He was speaking as if, expressing grief in advance. He could see so many irreversible changes taking place. It was almost like he had second sight: in just a few weeks, the Amazon would be ablaze.
Hearing this change in McKibben’s tone was for me a kind of epiphany. At that moment, I realized that for all our talk about unprecedented ecological disasters, almost no one talks about what they feel— even though what’s happening is so momentous. This silence is not surprising. As we know from Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s classic, On Death and Dying, our first response before any coming to terms is usually denial. There are a number of stages to pass through before we can accept the reality of what is happening—if we can.
The scenarios that come to us as charts and projections, numbers and percentages, are in fact real. People are dying, losing homes and livelihoods. But it’s so hard to take this in. Hard not to get jaded, hard not to look away. And even if we do appeal to our lawmakers or join activist causes, how do we deal with everything we feel? We want to cry out. Why don’t we?
In our culture, we rarely discuss death directly, and this has much to do with how we die. Our loved ones so often spend their last days in hospitals or hospice and the institutional distancing allows for a certain avoidance, certainly more than when death happened in the room down the hall. So with climate change. The baffles of our bureaucratic system make avoidance possible, and encourage denial of the gravity of these losses.
But there is another reason for our inability to engage. Our digitized and screen-driven way of life has distanced us from the natural world and has significantly eroded our capacity to respond. We are numbed by the daily bombardment of distressing news, even as we are shorn of reaction time by the rapid succession of these headlines. Few people have really accepted the possibility of the literal end of Nature, never mind addressed that most unthinkable event emotionally.
Back in the 1950s, in what I think of as my first world, I had what now feels like an idyllic relation to the natural world. It was close-up and immersive. I don’t mean any real wilderness, much as I dreamed of that. I grew up outside Detroit in the pioneer days of suburbia. It was still early—the housing boom was just then encroaching. We were lucky in that way. There was still a large working farm near us, and my friends and I could easily crawl through gaps in the sagging wire fence. We felt it was somehow “ours,” and for years we explored it from one end to the other, skirting ponds and traversing corn fields, finding paths through the woods, playing out our adventure narratives. That farm was home to all fantasies.
I was completely under the spell of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn back then. I wanted their world. Not just their exploits, but where they lived, the feeling of those earlier times—the town of Hannibal, the river and open country—and then, behind that, the real thing: the land that had barely been mapped. The territory that Huck was going to “lite out” to. The idea of that vast unknown thrilled me.
But already I was sad. Looking through Twain’s lens and comparing, I could see the shrinking away of the world I knew—a whole way of life was passing. I had a similar feeling when I started sixth grade. Suddenly it struck me: we would all soon be leaving this school, moving on. It was the end of boyhood. I felt a piercing nostalgia for all that I was about to lose, and this feeling combined somehow with my feeling about what was happening all around us. The construction frenzy was in full swing. As my friends and I were out roaming the woods, our neighborhood rang with the twang of hammers driving nails. A house was going up right across the street. A whole subdivision had appeared almost overnight just on the other side of the hill. And then we learned that part of the farm had been sold off.
Each new house pushed my Tom and Huck world further away. I understand it now as a fundamental loss of innocence, an expulsion. Nature was being taken from me. My Nature.
My generation grew up in the world before. Ecology was not much in our thoughts. Climate then was just weather, different from one day to the next but basically a constant. We had no idea yet that human activity could change the environment in any significant way. It was the great given. Nor did our elders seem to grasp the deep symbiosis between man and Nature. The urgent pace of the postwar boom did not encourage that kind of thoughtfulness. Their view of the world around us was at once greedy and arrogant. They were bent on progress, and clearly could not imagine that Nature might be compromised, never mind used up. For them, our natural resources were purely instrumental. All new signs and indicators notwithstanding, profit-now-and-leave-the-consequences- to-others remains at the core of corporate thinking.
I’m amazed to think how long I kept my basic faith in Nature. I was not completely blinkered, of course. I did worry about toxic spills or the depletion of fish stocks. Three Mile Island raised the stakes. But even these crises did not completely shift my basic worldview—at least, not right away. That we might have crossed various lines of no return, that the world was in peril, was somehow belied by the shimmer of our late-modern progress. Who could believe such an idea? When I looked out the window, the natural world was still in place, essentially itself.
But a tipping point did arrive. A point at which it could no longer be denied that formerly anomalous things, like weather events and temperature spikes, were happening with a freakish regularity. And then, very quickly, those former anomalies became features of a strange new norm. Everything that happened seemed to be at war with the “purple mountain majesties” and “fruited plains” that are at the heart of our American myth.
Lamentation—a “sorrow beyond dreams,” in Peter Handke’s phrase—is in this case a collective impulse that is different from, and maybe even deeper than, a private grief for the loss of a close friend or parent. We live with the knowledge that people die; we feel pain, but we also understand that this is the way of things. But Bill McKibben is now changing the scale completely. He is asking us to think about the possibility of the ultimate loss.
He had used the word end in the title of that early book, and the thesis there—the loss of the otherness of nature—had become part of my way of thinking. Formerly independent Nature is now our Nature. But the possibility of the complete collapse of Nature is apocalyptic. I don’t have the conceptual reach to take it in fully.
That imagining, which is at the heart of McKibben’s lament, challenges our every understanding. Even if ecological catastrophe is not total, the massive collapse of our systems would change everything we know. I don’t only mean the material ravages, but also our existential sense of the world.
For this we need to think about Nature in a different way—not just what it is, but what it represents. The ground of our culture, Nature is also the bedrock of our word-hoard. Even the word bedrock is a case in point. The naming of the elements of the natural world essentially shaped our languages. Nature is everywhere—in our etymologies, idioms, and most enduring metaphors. Can’t see the forest for the trees, dry as the desert, fields of glory . . .
The recognition of the features of Nature is a huge part of a child’s first imagining of the world. I almost wrote “a child’s first imagining of the nature of things,” but then realized that that word, nature, refers to more than just the tangible totality of the outside world—it is also our way of expressing the essential givenness of attributes, and is integral to the idea of being itself. Abstract as all of this may sound, we are now in a sense talking about the transformation of the nature of Nature.
One of the most alarming facts about our climate situation is that the projected marks and thresholds are now often reached well ahead of scientists’ predictions, whether we’re talking about temperature increases and rates of ocean warming or the measurable deterioration of the ozone layer. I don’t know how the projections were first arrived at or how it is that scientists so often seem to underestimate them. The pressure toward univocality in the scientific community—speaking in consensus—might be one explanation. But it might also be that natural forces have begun to cross-intensify in heightened ways. A rise in temperature leads to faster melting rates and higher water levels, which combine with unseasonably warm currents in the Gulf of Mexico to birkerts 7 exacerbate hurricane winds and coastal flooding . . .
With these crossfire influences we confront several problems. One is that those complex—and perhaps incalculable—interactions are hastening the crisis in unforeseen ways. The other is that their commingling makes it so much harder to measure the contributing forces and to anticipate their cumulative effects.
A change in the nature of Nature would transform our sense of the order of things. So long domesticated, Nature is once again becoming a vast unknown, a source of awe and dread. Our smug sense of mastery is slipping away. The experts recognize that fewer and fewer aspects of Nature are predictably under our control—which is a nicer way of saying that more and more things are out of hand.
It’s difficult, of course, to express anticipatory sorrow for outcomes we can’t yet imagine. McKibben’s sadness, while palpable, is still a generalized emotion. Who can predict how things will fall out? Are we talking about the literal end of our world, or just—just—a massive transformation of the world as we have known it? Both ask for mourning, but it’s impossible to know the scale of the loss—we are already in the realm of the unprecedented.
One would think that scientists working on climate and ecological systems, oceanographic impacts, agricultural sustainability, and so on might be the first to share their feelings about what they are seeing and finding and projecting. But we haven’t heard much emotional outcry. Professional ethos, I suppose, requires that scientists project objective neutrality. We can only guess what they think about in the night.
I was naturally interested, then, when I came across an article online by Dahr Jamail entitled “Mourning Our Planet: Climate Scientists Share Their Grieving Process.” I read quickly, eagerly, without finding what I wanted. The selected scientists were voicing their concern, frustration, anger, and an insistence on collective action. They were not, Jamail’s title notwithstanding, openly mourning anything. Was this another version of univocality?
But there was one instance near the end of the article, where scientist Joanna Macy stepped up to confirm that most scientists avoid expressing how they feel, at least in public. “The loss of certainty that there will be a future,” writes Macy, “is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”
Then Jamail weighs in. “We don’t know how long we have left on earth,” he writes. “Five years? 15 years? 30?…But when we allow our hearts to be shattered—broken completely open—by these stark, cold realities, we allow our perspectives to open up to vistas we’ve never known.”
Jamail names it directly—the possibility of extinction by ecocide. There is nothing tentative in his assessment. Our instinct, of course, is to protest such a bleak outlook, but the “possibility” now falls as a shadow. We just don’t know anymore. Still, our innermost reactions remain suppressed or hidden—as if it would be bad form to air them in public.
Whatever our convictions on the subject, however credulous or skeptical we are, we do, at some deep or unconscious level, fear the collapse of our known world. The various projected scenarios—the categories of damage—have many of us deeply uncertain. What will we end up confronting and what actions might we take? Where will we go as temperatures soar, waters rise, as arable land succumbs to drought? How will we get by without our usual amenities? What about the whole system of human relations—how will social structures change? The wealthy, we know, will leverage their privilege as they are able, but even there, living with the drawbridge raised is not a long-term solution.
Even if we do survive each next catastrophe, our lives will be altered and diminished, and not just in concrete ways. There will certainly be collateral inner consequences. Losing a meaningful connection to the past would be a major one. Whether we recognize it or not, we all need to know where we are, what part we will play in history. But as the former world begins to feel like a dream from another life, we will surely feel vertigo from the loss of our most essential psychological grounding—that of continuity.
I have been rereading Vladimir Nabokov lately, his memoir Speak, Memory. I am full of his themes—the loss of the past, the deep sadness of exile. I inevitably think of my parents’ story, their wartime flight from Latvia, and then, with the lowering of the Iron Curtain, the vanishing of all connections and communications. That severing of their lives marked my childhood. So many of their conversations referred to their previous life in Riga; the repetition of those details over the years started in me a kind of proxy nostalgia. Even though it was not my world that was lost, I felt as if it were.
That most primary feeling resurfaces whenever I imagine the loss of our familiar natural world. The new reality would test us to the limit, leave us existentially and emotionally bereft. Is there anyone so abstracted and jaded that they would not feel the profound desire for “home”? As it happens, home gives us the etymological root of nostalgia—nostos: the desire for home.
Pundits and experts are always warning that we’re headed for a reckoning. Likely there will be many tipping points along the way, each one triggering others. What I would like to know is how and when we will express our deep sadness. Will we lament ahead of time, bowing to what we fear is the inevitable, or will we always wait for the next urgent threshold to appear? It’s a bit like asking whether we mourn a person before they have died. Can we help it? Such mourning is a natural way to help cushion ourselves against the impact of the upcoming loss. As Rilke wrote: “Be ahead of all parting.” He was instructing the individual, of course, but the words have a larger collective relevance.
I sense that most people still believe these proliferating crises can be arrested and, with concerted collective response, be at least partly reversed. What they imagine, if they imagine at all, is a world transformed but still recognizably ours. It will go on supporting human life, though not without our making certain sacrifices. And of course this is possible, but even a partial-dystopian scenario changes everything.
Even the merely dire (what an expression!) is a prospect to be grieved. So many things will no longer exist, either at all or as we knew them. But how intensely will we mourn? New demands would likely keep many of us looking ahead, thinking and acting in survivalist ways, scrambling with others to save what we can. The prospect of collaboration is one sliver of light, but how much will that avail?
So much of this comes back to our children and our need to believe in their future, and here we tap the deepest of all instincts. Here hope rises up against despair, and as long as it does—as long as we imagine some possibility of salvage—we resist a full reckoning. We put off full mourning as we would for a person placed on life-support. She is still alive, is still in some sense the person we know; an ember of soul remains. We put great hope in that ember. Possibly too much, for the refusal to face what are already enormous losses, to grieve them, also prevents us from committing to the work that needs to be done.
Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).
He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)