This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of one of the most important nonfiction books by an American author of the last century: The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben. It was a seminal work in which McKibben argued that we had so profoundly altered our world that nature was no longer a force independent of human beings. It was a deeply disturbing thing to contemplate: We have touched so many things and so many places that human behavior had changed life on the planet forever. “More and more frequently,” McKibben wrote, “these changes will clash with our perceptions until, finally, our sense of nature as eternal and separate is washed away, and we will see all too clearly what we have done.” There is plenty of evidence that the human/industrial epoch is well underway and still moving like a freight train through the forest, and we had more this week, with an incredibly depressing report on bird populations in North America. Birds are disappearing by the millions each year. In fact, the new survey of 500 species estimates a loss of nearly three billion birds, or 29 percent of the estimated bird population in 1970. I was in high school in 1970. It was the year of the first Earth Day. “This is all happening in our lifetime,” a bird enthusiast remarked when we exchanged emails about the new survey. We have taken away too much bird habitat. Look around. Throughout the East Coast, where I live, I still see new, sprawling development taking place. I live in Baltimore, a city with room for another 200,000 people, and yet, where do new homes get built? On what used to be farmland on the outer fringes of the metropolitan area. This is a choice humans have made — for reasons based in racial prejudice, fear, desire for big lawns and long commutes, whatever. The end result is growth beyond what’s really needed for human survival, a use of resources — fossil fuels — to make it possible, and the loss of habitat for the other animals who share the planet with us. Suburban growth contributes mightily to climate change. People made this choice 60 to 70 years ago, starting in earnest in the 1950s, when public schools were desegregated; the suburbs grew and Baltimore started to lose population. And the same dynamics were at work almost everywhere you look on the East Coast, and then the phenomenon came to the Sun Belt in a big way. Been to Phoenix lately? The country’s overall human population in 1970 was 205 million. It is 327 million today. That’s a lot of housing, lots of food and water, lots of flushing toilets, lots and lots of cars, SUVs and trucks, lots of heat and air conditioning. It’s overwhelming to think about.
Is it too late to get things under control, and what do I mean by that? I mean changing how we live and work in a way that counters the effects of the Industrial age. That sounds like an enormous undertaking, but, as the children who took to the streets Friday around the world are telling us, it just has to be — a comprehensive, global move away from fossil fuels forever and a switch to renewable energy on every continent and in every country. We also have to support human innovation to produce food in a sustainable way. We have to stop eating so much meat. We have to think harder about how we live, and where we live. We have to get behind mass transit. I started taking the bus to work and other places, doing my small part to counter the effects of all that driving — and gas burning, and carbon emitting — I’ve done since getting my driver’s license in 1970. We have to stop cutting so much grass and plant trees. We need to incorporate more efforts to conserve energy into our daily lives. And, most of all, we need national and international leadership on climate change. That means dumping politicians who either ignore the crisis or continue to suggest it’s a hoax. And for the birds? We need more trees. (Sorry, if I’m repeating myself here, but I can’t think of a more important thing an individual can do than plant trees or take care of the ones we already own.) Leave more habitat, including unsightly dead trees, for the birds. Grow some native plants that provide them with food and the pollinators with resources for their important work.
Within a decade of The End of Nature, Bill McKibben recognized the great potential in what he called the “new frontier,” part of a vast re-greening of the countryside of the East Coast as old farms disappeared and the nation’s agriculture moved increasingly to the middle of the country. “The old frontiers have closed,” McKibben declared in an essay for The Atlantic in 1995. “A new frontier may be opening here – an expanding frontier of recovery that, given infinite human care and nurturing, might follow the waves of destruction across the continent and then around the world.”
Yes, key words: Infinite human care and nurturing. We can’t wait for the next generation to embrace that ethic. There isn’t time, and that’s what the children and the birds are telling us.