Coming of Age at the End of Nature

Reviewing Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet, edited by Julie Dunlop and Susan A. Cohen; Foreword by Bill McKibben (Trinity University Press, 2016)

As a man in his late late 80s, I had the good fortune of starting my life in a world that in retrospect seems to have been greener and happier—with salmon still swimming upstream in western rivers to spawn, Monarch butterflies migrating in vast numbers every season, and western forests free of bark beetles that infest and decimate. Forest fires of limited scope were part of the natural cycle that maintained the health of forests and the well-being of all creatures, including humankind, who depended upon them.

My grandchildren’s generation, now in their 30s, is living in a world that has suffered what may be irreversible change in the half century since I was their age. Any way we look at planet earth, we stare at sights we do not want to see.

In Coming of Age at the End of Nature, twenty-two members of this generation tell everyone who reads this collection of vividly-written essays what they see, feel, and want as they live their lives on a plant that has already changed and may continue to deteriorate during years to come.

Part I, “Living on Eaarth,” borrows the word coined by Bill McKibben in a book he published before some of the essayists were born. His point was that so many irreversible environmental changes had taken place that a whole new term needed to be used to name the place where we live. The essays in this part of the book are gritty accounts of disheartening experiences—working in Haiti, foraging for food on city streets and alleys, serving as a forest ranger who has to tell tourists that the vistas he shows them have been unchanged for a thousand years despite his knowledge that disease and terrible fires are moving irresistibly from one valley, over the ridge, to the next, in a process that seems unstoppable.

Part II, “Thinking Like a River,” adapts Aldo Leopold’s phrase, “thinking like a mountain,” to encourage “long-term, holistic ecosystem conservation” (p. xvi). One theme that comes into focus quickly is that we need to find new ways of understanding our place as human beings in the larger and more complex natural world. There is no way of restoring the world to the way that it used to be. Eucalyptus trees have adapted to the American Southwest to a remarkable degree, as though they had always been there. It doesn’t make sense to destroy them for the sake of restoring plants that originated in this part of the world.

There is no way to undo the destruction of indigenous peoples nor can all of us of European, Asian, and African descent be returned to the places where our species originated. The distinctions we make between ecology and culture, or nature and culture, are misleading.

Jason M. Brown, a native of Orange County, California, writes that ecology is not a place or a thing we have control over; “ecology is the space between things, including us” (p. 73). In the next essay, based on his experience living in Bangkok, Cameron Conaway writes that “so often we move through life without really being present where we are” (p. 76), and life becomes whole again when we become focused on the life we really are living.

Amy Coplan deplores the separations between ourselves and much of what we depend upon, the sources of our food for example. “Nature is not a wilderness ‘out there. Nature is embedded in everything we do. Nature is us, and we are nature” (p. 87).

Part III, “Mindful Monkeywrenching,” contains essays in which the writers “offer creative solutions to diverse problems, both personal and societal” (p. xvi). An example is Emily Schosid’s essay (next to the last in the book), “Could Mopping Save the Planet? How Day-to-Day Chores Can Bring Big changes.”

In the final essay, Danna Joy Staaf returns to the generational theme with which this review begins. Her essay, “True to Our Nature,” is a letter to her dear offspring. “One of you is two years old; the other of you is still whiling away the months in my womb.” In the first paragraph she talks about creativity, which is one of the foundational features of life, but then writes: “The flip side of life’s generative impulse is, of course, wanton destruction” (p. 208). She soon introduces a hopeful third feature: “Unlike the rest of creation, however, we have the urge to overcome our violent side” (p. 210).

Herein lies one reason why even old men like me have reason to hope. We can believe that the destructive aspects of life of Eaarth will be overcome by new processes of creativity coming to life in the generative still being born.

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