Paul Wapner


On his book Living through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism

Cover Interview of March 01, 2011

The wide angle

I am not the first to suggest the end of nature.  Close to two decades ago, Bill McKibben announced that climate change spells the empirical end of nature, and more recently William Cronon and others have explained the conceptual end of nature insofar as our understandings of the nonhuman world are fundamentally social constructs.

Strangely, the environmental movement has been largely tone-deaf to these insights.

Part of the reason for this is that the end of nature has an abstract quality to it that makes many environmentalists nervous.  They see dwelling on questions about the end of nature as largely navel-gazing which will send the movement into a philosophical tailspin from which it may never recover.  While, in the meantime, there is much work to do in protecting wild places and the ecological integrity of the earth.  In fact, many environmentalists have been downright hostile to arguments about the end of nature because they see it as a distraction.

I see things differently.  The end of nature provides the chance for environmentalism to regroup and refashion itself to be more politically relevant in the 21st century.

Let’s face it: after enjoying a few decades of public prominence, the movement now faces significant challenges to its ability to advance environmental protection and sustainability.  These days, in the shadow of global economic recession, battered by industry interests that see its message as anathema to corporate wellbeing, and simply outmaneuvered by powerful social forces, environmentalism is fighting for its life.

In my view, environmentalism can regain its momentum by resetting its compass, thinking afresh about its ultimate aims, and practicing a type of politics that can more successfully engage anti-environmental voices.  Environmentalism can do this by relaxing its ideological subscription to the concept of nature and admitting its own attraction to human capabilities.

As an environmentalist, I love the woods and my iPod.  I work to harmonize my life with the more-than-human world, and concomitantly take advantage of the technological and other marvels human civilization provides.  The book explains how this complex orientation is actually more honest—and thus how it can advance environmentalist efforts.

I contrast the “dream of naturalism,” which most environmentalists practice, from the “dream of mastery,” which most critics subscribe to.  (In the latter vision, the human being is supreme and we should thus celebrate humanity’s ingenuity, technological prowess and rationality above any virtues “nature” may have.)

The end of nature undermines both of these orientations.  Neither environmentalists nor their critics can appeal to a given nature, human or otherwise, to justify their politics.

I show how environmentalism in a post-nature age involves finding a middle path that recognizes that all life is now on a co-evolutionary trajectory in which the human and nonhuman worlds shape one another.  The book explains how the movement can chart a future premised on such complexity—and how doing so can enable environmentalism to be more inclusive and better able to refine its critical edge and message.

Specifically, I offer policies to address the loss biological diversity and climate change.

With regard to biodiversity, I criticize those who call on humans simply to fence off wildlands and assume that this will protect wildness or even necessarily boost biodiversity.  I outline ways to “manage wildness” on behalf of ecological and social health.

With regard to climate change, I criticize those who call on us to get out of the greenhouse gas business—that we should simply stop using fossil fuels and shrink our carbon footprint.  Rather, I explain how we must explore technological means of harnessing energy that involve lots of human manipulation of the more-than-human world.

In both cases, while I counsel relaxing the boundary between humans and “nature,” I explain the limits of such relaxation and how we can guard against adopting a mastering orientation.

After illustrating what postnature environmental politics can look like with regard to biological diversity and climate change, I explain the psycho-ethical and spiritual qualities of postnature environmentalism.  I take up the question of how we should fashion our lives as environmentalists in an age when nature is no longer the Rosetta stone of the movement.