ONE starts out reading this book thinking, ``Oh no, another liberal, guilt-trip Cassandra knocking affluent first worlders for ruining the planet.'' A sort of ``Fate of the Earth'' meets Bambi. And it would be easy to parody Bill McKibben this way, as some no doubt will. He lives an idyllic life in the Adirondacks with his wife and garden and wood stove, writing sophisticated pieces for The New Yorker magazine (where this work first was serialized) and taking long walks every afternoon with his dog while worrying about the acid rain that's starting to spoil his view. A yuppie Thoreau. But with cynicism shucked and once into this deceptively slim and readable volume, the indisputable power and inevitability of the message takes over. The thesis is this: Industrial man is changing the atmosphere so much (5.6 pounds of carbon dioxide for every gallon of gasoline burned, which adds up to the typical car's weight every year) and so rapidly (10 to 60 times the natural rate of change) that weather patterns have been forever altered.
Hence, ``The End of Nature'' as it has been for millennia. And when the rate of population increase is factored in - all those new folks desiring and deserving Fords and air conditioners just as much as the rest of us - the situation becomes more ominous.
The greenhouse effect is what we're talking about here, the trapping of heat from the sun which slowly but inexorably raises the surface temperature so that icepacks melt, ocean levels rise, and deserts move north at an atypical rate. Now, there is much dispute (philosophical as well as scientific) about the degree to which this is true, about the effects, and about what we should do as a result.
``Researchers running one of the world's most sophisticated climate models have cut in half their earlier predictions of how much global temperatures will rise after they tinkered with the way their computers simulated clouds and raindrops,'' the Washington Post reported in mid-September.
``Tinkered'' may be the key word here, for climatologists so far have had to rely a great deal on ``gut feelings and intuitions,'' as a University of Chicago scientist put it to the Post reporter. And when gut feelings are involved, so too are philosophy and even theology.
Dixy Lee Ray (former chairman of the old Atomic Energy Commission and ex-governor of Washington State) acknowledges that greenhouse gases will double in this century and says the answer is more nuclear power plants.
Bill McKibben sides with those who argue that man cannot simply ``manage'' his way out of the greenhouse problem with non-fossil fuel energy sources and genetic engineering. It is more a question of finding ``dominion'' (and the Biblical phrase is deliberate for McKibben, who is a church-goer) to replace the ``domination'' that has largely driven progress in the modern age.
This leads McKibben inevitably beyond Thoreau (who was more interested in man than nature) to John Muir and Edward Abbey and another short leap to the radical ecologists of Earth First!, who get themselves arrested these days for perching atop or hammering iron spikes into old-growth timber.
In the end, McKibben pulls back from what someone else has called this ``Daniel Boone mentality in ecological drag'' and opts for an immediate reduction in use of fossil fuels, plus the slower and much more difficult process of changing mankind's attitude toward the Earth.
He ends rather pessimistically, but acknowledges that if George Bush can proclaim himself the ``environmental president'' and even Margaret Thatcher can go green, then there may be some hope.
It's a frustrating conclusion (for author as well as reader), because the potential problem is so vast and any easy answers are automatically suspect.
Publicists proclaim ``The End of Nature'' the next ``Silent Spring'' (the remarkable Rachel Carson book that put an end to DDT). It's far too soon to declare that. But McKibben's book is especially valuable because it explains what is likely to be the major environmental issue of the 21st century in clear and very thoughtful fashion, at least what's known about it so far. And in an age when horsepower in cars has been making a comeback and most solar energy companies have folded, that is value enough.