Wapner, Paul. Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism.

Author:Hirsch, Mike
Position:Book review
 
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Wapner, Paul. Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010. xii + 252 pages. Cloth, $21.95.

Is there a conceptual space within which environmentalists and their opponents may begin a constructive dialogue about the Earth's future? If one believes Paul Wapner's thesis in Living Through the End of Nature, that space exists. To get there, both sides of the environmental debate need to recognize that nature, as a pristine, pre-human condition, no longer exists.

In this book, Wapner, the director of Global Environmental Programs in the School of International Service at American University, reviews both sides of the environmental debate. On one side are the environmentalists who, Wapner argues, are captured by the dream of naturalism, a "notion that we live best when we align ourselves with the natural world" (pp. 54-55). According to Wapner, the idea of nature's goodness stretches back to the writings of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews. It finds expression in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and the activities of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. Environmentalists worry about exhausting natural resources and overwhelming nature's "sinks" (p. 58), that is, nature's ability to absorb harmful pollutants generated by human activity.

On the other side are the "environmental skeptics" (p. 55) who are captured by the dream of mastery. They hold an anthropocentric view of the world, wherein "... nature enjoys no inherent moral significance" (p. 65). The ideology of mastery is fed by "the cornucopians" (p. 83) who speak of Earth's unlimited resources and its ability to absorb the by-products of human activity. The dream of mastery is also fed by economists like Harold Barnett and Chandler Morse who believe that market mechanisms will safeguard humans from environmental harm. A form of "technological optimism" (p. 86), that is, a belief that human well-being is best guaranteed by unleashing human inventiveness, is held as a matter of faith by adherents of the dream of mastery.

Wapner tries "... to demonstrate the increasing poverty of the dual dreams of naturalism and mastery" (p. 110). He critiques the dream of naturalism by arguing that we are living through the end of nature, an encompassing transformation of Earth's biosphere born of human activity. Humans are now the "governors of evolution" (p. 114), the cause of the sixth great extinction, and are involved in the...

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