Essays About


People who advocate cutting car emissions, installing solar panels, and cleaning up watersheds to "help the environment" speak naively. They frame conservation as a moral issue—humanity restraining itself for the good of vulnerable creatures and defenseless habitats. Rather, the point of conservation is to keep humanity off the endangered species list. Can GDP flourish when, oil gone, we are back to burning candles? In four hundred years, the future may look prehistoric. In Europe, twenty-fifth century cavemen will scavenge among the ruins of the Uffizi.

Environmentalism is not about saving nature, but saving civilization.

Cruising the fjords of Alaska last summer and trying to imagine I was Captain Cook seeking the Northwest Passage, the thought kept intruding into my mind that on this same earth, only a few thousand miles away, were New York City, Tokyo, and Dubai, where at this moment people were talking on cell phones, riding subways, and checking stock quotes. This reflection pruned the wilderness of its power, for instead of the dangerous place our ancestors walled their cities against, it was now the walled enclave amid a wilderness of civilization, no longer threatening, but threatened.

Our contemporary experience of wilderness often seems more simulated than real. We designate wildernesses instead of discover them. We put a fence around the wilderness, not for our sake but for its: a cage to keep it wild. A protected wilderness is an oxymoron.

Throughout history, solutions have led to more solutions. The invention of the wheel gave rise to the cart, the paddleboat, and hydropower. Mendelian genetics led to DNA forensics. But progress stalls as it nears its goal of the good life. The internal combustion engine produced the automobile, but the automobile produced global warming. Special Relativity made nuclear fission possible, which made Hiroshima possible. Because our grandfathers discovered how to amplify crop yields with pesticides, we must discover how to unpoison rivers and nurse dying species. Scientists seek cures for cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis, but if they succeed, our grandchildren will seek cures for overpopulation. In the beginning, humanity solves the problems nature made; in the end, the problems our own ingenuity made.

A graveyard has no electricity, no bus routes, little traffic, an abundance of grass and trees, and drains no watershed. The dead downsize from downtown lofts and suburban tract mansions into modest one-room coffins. Consumers who never recycled their bottles recycle their bodies. Oil barons who plundered Alaska's tundras, over millions of years dissolve into oil themselves. We can do nothing as good for the earth as relocate from on it to under it.

When I see nature bulldozed to build subdivisions, I feel anger toward the developers. But when I drive by later and see the new homes filled with families, my anger goes flaccid. Must not the families live somewhere? True, they had homes before, but those homes now house others, and the others' old homes house others too. Trace the trail of new construction back to its origin, and you arrive at a hospital maternity ward humming like a factory day and night, sending endless swaddled shipments of future homebuyers into the world. Developers build because parents beget. Suburbs sprawl because lovers do.