Review: The Fate of Nature by Charles Wohlforth
Title: The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth
Author: Wohlforth, Charles
Length: 434 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Environmental, History, Politics, Science
Publisher / Year: Thomas Dunne Books / 2010
Source: Sent for review.
Why I Read It: It was pitched to me and sounded really interesting.
Date Read: 15/08/10
If I had to review this book in one sentence I would say “environmentalism for conservatives”.
I received this book months ago and kept meaning to start it but it was just too big to drag around with me! Finally on my last trip I took it with me because I figured it would take me a full day of air travel and save me carrying multiple smaller books. As soon as I started the book I was immediately hooked and couldn’t put it down.
The jacket reads:
“What capacity for good lies in the hidden depths of people?”
Starting with this question, award-winning author Charles Wohlforth sets forth on a wide-ranging exploration of our relationship with the world. In The Fate of Nature, he draws on science, spirituality, history, economics, and personal stories to reveal answers about the future of that relationship.
And it continues. But that covers the main of it. This book is full of the most incredible science, history, political intrigue, stories of real people and communities, and of disasters. It is a fascinating read that is always keeping you on your toes.
Throughout the book the focus is on the Prince William Sound on the Northern gulf of Alaska. The book explores the native communities there, the history of the area and politics that have affected it, the people involved in research and development and fishing, the history of the wildlife there. He also talks about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the effects that it had and what disasters like that mean about the way that we run things. This is especially relevant now with the oil spill in the gulf.
I say this is a book for conservatives because it takes nothing for granted and shows you the science behind everything. And instead of simply saying ‘we have to do x and y because of climate change’ Wohlforth talks about how the things we do negatively impact the environment – things like litter and overfishing. It’s looking at whether we are wired in our nature to disrespect nature all the time or if we can consider it’s long-term value.
One thread was the way our resources are managed. Resources such as oceans, streams, and land. What he says really makes you stop and think. Especially when he then gets in to the history, politics, and economics behind everything. He talks about our current system and says:
Unsustainable practices often make sense when you’re free to move and take your profits with you. Our economic lives depend on this fact. Nothing made of plastic or metal or fossil fuel is sustainable. Look around you. We buy these things as cheaply as possible – technology, vehicles, energy – knowing we will discard them after we’ve exhausted their value. A man setting up a canary on a salmon stream made the same economic calculation. (page 104)
Exxon’s wealth depended on its ability to take collectively owned resources without paying for them – the atmosphere, the earth, and the ocean its ships crossed without adequate safeguards against disaster. The spilled oil made visible, for once, the cost of a system in which competitors can grow to unlimited size by consuming the tangible and spiritual sustenance that belongs to all. (page 276)
Another thread is that of kindness. Are people only competitive, or do we also have genes wired in us for charity and kindness? He gives numerous examples of communities working together for profits, of people doing beach clean-up or helping others, and of the history, economics, politics and science behind these things.
While everyone takes selfishness at face value, generosity is discounted, suspected as fulfillment of some other, more complicated desire. We can easily define altruism out of existence: any action that a person chooses to do is necessarily what he or she prefers, and therefore self-interested. (page 335)
Wohlforth provides evidence of many studies that show that humans are not only competitive. That we do have genes wired to conservation, helping others, and making things last.
One last bit that is really just a side note in the book but which really jumped out at me and I can’t not mention it is a quote about our brains and creativity. I’ve always said that I have no creativity at all. I can take what someone else created and talk about it, but create something myself? Oh please no. This is why I always hated English class so much I also have a terrible memory for visual facts. If you asked me what my roommate (who I’ve gone to school with since I was 5) looked like… I’d have to guess at a lot of facts (not sure on eye color, not sure on face shape, I think slightly shorter than me? …brown hair I think?). Anyway, a quote in the book really validated my lack of imagination and creativity!
Brain scans show that processing of memories of moments and events takes place in the same place as imagination. It is called episodic memory and works differently from the memory of facts or skills that we recall… (page 39)
This was a really incredible book that I highly recommend to everyone. The science, history, politics and economics are all very accessible to the average reader, and it is fascinating. For more information about the book you can check out at The Fate of Nature website, or on Facebook.