Infinite problems, small solutions

by Jeremy Pataky

The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth
Charles Wohlforth
417 pages, hardcover: $25.99.
St. Martin's Press, 2010.

In The Fate of Nature, Alaskan reporter and author Charles Wohlforth argues that the planet's salvation depends upon our willingness to overcome our innate selfishness. Beginning with the basic question -- what makes us human, anyway? -- Wohlforth untangles our positive potential from the mess of business as usual. Much of the book concerns "the varied ways cultures and ideologies relate to nature," tracking these notions through the history of Enlightenment thought, the settling of the American West and the growth of the conservation movement. He introduces us to Alaska and its Native cultures, the politics of statehood and the power of big oil, culminating with a case study of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster and its aftermath.

Wohlforth focuses primarily on south-central Alaska's Prince William Sound and Kachemak Bay, though the book also sheds light on the nationwide movements that gave rise to national forests and parks. Wohlforth turns to that history to answer moral, ethical and practical questions. He argues that our own inability to understand what is humanly possible -- and impossible -- threatens to become our most fatal limiting factor. We refuse to live within our means, to honor our connection to nature.

Wohlworth celebrates the breadth of our potential, but he mercilessly reveals the consequences of our tendency to soil our own nest. Instead of settling for doom-and-gloom pessimism, though, he does thoughtful, inventive and heartfelt work: analyzing the conditions that gave rise to today's voracious systems in the first place, and then imagining how the same mechanisms, handled differently, can help establish new, sustainable norms and mores.

As humans continue to trigger environmental catastrophes, and as we witness, season-by-season, glimpses of what global climate change threatens, Wohlforth opens the door to a new and healthier way for humanity to relate to the natural world. Ultimately, he finds hope in groups of ordinary people making local changes with global implications: "The problem is unimaginable in scale, nonlinear in shape, and infinite in complexity, and so may be the solution -- in the interlocking relationships of human societies. And the solution may also be small enough for a single person to choose."

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