Are humans doomed — so competitive and self-centered that we’ll deplete every last natural resource to fuel our insatiable hunger for more? Or are we capable of saving ourselves and the Earth?
Author Charles Wohlforth attempts to answer these questions in his new book “The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Planet.” I’ll say it up front; he had me at the title. I’ve asked these same questions over the years. And, sadly, the scales have usually tipped toward the “humans-as-a-failed-species” theory. That’s why I was so heartened by Wohlforth’s conclusions. Apparently, we’re not doomed after all. Not necessarily. Granted, our natures include a selfish, striving side that could still push us to the brink of environmental cataclysm — and beyond. But we also have it in us to choose a saner direction. This, too, is encoded in our genes.
Focusing on his native Alaska, Wohlforth illustrates humanity’s complicated relationship with nature, the best and the worst, from Captain Cook’s 18th century encounters with Alaskan natives to the Exxon Valdez oil spill up to the present. He examines politics, science, economics, spirituality and the women and men who’ve shaped Alaska (both the plunderers and the preservers).
This is a beautifully written book. Like a well-crafted novel, you get a vivid sense of the characters involved (their motivations, passions and foibles) and a deep sense of place. You also gain a renewed faith in humanity. Wohlforth shows us where altruism, cooperation and compassion have blossomed throughout history and continue to thrive now, in various cultures and social settings. He also takes us into the lab to explore the emerging science of human goodness. People, he notes, are actually wired to “cooperate, even when they are not compelled, when reputation isn’t on the line, when they are beyond the reach of a contract to reciprocate.”
What it boils down to is belief. If you operate as though the Earth belongs to everyone, you foster cooperation, sharing and more sustainable societies. But if you engineer your economic, political and social systems around a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest paradigm (the foundation of Western culture), you get a world where corporate interests rule and nature is a commodity to exploit. In other words, you get climate change and the Gulf oil spill.
Wohlforth, who covered the Exxon Valdez spill for the Anchorage Daily News, spends considerable time probing events leading up to and following the 1989 tanker accident that poured 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound. Sadly, the similarities between that spill and the current one are all too obvious — Big Oil playing fast and loose with safety, government complacency, a tightly managed cleanup and image-control effort, ecosystems and animal populations decimated, and human livelihoods wiped away. It’s as though we’ve learned nothing in 21 years.
So why am I more optimistic than I was? Simple. I’ve now seen evidence of what humanity could collectively become and have decided to trust in human hearts, as Wohlforth advises. I’m hoping enough of us wake up in time to choose something better.