Bill McKibben, in his devastating 1989 book The End of Nature, noted wryly:

The greenhouse effect is a more apt name than those who coined it imagined. The carbon dioxide and trace gases act like panes of glass on a greenhouse — the analogy is accurate. But it’s more than that. We have built a greenhouse, a human creation, where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden.

The italics are McKibben’s, and the vehemence of this particular thought — that we humans have inalterably changed the world — strikes a note that is typical of most modern environmental writing. There isn’t even any need to complete the thought: We have changed the world, and this is a bad thing. The last part is more or less taken for granted.

Fair enough, I suppose. Who can argue that we haven’t made a right jolly mess of things? But I don’t believe that’s the whole story, start to finish. I  believe the relationship between humans and the natural world (and our way of understanding that relationship) is more complicated than we generally realize.


Consider McKibben’s choice of words: “a sweet and wild garden.” If you unpack that little phrase you find that it implies — indeed it demands — a human presence if it is to make any sense at all. What after all is a garden? A garden is not an arbitrary patch of wilderness. It is a created thing, a beguiling artifice. The fact of a garden suggests the hand of a gardener. Peel open the Judeo-Christian world-view and you find the story of the Garden of Eden — the gardener in this case being none other than the Almighty. Still, a garden, not a jungle, not an untrammeled spread of Palistinian woodland. A garden made specially for humankind. And of course humankind mucked it up. So this image we have of ourselves — despoilers of paradise — is not a new idea at all. It’s one of the very oldest ideas we have.

The notion of “paradise” is revealing in itself. We use it more or less synonymously with “heaven,” but the word doesn’t actually mean that. Etymologically, a paradise is a walled garden. And in the Koran, this idea is worked through explicitly: the exact layout of the divine garden in described along with the specific plants that grow there and the kind of fountain that plays at its center. It seems that when we try really hard to imagine the best, most wonderful place that could possibly exist, a garden in some form or another irresistibly springs to mind.

Making gardens — not divine but actual, living, dirty, imperfect, and likely infiltrated by weeds — is something we’ve been doing for a very long time. And even making due allowances for human fallibility and lapses in taste and a tendency toward laziness (especially in August) and unaccountable fondness for such evil abominations as the hybrid tea rose, it can generally be said that a garden is a very good thing. A wonderful thing! And yet, pace McKibben, it is also a human creation.

So we come to the thought — seldom spoken aloud in enlightened company — that not all human impact upon the natural world is of a dire, lamentable sort. Some of our impact is positive, though it seems we lack the rhetorical talent to convince ourselves of that. We humans are more than our Biblical caricature, a ham-fisted wrecking crew laying waste to God’s green Earth. We are gardeners, too. And farmers and tree-planters and flower-breeders and all kinds of other things, some of which are 100-percent cool.

Now there is a corollary to this. If our impact upon the natural world is not altogether bad, then we probably need to find a new way of thinking about this modified world we are living in. We need to consider realistically what we are doing here and how we might do it differently, given that our extinction (though prophesied with suspicious enthusiasm for many centuries now) does not seem immediately in the offing. It’s not enough to just wring our hands and deplore the loss of wilderness, the viral spread of humanity into every habitable niche of the planet. Okay, yeah, there’s that, it’s happening. Other things are happening too. Some of what we have wrought is actually rather good. We should do more of the good stuff, I think, and less of beating ourselves up.