Previously known for his work as a travel writer specializing in his native Alaska, Charles Wohlforth proved his mettle in 2004 with the award-winning The Whale And The Supercomputer: On The Northern Front Of Climate Change. Now, with The Fate Of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability To Rescue The Earth, he changes his focus on environmental issues from descriptive to prescriptive.
One of the most haunting questions for environmentalists since the ecological movement first began is whether mankind is even capable of saving the planet. The world is vast, and it seems arrogant to assume that humanity can either doom or rescue it. The sheer size and scope of Alaska—where Wohlforth sets most of the book, preferring at least here to stick with his area of expertise—renders this question especially vivid. In a wide-ranging, book-length essay that is as much personal inquiry as scientific exploration, he uses everything from the historical record to cognitive psychology to philosophical speculation to recent developments in environmental science and animal behavior to further his belief that humanity is not only able to stop the damage it’s done to the planet, but that it’s in our best interests—indeed, it’s our natural tendency—to want to do so.
Wohlforth has an immersive prose style that’s engaging from the first page, and his obvious emotional investment in the natural beauty of Alaska, as well as his shame at the damage wrought to its environment, keeps the book anchored. (He was the lead reporter for the Anchorage Daily News during the Exxon Valdez crisis, and some early chapters about connections between everything in Prince William Sound, from the health of its fish to the culture of the native Chugach people, are particularly compelling.) He’s at his best when he ties well-crafted historical background about the way various countries and interests have shaped modern Alaska to scientific findings about how human activity can both create and repair environmental damage; however, when he goes overboard with slightly nebulous ideas about social cooperation, or lets himself wander away from science into spiritual realms, The Fate Of Nature loses the thread.
Still, there’s plenty of hard science in the book, and even when he goes to the well of philosophy or psychology, it’s convincingly in aid of the argument that the twin instincts of competition and cooperation aren’t a zero-sum affair, and that “we’re not obliged to continue the mistakes that were handed down to us.” The fact that someone who has seen so much ecological devastation firsthand can remain hopeful about our ability to overcome it—and the fact that the choice is easy to make—gives the book its flavor, and sets it apart from the usual environmental doomsaying.