One of the singular pleasures of reading Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth is his ability to find and bring to life on the page the women and men engaged in saving the planet. This skill is not surprising, given that Rich is also an acclaimed novelist, but it does help explain why he is so good at what he does, as amply demonstrated in his latest book of nonfiction, Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade.
JIM KELLY: Let’s start with a time-machine question. You write eloquently about how for many centuries the wilderness was seen as a godless domain, vast and fearsome, that should be shunned or subjugated. We obviously chose the latter path. If we could turn back time, would we have been better off 200 years ago if we had shunned half of what was then wilderness?
NATHANIEL RICH: A trick question! Two hundred years ago at least half of the world was wilderness, and we did shun at least half of that, if by “shun” you mean “avoid,” for many decades. The most striking thing about that period was that its major naturalists already foresaw the dangers of industrialization, deforestation, and cash-crop agriculture. Alexander von Humboldt, the leading scientist-philosopher of the era and a global celebrity, warned that the repercussions of man’s “insatiable avarice” were already “incalculable.” His acolytes continued in this line: George Perkins Marsh warned in Man and Nature that “climatic excess” might lead to human extinction, and Ernst Haeckel, who coined “ecology,” predicted that “hyper-civilization” and its destructive forces would ultimately prove to be suicidal.
So it’s not as if we didn’t know better. Just as we know better today.
J.K.: If there is a common theme in the people you profile in Second Nature, it is that here are folks who, in different ways, are trying to mold nature for the 21st century. One of my favorite stories is about Ben Novak, who grew obsessed with passenger pigeons, which have been extinct since 1914. I was shocked to learn that as recently as the 1880s as many as 4 out of every 10 birds in North America were passenger pigeons. Novak is now deeply involved in bringing back Passenger Pigeon 2.0, part of a movement called “de-extinction.” As a native New Yorker, I may not be the best person to be enlisted in the push for more pigeons, but why is de-extinction even controversial?
N.R.: The people most threatened by de-extinction are the conservationists who worry that it will threaten their work. If endangered species can magically be brought back from the dead, will the public care less about protecting them while they’re alive? Will donors abandon conservation causes for the allure of de-extinction campaigns? Why not spend de-extinction money on established, proven practices of defending the species we still have?
As I write in the book, I don’t think any of these concerns bear up under scrutiny. Besides, the basic rule of human curiosity abides: If we can do it, we’ll do it, especially if it’s cool. (The “We should do it because it’s cool” is actually a principle that was formally advocated by ethicists in Science.) Most Americans agree. A public-opinion poll showed that a majority of Americans believe an extinct animal will be brought back in the next 30 years. I agree with them.
J.K.: You also profile a lawyer named Robert Bilott, a corporate lawyer who once defended chemical companies before switching sides and spending 20 years suing DuPont for dumping chemical waste in West Virginia. Todd Haynes turned your story into the movie Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo. Were you involved in the production, and do you and Mr. Bilott think the film did justice to your story?
N.R.: I was involved and couldn’t be more thrilled with how it turned out. Todd Haynes is one of my favorite directors, so it was surreal to learn that he had taken it on. I love Safe, and I saw Dark Waters as an unofficial sequel to that earlier film about chemical anxieties. Ruffalo gave an excellent performance in a deceptively challenging role: Rob Bilott is not a person of high emotions, to put it lightly, and much of the action in the story involves his reading millions of pages of documents, over the course of decades; nevertheless the film plays like a noir thriller. Rob shares my admiration. It’s a film for our time.
J.K.: You have lived in both San Francisco and New Orleans, two cities that are in different ways imperiled by nature and climate change. Will either city exist in 50 years?
N.R.: I don’t know about San Francisco, given its exposure to earthquakes, which are largely unpredictable. New Orleans will exist, I believe (I’m an optimist), but I say so without full confidence. A recent poll of prominent New Orleanians by the local paper found that only a little more than a third of the respondents believed the city would survive the century, and that was portrayed as a surprisingly optimistic result. What we do know for certain is that the region surrounding New Orleans will be radically reconfigured in the next half-century.
The longest story in Second Nature is about Louisiana’s wildly ambitious efforts to rebuild—to de-extinct—its coastal marsh, and the various moral crises this good-faith effort has provoked. It may be that the city, as one Tulane expert predicts, will ultimately exist as a fortified island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, but the state’s efforts might delay that fate for an extra half-century.
What interests me the most is not whether New Orleans will survive, but how the knowledge of its own mortality colors the daily life of the city. Of course, New Orleans has always been living on borrowed time; that’s a source of its enchantment.
J.K.: Was there a moment in your writing life when you decided to focus on exploring how, as you so movingly put it, “almost no rock, leaf or cubic foot of air on Earth has escaped our clumsy signature”?
N.R.: Ben Novak made that point to me in a conversation seven years ago, when I was first writing about de-extinction. I remember it sitting heavily with me. Once you grasp this fact—that there no longer exists anything “natural,” by any conventional definition of the word, on earth, it opens up a lot of deeper and thornier questions about how we should live. Since then I’ve found myself drawn to writing about people grappling with these questions, people who find that vast environmental crises have touched the most intimate corners of their personal lives. I don’t know the answers to all those questions, but in Second Nature I tried to ask them.
J.K.: Your father, Frank Rich, and your stepmother, Alex Witchel, are both well-known (and highly regarded) writers. Was this helpful or intimidating to you as a teenager contemplating a career?
N.R.: I certainly wasn’t “contemplating a career” as a teenager. Would you believe me if I told you I didn’t really think about my parents’ careers very much one way or another? I gravitated toward doing work that I enjoyed and felt I could do well. In retrospect, the major advantage of growing up with working writers was that the daily processes—sitting in front of a computer for hours like an automaton, reporting, obsessing about word rates and perceived slights and personal feuds—was totally demystified to me. I went in with my eyes open. The other advantage was that my parents had no standing to complain when I didn’t go to law school.
J.K.: Is there any writer whom you especially admire?
N.R.: Martin Amis, among living writers—for his range, style, and humor. He seems to drive a lot of people crazy, but I don’t know anyone with as much pure talent writing today. Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow among the dead. While writing Second Nature I turned often to the work of Gay Talese, John McPhee, Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, J. G. Ballard, Don DeLillo, Amitav Ghosh, Terry Tempest Williams, Annie Dillard, William Cronon …
J.K.: You are also a novelist, and one of your novels, Odds Against Tomorrow, is a literary thriller set in the near future and features a young man named Mitchell Zukor obsessed with disasters caused by climate change. I know it’s a novel, but is there a little bit of you in Mr. Zukor?
N.R.: The surprising thing about writing Odds Against Tomorrow was that the more deeply I studied every possible worst-case scenario that could plausibly befall us—not just climate disasters but crises of geopolitics, cosmology, and, yes, pandemics—the more I obsessed about disaster, the better I felt. It was a kind of immersion therapy. Disasters, I realized, are not only terrifying. They’re also clarifying. They force your hand. They help you to figure out where you are—and who you are.
Nathaniel Rich’s Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade will be published on March 30 by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL