In the September 11, 1989, issue of The New Yorker, a twenty-eight-year-old writer named Bill McKibben published a lengthy article titled “The End of Nature.” The previous year had been especially hot––the country suffered one of the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl, Yellowstone was ablaze for weeks––and some Americans, including McKibben, had taken note of the ominous testimony that James Hansen, a NASA climatologist, gave before a Senate committee, warning that, owing to greenhouse gases, the planet was heating up inexorably. McKibben responded with a deeply researched jeremiad, in which he set out to popularize the alarming and still largely unfamiliar facts about #climate change and to sharpen awareness of what they implied for the future of the planet and humankind:
Changes in our world which can affect us can happen in our lifetime—not just changes like wars but bigger and more sweeping events. Without recognizing it, we have already stepped over the threshold of such a change. I believe that we are at the end of nature.
By this I do not mean the end of the world. The rain will still fall, and the sun will still shine. When I say “nature,” I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it. But the death of these ideas begins with concrete changes in the reality around us, changes that scientists can measure. More and more frequently these changes will clash with our perceptions, until our sense of nature as eternal and separate is finally washed away and we see all too clearly what we have done.
Last week, a hunk of Antarctica the size of Delaware, weighing a trillion metric tons, hived off from the Larsen C ice shelf and into the warming seas. Such events now seem almost ordinary—and harbingers of far worse. It is quite possible, the environmental writer Fen Montaigne wrote recently, in the Times, that, should the much larger West Antarctic Ice Sheet thaw and slip into the ocean, sea levels across the globe could rise as much as seventeen feet. This would have devastating implications for hundreds of millions of people, disrupting food chains, swamping coastal cities, spawning illnesses, sparking mass migrations, and undermining national economies in ways that are impossible to anticipate fully.
Around the time that this event was taking place, #Donald Trump, who has lately detached the United States from the Paris climate accord and gone about neutering the Environmental Protection Agency, was prowling the West Wing of the White House, raging Lear-like not about the fate of the Earth, or about the fate of the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was dying in captivity, but about the fate of the Trump family enterprise. In particular, he decried the awful injustice visited upon him and his son Donald, #Jr., who had, in a series of e-mails last June, giddily advertised his willingness to meet with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected lawyer, to receive kompromat intended to undermine the reputation and the campaign of Hillary Clinton. He did not mention another participant in the meeting: Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-born lobbyist, who admitted to the A.P. that he had served in the Soviet Army, but denied reports that he was ever a trained spy.
The President argued that his son, “a high-quality person,” had been “open, transparent, and innocent.” This was a statement as true as many, if not most, of the President’s statements. It was false. Donald, Jr., had concealed the meeting until he could do so no longer. Social-media wags delighted in reviving the Trump-as-Corleone family meme and compared Donald, Jr., to Fredo, the most hapless of the Corleone progeny. This was unfair to Fredo. On Twitter, Donald, Jr., had spoken in support of cockeyed conspiracy theories and once posted a photograph of a bowl of Skittles, writing, “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem. . . . Let’s end the politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first.”