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Why the natural world will never be the same

This is a bad time for Mother Nature — but it’s no use trying to turn the clock back. Instead, why not turn the clock forward?

That’s what Nathaniel Rich prescribes for what’s ailing the environment in “Second Nature: Scenes From a World Remade.” And he lays out the symptoms to support his diagnosis.

One set of symptoms is the global prevalence of pollutants, including a class of synthetic chemicals called PFAS. Nearly every American has been exposed to PFAS, which is used in nonstick cookware as well as water-repellant and stain-resistant products. An infamous case of PFAS water contamination and its health effects in West Virginia became the focus of a story that Rich wrote for The New York Times, and that story inspired a 2019 movie titled “Dark Waters.”

The opening chapter of “Second Nature” revisits the “Dark Waters” saga, but Rich goes on to document other ways in which human influences are reshaping nature, through pollution and climate change as well as genetic engineering and land development. The impacts can take the form of disappearing glaciers on Mount Rainier — or disintegrating sea stars in Pacific coastal waters, including Puget Sound.

“It’s not that intervention in the natural world is new,” Rich said. “We’ve been doing that from the get-go. What’s new is that we are, I think, finally coming to terms as a society and individually with the incredible depth and scope of the intervention, to the point that … there’s really nothing natural that can be found in the natural world, by any conventional definition of the term.”

Rich is due to discuss what ails the global environment, and the strategies that researchers and conservationists are developing to address those ailments, during a live-streamed Town Hall Seattle presentation next week. To set the stage, Rich explores the theme of “Second Nature” in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the intersection of science fact and fiction.

This isn’t the first time that Rich, the son of longtime New York Times columnist Frank Rich, has chronicled environmental trends. In “Losing Earth,” Rich dug into the history of the climate debate and argued that the campaign to hold off the crisis faltered as far back as the 1980s.

Rich’s magazine article, which was later expanded into a book, sparked a controversy among climate campaigners. Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, who’s no stranger to controversy himself, has complained that Rich’s message “deflects responsibility from fossil fuel interests and their abettors.”

Nathaniel Rich
Nathaniel Rich is the author of “Second Nature: Scenes From a World Remade.” (Pableaux Johnson Photo)

In response, Rich insists he’s no apologist for polluters. He agrees with Mann that addressing the climate crisis will be the leading challenge for the next generation — but says it’s important to review why the efforts of the past generation fell short.

“I don’t think we can have a serious conversation about how we’re going to move forward if we deny some of our failures before the situation became so embattled,” he said.

One big thing that’s changed since the 1980s is that some industry leaders — including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — are putting billions of dollars into solving the climate challenge.

“As with everything related to climate change, we need the maximum from everybody, right?” Rich said. “If billionaires are going to make climate an imporant part of their agenda, great.”

Rich devotes a chapter of his book to the climate debate that has been raging among the ultra-rich in Aspen: On one hand, a warming climate could bring the end of Aspen’s fabled snow-covered ski slopes and whip up more wildfires in Colorado. On the other hand, curbing energy use and managing the land in an environmentally conscious way can clash with the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

“There’s a lot of ironies in there,” Rich said — and those ironies make for interesting reading in “Second Nature.”

"Second Nature" book cover

Another leading theme in the book has to do with how genetic engineering is modifying the natural environment — including a way-out art project that created a glow-in-the-dark bunny, plus an even more way-out effort by scientists to revive species ranging from the American chestnut to the passenger pigeon and the woolly mammoth.

“They’re talking about creating new man-made species in a lab that will fulfill the same ecological niche as species that we’ve killed off,” Rich said. “I think that’s fascinating, and there’s something that obviously strikes you as kind of creepy, or disturbing, of crazily hubristic at first encounter with it.”

But Rich has come to believe that “there’s a method to the madness.”

“We have to become more used to this idea of directed intervention — which, after all, has been with us since the beginning of conservation,” he said. “The most traditionalist conservation folks still talk about ‘land management,’ which is another euphemism for essentially controlling the conditions of an ecosystem. It’s the same kind of work that’s going on, but it’s just using technology that’s far more advanced and precise.”

Could genetic engineering produce microbes that can break down long-lasting industrial pollutants like PFAS, make sea stars less vulnerable to warming oceans, or result in saltwater-resistant trees that are better able to defend disappearing coastal wetlands? Rich doesn’t rule that out. The way he sees it, using technology to remake the world for its own good is already becoming second nature to us.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

Rich has a lot to say about fiction as well as science. His 2013 sci-fi novel, “Odds Against Tomorrow,” parallels many of the themes laid out in “Losing Earth” and “Second Nature.”

In fact, “Odds Against Tomorrow” came a little too close to the reality of climate change. Just after he finished writing the book, which spun a tale about a mega-hurricane that hits New York, Hurricane Sandy swept up the East Coast and took a big bite out of the Big Apple.

“That was a little too terrifying of an experience,” Rich said.

In a bonus podcast, Rich talks about his next project — which will definitely not be a science-fiction novel. He admits to being a fan of science fiction, and says he’s a little surprised that the rest of contemporary fiction doesn’t reflect the edgy, eerie mood of our scientific age — including concerns about climate change.

“A lot of the most interesting fictional work about climate and interrelated issues has come first through science fiction,” he said.

“I do feel like there’s been a huge dereliction by so many great contemporary literary novelists. … I feel like they’re not up to the task,” Rich added. “And I have a lot of theories about why that is.”

Rich lays out those theories in our bonus podcast. He also lists some of his favorite novelists, in science fiction as well as more down-to-earth literary genres. At least one novel sounds like a natural selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which spotlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand-book shop.

George R. Stewart’s novel, “Storm,” has certainly been around long enough to qualify: It was published back in 1941.

“He’s really the first ecological novelist,” Rich said. “I read the first of his ecological novels … which is about a huge hurricane coming to the Pacific Coast. And it’s completely bizarre, because the story is told essentially from the perspective of the storm, which is called Maria. The human characters are really secondary and for the most part kind of anonymous. They’re only identified by their job titles, and their character arcs are pretty limited.”

Fun fact: The storm’s name inspired the song “They Call the Wind Maria” in the Broadway musical “Paint Your Wagon.” More importantly, Stewart’s naming convention helped inspire the National Weather Service’s tradition of giving names to major tropical storms.

Rich likes “Storm” so much that he’s writing the introduction for a new edition of the book. That’s a good thing: It’s currently out of print, and used copies are selling for a premium. Until the new edition comes out, your best option might well be to turn to the Internet Archive — or you could turn instead to Stewart’s better-known and more widely available sci-fi classic, “Earth Abides.”

Town Hall Seattle is presenting a live-streamed conversation with Nathaniel Rich and author Claire Vaye Watkins at 7:30 p.m. PT April 5. Check out Town Hall Seattle’s website to learn more about the virtual event and purchase tickets. 

A version of this story was published on GeekWire with the headline “’Second Nature’: How Technology Is Remaking Our World, for Better or Worse.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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