“Living in a World in Which Nature Has Already Lost”

I am going to hope I’m forgiven by the New York Times for just flat-out pasting in their review, here, of a very significant book by Nathaniel Rich which ‘presents humanity’s war against nature in vivid detail, with nature nearly defeated. “It was a costly victory, however,” he writes. “The prize was civilizational collapse.”’

(reviewed by) Dahr Jamail

  • Scenes From a World Remade
  • By Nathaniel Rich

On average, an American man puts 85 man-made chemicals into his body every day, while an American woman takes in nearly twice that amount.

Rich tourists pay top dollar for disaster tours to gawk at New Orleans’s Katrina-devastated Lower Ninth Ward, where the people who have remained struggle to survive.

In Aspen, Colo., dogs fly in private jets to “Billionaire Mountain” to join their owners in multimillion-dollar homes for two weeks of the year.

Cattle exposed to DuPont’s toxic chemicals drool uncontrollably and birth stillborn calves. Their teeth turn black, and blood gushes from their noses, mouths and rectums. When they are cut open, they are found to be filled with giant tumors, collapsed veins and green muscles.

A genetically engineered rabbit in France glows green. Meat made from cells harvested from an unborn sheep is being grown in a lab. There is an artist who has undergone multiple surgeries to grow a human ear on his forearm, and a life-size human ear grown from cow cartilage cells has been implanted on the back of a lab mouse.

Biotech is being used to bring back extinct species, despite the fact it is unable to achieve perfect replication, setting the stage for mutated versions of passenger pigeons or woolly mammoths. “We would go exactly as far as the technology allowed, and strain to go further,” Nathaniel Rich proclaims in “Second Nature,” a book chock-full of scenes such as these, an unwavering look at our increasingly dystopian world.

Rich presents humanity’s war against nature in vivid detail, with nature nearly defeated. “It was a costly victory, however,” he writes. “The prize was civilizational collapse.”

Flowing and deeply researched prose paints scene after scene of the ubiquitous entropy that is gaining momentum.

As devastating as the darkness is, however, Rich illuminates those acting on behalf of life itself. The lawyer representing the cattle farmer against DuPont revealed how many of those same chemicals are in all of us, and in 2018 filed a class-action lawsuit against DuPont and two other companies on behalf of every person in the country who had been exposed.

Uninhabited areas of the Lower Ninth Ward are now populated with rabbits, egrets, pelicans, hawks, possum, coyotes, owls, falcons and alligators as nature wastes no time reasserting itself.

A Japanese scientist studying a strange species known as the “immortal jellyfish,” whose life cycle reverses just as it seems to near its end, reminds us that learning to love nature is mandatory for our evolution as humans.

Rich offers all this while also never taking his gaze off the accelerating climate crisis. NASA has warned, as my own research has shown, that Arctic permafrost soil contains 1,400 to 1,850 gigatons of organic carbon, most of it located in the top 10 feet of quickly thawing soil. This layer is melting at least 70 years ahead of what were thought to be worst-case scenarios, rapidly releasing this carbon to join the 850 gigatons already in the atmosphere.

Humans living in our industrial age tend to resist information deleterious to their continued “progress,” yet Rich manages to fluently and empathetically depict in a digestible way the predicament in which we now find ourselves. The weight of the book is carried by deeply humanistic and nuanced stories of those whose lives have been devastated and those fighting for justice on their behalf, alongside those playing God with nature via biotechnology and chemistry.

In “Second Nature,” Rich articulately, sometimes even brutally, evinces how the onus is upon all of us to respond morally while simultaneously living with a reality that Dr. Frankenstein knew quite well: A monster set loose becomes a threat to our own existence.

Dahr Jamail is the author of “The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption,” a finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award in 2020.

Scenes From a World Remade
By Nathaniel Rich
288 pp. MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.