Novel * Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka * Environmental Collapse * 1986
Nature’s End is an ambitious project, especially considering these are the two authors who wrote a similar book, Warday, only two years prior. Like that fictional story of a limited nuclear exchange, Nature’s End relies on a good deal of actual research to back up its narrative, and as such ends up being more terrifying than most apocalyptic tales. Unlike its predecessor, which was now reads like a period piece about (well deserved) nuclear paranoia in the 1980’s, Nature’s End is still incredibly relevant. This is not a good thing. What the novel is about is the complete meltdown of the world’s ecosystems after decades of systematic assault by an ever-growing population of consumptive human beings. The book is thirty years old and set roughly ten years in our future, so some of the numbers and projections are obviously going to be off. Yet some of the scenarios remain, and this is the first book in a while that had me looking up various facts and statistics. Now I kind of wish I hadn’t.
In addition to extrapolating a devastated future world from the facts available in the mid-80s, there is also an actual story here. It’s not bad! The narrative follows four upper-class white folks (puke) as they wage a battle against a man named Gupta Singh. This man is the leader of a worldwide political movement called the Depopulationists. Their plan is to assume control of the world’s governments lawfully, relying on the sorry state of the world to convince people that depopulation is the only way to solve the world’s problems. Over the course of the novel, it happens that they’re very successful at this, which makes sense given the worst-case-scenario events that keep taking place. Earth is pretty desolate in the 2025 of Nature’s End. Anyway, once the Depop manages to assume leadership positions in the majority of the planet’s governments, they will issue a pill to everyone on Earth, a third of which are fatal. Our four yuppie protagonists think this is a bad idea.
The foursome’s center is John Sinclair, who is a “convictor.” He’s a professional character assassin, essentially. He uses a powerful computer program called Delta Doctor, which seems to be some kind of personality compiler, in order to create a perfect interactive model of a person. People can then purchase this program and ask it questions. John is said to have already convicted the last U.S. President, which not only ruined him publically but drove him to suicide because a conviction cannot lie, and thus can reveal all sorts of sordid shit about people. The story begins when John is convinced by the other three members of his family (his wife, his dead son’s best friend and his wife) to go after Singh in order to prevent him from killing a third of the world’s population. Singh, of course, takes exception to this, and considering he’s the most powerful person on the planet, things go poorly for the Sinclair tribe.
In a sense, there are two books here. One is a political thriller about a family on the run, trying to take down an evil institution with few resources and fewer friends. Despite having serious reservations about the principal characters, the story is still told well. Also, to be fair, the Sinclair family is broken down to the point where they actually become somewhat sympathetic. The other book is, to me at least, more interesting. These are the sections of the novel which rely on hard research and extrapolate the worst case scenarios from the present state of the world in 1986. As such, the book goes in a lot of directions. Almost too many, if I’m honest. Still, most of the scenarios presented are still a concern thirty years later, even if we haven’t destroyed the world quite as capably as the authors feared when they wrote this.
I will endeavor to talk about this stuff without getting preachy or seguing into a thousand-word rant about the goddamn rainforests. In full disclosure, I have very strong opinions about the state of the global ecosystem which I will try to keep on short leash. That said, this book’s stated intention is to act as a warning about human impact on the environment. Outside of the narrative bits, Nature’s End consists of a series of catastrophic incidents which are narrated in flashback form. These incidents are supported with in-book documents: headlines, statistics, testimonials, and the like. This is a book where it is important to keep the publication date in mind, because each snippet of information presented is dated. Every excerpt before 1985 actually happened. Everything dated past that is a logical extrapolation based on the earlier research. I know this, because I looked up some of the events used as an example. This may seem like a small thing to call out, but honestly this research is the foundation of the entire novel, and its credibility rests upon this collection of facts. Like I said, this book casts a wide net, so let’s take a brief look at the issues Nature’s End is concerned with.
The prologue of the novel recounts the incident where John Sinclair lost his son. This happens in future-Denver during an air-pollution emergency. Apparently there is a massive, week-long air stagnation event that traps all the smog against the Rocky Mountains and keeps Denver broiling in its own pollution until people can no longer breathe. The air went from brown to grey to pitch black, and 80,000 people asphyxiate before the air started moving again, including John’s son, who threw his life away trying in vain to save people with no actual training or resources. Now, those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a developed country know that great strides have been made in reducing our local emissions to the point where smog emergencies like this are simply not going to happen in these places. Hell, even L.A. has cleaner air than it did when I was a kid. That said, global air pollution is an epidemic. This issue is one of many environmental concerns in developing countries that brings up a difficult debate, which can be boiled down to “So-called developed countries became rich by burning coal and cutting down forests, so why can’t we?” The short answer is overpopulation.
In the world of Nature’s End, the Earth is severely overpopulated by ravenous humans who have stripped the globe clean of resources and are facing a die-off in the not-to-distant future. The number of humans given for the year 2025 is right around seven billion. This is kind of funny, because the novel both underestimated how quickly the world population is growing (the authors missed by about a billion people) and overestimated their impact. Well, that last bit is a little tricky. There is no real answer to the question of how many people is too many people, at least on a global scale. To be fair, I’ve never been outside of the developed world. I don’t have any real experience with life in the global south or the massive supercities in Asia. From what I’ve seen, it looks unpleasant. That might be an understatement.
Anyway, the global population may or may not have eclipsed the carrying capacity of the planet, but the population load is certainly unbalanced. This situation leads to all manner of things, none of them good. The concerns with overpopulation are at the root of pretty much every other issue mentioned here. When Europe and the United States developed into industrialized societies, there were far fewer people burning coal and cutting down forests. They still managed to be incredibly destructive. Now you have places like China and India industrializing in much the same way, but with an exponentially larger population (the global population at the beginning of the 19th century was 1 billion. Both of these countries now have a population that exceeds that by themselves). Even with better technology the damage can only be worse. There is obviously a lot more to this but this will have to do for now, otherwise we’ll be here all day.
This is the issue that I am most passionate about, so settle in. The book presents a couple of incidents that touch on this major environmental concern, one in the United States and the other in Brazil. The United States of Nature’s End is one without trees. The sugar maple is extinct in the East, and most of the Western states are simply on fire. The Midwest is a desert. Acid rain and fire have pretty much wiped out the northern forests, and the landscape is described as an eroded, flooded nightmare where mighty forests once stood.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, most of the Amazon forest has been destroyed. The story flashes back to what is described as the largest forest fire in the world, sparked by slash and burn practices in a rapidly drying rainforest. The fire in the book destroyed what was left of the forest cover, and afterward most of Brazil was desert. The consequences of the loss were catastrophic globally. Aside from the sheer loss of biodiversity, the forests also play a major role in climate regulation and in the water cycle. Once they went up in smoke (which in itself adds the aforementioned problem of global air pollution), the effects of climate change intensified nearly to the tipping point.
Today, North American forests aren’t in quite as much danger as they are depicted in the novel. Overall, the United States has added more forest cover, so there are more trees now than there were at the time the book was written. As someone who works with the Forest Service and spends a lot of time in the woods, I know that the USFS has changed the way they manage forests. My local forest does not permit clear-cutting, for instance. This promotes overall forest health, as selective harvesting reduces risk of catastrophic fires and allows other forest life to enjoy a habitat superior to that of uniform, planted forests. That said, there are different challenges. I just read that there has been a die-off of around 66 million trees in the Sierra Nevada due to prolonged drought and infestation. That many dead trees pretty much guarantees major forest fires, and it’s fire more than anything that is a threat to our forests.
The situation is more dire in the tropical rainforests. The authors were charitable in their estimations of local governments to manage their forest properly. The incident the novel uses as a model for their fictional Brazil catastrophe is a massive forest fire that occurred in Indonesia in the early 1980s. The authors assumed that Indonesian leaders would learn the lesson that utterly unregulated use of the forest would be a bad idea. They did not, and a much larger fire occurred in the late 90s. Again, this goes back to the (obviously grossly summarized) argument that developed countries can afford to act paternally about the environment. There’s no easy answer for that (although I will point to Edward O. Wilson’s The Future of Life as a good starting point for grappling with all of this). Still, the global statistics are pretty grim. In 1947, there were roughly 16 million square kilometers of forest cover in the world. Now there are 6 million, and that number is getting smaller. Hmm, I might be getting preachy here. Let’s wrap this up.
Obviously I feel that Nature’s End still has something important to say. Sometimes it borders on the hyperbolic, but the intention is to present a world which continues destructive practices without changing anything. It seems to me that the only reason environmental doomsayers are occasionally proven wrong is because changes were implemented to prevent said doom. We have better air than China because we have better environmental protection laws (and also because of neoliberal economic pressures but don’t even get me started). If we had not implemented the Clean Air Acts, who knows? The point is, Nature’s End has a purpose beyond entertainment. Most of the time, when I write about dystopias or the apocalypse, it is a way of discussing social psychology and how we feel about civilization. In this case, the threat is very real. This issues discussed in this book are about actual potential catastrophes that could threaten all of humanity in the not too distant future. So, you know, have a pleasant day!