“The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1855
“The planet we were given will never be more intact or whole than it is at this moment.”
– Bill McKibben, 2016
Take climate activist Bill McKibben‘s 1989 publication of The End of Nature as a milestone. A milestone that shows how far we humans have come—so far, McKibben argues, that we have officially ended nature. The nigh impossibility of escaping the noise of a chainsaw or jet plane for long, the appearance of airborne dioxin chemicals in the breast milk of mothers in Greenland, the islands of plastic in the seas—these realities lead to one conclusion: nature, untrammeled by man, no longer exists. In the decades between 1989 and 2018, a fringe fear of climate change has solidified into a widespread recognition of a global environmental crisis perpetrated and ignored by Big Oil, mainstream politicians, and the behavior of every single one of us reading these words.
The essay collection Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet, edited by Susan Cohen and Julie Dunlap, with a forward by McKibben, is a megaphone for the voices of my generation, those who have inherited a bucking planet busy spinning our species off its back. The collection contains twenty-two essays by writers of the climate change generation exploring what it means to come of age in an environmentally damaged world. Some of the contributors weren’t yet born in 1989; each essay is written by someone who grew up surrounded by mounting evidence of the catastrophic failure of our attempt to treat nature fundamentally as little more than a resource bank to feed our civilization’s growth. Having grown up on a warming planet amidst the turmoil of violent weather, rising seas, species extinction, and the insidious toxification of natural resources, how does this generation move forward in the world? How can we love and protect our ailing home as looming threats become dangerous realities?
The essays in this volume, exultant, appalled, scared, and determined, are pieces of a mosaic that glitteringly displays a generation entirely shaped by our climate crisis. “The planet we evolved on is over,” writes Bonnie Frye Hemphill in “We Are the Fossil-Fuel Freedom Fighters.” Blair Braverman, in “Post-Nature Writing,” describes a generation that fears overdevelopment, global destabilization, and environmental collapse. Braverman writes of a conversation with a climate scientist in which someone asked, “What should we really do to prepare for climate change?” The scientist’s answer: “Teach your children to fight with knives.”
This climate change generation works longer hours with less security; we are a generation constrained by debt and desperately seeking alternatives. In “Urban Foraging,” Amaris Ketcham writes of her community of underemployed non-profit workers taken advantage of for their fervent belief in a more sustainable future. Sunday night potlucks are made possible by food stamps, dumpster diving, gently scamming food distribution companies, side jobs cleaning foreclosed properties (before leaving with the pantry contents), and yes, urban foraging. Ketcham’s matter-of-fact portrayal of feelings of “desperation mixed with thievery” show a generation less constrained by convention and class than those that came before, but more constrained by surveillance, tilting legal systems, and a post-industrial state.
From the Arctic to Haiti and throughout the United States, the collection’s contributors question the consequences of dominant paradigms while refusing to look away. In “But I’ll Still be Here,” James Orbesen relives his discovery that Kyoto, a international agreement to set binding emission reduction targets, was rejected in the US because economic growth brooked no compromise, and then he explores a unique regret: youth. Orbesen writes of his regret of what he will witness in the many years likely remaining to him, showing a generation demonstrably less optimistic and content than its predecessors. “Slow genocide or fast, it’s just as cruel,” writes Hemphill. Coming of age, this generation is no longer sure that the future will be better than the past. Yet we are wired for beauty, attuned to rare flocks of sandhill cranes, red rock cliffs, the gait of hairy tarantulas, and vast blue seas. We are determined in our commitment to environmental and social justice.
Climate change can feel like a lonely thing. Most people don’t want to talk about it—it’s a dark story of loss and indictment that we’d rather ignore. One by one, the writings compiled in Coming of Age at the End of Nature assert this: if climate change does indeed scare you, you are not alone.