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The Defiant Reflex
Last summer I paddled across a northern Adirondack lake with a state biologist to visit an eagle’s nest. Thirty years before, in an effort to curb blackflies, communities in this area put big blocks of DDT in the streams. The blackflies survived (they hung in clouds around us all this morning, contemptuous of pine-scent Old Woodsman), but the eagles, among others, didn’t. The chemical thinned the shells of their eggs; when the mother eagles sat on their eggs as they always had, the shells collapsed.
Finally, last year, three pairs of eagles returned to the Adirondacks and built nests. The DDT levels in the water had dropped low enough to allow them back. We sat in the canoe and watched a big eagle circle above us: he was the very eagle from the dollar bill, eyes beady with patient irritation, head ruffled. His mate was on the nest, and we were too close. He swooped nearby; we backed off; he rose with a beat or two of his wings—he had a six-foot wingspan—and flew for the nest. When he got there, he stuck out his wings, stalled, and dropped softly down.
This grand sight I owe to Rachel Carson; had she not written when she did about the dangers of DDT, it might well have been too late before anyone cared about what was happening. She pointed out the problem; she offered a solution; the world shifted course.
That is how this book should end, too. At this writing, the greenhouse effect shows every sign of emerging as an important political issue—perhaps the important political issue. President Bush has scheduled a global scientific workshop on the topic for the fall of 1989; there is much talk of an international convention to draw up a treaty on climate change modeled on the accords to phase out chlorofluorocarbon production. It all sounds promising, rational. There should be a solution, and we should write our congressmen about it, and they should enact it, and then we should all get on with our lives. We should come up with a good practical response, a plan, a series of steps, a seven-point proposal to solve the greenhouse effect. That is the modern way. That is our reflex.
But there are reasons—economic and demographic reasons but also reasons of chemistry and physics—to think such an approach won’t work so easily in this case, that a “solution” may be difficult, verging on impossible.
The minute, for instance, that the scientists at the 1988 congressional hearings finished explaining that we were heating up the earth, senators began to shout about nuclear power; it was quite literally their first reaction. Senator Wendell Ford of Kentucky, addressing the scientists, said, “Well, half this group, I bet you, a few years ago was against plutonium.… And now we have come a hundred and eighty degrees.” Asked Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska, “Is it indeed a reality that we must look more aggressively to nuclear as a release, because I don’t see the public demanding any reduction in the power requirements that our air-conditioners run off, everything else that we enjoy.” This is the voice of the practical man. Not even the senator from Alaska can imagine life without air-conditioning, and so we must come up with some solution, and fast.
But is nuclear power a solution? Lay aside the question of whether it is safe and the question of what we will do with the resulting waste (though it is a sign of the depth of our addiction that we would be willing to lay aside such considerations). Nuclear energy is at the moment and for the foreseeable future useful for generating electricity but not for, say, powering my Honda. To address even the 30 percent of the carbon dioxide created by electric generation (and remember that carbon dioxide is only 50 percent of the total greenhouse gas problem), we would need to build an enormous number of Shorehams and Seabrooks—a process that would take, at the least, decades. Or we would have to wait the “between twenty years and never” one chemist said it would take to even start putting a potential source of electricity like fusion into use. And we have no spare decades: putting off the solution twenty or thirty or forty years gives us another thirty or forty or sixty parts per million carbon dioxide.
Still, what about increasing efficiency? What about conservation? If conservatives instantly think of more reactors, conservation is the liberal reflex. Congress, for instance, is currently considering a bill that would increase gas mileage for cars and light trucks and take a number of other steps—it is known as the “global-warming prevention” bill.
There is—no question about it—waste, even fifteen years after the energy crisis. As just one small example, most of the electricity consumed by industry is used to drive motors. Anticipating expansion, companies tend to buy larger motors than they need; however, large motors are inefficient when they run at less than their optimal speed. If every industrial motor in the United States were to be equipped with available speed-control technology, the latest edition of the World Resources yearbook estimates, America’s total electricity consumption would fall 7 percent. The typical American water heater, the Natural Resources Defense Council contends, uses 4,500 to 6,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, while state-of-the-art models consume only 800 to 1,200.
We must end such waste, the sooner the better. But are such steps going to solve the problem? Consider for a minute a few numbers, supplied by Irving Mintzer, of the World Resources Institute. The numbers are a little dense, but they describe with eloquence the fix we’re in. Mintzer outlines a “base case” scenario that “reflects conventional wisdom in its assumptions about technological change, economic growth, and the evolution of the global energy system.” In this model, nations do not enact policies to slow carbon-dioxide emissions, or provide more than minimal support for increased energy efficiency and solar research and development, though they do slow the rate of chlorofluorocarbon growth. The result is that by the year 2000 we are committed to an average global warming of 1.6–4.7 degrees Fahrenheit and by 2030 to 2.9–8.5 degrees Fahrenheit. That, says Mintzer, “is by no means the worst possible outcome.” If the use of coal and synthetic fuels is encouraged and tropical deforestation continues to increase, then the planet is doomed to a 4.1–12.6 degrees Fahrenheit increase by 2030—numbers with implications too staggering for us to imagine. (By 2075, in this scenario, the globe could be committed to a nearly 30-degree jump. That is even more unimaginable.) The good news, such as it is, comes in Mintzer’s “slow build-up scenario.” Under its provisions, strong global efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions “eventually stabilize the atmosphere’s composition.” Coal, gas, and oil prices are increased sharply, per-capita energy use declines in industrialized countries, and governments dramatically increase support for the development of solar energy. Tropical countries not only cease to cut down the rain forests, but embark on “massive” reforestation efforts. And so on. If all of these heroic efforts had begun in 1980, according to Mintzer’s numbers, by 2075 we would be committed to a warming of 2.5–7.5 degrees Fahrenheit. That is still “a warming greater than any experienced in human history.” That is to say, if all the liberals and all the conservatives in all the countries of the world had gotten together a decade ago and done all the most dramatic things they could think of, it wouldn’t have been enough to prevent terrible, terrible changes.
Why is this? Why can’t this problem be solved in the way that, say, DDT was solved? Because, first of all, it’s a problem that’s different not only in quantity but also in quality. Carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases come from everywhere, so they can be fixed only by fixing everything. The small substitutions and quick fixes are difficult. Many in Congress, for instance, support the development of methanol-fueled vehicles that emit fewer pollutants like nitrogen oxide. But much methanol would be made with coal—the process could dramatically increase levels of carbon dioxide.
The size and complexity of the industrial system we’ve built makes even the most obvious and immediate changes physically difficult. For instance, one answer that people often suggest for the carbon dioxide crisis is that we plant more trees. And we should—but, as one study showed, enough American sycamores to soak up fifty years of the world’s output of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning would cover a land area the size of Europe with American sycamore seedlings. And a land area the size of Europe doesn’t exist uncovered by crops or desert or ice. Also, say EPA researchers, there may not be enough phosphate, nitrogen, or potash for fertilizer. And acid rain is killing the trees we do have. And as it gets hotter in the next few decades—as a result of carbon dioxide already released—huge tracts of forest may die, as we have seen. And if we plant huge numbers of trees on fallow land, we might change the albedo of the earth. This is a controversial point, but some scientists contend that fewer of the sun’s rays would be reflected by the dark green of the trees than the grassland they replace. (One study even estimated that massive tree planting could reduce the earth’s reflectivity by 20 percent, increasing the world temperature at a rate roughly equivalent to seven years of carbon-dioxide emissions.) Another common suggestion is to replace much of the coal and oil we burn with natural gas, since it produces only about half as much carbon dioxide. But if natural gas—methane—escapes into the atmosphere before it burns, it traps solar radiation twenty times more efficiently than carbon dioxide. And natural gas does leak—from wells, from pipelines, from appliances. Dean Abrahamson, an analyst at the University of Minnesota, says data suggest that 2 to 3 percent of American natural gas escapes unburnt. As a result, switching to natural gas may have no effect on the greenhouse effect. It might even make it worse.
Not only is the industrial system huge, but the trend toward growth is incredibly powerful. At the simplest level, population, the increase continues, if not unabated, just a little abated. In some developing countries 37 percent of the population is under fifteen years of age; in Africa, the figure is 45 percent. Demographers calculate that the world’s population may plateau by the middle of the next century. That sounds like good news, but before it happens a population the world already strains to support is expected to double, and perhaps nearly triple. Without a stabilized population, even the most immediate and obvious goals, such as slowing deforestation or cutting fossil fuel use, seem far-fetched. If we double energy efficiency but also double the number of energy users—the math is forbidding.
Over the last century a human life has become a machine for burning petroleum. At least in the West the system that produces excess carbon dioxide is not only huge and growing but also psychologically all encompassing. It makes no sense to talk about cars and power plants and so on as if they were something apart from our lives—they are our lives. George Orwell, writing before World War II, when this addiction was still in its early stages, said, “The coal miner is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders everything that is not grimy is supported.… In the metabolism of the western world, the coal miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.” Now that agriculture depends so heavily on fossil fuels, even that rank is reversed.
In the face of such tidal forces, our traditional answers are like the magic war paint donned by American Indians, which their medicine men assured them would ward off bullets. At best—and at worst—they provide a false sense of security. Take, for instance, the widespread idea that the “free market” will accomplish any necessary goal. The price of oil is currently low and seems set to stay there for a while; when it is below twenty-five dollars per barrel, the economists say, most of the incentive for finding new energy sources disappears. And the easiest—and therefore cheapest—inefficiencies were wrung out of the system during the energy crisis. Governments have already “made what many of them believe are heroic efforts” to cut oil use, concluded a National Academy of Sciences report. Our weird problem is an abundance of resources and a shortage of hard economic reasons not to use them.
But the obvious alternative—international government action—will be almost as difficult. For any program to be a success, we must act not only as individuals and as nations but as a community of nations. “Unless all act together,” the Worldwatch Institute warned, “there is little reason to act separately.” One trouble, though, is that some countries may perceive themselves as potential “winners” in a climatic change; the Russians, for instance, may decide that the chance of increased harvests from a longer growing season is worth the risk of the global warming. And since the Russians, the Americans, and the Chinese own about 90 percent of the world’s coal reserves, any one of them can scuttle progress. The possibilities for other divisions—rich versus poor nations, for instance—are large. Every country has its own forms of despoliation to protect; just as an example, the Canadians, who are forever moaning about their role as the helpless victims of American acid rain, are cutting down the virgin forests of British Columbia at a semi-Brazilian pace. And the fact that decisions must be made now for decades ahead means that, in the words of Deputy Secretary of State for the Environment, Health, and Natural Resources, Richard Benedick, “somehow, political leaders and government processes and budget makers must accustom themselves to a new way of thinking.” Of all the quixotic ideas discussed here, that may top the list.
ALL THIS IS not to say we shouldn’t act. We must act, and in every way possible, and immediately. We must substitute, conserve, plant trees, perhaps even swallow our concerns over safety and build some nuclear plants. We stand at the end of an era—the hundred years’ binge on oil, gas, and coal, which has given us both the comforts and the predicament of the moment. George Woodwell, a Woods Hole marine biologist, who is currently studying the world’s forests to discover just how fast they are dying, says we are committed to a warming of several degrees. But if we do not dramatically cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the atmosphere will never reach a steady state and “there is virtually no action that can be taken to assure the continuity of natural communities.” Even the countries that think they wouldn’t mind warming of a degree or two for a longer growing season can’t endure an endless heating. There is, Woodwell says, “no question that we’ve reached the end of the age of fossil fuels.” The choice of doing nothing—of continuing to burn ever more oil and coal—is not a choice, in other words. It will lead us, if not straight to hell, then straight to a place with a similar temperature.
There is a small chance that it’s too late to avoid such a fate. If conditions change fast enough—if scientists are underestimating the global warming the same way they underestimated the ozone depletion, if we have a sudden greenhouse Ice Age or six straight summers like 1988’s—then civilization could rip apart. The futurist Lester Brown has discussed a “domino effect,” environmental deterioration leading to rising food prices, producing political unrest. Such conditions would be a perfect culture for the fungus of fanaticism and unreasoning religion. The last time I walked down Fifth Avenue, someone handed me a tract explaining that climate change was a signal of the coming “rapture,” and another gave me a pamphlet promising that an understanding of the greenhouse effect could be found in the mysteries of the Kabbalah. Nature has always been the strongest inoculation against this sort of doomsaying. “Familiarity with the ways of the Eternal as they are revealed in the physical universe certainly tends to keep a man sane and sober and safeguards him against the vagaries and half-truths which our creeds and indoor artificial lives tend to breed,” wrote John Burroughs. “Think of the obsession of the speedy ‘end of the world!’ which has so often taken possession of whole communities, as if a world that has been an eternity in forming could end in a day, or on the striking of a clock.” When that proof against such obsession begins to crumble, when the earth becomes a model not of permanence but of sudden, unexpected, and devastating change, the number of people seeking an explanation in obscure Scripture or conversations with dead people or a Soviet conspiracy will certainly increase. The chance confluence of this turmoil with the approaching millennium will bring out the low-budget prophets in truly record numbers.
Such a world—a world where people shoot one another in the streets of Boston over a loaf of bread—is not unimaginable. Science fiction writers, survivalists, and gold speculators imagine it all the time. Sometimes I catch myself considering where I might be able to store a year’s supply of food, or wondering if I should buy a gun. But if the world is going to deteriorate as rapidly as this, there probably isn’t much we can do about it.
What is much more likely is that we will have both the time and the desire to do something. The question is: What? A few of the answers are obvious. The destruction of the ozone layer, for instance, can be solved by our ceasing to produce the chemicals currently destroying it. The chlorofluorocarbons and the halons are not essential parts of our industrial base; the Reagan-era Environmental Protection Agency called for a total ban on the chemicals involved, and the European nations have pledged to stop using them by century’s end. Though these steps won’t end the problem overnight—the chemicals we’ve already released will reside in the atmosphere for a hundred years or more—they will take care of it eventually. And though the international negotiations may be complex, these steps are easy enough so that they will certainly be taken. The next generation of refrigerators will cost a hundred dollars more—when you get right down to it, big deal. The same with acid rain: Stick scrubbers on the smokestacks. It will cost, but what doesn’t? Essentially, it’s like controlling DDT, or eating fewer eggs to lower your cholesterol.
But the really big question—the question of global warming—does not yield to the same sort of solution. We can’t stop using gasoline the same way we can shut off CFC 12, can’t give up heating with oil or cooking with gas as easily as we gave up spraying with DDT. The EPA, in the spring of 1989, proposed a series of “bold actions” for dealing with the greenhouse effect: sharp rises in car mileage, steep drops in home energy use, taxes on fossil fuels. Still, it said, such actions would only slow the buildup of greenhouse gases, not stop them.
With aggressive action, as Mintzer’s numbers indicate, we can “stabilize” the situation at some sort of only fairly horrific level, but we cannot resolve it—we can keep the temperature increases at 3 or 4 degrees, not 15 or 30. And Mintzer is not alone in making this sort of calculation. Other forecasters offer even gloomier numbers. The first study on the subject, for instance, done in 1983 by Stephen Seidel and Dale Keyes, of the EPA, concluded that the onset of global warming could not be significantly delayed by changes in policy. Worldwide taxes of as much as 300 percent of the cost of fossil fuels would delay a 2-degree Celsius warming five years, from 2040 to 2045, they said; a total ban on coal instituted by the year 2000 would delay it until 2055. “These findings attest to the substantial momentum built into temperature trends,” they noted. Therefore, they said, the first implication of their findings was that we should “accelerate and expand research on improving our ability to adapt to a warmer climate.” Theirs was an exceedingly pessimistic view, perhaps a little more pessimistic than what more recent measurements support. And we have made progress; the proposed ban on CFCs, for instance, will help significantly with the warming as well as with the ozone loss. Yet even the scientists calling most loudly for controls of emissions say they are doing so in order to slow the rate of warming enough that we can adapt. “If the change is slow enough,” Stephen Schneider says, “you can study the problems, determine what the regional impacts will be, and learn how to adjust.” THAT ADJUSTMENT—that adaptation—is all that remains to be discussed. There is no question but that we stand near the end of the era of fossil fuels. We have been on a century-long binge, and now the doctor says we must stop drinking—our liver just can’t take it anymore.
Were it simply drink, we might well stop; though the addiction to alcohol is powerful, the world is filled with drunks turned sober. But it is not a luxury we are talking about here. It is almost our entire way of life. Our every comfort—the freedom from hard labor, especially, for those of us who enjoy such freedom—depends on this drug. Oil is what has allowed us, finally, to dominate the earth instead of having the earth dominate us. And so we will try to find substitute drugs to give us this same high without further damaging our liver—substitute fuels that won’t produce carbon dioxide. But nuclear and solar and so on can’t stave off a great heating—that is the meaning of the numbers we’ve looked at. We’ve already done too much; there are too many of us; even when we cease to produce carbon dioxide, we still reek of methane.
So we need to “adapt” in some other fashion as well. The question is: How? We could, perhaps, figure out some way to drastically trim our ways of life and our numbers. But our impulse will be to adapt not ourselves but the earth. We will, I think, try to figure out a new way to continue our domination, and hence our accustomed lifestyles, our hopes for our children. This defiance is our reflex. Our impulse will be to spurn the doomsayers and to press bravely ahead into some new world.
After all, while the current methods are clearly no longer workable—a few more decades of ungoverned fossil-fuel use and we burn up, to put it bluntly—that does not mean we can’t find other ways. To use a loaded analogy, after the crisis of the Civil War slavery was no longer an acceptable method for white Americans to exercise dominion over black Americans. But rather than convert to new notions of universal fellowship and equality white Americans invented segregation, rigging up Jim Crow laws to ensure that much of the old relationship would persist in a new guise. And it is of critical importance to realize that now, just as the old methods of dominating the world have become unworkable, a new set of tools is emerging that may allow us to continue that domination by different, expanded, and even more destructive means—that is, we may very well find a way to keep from choking on our cake, only to gag on the icing later.
The most important of these new tools is genetic engineering, or biotechnology, a staggering development that we will examine in some detail. But we need to understand first that any such new tools are deployed—as the old tools, the oil wells and the chain saws, are deployed—in the service of an ideology, a philosophy. This ideology argues that man is at the center of creation and it is therefore right for him to do whatever pleases him. This notion is deeply ingrained—all of us act on it every day. It is rare to find it plainly argued, but when I was in the library one day I came across a slim volume by a Stanford professor, William F. Baxter, who makes this case explicitly and quite well. He is writing to answer Carson and other environmentalists. “Recently,” he says, “scientists have informed us that use of DDT in food production is causing damage to the penguin population. For the present purposes, let us accept that assertion as indisputable scientific fact. The scientific fact is often asserted as if the correct implication—that we must stop agricultural use of DDT—followed from the mere statement of fact about penguin damage. But plainly it does not follow if my criteria are employed.” His criteria include the proposition that “every person should be free to do whatever he wishes in contexts where his actions do not interfere with the interests of other human beings,” and that none of our “resources, labors, or skills, should be wasted—that is, employed so as to yield less than they might yield in human satisfaction.” The criteria, he says in something of an understatement, “are oriented to people, not penguins. Damage to penguins, or sugar pines, or geological marvels is, without more, simply irrelevant. One must go further, by my criteria, and say: Penguins are important because people enjoy seeing them walk about rocks; and furthermore, the well-being of people would be less impaired by halting use of DDT than by giving up penguins.… I have no interest in preserving penguins for their own sake.” It is “undeniably selfish,” he admits, “to act as if each person represented one unit of importance and nothing else was of any importance.” Nevertheless, he insists, it is the “only tenable” proposition. He lists a number of reasons; other systems, for instance, would not work because no one could represent penguins. (“Penguins cannot vote now and are unlikely subjects for the franchise—pine trees more unlikely still.”) While this argument seems silly to me—it does not require any more imagination to figure out which way penguins would vote on DDT than it does to guess how black South Africans would vote on apartheid—his central reason for making man the measure of all is absolutely undeniable. “No other position corresponds to the way most people really think and act—i.e., corresponds to reality.” This statement is at the very center of the question. It is an extreme view, but almost all of us, deep down and nitty-gritty, no matter how many environmental petitions we sign, agree with him. That is, we may decide to save the penguins, but if it really were us or them—or even if it were one-twentieth of our comforts or them—the Antarctic would be an empty sheet of ice.
In fact, the few small cracks in this immense structure of belief have come not from moral qualms but from practical fears. When the gas crisis hit, for instance, all of a sudden people began to wonder if maybe our way of life was insupportable. Soon environmentalists were making dire forecasts about everything from aluminum to zinc, and saying we would have to learn to do with less; for a while, it almost became the conventional wisdom.
But a lot of people argued right back in favor of muscular industrialism and the rest of the existing order. The futurist Julian Simon wrote a book, The Ultimate Resource, that drove environmentalists crazy with its prediction that before we ran out of anything essential, scientists would figure out new ways to produce it. If we started to run out of copper, he said, we would figure out ways to make it “from other metals.” With “knowledge, imagination, and enterprise, we can muster from the earth all the mineral raw materials that we need and desire, at prices that grow smaller relative to other prices and to our total income. In short, our cornucopia is the human mind and heart.” This is not, of course, a scientific argument—he has not figured out the method for producing copper from other metals. It is, despite its reliance on “long-run economic indicators” and such, a religious argument, an article of faith, a perfect example of our defiant impulse. “The main fuel to speed our progress is our stock of knowledge, and the brake is our lack of imagination,” Simon writes. “To have more children grow up is also to have more people who can find ways to avert catastrophe.” The essential religiosity (though, since it worships man, it is idolatry) of this view can be easily seen in books like The Hopeful Future, where author G. Harry Stine, “one of America’s foremost science writers,” argues that to forecast using current rates of growth and progress is absurd. Even a curve that assumes that the rate of human progress will continue to increase beyond its current staggering pace is too conservative. Only “Curve E,” a “cubic curve, that continues to turn upward ever more steeply with no limit in sight,” makes sense. “It means that we can expect eight times as much progress in the next fifty years as we have seen in the last fifty.” True, says Stine, this seems “fantastic, impossible, and unbelievable. Things can’t possibly happen that way.” But “they have in the past, and all indications are they’ll continue to do so in the future.” This is not, strictly speaking, blind faith, since the optimists can explain their reasoning. But it is faith. Believing in something “fantastic, impossible, and unbelievable” is an act of hope as much as of reason. And it comes with other religious trappings—a dark view of people who think differently, for instance. (“Some of the futurists making downside forecasts don’t like people. That means they don’t like themselves either,” chides Stine, in surely the worst put-down possible in the late twentieth century.) And there is a vision of a not too distant utopia. In the twenty-first century, writes Stine, when enormous orbiting satellites beam down “enough energy for everybody to do everything,” our main problem will be boredom.
ALMOST ALL OF US intuitively hold this idea of infinite progress, having imbibed it with our infant formula through the sterilized rubber nipple. And quite possibly we are right. We will invent new tools. For example, genetic engineering, which I will examine in greater detail shortly, is an unfathomably powerful technology, at least as powerful as the discovery of fire. It and other new technologies may well allow us to keep our juggling act going, to keep ourselves alive on the planet, to figure out ways to extend our control so completely that nothing, not even the rogue nature we have inadvertently created in our last century of progress, will escape our domination. Perhaps it is too late, and the various feedbacks we may be triggering in the forests and methane sludges will wipe us out. But the defiant optimists like Simon and Stine could as easily be correct in their assertion that we can have a “macromanaged” world—a world where “people and things” are “managed in projects that are very large, very complex, and very lengthy.” Such a world might well allow us to continue with our ways of life even in the face of the coming heat. It might be a means of escape. It would replace our brute dominion over the earth with a cleverer, more far-reaching rule.
At the very least, we will almost certainly attempt to create such a future. For it’s not only, or even mainly, sybarites who hope we can continue our present domination. (True hedonists rarely think past their next soak in the Jacuzzi.) Mostly it’s people with sincere and “progressive” hopes for man. Buckminster Fuller is probably the great example. Fuller was an icon, a guru with a devoted following, and the one time I heard him speak I understood why. Between ten and lunch he covered (in order) the East India Company, Thomas Malthus, royal blood, the discovery of X-rays, electricity as invisible reality, mile-long radio waves, new alloys of metal, the gills of fish, wings of birds, Johannes Kepler, the temporal versus the eternal, the large percentage of the human body that is water, the enormous stresses on ships at sea, why human beings are in the universe, stages in the patent process, eclipses of the moons of Jupiter, DC-4 aircraft, the direction in which a tree falls, and Alexander the Great. Any attempt to summarize the thought of such a man will be crude, but it is fair to say that one thing Fuller believed was that man was not living up to his potential, and that only improvements in technology would allow him to do so.
Fuller was not an enemy of the environment; his geodesic domes, for instance, are as stable as conventional buildings at 3 percent of the weight. Were we all to live in them, there would be a lot more forests standing. But he was first and foremost a champion of man. “We’ve all been working under the assumption that man is destined to be a failure,” he told a crowd twenty years ago. “I say man is quite clearly like the hydrogen atom: designed to be a success. He is a fantastic piece of design.” But to be a success man had to advance scientifically. The protesting students of the 1960s, Fuller insisted, operated on the mistaken assumption that the political system needed reforming, when “it is the design science revolution alone that can solve the problem.” We have to deal with “our space ship, Earth, as a machine, which is what it is,” he said. If engineers increased the overall efficiency of our equipment from 4 percent to 12 percent, Fuller said, “we can take care of all humanity.” And so forth. I doubt if he would have viewed the end of nature with much trembling, for he never thought we would or should long stay in the surroundings we had grown accustomed to. Instead, we were like a chick in a shell. The shell had just enough food in it—enough coal and oil and oxygen and whatever—to allow us to develop to a certain point. “But then, by design, the nutriment is exhausted just at the time when the chick is large enough to be able to locomote on its own legs. And so as the chick pecks at the shell seeking more nutriment it inadvertently breaks open the shell.” This analogy may be a little selfish. (That there are other species in the shell with us seems not to have crossed his mind.) But it may well be correct, too. We may very well be able to defy the greenhouse effect and press on ahead.
This idea of a managed world has in recent years even acquired the support of a significant group of environmentalist, or at least quasi-environmentalist, thinkers. In the 1970s Dr. James Lovelock, the British scientist who first noted the spread of chlorofluorocarbons through the atmosphere, also formulated what he dubbed the “Gaia hypothesis.” This argues that the planet earth is not simply an “environment” for “life” but in fact a living organism, a self-sustaining system, a system that modifies its surroundings so as to ensure its survival. “The atmosphere, the oceans, the climate, and the crust of the earth are regulated at a state comfortable for life because of the behavior of living organisms.” This is a stunning argument, first because we are used to thinking of our planet as a chunk of rock covered, by some miracle divine or chemical, with a thin film of life. Instead, say the Gaians, imagine a giant redwood: “The tree is undoubtedly alive, yet ninety-four percent is dead,” the inside of the massive trunk a spire of ancient lignin and cellulose surrounded by the current life. But the Gaia hypothesis stuns us for an even larger reason, which is that it seems to imply something is watching over the planet, preserving it. Lovelock takes great pains to show that the planet’s self-regulation is automatic, requiring no conscious guidance, no parliament of bacteria. He calls his model of this proof Daisyworld; in its simpler form, it is a computer model of a planet about the same size and the same distance from the sun as the earth but populated only by daisies. Some of the daisies are white, some black, some gray. As with our earth, the sun’s heat is growing steadily warmer over billions of years. Daisyworld is without clouds; its temperature, therefore, is determined by the reflectivity of the surface, which in turn depends on the mix of black and white daisies. At first, when the sun is relatively cool, the black daisies grow faster, because they absorb more of the sun’s heat. But the spread of dark daisies under those favorable conditions begins to warm the atmosphere, and eventually it grows so hot that the white daisies with their ability to keep cool will have an advantage, and their spread will chill the atmosphere.
This mechanism, of course, requires no more conscious guidance than a furnace hooked to a thermostat. Something very much like this process may have been at work on earth. As the amount of solar energy reaching the earth has increased by more than a quarter over the last three billion years, the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide has decreased (until, of course, the frantic human efforts of recent centuries), in the same way that my attic fan turns on when the spring warmth changes to summer heat. Life also created almost all the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere, as we have seen, and for hundreds of millions of years has held its level in the atmosphere at about 21 percent. If it were 15 percent, fires could not begin; were it above 25 percent, even the damp wood of the rain forests would have long since burned in “an awesome conflagration.” The Gaia hypothesis seems, at first blush, to indicate that matters may not be too desperate, that life on the planet will continue regardless of what we do. Lovelock says that this is indeed the case—that the planet will make the necessary adjustments. The earth has dealt with worse problems than the ones we’ve caused—the rain of planetesimals, for instance, on at least ten occasions inflicted damage that was “comparable in severity to that of a burn affecting sixty percent of the skin of a human,” and even a nuclear war would be taken in stride. Those who say that the destruction of the ozone layer would kill almost all life are wrong, according to Lovelock. “ ‘Earth’s fragile shield’ is a myth,” he writes. “The ozone layer certainly exists today, but it is a flight of fancy to believe that its presence is essential for life.” It is worth bearing in mind, however, that this is “life” he is discussing, not “human life.” Gaia, the living organism, is as happy with one-celled wriggling whatevers as she is with mighty man. “Although Gaia may be immune to the eccentricities of some wayward species like us … this does not mean that we as a species are also protected from the consequences of our collective folly,” he writes. “Gaia is no doting mother, no fainting damsel. She is a tough virgin, 3.5 billion years old. If a species screws up, she eliminates it with all the feeling of the microbrain in an ICBM.” If the world is made unfit by our actions, Gaia will not just find some way to reduce the temperature so we can keep driving Cadillacs; more likely, a new steady state will quickly evolve, and “it is a near certainty that the new state will be less favorable for humans than the one we enjoy now.” Gaian theories should therefore lead, one might think, away from a defiant, human-centered attitude and toward intense respect and solicitousness for the rest of creation. What the world needs, Lovelock has written, is fewer chain saws, cattle, and cars. “It is up to us to act personally in a way that is constructive,” he says, and he leads an ecologically sound life on a farm in Cornwall, where he plants trees and rails against “the degraded agricultural monocultures of today with their filthy batteries for cattle and poultry, their ugly-sheet-metal buildings, and roaring, stinking machinery.” Some, however, have misinterpreted the outlines of his idea and implied that it means we need not worry overmuch about pollution or carbon dioxide or whatever—that the world is a giant self-cleaning oven. (They ignore his point that we might be the baked-on crud.) A larger group has taken more literally, and more defiantly, his idea of the earth as a living organism, and has decided that if that is the case we must be its brain, that if there is a thermostat we should set it, that we should interfere more and more with the natural processes of the environment.
As a mild example, consider a recent book, Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management. Its editor, Norman Myers, seems absolutely thrilled with the current state of affairs. True, the earth approaches many crises, but they represent “our final evolutionary examination.” We must rise to the occasion, pass the test. And we will—“We are grown up. We have acquired the power of life and death for our planet and most of its inhabitants.… Our ‘satellite vision’ means that all the planet’s resources—soils, forests, rivers, oceans, minerals—can be not only mapped in fine detail, but vetted for pollution, erosion, or drought; for changes in albedo or humidity; for movements of shoaling fish and migratory creatures.” We can process this data at high speed in our computers; we can communicate it around the world instantly. And we can act on it. It is time for man, “as incipient planet managers,” to “use this power and use it well.” The idea of power is intoxicating, at least to Mr. Myers. “The ancient Greeks, the Renaissance communities, the founders of America, the Victorians enjoyed no such challenge as this,” he exults. “What a time to be alive!” If we succeed at the task, the well-known physician Lewis Thomas says in his foreword to the book, “we could become a sort of collective mind for the earth.” This is defiance, continued control, cloaked in a filmy veil of ecological New Age thinking. Most of the actual proposals of these planet managers are sound, the usual suggestions of environmentalists. And in the world we have created they may be necessary, the best we can hope for. But though they love spruce and seed, these “planet managers” have respect mostly for man. They understand that the current methods of domination will overheat the planet, but they have new and improved methods. In their forests of the future, cloned Douglas firs and American sycamores will “sprout like mushrooms,” growing straighter, producing “denser wood.” Fishermen have always used an inheritance of skill and lore and intuition to figure out where the schools are feeding; but now we can dispense with that romantic inefficiency and replace it with “controlled farming of seaborne wildlife.” In fact, almost all wildlife can be kept on ranches, allowing “conservation and profit to go hand in hand.” Even at its most far reaching, though, macromanagement remains a fairly crude method—you may be able to keep track of the fish by satellite, but they’re still wild creatures, growing at their own pace. The next step—the step we are about to take—is more sweeping yet.
THE FIRST TIME I really encountered biotechnology, genetic engineering, I was a young reporter covering the weekly meetings of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Council. For several years the councillors debated how to regulate the genetic-engineering work then under way at Harvard and MIT. Week after week, Nobel Prize winners and brilliant young researchers would arrive to answer questions; though the liberal councillors from the town’s wealthy precincts were skeptical of the scientists, the biggest doubter was Alfred E. Vellucci, the councillor from Italian and Portuguese East Cambridge, who would long ago have won a Nobel himself if only they awarded them for local politics. Gifted with a strong imagination, Vellucci conjured up endless possible scenarios for the accidental release of “these bugs,” the reprogrammed organisms scientists were concocting. Could they escape through the sewers? The air-conditioning? On the soles of people’s shoes? Eventually, and over the protests of the universities, the city enacted fairly strict regulations governing “containment”—the thickness of doors, and so on. I remember thinking at the time that gene splicing was sort of like nuclear power, potentially useful but risky. It didn’t occur to me to think much more deeply about it, to consider ends as well as means.
Nuclear reactors are a new way to create electricity. But genetic engineering is the first way to create new life. It is a staggering idea—“the second big bang,” as one biologist put it. It is among the most important scientific advances ever in physical and commercial terms—it is the method that offers the most hope of continuing our way of life, our economic growth, in the teeth of the greenhouse effect. It promises crops that need little water and can survive the heat; it promises cures for the new ailments we are creating as well as the old ones we’ve yet to solve; it promises survival in almost any environment we may create. It promises total domination.
And for this reason it is without a doubt the most important scientific advance ever in conceptual and moral terms. When I say “moral” I am not thinking primarily of the uses to which such technology might be put—eugenics, say. I am thinking of the very fact of the technology. Jeremy Rifkin, who has emerged as one of the few vigorous opponents of this research (and has covered some of this ground in two fine books, Algeny and Declaration of a Heretic), says that for thousands of years human beings have lived “pyrotechnically,” burning, melting, mixing inanimate materials—coal, say, or iron. We have worked from the outside in to alter our environment. Now we are starting to work from the inside out, and that changes everything. Everything except the driving force, the endless desire to master our planet. As the British writer Brian Stableford declares in his celebratory book, Future Man, genetic engineering “will eventually enable us to turn the working of all living things on earth—the entire biosphere—to the particular advantage of our own species.” No clearer and crisper definition exists of what I have been calling “defiance.” Watson and Crick described the double helix in 1953. Just twenty years later, in 1973, a pair of American scientists, Stanley Cohen, of Stanford, and Herbert Boyer, of the University of California, took two unrelated organisms—organisms that could not mate in nature, and whose destiny was therefore forever separate—and cut out a piece of DNA from each, then stitched the pieces together. When they were done they had a new form of life, a sort of life that had not existed five minutes before, had not existed until two men got some equipment together and cooked it up.
The next crucial development was the work of the United States Supreme Court, which in 1980 considered the case of Ananda Chakrabarty, a General Electric researcher. Chakrabarty had developed a strain of bacteria that would degrade four of the major components of crude oil; in the event of an oil spill, it could chew up the sludge. In a 5–4 decision, the court held that a man-made microorganism was patentable under current statutes. So not only could man make life; he could make money.
With this spur, research continued to accelerate. In 1981 scientists from Jackson Laboratory, in Bar Harbor, Maine, and the University of Ohio transferred a gene that controlled the manufacture of part of the hemoglobin in rabbits to a mouse embryo, which they brought to term. The mouse was not exactly a mouse; it had a functioning rabbit gene, which it passed on to subsequent generations. This proof of the possibility of animal blends between unrelated species was soon followed by others. English researchers crossed a goat and a sheep, two animals that wouldn’t dream of mating in the barnyard (or, if they did, for dreams are widespread, nothing would come of it). A University of Pennsylvania professor managed to insert human growth genes into the fetus of a mouse. When it was born, the mouse grew twice as fast and to twice the size of any other mouse ever. Since it passed the gene on to its offspring, it made forever moot the question “Are you mouse or man?” It was both, and neither.
By the end of 1988, according to a tally in The New York Times, there were more than a thousand different strains of such “transgenic” mice, and also twelve breeds of pig, several varieties of rabbits and fish, “at least two breeds of rats and at least one transgenic cow with another still under development.” These were mostly experiments; then in the spring of 1988, two Harvard researchers managed to develop another new mouse, this one genetically altered to develop cancer, so that oncologists could use it for studying new treatments. Unlike the earlier inventions, this mouse had commercial possibilities, and was awarded the nation’s first animal patent. The patent was licensed to DuPont, and the mice went on sale earlier this year. Fifty dollars apiece. The trade name is OncoMouse. Two new brands will be on sale by year’s end.
Even those mice, though, will be confined to laboratories (until they escape). A bigger barrier probably fell in April 1987, when Rifkin and other opponents finally ran out of lawsuits, and workers from a company called Advanced Genetic Sciences applied the first genetically engineered bacteria in the great outdoors to a strawberry field in Brentwood, California. Trademarked Frostban, the bacteria employed modified forms of Pseudomonas syringae and Pseudomonas fluorescens; it was designed to prevent crop losses from frost damage. Some environmental activists ripped up many of the strawberry plants, but it was an empty gesture. A few days later, unmolested, Steven Lindow, the man who had discovered this “ice-nucleating” gene, sprayed Frostban on a field of potato plants in Tule Lake, California.
The pace of this revolution keeps speeding up. Though it has taken more cash than originally expected to bring certain pharmaceuticals to market, over three hundred small companies in the United States alone are trying to invent and market such products; some four hundred genes have been cloned. Several of the ideas I’ve already mentioned—genetically “improved” trees, for instance—already exist. A Seattle company selects “elite” redwoods from its wild stands, on the basis of such qualities as straightness, height, specific gravity of the wood, and “proper branch drop.” Then it clones the trees and plants the wonder seedlings; eventually, the gnarly, crooked trees will be gone from its stands. Classical methods of improving seeds simply do not “adequately satisfy the criteria of the rapid availability of trees of superior quality,” one researcher has explained. Christmas-tree growers, threatened by the rise of artificial trees, are now cloning trees with branches that lift upward at the proper 45-degree angle and carry “thick needles that do not fall off to litter the living room floor.” A company called Calgene has introduced a gene that gives tobacco plants some resistance to the herbicide glyphosphate (Monsanto’s Round-Up to you farmers). The herbicide works by blocking a pathway in plants that synthesizes aromatic amino acids; once the plants have been genetically re-tuned, however, you can spray your fields with the poison without hurting the tobacco. (This example seems significant to me—a way to increase the amount both of the tobacco we can grow and of the chemicals we can spray.) “Genetic engineering of seaweed is just beginning to get under way,” declares a Florida researcher. Growth hormone in salmon and trout have been cloned—the trout from Mill Creek, which runs by my door, will doubtless be Arnold Schwarzenegger trout before long.
And this is just the present. The future, the fairly near future, holds so much more, at least in the more fanciful accounts. Brian Stableford, for instance, promises that the “battery chickens” of the future, “whether they are being used to produce eggs or meat,” will look very different from the birds of the moment. In fact, the accompanying illustration shows them looking rather like—well, hunks of flesh. This is because, thanks to biotechnology, we might design chickens without the unnecessary heads, wings, and tails. “Nutrients would be pumped in and wastes pumped out through tubes connected to the body.” Perhaps we could “grow” lamb chops on an infinite production line, says Stableford, “with red meat and fat attached to an ever-elongating spine of bone.” Eventually, all plants might “become unnecessary,” replaced by artificial leaves that would “waste” none of the sunlight they receive on luxuries such as roots but instead use “all the energy they trap to make things for us to use.” “Biocosmetics” are not far off, promises Harry Stine—they would permit a “person’s physical appearance to be altered to eliminate all unattractive features or marks, and to more closely conform to the currently accepted cultural standards of beauty.” And what about night vision, or sonar (although, Stableford says, “this would involve whole new anatomical structures being added to the head,” structures that might or might not conform to currently accepted cultural standards of beauty), or double-glazed eyes, for living in space, or the “minor modification” that would allow us to digest cellulose? Headless chickens, tree-eating men—if these are even possible they are far in the future (further in the future, my guess is, than these authors predict). But they are not conceptually different from what we’ve begun to do in the last twenty years, what we’ve begun to do in a large way in the last two years—that is, to alter life at its most basic level. The line is not in the distance; the line is here and now, and we have begun to cross, and we shall soon, very soon, be on the other side. If we’re not there already.
SO THREE CHEERS for us. By dint of our powerful intellects (not my intellect, actually—the intellects of some people at MIT or Oxford or in Japan or wherever) we may have a way out. Just in time—just as the clouds of carbon dioxide threaten to heat the atmosphere and perhaps starve us—we are figuring out a new method of dominating the earth, a method more thorough, and therefore more promising, than burning coal and oil and natural gas. It’s not certain that genetic engineering and macromanagement of the world’s resources will provide a new cornucopia, but it certainly seems probable. We are a talented species.
Why, then, does it sound so awful? Because, of course, it represents the second end of nature. We have already, pretty much by accident, altered the atmosphere so badly that nature as we know it is over. But this won’t be by accident—this will be on purpose. I don’t mean that we shall end nature if something goes wrong—if, say, a strain of bacteria programmed to eat cellulose gets loose and eats every tree and weed in sight. And I don’t mean we should stop now just so as to prevent the really scary and weird possibilities—the sonar men, the artificial leaves. They are simply novel possible consequences of a more important decision.
It is the simple act of creating new forms of life that changes the world, that puts us forever in the deity business. We will never again be a created being; instead we will be creators. As Rifkin points out, the biotechnologist looks at organisms not as “discrete entities” but as a set of instructions on the computer program that is DNA. It is impossible to have respect for such a set of instructions: they can always be rewritten. And in the view of the researchers they should be rewritten, ever improved until they reach some state of absolute efficiency. The only possible measure for such efficiency, of course, is the pleasure of man (and when life can be patented and sold the only real measure of the pleasure of man is the operation of the marketplace). From a chicken’s point of view complete efficiency may include a head and feathers and wings; they may very well be integral to what it means to be a chicken. But chickens cannot pay protection money to scientists; if the people, acting through Frank Perdue, decide that it is better to have more efficient—that is, cheaper—chicken, even if it comes from a carcass hooked to a tube, then okay. We will live, eventually, in a shopping mall, where every feature is designed for our delectation.
We have already seen that by pumping carbon dioxide into the air we are artificially lengthening the growing season; in similar fashion, if we spray Frostban on strawberries and artificially lengthen the growing season that way, we have assumed control where once we worked with what we were given. Muir once described the “inexhaustible pages of nature” as “written over and over uncountable times, written in characters of every size and color, sentences composed of sentences, every part of a character a sentence”; not surprisingly, “our limited powers are … perplexed and overtaxed” in the attempt to read them. This need no longer be true. Granted, we may never understand the boggling intricacy of the natural world with its niches inside of niches. But we won’t need to. The alphabets can all be reduced to mapped strands of DNA. And in this clarity and organization there will be not only efficiency but even a certain beauty, just as there is in a piece of music. Still, perhaps there is more beauty in the cacophony of nature, the “cosmic symphony”? As the British philosopher Leslie Reid once asked, isn’t the mind of God incomparably superior even to the mind of Beethoven?
The Gaian atlas I quoted earlier calls for a “new approach to the wild based on rational management rather than on arbitrary exploitation”—that is, herding elk, farming alligators. But after a few years of “rational management” the wild will be the tame. These people are like the public relations officer for an Oregon national forest who kept insisting to me that one reason the Forest Service opposed protecting a prime chunk of land as wilderness was that if it was protected the authorities would then be unable to go in and “improve” the wildlife habitat. “For instance,” he said, “you can open up streams where there’s a waterfall by blasting the waterfall to create a more gentle grade, so the fish would have a chance to go farther up.” I’m not arguing that he’s wrong (though, by and large, fish seemed to squeak by before the invention of dynamite). It’s just that his concern is for something that looks a lot like nature but isn’t.
TERE IS A TENDENCY at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there. We like to imagine that we’ve already crossed a bridge or not yet come to it. Some people tend not to worry much about genetic engineering, for instance, because they think it’s an extension of traditional practices, such as selective breeding. But nature put definite limits on such activity: Mendel could cross two peas, but he couldn’t cross a pea with a pine, much less with a pig, much less with a person. We could pen up chickens in atrocious batteries, but they still had heads. There were restraints, in other words—limits. And our understanding of what those limits were helped define nature in our minds. Such notions will quickly become quaint. The idea that nature—that anything—could be defined will soon be outdated. Because anything can be changed. A rabbit may be a rabbit for the moment, but tomorrow “rabbit” will have no meaning. “Rabbit” will be a few lines of code, no more important than a set of plans for a 1940 Ford. Why not make rabbit more like dog, or like duck?—whatever suits us. “Our children,” Rifkin writes, “will be convinced that their creations are of a far superior nature to those from whom they were copied.… They will view all of nature as a computable domain. They will redefine living things as temporal programs that can be edited, revised, and reprogrammed.” In such a world—shifting, without responsibility or moral center, lonely—everything will be possible, eventually including, perhaps, immortality. Why die? What good reason is there? Why age? Why not be kittenish at a hundred and attend the interplanetary Rose Bowl? That must be the reason we have tried so hard to go in this direction. Whether eternal life will have any meaning is another matter. “Eventually,” says Stableford, “there may well be a complete breakdown in the distinction between living and nonliving—the boundaries between the two will be blurred and filled in by systems which involve both the machinery of life and the machinery of metal, plastic, and glass.” Some of this is speculation, certainly; no one can say with any exactness what will result from a development as awesome as the cracking of the gene. But if that technology falters, some other may emerge. It is the logical outcome of our defiant belief that we must forever dominate the world to our advantage as we have dominated it in the last hundred years. If we are going to go on increasing our numbers, accumulating more possessions, using more resources, then we will have to learn new ways, and genetic engineering and macromanagement seem the most promising.
The problem, in other words, is not simply that burning oil releases carbon dioxide, which happens, by virtue of its molecular structure, to trap the sun’s heat. The problem is that nature, the independent force that has surrounded us since our earliest days, cannot coexist with our numbers and our habits. We may well be able to create a world that can support our numbers and our habits, but it will be an artificial world, a space station.
Or, just possibly, we could change our habits.
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