Sunday, February 04, 2007

When is enough enough?

Eighteen years ago, Bill McKibben jolted our environmental awareness with a splendid little book, The End of Nature, that cataloged the ways human economic activities are rending the fabric of nature. In particular, he drew attention to changes in the atmosphere and global warming. The book was translated into 20 languages and may have been the most effective call to environmental action since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962.

McKibben has remained a prolific and articulate champion of the environment. In his 2003 book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age he laments the potential end of human nature. He foresees a future, perhaps not so far away, when human children become consumer products, like genetically modified tomatoes or ears of corn.

Human germline genetic engineering -- tinkering with genes that can be transmitted to successive generations -- is illegal in this country and elsewhere. But such bans are fragile and easily nibbled away by eager genetic engineers. Stop now, says McKibben, before we lose the essence of our humanity.

He writes: "The first child whose genes come in part from some corporate lab, the first child who has been "enhanced" from what came before --that's the first child who will glance back over his shoulder and see a gap between himself and human history."

Is it realistic to suppose that children can be engineered with the same marketability as, say, dishwashing detergent? Absolutely. Is McKibben's passionate call for caution necessary? You better believe it.

The challenge we face, however, is not to stop in our tracks, but to negotiate a felicitous future. McKibben's "enough" flies in the face of cosmic evolution, which is based on inevitable, unstoppable change. There is no such thing as "the end of nature." Whatever the future holds, whether good or bad from a human or planetary point of view, is natural.

Evolution on Earth has led inexorably, by natural selection, to ever more complex creatures with ever-bigger brains. It need not have been us who emerged as the planet's dominant species, but sooner of later something like human consciousness and cunning were probably inevitable. With consciousness and cunning came science and technology, which -- in the cosmic scheme of things -- are as natural as respiration, sex, multicellularity, or backbones.

McKibben does not reject the possibility that biotechnology can bring changes for the better, only the ominous specter of germline genetic tinkering. But one gets the impression he might have been equally happy to have said "Enough!" on the eve of the Agricultural Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, or the Industrial Revolution.

All of these steps in human evolution have been fraught with ominous consequences. But I suspect very few people today would vote to turn back the clock, and I suspect that a hundred years from now you could say the same. "The good old days" were never as good as we like to imagine.

Our agenda is not to stop the clock or turn it back but to ensure that an ever-larger proportion of the human population enjoys the fruits of scientific and technological progress: good health, education, freedom from tyranny and superstition, and a healthy and diverse natural environment. Achieving this will not be easy, and we will need the McKibbens of the world to guide us.

God knows there's enough going on in the world today to be pessimistic about. Read the the news too often and you are likely to throw up your hands in despair. Which is exactly the worst thing that can happen. Pessimism is the surest road to the grim future the McKibbens warn us against.

OK, so I'm an optimist. On what basis? How is it possible to be an optimist in a world racked by environmental degradation, religious strife, poverty, hunger and disease?

Well, for one thing, a little history helps. I know, for example, that pre-Columbian Americans, so often evoked by environmentalists as a people living in blissful harmony with nature, in fact lived in a state of constant warfare. They were as capable as we are of acts of unspeakable cruelty.

Many environmentalist writers rue the 17th-century's Scientific Revolution and its "disenchantment" of nature. Would they rather have lived in 14th- or 15th-century Europe? What was so enchanting about the Black Death, or the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics?

The Enlightenment, too, is often regretted as a binge of human hubris. What's the alternative to enlightened reason? Burning women as witches? An Index of Forbidden Books?

Here are some things to be optimistic about.

Walk down the trendiest street in many of the great cities of the world and see people of all races, ethnicities and sexual orientation enjoying life together.

Try to remember, if you can, the phrase "barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen."

Visit Europe, and marvel that the bellicose nationalism that gave us two World Wars seems a thing of the past.

Read about the physicians from the Centers for Disease Control and Doctors Without Borders bravely bringing modern medicine to the world's poorest people.

Note that smallpox, plague, polio, and many other diseases are mostly history.

Observe the ever-growing number of ordinary folks involved in environment activities -- preserving wetlands and green spaces, cleaning up rivers, creating pocket parks.

Take cheer in the prediction that human population will apparently top out sometime in the middle of this century.

Applaud the many altruistic and environmentally conscious NGOs -- non-governmental organizations -- that provide an antidote to government indifference and corporate greed. Take cheer in the philanthropy of the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates.

Applaud, too, the thousands of idealistic young people from all over the world who rally to protest the sometimes egregious excesses of multinational corporations and financial institutions.

Applaud the bright hope of cultural globalization -- the ever-widening circle of those we do not kill.

Hybrid cars. Solar energy. Recycling. The internet. People walking on weekends for AIDS, the Food Bank, MS, heart disease. Be grateful, too, as I am, for the Bill McKibbens of the world, who speak for the positive values of the world we are leaving behind and the need to carry them into the future.

Let's not sit around wringing our hands in nostalgia for a primeval Eden that never existed. Let's admit that we live in an "engineered age" and get on with engineering a world that lifts the human spirit, while caring for other species and habitats.

Let's recognize that human consciousness and culture are not things to be ashamed of, but to celebrate. The enemies of a bright future are not science and engineering. The enemies are ignorance, intolerance, greed, violence, poverty, and disease.

I don't mean to sound Pollyanna-ish. Utopia is a myth, an unobtainable ideal. But the dream of returning to a prelapsarian garden is also a myth -- a myth that eviscerates any hope of a promising future.

Further Reading

Bill McKibben The End of Nature and Enough.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.