How Much is Enough? The Environmental Movement

How Much is Enough? The Environmental Movement
as a Pivot Point in Human History


Bill McKibben

Fellow, Center for the Study of Values in Public Life
Harvard Divinity School

Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values
October 18, 2000

Copyright, ©2000, Bill McKibben, All Rights Reserved

[ Biographical Sketch of Bill McKibben | Abstract of Talk | Some Readings and Resources
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      First of all, let me say thanks to Tim Weiskel, not only for setting up this afternoon's session, but for all the work that he does here. These seminars were one of the reasons I could imagine leaving the Adirondacks for a spell in Cambridge, and if they do not replace the mountains entirely, I have found them to be peak experiences of another sort. I am also deeply grateful to the Center for the Study of Values and Public Life for allowing me to be here.

      I am grateful too for your indulgence in coming to hear me speak this afternoon, and I hope you will extend that indulgence further to cover my talk. As Tim's introduction made clear, I am not an academic, and this is not an academic talk. It has a polemical tone and draws with a very broad brush. I am figuring out the questions I want to work on this year, and this serves as an outline to some of my thinking. It is an attempt to reimagine an environmentalism that might actually deal with some of the problems we face now, and with the problems (or the utopias) we will soon encounter.


      Hard as it is now to believe, as little as a decade ago the environment was seen as a crisis-a crisis that would require deep changes in our culture as well as our technology. Earth Day 1990 came hard on the heels of all sorts of shattering environmental news: the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole, the first news of global warming, the black stain spreading across Prince William Sound. At rallies across the world, speakers intoned dire warnings: we had perhaps a decade to change our ways or environmental damage would spiral out of control. For at least a few months, serious people seriously entertained the idea that something was wrong with the dominant paradigm of our society-that something was wrong with the idea of endless growth and expansion. Time magazine, that fountain of the conventional wisdom, named no Man of the Year for the first time in its history-instead it featured a Planet of the Year, our own, and concluded the accompanying essay with these words, which could have come straight from some deep ecological manifesto:

      "Man must abandon the belief that the natural order is mere stuff to be managed and domesticated, and accept that humans, like other creatures, depend on a web of life that must be disturbed as little as possible."(1)

      And an ambitious politician, fresh from one presidential run, sat down and wrote a book that captured the zeitgeist of the moment. "The disharmony in our relationship to the earth," in the words of Mr. Gore, "is now manifest in successive crises." He cited tropical deforestation, soaring extinction rates, ozone depletion, and climatic disruption, concluding "all these suggest the increasingly virulent collision between human civilization and the natural world." In the words of one reviewer, he managed to attack "Plato, the Enlightenment, rationality, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the automobile, our `dysfunctional civilization,' biotechnology, free-market economics, the dominant male perspective, and population growth," as well as question whether we were well and truly happy-"We don't really live in our lives."(2)

      That seems like a long time ago, and not merely because that same politician highlighted this fall's campaign by tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to decrease the price of gasoline.

      Instead of a serious questioning of material culture, the decade just past has marked the greatest burst of materialism in our history. The average new house has nearly doubled in size; the average new car would make General Patton gasp with envy. Ever since Bill Clinton announced his insight in the fall of 1992-"it's the economy, stupid"-we have been on a tear, watching goggle-eyed as the stock market soared ever higher. The culture has had very little interest in humility, and a great fascination with wealth. And instead of questioning technology and its role in our lives, we have instead become its fascinated devotees-for every word written about, say, global warming in the last decade, a hundred have been devoted to the various miracles of the Internet and the other assortment of communications technologies that have come to define our lives at century's end. In fact, a great many of the very same people who were marching at Earth Day 1990 devoted much of the past ten years to launching web sites, either because they thought they could solve the world's troubles through online organizing, or because they thought they could get rich, or both. To the extent that our leaders have done anything at all about, say, climate change, their efforts have been entirely technological. Indeed, they have attempted to turn the problem into an entirely technical challenge, one that need not lead any of us to reconsider our habits or aspirations. A decade ago, people were talking about bikes and buses competing with cars. But in fact bicycle commuting has declined in popularity, as the federal government, instead of building bike lanes, has concentrated its efforts on working with the Big Three automakers in a putative "Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle," a chimerical 80 mpg car that by most accounts has served mostly as a smokescreen of good intentions behind which Detroit continued to build ever bigger SUVs. It alarmed no one, and soothed a few, and hence was a politically perfect program.

      Many of the physical results of this path are depressingly predictable. For instance, instead of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the end of this year, as both President Bush and President Clinton pledged to do, Americans will produce about 13 percent more CO2. But the cultural results are at least as striking. We now simply ignore even the possibility that we might rearrange our ways of living-even small increases in gas prices, for instance, are seen as unbearably burdensome. The savviest observer of our politics turns out to be the former President Bush, who-on his way to Rio for the supposedly epochal Earth Summit in 1992- declared that "the American way of life is not negotiable." Not with anyone else, and not, as it turns out, with ourselves. A moment passed.

      But it will not, perhaps, be the last moment. And that is what I want to talk about, sketchily and in outline, this afternoon.


      The first point I want to make is that we are crossing hugely important thresholds, right now, in our lifetimes, in these few short decades. Beware anyone claiming they live at a special moment in history, especially if it happens to coincide with the millennium--but this is such a moment, probably the most anomalous and bizarre in the story of this species. I first tried to make this pointwith regard to global warming in 1989--that by altering the temperature humans were exerting control over everything that happened on the surface of the planet, that only tectonic and volcanic action remained untouched by our habits, economies, and desires. Since then, the planet has done an ample job of peer reviewing the science on which those claims were based: we have seen 8 of the 10 warmest years on record, Arctic ice is been found to have thinned 40%, the onset of winter has been pushed back 9 days on average, while spring comes 7 days earlier; the number of severe storms dumping greater than two inches of water in a 24 hour period has grown 20%. And so on. Suffice it to say: the earth that was photographed from outer space in 1969 is no longer the earth on which we live. Our planet has a different temperature, more ocean, smaller ice caps, changed storm patterns. True, it has changedbefore in geologic time, but this is us at work. According to the scientific consensus, we will add another 3 or so degrees to the planet's temperature this century, taking it higher than it has been in millions of years.

      But that is not the only threshold we are jumping across. In 1989, when writing The End of Nature, I devoted a section to the then- infant technology of genetic engineering, writing that it represented an even more efficient way to overwhelm nature with our particular sets of desires. Back then, the first few Oncomice had been created-it seemed we might be nearing the brink of something momentuous. Only a decade later, that hesitancy marks me for a sap. In the intervening years, this technology has spread like wildfire, to the point where 40 percent of our nation's fields grow genetically engineered crops, where animal after animal has been cloned.; where everyone who thinks about it realizes it is only a matter of time, and likely a very short time, before we do likewise and more with human beings. As thresholds go, this is a large one-as different from conventional plant breeding, say, as global warming is from smog over Los Angeles.

      And now, on at least two more fronts, the same magnitude of change beckons. As computing power has grown exponentially, robotics and nanotechnology cross from the realm of science fiction into the realm of venture capital. Many of you will have read the article that Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, published last spring, where he talked about these technologies as a grave and urgent threat, in large part because like genetic engineering (and, for that matter, global warming) they have the potential to self-replicate: to escape whatever cages we try to put them in and take over much or all of the world. In so doing, we would leap across new barriers: in his words, "the replicating and evolving processes that have been confined to the natural world are about to become realms of human endeavor."(3)

      Joy concentrated on the physical dangers these developments represent: nanotechnology, engineering on the molecular scale, could either by accident or design produce, say, "tough, omnivorous 'bacteria'" that might outcompete real bacteria, spreading like blowing pollen, replicating swiftly, and reducing the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Most of the reaction to Joy's article also concentrated on those physical risks. Some writers, like virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, argued that though computing power grows, software will for the forseeable future be too kludgy to make the most grandiose schemes possible.(4) Betting this way strikes me as unwise--it is worth remembering that in 1939 Niels Bohr "proved" that you couldn't use fission to make a weapon, and that in 1997 scientists said it would not only be difficult to clone humans, but unlikely that anyone would want to try. Last week, a religious sect announced that they had both the funding and the lab, and were out to clone a human; virtually all the biologists interviewed by the papers indicated they would have minimal difficulty. History would argue that we will figure out a way to do what we put our minds to, and recent history would argue that, as with cloning, we will figure it out more quickly than we imagine. Other commentators have argued that Joy's fears are overstated, and while I am in no position to judge the technical merits of their papers, I would say that they do not fill one with sweeping confidence. Robert Freitas, who has offered the most direct rebuttal in a paper on "Some Limits to Global Ecophagy by Biovorous Nanoreplicators,"(5) available on the web site of one of the most highly capitalized nanotechnology companies, uses a series of equations to demonstrate that if such "badbots" got out of hand and began to eat the earth, we would have some warning about when to dispatch the "goodbots" because the energy produced by the "badbot" consumption of carbon would raise global average temperatures four degrees centigrade. For one who has spent much of his career grappling with global warming, those figures are hardly reassuring.

      Suffice it to say, however, that such points are better argued elsewhere in this university. Here, concerned with environmental values, I want merely to make a second point: the equally real danger comes with the success of these technologies and not with their failure. Or, to put it another way, Joy argues that we do not have enough control over them to use them safely. Equally, the very idea of taking this much control over the world is unsafe for a series of moral reasons that boil down to the danger of changing who we are. For instance, the vision of robotics pioneer Hans Moravec is of a superior robot "species," a self-replicating creature of superior intelligence. In his 'nightmare' scenario, these robots outcompete us. "Unable to afford the necessities of life, biological humans would be squeezed out of existence." His dream vision, and one celebrated by Ray Kurzweil in his elegy to "spiritual machines," is that we will "merge" with such robots, downloading our consciousnesses into their circuitry.(6)

      I find it hard to distinguish between these two visions. And since they sound so outlandish, I want to point out once more that these are anything but isolated kooks. They are doing the work; they have Moore's Law of the exponential growth of computing power on their side, and they see no reason such scenarios can't be realized beginning in about 2030, when, by most accounts, common computers will be a million times more powerful than they are today.(Imagine, for instance, the stunning speed with which the Internet grew). Simply because Dr. Strangelove was bizarre in his vision did not mean that nuclear weapons didn't work, nor that we stood poised to launch a world-obliterating volley of them.

      What if we succeeded in such tasks? The authors of these works are forthright in their acknowledgement that they foresee a "post-human" future. They mostly celebrate that future as an escape from the bounds of embodiment (like mortality, a subject to which I will return later), but in fact we are talking about the end of our species as we have known it. The slow and subtle biological evolution, in glorious conversation with the rest of biology, and even the swifter and often brutal cultural evolution of recent millennia would be replaced by a technological evolution that, in the name of comfort, convenience, and security frees us from our bodies as we have known them, and transforms everything around us in to nothing more than artifacts of our desire.

      For instance, at the moment a number of firms have succeeded in producing genetically altered "super salmon" that grow much more quickly in captivity, and tomuch larger size. They are doing so for an obvious reason: to sell salmon to the rich world. (Not to feed the poor world--in point of fact salmon require about three pounds of protein, usually in the form of fish meal, to produce a pound of fillet). As these salmon escape into the wild, which they obviously will, and interbreed or outcompete existing varieties, what will it mean to encounter a salmon in the wild? These most totemic of animals for many coastal cultures, these symbols of urgent return and fidelity to place--will the encounter with them be any different than the encounter with a discarded soda can, another instrument of purely human desire? And that is just the most token, surface, already-occurring example: what about the encounters, eventually, between humans and post-humans, or post-humans and post-humans? A post- human world might well be a world beyond religion, beyond delight, beyond morality or even communication beyond a set of coded rules and instructions. My friend David Abram, in his landmark book The Spell of the Sensuous, has traced the flight from embodiment back at least to the Greeks, a flight that accelerated with Descartes, with suburbanization, with the Net. But now, to use an image that doubtless lurks in the minds of many of these engineers, that flight is about to hit warpspeed, and by the time we land we will not be living on a different planet. It would feel at least as different as a world three or four degrees warmer, and it might be as spiritually and emotionally barren as that overheated world may be biologically barren. At the very least, to accelerate towards it (entirely, it should be noted, undemocratically) is folly beyond belief.

      And so, the third point is simply this: whereas in the past environmentalism has concerned itself with preventing degradation to nature, in the future it will have to try and prevent gratuitous 'improvement' and to do so it will have to make a far broader cultural argument than it has made in the past. Whether we will still call it environmentalism, and whether it will draw its strength from the same places, is open to question. But the animating spirit will need to be a love for the world we were born into, both the physical world and the web of relationships, human and otherwise, that still survive here.

      Which leads, in a roundabout way, to one of the oddest features of this new push. It seems to me to be coming at a strange time, a time when, at least in the rich world, we have comparatively few problems left to be solved. We are not, needless to say, underfed. Our lives are not consumed in wearisome toil. The spread of public health measures allows most of us to live a natural span of years, usually shortened only by our unwise decisions to smoke, eat, or drink too much. In material terms, that is to say, we currently live in utopia as it has always been pictured. And the things that keep it from seeming like utopia? The violence, the stress, the nagging envy, the lack of solitude and silence, the lack of deep relationships, the failing sense of purpose, the ennui--are these susceptible to technological cure? Or, in many ways, are they more easily treatable by reducing somewhat the technology we already have? Would this be a better world with smaller cellphones, say implanted in our jaws, or would it be a better world without cellphones altogether? Your call, but the very fact that we can ask the question suggests we are not in dire straits requiring immediate and risky action.

      Even the environmental threats that really do threaten us--climate change most particularly-- can be addressed largely with the technological resources we already have at hand. Smaller cars, for instance, and buses, and bicycles. And what of the problems of the developing world? Would it not be selfish for the well-fed among us to deny them the possibilities raised by these developments? It is in some ways a pyrrhic question, since in fact these technologies like the super slamonare aimed squarely at the parts of the world that could pay for them--but even if you assume some trickle-down effect, the answers are less than clear. Joy, for instance, talks approvingly of the so-called "golden rice," genetically engineered to express Vitamin A and hence aid those Asians who sometimes lose their sight because of deficiencies in that nutrient. But I spent much of the summer in Bangladesh, and there met a great many farmers who want no part of the golden rice, or any of the other hybrids being pushed on them by the World Bank, Monsanto, and other friends. They point out that such crops require a monoculture, and hence pesticides, and hence the destruction of the dozens of plant varieties along the borders of their fields that once provided them with a full complement of minerals and vitamins (anyone deficient in vitamin A is almost certain to be lacking other things as well). In fact, several studies now demonstrate that one effect of the Green Revolution has been to provide extra calories but at the expense of micronutrients.

      It is not an easy call, even in this one isolated case, but it at least raises the possibility that the developing world would benefit more from the sharing of calories and capital than it would from the exploration of these new technologies.

      At any rate, the restraint of people in the developing world should be noted: because of their fast-growing willingness to use birth control, demographers see population peaking within a couple of generations. The pressure to provide for an infinitely larger world is no longer on us, and should not drive our decision-making.

      And so my fourth point is simply this: the world is not clearly in need of dramatic further improvement. There is tinkering around the edges yet to be done, perhaps, with scourges like childhood disease, but the conscientious effort to spread and share existing innovations could solve most of the problems we face.

      That said, it is enormously hard to turn off the thinking that spurs us on. For a verylong time, we were clearly improving the conditions of our life with technological progress, and hence the momentum behind that push is enormous. (And also, of course, because each new innovation stands to make some particular individual wealthy, providing a continuing spur). But when I say that we live at a hinge moment in human history, this is one of the things I mean. With one exception, what we have still to gain is trivial, and not worth either the physical or spiritual risks of this accelerated grandiosity.

     That exception is death. And it becomes exceedingly clear, reading these theoreticians and prophets, that that is what the game is about. For all our lengthened life spans and more comfortable lives, we still die. And that is seen as unacceptable.

      You may think that I exaggerate. But it is clear that these revolutionary technologies are being driven by people with immortality, or something very near it, on their minds. In genetic engineering circles, much talk in the last year has centered on the news that recent clones have long-than-normal telomeres-the replicating end of the cell-seeming to promise longer lives. Others are synthesizing telemorase. The nanotechnologists are set on cell repair, and there is nothing theoretical about their interest. Eric Drexler, the author of Engines of Creation, and Ralph Merkle, head of Zyvex Corp., also both sit on the board of Alcor Corp. the nation's leading Cryogenics entrepeneur, and will be frozen at their deaths to await the advent of the new technology. Robert Freitas, author of the recently issued Nanomedicine, promises that once the technology becomes available, "we'll each have all the time we need to pursue our manyother interests. But until nanomedicine becomes available, nobody can have any reasonable expectation that they will live long enough to pursue their longest-term and most interesting goals to fruition...Nanomedicine is the serious futurist's sine qua non."(7)

      In some ways, the key moment in Joy's account comes when he goes to discuss these technological questions with a computer scientist named Danny Hillis. "I respect Danny's knowledge of the information and physical sciences more than that of any other single person I know," he writes. Hillis is also well-known as a thinker--he's spent years as director of the Long Now foundation, which is building a clock designed to last ten thousand years, as a sort of commentary on the short attention span of our era. But when Joy outlines, say, his fears at the possibility of humans merging with robots, Hillis's response "came swiftly, and quite surprised me. He said, simply, that the changes would come gradually, and we would get used to them." In fact, he'd already been quoted in Kurzweil's book as saying, "I'm as fond of my body as anyone, but if I can be 200 with a body of silicon, I'll take it."One odd thing is that it is precisely this same class of thinkers--hyper-rationalist scientists--who have long sneered at religion as the refuge of the weak who can't face the fact of their own mortality and hence concoct dogmas, erect gods and goddesses, build cathedrals, sing hymns, fight holy wars, and do good works. But clearly their own discomfort with mortality goes so deep that they will risk not only "gray goo," not only the dangers that come with genetic engineering, but even the loss of meaning that will attend this post-human future.

      It is the ultimate flowering of consumerism, this ability to purchase immortality, and all who have read fairy tales or fables should know enough to at least be wary of it. Forget the practical consequences--the earth filling up with people who have spent four-fifths of their lives as card-carrying members of the AARP. What does it mean to be human, absent death? We don't know--it's an even more profound experiment than heating up the planet three or four degrees and seeing what happens. Perhaps, shorn of this gut fear, we would evolve into more benign and loving people; perhaps, shorn of this gut fear, we would become hubristic monsters with egos more out of control than we can now imagine. Whatever we would be, we would no longer be human: death is too much a part of our condition. Already our inability to think about death drives much of the craziness in our culture: the endless, expensive attempts to "support life" in its final days, the crude industries like cosmetic surgery that promise longer youth, the inability to see our old as elders with a role to play. And the promise of immortality, or something rather like it, is an undeniable lure: who knows for sure that they would not swallow that pill, take that nanoinjection? But if we are to think reasonably about these new technologies, we have to think about what is really driving them. My fifth point, then, is simply that the coming environmentalism, or whatever it will be called, may have to offer a defense of dying as an integral and necessary part of life, a gravity we should not seek to finally escape.

      In his Wired article, Bill Joy recommended that human beings "relinquish" these new technologies, an idea that has not been met with much enthusiasm by his peers in the technology industry. "I think that's a very foolish strategy," said Merkle, currently a principal fellow at Zyvex, one of the companies in the forefront of nanotechnology. "If you look at the various strategies available for dealing with a new technology, sticking your head in the sand is not the most plausible strategy."(8) It's simply impossible, writes Nick Thompson in the October issue of the Washington Monthly. "We have never relinquished scientific advancement." Instead he calls for government oversight to ward off dangers.(9)

      In fact, however, the claim that renouncing some advancement is sheer impossibility rests on a particular view of human nature-one widely held, but perhaps not necessarily accurate. We have come to picture our human society as if it was a species, ever-evolving towards some more advanced state. And of course we are a species-but, of course, we're not actually biologically evolving at any great speed. (Evolution works slowly-the proof of that is the number of not very useful traits we still possess from some earlier epoch). In this light, the idea of humanity as an ever-evolving species is clearly a metaphor, an image. And I would suggest there are other images we could use instead. We could view our human culture, instead, as a single organism living out a single life span. A long life span, numbered in millennia, but one life span all the same.

      From that point of view, inevitability takes on a different cast. A single organism does not grow forever, constantly gaining new capabilities, constantly commanding more terrain from all around it. It grows for a while: a pup grows into a coyote, a girl into a woman, a seedling into a white pine. It needs to grow, and at some point it needs to stop growing. Some signal-a receding tide of hormones, perhaps-shuts down its expansion. It plateaus. Human society could well follow that path. Nothing will automatically shut down our growth, but we could take note of the signals from the world around us. Some of those signals-the comfort in which we live, say-might convince us we had grown enough. Some of those signals-the rising temperature, the equations suggesting that genetic engineering could get out of hand, the inchoate sense that we risk something essential in our humanity-might convince us that it was impractical to grow further. And, in fact, something a little akin to that seems to have happened in regard to human fertility: a billion different families, making individual calculations about how far they had progressed and about the difficulties of expanding further, seem to have dramatically slowed the planet's demographic tide within a generation. Almost no one complains about that plateauing, that slowdown.

      In our material lives, however, it's another story. Full speed ahead, the more the merrier-any slowdown in, say, economic growth is unthinkable, which is one reason we dare not question new technologies. Saying no, plateauing, would seem to imply a kind of stagnation, which is an unpleasant word, especially next to the exciting idea of growth. If we view ourselves as a species, stagnation implies a kind of evolutionary backwater.

      But viewed as a grand individual organism, there is another possibility. We could see ourselves, instead of stagnating, as maturing, which has a sweeter valence. Indeed, it is something we all hope to do at some point, and find satisfaction from if we manage it. Perhaps not the exuberant anything-goes happiness of our frathouse days, but a real joy nonetheless. Learning to put other people alongside ourselves, for instance-our kids, our spouse. In societal terms, maturation would mean stopping our relentless physical growth, both in numbers and in appetite: not doubling the sizes of our populations again, or our houses, or our cars. Slowly rolling them back, in fact, towards something more responsible, more mature.

      My point is not that it would be easy-there are a fair number of people who never manage the trick. It's only that-and this is point six, I guess--environmentalists must now grapple squarely with the idea of a world that has enough wealth and enough technological capability, and should not pursue more. Enough is a deeply subversive idea, but a deeply resonant one as well-it echoes the ideas to which we pay lip service weekly in a million churches and mosques and synagogues. Many of us are stumbling towards maturity in our own lives-and in our collective lives, were it left to us to decide, we might well opt for stability, for deceleration. As Wendell Berry points out in his remarkable new book "Life is a Miracle," no one took a vote on going into the nucleus.. But of course at the moment a handful of whiz kids, former Trekkies, and venture capitalists make those decisions for all of us. It is beyond my scope here today to try and remedy that deficiency of democracy. Suffice it for me to say that deciding in favor of maturation is at least a possibility.

      And now is the time to be thinking about it. We have reached a point where we could stop growing in our capabilities, and where we should stop growing. That is what the global temperature signals tell us, and it is also what intuition suggests as we consider the rapidly approaching thresholds I have been describing.

      The idea of a maturing society is utterly at odds, of course, with the reigning vision as enunciated by the technocratic elite. Last year, the Reality Club, a cutting-edge web forum for top-level scientists and thinkers, asked its members what the most important inventions of the last two millennia had been. The answers, in some sense, did not range widely at all: almost every single one involved some new way to increase our power and control over the world around us. They ranged from the telescope to the scientific method, from calculus to the steam engine, from the battery to the airplane. A fair number pointed to the printing press, because, in the words of one, it served as a prototype for the world wide web. The largest number thought the computer, in one form or another, was the most important innovation of the last two thousand years. With the Internet, wrote the group's leader, "we are creating a new extension of ourselves in much the same way as Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein pieced together his creation. Only this creation is not an anthropomorphic being that moves through accretive portions of space in time. It is instead an emergent electronic beast of such proportions that we can only imagine its qualities, its dimensions." Perhaps the most straightforward answer came from John McCarthy, one of the first generation pioneers in aritificial intelligence and a Stanford professor. "The most important invention is the idea of continued scientific and technological progress," he wrote."The individual who deserves the most credit for this is Francis Bacon."The idea of continued invention, he adds tellingly, "was institutionalized with the patent laws."(10)

      Taken at face value, of course, this range of answers is correct: these technological innovations have changed the world in the largest ways. But what is most interesting is the exuberance with which almost every respondent couches his nomination. Aside from a few dutiful asides about the atom bomb, there's very little sense of the dystopian nature of much of this progress--Dr. Frankenstein included. They are so deep in the project of expansion that they can't consider any alternative. But one could imagine a slightly different list, perhaps compiled by thinkers a century hence, who look back on our own time and ask what the most important inventions were. Had we taken a turn in the direction of a mature, plateaued society, they might choose other things altogether as the decisive inventions.

      For instance, from the twentieth century, they might pick the emergent science of ecology, with its understandings of the unbelievably complex and beautiful interactions between all life, and life and other systems, on the planet. Or they might choose the development of nonviolent civil disobedience, as a soul-strengthening alternative to warfare. Or they might decide that one of the most innovative inventions of our time was the wilderness area: those places where human beings decided that something else (splendor, the welfare of other species, quiet) took precedence over their own expansionist and material impulses. My point is only that the seeds of other worldviews exist within our present culture. They are minority strains to be sure, but there are other paths.

      To follow them would require that we act on the one uniquely human gift: our capability for self-restraint. As birds have flight, so this seems our special glory. We can decide not to do something we are capable of doing. We can decide, for instance, not to deploy atomic, biological, and chemical weapons, and for the most part that is the direction we have taken as a world since Nagasaki. We could conceivably decide not to build ever bigger cars, and instead to build systems of mass transit that dramatically reduce our demands on the earth--I can show you cities where this has happened, cities much poorer than our own. We could even, conceivably, decide to pass on immortality--in this nation, certainly, most citizens are at least nominal followers of a spiritual leader, Jesus, who resisted that temptation when explicitly offered it by the devil. We retain that potential. Exactly how it would be manifest- what regulations, stigmas, taboos would be required-is beyond my scope here today. Joy, I think, makes a decent start in this driection in his article. All I want to say is that the argument of inevitability is a cop-out. At least for the time being, humans retian the ability to decide otherwise. Indeed, it is strong within us--that's why it gives most of us at least a mild case of the creeps to imagine the genetically engineered future that may await our children.

      The only point at which we will lose that ability is when we forget the world we were born into, and find ourselves living so thoroughly in these new utopias that we don't find them odd, don't feel the pull toward something deeper, more primal, and more interesting. That process, of course, is already well underway: the natural world, for instance, seems to play a less important role in the life of each succeeding generation, who are more thoroughly suburbanized and screen-fed. Contact between human beings, except in the limited ways offered by the web, seems to be diminishing too if you trust accounts like Robert Putnam's. As we are lured ever further out on our limb by shiny technological promise, we run two risks. One is that we may lose sight of the trunk, of the world from which we came. The other is that that limb may snap, and we may fall free through space--which is, perhaps, the ultimate vision of many of these technologists, ever with their eye on other galaxies.

      Hence, for those of us who believe the world to be a sweet place as presently constituted, this is a moment of enormous danger: we live on the brink of a great forgetting.

      I cannot bear to end on such a somber note. I want to return to my reflections at the beginning of this talk, which dealt with the failure of the environmental movement to transform the crises of the late 1980s into a cultural movement, a movement that might have led us to reconsider what we really wanted out of our world, out of our lives. This failure (which is manifest in the surge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during that same decade) could lead us to conclude that such a shift is impossible. Or it could lead us to try again, more profoundly this time, to reimagine environmentalism as more than a narrow quasi-scientific quasi-aesthetic concern with protecting particular parts of the process of planetary life.

      Instead, we need to conceive of it much more broadly as the defense and the expression of the things worth loving in this world: by that I mean art and I mean music as surely as I mean backpacking. I mean our relationship with the divine and our relationship with other parts of creation. I mean all the joys that can flourish without the relentless material expansion foreseen by the various technologists, and that are threatened by that expansion as surely as are the planet's physical systems. I mean the exercise of free will, particularly the freedom to say no, a freedom that will be lost in a world of self-replicating machines.

      This environmentalism--which will need a new name, or no name at all, would celebrate all that goes with being alive. Not immortal--alive.

      Thank you for your patience. I realize, as I said at the outset, that my tone would be more polemical than you perhaps are used to. I harbor no illusion that you will necessarily share my conclusions. but I do hope tht you will think carefully about these technologies. The greatet danger to our selfhood, it seems to me, is that they will patiently and inexorably creep into our lives without us ever realizing the bridges that we have crossed, and that have been torn up behind us.



1. "Planet of the Year," Eugene Linden, Time Magazine, January 2, 1989.

2. "What It Takes," Fred Barnes, The New Republic, October 19, 1992.

3. Joy, Bill, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Wired, April 2000, p. 238.

4. "Artificial Stupidity," Salon, October 4, 2000.

5. Freitas, Robert, "Some Limits to Global Ecophagy by Biovorous Nanoreplicators," Foresight Institute web site, April 2000.

6. Joy, op. cit., p. 242.

7. Interview, with Robert Freitas, Foresign Institute Update 38, Foresight Institute website.

8. "Nanotechnology-Designs for the Future," interview with Ralph Merkle, Ubiquity Web magazine, 2000.

9. Thompson, Nicholas, "Downsizing," the Washington Monthly, October 2000, p. 23.

10. "What's the Most Important Invention," Edge website, 2000.

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