TCS Daily

Ultimate Environmentalism

By James Pinkerton - September 14, 2005 12:00 AM

How to save the environment? Not just from mankind, but ultimately from nature itself? Those are tough questions, but we have to start somewhere, and where better than with cute cats? And after we've cloned these cute critters, we have many more technologies to use to save nature.

Yes, technologies to save nature. It's the forward-looking technos, not the backward-looking greens, who will literally immortalize the environment.

Scientists have already demonstrated, pretty much, that any life can be extended into seeming perpetuity. It's already a thriving business, in fact; a company called Genetic Savings & Clone offers a "repet" service. And if pets can be cloned, it's only a matter of time before other crawlers and creepers can be replicated, too.

And there's more good news on the using-technology-to-save-and-revive-nature front. Last month the Audubon Society of New Orleans reported that its researchers had been able to breed African wildcat clones. That is, biologists have now demonstrated that clones of wild animals can successfully reproduce themselves through natural sexual conjugation; fears that clones would be sexually sterile, or would produce only deformed freaks, have been proven wrong. Obviously this breakthrough has huge implications for boosting endangered species; the Auduboners hope next to extend their work to antelopes, leopards, and other critters -- let's hope that this wonderful research has not been washed away by Hurricane Katrina.

The larger moral to this happy story is this: it takes a lot of material surplus to accomplish these great goals. Only America and a few other countries around the world are rich enough and sophisticated enough to guarantee the survival of, say, the African Bongo Antelope or the Asian Clouded Leopard. So the enviros should give the technos a hug worthy of a tree.

Don't bet on it, of course. A guiding spirit for the greens has always been William Wordsworth, whose 1807 sonnet, "The World Is Too Much with Us," anticipates and celebrates the stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off ethos of the environmental movement:

        The world is too much with us; late and soon,
        Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
        Little we see in Nature that is ours;    
        We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Such Luddism might make for sweet poetry, but it's a sour way to run the world. Put simply, the Wordsworthian green vision, in which progress is but a "sordid boon," will never be realized -- no matter how many stifling rules and regulations the greens seek to enact. The environmental movement would like nothing more than to stop the clock, and maybe even turn the hands of time back to zero, human-being-wise, per the nihilism of the "deep ecology" folks. But people, and their works, are here to stay. And for as long as they are alive, they will continue to invent things, develop things, and pave over things.

At the present, the world's annual GDP sits at some $55 trillion and is rising fast. What to do about the environmental degradation that can come from so much growth? The answer, paradoxically, is to grow more, not less. Only by generating additional surplus can we afford to save nature.

One environmentalist who seems to get that basic point is Alan AtKisson, author of a 1999 book, Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World. In a chapter entitled "Accelerate to Survive," he compares what he sees as the crisis of industrial civilization to that of an airplane pilot realizing he's about to hit the side of a mountain -- "At a moment like that, it does no good for an airplane to slow down. The only solution is to increase the power, and pull up, as hard as possible."

One need not agree with everything AtKisson writes (or his idiosyncratic approach to spelling his name) to see that he is, in some ways at least, a kindred spirit to techies and TechCentralStationeers. "Danger looms, directly ahead," he writes. "We cannot turn around. We cannot slow down. We must accelerate to power ourselves over this gigantic obstacle, with every ounce of economic strength and cultural creativity available to us." And so, yes, it is indeed time for some creative eco-problem-solving, to be paid for with continuing economic acceleration.

Josh Donlan, a Cornell University ecologist, is one such creative problem-solver. In an important article in Nature magazine, he paints a bleak forecast for wild nature if present trends continue: "However much we would wish otherwise, humans will continue to cause extinctions, change ecosystems and alter the course of evolution." And so, he adds, "We can no longer accept a hands-off approach to wilderness conservation."

Donlan's hands-on idea is to set aside mostly empty parts of North America as a preserve for animals from other continents:

        The African cheetah . . . has only a modest chance of persisting in the wild 
        in the next century. Breeding programmes are not self-sustaining, but some 
        of the 1,000 captive animals could be used in re-wilding. Free-roaming, 
        managed cheetahs in the southwestern United States could save the fastest 
        carnivore from extinction, restore what must have been strong interactions 
        with pronghorn, and facilitate ecotourism as an economic alternative 
        for ranchers

And ecotourism, of course, has been a capitalist godsend to flora and fauna around the world. Thanks to wealthy ecotourists, for the first time in human history, land in Third World countries is worth more to local residents in its wild state than in a semi-developed (e.g. slashed and burned or stripmined) state. In the future, if economic growth continues, it's easy to see "debt for nature" swaps increasingly becoming "purchase nature" deals for preservation and ecotourism. It's a win-win situation, for humans, as well as for the birds and the bees.

Indeed, it's easy to see Donlan's idea being folded into the existing trend toward the creation of private utopias -- out there, everywhere. For decades now, people have been dispersing into gated and guarded communities, in the US and around the world; some greens decry this outward flow, but as we have seen, such greens are hostile to anything people might do, except perhaps kill themselves. In addition, some of these "privatopias" have a distinctly eco-friendly dimension, even a libertarian/experimental dimension.

So why not incorporate Donlan's suggestion into this continuing saga of human development? Wouldn't it be fun to live in a place in, say, Arizona, where the lions roam free all around you? Yeah, you'd have to be a bit careful letting the kids outside, but it would be a small price to pay for the thrill of seeing the wild kingdom and some of its reddest teeth and claws.

And while we're at it, since we have the cloning technology, we could bring back other species, such as the late great Passenger Pigeon.

Donlan, scorning the political correctness that hobbles so many greens, makes the point that there are plenty of other extinct American species, and these might be brought back, too. While conservationists routinely use Columbus' landing in 1492 as the restoration benchmark, in keeping with the general view that the white race is the most metastatic cancer of human history, it was the Native Americans, in fact, over the previous 13,000 years, who had killed off most indigenous megafauna, including the long-lost American cheetah.

And for even more fun, maybe we could finally pull off the whole "Jurassic Park" scenario in real life, not just reel life.

But guaranteeing the survival and revival of species isn't just a matter of ecological guilt-alleviation, or even of economic opportunity-seizing. The ultimate issue is the survival of everything that inhabits this pale blue dot of a planet. The same scientists who say that an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago now say that there have been dozens of big hits over the eons -- that asteroid strikes put the "punk'd" in punctuated equilibrium. And one of these days, a Really Big Rock will come along and end everything. Or, alternatively, maybe we'll be fried by the sun -- assuming that we don't get fried by each other first.

The warp speed of human acceleration, of course, would accelerate us right off this planet. Imagine: worlds with their own separate zoos and preserves, even terraformed worlds in which terrestrial creatures could be born free as extraterrestrial creatures, spread out over an entire celestial orb.

Moreover, it's simply sound long-term -- very long-term -- enviro-management to create, in effect, compartmentalized survival spheres for the world's biota. That was the theme of an underrated sci-fi movie from a few years ago, "Titan AE", which imagined a futuristic Noah's Ark traveling through space.

Call it Ultimate Environmentalism, in which growth and technology are harnessed to the goal of eternal and universal survival of nature's abundance -- including humans. Just don't expect the current crop of environmentalists to embrace U.E. They're too busy trying to recapture the world of Wordsworth, trying to live according to a creed outworn --while shortsightedly scorning environment-saving technology -- to think seriously and fruitfully about the fate of the earth.


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