THE RISKS NOW FACED by humanity are increasingly ones of our own making—and ones over which we have only partial, tentative, and temporary control. Various kinds of
liberation — from hard agricultural labor and high infant mortality rates to tuberculosis and oppressive traditional values — bring
all kinds of new problems, from global warming and obesity to
alienation and depression. These new problems will largely be
better than the old ones, in the way that obesity is a better problem than hunger, and living in a hotter world is a better problem
than living in one without electricity. But they are serious problems nonetheless.
The good news is that we already have many nascent, promising technologies to overcome ecological problems. Stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions will require a new generation of
nuclear power plants to cheaply replace coal plants as well as,
perhaps, to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and power
desalination plants to irrigate and grow forests in today’s deserts.
Pulling frontier agriculture back from forests will require massively increasing agricultural yields through genetic engineering. Replacing environmentally degrading cattle ranching may
require growing meat in laboratories, which will gradually be
viewed as less repulsive than today’s cruel and deadly methods
of meat production. And the solution to the species extinction
problem will involve creating new habitats and new organisms,
perhaps from the DNA of previously extinct ones.
In attempting to solve these problems, we will inevitably create new ones. One common objection to technology and development is that they will bring unintended consequences, but life on
Earth has always been a story of unintended consequences. The
Venice floodgates offer a pointed illustration. Concerns raised by
the environmental community that the floodgates would impact
marine life have been borne out — only not in the way they had
feared. Though the gates are still under construction, marine
biologists have announced that they have already become host
to many coral and fish species, some of which used to be found
only in the southern Mediterranean or Red Sea.
Other critics of the gates have questioned what will happen if
global warming should raise sea levels higher than the tops of the
gates. If this should become inevitable, it is unlikely that Venetians would abandon their city. Instead, they may attempt to raise
it. One sweetly ironic proposal would levitate the city by blowing
carbon dioxide emissions two thousand feet below the lagoon
floor. Some may call such strong faith in the technological fix an
instance of hubris, but others will simply call it compassion.
The French anthropologist Bruno Latour has some interesting thoughts on the matter. According to Latour, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not a cautionary tale against hubris, but
rather a cautionary tale against irrational fears of imperfection.
Dr. Frankenstein is an antihero not because he created life, but
rather because he fled in horror when he mistook his creation
for a monster — a self-fulfilling prophecy. The moral of the story,
where saving the planet is concerned, is that we should treat our
technological creations as we would treat our children, with care
and love, lest our abandonment of them turn them into monsters.
“The sin is not to wish to have dominion over nature,” Latour
writes, “but to believe that this dominion means emancipation
and not attachment.” In other words, the term “ecological hubris” should not be used to describe the human desire to remake
the world, but rather the faith that we can end the cycle of creation and destruction. A
A Great Divide
Soon enough and just as easily
this beachfront home will wriggle
and crack, the ocean lifting
us, like abandoned ships,
back out to the sea.
Roped by soaked sand,
crossing that great waist of the world,
will the hurling comfort?
I was never unafraid,
even at sun-up.
Battened down, it turns out
the hatches were only plywood.
My insular Tahiti was sinking.
Someone lit a match
and the universe exploded.
Deck smashed and windows
wracked by reef,
mouthy winters survived,
some species perch atop a pedestal,
water foaming at the lips.
Some are spun around
and never come up again.