More Omega Men

Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning

Sir Martin Rees. 2003. Basic Books, Inc. New York, NY.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

Bill McKibben. 2010. Times Books.

For as long as people have thought and written about the future, the worry that we will overstep our ability to control the use of our material knowledge has been a recurring literary theme. Technology creates a synthesis of new possibilities, both good and bad, as our understanding of how to create (from fire to dynamite, atomic energy to synthetic DNA) continues to expand.

Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, outlined both his fears and his optimism in his 2003 book, Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning. Playing with Sir Winston Churchill’s wartime phrase “our finest hour” to convey that in our greatest times of challenge come our greatest achievements, Rees notes that he is a “techno-optimist.” But, like Churchill, he is not blindly optimistic. In a recent lecture, Rees, who is past president of the Royal Society (2005–2010), remarked that many of the worries he had when he wrote his book remain strong today. “There’s a widening gap between what science allows us to do and what is prudent or ethical actually to do,” he said in the BBC’s 2010 Reith Lectures. “There are doors that science could open but which are best left closed.”

While new knowledge has opened us to collective worries over “incoming” threats from space and the cosmos—black holes, exploding stars, cosmic rays and rogue asteroids—it is technical advancement that renders society most vulnerable to disruption, Rees argues, and the down-to-earth troubles that we create ourselves concern him in particular. “The qualitatively new consequences of computers and biotechnology” are often downplayed when discussing the future, he notes in Our Final Hour. “Prospects are so volatile that mankind might not even persist beyond a century.”

Place Your Bets

The destabilising and destructive influence of just a few [disaffected] people will be ever more devastating as their technical powers and expertise grow, and as the world we share becomes more interconnected,” Rees warns. How serious is he? The clock is ticking on a wager he made in 2002 and which was published in Wired at the time. “I staked one thousand dollars on a bet: ‘That by the year 2020 an instance of bioerror or bioterror will have killed a million people.’ Of course, I fervently hope to lose this bet.”

Because the knowledge-creating process is unlikely to come to an end, Rees suggests that scientists must be more aware of the potential of their work. He believes they “have a duty to alert the public to the implications of their work. . . . Scientists should not be indifferent to the fruits of their research: they should welcome (and indeed try to foster) benign spin-offs, but resist, so far as they can, dangerous or threatening applications.”

In Our Final Hour he concludes, “Special responsibility lies with scientists themselves: they should be mindful of how their work might be applied, and do all they can to alert the wider public to potential perils.” In all this, of course, Rees assumes the rationality of the scientist. When he remarks in the Reith Lectures that “the global village will have its village idiots” and that “it’s the politics and the sociology that pose the deepest concerns,” he may be taking too narrow an aim, missing the fact that scientists may also have economic and social agendas that skew their thinking.

Too Big to Fail

A most clever and readable contribution to the growing apocalyptic library is Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. No, that is not a typo; it is Eaarth—the environmentalist’s new spelling meant to suggest that we have created a new planet. McKibben does not mean to apply this term only to the human world that we have created from and atop the natural. His sense is much more expansive: our actions have literally changed the physical parameters of the planet. According to him, it is time to add Eaarth to your mental dictionary.

As noted in the companion review, there are many science- and technology-driven possibilities for the end of the world. McKibben is simply saying that for one of them, climate change, we no longer need to fear it as a possibility; it’s here now—we have created, released, and now face the consequences of a fossil-fueled, carbon dioxide version of Frankenstein’s monster.

Arguing that the 350 ppm carbon dioxide concentration is the level to which we must return (he has called it “the most important number on the planet”), McKibben provides the background of “a huge grassroots global effort to force dramatic action” in reducing carbon emissions. Today as we push toward the 390 ppm level, many climate-change scientists are advocating the same target. Atmospheric scientist James Hansen, for example, in his book Storms of My Grandchildren (2009), is adamant that a global carbon tax is the only hope for meaningful change.

Eaarth,” McKibben writes, “represents the deepest of human failures.”

Of course, the planet—the white, blue and brown orb first photographed by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968—endures. But because of the current and long-range effect of higher levels of carbon dioxide, “it won’t be anything like the planet we’ve known,” writes McKibben. This is an intriguing claim. He continues, “We’re hard at work transforming it—hard at work sabotaging its biology, draining its diversity, affecting every other kind of life that we were born onto this planet with. We’re running Genesis backward, decreating.”

This is a very clever turn of phrase, though many would challenge its validity. It is indeed a hard reality to accept. Even if everything else came apart, we all want to believe that nature itself is truly too big to fail. We are also prone to what is called landscape amnesia: we tend to forget how different the Earth looked in the past because we’ve become accustomed to its current state.

McKibben suggests that we are not recognizing current changes because of the planet’s stability over the past 10,000 years, under which we have thrived; as a species we have been mentally conditioned to believe nature always bounces back. Maybe it bounces, but not in directions we can predict. Things are different, so “now we have to engage in some triage, decide what from our previous life we most want to keep, and how we plan to do it. . . . We need to take what wealth we have left and figure out how we’re going to use it, not to spin the wheel one more time but to slow the wheel down.”

Small Is Beautiful

McKibben’s action plan for life on the new eaarth requires that we understand new ways of living will also be necessary. His ideal is “small, not big; dispersed, not centralized.” So when he says that we must “make our societies safer, and that means making them smaller,” McKibben suggests that we each take steps to become independent of the major engines of civilization. This would include reducing our reliance on the power grid (install a solar panel), on gasoline (walk more, bicycle, live nearer work), and on agribusiness (grow a vegetable garden), because these will all become more tenuous and unreliable as time passes. Making this shift entails building community networks rather than depending on the globalized machine for a happy life on the eaarth. We “still must live on the world we’ve created—” he concludes, “lightly, carefully, gracefully.”

Skeptics may call such thinking an environmentalist/luddite/Club-of-Rome/no-growth ploy, but serious discussions are under way to officially recognize human dominance and effect on the planet. Stratigraphers are debating the designation of a new geologic name for the current human-influenced epoch: the Anthropocene. So McKibben is certainly not alone in his thinking.

Still, some would say that he has simply made a profession of creating a “state of fear,” as novelist Michael Crichton once suggested concerning modern environmentalism. Unfortunately, Eaarth seems to begin with the assumption that the reader has already accepted the premise of human-caused planetary change as fact. The book’s key weakness is that it does not speak to the skeptic. The lack of primary references is also disappointing; although its four chapters feature hundreds of footnotes, these are principally references to newspaper and other mass-media sources. Using such sources is always questionable; they are easily cherry-picked to provide support for a writer’s bias. The missing scholarship weakens McKibben’s argument. He had the opportunity to connect science, literature and the human condition, but he missed it. How much more powerful his message might have been had he not simply assumed the reader would already be predisposed to believe him.

Another Mass Extinction?

Evidence of environmental change is coming from many areas. While the debate over the merits of the Anthropocene designation continue (National Geographic discusses the topic in an article published in March 2011), data comparing present and historic extinction rates appear to confirm that we are living in a biologically significant period of time. “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?” is the provocative title of a paper published in the March 2011 issue of Nature.

Lead author Anthony D. Barnosky notes, “It looks like modern extinction rates resemble mass extinction rates, even after setting a high bar for defining ‘mass extinction.’” The University of California–Berkeley professor of integrative biology, who is also a curator in the Museum of Paleontology and a research paleontologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, points out that extrapolating from surveys of the world today and comparing this to the past is difficult. “Obviously there are caveats,” he continues in a UCB press release. “What we know is based on observations from just a very few twigs plucked from the enormous number of branches that make up the tree of life.”

According to the press release, “after looking at the list of threatened species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the team concluded that if all mammals now listed as ‘critically endangered,’ ‘endangered’ and ‘threatened’ go extinct, whether that takes several hundred years or 1,000 years, Earth will be in a true mass extinction.”

Like astronomer Rees, paleontologist Barnosky is optimistic in the sense that awareness is the beginning of change. “Luckily, there is something else different about Earth today: for the first time in humanity’s history, we have both the knowledge and the technology to chart at least the broad paths we want the future to follow,” he writes in his book Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming (2009). “No other generation in history has been so uniquely poised to exercise those uniquely human qualities, foresight and directed action.”

But what does that entail? Barnosky suggests engineering paths for nature to operate around the human footprint of cities, farms and transport arteries. “We need to make sure not to lose any more of the 12 percent of Earth’s surface that now is protected, in some form or fashion, to preserve nature. That means ensuring that places like national parks, wilderness areas, and the like remain off-limits to destructive uses (logging, mining, oil exploration, and damming, to name a few). Every one of those destructive uses provides just a short-term gain (usually to a vocal and self-selected few) that quickly evaporates, at the expense of forever losing an irreplaceable piece of the world.” He adds: “Those ecosystem restoration efforts, of course, now have to be planned with shifting climate zones in mind.”

While we no longer have individuals with the gravitas of a Churchill to ask the big questions, the challenges nevertheless keep coming. Will this be our finest or our final hour?