A radical approach to the environment which argues that by harnessing the power of science for human benefit, we can have a healthier planet
As a prizewinning theoretical physicist and an outspoken advocate for scientific literacy, James Trefil has long been the public's guide to a better understanding of the world. In this provocative book, Trefil looks squarely at our environmental future and finds-contrary to popular wisdom-reason to celebrate.
For too long, Trefil argues, humans have treated nature as something separate from themselves-pristine wilderness to be saved or material resources to be exploited. What we need instead is a scientific approach to the environment that embraces the human transformation of nature for our benefit. In Human Nature, Trefil exposes the benefits of genetically modified species, uncovers vital facts about droughts and global warming, and points to examples of environmental management where catering to humans reaps greater rewards than sheltering other species. By taking advantage of explosive advances in the sciences, we can fruitfully manage the planet, if we rise to the challenge.
Like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb, Human Nature promises to fundamentally alter the way we perceive our relationship to the Earth-but with optimism rather than alarm.
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About the Author
James Trefil is the Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University. A regular contributor to Astronomy magazine and a commentator for National Public Radio, he is the author or editor of more than twenty-five books, including Are We Unique? and the bestselling Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. He lives in northern Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
A Blueprint for Managing the Earth â" by People, for People
By James Trefil
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2004 James Trefil
All rights reserved.
Where Do We Fit In?
It was a beautiful day in the Black Hills, one of those days when the sky was so blue and the grass was so green that it just made your teeth ache. My wife and I had pulled into the dirt parking lot at the trailhead and were getting our hiking gear out of the trunk of our car. Suddenly, two rather agitated park workers came running up the trail. "Watch out," they said, "there's a bull buffalo coming."
And there he was, ambling slowly along the side of the hill. Not deigning to notice the wondering humans, the buffalo strolled by, grazing on the lush grass. He was big, probably near a ton in weight, and we could see the muscles rippling along his back and flanks. The deep brown of his fur contrasted with the dark tree trunks along the trail; the black of his face almost matched them. Being sure to stay behind our car, we watched as he moved along the side of the parking lot and on down the trail we were planning to hike. At that moment, with the sun shining on that magnificent beast, I experienced a feeling that is probably familiar to most modern urbanites. It was a feeling of rightness, a feeling that somehow, in this experience, I was seeing the world as it ought to be, as it would be if only humanity had not decided to pursue technology and had stayed in communion with nature.
We waited about ten minutes, then started out on our hike, following the direction the buffalo had taken. Our paths seemed to move in parallel that day, and throughout the afternoon we kept an eye on our buffalo friend, being sure to keep at least two city blocks between us. My wife decided that I had earned an Indian name — Walks With Buffalo. (My own suggestion — Runs Like Hell From Buffalo — was summarily rejected.) But as the afternoon wore on, I kept coming back to that initial reaction, that purely emotional response to being in contact with an aspect of nature that's not part of everyday experience. And as I mulled it over, I began to realize that I had stumbled onto an important dilemma that faces modern humans — the dilemma of being part of nature, yet not being part of it at the same time.
After all, here I was, driving up to a trailhead in South Dakota in a car that is a technological achievement of the first order. The power in that car's computers probably exceeds the power of the primitive computers I used to write my Ph.D. thesis more years ago than I care to remember. I was wearing hiking boots that were marvels of the engineer's art, and protecting my skin with sun block created in a major chemical factory. And to what end was I applying all this technology? To go out and spend a day far from anything engineered or constructed by human beings, to get in touch with "nature." I, along with the dozens of hikers sharing the trails with me that day, was using what science and technology had produced to escape from that very same science and technology.
I am, of course, not alone in having these sorts of contradictory feelings about the world we share. Most of us want to live comfortably, enjoying climate-controlled homes and traveling about freely in private cars. At the same time, we don't want to confront the pollution attendant on drilling for oil or burning coal. We love getting away to places like the Black Hills to camp and hike and live a simple life, but we're also very happy to get back to our urban homes, with a coffee shop around the corner and all the conveniences of civilization at our beck and call. We love hiking through old-growth forests, but a stroll down Fifth Avenue also ranks pretty high on our list of favorite activities. Tons of ink have been spilled by writers trying to convince us that one or the other of these tendencies — "civilization" or "nature" — is antithetical to the good life, or to morality, or to common sense.
But the more I thought about it, the more I began to entertain a heretical thought. What, I wondered, if both of these types of activities are profoundly in tune with human nature? What if we are, in fact, creatures equally at home in the quiet of a wilderness area and the hurly-burly of the city? What if both the beauty of a deserted beach and the Lake Michigan shoreline, in the shadow of Chicago's skyscrapers, are places where we belong? What if, in other words, there is no essential conflict between our need for technology and our need to seek renewal in its absence? What if our ability to create "unnatural" technologies is, in fact, the most natural thing we can do?
For there is no question, from a scientific point of view, that human beings are an integral part of the great web of life that exists on our planet. Like every other living thing, we are one result of a great experiment in molecular biology that began four billion years ago in the warm waters of the Earth's oceans, when life first appeared on our planet. We depend on the workings of the great web of life that surrounds us for all of our necessities — things like clean air, clean water, and the food we eat.
The more I thought about this question, the more I realized that there was another aspect to it. Yes, human beings are part of life on our planet, but we have also had a profound effect on the workings of the planet as well. In fact, if you think about nature as something that happens in the absence of human beings, then nature has largely disappeared from the Earth. The air that buffalo and I were breathing in the Black Hills that day, for example, was loaded with molecules produced by human activities on all of the planet's continents. The same is true of the water we drank, the weather we experienced, and the food we ate. "Nature" has become, in a very real sense, "human."
So there can be no questioning the fact that we are somehow different from other living things. There are many dimensions of this difference, but the ability to understand the world around us in abstract terms (what we call science) and the ability to use that understanding to change the environment in which we live (what we call technology) is surely one of the most important. If an extraterrestrial were to visit Earth, the first thing it would notice is that there is one species — Homo sapiens — that dominates the environment, changing it to meet the needs of the species. Humans just aren't like everything else.
It is this duality — this being in nature but not being in nature — that is at the root of what was bothering me out there in South Dakota. There are many ways of expressing the duality: where we come from versus where we're going, how we're the same versus how we're different, how we depend on the global ecosystem versus how we control it, and so on. But to understand what all of this means to us today, we have to step back and take a broader view of both sides of the equation, of both humanity and nature.
In a sense, the rest of this book will be a detailed look at what happens when you do that. All of us are used to thinking of the world in a certain way, of approaching problems through a comfortable and familiar process. For scientists, a familiar way of dealing with something like determining the proper place of humanity in nature is to look at history, at how things got to be the way they are. The idea, of course, is that once you know this, you have a better chance of figuring out where things are going.
It is clear that in the beginning, our ancestors weren't much different from other primates. I usually picture australopithecines like the famous "Lucy," who walked around Africa three million years ago, as being a lot like modern chimpanzees (except that our ancestors walked upright). They really were part of nature, subject to its laws, not all that different from other life-forms. In this "natural" world, their children died of diseases we no longer think about and their life expectancy measured a few paltry decades. As time passed, our species evolved into modern Homo sapiens, but the basics of human life changed only slightly. After all, stone axes and fire (two of the first great technological achievements of our kind) don't give you much of a barrier against a hostile world. Nevertheless, our ancestors were, in a sense, "in tune" with the natural world, interacting with it in ways that we can only imagine.
From a scientific point of view, what differentiates the lives of those ancestors from our own is easy to state — they lived out their lives in a world completely governed by the iron laws of natural selection. In a world governed by natural selection, characteristics of organisms are transmitted genetically from one generation to the next, and "unsuccessful" traits (those that do not allow an organism to reproduce and pass on its genes) are weeded out in the long run. Natural selection is a slow, inexorable process, but it's the way the Earth's biosphere has developed for almost all of the planet's history. So important is this fact that I will suggest later that whether or not a system operates according to the laws of natural selection is as good a way as any of defining the term "nature."
But then, about ten thousand years ago, the situation began to change. A succession of people, probably women in the Middle East, discovered that it was possible to grow plants and harvest their food, rather than to gather what nature produced on its own. With the development of agriculture, followed by the slow buildup of technology leading to the explosions of the scientific and industrial revolutions, we gradually removed ourselves from the natural system, based on survival of the fittest, and began to construct our own world. We learned how to grow food instead of gathering what nature offered; we learned to inoculate our children against disease and care for our sick. The more we separated ourselves from nature, the less we were willing to be content with what nature offered, the more successful we became, the greater our numbers, the richer our lives. This was what I like to consider the first step — the first separation of the human race from the "natural" scheme of things. In it, the human race stepped out of natural selection and into a world where science and technology increasingly dominated our choices and our future.
There are two ways to think about this first step. One is to note that those early farmers made a fateful decision — they decided that they would not be content to live with what nature offered freely, but would find ways to extract more from the world than the world would willingly give. A modern pharmaceutical scientist developing a new medicine and a modern engineer designing a better communication system are both following in that ancient tradition. The other way to think about the first step is to note that because of it, human beings (along with those plants and animals we have domesticated) are the only living things on this planet whose development is no longer bound by the process of natural selection. Both of these aspects of the first step have profound implications for the human future on our planet.
The importance of moving beyond natural selection can't be overemphasized. The move was profoundly unnatural, for although we still depend on the natural world for many things, as our technological abilities have increased, that dependence has become more and more attenuated. Leaving this aspect of nature behind has had a profound effect on humanity as a whole as well as on individual human beings. Our dependence on (and our awareness of) the natural world has shrunk steadily.
There is no question that our species benefited from this change. By any material measure — the number of human beings in the world, average calorie intake, area of land settled and dominated — the human race prospered beyond all possible dreams. And yet ... and yet ... something seems to be missing. The more material goods we accumulated, the more the natural world faded into the background of our lives, the more we seemed alienated from life. I'm not suggesting that all (or even a significant fraction) of modern psychological woes are a direct result of the agricultural revolution, but it certainly led to a world where the relationship between humans and nature is less clear than it used to be.
But there is good news, because advances in a number of fields of science are developing the tools that will allow us to take a second step — a step that, in its own way, is as important as the development of agriculture. This revolutionary work will, when brought together, result in a complete recasting of the relationship between human beings and nature.
In the nineteenth century, we learned the first great secret of life — that it is based on chemistry. In the twentieth century, we learned that the instructions for carrying out those chemical reactions were coded onto molecules of DNA in our cells. In this century, scientists are starting to learn how to manipulate those instructions — to get under the hood of living systems, as it were. Genetically modified foods, new medicines, and clones are just three examples of new things coming from this knowledge and ability. Like our hunter-gatherer ancestors who discovered that they don't have to be content with the foods provided by nature, modern scientists are developing the ability to craft living things into forms more to our liking. In the future, natural selection will be replaced by human manipulation of genomes. You may approve or disapprove of humans having this ability, but you can't deny that the ability is being developed.
There has been, historically, a feeling that ecosystems are, somehow, too complex for humans to understand and control. Confronted with complex problems, however, scientists often return to their roots as tinkerers and craftsmen. They observe, experiment, change parameters, and just plain mess around with whatever they're studying until gradually, piece by piece, they begin to get a sense — a feeling, really — about how the object of their attention works. For the last thirty to forty years, scientists have been tending plots of prairie grass, watching controlled forest patches, and counting cacti in the desert. The result is that we are coming to understand the general rules that govern ecosystems, the rules that govern things like the biological diversity in a place, or the rules that govern the roles of various nutrients in specific ecosystems. As with genomics, we're starting to "get under the hood" of ecosystems.
Complex systems are defined to be those in which there are many agents and in which the actions of one agent can depend on the actions of all the others. A stock market, where buyers and sellers engage in a perpetual dance of action and reaction, is the classic example of a complex system, as are most large ecosystems. Complexity as a science is still only a few decades old, but it is clearly the science that we will need to understand the natural systems around us. Just as the experimental ecologists are giving us the tools to understand the basic workings of nature, the complexity theorists will supply us with the mathematical ability to predict (or at least estimate) outcomes of human interventions.
Tying these three sciences together, and underlying all of them, are the great advances in computing, data storage, and analysis that we call the information revolution. Computers allow us to store data on the thousands of variables that can affect an ecosystem, to track the effects of things like rainfall and temperature over long periods of time, and to develop huge models that predict the future development of forests, river drainages, and farmland.
A word of caution: here and in the rest of the book, I will often talk about these developments in the present tense, but you should always be aware that they are forming and developing; they are not yet complete. Some of the pieces are already in place, but others, particularly in the areas of genetic manipulation and large-scale ecosystem management, will not be ready for a while. Given the pace of previous scientific advances, however, it's hard to imagine that it will take more than twenty years for the things I'm talking about to become reality, which means that it's not too early to start thinking about them now.
Excerpted from Human Nature by James Trefil. Copyright © 2004 James Trefil. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
I - The First Step,
1 - Where Do We Fit In?,
2 - Nature and Natural Selection,
3 - Leaving Nature Behind,
II -The Myths of Pop Ecology,
4 - Lost Eden,
5 - The Myth of Stability,
6 - The Myth of the Pristine Wilderness,
7 - The Myth That We Are Poisoning the Earth,
8 - The Question of Extinction,
9 - The Greenhouse Effect and Global Warming,
III - The New Environmental Toolbox,
10 - Genomics,
11 - Genetic Modification,
12 - The Emergence of Complexity,
13 - Experimental Ecosystems,
IV - The Second Step,
14 - A Matter of Choices,
15 - The Managed Planet,
Also by James Trefil,
About the Author,