The Environment Where Does Prudence

This new world may be safer, being told The dangers of diseases of the old


"An Anatomic of the World—The First Anniversary" (1611)

There's a certain moment at twilight when the aircraft contrails are pink. And if the sky is clear, their contrast with the surrounding blue is unexpectedly lovely. The Sun has already set and there's a roseate glow at the horizon, a reminder of where the Sun is hiding. But the jet aircraft are so high up that they can still see the Sun—quite red, just before setting. The water blown out from their engines instantly condenses. At the frigid temperatures of high altitude, each engine trails a small, linear cloud, illuminated by the red rays of the setting Sun.

Sometimes there are several contrails from different aircraft, and they cross, making a kind of sky writing. When the winds are high, the contrails quickly spread laterally, and instead of an elegant line tracing its way across the sky, there's a long, irregular, diffuse, vaguely linear tracery that dissipates as you watch. If you catch the trail as it's being generated, you can often make out the tiny object from which it emanates. For many people, no wings or engines are visible; it's just a moving spot separated a little from the contrail, somehow its source.

As it gets darker you can often see that the spot is self-luminous. There's a bright white light there. Sometimes there's also a flashing red or green light, or both.

Occasionally I imagine myself a hunter-gatherer—or even my grandparents when they were children— looking up at the sky and seeing these bewildering and awesome wonders from the future. For all the days of humans on Earth, it is only in the twentieth century that we have become a presence in the sky. While the air traffic in upstate New York, where I live, is doubtless heavier than in many places on Earth, there is hardly anywhere on the planet where you can't, at least occasionally, look up and see our machines writing out their mysterious messages on the very sky that we had so long thought of as the exclusive provenance of the gods. Our technology has reached astonishing proportions for which, in our heart of hearts, we are inadequately prepared, mentally or emotionally.

A little later, when the stars begin to come out, I can make out among them an occasional moving bright light, sometimes quite bright. Its glow may be steady, or it may be blinking at me, often two lights in tandem. No longer are there comedike tails trailing behind them. There are moments when 10 or 20 percent of the "stars" I can see are nearby artifacts of humanity, which can for a moment be confused with immensely distant, blazing suns. More rarely, well after sunset, I can see a point of light, usually quite dim, very slowly and subtly moving. I have to be sure that first it passes this star, and then that—because the eye has a penchant for thinking that any isolated point of light surrounded only by blackness is moving. These are not aircraft. They are spacecraft. We have made machines that circle the Earth once every hour and a half. If they're especially big or reflective, we can see them with the naked eye. They are far above the atmosphere, in the blackness of nearby space. They are so high up that they can see the Sun even when it is nearly pitch-dark down here. Unlike the airplanes, they have no lights of their own. Like the Moon and the planets, they shine merely by reflected sunlight. The sky begins not too far above our heads. It encompasses both the Earth's thin atmosphere and all the vastness of the Cosmos beyond. We have built machines that fly in these realms. We are so accustomed to this, so acclimatized, that we often fail to recognize what a mythic accomplishment it is. More than any other feature of our technical civilization, these now prosaic flights are emblematic of what powers are now ours.

But with great powers come great responsibilities.

Our technology has become so powerful that—not only consciously, but also inadvertently—we are becoming a danger to ourselves. Science and technology have saved billions of lives, improved the well-being of many more, bound up the planet in a slowly anastomosing unity—and at the same time changed the world so much that many people no longer feel at home in it. We've created a range of new evils: hard to see, hard to understand, problems that cannot readily be cured—certainly not without challenging those already in power.

Here, if anywhere, public understanding of science is essential. Many scientists claim that there are real dangers consequent to our continuing to do things the way we've done, that our industrial civilization is a booby trap. But if we were to take such dire warnings seriously, it would be expensive. The affected industries would lose profits. Our own anxiety wttuld increase. There are natural enough reasons to try to reject the warnings. Maybe the large number of scientists who caution about impending catastrophes are worrywarts. Maybe they get a perverse pleasure out of scaring the rest of us. Maybe it's just a way to pry research money out of the government. After all, there are other scientists who say there's nothing to worry about, that the contentions are unproved, that the environment will heal itself. Naturally we long to believe them; who wouldn't? If they're right, it relieves our burden immensely. So let's not jump into things. Let's be cautious. Let's go slow. Let's be really sure.

On the other hand, maybe those who are reassuring about the environment are Pollyannas, or are afraid to affront those in power, or are supported by those who profit by despoiling the environment. So let's hurry up. Let's fix things before they become unfixable. How do we decide?

There are arguments and counterarguments concerning abstractions, invisibilities, unfamiliar concepts and terms. Sometimes even words like "fraud" or "hoax" are uttered about the dire scenarios. How good is the science here? How can the average person be informed on what the issues are? Can't we maintain a dispassionate but open neutrality and let the contending parties fight it out, or wait until the evidence is absolutely unambiguous? After all, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In short, why should those who, like myself, teach skepticism and caution about some extraordinary claims argue that other extraordinary claims must be taken seriously and considered urgent? Every generation thinks its problems are unique and potentially fatal. And yet every generation has survived to the next. Chicken Little, it is suggested, is alive and well.

Whatever merit this argument may once have had—and certainly it provides a useful counterbalance to hysteria—its cogency is much diminished today. We sometimes hear about the "ocean" of air surrounding the Earth. But the thickness of most of the atmosphere—including all of it involved in the greenhouse effect—is only 0.1 percent of the diameter of the Earth. Even if we include the high stratosphere, the atmosphere isn't as much as 1 percent of the Earth's diameter. "Ocean" sounds massive, imperturbable. Compared with the size of the Earth, though, the thickness of the air is something like the thickness of the coat of shellac on a large schoolroom globe compared with the globe itself. If the protective ozone layer were brought down from the stratosphere to the surface of the Earth, its thickness compared with the diameter of the Earth would be one part in four billion. It would be utterly invisible. Many astronauts have reported seeing that delicate, thin, blue aura at the horizon of the daylit hemisphere—that represents the thickness of the entire atmosphere—and immediately, unbidden, contemplating its fragility and vulnerability. They worry about it. They have reason to worry. Today we face an absolutely new circumstance, unprecedented in all of human history. When we started out, hundreds of thousands of years ago, say, with an average population density of a hundredth of a person per square kilometer or less, the triumphs of our technology were hand axes and fire; we were unable to make major changes in the global environment. The idea would never have occurred to us. We were too few and our powers too feeble. But as time went on, as technology improved, our numbers increased exponentially, and now here we are with an average of some ten people per square kilometer, our numbers concentrated in cities, and an awesome technological armory at hand—the powers of which we understand and control only incompletely. **

Because our lives depend on minuscule amounts of such gases as ozone, major environmental disruption can be brought about—even on a planetary scale—by the engines of industry. The inhibitions placed on the irresponsible use of technology are weak, often half-hearted, and almost always, worldwide, subordinated to short-term national or corporate interest. We are now able, intentionally or inadvertently, to alter the global environment. Just how far along we are in working the various prophesied planetary catastrophes is still a matter of scholarly debate. But that we are able to do so is now beyond question. Maybe the products of science are simply too powerful, too dangerous for us. Maybe we're not grown-up enough to be given them. Would it be wise to give a handgun as a present to an infant in the crib? What about a toddler, or a preadolescent child, or a teenager? Or perhaps, as some have argued, automatic weapons should be given to no one in civilian life, because all of us have experienced at one time or another blinding if childish passions. If only the weapon were not around, it so often seems, the tragedy would not have happened. (Of course there are reasons people give for having handguns, and there may be circumstances in which those reasons are valid. Likewise for the dangerous products of science.) Now one further complication: Imagine that when you pull the trigger on a handgun, it takes decades before either the victim or the assailant recognizes that someone's been hit. Then it's even more difficult to grasp the dangers of having weapons around. The analogy is imperfect, but something like this applies to the global environmental consequences of modern industrial technology. There is, it seems to me, good cause to question, to speak out, to devise new institutions and new ways of thinking. Yes, civility is a virtue and can reach an opponent deaf to the most fervent philosophical entreaties. Yes, it is absurd to try to convert everyone to a new way of thinking. Yes, we might be wrong and our opponent right. (It has been known to happen.) And yes, it is rare that one disputant in an argument convinces another. (Thomas Jefferson said he had never seen it happen, but that seems too harsh. It happens in science all the time.) But these are not adequate reasons to shy from public debate. Through better medical practice, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, contraception, advances in transportation and communications, devastating new weapons of war, inadvertent side effects of industry, and disquieting challenges to long held worldviews, science and technology have dramatically changed our lives. Many of us are huffing and puffing to keep up, sometimes only slowly grasping the implications of the new developments. In the ancient human tradition, young people grasp change more quickly than the rest of us—not just in running personal computers and programming videocassette recorders, but also in accommodating to new visions of our world and ourselves. The current pace of change is much quicker than a human lifetime, so fast as to work to rend the generations asunder. This middle section of the book is about understanding and accommodating to the environmental upheavals—both for good and for ill— brought on by science and technology.

I will concentrate on the thinning ozone layer and on global warming—as representative of the dilemmas we face. But there are many other worrisome environmental consequences of human technology and expansiveness: rendering vast numbers of species extinct, when desperately needed medicines for cancer, heart disease, and other deadly diseases come from rare or endangered species; acid rain; nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons; and toxic chemicals (and radioactive poisons)—often located in the neighborhoods of the poorest and least powerful among us. An unexpected new finding, disputed tfy other scientists, is a precipitous recent decline in America, Western Europe, and elsewhere in sperm counts—possibly from chemicals and plastics that mimic the female sex hormones. (The decline is so steep, some say, that, if it continues, men in the West could in consequence start becoming sterile by the middle twenty-first century.) The Earth is an anomaly. In all the Solar System, it is, so far as we know, the only inhabited planet. We humans are one amongst millions of separate species who live in a world burgeoning, overflowing with life. And yet, most species that ever were are no more. After flourishing for 180 million years, the dinosaurs were extinguished. Every last one. There are none left. No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And we've been here for only about a million years, we, the first species that has devised means for its self-destruction. We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think as well as we can. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves, but for all those, humans and others, who came before us, and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after. There is no cause more urgent, no dedication more fitting than to protect the future of our species.

Nearly all our problems are made by humans and can be solved by humans. No social convention, no political system, no economic hypothesis, no religious dogma is more important. Everyone experiences at least a dull background level of assorted anxieties. They almost never go away entirely. Most of them are of course about our everyday lives. There is a clear survival value to this buzz of whispered reminders, wincing recollections of past faux pas, mental testings of possible responses to imminent problems. For too many of us the anxiety is about finding enough for our children to eat. Anxiety is one of those evolutionary compromises—optimized so there will be a next generation, but painful to this generation. The trick, if you can pull it off, is to pick the right anxieties. Somewhere between cheerful dolts and nervous worrywarts there's a state of mind we ought to embrace. Except for millenarians of the various denominational persuasions and the tabloid press, the only group of people that seems routinely to worry about new claims of disasters—catastrophes unglimpsed in the entire written history of our species—are the scientists. They get to understanding how the world is, and it occurs to them that it might be very different. A little push here, a little tug there, and big changes could happen. Because we humans are generally well adapted to our circumstances—ranging from the global climate to the political climate—any change is likely to be disturbing, painful, and expensive. So naturally we tend to require of the scientists that they be pretty sure of what they're telling us before we run off and protect ourselves against an imaginary danger. Some of the alleged dangers seem so serious, though, that the thought arises unbidden that it may be prudent to take seriously even a small chance of a very grave peril.

The anxieties of everyday life work in a similar way. We buy insurance and caution the children about talking to strangers. For all the anxieties, sometimes we miss the dangers altogether: "Everything I worried about never happened. All the bad things came out of nowhere," one acquaintance told my wife, Annie, and me.

The worse the catastrophe is, the harder it is to keep our balance. We want so badly either to ignore it utterly or to devote all our resources to circumventing it. It's hard soberly to contemplate our circumstances and put the associated alfcdety aside for a moment. Too much seems at stake. In the following pages I try to describe some of the current actions of our species that seem disturbing—in how we care for the planet, and how we arrange our politics. I try to show both sides but—I freely admit—I have a point of view deriving from my assessment of the weight of the evidence. Where humans make problems, humans can make solutions, and I've tried to indicate how some of our problems might be solved. You might think a different set of problems should have higher priority, or that there are a different set of solutions. But I hope you'll find in reading this section of the book that you're provoked into contemplating the future a little more. I don't wish unnecessarily to add to our burden of anxieties— almost all of us have a sufficient number— but there are some issues that not enough of us, it seems to me, are thinking through. This sort of contemplating the future consequences of present actions has a proud lineage among us primates, and is one of the secrets of what is still, by and large, the stunningly successful story of humans on Earth.

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