My new introduction for the French edition of WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE
French title: Discipline pour la planète Terre: Vers une écologie des solutions
I wrote in English two weeks ago:
Though nothing is guaranteed, the trends and capabilities are in place for this to be the Greenest of centuries.
Human population is leveling off rapidly and then will drop after reaching a peak of around 9 billion in the 2040s.
More and more land is being spared for nature as people everywhere move to cities. Agriculture is becoming ever more efficient and productive, and low-grade land formerly used for row crops and grazing is being abandoned to semi-wildness worldwide.
Dramatic conservation successes on ocean islands are leading the way toward similar successes on continents and in the sea. Thanks to breakthroughs in genomic analysis and the steady advance of remote sensing and computer modeling, the new field of conservation science is becoming a real science, which means it is becoming a subtle branch of engineering. Where we have previously broken nature we are finding ways to blend in with it and fix it.
Even climate change can be approached as a solvable problem when we realize that we have several centuries to manage it properly.
This array of good news was just starting to become clear when I originally finished writing Whole Earth Discipline in 2009 and then added an Afterword in 2010. (That Afterword is included in this French edition. I recommend checking it as you work your way through the body of the book, since it is presented in the same order as the book. Along with its news, it shows how much change and progress can occur in just a year.)
You may wish to read Whole Earth Discipline somewhat out of order, because I present my arguments American-style, with the newsy outcomes first and the framing later. If you prefer (as I do) the European mode of the deep analysis preceding the big news, then I suggest starting with the chapters titled “Romantics, Scientists, Engineers” and “It’s All Gardening.”
The book was written as careful journalism, as an essay with an arc of argument, and as a call to adventure. That last angle evidently worked on me, because I am now living out ideas presented in the two chapters “Gene Dreams” (biotech) and “It’s All Gardening” (conservation). For three years I have been working full time to resurrect extinct species and protect endangered species using new genomic tools that are being developed for human medicine.
Revive & Restore is the name of the nonprofit I founded with my wife Ryan Phelan in 2012. With the mission “genetic rescue for endangered and extinct species,” we put on a series of conferences that assembled 70 conservationists, molecular biologists, and bioethicists from worldwide. As a result “de-extinction” became a widely understood and respected idea, and we got projects going to revive the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, and the heath hen (an extinct American wild chicken). The goal is full restoration to the wild, so as I told a reporter, “One woolly mammoth is not a success. A hundred thousand woolly mammoths back in the Arctic is a success.”
We are also exploring ways that the new genetic tools can reduce inbreeding in remnant populations of endangered species such as black-footed ferrets. The same tools might even be employed to cure non-native diseases such as avian malaria and sylvatic plague that are devastating many wild animals.
Revive & Restore of course has a website, and there are some fine new books on the subject. _How To Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction_, by Beth Shapiro [available next Spring]. _ReGenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves_, by George Church and Ed Regis. And Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology, by Mark V. Barrow, Jr.
One de-extinction project under way in Europe is to bring back the wild father of all cattle, the European Aurochs, which died out in the 17th century. With its return, the excessive reforesting of former farmland throughout Europe could be grazed to a more biodiverse mix of forests, meadows, and grassland. Europe is far ahead of America with its enthusiasm for that kind of rewilding.
On the other hand, Europe trails most of the world with its abiding misplaced suspicion of GMOs—transgenic food crops. As my two biotech chapters in this book should demonstrate, genetic technology has proved its environmental and medical safety many times over, and its benefits for the environment can be enormous. We are entering an era of “precision conservation,” where harmful invasive species and disease vectors can be carefully dialed down with biotech, and genetically bottlenecked endangered species can be dialed back up, to the enrichment of ecological diversity and health.
Mark Lynas, an ardent British environmentalist, used to be so anti-GMO that he helped destroy research crops. He says Whole Earth Discipline was a factor in changing his mind on the subject, and he now travels the world promoting transgenic crops, especially in Africa, where they are most needed. Mark and I also took converging paths in relation to nuclear power. Studying climate change forced us to switch from opposition to support, and we both wound up in an excellent feature-length film titled “Pandora’s Promise,” directed by Robert Stone. The film examines how five environmentalists changed their minds from anti- to pro-nuclear—me, Mark Lynas, Gwyneth Cravens, Richard Rhodes, and Michael Shellenberger. Included in the movie is a thorough scrutiny of the tsunami/meltdown disaster at Fukushima in Japan.
Radiation caused no deaths at Fukushima, nor any lingering illness, but the fiasco demonstrated the need for a new generation of meltdown-proof reactor designs, which is rapidly becoming available. France is the shining example of how to provide a national electricity grid that generates minimal greenhouse gases, thanks to nuclear power intelligently deployed. The coming generation of ever safer and more efficient reactor designs, especially the “small modular reactors,” could be developed by nuclear-savvy France to great economic advantage for the nation and climate-stabilizing benefit for the world.
The only thing I would add to my two chapters on urbanization is an outstanding new book that expands on many of my points: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, by Edward Glaeser.
My opening chapter on climate remains as I wrote it in 2009. If I were writing it now, I would change the title, “Scale, Scope, Stakes, Speed,” by removing the word “Speed.” The process of climate change is proving to be inexorable and ever more potentially catastrophic, but surface temperatures have not risen as rapidly as first feared, and the prospects of tipping points and “abrupt” climate change have diminished. With legions of scientists focussing on the issue, data is getting ever better, and so are the computer models. Though no nation has yet imposed a carbon tax, low-cost natural gas acquired by fracking has sped up the replacement of coal-fired power plants with gas-fired plants, thus emitting half the greenhouse gasses from those plants.
I am persuaded by climatologist David Keith that we will probably need to use geoengineering to slow down global warming later in this century, but if we begin serious research on how to do it properly now, we will be able to deploy proven techniques incrementally later at reasonable cost and with the ability to tune the process so that it is minimally disruptive. (That is the guideline for all the engineering solutions proposed in this book: always figure out how to intervene in natural systems with the lightest possible touch, and make sure that every intervention is designed to be closely monitored and adjusted and reversible if necessary.) Geoengineering that is conducted carefully and patiently, Keith says, could be totally phased out over two centuries, as excess greenhouse gasses are removed from civilization’s exhaust permanently.
Are we in the midst of a “Sixth Extinction” caused by climate change and other human impacts on the natural world, as many claim? To answer that, first note where most of the extinctions are and what is going on there. Island conservationist Josh Donlan points out that since 1600, 95% of all bird extinctions, 90% of all reptile extinctions, 60% of all mammal extinctions, and 70% of all plant extinctions have occurred on islands. As Darwin discovered, a profusion of unique speciation occurs on islands, so you get many tiny populations of creatures and plants endemic to their particular island. Each loss is a great loss for that island, but it does not have ecological impact outside the island. Thus the aggregate number of species loss worldwide looks more consequential than it actually is.
Extinctions on islands are caused primarily by invasive predators brought by humans—rats, cats, goats, pigs, etc. Thanks to innovative predator-eradication programs, largely devised by New Zealanders, some 650 islands have already had their major extinction problems cured permanently by total removal of the exotic predators. New tools such as “gene drive” coming from genomic technology will make that task far easier and less disruptive, and, once the techniques are refined, they could be used to protect biodiversity on continents as well as islands.
One leading researcher on climate-caused extinctions is Professor Chris Thomas, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of York in Britain. In an interview for New Scientist in 2014 he said, “People say we are in the throes of the sixth great extinction – as big as when an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The jury is still out on that. It might take human numbers in the billions for a thousand years to do that much damage”
In the meantime, Thomas pointed out, many new species are being created by the same human-caused forces that drive some to extinction. Any animal or plant facing changes in its environment has three choices—adapt, move, or die. Most are either adapting, which can lead to new species, or they are moving into new areas and then hybridizing with distant relatives that live there, which also leads to new species. “Genes are jumping around,” Thomas explains. “This hybridization quickly opens up evolutionary opportunities.” He concludes that the Anthropocene (human-dominated) era we live in may wind up with more new species being created than lost, with a net increase in biodiversity.
That’s only part of the story of course, and ecological health often depends on important keystone species like beaver and bison and apex predators such as wolves and lions. When those animals are endangered, as many are (elephants and rhinos in Africa! tigers in India!), we need to redouble efforts to help them thrive in the wild with protected areas, reduction of poaching, wildlife corridors, reintroduction to their former ranges, prudent eco-tourism, and—why not?—genomic assistance and de-extinction.
My model of an ecological activist is this: don’t just complain (which inspires guilt, gloom, and inaction); solve problems (which inspires hope, excitement, and more action). When in doubt about what to do, follow the science.
Better still, help lead the science.