Humans Supplant God; Everything Changes

Bill McKibben

When I worked on newspapers, we lived in constant fear of “burying the lead”—of sticking the real news in the sixth paragraph because we’d been mesmerized by something flashier but less substantial.

I’ve thought of that idea a thousand times in the last decade, as I’ve watched politicos and academicians miss coming to grips with the story that really defines our time on this planet. Just in case you missed it, here’s the lead that our descendants will stamp on the story of this moment: In the blink of an eye, and with hardly a thought, our species has come to the verge of dominating everything that happens on the surface of the planet.

When I say “in the blink of an eye,” I mean it almost literally. Although the possibility of atomic war and then the insidious spread of chemicals like DDT gave us the first intuitions that our reach might be growing global, it is really with the advent of human-caused climate change that we’ve managed to run our fingers over every square inch of the planet’s crust and every cubic meter of its atmosphere. And only for the last decade—fifteen years at the outside—have we been able to measure with real precision the changes we are causing, or to begin calculating their likely effects. In that time we’ve watched spring come an average of seven days earlier across the northern hemisphere; we’ve watched severe storms increase by a fifth across this continent; we’ve watched the sea level start inexorably to rise as glaciers melt and warmer seas expand; we’ve watched animals begin to change migration and breeding patterns. We’ve watched, in other words, incredibly speedy and incredibly large changes in basic physical forces, all caused by the habits and appetites of one species. Ten years ago, the magnitude of these changes was still open to debate; even the notion of whether they were caused by human emissions remained a theory. Now, after a decade of frenetic research, only a tiny fringe of scientists remain unconvinced or unconcerned.

In precisely the same ten years—fifteen at the outside—we’ve watched genetic manipulation go from a small corner of the scientific enterprise to the very center of economic life. A decade ago, agronomists were conducting early trials of a few genetically engineered plants; this summer half the corn and soybeans planted in North America carry genes they could never have acquired with the kind of breeding human beings engaged in for the 8,000 years leading up to 1990. We now possess the power to redesign every biological system on the planet—every living thing, every chunk of creation—for our own convenience, pleasure, and profit. Maybe that’s good news; maybe that’s bad news; but it’s definitely news.

The headline for the story about the last years of the Cretaceous Era is pretty obvious: “Big Chunk of Rock Slams Into Earth; Everything Changes.” And the headline for our moment is equally stark. Forget the Internet, forget even the end of communism. “Humans Supplant God; Everything Changes.” This is to our moment what civil rights was to my parents and the Second World War to their parents, and the Civil War to their great-great-grandparents—the overwhelming moral question of the moment, fraught with practical consequences, capable of yielding whole new ways of looking at the world.

So how come we’ve mostly missed it? How come this question is not preoccupying every philosopher and every planner and every theologian—not to mention English professor, policy maker, and educator? Why isn’t it at the top of the agenda for every smart person who’s theoretically concerned with the connection between human beings and something larger? Even the problems of social injustice that still plague us don’t come with such pressing time limits. But if we fail to make—and quickly—major changes in the way we use fossil fuels, for example, then we might as well not even try. These problems have risen suddenly, and they must be solved suddenly; but instead they’re left to lurk around the fringes of academic discourse.

Partly we’ve failed to act because we’ve become pretty denatured. Those of us who live in cities and suburbs have been inside so long it’s hard for us to notice that the outside is changing. The thinking professions have concentrated so relentlessly on the relations between human beings that the existence of something larger than us becomes a vague memory. The economy seems more real to us than the ecosphere.

And we’ve failed to act also because these problems are so big. We’ve learned to break issues down into ever-smaller pieces; grappling with fundamental threats to creation requires moving in the opposite direction. These threats demand big theories, grand commitments.

But even those academics who have noticed what’s under way have managed to trivialize the moment we live in with a kind of clever logic that serves to mask our unprecedented situation. One group of environmental philosophers and historians, for instance, has repeatedly pointed out that human beings have always altered the world around them. It’s hard to find an example of true “wilderness” on this continent, they say, because indigenous people periodically burned the land, changing its species composition somewhat. Therefore, what happens when you pave a wilderness, or when you turn it into a desert through global warming, is simply an extension of what the Amerindians did.

Or consider genetic engineering. We’ve bred corn for millennia, the argument goes, in an effort to give us plumper ears or hardier plants; therefore, snipping the genetic code off a beetle and inserting it in acorn plants is merely an extension of our old practice. No big deal. No need for a headline, business as usual, don’t get excited.

It is perhaps too extreme to call this an intellectual con game, a scam. But not by much. Here’s how it seems to work: A breakthrough is announced: Dolly the sheep has been cloned. In the papers, a series of “bioethicists” explain that it’s really not all that different from what went before. The inventor says it’s very difficult to do with sheep, and there’d certainly be no reason to do it with humans. A presidential panel is appointed, never to be heard from again. A year later, the same technique works with mice, only this time the process is much easier; you can clone mice almost at will, which leads some other authorities to speculate that, in fact, human applications may not be so distant. But there is no need for worry: really, it’s like what happened with Dolly. And so on, ad infinitum, each development seen merely as a small change from the one before. If you say, “Whoa, hold on, that seems like a big step to me, maybe we should talk about it,” you’re dismissed as backward-looking.

This is all rather like the game where you need to transform, say, L-O-V-E to H-A-T-E by moving one letter at a time. Examined move by move, nothing very significant seems to be happening, but before long you’ve concocted something entirely new.

The point is that quantitative changes can be so large that they become qualitative. Yes, people have always changed the world around them; since we’re slow and furless, we’ve had little choice. We’ve always altered the environments around our settlements, around our fields, around our hunting grounds; in recent centuries we’ve gone much farther. And yet there remains a visceral distance between those kinds of alterations and the new wholesale changes; witness, if nothing else, the orders-of-magnitude increase in the extinction rates we’re now causing. Whole ecosystems like coral reefs are disappearing, and yet the frog-in-a-heating-pot school keeps telling us nothing much is new. Pay no attention to those bubbles, ignore that scalding sensation.

Or, better yet, celebrate it. Declare that in this grand new world we’ll all be cyborgs—and weren’t we sort of cyborgs when we first put on eyeglasses!? And anyway, cyborgs are tremendous! And transgressive! And whatnot! In such fashion we’ve danced across this threshold, or nearly across it, with the unconcern of mariners crossing the dateline.

Not that all such developments, of course, are necessarily wrong. (You can even find those—although their numbers are steadily shrinking—who argue that global warming will benefit some regions by making certain kinds of agriculture easier.) My point is that we need to recognize the magnitude of the changes now under way. And if we are intellectually serious, and morally serious, we need to engage in far more soul-searching than we’ve done so far about whether they make sense or not. Soul-searching about whether we might want to confine genetic manipulation to certain problems of human health; whether we might want to respect the basic integrity of other species (which have always been defined precisely by who they will and won’t share genetic material with); and whether we might want to make an all-out effort to lessen our impact on the earth’s climate, even if it’s too late to prevent it altogether.

It’s odd how well the scientific process works—in a decade it has reached consensus on the question of whether climate change is occurring, and in the same decade it has forever uncracked the gene. By comparison, the other disciplines seem to travel with an almost oafish unconcern through these new waters, pretending that the old charts work just fine. Only on the fringes—among the nature writers, say—has the moment of our moment really been noticed. The irony, perhaps, is that our domination may carry the seeds of our own diminution. The forces we unleash by raising the temperature—and quite possibly the forces we unleash with what is essentially reckless genetic tinkering—may be so strong that they may overwhelm us. You can’t roll back winter forever before fundamental problems result. But when they do, there will doubtless be some new Ecclesiastes around to point out that there’s nothing new under the sun.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1