Crossing the Rubicon, or Conserving Its Bounty?

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The ecological crisis of our time calls for three great transformations in our worldview and in the relationship between humans and nature. The first of these is a transformation in our frameworks of thought (habits of mind). The second is a reorientation in the way we live, feel, and desire, individually and collectively (habits of the heart). The third, melding mind and heart, is a renewal and restructuring of our moral imagination (habits of conscience).

Changing our habits of mind involves critical analysis of our concepts and categories and bringing the best scientific knowledge to bear on our understanding of the world. Changing our habits of the heart involves the examination of the well-springs of human behavior and motivation and of the subtle forces influencing what we perceive to be our wants, our needs, and our rights in a consumption-oriented market society. Changing the content of our conscience involves the honing of our social and ethical principles and values that guide our actions and that form the justification and functioning of our major economic and political institutions.

Envisioning transformations like these in fundamental aspects of our way of life seems unrealistic until one considers that our society today is itself the product of a “great transformation” no less far-reaching and relatively recent. This took place in the United States (and in the Western world more generally) little more than a century ago, with the advent of a petroleum-based technology and a market society. In the past century land, labor, and indeed all life have been transformed, conceptually and practically, into commodities and have lost their meaning as systems or subjects of intrinsic value.

A pivotal time has come again. We live once more at a critical juncture in human and environmental history, a time in which the underlying conceptual, practical, and ethical foundations that sustain our lives are shifting. Major indications of this are all around us on a global scale. But one of the most striking examples, perhaps, comes not from large-scale climate change or loss of biodiversity, but from the smallest corner of the living world, the domain of what is currently known as “synthetic biology.” In late May, Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith announced that they had made a bacterium with an artificial genome—a creature with no ancestor. This is not the first instance of the synthetic assembly of DNA, but it is the most complex to date, and it is an action different in kind, not just in degree, from the genetic engineering that has been going on for nearly fifty years. Heretofore, human intervention has been limited to the manipulation of pre-existing components of life. Today we stand at the threshold of the purposeful creation of artificial life. An editorial on May 20, 2010, in The Economist magazine said—I think without undue hype—that “a Rubicon has been crossed. It is now possible to conceive of a world in which new bacteria (and eventually new animals and plants) are designed on a computer and then grown to order.”

The essays in this issue of Minding Nature form a contrast to the world of synthetic biology in a number of interesting ways.

Juliet Schor in her essay here, and more fully in her recently published book, gives us a paradigm of living nature whose bounty can be made available to promote human flourishing, but not through extraction or technological manipulation so much as through adjustments in the way we live and relate to other life of the kind I referred to earlier—transformations in our habits of mind, heart, and conscience. The supporters of synthetic biology argue that these techniques may hold the key to a new kind of green technology, operating at the nano-level, partly organic and partly inorganic, or perhaps some hybrid form that renders those categories obsolete. Meanwhile, Schor points out that we need “a new economy, not just an alternative energy system.”

In their wide-ranging essay on water, the remarkable molecule without which life as we know it surely would not have evolved on earth and certainly could not now subsist, Peter Brown and Jeremy Schmidt remind us of the hubris and the fantasy of human control over natural systems. Their alternative notion of “compassionate retreat” is based on a kind of knowledge that grows out of lived interaction within webs of complexity, not on abstract conceptions that are mechanistic and deliberately simplifying. This stance is also based on an appreciation of our relative ignorance concerning the evolutionary process that brought about—and the holistic processes that sustain—these webs of complexity. To be sure, the challenge of water management stands on the opposite end of the biological spectrum from the work of synthetic biologists; but if indeed the living world does present a spectrum, rather than a set of incommensurable domains, then the mindset of “management” may need reconceptualization no less in the realm of the genome as in the realm of the hydrologic system.

Articles by Curt Meine and Marybeth Lorbiecki each explore a culture of conservation that resonates with both plenitude and the wisdom of compassionate retreat. Reflecting on seventy-five years of conservation efforts in the United States, Meine vividly reminds us of the need for a grasp of complexity and accommodation to natural limits, rather than a search for simplification and control. Like Schor, he would bring the experience of the conservation movement to bear on economic and policy questions. Lorbiecki broaches the issue of needed cultural transformation by arguing that the major religious traditions and denominations must be connected to the conservation perspective if the latter is to gain more widespread political and moral support. The view she provides of the synergy between religion and conservation is a general one, but she focuses explicit attention on Roman Catholicism and reveals the deep resources of thought and feeling that faith tradition holds for a sustaining connection, a vision of right relationship, between humanity and nature.

I hope that the essays in this issue of Minding Nature will all serve to stimulate and guide our reflection on what might be called the “paradox of human being.” This paradox resides in the fact that we are at once dependent on the world of natural life and yet powerful enough to break away from it by creating an artificial world and a technological simulacrum of natural life. Heretofore in history manifested only in limited ways and on local scales, this human power to manipulate the natural and to create the artificial has reached the threshold of world-transforming potential on a global scale. Our lot is to be what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has called “dependent rational animals.” Our temptation is to believe that we are more than this, or that our reason can be detached from our dependency and our embodiment in nature. 

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.

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