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The Hard Green Revolution

Perhaps it's time to imagine a new variety of environmentalist, one whose focus is human survival.
 
 
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It seems that being an astronaut can bring out the protective in you. "The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone: our home, which must be defended like a holy relic."

That was how Alexei Leonov described his feelings on seeing our planet from space. He wasn't the only one to experience a sense of anxiety. For the American James Irwin, "that beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart."

At the time of the Apollo 8 mission, the first to go into lunar orbit, the wider environmental movement was still in its infancy. But seeing pictures of the earth rising over the moon, hearing the comments of those who had seen it for real, must have made a lot of ordinary people stop and think. The accounts of Leonov, Irwin and others drew attention to the ultimate vulnerability of our home planet, a tiny, defenseless object in the vast blackness of space. The earth is small, and it's the only home we have. If we mess things up, it's curtains for the whole shebang.

Well, yes and no. A lot of environmental discourse is couched in terms of "humans vs. the planet" -- as if Earth, like a Christmas bauble, will simply break if played with too recklessly. Human settlement poisons or destroys the natural world wherever the two come into contact. It's become a cliche, and it's certainly an easy concept to grasp, but might there be another way of looking at the situation we find ourselves in?

We tend to take it for granted that we are more powerful than nature. We dam rivers, cut down and occasionally plant forests, we reclaim land. If anyone's going to get hurt in this relationship, it'll be Gaia, our long-suffering mistress.

In fact, we're very far from having nature tamed, let alone on its last legs. Stephen Jay Gould took pains to point this out in his essay, " The Golden Rule: A Proper Scale for Our Environmental Crisis." He explains that "all the megatonnage in all our nuclear arsenals yields but one ten-thousandth the power of the 10km asteroid that might have triggered the Cretaceous mass extinction. Yet the earth survived that larger shock."

Despite what you may read in the papers, we're in absolutely no danger of extinguishing life on this planet. "We can surely destroy ourselves, and take many other species with us, but we can barely dent bacterial diversity and will surely not remove many million species of insects and mites. On geological scales, our planet will take good care of itself and let time clear the impact of any human malfeasance," says Gould.

I suspect that this would still come as a surprise to the majority of those who've picked up the environmental message over the past 30 years or so. So much of the emphasis has been on a catastrophic loss of biodiversity for which humans are clearly responsible. Evidently, the history of the biosphere is one of growth and differentiation, occasional mass extinction and further differentiation. Though we might now be killing off record numbers of species this doesn't mean those that do escape the scourge won't survive to flourish under the changed conditions. Nature will always reconstitute itself. For its ultimate destruction, we may have to wait for the explosion of its fuel cell, the sun.

Given the likelihood that Mother Earth is rather more robust than we give her credit for, it's possible to imagine a new variety of environmentalist, one whose focus is human survival. These people might choose to call themselves "Hard Greens" (they might come up with a better name). For them, the question of whether or not we should be kind to the planet would be less one of "save the whales" altruism and more one of tough-talking, practical approaches to human safety.

What would Hard Greens on the lookout for existential threats worry about most? They might do well to seek the advice of thinkers like Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute.

In his 2001 paper "Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards," Bostrom sorts the various possibilities for human extinction into bangs, crunches, shrieks and whimpers, according to the precise character of our journey down the toilet. Bostrom's a philosopher, and some of his doomsday scenarios are a little abstruse (I particularly like the possibility of "take-over by a transcending upload"), but those classified as "bangs" are easy enough to grasp. The roll call includes asteroid impact, pandemic or runaway global warming. Several are the result of unchecked scientific innovation.

Technological development has always posed a thorny problem for mankind. On the one hand it brings benefits that are labor-saving and life-prolonging -- on the other, potential dangers. Nuclear power crystalized this debate for a long time. Dreams of an almost endless supply of cheap clean fuel were marred by the prospect of accidental leaks, weapons proliferation and long-term contamination. Newer technologies -- in particular those that harness the power of natural processes -- need to be monitored just as carefully.

As with nuclear science, perhaps the greatest danger lies in civilian technology being adapted for military ends. In the bio- and nanotech worlds the consequences of weaponization would be fearsome. But public safety is usually thought of only in the wake of massive funding for scientific investigation. The trouble is, it's very easy to be seen as getting in the way of progress. In Britain, Tony Blair's appointee science minister, Lord Sainsbury, did a good job of making Prince Charles look like a fuddy-duddy in 2003 when he voiced concerns about the rapid expansion of nanotech research.

Nanoscience, which paves the way for construction on the molecular scale, will soon give birth to a technology that saves us time and helps us live longer. It will also be hijacked by rogue states and terrorists. Governments must take the long view, weighing up the predicted benefits against the potential for weapons development, then determine policy on that basis. Robust environmentalism is a question of managing technology, keeping a firm grip on the tiller, imposing severe restrictions on some types of research, erring on the side of caution.

Then of course, there's climate change. It might not spell the end for the biosphere, as we've seen, but it could very well wreck human civilization. For James Higham, a zoologist at Roehampton University, London, the outlook is gloomy. "There's an enormous amount of uncertainty, but we're potentially looking at a serious reduction in human welfare, particularly in the developing world."

The rich world must act now, not only to put their own houses in order, but to make things easy for poorer nations to do the same.

"You can't expect the world's poorest people to bear all of the burden -- it just won't happen" says Higham, who has also worked for the Overseas Development Institute. Nations like Brazil, which could make a lot of money from disposing of its natural resources, must be compensated for not doing so. Kyoto goes some way toward correcting the imbalance. Countries with large tracts of forest, which tend to be in less developed zones, will not have to adjust as much as their industrialized counterparts in order to meet the demands of the treaty since it recognizes their role in the sequestration of carbon dioxide.

As to the realities of lowering carbon emissions, Higham sides resolutely with James Lovelock, who recently revealed his support for the use of nuclear energy to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Nuclear may be unnatural, unnerving, costly, but these are considerations the Hard Greens would be willing to sweep aside. If it's what it takes, then we'd better get on with it.

Who'd be left behind by the Hard Green revolution? The kind of environmentalism that owes more to aesthetics than science would have to come clean. Let's be honest, why do European conservationists prefer the white-headed duck to the ruddy duck? Is it because the latter was introduced artificially and is now disrupting native ecosystems? Or because it's commoner, less attractive and American?

There's nothing wrong with wanting to preserve something because it's beautiful or because it has some symbolic value. We do it with cultural artifacts all the time. To pretend that it's an exercise in saving the planet isn't really necessary. Landscapes that have been restored to their "natural" states are simply the Uffizi or the Louvre of the natural world. When we create a national park or rescue a species from extinction, it must be because we want our world to be a rich and glorious place to live, not to somehow erase all traces of man's presence.

Hard Greens wouldn't engage with the labyrinthine moral arguments around our right to "play God." Having made their peace with nature's realpolitik, they could waste less time hand-wringing. What's more important is not whether by some arbitrary measure it can be judged natural, but whether it's dangerous. More to the point, is it likely to devastate our habitat? If not, then it's a pretty low priority, because there are already plenty of things that could.

It would make a refreshing change to the way the debate about our environment is conducted to put humans at the center of things: We're vulnerable, though it might not suit our self-image to say so. We'll have to wait and see whether national governments, the lumbering architecture of international treaties or even individuals are capable of mustering the will to save Homo sapiens. One thing, I suspect, will hold true: Only the Hard Greens will inherit the earth.

David Shariatmadari is a freelance writer in London.