Science May Be Able to Bring Back the Wooly Mammoth - but Should We?
The following excerpt is from the book Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species, by Ursula K. Heise (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission.
Anthropo-Scenarios: Rewilding, De-extinction, and Science Fiction
In discussions about humans’ transformations of global ecology and geochemistry, the concept of the Anthropocene has gained increasing importance over the past decade. The term was proposed in an article published in 2000 by the atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen and the ecologist Eugene Stoermer, who postulated that humankind no longer inhabits the Holocene, the geological era that refers to the period from the last Ice Age—circa twelve thousand years ago—to the present day. Rather, they argued, we have entered a new epoch that they call the “Anthropocene” or “Human Age” because humans have transformed the Earth to such an extent that our impact will even be visible in the planet’s geological stratification into the long-term future. Processes such as population growth, fossil-fuel burning, nitrogen production, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change, Crutzen and Stoermer argue, will be readable for future generations in the sediments that make up geological strata and will allow them to distinguish the current era from those that went before. They place the epochal threshold in the late eighteenth century, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and they argue that the changes that originated at the time of the invention of the steam engine have taken place at an even more rapid pace since World War II, the period they call the “Great Acceleration.” Geologists, understandably wary about the introduction of a new geological epoch that has to date lasted only two hundred years, will decide in 2016 whether the evidence indeed warrants this change of nomenclature.
In the meantime, the Anthropocene has developed a cultural life of its own. Indeed, it is at this point doubtful whether the geologists’ verdict will make much of a difference, considering the literature and debate the concept has already generated. Two journals, Anthropocene and Anthropocene Review, publish scholarship on the concept, and major research institutions and museums in Australia, Europe, and North America have organized conferences and exhibits around it. At least four full-length books, Christian SchwaÌˆgerl’s Menschenzeit: ZerstoÌˆren oder gestalten? Die entscheidende Epoche unseres Planeten (2010; translated as The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet, 2014), Jens Kersten’s Das AnthropozaÌˆn-Konzept: Kontrakt-Komposition-Konflikt (The Anthropocene idea: Contract-composition-conflict; 2014), Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (2014), and Jedediah Purdy’s After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (2015), explore the Anthropocene in its scientific, social, and cultural dimensions. For all of this attention, the idea of the Anthropocene is not entirely new: similar ideas about humans’ decisive reshaping of the planet run all the way from Stoppani’s “anthropozoic era” of 1873 and the idea of the “nooÌˆsphere” as developed by Vernadsky, Le Roy, and Teilhard de Chardin between the 1920s and the 1940s to Andrew Revkin’s 1992 “anthrocene” and Michael Samways’s coining, in 1999, of the “homogenocene.” But in recent years, it is the Anthropocene that has begun to circulate as a conceptual shorthand for describing a fundamental and global change in humans’ relationship to the natural environment.
In a simple descriptive sense, Crutzen and his collaborators argue that the magnitude of ecological and climatological transformations invites a change of scientific terminology: “The term Anthropocene . . . suggests that the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the present interglacial state called the Holocene. Human activities have be- come so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita." But the suggestion that a geological name change would be appropriate is, at a less descriptive and more political level, itself an attempt to wake up the scientific community as well as the general public to the scope of the human impact. There can be little doubt that Crutzen himself sees this impact as catastrophic:
During the past three centuries, the human population has increased tenfold to more than 6 billion and is expected to reach 10 billion in this century. The methane-producing cattle population has risen to 1.4 billion. About 30–50% of the planet’s land surface is exploited by humans. Tropical rainforests dis- appear at a fast pace, releasing carbon dioxide and strongly in- creasing species extinction. Dam building and river diversion have become commonplace. More than half of all accessible fresh water is used by mankind. Fisheries remove more than 25% of the primary production in upwelling ocean regions and 35% in the temperate continental shelf. Energy use has grown 16-fold during the twentieth century, causing 160 million tonnes of atmospheric sulphur dioxide emissions per year, more than twice the sum of its natural emissions. More nitrogen fertilizer is applied in agriculture than is fixed naturally in all terrestrial ecosystems; nitric oxide production by the burning of fossil fuel and biomass also overrides natural emissions. Fossil-fuel burn- ing and agriculture have caused substantial increases in the concentrations of “greenhouse” gases—carbon dioxide by 30% and methane by more than 100%—reaching their highest levels over the past 400 millennia, with more to follow.
Stated as a series of sober facts, this catalog nevertheless defines the Anthropocene as the sum of all environmental havocs humans have wreaked on the planet. When the term is used in public discussions or in the media, it is often accompanied by connotations of global disaster. From this perspective, the Anthropocene is merely a new word to mark the end- point of the typical environmentalist narrative of decline I discussed in chapter 1. That this decline will now be recorded even in geological strata just confirms how truly catastrophic humans’ impact has been.
But the idea of a planet reshaped by human agency has also triggered the opposite interpretation—awed celebration of humans’ expanded abilities. Most exuberantly, Diane Ackerman has claimed that “our relationship with nature has changed . . . radically, irreversibly, but by no means all for the bad” (2014, 14; original ellipsis). Even as she acknowledges the reality of ecological crises, she emphasizes technological innovation and social progress and in the end declares her faith in humans’ ability to overcome catastrophes: “We’re at a great turning, our own momentous fork in the road, behind us eons of geological history, ahead a mist-laden future, and all around us the wonders and uncertainties of the Human Age. These days . . . we control our own legacy. We’re not passive, we’re not helpless. We’re earth-movers. We can become Earth- restorers and Earth-guardians. We still have time and imagination, and we have a great many choices. . . . Our mistakes are legion, but our talent is immeasurable."
That much wide-eyed optimism and reliance on an unexamined global "we" may be hard to take seriously. But in between Crutzen’s pessimism and Ackerman’s optimism, the concept of the Anthropocene has become the staging ground for highly visible debates that cross the boundaries not only between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, but also between academic and public debates. Most immediately relevant for my investigation of the cultural meanings of endangered species is the confrontation between old and new forms of conservation: conservation with an emphasis on the protection of wild areas and the creation of parks and reserves, as opposed to conservation with an emphasis on landscapes altered or even created by humans and the integration of human uses with species protection. In a broader framework, the Anthropocene has given rise to debates about optimistic and pessimistic constructions of the future in environmentalism, about management and unintended consequences, about the human species as a historical agent and the inequalities that divide humans, about geological and economic history, and about anthropocentrism and the posthumanisms that have transformed the humanities and parts of the social sciences over the past quarter century.
Among the natural and social scientists who see the Anthropocene as an opportunity to move from old to new ideas about conservation, the geographer Erle Ellis, together with varied collaborators over time, has proposed the notion of the “anthrome” as the humanly altered complement to the biome. “For the foreseeable future, the fate of terrestrial ecosystems and the species they support will be intertwined with human systems: most of ‘nature’ is now embedded within anthropogenic mosa- ics of land use and land cover,” he argues. This kind of emphasis on the ecosystems humans have altered or created is rarely just descriptive in debates about the Anthropocene, but often comes with a call for a new kind of environmentalist storytelling, as is explicit in an op-ed piece Ellis coauthored with the science writer Emma Marris and the biologists Peter Kareiva and Joseph Mascaro in the New York Times, titled “Hope in the Age of Man”: “The Anthropocene does not represent the failure of environmentalism. It is the stage on which a new, more positive and forward-looking environmentalism can be built. This is the Earth we have created, and we have a duty, as a species, to protect it and manage it with love and intelligence. It is not ruined. It is beautiful still, and can be even more beautiful, if we work together and care for it."
The environmental blogger Andy Revkin has echoed this perspective in his well-known New York Times blog Dot Earth, in a post called “Embracing the Anthropocene”: “One clear reality is that for a long time to come, Earth is what we choose to make of it, for better or worse. Taking full ownership of the Anthropocene won’t be easy. The necessary feeling is a queasy mix of excitement and unease. . . . That’s a very different sensation than, say, mourning the end of nature. It’s more a celebration, in a way—a deeper acceptance of our place on the planet, with all of our synthetic trappings, and our faults, as fundamentally natural."
For Revkin, as for Ellis, Kareiva, Marris, and Mascaro, the Anthropocene is a new environmentalist orientation toward the future rather than the past, celebration rather than mourning, and a new sense that humans are able to transform the planet—not just involuntarily, but following deliberate choices. The German science writer Christian SchwaÌˆgerl echoes this sentiment in his book Menschenzeit, which ends on a note of hope, as does Emma Marris in the celebratory ending to her book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World: “We’ve forever altered the Earth, and so now we cannot abandon it to a random fate. It is our duty to manage it. Luckily, it can be a pleasant, even joyful task if we embrace it in the right spirit. Let the rambunctious gardening begin."
It is difficult not to sympathize with this future orientation and optimism, especially on the part of those who, like myself, are skeptical of the environmentalist tendency toward nostalgia, elegiac moods, and the latent misanthropy often found in the reverence for wilderness. But the bold confidence in statements such as these that humans will be able to manage the planet more successfully in the future than they have in the past is nevertheless surprising. It not only leaves out of consideration those large-scale natural processes over which humans have absolutely no control, which Nigel Clark has highlighted in Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet (2011): from the sunlight that we depend on to the earthquakes that endanger our cities, basic dimensions of nature remain resolutely nonhuman. It also glosses over the fact that some of the most fundamental human transformations of the planet took place outside our intention and control: climate change, toxification, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss, to name four large-scale problems, were not planned or intended by anyone, but came about as side effects of other activities, many of them so distributed over millions of humans that they were not even perceptible for a long time.
These circumstances might incline one to dismiss the self-confident invitations to humans to go forth and manage Earth as wishful thinking, or as an earnest but ultimately misguided attempt to think about ways to deal with unintended ecological consequences. But one might also argue, with long-time environmental advocate Stewart Brand, that, joyous or not, humans may really have no choice but to manage the Earth. Brand, founding editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, notoriously quipped in his preface to the first issue in 1968, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” But he has recently changed this slogan to “We are as gods and have to get good at it” (2011, 1; cf. Ackerman 2014, 150), a wording that implies a different and more constrained but also more urgent sense of humans’ eco-agency than the more playful quip from the beginnings of the modern environmentalist movement.
This sense of urgency has direct consequences for his vision of conservation. Brand, now a founding member of the Long Now Foundation, an organization dedicated to fostering thinking about the consequences of current human activities over the next ten thousand years, has become a champion of “de-extinction” projects (http://longnow.org /revive/). De-extinction is the umbrella term for various projects to recreate extinct species such as the mammoth, the aurochs, and the passenger pigeon with the help of genetic material found in fossils and museum specimens. Given the current state of biotechnology, the hope is that gaps in these genomes can be filled in with genes from currently existing species that are closely related to the extinct ones, or that key genes from extinct species might be inserted into closely related extant species. Elephant genes might be combined with mammoth genes, for example, or band-tailed pigeons’ genes with passenger pigeons.’ A provisional success in this endeavor was achieved in 2009 with the cloning of the Pyrenean ibex (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica), or “bucardo” in Spanish, a subspecies of the Spanish ibex that had gone extinct in early 2000, from frozen cells of the last specimen. But the cloned kid, in what German science writer Lothar Frenz, with some bemusement, calls a “seven-minute Renaissance,” survived only for seven minutes because of pulmonary problems, bestowing on this subspecies the dubious honor of going extinct not just once but twice.
Brand, who considers this incident a mere temporary setback, sees de-extinction as a way to bring back vanished forms of biodiversity and to help currently dwindling populations of endangered species, but also as a way of changing the environmentalist storytelling template. In an e-mail to the biologists George Church and E. O. Wilson, he suggested: The environmental and conservation movements have mired themselves in a tragic view of life. The return of the passenger pigeon could shake them out of it—and invite them to embrace prudent biotechnology as a Green tool instead of menace in this century. . . .
Wild scheme. Could be fun. Could improve things. It could, as they say, advance the story.
Brand here casts de-extinction not just as a conservation tool, but more broadly as a means of changing the tragic and elegiac stories environmentalists usually tell about species loss.