Where Do We Fit In?
It was a beautiful day in the Black Hills, one of those days when the sky was so blue and the grass was so green that it just made your teeth ache. My wife and I had pulled into the dirt parking lot at the trailhead and were getting our hiking gear out of the trunk of our car. Suddenly, two rather agitated park workers came running up the trail. "Watch out," they said, "there's a bull buffalo coming."
And there he was, ambling slowly along the side of the hill. Not deigning to notice the wondering humans, the buffalo strolled by, grazing on the lush grass. He was big, probably near a ton in weight, and we could see the muscles rippling along his back and flanks. The deep brown of his fur contrasted with the dark tree trunks along the trail; the black of his face almost matched them. Being sure to stay behind our car, we watched as he moved along the side of the parking lot and on down the trail we were planning to hike. At that moment, with the sun shining on that magnificent beast, I experienced a feeling that is probably familiar to most modern urbanites. It was a feeling of rightness, a feeling that somehow, in this experience, I was seeing the world as it ought to be, as it would be if only humanity had not decided to pursue technology and had stayed in communion with nature.
We waited about ten minutes, then started out on our hike, following the direction the buffalo had taken. Our paths seemed to move in parallel that day, and throughout the afternoon we kept an eye on our buffalo friend, being sure to keep at least two city blocks between us. My wife decided that I had earned an Indian name--Walks With Buffalo. (My own suggestion--Runs Like Hell From Buffalo--was summarily rejected.) But as the afternoon wore on, I kept coming back to that initial reaction, that purely emotional response to being in contact with an aspect of nature that's not part of everyday experience. And as I mulled it over, I began to realize that I had stumbled onto an important dilemma that faces modern humans--the dilemma of being part of nature, yet not being part of it at the same time.
After all, here I was, driving up to a trailhead in South Dakota in a car that is a technological achievement of the first order. The power in that car's computers probably exceeds the power of the primitive computers I used to write my Ph.D. thesis more years ago than I care to remember. I was wearing hiking boots that were marvels of the engineer's art, and protecting my skin with sun block created in a major chemical factory. And to what end was I applying all this technology? To go out and spend a day far from anything engineered or constructed by human beings, to get in touch with "nature." I, along with the dozens of hikers sharing the trails with me that day, was using what science and technology had produced to escape from that very same science and technology.
I am, of course, not alone in having these sorts of contradictory feelings about the world we share. Most of us want to live comfortably, enjoying climate-controlled homes and traveling about freely in private cars. At the same time, we don't want to confront the pollution attendant on drilling for oil or burning coal. We love getting away to places like the Black Hills to camp and hike and live a simple life, but we're also very happy to get back to our urban homes, with a coffee shop around the corner and all the conveniences of civilization at our beck and call. We love hiking through old-growth forests, but a stroll down Fifth Avenue also ranks pretty high on our list of favorite activities. Tons of ink have been spilled by writers trying to convince us that one or the other of these tendencies--"civilization" or "nature"--is antithetical to the good life, or to morality, or to common sense.
But the more I thought about it, the more I began to entertain a heretical thought. What, I wondered, if both of these types of activities are profoundly in tune with human nature? What if we are, in fact, creatures equally at home in the quiet of a wilderness area and the hurly-burly of the city? What if both the beauty of a deserted beach and the Lake Michigan shoreline, in the shadow of Chicago's skyscrapers, are places where we belong? What if, in other words, there is no essential conflict between our need for technology and our need to seek renewal in its absence? What if our ability to create "unnatural" technologies is, in fact, the most natural thing we can do?
For there is no question, from a scientific point of view, that human beings are an integral part of the great web of life that exists on our planet. Like every other living thing, we are one result of a great experiment in molecular biology that began four billion years ago in the warm waters of the Earth's oceans, when life first appeared on our planet. We depend on the workings of the great web of life that surrounds us for all of our necessities--things like clean air, clean water, and the food we eat.
The more I thought about this question, the more I realized that there was another aspect to it. Yes, human beings are part of life on our planet, but we have also had a profound effect on the workings of the planet as well. In fact, if you think about nature as something that happens in the absence of human beings, then nature has largely disappeared from the Earth. The air that buffalo and I were breathing in the Black Hills that day, for example, was loaded with molecules produced by human activities on all of the planet's continents. The same is true of the water we drank, the weather we experienced, and the food we ate. "Nature" has become, in a very real sense, "human."
So there can be no questioning the fact that we are somehow different from other living things. There are many dimensions of this difference, but the ability to understand the world around us in abstract terms (what we call science) and the ability to use that understanding to change the environment in which we live (what we call technology) is surely one of the most important. If an extraterrestrial were to visit Earth, the first thing it would notice is that there is one species--Homo sapiens--that dominates the environment, changing it to meet the needs of the species. Humans just aren't like everything else.
It is this duality--this being in nature but not being in nature--that is at the root of what was bothering me out there in South Dakota. There are many ways of expressing the duality: where we come from versus where we're going, how we're the same versus how we're different, how we depend on the global ecosystem versus how we control it, and so on. But to understand what all of this means to us today, we have to step back and take a broader view of both sides of the equation, of both humanity and nature.
In a sense, the rest of this book will be a detailed look at what happens when you do that. All of us are used to thinking of the world in a certain way, of approaching problems through a comfortable and familiar process. For scientists, a familiar way of dealing with something like determining the proper place of humanity in nature is to look at history, at how things got to be the way they are. The idea, of course, is that once you know this, you have a better chance of figuring out where things are going.
It is clear that in the beginning, our ancestors weren't much different from other primates. I usually picture australopithecines like the famous "Lucy," who walked around Africa three million years ago, as being a lot like modern chimpanzees (except that our ancestors walked upright). They really were part of nature, subject to its laws, not all that different from other life-forms. In this "natural" world, their children died of diseases we no longer think about and their life expectancy measured a few paltry decades. As time passed, our species evolved into modern Homo sapiens, but the basics of human life changed only slightly. After all, stone axes and fire (two of the first great technological achievements of our kind) don't give you much of a barrier against a hostile world. Nevertheless, our ancestors were, in a sense, "in tune" with the natural world, interacting with it in ways that we can only imagine.
From a scientific point of view, what differentiates the lives of those ancestors from our own is easy to state--they lived out their lives in a world completely governed by the iron laws of natural selection. In a world governed by natural selection, characteristics of organisms are transmitted genetically from one generation to the next, and "unsuccessful" traits (those that do not allow an organism to reproduce and pass on its genes) are weeded out in the long run. Natural selection is a slow, inexorable process, but it's the way the Earth's biosphere has developed for almost allof the planet's history. So important is this fact that I will suggest later that whether or not a system operates according to the laws of natural selection is as good a way as any of defining the term "nature."
But then, about ten thousand years ago, the situation began to change. A succession of people, probably women in the Middle East, discovered that it was possible to grow plants and harvest their food, rather than to gather what nature produced on its own. With the development of agriculture, followed by the slow buildup of technology leading to the explosions of the scientific and industrial revolutions, we gradually removed ourselves from the natural system, based on survival of the fittest, and began to construct our own world. We learned how to grow food instead of gathering what nature offered; we learned to inoculate our children against disease and care for our sick. The more we separated ourselves from nature, the less we were willing to be content with what nature offered, the more successful we became, the greater our numbers, the richer our lives. This was what I like to consider the first step--the first separation of the human race from the "natural" scheme of things. In it, the human race stepped out of natural selection and into a world where science and technology increasingly dominated our choices and our future.
There are two ways to think about this first step. One is to note that those early farmers made a fateful decision--they decided that they would not be content to live with what nature offered freely, but would find ways to extract more from the world than the world would willingly give. A modern pharmaceutical scientist developing a new medicine and a modern engineer designing a better communication system are both following in that ancient tradition. The other way to think about the first step is to note that because of it, human beings (along with those plants and animals we have domesticated) are the only living things on this planet whose development is no longer bound by the process of natural selection. Both of these aspects of the first step have profound implications for the human future on our planet.
The importance of moving beyond natural selection can't be overemphasized. The move was profoundly unnatural, for although we still depend on the natural world for many things, as our technological abilities have increased, that dependence has become more and more attenuated.Leaving this aspect of nature behind has had a profound effect on humanity as a whole as well as on individual human beings. Our dependence on (and our awareness of) the natural world has shrunk steadily.
There is no question that our species benefited from this change. By any material measure--the number of human beings in the world, average calorie intake, area of land settled and dominated--the human race prospered beyond all possible dreams. And yet ... and yet ... something seems to be missing. The more material goods we accumulated, the more the natural world faded into the background of our lives, the more we seemed alienated from life. I'm not suggesting that all (or even a significant fraction) of modern psychological woes are a direct result of the agricultural revolution, but it certainly led to a world where the relationship between humans and nature is less clear than it used to be.
But there is good news, because advances in a number of fields of science are developing the tools that will allow us to take a second step--a step that, in its own way, is as important as the development of agriculture. This revolutionary work will, when brought together, result in a complete recasting of the relationship between human beings and nature.
In the nineteenth century, we learned the first great secret of life--that it is based on chemistry. In the twentieth century, we learned that the instructions for carrying out those chemical reactions were coded onto molecules of DNA in our cells. In this century, scientists are starting to learn how to manipulate those instructions--to get under the hood of living systems, as it were. Genetically modified foods, new medicines, and clones are just three examples of new things coming from this knowledge and ability. Like our hunter-gatherer ancestors who discovered that they don't have to be content with the foods provided by nature, modern scientists are developing the ability to craft living things into forms more to our liking. In the future, natural selection will be replaced by human manipulation of genomes. You may approve or disapprove of humans having this ability, but you can't deny that the ability is being developed.
There has been, historically, a feeling that ecosystems are, somehow, too complex for humans to understand and control. Confronted with complex problems, however, scientists often return to their roots as tinkerers and craftsmen. They observe, experiment, change parameters, and just plain mess around with whatever they're studying until gradually, piece by piece, they begin to get a sense--a feeling, really--about how the object of their attention works. For the last thirty to forty years, scientists have been tending plots of prairie grass, watching controlled forest patches, and counting cacti in the desert. The result is that we are coming to understand the general rules that govern ecosystems, the rules that govern things like the biological diversity in a place, or the rules that govern the roles of various nutrients in specific ecosystems. As with genomics, we're starting to "get under the hood" of ecosystems.
Complex systems are defined to be those in which there are many agents and in which the actions of one agent can depend on the actions of all the others. A stock market, where buyers and sellers engage in a perpetual dance of action and reaction, is the classic example of a complex system, as are most large ecosystems. Complexity as a science is still only a few decades old, but it is clearly the science that we will need to understand the natural systems around us. Just as the experimental ecologists are giving us the tools to understand the basic workings of nature, the complexity theorists will supply us with the mathematical ability to predict (or at least estimate) outcomes of human interventions.
Tying these three sciences together, and underlying all of them, are the great advances in computing, data storage, and analysis that we call the information revolution. Computers allow us to store data on the thousands of variables that can affect an ecosystem, to track the effects of things like rainfall and temperature over long periods of time, and to develop huge models that predict the future development of forests, river drainages, and farmland.
A word of caution: here and in the rest of the book, I will often talk about these developments in the present tense, but you should always be aware that they are forming and developing; they are not yet complete. Some of the pieces are already in place, but others, particularly in the areas of genetic manipulation and large-scale ecosystem management, will not be ready for a while. Given the pace of previous scientific advances, however, it's hard to imagine that it will take more than twenty years for the things I'm talking about to become reality, which means that it's not too early to start thinking about them now.
Scientists have been assembling knowledge over the past couple of decades in genomics, complexity, and experimental ecology, and this knowledge, taken together, leads inexorably to a new view of the human relationship to nature. Its effect will be to return human beings to nature, not as participants, as our ancestors were, but as managers. In this future, the separation between humans and nature will begin to diminish, but not necessarily in ways that are either expected or welcomed by environmental philosophers. Like it or not, ready or not, we have become the caretakers of this planet.
In fact, the best way to think of our future relationship to our planet is to think of the relationship between a gardener and a garden. No gardener wantonly destroys his or her plants, but every gardener pulls out weeds. A garden is managed to meet the needs of the gardener, and in just the same way, because of the advances described above, we are acquiring the ability to manage our planet, to shape it as we will for our own benefit. This is a message of enormous hope. The Earth is not a fragile, hopeless place, forever at the mercy of some guy with a chain saw. It is a complex, resilient system that we can learn to manage.
To summarize the scientific part of my argument, then, a look at the human past and at the state of modern science allows us to identify two enormous steps, one taken long ago, one in the process of being taken. The first step took us out of the realm of natural selection, the realm in which "nature" is to be found. The second step will make us, for better or for worse,the managers of our planet. Nature will no longer be something apart from human beings, but will be, in a very real sense, "human nature."
But the message of this newfound human ability will not be welcomed universally. For one thing, the modern scientific view of the global ecosystem has not penetrated the popular consciousness. Most people believe in what I call the tenets of pop ecology--that the planet is threatened, that until humans came along the planet enjoyed a stable climate, that we are in the middle of a massive and unprecedented extinction of species, and so on. One of the first things that has to be done before we look at our glowing future, then, is to clear away this underbrush and begin thinking about the planet as it actually is. We will find that the real situation is much more complicated than the simple tenets of pop ecology would have us believe. In some cases (climate stability, for example) the tenets are simply wrong, in others (chemical pollution and extinctions, for example) the situation is complicated, and a careful analysis of the available data is needed to evaluate the claims. In the end, we will have to come to grips with the existence of uncertainty in much of our knowledge about the planet and think about making wise choices in the face of that uncertainty.
Once we have done this, we will be confronted with one of the most important questions that will be asked in this new century: given that we have the ability to manage our planet, what will we manage it for? In our day-to-day decisions, how do we use the ability to control the global ecosystem, and to what end do we use that ability?
This is not a scientific question. Our new areas of knowledge, like all science, tell us how the planet works, but they say nothing about how it ought to work. Science may be able to tell you how to get to a goal, but it says nothing about how to choose that goal. By its very nature, science ignores the ethical (some would say the sacred) nature of what it studies. The new sciences may be able to tell me a lot about that buffalo I saw, for example, but they really can't say much about what I felt when I saw it or about the way that other people feel about nature.
In fact, the evolving view of nature in the modern industrialized world is something of an aberration in human history. For most of recorded history, human beings lived at the edge of disaster. Any natural event--a flood, a drought, a sudden influx of disease--could (and did) decimate human populations. To these people, nature was not a pleasant, warm place, but aconstant danger, a constant dark force in their lives. Only when nature was tamed and brought under control--in a garden, for example--could it be enjoyed.
This attitude toward nature is clearly visible in the founding principles of the United States. Reading the sermons of seventeenth-century preachers in the Massachusetts Colony, one finds the notion of the city, built and maintained by humans, as the only proper place to be. To venture into the dark, forbidding forests was not only to place the safety of your physical body at risk, but to place your immortal soul in peril as well.
All of this began to change during the romantic movement of the nineteenth century. Most scholars see this movement as a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but untamed and uncontrolled nature suddenly became a positive thing in intellectual life. Land was set aside for national parks in a new reverence for untouched nature: paintings of the Hudson River School in the eastern United States as well as the paintings of artists like Albert Bierstadt in the West captured this view of the world. The beginnings of the modern environmental movement with men like John Muir came from this tradition. In fact, a statement from Muir made in opposition to using the Hetch Hetchy valley as a reservoir for the city of San Francisco could easily have been written yesterday:
Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.
To my mind, both the romantic and environmental movements are products of privilege. Only if you know that there will be enough food no matter what happens can you have the luxury of enjoying a barren desert or a forbidding mountain range. Only if you know that your children will be warm and safe can you enjoy the awesome beauty of a thunderstorm. It is no accident that the environmental movement was born and flourishes in North America and Europe, where modern technology has allowed people to forget the precariousness of human existence. If I had to characterize the attitude of many people toward nature today, words like "reverence" and "stewardship" would come to mind. Many Americans have astrong emotional bond to what we call the "environment" and a real aversion to human incursions into the wilderness.
This means that when we talk about the future, it isn't enough to talk about new areas of knowledge. We have to add an extra dimension to our science. In this case, that extra dimension would involve the criteria we should use to apply our newfound managerial skills, and we cannot derive those criteria from the science itself. Each of us has to reach deep inside himself or herself and decide how our moral or spiritual calculus will deal with our new relationship with nature. To put it as bluntly as possible, the choices we make for the goals of our ability to manage nature are essentially moral and ethical choices, while the way we achieve those goals are decisions of technical management.
I expect that the discussion about this (nonscientific) issue of the proper goals for our management will generate the most debate on the arguments in this book, so I want to emphasize that the moral position I will be advocating represents an individual opinion, not a consensus among scientists.
When I go through the exercise of asking how the planet should be managed, I come up with a very simple rule:
The global ecosystem should be managed for the benefit, broadly conceived, of human beings.
I call this the benefit-to-humans principle.
At first glance, this may seem like an unexceptional statement--after all, it is humans who will be managing the planet, so of course it will be managed for their benefit. There are, however, well-thought-out philosophical positions that take markedly different approaches, including, for example, the view that the planet should be managed to promote things like biodiversity, the survival of endangered species, or some abstract view of "nature." I'll leave the discussion of those views for later in this book and for the moment will illustrate how the benefit-to-humans principle, combined with our new management ability, would affect the way we deal with three typical environmental issues. My three examples are: (1) the distribution of water in the Klamath River Basin in southern Oregon, where I think the conventional environmental approach gets things egregiouslywrong, (2) urban air quality, where I think the conventional environmental approach has pretty much got it right, and (3) global warming and the greenhouse effect, where the data do not yet give us a clear idea of how to apply the standard of human benefit.
The Klamath River Basin
You really can't understand the western United States unless you understand water. Water is scarce in most of the high plains, and elaborate legal and cultural institutions have grown up to deal with its allocation. Without irrigation, most of the area west of the one hundredth meridian (a line that, roughly, bisects the Dakotas and Nebraska) could not support agriculture of any kind. In Montana, for example, where I have spent a great deal of time, the importance of water is illustrated by a folk saying: "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting."
For many people, the most unfamiliar of the concepts that surround water in the West is that of the water right. It works like this: when a settler moved in and acquired land, he also filed a claim for water rights. This gave him the right to obtain a specific amount of water each year from a particular river or irrigation canal. In the event of a drought or water shortage, state employees begin to shut off irrigation water, starting with the most recent water right. Thus, for example, someone with a 1910 water right may continue to receive his full allotment during a drought while someone with a 1982 water right may be cut off without a drop. The water right, then, is a kind of agreement between the state and individual landowners about how the area's scarce water resources will be distributed.
All this is by way of introduction to some rather extraordinary events that took place in the Klamath Basin in the summer of 2001. The Klamath River rises in a large lake in south-central Oregon, flows south into California, and enters the Pacific Ocean near the small town of Requa in California. (The lake, called Upper Klamath Lake, is something of an oddity in itself--it's thirty-five miles long, but has an average depth of only seven feet.) Before irrigation systems started to be built by European settlers in the late nineteenth century, the entire basin was a series of marshes, shallow lakes, and seasonally flooded meadows and basins, and was home to a wide assortment of birds, fish, and other wildlife.
In 1905, the federal government started the Klamath River Project,eventually draining and irrigating over two hundred thousand acres in the basin. Farmers who moved in depended on irrigation for their water, because in spite of the marshy terrain, this region is actually high desert. Like much of the West, it depends on the melting of the winter snowpack for its year-round water supply.
In the late 1980s, a series of events happened that put the basin on a collision course with the federal government. First, the annual snowpack began to drop as the area experienced a classic western drought. By 2001, the snowpack barely reached 20 percent of normal. At the same time that the drought was worsening, the Environmental Protection Agency, in an apparently unrelated action, started to put Klamath Basin fish on the Endangered Species list. Eventually, three fish were included--coho salmon, the shortnose sucker, and the Lost River sucker. On April 6, 2001, a day the local community came to call Black Friday, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that virtually no water would be available for irrigation--in effect, that the water had to be used to save the fish. With crops already planted, many farmers could do nothing but watch them wither in the field--estimates of the economic losses from the decision run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The ensuing legal battles were fought over dry-as-dust issues such as whether or not a federal law could take precedence over a state's grant of water rights (it apparently can). But, at least on the official level, there was no sustained debate on the question of whether it was a good idea to give fish precedence over human beings.
Applying the benefit-to-humans principle to this situation is, to my mind, pretty easy. Against the vague value to the citizenry at large in preserving an ecosystem most of us will never see, we have an identifiable community that is suffering great loss. Telling a third-generation farm family that it can no longer work land that has been in the family for a century causes more than economic loss, it shatters the fabric of human society. Had the principle been followed, the needs of the farmers would have been weighed against the needs of the endangered species and a compromise would have been found.
As it happens, the aftermath of the Klamath Basin cutoff gives ample ground for this course of action. Criticizing the Bureau of Reclamation turns out to be (if you'll pardon the expression) like shooting fish in abarrel. In February 2001, for example, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that said, in effect, that the decision to divert irrigation water to save fish had been based on insufficient evidence. (One argument advanced by opponents of the decision: sucker fish do well in warm, shallow water, while keeping the levels of Upper Klamath Lake high provided them with water that was cold and deep.) The charges that the decision was primarily ideological in nature seemed to be bolstered.
More importantly from the point of view of the managed planet I am proposing, it turned out that the designation of coho salmon as endangered had been based on counts of the wild population, with no attention paid to the fact that salmon can be (and are) raised in hatcheries and released into rivers. On September 10, 2001, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan in Oregon threw out the designation of the coho salmon as endangered, calling it "arbitrary." In a rare display of common sense in a nonsensical conflict, he wondered how it could be that two genetically identical salmon swimming in the same stream, one wild and the other from a hatchery, could have different legal status. Given that government workers had been videotaped slaughtering hatchery salmon to keep them from "polluting" their genetically identical cousins in the rivers, it seems reasonable to count the total number of salmon in the environment and not quibble about where they were raised.
Some footnotes: On July 25, 2001, on orders from the secretary of the interior, the headgates of the Klamath Project were opened and irrigation water once again flowed to the embattled farmers--too late for many of them, but there it is. In the fall of 2003, the final report of the National Academy was issued, and while it did not support the claims that the original decision had been based on junk science, it did hold that the amount of water taken for irrigation had little or no effect on the survival of endangered species in the Klamath Basin. The future of the water will now be worked out by the usual political process.
In this case, then, application of the benefit-to-humans principle would clearly have dictated a different course of action from what was taken and, in the process, probably saved the federal government a lot of embarrassment.
Skopje in the Winter
Skopje is the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, one of those Balkan nations carved out of what used to be Yugoslavia. (The country is borderedon the south by Greece, on the west by Albania, on the north by Serbia and Kosovo, and on the east by Bulgaria.) A few years ago, I spent a brief but enjoyable period as a visiting professor at the University of Sts. Kiril and Methodius, which is located in downtown Skopje.
Located where the Vardar River comes out of the mountains and makes a lazy turn to the southwest before heading off to the Aegean Sea, the city occupies a spot that has been continuously inhabited by humans since at least the Upper Paleolithic period, with the first settlers arriving perhaps as long as forty thousand years ago. In its time Skopje has served as a Greek colony, a Roman market town, the capital of various short-lived Slavic kingdoms, an Ottoman administrative center, and now, since 1991, as a national capital. The city's name, so odd sounding to Western ears, is derived from the Scupi, a tribe that lived here during the Roman era. (This connection hasn't been lost on local real estate developers, who have named two posh new subdivisions "Scupi I" and "Scupi II".)
If you'll allow me to get on my soapbox for a moment, I consider the fact that I have to introduce the capital of a small European country in this way to be a major indictment of American education. Let me offer myself as exhibit A for this argument. I consider myself to be a reasonably welleducated man--after all, I'm a senior academic with degrees from universities on both sides of the Atlantic. I grew up in an ethnic community in 1950s Chicago and consider myself to be pretty well informed about the ins and outs of Eastern European culture. Yet when I rummage through my mental attic for information about Macedonia, I come up surprisingly empty. I'm aware there was someone called Alexander the Great, who wept because there were no more worlds to conquer and was played by Richard Burton in the movie. I'm aware that there was something called the Byzantine Empire that by some vague medieval process at some vague medieval time became the empire of the Ottoman Turks. I can summon up a mental audiotape of Eartha Kitt singing, "It's Istanbul, not Constantinople," but that's about it. All in all, not a ringing endorsement of our educational system!
In any case, Skopje, like Los Angeles and Mexico City, is located in a basin ringed by mountains. Unlike places like Chicago, where the winds can sweep pollutants away over the flat plains, cities like Skopje have to deal with the fact that if they allow pollutants to escape into the atmosphere, those pollutants will stay around for a while.
I had a beautiful apartment in what you could call a European-style subdivision in suburban Skopje. From the third-floor balcony, I had a magnificent vista of the mountains to the east of the town--a vista I enjoyed immensely, particularly at sunset. As the autumn deepened and winter came on, however, I noticed a strange phenomenon: over a period of days, a haze would descend over the city, until the mountains became invisible. Sometimes, standing in the old Turkish fortress in the center of town, you couldn't even see the tall downtown buildings, even though they were located only a few blocks away. When this happened, you could actually taste the air--it left a faint, bitter impression on your tongue, something like battery acid.
The Macedonians call this haze magla, which is their word for "fog" or "mist." (The word for "smog" exists in Macedonian, but apparently isn't used in this context.) The choice of this word is telling, because it implies that somehow the magla that descends on the city is an act of God, a natural event over which humans have no control.
Well, I beg to differ. When I traveled around the city, I noticed that there was visible exhaust coming from the tailpipes of almost every vehicle on the road. Where I live, in a suburb of Washington, D.C., cars are subjected to an annual emissions inspection, so the difference in Skopje was striking. Sitting in rush hour traffic, I could watch the pollutants drifting skyward, waiting to make their contributions to the magla. (Having said this, I hasten to add that in a country like Macedonia, devoting scarce resources to maintaining auto-emission standards is a luxury that cannot, as yet, be afforded.)
Seeing the effects of unconstrained air pollution in Skopje brought me back to the ongoing discussions about air quality in the United States. When people began to take the problem seriously, there were serious debates about how much regulation there should be of things like auto exhaust and smokestack emissions. These debates typically pitted environmentalists, arguing for stricter controls, against representatives of industry, arguing that such controls would harm the economy.
It is actually fairly easy to use the benefits-to-humans principle in this debate, since, unlike the Klamath Basin case, the effects on humans have always been the central issue involved. On the environmental side, the issues have to do with quality of life and the health effects of breathingpolluted air. On the industry side, the argument was often cast in economic terms--that requiring catalytic converters would drive up the price of cars, for example, or that removing old cars from the streets would impose a disproportionate burden on the working poor. As always, there are good arguments on both sides, and choosing involves a balancing of the two sides.
When I do this balancing, I look at the data--modern American cities, where pollution controls are in effect, versus old Communist cities like Skopje, where they are not. To me, there is no contest. The human good brought by the controls, such as the availability of clean air, far outweighs the negatives. In this case, the conventional environmental wisdom pretty much got it right.
Global Warming, the Greenhouse Effect, and All That
The scientific and political issues surrounding the debate on global warming are complex--so complex, in fact, that I will devote an entire chapter to trying to unravel them. Nevertheless, this debate provides us with a good example of a situation in which it's not easy to see how to apply the benefits-to-humans principle.
The basic problem is this: for the last couple of centuries, the industrial revolution has been driven by the burning of fossil fuels--coal, oil, and natural gas. In effect, we have been mining carbon, combining it with oxygen, and putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We know that carbon dioxide absorbs radiation that the planet sends out into space and that this absorption can increase the Earth's temperature. There is a natural greenhouse effect that has been around for billions of years--most scientists give it credit for preventing the oceans from freezing, for example. The question: will the carbon dioxide we're adding alter the Earth's existing greenhouse effect and, by doing so, alter the climate in ways that are harmful to humans and the environment?
The instruments of choice for answering this question are giant computer programs known as global circulation models (GCM). They are monuments to the ingenuity and skills of their creators and are splendid examples of how the science of complexity can be applied to real-world systems. The models incorporate literally thousands of different factors, from the amount of sea ice around Antarctica to vegetation on the borders of the Sahara, and come up with predictions of future climate. Unfortunately,there is a good deal of uncertainty about how accurate these predictions are, and this fact clouds the picture considerably. The estimate at the moment is that there will be an increase in average temperatures of between 1.5 and 6.5 degrees Celsius over the next century, with a best guess of around 2.5 degrees Celsius. (To get a rough conversion of degrees Celsius to the more familiar Fahrenheit temperature scale, just multiply the former by two--thus, a warming of 2.5 degrees Celsius would correspond to about 5 degrees Fahrenheit.)
The question, of course, is what to do with this uncertain information. To lower the atmospheric burden of carbon dioxide would require an enormous change in energy technology, with concomitant human costs in terms of economic upheaval. On the other hand, if we just "let her rip" and the upper end predictions turn out to be right, all sorts of nasty consequences, from an increase in serious storms to rising sea levels, could also extract an enormous human cost.
In a situation like this, a philosophical principle like benefit-to-humans doesn't yet do us much good, because our prediction tools simply aren't good enough to allow us to distinguish between the consequences of applying or not applying it. As a research scientist, I am, of course, comfortable with saying that we need to get a better understanding of the Earth's climate system, but that comment isn't much use in the real world, where decisions about carbon dioxide emission have to be made immediately. What we can say is that when the models get better (as they surely will), we will be able to do believable cost-benefit analyses on various policy options, and at that point we can talk about applying the principle. For the moment, however, the complexity of the Earth's climate system forces us to fall back on more general arguments (such as the no regrets policy I'll discuss in my longer look at global warming in chapter 9) and leave the application of benefit-to-humans to a future time.
As these three examples show, the way that the principle is to be applied varies from one situation to the next, and there is no blanket prescription to make decisions easy. In addition, the ability to analyze specific situations can depend on the state of scientific knowledge in areas related to it.
Having said this, however, I have to return to my original point, which is that whether we decide to accept the benefit-to-humans principle or some other, the new sciences will allow us to manage the planet in accordancewith it. Nature will no longer be something independent of human activities--something that operates on its own, independent of what we do. Instead, it will be some sort of mix of things we used to call "human" and things we used to call "nature." Deciding precisely what that mix is to be will, I think, be the great human project of the twenty-first century.