Ebola Is Not Ecology

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Often
self-proclaimed "ecologists" assume that we can save Nature
simply by removing Man. The most extreme version of "Deep Green"
thought advocates exterminating our species with tailored viruses,
in the belief that Nature is immortal if undisturbed. The bowdlerized
version insists that Mankind is OK as long as we throw away our
penicillin, vaccines, and computers, living as illiterate peasants
at the mercy of plague and famine. For many (usually those who have
never actually been illiterate peasants, or had an untreated
toothache for a few months), this is a comforting vision of a return
to a simpler time. But in reality it would be a prescription for
the quick death of Nature.

We
can save Nature only if we do not return to it ourselves. Primitive
humans displace other species by competing for their energy sources.
Hunter-gatherers exterminate their prey species; peasants cut down
forests and take their sunlight for their food crops. It is only
modern peoples with high-productivity agriculture who have the option
of living off energy from fossil or nuclear sources, thus leaving
the sunlight for wild ecosystems. Modern developed nations can leave
space for forest and large mammals; Indian peasants cannot.

Saving
Nature: More Intelligence, Not Less

The
pop-culture, anti-scientific attitude is that all ecological problems
are man-made, thus the logical conclusion is that Ebola is the perfect
ecological solution. This viewpoint cannot survive a look through
a telescope.

The
telescope shows how small the Earth's biosphere is. Outside it,
all of the observable Solar System is dead. There are no Martian
canals, no Venusian swamps. Of course there may be hidden homes
for life; it has been suggested that the internal oceans of Jupiter's
moons have more stable conditions than the surfaces of planets.
We know for certain that there is a vast reservoir of subterranean
bacterial life on this planet, perhaps outmassing all aboveground
life. But single-celled slime does not satisfy our human definition
of Nature.

Most
of the surface real estate in this System is unoccupied by the sort
of "Nature" that we aesthetically prefer. For water-based
terrestrial life to live on its surface, a planet must stay in a
very narrow range of temperatures for a long time. This is astronomically
improbable. Usually, it just doesn't happen.

Most
planets die. They freeze, or they fry, or they don't have enough
heavy elements because there weren't any supernovae to make them,
or supernovae irradiate them from light-years away and kill all
the surface-dwelling species. The Earth is the lucky or Providential
exception. But luck runs out, and perhaps so does the patience of
Providence with species too lazy to develop nuclear rocket engines
(or in our case, to bother to build them after they are developed).

One
of the stars in the Big Dipper is a future supernova, and it will
arrive in our Solar System's neighborhood in six million years or
so. It only has to explode within ten light years to kill most life
on land. If Earth's luck suddenly returned to that of the average
planet, it could get hit by one of the hundreds of Apollo-Amor asteroids
in a 100 million megaton explosion, and a supernova irradiation
at the same time. This would make recycling our cans somewhat inefficacious.

Even
if Earth's luck holds, the geological history of the Pleistocene
shows that the planet is growing colder since the warm times of
the dinosaurs. There was much more life on Earth in the Jurassic
Period then there is now, in the Holocene. The CO2 on which plants
depend is almost gone; from over one percent of the atmosphere while
the dinosaurs reigned, it had fallen to .028% when we could first
measure it in the 1800s. When the ice sheets cover the planet from
poles to Equator, nothing will live but the volcano-vent worms and
the underground bacteria. "Nature" as we know it will
be dead.

Unless
we save it. Over the last century humans have managed to move the
CO2 content of the atmosphere up from that near-absent 0.028% to…
0.037%. This isn't enough to stave off every possible volcano or
asteroid-impact Ice Age. But it is a start. No other organism can
dig up carbon from miles underground and put it back into the biosphere
for flowers and trees to use; humans are uniquely capable of this
benevolence. Nor can any other species deflect killer asteroids,
or freeze the DNA of dying species and store it for their future
rebirth.

A
living Nature needs humans, or at least an intelligent species of
some sort. For the life forms that surrounded our ancestors to survive
cosmic catastrophes, there must be intelligence capable of controlling
the caprices of the unliving parts of Nature. The atmosphere must
be guarded from Ice Age depletion as well as greenhouse runaway.
To have a significant probability of surviving unexpected events
in the really long term, Life must be taken to other worlds. Terraforming
is the only way to turn the cosmos a Deep Green.

What
Nature To Save?

If
we choose to live in freedom, to progress technologically, we will
be rich. There will be enough resources both to live fuller, more
complex human lives, and to save Nature. But saving "Nature"
is not so simple… for first we must decide what Nature we want to
save. Do we want to let Nature change over time until it becomes
as unrecognizable to us as our Nature would be to the dinosaurs?
Or do we want to preserve our Ancestral Environment; to make the
Earth into a museum instead of a living world?

If
we wish to hold Life in stasis, with no change in species mix, then
vast interventions will be required. If the Earth's climate could
be kept perpetually in the Holocene, evolution will destroy old
species and raise up new ones. Even if Man leaves the planet completely,
new species will quickly move into the "tool-user" niche.
Then they will kill off another series of the megafauna as our forebears
did… If the Earth is to be a museum it will have to be a highly
artificial one. Genetic mutations will have to be suppressed and
the old life forms replanted. Eventually life on Earth will become,
not the actual Ancestral Environment, but merely a best guess at
what it was, maintained by a complex system of robotic intervention.
Nature will be completely unnatural.

There
is no one "original state" of nature. The species mix
in North America in 1492 was missing most of the original megafauna.
For example, the relatively small bison and wolf species of the
15th century were recent adaptations to the overhunting
of the Amerinds, who exterminated many species. North America looked
completely different in 30,000 BC; there were dire wolves, plains
lions the size of horses, ground sloths, huge bison species, and
plant life that had coevolved with them all.

Of
course, all the previous ecosystems could claim to be the "original"
state of nature. Should we try to reconstruct the dinosaurs, the
trilobites, and all Nature's extinction victims? Yes, I think we
should… but they won't all fit onto one planet, nor can they all
live under the same climate conditions or even breathe the same
kind of air. We would quickly hyperventilate and pass out on the
atmosphere respired by Tyrannosaurus, and I doubt whether
the one-meter-wingspan dragonflies of previous periods could take
off in the thin stuff we breathe. There is no one-size-fits-all
way to restore Nature.

It's
A Big Universe

There
are and will be many views on how to "save" Nature. Trying
to force one viewpoint onto the whole planet will merely cause fruitless
conflict, just as the many attempts to force one religious vision
onto all Mankind have led inevitably to blood and destruction. Fortunately
there is no need for such cataclysmic megalomania. Individual property
ownership can allow evolution to progress without destroying old
ecosystems.

Under
a market system, with different people free to use their own resources
as they choose, Nature will thrive and change. There will be areas
where people attempt to maintain species in their current relationships.
Other places, the Pleistocene may return. Mammoths, dire wolves,
and saber-tooths will rise from the dead and walk again. Even reconstructions
of the dinosaurs, the true masters of fang and claw, will stomp
the ground once more. All this won't fit on one planet, but fortunately
we are not restricted to Only One Earth. (If even the ESA can put
ten tons into geosynchronous orbit, how hard can it be?) Terraformed
Mars may well make a better Pleistocene habitat than the original.

So
many long-dead species can live again, and this is a good thing
for the Nature that killed them off. A diversity of eco-systems
on different worlds will be an insurance policy for Life itself;
after all, there is no cosmic guarantee against extinction for any
species, no matter how advanced. Even if we fall, perhaps smart
raccoons or smart dinosaurs will rise up from our museum worlds
and take up the banner of Intelligence.

But
the main line of Nature in the long run will be new forms, born
from a marriage of design and evolution, of silicon and DNA. Evolution
cannot advance to all possible goals, because like politicians it
cannot think past the "next selection." Human driven design
can take life where it has never gone before. This is not a thing
to fear, but to celebrate. Life is not life if it cannot grow and
change.

The
universe is billions of light-years across. There is room for preservation
of old species and the growth of new forms as well. There is plenty
of room for a living Nature; most of the universe is full of energy
but dead. Man needs Nature; but Nature needs Man even more.

February
16, 2005

Bill
Walker [send him mail]
works as a Research Associate in telomere biology at an undisclosed
(thanks to legal threats from his tax-financed employer) location.

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