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By Amy McDermott
If you think 2017 was a garbage fire, we can't stop you. But the world wasn't the only thing in flames. You know what else was on fire this year? Fish discovery.
By Jason Mark
Few creatures have ever existed that can match the sheer weirdness of Australia’s gastric brooding frog. As the name suggests, the amphibian had the strange ability to reproduce offspring in its stomach. The female would release a cloud of eggs, the male would fertilize them, and then the female swallowed the eggs whole. At that point, the female ceased making digestive acids and her stomach became, essentially, a womb. A few weeks would pass, and then the female would open her mouth and a batch of babies would issue forth. Think of it as the swampland version of Zeus birthing Athena out of his forehead: a beast that pukes its young into the world.
This wonderful oddity no longer exists. Biologists didn’t identify the frog until relatively recently—and then it almost immediately disappeared. The southern gastric brooding frog was described in 1973, discovered in a narrow range of streams on Australia’s east coast; the last sighting occurred in 1979. Its cousin, the northern gastric brooding frog, wasn’t discovered until 1984; the last one was seen just a year later. One of the main culprits of the frogs’ demise was a pathogen called the chytrid fungus. As usual, humans accelerated the rush toward extinction. Much of the frogs’ habitat was destroyed by invasive weeds and feral pigs. The miraculous animal was gone as soon as we knew it.
Now, in a new twist on miracle, scientists are on the verge of bringing the frog back.
In March researchers with the Lazarus Project announced they had cloned gastric brooding frog embryos. Forty years ago, a biologist happened to throw a few specimens into a freezer before the species went extinct. Today’s researchers were able to obtain cell nuclei from the tissues collected in the 1970s. “Almost miraculously, we were able to extract viable DNA from the specimens,” one of the Lazarus Project scientists, Simon Clulow, wrote to me in an email. Using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, the team injected the gastric brooding frogs’ DNA into inactivated egg nuclei from the great barred frog. Some of the eggs began to spontaneously divide. Although none of the embryos survived beyond a few days, tests confirmed that the dividing cells contained the genetic material from the extinct frog. “We are watching Lazarus arise from the dead, step by exciting step,” the team leader, Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales, said in announcing the news.
What was sci-fi fantasy only a few decades ago is now well within the realm of the possible. Asked how close his team was to having a living, breathing gastric brooding frog, Clulow wrote: “We are confident this will only be a matter of a small number of years, perhaps less.”
The Lazarus Project is part of an emerging field of science called “revival biology.” Advances in cloning, genetic sequencing, and synthetic biology—along with successes in more old-fashioned “back breeding”—have opened up the possibility of returning to the world species that are long gone. Scientists are busy trying to revive the passenger pigeon, the European auroch and the Pyrenean ibex. Proponents of de-extinction also dream of resuscitating the dodo, the Carolina parakeet, the Steller’s sea cow and the thylacine, a wolf-like marsupial known as the Tasmanian tiger that was hunted to extinction in the 1930s. If any of those creatures were ever to walk or swim again, it would be the realization of one of humans’ most ancient wishes: the power to bring life back from the dead.
De-extinction champions say species revival offers humanity a chance for redemption. By recreating species that we drove into the great void of extinction, we could right a historical wrong. Just as important, de-extinction proponents argue, revival biology can provide a new spark to the global conservation movement. Imagine a flock of passenger pigeons in the sky: The sight alone would reinvigorate civilization’s apparently flagging sense of awe with nature. Call it re-wilding from a test tube.
“I think de-extinction can enrich conservation efforts,” says Ryan Phelan, executive director of the Revive & Restore project at the Long Now Foundation. The group has dedicated itself to serving as a clearinghouse for information about de-extinction, and Phelan has become one of revival biology’s most impassioned promoters. “I think it takes the inspiring vision of de-extinction … to help move all of this forward. As controversial as all of it is, and possibly because it’s controversial, it’s going to help drive interest in [species loss], in a way that conservation by itself couldn’t do. Because at the end of the day, the species that we are talking about bringing back, they really are part of the continuum of life. And I think that’s the real power in what we are trying to do. We’re calling attention to the extinction threat.”
Yet even those who support de-extinction acknowledge that many risks are involved. There are political and ethical concerns: Will the idea make us cavalier about extinction, leading us to wreck the planet even more recklessly, believing we can repair the damage? There are ecological worries: what if we end up bringing back the passenger pigeon and it becomes an avian version of kudzu? For some people, there is a visceral fear that de-extinction is just the virtuous version of synthetic biology’s darker side—the creation of “customized species” and “perfected humans.”
Some eminent conservation biologists say the whole thing is a waste of time. “I’ve been trying to tell people, ‘I bloody well won’t talk about it,’” Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University, told me in an interview he agreed to only reluctantly. “It’s not worth my time. It’s not worth yours. The idea that this is going to be much of a solution is fanciful at best.”
The debate about de-extinction centers on a classic dilemma. Just because we can do something, does that mean we should? For environmentalists, the answer largely depends on whether you think de-extinction will advance conservation efforts, or undermine them.
I promised myself I wouldn’t mention Jurassic Park—but, what the hell, Michael Crichton was onto something. The 1990 bestseller and subsequent Spielberg blockbuster might have been outlandish, but the science wasn’t all wrong. No, we won’t be able to bring back the dinosaurs. Scientists say reviving an extinct species will require relatively intact original DNA, and that will limit us to species that have disappeared during roughly the last 200,000 years. But if Jurassic Park remains a fantasy, a Pleistocene Park might be doable. Given enough time and money (and a good bit of laboratory luck), scientists could create a simulacrum of a wooly mammoth. Or a giant ground sloth. Or a Neanderthal. We won’t have to worry about velociraptors getting loose—just saber-toothed tigers.
As in the fictional Jurassic Park, reviving a long lost species would involve sequencing the genome of an extinct animal and then splicing in genes from its closest living cousin through what’s called “allele replacement.” The most advanced efforts so far have focused on the passenger pigeon. In the nineteenth century, flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the skies of North America. Then habitat loss and market hunters’ shotguns whittled away at the birds’ numbers. The last known passenger pigeon—“Martha” she was dubbed—died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
A 26-year-old genetic engineer and bird lover named Ben Novak is spearheading the effort to revive the passenger pigeon. Novak grew up in a conservation-minded family, and when he was a teenager he developed a fascination with the passenger pigeon, a bird very similar to the common rock pigeon, only graced with a longer tail and a handsome red breast. “I am a very, very passionate passenger pigeon enthusiast,” Novak told me. “There are people in the world who love pigeons. And within that group there are people who become life-long obsessives with the passenger pigeon. I fell into that group when I was very young.” Novak works in the lab of University of California-Santa Cruz researcher Beth Shapiro. Together, the two are steadily decoding the DNA of the passenger pigeon and its closest surviving kin, the band-tailed pigeon.
Novak has been able to gather 65 tissue samples from preserved passenger pigeons and has also obtained some bone fragments dating back to the 1700s. He has completed genetic sequencing on a third of his samples; he expects to have a “first draft” of the passenger pigeon’s genome by the end of this year. Meanwhile, Shapiro is assembling the genome of the band-tailed pigeon. Once completed, the band-tailed pigeon genome will be used, Shapiro says, “as a scaffold on which to map the DNA of the passenger pigeon.” Because of natural decay, the passenger pigeon DNA will be incomplete. Genes from the band-tailed will be needed to fill in holes. But some of the passenger pigeon’s traits—say, the distinctive red breast—may be lost altogether. To fill in those patches, the geneticists will have to synthesize new genes through a process of “inference and experimentation,” in Novak’s words. Organizing the band-tailed pigeon genes, the recovered passenger pigeon genes and the synthetic genes is very similar to “writing a paper from a whole lot of different sources,” Novak says. “Even if the first individual is not right, we will have a stepping stone to make it better.”
How close can the researchers get to nature’s original? “I think we can probably get into the 80 or 90 percent range,” Novak says. Shapiro is more circumspect. “How close are we to having an exact passenger pigeon?” she emailed me. “Infinitely far away. A hybrid of some sort, with a less-than-random selection of genes that hopefully impact the behavior or phenotype of a band-tailed pigeon and make it act more like a passenger pigeon.”
In theory, this process could revive many other species that haven’t roamed the planet in centuries, or even millennia. Genes from a zebra could be used to splice together a quagga, a half zebra-half horse creature that once inhabited southern Africa. Take the genome of the Asian elephant, combine it with ancient DNA, and a wooly mammoth (of sorts) might one day return to the Siberian steppe.
If mammoth revival seems impossible, consider this: A team of Russian and Korean genetic engineers is searching for fully intact mammoth DNA to simply clone the animal. In June an expedition uncovered some liquid mammoth blood in a well-preserved carcass in Siberia. The blood sample is now in Seoul, at the labs of the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, a private organization that is developing techniques for dog cloning.
While many researchers are skeptical that the Seoul-based group will ever get enough high quality mammoth DNA to clone one, cloning is a viable de-extinction technique for more recently deceased species. The gastric brooding frog is one example. Another is the Pyrenean ibex. In fact, one ibex clone has already been born.
Woolly Mammoth. Image: Wikicommons
The Pyrenean ibex, also known as a bucardo, was a kind of mountain goat that once inhabited the rugged terrain between Spain and France. A large creature weighing up to 220 pounds, the bucardo had long horns that swept back from its head and then curled frontward. In the nineteenth century, the population began to decline precipitously—the victim of human hunting and competition from domesticated goats and sheep. The last bucardo, christened “Celia” by biologists, died in 1999; a tree fell on her.
Before Celia perished, scientists took several tissue samples from the animal and preserved them. A team led by Dr. José Folch from the Centre of Food Technology and Research of Aragon began trying to create a clone from Celia’s DNA. In 2003 the scientists succeeded in getting a surrogate mother to bring a clone to term. The cloned bucardo, however, had a short and miserable life. It was born with a massive lump in its lungs, and died just 10 minutes after coming into the world.
As the bucardo experience shows, cloning is far from a perfected science. But steady improvements in the technique open up the possibility of one day bringing back a host of extinct species. The San Diego Zoo’s “frozen zoo” has preserved the DNA of hundreds of mammals, birds, amphibians and fish, many of them threatened or endangered. On the botanical front, the Svalbard seed vault in Norway preserves thousands of varieties of food crops. If (or when) some of those species go extinct, and if (or when) cloning becomes more reliable, such cryonic arks will be essential for reviving lost plants and animals.
Other scientists, meanwhile, are experimenting with back breeding to revive extinct species. To understand back breeding, think of any selective breeding program used to prioritize certain traits—only in this case it’s running evolution in reverse. A Dutch group called Stichting Taurus is using back breeding to revive the auroch. The massive species of cattle (six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing more than a ton) once roamed throughout Europe; its likeness appears on the cave paintings at Lascaux. Then came the now-familiar story of habitat destruction and human hunting. The last one died in Poland in 1627. But much of the auroch’s genetic code remains in today’s cow breeds, for example in the large and wild Heck cattle. The Dutch scientists are using DNA samples from auroch bones and teeth to figure out its exact genetic code. Then they are breeding cattle to select for those auroch genes. If all goes according to plan, each successive generation should look more like the ancient auroch.
How close are we to actually reviving a lost species and returning it to the wild? It depends. While a reborn gastric brooding frog appears imminent, a genetically diverse herd of wooly mammoths is probably a century away. Even the passenger pigeon will take some time. “If everything went smoothly and almost idealistically perfect, it would be good to have some in the wild in the next 25 years,” Ben Novak says. “I think in 50 to 100 years you might start to see some flocks of significant size.”
As the researchers toil in their labs, the job of popularizing de-extinction has been taken up by Stewart Brand, the charismatic and controversial environmental thinker whose Whole Earth Catalog was a kind of lifestyle bible for seventies-era greens. In late May, Brand delivered an hour-long presentation about revival biology to a packed house of several hundred people at the San Francisco Jazz Center. Brand is tall, lanky and, at 74, still super vigorous, and the talk—part science seminar, part history lesson, part sentimental appeal—was a rousing advertisement for de-extinction’s potential.
“Biotech is about to liberate conservation, or at least part of it, in a spectacular way,” he said at the beginning of his presentation. Then, after showing grainy, black and white film footage of the last known Tasmanian tiger, Brand intoned: “We see what we’ve lost, and we just mourn. Well, don’t mourn—organize.”
In Brand’s telling, it was he and his wife, Ryan Phelan, who coalesced the disparate species revival efforts into an international de-extinction movement. Phelan is a successful biomedical entrepreneur who, in the early aughts, started one of the first companies, DNA Direct, that offered individuals genetic testing over the Internet. In the course of her work Phelan got to know George Church, a Harvard geneticist who is a leader in the field of synthetic biology. During a Cambridge dinner with Church, it became clear to Brand and Phelan that species revival was not just possible, but probable. So Church and the couple organized a meeting at the Wyss Institute in Boston to discuss bringing back the passenger pigeon. Buoyed by the encouraging talk they heard there, Brand and Phelan then connected with the National Geographic Society, which in the fall of 2012 hosted a closed-door meeting of molecular and conservation biologists in Washington, DC. The meeting was, by all accounts, exciting; Church said it reminded him of the 1984 meeting in Alta, UT that started the Human Genome Project. After that came a National Geographic cover story and a widely viewed TEDx seminar, all designed, Brand said, so that the “public discourse [about de-extinction] would not be simpleminded.”
Brand’s talk at the San Francisco Jazz Center clearly was also part of that effort, an attempt to inoculate de-extinction against some of the criticisms that have started to arise. “Why bring vanished creatures back to life?” he said. “It will be expensive and difficult. It will take decades. It won’t always succeed. So why even try?” The reasons, he said, are the same ones that motivate us to go to great lengths to protect endangered species: “To preserve biodiversity, to restore diminished ecosystems, to advance the science of preventing extinctions, and to undo harm that humans have caused in the past.”
Brand was especially careful to head off any suggestions that synthesized species wouldn’t be as valuable as the natural originals. “Will there be something wrong with those passenger pigeons if they have band-tailed traces in them?” Brand asked, and then quickly brushed away such concerns. “We waste our time getting purist about genomes. Most of the American bison we protect have some cattle genes in them, and it makes no difference in their look or behavior.”
De-extinction, Brand argued, could rescue conservationism from a “kind of hopelessness” in which many people see the natural world as irrevocably “broken.” “Conservation focuses too much on reclaiming the past,” he proclaimed. “It needs to be about creating an exciting vision of the future.”
He then made a moral plea. If de-extinction is technically possible, we have an obligation to attempt it: “Humans have made a huge hole in nature over the last 10,000 years. Now we have the ability to repair some of the damage.” Brand closed with an aphorism inspired by a Gary Snyder interpretation of Zen Buddhism: “Part of ‘do no harm’ is ‘undo harm.’ … Want to try it?”
Altogether, it was a convincing presentation. At least in that moment, I did want to try it. To see a wooly mammoth in the flesh—that would be awesome. To bring back the passenger pigeon—that would be an act of poetic justice. Only a killjoy would object.
And yet … I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was more complicated than Brand had made it sound. Bringing a species back from the dead might be possible, but recreating the ecosystem in which it once lived would be far more difficult. In place of an endling we might have an ecological orphan, stranded outside of its time. A revived species would be a wonderful curiosity—but, I worried, it would be no cure for the extinctions we continue to cause.
I didn’t have to wait long to share my concerns. Brand and Phelan had organized a private dinner right after the presentation, and I was invited to attend. The gathering took place at the Hayes Street Grill, a San Francisco institution that is a favorite spot for people on their way to the opera or ballet. There were 19 of us: a handful of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, a bunch of techies, some of Brand’s friends, plus the eco-futurist Alex Steffen and Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired. We had the place all to ourselves. Brand sat himself at the center of the table and then plopped onto the white tablecloth a stuffed wooly mammoth that he had used as a prop during his talk. With a mischievous gleam in his eyes, it was obvious how he had fit in as one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.
For her part, Phelan meant business. A striking blonde with soft blue eyes, Phelan carries herself with the easy confidence of someone who has been a stranger to failure. Her professional successes, however, haven’t infected her with arrogance. She knows how much she doesn’t know, and she’s eager to listen to conflicting points of view. As we perused the menu, Phelan issued a challenge: “I want to go around the table, and I want each of you to share your concerns. What’s your biggest worry about de-extinction? Because we have to get this right. We need to make sure we do the cautionary vigilance.”
No one held back. During the next two hours, the dinner conversation touched on all of the main de-extinction criticisms that I would hear from biologists and environmental activists in the following weeks. The objections go like this:
The first complaint about revival biology is that it will distract from the less glamorous work of protecting threatened habitats and endangered, but still extant, species. Some people have argued that the conservation movement has done the public a disservice by focusing so much on especially cuddly or cool animals—“charismatic megafauna” like pandas, tigers and wolves. To truly preserve wildlife, most conservation biologists agree, we need to prioritize saving whole ecosystems. With their overwrought enthusiasm for the wooly mammoth and the passenger pigeon, the de-extinction proponents just fuel that single-species myopia. At the Hayes Street Grill dinner, Alex Steffen coined a neologism for this: “charismatic necrofauna.”
“I mean, if we had a passenger pigeon, where the hell would we put it?” Duke University’s Stuart Pimm said to me later in an interview. “The more obvious case is the Pyrenean ibex. They were hunted to extinction. If you brought it back, that would be the most expensive cabrito those Basques have ever eaten. You have to have a place to put them back. It’s even worse than that, because it distracts you from the fact that it’s not about species—it’s about ecosystems. If you had spotted owls in a bottle, would that solve the problem of them going extinct in the Pacific Northwest? No, because you’re still destroying the forests.”
If anything, de-extinction boosters have only fanned this anxiety. Take bird enthusiast Ben Novak. His fetish for the passenger pigeon and his personal peculiarities (he wears his hair completely shorn on one side, chin length on the other) give him the air of one of those eccentric nineteenth-century English citizen-explorers who were dead set on their goals—no matter whether the goals were scientifically important. In our interview he acknowledged that the Long Now Foundation is focused on the pigeon in part because it’s attention grabbing and, well, fundable. “Our goal is to get people behind the goal of de-extinction,” he said. “We had proposed doing proof-of-concept work in a way that would use two living rats and an extinct species of rat, because the technology is much farther along for the cellular work with those species. But few people really care to work on a rat for a subject like this.”
Tasmanian tiger. Image: Rod Scott
Here you go, Senator Inhofe.
A second worry centers on how the public might come to perceive de-extinction. What if people get the idea that, since we are able to bring back disappeared species, we no longer have to worry about wiping out plants and animals? De-extinction could set up a kind of moral hazard—people may be willing to take more risks with the environment, believing there is no price to be paid. The mere possibility of revival biology could give rhetorical cover to the forces hell-bent on resource extraction at any cost. “What I’m afraid of is that there will be people who will say, ‘We don’t have to worry about extinction anymore,’” David Ehrenfeld, a professor of biology at Rutgers, told me. “You know right away which members of Congress will be saying that.”
Brand and Phelan take this complaint seriously. “The worst case scenario would be one in which people get cavalier about extinction,” Phelan said to me. And that, Brand says, “would be like giving up on exercise and good diet because you hear the costs of heart surgery are coming down.”
The problem is that not everyone is as conscientious as a couple who live on a houseboat in Sausalito. American politics in the Digital Age is a game of instant telephone; Brand and Phelan’s thoughtfulness won’t translate very far. Some political operatives might cynically use the possibility of de-extinction to advance more logging, mining or oil drilling. Alex Steffen warned: “I guarantee you there are people in DC who are working late tonight making a plan for using this to push a political agenda of continued destruction.”
Ceci n'est pas une pipe.
If it looks like a passenger pigeon and coos like a passenger pigeon, but is largely made up of band-tailed pigeon genes, is it really a passenger pigeon? Or just a representation of one? No one I spoke with felt that a revived species would have to be 100 percent pure. Still, I heard doubts about the value of something that would be, in the words of Stanley Temple, a professor of environmental studies at University of Wisconsin and a fellow at the Aldo Leopold Center, “a chimera of a pigeon. Or a mammoth that is part mammoth, part Asian elephant.” At some point the original gene pool could be so watered down that the exercise might be worthless.
Genetics and synthetic biology have come a long way in the last decade, but they remain inexact sciences. “DNA is not an instruction manual,” Rutgers’ Ehrenfeld told me. “It’s kind of like a list of ingredients. Like a dictionary of sorts.”
The emerging science of epigenetics further complicates the issue. Researchers have found that the genetic prompts encoded within a DNA strand can switch on and off depending upon various factors. For example, an obese and stressed parent will pass to its progeny different characteristics than a slim and thriving parent. The few remaining passenger pigeons from which we have tissue samples—birds that lived in small, fractured flocks—might not be representative of the passenger pigeon in its billion-strong prime.
But even skeptics say the molecular work being done by the revival biologists could assist traditional species conservation. Advances in genomic sequencing might, for instance, resolve genetic bottlenecks in critically endangered species like the northern white rhinoceros. “If they want to recover ancient DNA and see what they might find, that could be an addition to genetic diversity [of still living species],” Temple said. “To me, that’s almost more exciting than bringing back a passenger pigeon.”
Flying purple people eaters.
Embedded within the specific concerns are harder-to-pin-down anxieties about the abuse of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Simply put, when we tinker with the building blocks of life, we can’t be sure the experiments won’t get away from us. “They [the species revivalists] assume a kind of omniscience that we just don’t have as ecologists,” Ehrenfeld said. “We just can’t predict whether a species that has been translocated will be invasive. … This is techno-optimism of the worst sort.”
Some people worry that the well meaning de-extinction efforts could be a stepping-stone to more diabolical, Dr. Moreau-like tinkering. After Brand’s presentation, Ben Novak, speaking on stage, casually mentioned the potential of creating “customized species.” Harvard geneticist George Church (“a mad scientist out of Central Casting,” in the words of one person I spoke with) is even more cavalier. In his book Regenesis, he writes: “Genomic technologies will permit us … to take evolution to places where it has never gone, and where it would probably never go if left to its own devices.”
Such talk makes even some of Brand’s backers uneasy. One of the venture capitalists at the Hayes Street Grill dinner said he feared people creating “flying purple people-eaters” in their garages—something along the lines of the out-of-control artificial species in Margaret Atwood’s cli-fi dystopian novel Oryx and Crake. This isn’t an academic concern. In May a group of biotechnology hobbyists raised nearly half a million dollars on Kickstarter to fund the lab creation of glow-in-the-dark plants; each person who pledged more than $40 was promised “seeds to grow a glowing plant at home.”
The species revivalists grow impatient when they hear criticisms of synthetic biology. “This is what we do—we explore, we make progress, we change how we interact with the world, and we shape it around us,” Novak says. Phelan argues: “We are already engineering. Engineering is happening.”
True enough. But it’s worth remembering that engineering isn’t infallible. Take, as just one example, the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The beautifully designed suspension bridge is billions of dollars over budget and, before a single car has passed over it, already busted because of some faulty bolts. Human engineering is, indeed, a marvel—blemished only by the inevitability of human error.
Hank Greeley is an academic’s academic, the kind of thinker who is able to see four sides to every coin. A professor of law at Stanford University and the director of the school’s Center for Law and the Biosciences, Greeley specializes in teasing out the implications of the emerging life sciences. It’s a position, he says, that often gets him in trouble from all sides of the genetic engineering debates. “I have either the fortune or misfortunate trait of heading toward the middle of any topic,” he told me recently.
Of the 25 presentations delivered at TEDx De-Extinction, Greeley’s was among the most thoughtful. The law professor went through de-extinction’s pros and cons and asked whether it should be considered “hubris or hope.” Then he answered with an equivocal, “yes, a little bit of both.” After weighing the evidence, Greeley said he was in favor of de-extinction because of the way in which it would spark a “sense of wonder. It would be awe-inspiring to see a wooly mammoth. … It would be like the first time I turned that corner and saw Yosemite Valley spread out before me.”
This is a common refrain among the species revivalists. Novak says his work is hopeful and “humanistic” in a way “similar to the space race.” Phelan told me that de-extinction could deliver to conservationism a jolt of “hope and positive energy.” In his San Francisco presentation, Brand promised: “The current generation of children will experience the return of some remarkable creatures in their lifetime.” And in that achievement “they might see our relation to nature as something other than tragic.”
I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it. De-extinction is neat, I agree. It won’t, however, make a meaningful contribution to the global conservation movement.
There’s no doubt that a revived giant ground sloth would be awesome, in the truest sense of the word. But I doubt such a sight would revive a wonder with the nonhuman world and, in the process, reinvigorate efforts to protect that world. Why? Simply because of the difference in how we experience a man-made wonder and a natural one. The amazement we experience with our technological gee-gaws (remember the first iPhone you saw?) is one thing. The amazement we experience with the surprise at natural forms (remember the first time you visited the Grand Canyon?) is another.
When I shared this concern with Greeley, he took it seriously—and then dismissed it. “Wonderment is culturally conditioned,” he said. “Wonder varies. I’m not sure there’s a difference between the wonder inspired by nature and the wonder inspired by the Manhattan skyline or the Parthenon.”
I think Greeley is wrong. Not to be too prissy about it, but when it comes to the objects of our wonder, the distinction makes a difference. The Manhattan skyline at night amazes us with the scale of human invention; the Milky Way amazes us with the scale of the universe. They are both an arrangement of lights, but while the first makes humanity seem huge, the second makes us feel small. The difference matters because it influences how we think about our place on this planet. The skyline is good for illustrating our power; the starscape teaches us humility.
The species revivalists overestimate de-extinction’s contribution to conservationism because they misunderstand what conservation is really about. Brand, Novak and Phelan say humans have always been creators and engineers, and they are not wrong. But that fact adds nothing to the ethic or practice of conservation. Taking some parts of the nonhuman world and protecting them from our unruly desires is, above all, an exercise in restraint—not creation. Conservation is about forbearance. It’s a demonstration of the discipline to leave well enough alone.
Restraint, Discipline, Humility, Forbearance. I know—those are old-fashioned virtues, passé in the epoch of the Anthropocene. Yet they remain the essential counterweights to those who would pave whatever they can for the sake of a buck.
“We are as gods and might as well get good at it” was the famous epigram of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Forty-five years later, the possibility of de-extinction makes the line more true than ever. Will playing God by raising species from the grave make us better conservationists? Unlikely. The techno-fix of de-extinction will, in fact, be awe-inspiring. But let’s not pretend that human inventions will make nonhuman creation seem more deserving of our care and protection.
If we truly want our relation to nature to be “something other than tragic,” what that will require, most of all, is for us to finally, belatedly get good at behaving like something less than gods.
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Asia Pacific has surpassed the rest of the world in its consumption of materials and will continue to dominate world material flows, according to a new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report released today.
The region's trade balance indicates that the current rate of exploitation of its resource base is no longer sufficient to support the region's fast-growing economies and changing lifestyles. From 1970-2008, consumption of construction minerals increased 13.4 times, metal ores and industrial minerals consumption 8.6, fossil fuels 5.4 and biomass 2.7 times.
The data indicates that, at this rate, the region will be increasingly dependent on imports and unable to sustain its economies and lifestyles. The current rate of consumption is also having a negative impact on the environment.
The report, Recent Trends in Material Flows and Resource Productivity in Asia and the Pacific, presents an insight of the 2011 Resource Efficiency: Economics and Outlook for Asia and the Pacific (REEO) report on material flows and resource productivity in Asia and the Pacific. It brings together data extending the latest reported year up to 2008 and thus includes the onset of the global financial crisis.
The report highlights the region's material intensity—consumption of materials per dollar of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—as an area of serious concern, as this will increase pressures on the environment and exceed the region's rapid growth. Currently, material intensity for Asia Pacific is three times the rest of the world.
"Each dollar of GDP requires increasing amount of materials," said Dr. Park Young-Woo, regional director of UNEP Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. "The findings do not give signs of decoupling material consumption and natural resource use from economic growth in the region."
"Resource efficiency needs to increase rapidly to offset material growth in the Asia Pacific region, which needs systems innovations in urban areas, transportation modes, energy production and economic structure," he added.
Almost all of the world's growth in domestic material consumption, from the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, can be attributed to Asia Pacific, which now shapes the world trajectory on growth in material consumption, according to the report.
Domestic materials consumption increased from 6.2 billion tonnes to 37.5 billion tonnes between 1970 and 2008, an annual growth rate of 4.8 percent. China and India heavily account for consumption by 2008, with China accounting for more than 60 percent of the regional total domestic material consumption, and India contributing more than 14 percent. The regional average per-capita material consumption now stands at 89 percent that of the rest of the world.
China shows the most dramatic trends in recent years: Per-capita material consumption increased by 25 percent between 2005 and 2008. China has reinforced its position as a net importer of materials (in particular petroleum) due to strong domestic demand, contrary to the common perception of China as a mass exporter.
China has shown good progress in improving resource efficiency since the 1980s, but this has slowed down recently. It is still far less resource-efficient than the Asia Pacific and global averages.
In India, overall material consumption has remained low. However, metal ores and industrial minerals use grew by 8.6 percent each year over the period from 1998 to 2008, which indicates that India is entering a rapid acceleration phase in its transition to an industrialized economy. The insight showed another new development since the launch of the first REEO report: the stagnation since 2004 of the previously impressive improvements in resource efficiency from 1970 to 2004.
The report found that the region is moving from a biomass- to minerals-based economy, indicating that the most-populous countries like China and India are transitioning from agrarian to industrialized economies. Biomass dropped from more than half to 25 percent of the region's domestic extraction, while construction materials grew to 51.4 percent.
Population growth was also found to be the least-important driver of growing extractive pressures on the environment. Growing affluence and material intensity were cited as primary drivers and any effort to stabilize extractive pressure will need to address both, according to the report.
"The findings of the report conclude that countries in Asia and the Pacific face even greater challenges to make the transition of current economic growth patterns towards green growth, and to transform the economies into truly green economy, despite the strong efforts in development of policies and strategies by member countries," said Dr. Park.
The report also underlined the urgent need for policymakers in the region to be vigilant in using of the latest data when developing their policies. It recommends the establishment of a global harmonized database that shares material use data for all countries as an important step in helping policymakers and businesses anticipate resource issues, and to provide academia with reliable data to support decision makers with the policy relevant science.
Country specific highlights
Australia: Extraction per capita is driven by exports of fossil fuels and metal ores. Australia is increasingly serving as an energy materials supplier to the industrial transformation in the Asia Pacific region. Resource use per capita is five times the regional and global averages.
China: See above.
India: See above.
Indonesia: Indonesia is a massive exporter of raw materials, in particular fossil fuels. It has been an unusual case since 2005 in that material consumption per capita and material intensity have decreased in recent years, which is normally desirable. This overall trend is largely due to significant fluctuations in use of one resource group in particular: metal ores.
Japan: Typically characterized as a stable industrialized economy with a relatively high level of resource use per capita considering the near absence of primary industry. Japan has gradually demonstrated a decline in material intensity.
Malaysia: has shown historical volatility in material use per capita. Material intensity is high compared to regional averages, but has been declining in recent years.
Pakistan: The most biomass-based economy (3t biomass/capita out of the total 4.8tmaterials/capita). The slow growth in construction material use per capita reveals the low priority of infrastructure development in this period.
Republic of Korea (RoK): The historic material use data of the RoK clearly outlines its transition to an industrialized economy since the 1980s.
Thailand: Like many Asian industrializing countries, Thailand's material use patterns are largely dominated by construction materials. In the past years, Thailand showed promising improvements in material intensity, reducing from 4kg/$ in 2004 to 3kg/$ in 2008.
Viet Nam: The journey from one of the lowest resource users to close to average for the region has been based on a steady acceleration in the use of construction materials (from 0.3t construction materials/cap in 1970 to 5.3t construction materials/cap in 2008). One interesting finding is a sudden decline in the export of fossil fuels from 2007 to 2008. This is partly explained by decreased extraction of fossil fuels, but also due to growing domestic demand of fossil fuels. Viet Nam may be a net importer of fossil fuels in the near future.
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By Janet Larsen
Unfortunately, dust bowls are not just relics of the past. Today two new dust bowls are forming: one in northern China and southern Mongolia and the other in Africa south of the Sahara.
When most people hear the term “dust bowl,” they think of the American heartland in the 1930s, when a homesteading wheat bonanza led to the plowing up of the Great Plains’ native grassland, culminating in the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Despite warnings from researchers and some farmers, history repeated itself in the Soviet Virgin Lands Project in the 1950s to early 1960s. Some 100 million acres (40 million hectares) of grassland were plowed under in Russia, Kazakhstan and western Siberia during Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s push to produce ever more food from the land. When drought hit, the topsoil started to blow away. By 1965, nearly half the newly planted area was degraded by wind erosion. Yields plummeted. Ultimately farmers staged a retreat, abandoning much of that land.
Unfortunately, dust bowls are not just relics of the past. Today two new dust bowls are forming: one in northern China and southern Mongolia and the other in Africa south of the Sahara. Whereas the dust bowls in the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the result of overplowing, the main culprit in Asia and Africa is overgrazing. Although arid or semiarid grasslands are typically better suited for grazing livestock than for farming, once they are overstocked their protective grass covering deteriorates and they face erosion all the same.
Forty percent of China’s land area is grassland. Following agricultural reforms that began in the late 1970s, in which collectively owned livestock were transferred to household ownership, China’s cattle herds grew from 52 million in 1980 to nearly 105 million in 2000, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Meanwhile, China’s population of sheep and goats ballooned from close to 180 million to 280 million. Such a high concentration of grazing animals has put unsustainable pressure on the land. For comparison, the U.S.—a country with comparable grazing capacity—hosts a similar number of cattle but only 9 million sheep and goats.
The fastest growth in China’s livestock occurred with goats; starting in the mid-1980s, the herd size doubled in just 10 years. This is particularly troubling because a fast expansion of goat populations relative to cattle can indicate grassland deterioration. Goats are hardy, able to survive where few other grazers can. They can make efficient use of remaining greenery on nearly barren landscapes. Yet large numbers of goats often portend further environmental degradation because as the animals remove existing vegetation, they leave soils vulnerable to erosion from wind or rain.
Noting that an extraordinary 90 percent of China’s grasslands are degraded, the Chinese government has embarked on restoration programs, including re-vegetation, grazing bans and livestock confinement. The government also has moved nomadic herders off the land or limited their movement under the guise of environmental protection. Evidence from the field, however, reveals that disrupting traditional grazing patterns can exacerbate land degradation and leave pastoralists more vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather.
FAO data indicate that since 2000, China’s cattle numbers have shrunk by 20 million, and the growth in sheep and goat herds appears to have stalled. Whether this can be attributed to policies aimed at reducing herd size or the relocation of herders is unclear.
Meanwhile, much damage has been done, and China’s dust bowl rages on. More than a quarter of China’s land area is covered by desert, and each year spreading sands claim additional territory. Expanding deserts in the arid northwest are merging. Since 1950, more than 24,000 Chinese villages have been abandoned or are seriously in danger of succumbing to traveling dunes, with some 35 million people directly affected.
The effects reach far beyond the desert margins. Spring is the dust storm season. The snow melts and the wind picks up, transporting dust and sand particles from northern China and Mongolia as far as Beijing and on to Korea and Japan, sometimes even crossing the Pacific to cloud parts of North America. The China Meteorological Administration reports that a single severe dust storm in 2006 dumped 330,000 tons of dust from the west onto Beijing: a stunning 44 pounds for each of the city’s residents. In 2007, a dust storm originating in China’s spreading Taklimakan Desert circled the globe in just under two weeks.
Desert scholar Wang Tao notes that in the first decade of the twenty-first century, China experienced 87 dust storms. Records of very strong dust storms (in which visibility is reduced below 200 meters) show an increase over recent decades, from 5 in the 1950s to 13 in the 1970s, 23 in the 1990s, and 21 between 2000 and 2009. (See data.)
The Korean Ministry of the Environment notes a similar rise in dust storms arriving from China and Mongolia, with talk of a lengthening and strengthening “yellow dust season” in South Korea. Dust events clouded 23 days in the 1970s, 39 days in the 1980s, 77 days in the 1990s, and 118 days from 2000 to 2011.
As bad as Asia’s dust storms are, the largest source of dust in the atmosphere on a global scale is Africa. Dust has long traveled out of Africa’s deserts and drylands, which make up two thirds of the continent’s land area; in fact, dust blowing out of Chad’s Bodélé Depression is thought to help fertilize the lush Amazon rainforest. Nearly 75 percent of Africa’s drylands are degraded. With land suffering the double whammy of drought and overuse, dust carried out of West Africa has increased over the last 40 years. Studies suggest that the larger influx of African dust may even be teaming up with rising ocean temperatures to damage Caribbean coral reefs.
In the Sahelian zone south of the Sahara the squeeze is on, with fast-growing populations trying to eke out a living by farming or grazing herds on ever less productive land. Desertification is particularly acute in Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger, as well as in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, where an estimated 868,000 acres are lost to desert each year. Conflicts over land between herders (largely Muslim) and farmers (largely Christian) are legion, with both groups exacerbating erosion. Nigerian pastoralists, largely in the country’s north, have dramatically expanded their herds, putting additional pressure on soils already vulnerable because of erratic rainfall. In 1990, Nigeria had 14 million cattle, 12 million sheep, and 23 million goats. By 2010, cattle populations had climbed just slightly to 17 million, but the number of sheep tripled to 36 million, and goats jumped to 56 million.
Both Africa and China have launched ambitious initiatives to halt the spread of deserts with Great Green Walls of trees. Political leaders—including former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (an early champion of the African Wall) and Abdoulaye Wade, former President of Senegal—tend to favor such large symbolic projects. Indeed in the throes of the U.S. Dust Bowl, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was similarly taken with the idea of a giant shelterbelt. But as happened in the U.S., desert containment plans in the Sahel and China have broadened in scope beyond basic tree belts to encompass more holistic land management and poverty alleviation activities. The limited success at holding back the sands in China thus far, where since the early 1980s an estimated 40 billion trees have been planted (although far fewer have survived), confirms that stopping desertification involves much more than planting trees.
Climate change is complicating the matter even further. Large parts of the planet are trending toward dryness, with a marked increase in aridity since the 1970s, when global temperatures started to climb. As the Earth heats up further, droughts are projected to become even more pronounced. A rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to prevent runaway global warming, along with a slowdown in the growth of both human and livestock populations to reduce pressure on the land, are what it will take to increase our chances of leaving dust bowls to history.
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[Editor's note: While working on this post I kept thinking of the Annie Leonard's The Story of Electronics. Watch her movie below and then read about the organizations that are trying to clean up this toxic industry.]
The American Public Health Association (APHA) yesterday called on the global electronics’ industry, public health officials and international agencies to step up efforts to protect workers and communities, citing well documented adverse health effects caused by many toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of electronic and electrical products worldwide.
“The rapid growth of the electronics industry has been accompanied by massive increased use of toxic chemical substances and an increase in adverse health outcomes during manufacturing and end of life stages,” said Joe DiGangi, PhD, IPEN. “Manufacturers need to address this problem up front in the design phase by reducing and eliminating toxic chemicals.”
In making its recommendations, American Public Health Association (APHA) noted the dramatic increase in the production and use of electrical and electronic products, including a global supply chain that works through a complicated web of subcontractors, often located in Asia.
“Weak, or nonexistent regulations, lack of information about the chemicals to which they are being exposed, insufficient oversight, and a failure to consistently report and track disease patterns associated with the industry compound the problem in many Asian manufacturing facilities,” explained Dr. Jeong-ok Kong, an occupational health physician with the Korean Institute of Labor, Safety and Health in Korea who presented data indicating unusually high incidence of cancer among Samsung workers in Korea. “Unfortunately the response of the industry is often to continue the harm by exploiting scientific uncertainty and promoting weak policies under the guise of ‘sound science.’”
Several presentations at the APHA conference documented adverse health outcomes due to exposure to hazardous chemicals in the electronics industry in China, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere. Some of the most important health impacts and patterns cited in the APHA resolution include cancers, lung disease, reproductive disorders, congenital anomalies in offspring and musculoskeletal problems from repetitive motion tasks. Companies named in the resolution included Acer, Advanced Micro Devices, Apple, Dell, AU Optronics, Hewlett Packard, Hon Hai (Foxconn), HTC, Intel, Lenovo, LG, Samsung, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company and Young Fast Optoelectronics.
APHA endorsed three key strategies to strengthen occupational and environmental health in the electronics industry, including:
Right to know. The right of workers and communities to know the identities and hazards of chemicals they are being exposed to and ways to protect themselves is a key chemical safety principal.
Prevention through design. When the costs of chemical pollution, clean-up, and adverse health effects on individuals and communities are factored into product cost analyses, it becomes clear that the most effective way to address hazardous chemicals in manufacturing electronic products is to use safer chemical and non-chemical alternatives.
Health surveillance. APHA endorses the use of health surveillance that would include collection of data, analysis, and dissemination of information about injuries, illnesses, hazards and exposures in the electronics sector, with full access for workers to monitoring protocols and results, as well as medical records.
Organizations involved in this campaign, include:
The American Public Health Association is the oldest and most diverse organization of public health professionals in the world and has been working to improve public health since 1872.
Asia Monitor Resource Center focuses on Asian labor concerns and supports a democratic and independent labor movement promoting the principles of labor rights, gender consciousness, and active workers’ participation in work-related issues.
Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims is a coalition of victims’ groups, trade unions and other labour groups across Asia, all committed to the rights of Victims and for overall improvement of health and safety at the workplace.
Center for Environmental Health protects people from toxic chemicals and promotes business products and practices that are safe for public health and the environment.
Electronics TakeBack Coalition promotes green design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry. A key goal is to require consumer electronics manufacturers and brand owners to take full responsibility for the life cycle of their products, through effective public policy requirements or enforceable agreements.
Hesperian Health Guides develops and distributes health materials that provide knowledge for action, and inspire action for health and are designed in partnership with and for community health workers and others in poor and marginalized communities around the world to prevent and cure disease, and to challenge the social injustices that cause poor health. www.hesperian.org
International Campaign for Responsible Technology connects activists and organizations around the world to make the electronics industry accountable and sustainable.
IPEN is a leading global organization working to establish and implement safe chemicals policies and practices that protect human health and the environment around the world. IPEN’s global network is comprised of more than 700 public-interest organizations in 116 countries working in the international policy arena and in developing countries.
Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS) is composed of independent labor unions, human right groups, occupational safety and health groups, progressive political parties, and workers’ organizations, supporting workers rights and occupational health, particularly in Samsung manufacturing facilities
Worksafe is dedicated to eliminating all types of workplace hazards and advocates for protective worker health and safety laws and effective remedies for injured workers. Worksafe watchdogs government agencies to ensure they enforce these laws.