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They that deny a God destroy man's nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.
    Francis Bacon, Of Atheism

The hard-core environmental movement proceeds from a set of assumptions which, fortunately, are foreign to most of us. It begins, necessarily, with the discarding of several thousand years of Judeo-Christianity and the accompanying moral teachings. This allows several things. First, men become godlike in their power, especially their power to damage the planet Earth. Thus, one can imagine some technological or scientific innovation so radically dangerous that entire species (see Rachel Carson's Silent Spring), indeed all life on the planet (see Carl Sagan's Nuclear Winter hoax), may be destroyed if we aren't careful. In fact, rather than godlike, we might better say they see Man as demonlike, as a destroyer.

Secondly, having left behind the notion that Man is Created and that he is created in God's image (imago Dei), they no longer have to accord human beings the dignity that has undergirded Western Civilization. This reduces man to the level of the rest of the creatures and things of the natural world, and even, when combined with the idea of men as demoniac, may make us less worthy than the rest of nature. This sort of thinking is most clearly, and notoriously, on display in Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, wherein, while calling for reducing the planet's population to one billion, he actually compared humanity to a disease:
A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people. Treating only the symptoms of cancer may make the victim more comfortable at first, but eventually he dies -- often horribly. A similar fate awaits a world with a population explosion if only the symptoms are treated. We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions. The pain may be intense. But the disease is so far advanced that only with radical surgery does the patient have a chance of survival.
Note that it is the world that is to be saved, not Man.

All of which is by way of introduction to Bill McKibben who has reportedly already produced books that claim we're about to destroy the world via global warming, The End of Nature, and that urge upon us all a one child policy, Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families. So he's already demonstrated a wild overestimation of human science, an underestimation of nature's resilience, and a general disregard for Man as against Nature. What then is a conservative to make of it when Mr. McKibben joins us in opposition to the bio-engineering of human beings, but does so on the basis of these anti-human environmentalist beliefs? Is it appropriate to just accept him as an ally in a righteous cause and hope that he can reach people on the Left, even though his means of reaching them is through what are patently absurd or even--not to put too fine a point on it--evil arguments?

To begin with, here's what he believes is going on:
[W]e stand at a threshold: if we aggressively pursue any or all of several new technologies now before us, we may alter our relationship not with the rest of nature but with ourselves. First human genetic engineering and then advanced forms of robotics and nanotechnology will call into question, often quite explicitly, our understanding of what it means to be a human being.
Others, with a far better comprehension of the science involved in re-engineering humans have pointed out how difficult, perhaps even impossible, it will be make many of the "advances" that Mr. McKibben worries about in the book. But his claims do seem of a piece with hysterias like DDT, global warming, and the others, in that he simply assumes that because we've set out to do something--change our genes--we'll achieve all the results that can be imagined. Past claims of the same kind and their track record of turning out to be little more than sci-fi fantasy suggest that we should be deeply dubious now. The more important question, because we confront it whether new technologies work or not, is: should we conduct experiments on embryos, fetuses, babies, clones, etc., which will certainly have negative impacts including death, just so that we might find the next treatment that could make our own lives a bit healthier or extend them a tad longer?

At first blush it might seem that Mr. McKibben would aid the innocent lives that are at risk here and so should be welcomed to the fold. But, before you go ahead and decide that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, here's a taste of what he has to say. He maintains that it is the:
...ability to limit ourselves...that makes us unique among the animals. Not better. But unique, as birds with their hollow bones are unique, and dogs with their astonishing sense of smell. You could argue that the rest of creation manages to observe these limits with enormous elegance--spontaneously, without even trying. As for us, we are the creature that can voluntarily rein itself in. We are, in some sense, the sum of our limits.

And though it galls the apostles of technology, this idea of restraint comes in large measure from our religious heritage. Not the religious heritage of literalism and fundamentalism and pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. The scientists may have drowned the miracle-working sky gods with their five-century flood of data. Copernicus and Darwin did deprive us of our exalted place in the universe. But this older, deeper, more integral religious idea survives. Indeed, it thrives whenever man is knocked from his pedestal, for at its core is the notion that meaning matters more than size, that we are great precisely as we are able to make ourselves small. It is Yama, the King of Death, explaining in the Upanishads the choice between preya, that which is pleasant, and shreya, that which is beneficial. It is Gilgamesh, the great hero, reminded that immortality is not for man. It is Job, finally silent and satisfied before God and the splendor of creation. It is Jesus, tempted in the desert by the nanotechnologist of his day: 'If you are the son of God, command these stones to turn into bread.' And refusing, in words that still carry a charge: 'Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.'

In this long tradition, meaning counts, more than ability or achievement or accumulation. Indeed, meaning counts more than life. From this perspective, Christ's resurrection is almost unnecessary: it is his willingness to die, to impose the deepest limit on himself for the sake of others, that matters.

The series of alternately vile and risible assertions here, and throughout the book, is almost too thick to untangle. It may well be the ideology of the deep environmentalist that Man is not better than the bird or the dog. But who that cares at all about his fellow man would be willing to live by such an ethos. You're driving along a road, trying to pass a woman who is jogging in your lane. A dog runs out from the other side of the street. Is it truly a matter of moral indifference which of them you choose to run over? Similarly, is there not a significant moral difference between, on the one hand, the possibility that a product we could derive from dogs, but where the derivation process would be fatal to them, would enable us to cure diabetes, and, on the other hand, the idea that each of us might one day have a stockpile of cloned versions of ourselves so that we'd have spare organs? No matter how much you like dogs, they aren't human beings. That matters.

And don't you just love the bit about how other animals accept their limitations more elegantly than we? You can just imagine the scene that's running through his head, where the ring-tailed lemurs got together and decided not to develop nuclear weapons--even though they could--because they "recognize their limits".

His bit about living by every word of God is genuinely strange, especially having just dismissed fundamentalism, because you'd think he'd have to explain away this:
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle,

and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over

the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for a meat.

And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

There are plenty of disputes between various religions and sects on any number of theological issues, but here in the Creation story shared by Jews and Christians alike we see Man not an equal of all living things, but their superior, granted dominion over them. Meanwhile, there seems little point in arguing what precisely the Crucifixion meant, but at a minimum we can agree it meant this:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Unless we're back to hyper-sapient lemurs, we're left with the strong impression that since only Man even has the capacity to believe, Christ died for us. We are, in fact, exalted in the universe and Mr. McKibben's "reasoning" lies in tatters.

Interestingly enough though, almost as if his heart knows the reasons, he's brought us to the point from which we can regain a sound perspective on why bioengineering--the treatment of humans as if they were plastic to be molded in any form we choose--is so dangerous. It is because we are created in God's image and are exalted above the other animals that every human being must be treated with dignity. No fetus should be treated like a hunk of Play-doh, neither so that we may "improve" it, nor so that we may "harvest" its cells or organs or what have you to "improve" ourselves. It is this kind of objectification of our fellow men that is truly objectionable.

To be fair, though Mr. McKibben runs into these difficulties because he's approaching these issues from the environmental Left, even some of the most eloquent men of the Right, like Francis Fukuyama and Charles Krauthammer--have had similar problems. It appears that unless you ground your arguments against cloning/bioengineering/etc. on Judeo-Christian teachings--specifically on the Imago Dei--you ultimately end up devolving into incoherence. The basic shortcoming that their alternative arguments suffer from is that they begin by treating men as merely material beings--rather than as transcendent, each of us an end in himself, whose life is of ultimate worth--but then have to plead that we not treat humans like mere material. The instinctual revulsion they all feel at the prospect of the rush towards post-humanity is admirable enough, and one would rather have them opposed than in favor. However, I think we must be wary that they deny too much even as they seek to join the cause. The wise caution of T. S. Eliot comes to mind:
The last temptation is the greatest treason
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
In particular, to accept Mr. McKibben's idea of "limits"--that we should limit technology generally, limit families, limit our estimation of Man vis-a-vis other species--is to cheapen the value of human life and our culture's dream of what men can achieve even in this preposthuman stage. It is, even as it claims to defend humans, quite anti-human. This facet of his thought is most clearly displayed in a truly chilling section of the book where he tries to differentiate between genetic screening and genetic manipulation. He is all for the screening, which, of course, allows parents to abort children who don't measure up. But he's opposed to trying to fix abnormalities that may be found. He even acknowledges the potential for abuse that exists in screening, for instance that people frequently abort females or that they might abort less intelligent babies if tests could be done, but he justifies the practice anyway:
Even at its worst, [screening] wouldn't be as bad as germline manipulation. At least parents would only be choosing from the possibilities nature presents...
The is nothing more than the fetishization of nature at the expense of a frightening lack of recognition that "choosing" means killing humans. Mr. McKibben's philosophy elevates Nature above Man and asks that we leave Nature untouched for no other reason than that it is Nature. This is a strange kind of worship of a false idol and a form of treason against our own species and the God who created us in His image.


Grade: (D+)


See also:

Bill McKibben Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben (Henry Holt)
    -ESSAY: Keep Us Human: If we're truly smart, we'll refuse to foolishly tamper with our DNA (Bill McKibben, April 14, 2003, LA Times)
    -ESSAY: Mr. Natural: Forget the creepy promise of techno-longevity. Instead, take our advice: Live fast, die hard, and leave behind a worn-out, used-up, good-looking corpse. (Bill McKibben, May 2003, Outside)
    -ESSAY: Kerala, India (Bill McKibben, Double Take)
    -ESSAY: Everything You Need to Know: All Things Considered has only improved with age, the author finds. But it could still aim for deeper realms (Bill McKibben, May 2001, The Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: The World Streaming In: Free, easy-to-use software turns any PC into the greatest shortwave set there ever was (Bill McKibben, July 2000, The Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Listening to Lydon: A fluent and erudite public-radio host with an immense topical range shows how a call-in program can be a higher calling (Bill McKibben, October 1999, The Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: A Special Moment in History: The fate of our planet will be determined in the next few decades, through our technological, lifestyle, and population choices (Bill McKibben, May 1998, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: An Explosion of Green: The reforestation of the eastern United States-- thanks partly to conservationists and mostly to accident-- can show the developing world how to make room for people, farming, industry, and endangered species of plants and animals, which have been returning. We can give the rest of the world a better example if we address the problems that even this fortunate region still faces (Bill McKibben, April 1995, The Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: An End to Sweet Illusions: America must open its eyes to the rest of the world. (Bill McKibben, January/February 2002, Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY: It's Easy Being Green: George W. Bush doesn't get it yet. But renewable energy is no longer the stuff of noble visions and pipe dreams: It's available, inexpensive, and increasingly--normal. (Bill McKibben, July/August 2002, Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY: George Harrison and the Concert for Bangladesh: He knew what he should do and he went out and did it. The result was the first, and perhaps the greatest, concert-for-a-cause ever staged. (Bill McKibben, December 01, 2001, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Good neighbor policies: After Sept. 11, we are of the world, not apart from it. So maybe we'll stop saying no to vital international agreements. (Bill McKibben, September 28, 2001, Salon)
    -ESSAY: An Alternative to Progress: Bangladesh, despite all its problems, holds the promise of a kind of self-sufficiency not imagined at the World Bank. (Bill McKibben, May/June 2001, Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY: Dis-"Connection": When a Boston station locked out Christopher Lydon, it silenced public radio's most civilized -- and swinging -- talk-show host. (Bill McKibben, Feb. 28, 2001, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Patriotic Acts: Every generation finds its own definition of patriotism. For the author, it's rooted in a Vietnam-era boyhood on Lexington Green and is flourishing amid a post-Seattle awakening. (Bill McKibben, Nov./Dec. 2000, Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY: Across the Disappearing Finish Line: Searching for the keys to endurance, a ski racer pushes his body and heart to the limit-until his father's sudden illness changes all the rules (Bill McKibben, November 2000, Outside)
    -ESSAY: Muggles in the Ozone (Bill McKibben, March/April 2000, Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY: The End of Growth: "Renounce and enjoy," Gandhi taught. Now, as we push the global limits of unrestrained growth and comsumption, his message may finally hit home. (Bill McKibben, November/December 1999, Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY: The Christmas: A small revolt takes hold in the author's New England hometown. (Bill McKibben, November/December 1997, Mother Jones)
    -REVIEW: of The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth By Jeremy Rifkin (Bill McKibben, Mother Jones)
    -REVIEW: of Denial of the Soul: Spiritual and Medical Perspectives on Euthanasia and Mortality By M. Scott Peck (Bill McKibben, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry (Bill McKibben, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of A Plague of Frogs by William Souder (Bill McKibben, Washington Monthly)
    -LECTURE: Enough is Enough: Practising self-restraint and accepting our own mortality. (Bill McKibben, Resurgence)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Bill McKibben (Onpoint, 4/30/03, NPR)
    -DISCUSSION: of Enough with Bill McKibben (Genetics and Society)
-INTERVIEW: with Bill McKibben (Tracey C. Rembert, November 1998, E Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: McKibben on the Environment (An Online Conference with Bill McKibben, April 11, 1995, The Atlantic Monthly) -ROUNDTABLE: We're All Environmentalists Now, Right?: With mounting evidence of global warming, and with a majority of voting Americans in favor of environmental protection, the state of the earth's biosphere ought to be a major issue -- perhaps the major issue -- of the 2000 presidential campaign. Yet, thus far, it is not. Atlantic Unbound has invited four experts on the environment and environmental politics -- Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change; Gregg Easterbrook of The New Republic and The Atlantic Monthly; Mary A. Gade, an adviser to George W. Bush; and Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature -- to tell us what they think our environmental priorities should be at this time in history, and, equally important, what can and should be done politically to make real progress toward those ends. (The Atlantic's Jack Beatty, September 13, 2000)
    -INTERVIEW: Checking in with Bill McKibben (Jay Walljasper, July 1999, Conscious Choice)
    -INTERVIEW: Self-Reference: With his new book, Maybe One: An Environmental and Personal Argument for Single-Child Families (Simon & Schuster, 1998), McKibben writes about his 5-year-old child, Sophie, and what it means to make a truly intimate commitment to fighting overpopulation. Along the way, he debunks myths about only children and about population studies. (Mother Jones, May/June 1998)
    -ARCHIVES: Bill McKibben (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: "bill mckibben" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES: "mckibben" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW: of Enough by Bill McKibben (Natalie Angier, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Enough by Bill McKibben (Osha Gray Davidson , LA Times) -REVIEW: of Enough (Margaret Gunning, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Enough (Jim Paul, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Enough (Steven Martinovich, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of MAYBE ONE: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families By Bill McKibben (Ann Hulbert, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Maybe One (Ben Wattenberg, Wall Street Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Maybe One (Steve Heilig, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of LONG DISTANCE: A Year of Living Strenuously by Bill McKibben (Geoffrey Norman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Long Distance (Steve Kettmann, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Hundred Dollar Christmas by Bill McKibben (Norah Vincent, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Hundred Dollar Christmas (FIONA MORGAN, Salon)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: The Olden Mean: When the posthuman future meets our pre-posthuman selves (Cullen Murphy, May 2003, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: On the Rights of Those Not Yet Designed Supertots And Frankenkids (Erik Baard, April 23 - 29, 2003, Village Voice)
    -PROFILE: DNA pioneer urges gene free-for-all (Tim Radford, April 9, 2003, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Politics in the Posthuman Age by Chris Hables Gray (Ian Stoner, Metapsychology)
    -ESSAY: Sins of Petition: Does the left really oppose cloned embryo research? (Chris Mooney, 5.6.02, America Prospect)

   -Lee Silver (Princeton University)
    -INTERVIEW: with Lee Silver (BBC, 12/99/99)


Man: creator of the unvironment.

- Adam Andersen

- Feb-13-2005, 18:14


Thank goodness there are other people who can recognize this book for the crap fest that it is. For an acaemic who has supposedly done his homework he shows a great deal of naiveté when it comes to science and sociollogy. Either he is a dullard, or is simply trying to use fear to sell his books, probably both.

- Barbera Crow

- Jul-05-2004, 18:26


Thank God *someone* understands why McKibben is such a lightweight. McKibben claims correctly that nanotechnology and genetic engineering will challenge our assumptions about what it means to be human, but then he has no answers (as Judd points out). McKibben has lots of passion and his position against genetic engineering may even be correct, but not for any reasons he states.

In a billion years, the sun will boil off the oceans and bake this planet to a crisp. If God doesn't exist, then what difference does it make? If McKibben would have been around during the invention of photosynthesis, he would have been against it.

- Tihamer Toth-Fejel

- Mar-10-2004, 09:24


I just heard a presentation by McKibben on CSPan and doing a little net search to learn more about him stumbled on this bizarre review. If you actually listen to the man it is clear that he has a deep sense of human spirit and is asking profoundly important questions. Self-constraint is a value that we should all learn at our grandmother's knee - I can't believe that you are attacking slef-constraint in the name of religion. I respectfully suggest that you give up your ideology and actually take a look at life around you.

- John Noller

- Aug-11-2003, 02:51


You've seriously overreacted to Bill McKibben's ideas! Just to give a quick example [that's all I have time for], Maybe One was not at all an urging for one child family policy but a suggestion that having one isn't so bad and suffers from some unfair characterizations in the popular imagination [thus the title "MAYBE One."

- Marshall Glickman

- Jun-19-2003, 10:39