LIZZIE'S CENTURY

A MEMORY OF NATURE

The dream of Lizzie's cousin for a 'greener world than now' is a distant fantasy

ALLEN ABEL October 10 2005
LIZZIE'S CENTURY

A MEMORY OF NATURE

The dream of Lizzie's cousin for a 'greener world than now' is a distant fantasy

ALLEN ABEL October 10 2005

A MEMORY OF NATURE

The dream of Lizzie's cousin for a 'greener world than now' is a distant fantasy

ALLEN ABEL

2075 Chapter seven, age seventy

WHO LIVES in a pineapple under the sea in the year 2075? Nobody. Nothing. Slime. SpongeBob SquarePants, Gary the Snail, Squidward Tentacles, Patrick Star—all have gone to sea-dust, poisoned by progress or harvested to quench the hunger of 10 billion human stomachs.

Only Plankton—one-eyed and evil—survives.

“This isn’t just science fiction,” says a man who believes in 2005 that we are watching the death of the oceans.

Our admiration increased as we watched the marine monsters disporting themselves like salamanders. I saw the swift and elegant porpoise (the indefatigable clown of the ocean), and some swordfish ten feet long... Then appeared the smaller fish, the balista, the leaping mackerel. ..so we progressed, incessantly charmed by some new marvel. -JULES VERNE, TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THESEA, 1870

Jeremy Jackson is a marine ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. If he comes off like a doomsayer, so be it, he says. “People don’t really know what ‘natural’ is,” Jackson tells me. “People think that ‘natural’ is however the world was when they were born. That attitude has a profound effect on our understanding—or lack of understanding—of the environment.”

So now we come to consider my daughter’s home planet when she is 70. Jackson counts off the casualties: the Baltic Sea, the northern Adriatic, Tokyo harbour, Hong Kong harbour, Moreton Bay in Australia. “If you and your daughter are standing on these shores even 20 years from now,” he says, “they all could be a dead zone. There’s already a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that’s larger than the state of New Jersey. And it’s not just there—there are hundreds of these dead zones.

“In the northwest Hawaiian Islands, there is a vast sea of floating garbage, gathered together where the currents join. The big stuff chokes albatrosses; it’s just disgusting. But even more insidious than the stuff you can see is the stuff you can’t see—the breakdown stuff, the particulates.

“I try to use a metaphor that people will understand. Imagine ‘Escape from Malibu.’ The coast turns into a dead zone, it’s all slums, and everybody runs away to live in Wyoming and Montana.”

Jackson is not praying for the abandonment of Bikini Bottom—his daughter-in-law is director of marketing for the U.S. television network that broadcasts the wildly popular SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon show. Life inland in 2075, in his view, is little better. By then, the dream of Elizabeth’s cousin Kirill Bolotin, the Cornell nanotechnologist—“a greener world than now”—is a distant fantasy. “What is going to happen,” says Jackson, “is that our standard of living is going to deteriorate. People are going to be here for a long, long time, but the desirability of being alive is going to decrease.

“If we look at the history of the land, what happened? The first thing we did, we killed all the big animals, either because they were dangerous or because we wanted to eat them. The second thing we did was cut down the forest and plant corn and wheat.

“The same thing is happening in the ocean. We’ve killed all the big animals pretty much. Then we started in on the equivalent of the forest—the coral reefs, the kelp forests, the oyster beds—and we’re killing them, too.

“And the third thing that is happening is the rise of slime. It’s as if we were going backwards half a billion years.”

NATURAL DISASTERS WAITING TO HAPPEN

1. There’s a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico that’s bigger than New Jersey. In fact, the number of dead zones in the world’s oceans has been doubling every decade. Where fertilizers wash into our water, algae growth blossoms and uses up most of the oxygen needed for underwater creatures.

2. Brazil’s rainforests get most of the press, but worldwide, the amount of forest is

shrinking by the size of a soccer pitch every two seconds. Besides being a prime cause of a new wave of extinction-the largest since the days of the dinosaurs-lack of trees will increase C02 buildup and global warming.

3. Iraq and Syria are just two of the countries that have swapped threats over water. Our consumption is rising twice as fast as the population is growing. By 2025, half the world will face water shortages.

4. In Africa, a child dies of malaria every 30 seconds. By 2075, with the world an expected

2.5°C warmer, there will be more such disease, more natural disasters and more malnutrition. At present, 150,000 deaths a year can be attributed to climate change. That’s expected to double by 2035.

5. Some entire nations, such as Tuvalu in the South Pacific, are expected to disappear, and millions of people will become ice-cap refugees due to flooding of highly populated rice lands in places like Vietnam. Now is the time to enjoy that beach home: within 60 years, a quarter of the buildings along the U.S. coast will have washed away.

WHO LIVES ALONG the shores of Lake Bowker, Que., in 2075?

Perhaps it is grazing herds of non-mad dairy cows. Perhaps it is Montreal millionaires behind gates and—who knows?—guns. Or perhaps the native plants and animals and

birds and insects of the boreal forest and the littoral zone coexist in harmony with an enlightened humanity.

“I think the fathers and the mothers of the Lizzies, we are the ones who will make the decision about what we will see 50 years from now,” says one woman with a great stake in that future. (Though no greater than yours or mine.) “This is maybe the last generation where everything is possible, because of the pace of change and the greed that propels that change.”

Catherine Potvin of McGill University is the mother of three children, and the daughter of a time when Lake Bowker was—or seemed to a little girl—a haven of natural

abundance and calm. “My parents have a very large property,” she tells me. “It is part of one of only two watersheds in Quebec that are relatively untouched. I hadn’t been back there in 10 years, and when I went back recently, I couldn’t believe the changes.

“I went around with my parents and everything was developed, the whole landscape had been turned into farms or cottages. Those were the landscapes I knew as a child. That was why I decided to become a biologist.”

Potvin, who describes herself as “a socially conscious biologist,” has divided her career—and her life—between the wealthiest and poorest corners of the world: the thoughtcastles of the McGill campus, and the thatched shacks of the last indigenous people of the Panamanian rainforest. Now, as her parents approach the end of their lives, Potvin and her family have been successful enough in life to be able to make an unusual—and costly—decision.

They will not sell the property to developers. At Lake Bowker, they believe, no further progress is necessary. “We will declare it a park,” she says. “We will freeze it for all time. You see, what we will see in 50 years will depend on the choices we make today.”

Resurrecting the woolly mammoth is ‘stupid.’ We should be ‘preserving the species we have.’

-CATHERINE POTVIN, biologist, McGill University

WHO LIVES IN Siberia in the year 2075?

If some Japanese scientists have their way, it is an animal stolen from history and allowed—or forced—to live again.

It has been nearly a decade since the sperm-hunters of Nippon set out to find a woolly mammoth so perfectly deep-frozen in the Russian permafrost that it might be used to resurrect the species. They have been completely unsuccessful, but the enterprise has caught the public’s fancy. There was a frozen mammoth head and leg on public view at Expo 2005 in Nagoya, and there is talk of setting aside a parcel of the vast and vacant Russian interior as a payper-view Pleistocene Park, where the neobeasts could disport themselves like salamanders, in company with other creatures (sabre-toothed tigers, maybe even a giant ground sloth or two) hauled up from extinction’s grave.

The plan, according to members of the Mammoth Creation Project, is to search the estimated 10 million carcasses still locked in the sorbet of the Siberian turf for a male whose DNA is usefully intact. This will be injected into a female Asian elephant, and in only 50 years, if all the babies survive, we will have a bastardized pachyderm that is one-eighth elephant and seven-eighths woolly mammoth— Jumbo in a brown shag rug.

“Theoretically, it is possible,” a Russian expert on the mammoth tells me. Andrei Sher of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow has seen as many halfthawed carcasses of large ancient mammals as any man in history.

“On one hand,” Sher says, “I strongly believe in the progress of technology. Only 50

years ago, we did not know of DNA; now, we have the complete DNA of the woolly mammoth. But a genome is just a scheme. To recreate it in reality is a completely different task. Many scientists are seeking the fossil sperm of the mammoth, which would make resurrection very much easier. But I have spent 30 years in the Arctic. I know the condition of these tissues. Even in permafrost, the preservation actually is very poor.

“My colleagues have been able to germinate seeds that were 30,000 years old, but there is a big difference between growing some flowers and recreating a mammoth. In the future, it is more likely that we will synthesize the DNA.”

Of course, if it is possible in 2075 to robo-nano-replicate a being’s genetic code from scratch, the diabolical (and unstoppable) Singularity Machine may just bypass the vegetarian woolly mammoth entirely and bring back Tyrannosaurus rex instead, just to see how many chewy, useless humans it will eat.

“From a philosophical and moral point of view of extinction, I’m sure the extinction of the woolly mammoth was a natural biological process,” says Sher. “In my opinion, human hunters played only a small part. Of course I believe that all species that we can rescue, we must. But the world of the mammoth was not our world—it was a different world, and we lost it.”

But this does not seem to daunt the Japanese, who must not have seen the bumper stickers so popular in the mid-’70s that cried, “Extinction is forever.”

By 2075, of course, it won’t be.

“If we do bring it back, what do we do with it?” Sher asks me.

“We charge money to see it!” I inform him.

“I do not like zoos,” the Russian says. “It is better that we create the proper condtions for wildlife to be viewed in nature.”

At Lake Bowker, they believe, no further progress is necessary. ‘We will freeze it for all time.’

By the time my Elizabeth is 70, the definition of “nature” maybe far different from our own. Already, in 2005, serious scientists (and Ted Turner) have proposed to liberate lions, cheetahs and elephants onto the North American plains, lest they disappear forever from Africa. The French government is supporting the réintroduction of brown bears in the Pyrenees, despite the intense opposition of shepherds.

“What will remain of the natural world for my daughter to see?” I ask Sher.

“At the moment, it’s hard to believe in the wisdom of humankind,” he replies. “There are so many stupid things being done. I wish to believe, but reasons to be-

lieve are not very strong.”

“Is human destruction of the natural world part of nature’s plan?” I wonder.

“I always view human hunters as the most advanced carnivore,” says the Russian scholar. “I used to believe that nature was more balanced, but it has been proved the opposite. Our only hope is that the potential of natural creatures to survive is still very high. We must help them just a little.”

“Are these the final days of wildlife?”

“In the case of marine mammals, it is an absolutely ruthless killing,” Sher says. “But overall, I am not so pessimistic. I probably believe too much in the power of nature.”

‘We must always hope. How can you have children and be a pessimist?’

-CATHERINE POTVIN

WHO LIVES IN the straw and timber villages of Panama in the year 2075?

This is the forest where Catherine Potvin has spent hundreds of weeks as a scientist and as a friend, drawn first to study and protect a rare species of tree, and then to work for the preservation of a nation called the Emberá, should the Emberá themselves choose to be preserved.

Unlike many of the indigenous peoples of Central and South America, the Emberá have not yet been totally absorbed by Latino culture, or infected with our modern greed. But the wider world—timber companies; “bio-prospectors” searching for natural-source miracle drugs—is barrelling down the Pan-American Highway, and the Emberá, like the Potvins of Lake Bowker, face a difficult decision.

“We can preserve my parents’ place as a park because we are wealthy enough and we believe in that,” Potvin says. “But can

you ask people who have nothing by our standards to make the same decision?

“This is the choice they have to make, and they have to make it soon. They can decide that what they want is to be like us, then they will extract the resources of the forest for as much money as they can get before the resource is gone. Or they can flip it around and say they don’t want to be like us. I think that’s a movement in Latin America that’s growing, but it may be too late for them.

“If they choose not to join the modern world, they would marginalize themselves even more. Their children could not go to school, because to go to school they have to pay. If they don’t sell the forest, they are frozen in time with no possibility to join our society. They miss that boat forever.”

The dilemma of the Emberá makes the problems of the Potvins seem simple. “I can make that decision for my own land—for me, conserving it is the best gift I can give my grandchildren—but I cannot answer this question for the Emberá. I have mixed feelings. One day, I wish they would tell the modern world, ‘Get out!’ But the next day I think, ‘How can you become so marginal

to the rest of humanity?’ ”

The Emberá are not woolly mammoths; should they choose to assimilate, to “progress,” it will be beyond the power of any laboratory to bring their culture back.

“We’re clearly talking about extinction,” Potvin says. “Extinction of species, and extinction of ways of life. There will be lifejust different kinds of life. If they survive as a people, and I bring Lizzie to see them 50 years from now, it will be to see people who do not have nanotechnology, but who have something we don’t, like how they take care of their children. You never hear the children cry. There are always hands reaching out to them.

“It’s not that they are people who are deprived of the things we have. We are deprived of the things they have. Maybe they can find a way, and not lose their soul—that would be fantastic.”

In Ipeti, an Emberá village I visited with Potvin in 2004, the value of one old-growth hardwood tree is about US$30. Who is to tell them not to trade lumber for learning, sawdust for schoolbooks?

“I think they understand that they are marginal and they want to get out of that marginality,” Potvin says. “You meet people who never went to school at all who want their children to go to university. What I’m witnessing is that they will get on that boat with us.”

For the world of my child and her children, Potvin is “absolutely terrified.” Like Jeremy Jackson, she sees the oceans being treated “like a big sewer,” and she thinks that the resurrection of the woolly mammoth is “completely stupid—our intelligence is better served by preserving and maintaining the species that we have.

“There are different ways of being mod-

ern,” says Potvin. In the years to come, she would like to see the Emberá having achieved their own vision of modernity. “They want better houses, and not to cook all their meals over an open fire. My hope is to return there with our next generation and to see nice houses, clean, with thatched roofs, and there would be a lot of forest all around and everyone would have their own garden.”

I tell her that, for Elizabeth’s sake—and for the sake of the Emberá—I hope her vision will be fulfilled, and that there still will be a world of wonder when my little girl grows old.

And Catherine Potvin says, “We must always hope. How can you have children and be a pessimist?” I?il