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McKibben explores horrors of `post-human’ society

Author Bill McKibben made a name for himself 14 years ago when he was one of the first to sound an alarm about global warming in terms that laymen could understand.

Now he’s raising equally important issues for humankind with a book that portrays creepy possibilities as well as wonderful opportunities that civilization will face due to human genetic engineering.

McKibben is one of the keynote speakers in the Sopris Foundation’s State of the World Conference in Aspen June 20-22. He will speak on Friday when the focus is on issues of worldwide interest. Saturday’s presentations will focus on issues in the United States. Sunday’s look at issues facing the American West will round out the conference. (See related story on page 5.)



McKibben, a former staff writer for the New Yorker, has successfully carved out a niche by taking on the daunting challenge of examining colossal issues like world overpopulation. His book “Maybe One” was built around the premise that the planet and humankind would benefit from couples producing only one child.

“The End of Nature” took a look at how humans treat their planet and was renowned for its early warning about global implications of carbon emissions. It helped transform global warming from an esoteric topic for eggheads to one of international concern.




“In 1989 global warming was a hypothesis,” said McKibben. “Now no serious scientist questions it.”

He acknowledged that he stuck his neck out by embracing the theory. The information available on global warming would have fit on the top of his desk when he was working on “The End of Nature,” which was published in 1989. Now the information would fill an airplane hangar.

Although McKibben has been vindicated, he said he feels “despair and horror” over what has become apparent.

Last year was second only to 1998 for the highest global average temperature, according to the Worldwatch Institute. The nine warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 1990.

All of nature is paying for humans’ use of fossil fuels, experts say. Mountaintop glaciers are retreating, oceans rose faster in the last century than the prior one, and the flowering of the first plants and the migration of birds are happening earlier than ever, according to data cited by Worldwatch.

Although global warming is now accepted as fact by many, its effects are still debated. McKibben said he is disappointed that “extremely little progress” has been made to reduce emissions that get trapped in the atmosphere and lead to warming. He is particularly disappointed in the failure of the United States to participate in Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, an international plan to reduce carbon emissions.

“The current Bush is the worst environmental president the country has ever had,” McKibben said.

Since “The End of Nature” came out, the average global temperature has gone up one degree Fahrenheit. It is expected to go up another five degrees by the end of this century. He envisions cataclysmic effects if changes aren’t made.

McKibben is equally alarmed about human genetics. In his latest book, “Enough – Staying Human in an Engineered Age,” he tries to get us thinking about the next monumental issue. Human genetic engineering is regarded by some scientists as something as important to humankind as the invention of fire.

McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, believes there is as much or more potential for it to be abused as used in beneficial ways.

McKibben fears a time when a heart and lungs are merely regarded as equipment by humans thanks to bio-engineering. And eventually, he warns, even our character could be something built and predetermined.

He creates a terrifying image of future parents visiting the genetics clinic to shop for the qualities they want in their child.

In an interview, McKibben portrayed genetic engineering as an extension of the rampant consumerism controlling America and most other industrialized countries. “We’re a society that buys whatever we can,” he said.

He fears that genetic engineering will be pursued without any debate of whether it is beneficial. “It’s a somewhat un-American thing to do to think we might not want a quantum leap in technology,” McKibben said.

If the free market dictates genetic engineering, he views it as an extension of our consumerism and creation of a “post-human” world. But choices can be made to limit engineering to beneficial uses, like treatment of diseases, that don’t affect our human character.

“There is very little doubt we’ll be able to splice our genes,” said McKibben. “The question is, will we be able to not splice our genes?”

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]


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