Global warming may be the first environmental crisis to affect all life on earth at the same time, in equally dramatic ways. The Romans apparently raised the level of airborne lead-and subsequently the lead level in soil and waterways-because of the amount of lead smelting they practiced. But before global warming, every earlier environmental crisis had an impact on relatively small groups of creatures or species in relatively small geographic areas. Think Love Canal or Three Mile Island. Think even of DDT or PCBs whose threats are widespread but whose Superfund sites are always relatively concentrated. As ecocatastrophic threats have increased in their ranges, so has our sense of our own links to the areas so affected. Out of an ever warmer world we will increasingly find new ways to recognize our dependence on other species and their dependence on us. We are all getting warmer together. The impact of increased global temperature on microorganisms-bacteria, fungi, and viruses-will be directly related to the impact of those same temperatures on humans.
The lure of ecomorphism, of our desire to describe ourselves and our world in ecological terms, is probably at the root of our culture’s current preoccupation with aliens. The possibility of life on other planets-whether fossilized unicellular organisms trapped in rocks on Mars or humanoid “Grays,” the alien beings that are encountered by so many insomniacs-is a function of our thinking about the ultimate ecosystem. Since the cosmos is our largest natural home, the rules of physics and of ecological balance must reach far beyond earthly limits. Indeed, science now reports that the apparent “laws” of nature actually alter once we cover great enough distances, travel fast enough, or alter our perspective form a binocular humanized vantage point. Those who worry about these matters now suspect that alien life will turn out to be either an invader from far beyond or the potential source of all life on earth. Some serious thinkers are now speculating about what we might call “cosmic ecology,” about life as universal in the literal sense, life throughout the entire universe, terrestrial life itself as fundamentally extraterrestrial. Science fiction will become science fact if and when it turns out that earthly life was transplanted here by spores, or some other source, from outer space. Stay tuned, Trekkies.
Our greatest modern fears can be likewise linked to an ecocentrism born of anxiety. What has been so terrifying to recent generations about “the Bomb”-the atomic A-Bomb and the hydrogen H-Bomb-has been our fear that we might have the capacity to destroy ourselves and all life on earth, except perhaps cockroaches, horseshoe crabs, a few sharks, and the bacteria. But what would life have meant after we had destroyed it? Would the end of things make any difference? In a comparable image, if the planet was to be knocked out of its orbit by an asteroid tonight, what difference would that make beyond the difference it would make to humans? What does our life in nature mean? Finally, consider Steven J. Gould’s claim that invisible organisms, such as bacteria and viruses, are actually the most successful of all life forms, since they are far more wide-ranging and extensive, in untold masses stretching miles upon miles toward the deep rocky center of the planet, than the total weight of all the mega-fauna. The total of all the life on our planet that is invisible to the human eye may far surpass the visible biotic mass, from every ant to every blue whale, every slime mold to every sequoia. If Gould is right, and he usually was, life on earth looks more like bacteria than it looks like human beings.
Our own era is not only afraid that aliens or nuclear bombs or bacteria will beat us in the end. We currently fear ecotastrophies of many kinds: ozone holes and global climate change, scourging influenzas and viral pandemics. Most likely of all these fears is a fear that is also a form of optimism: artificial life-not like Frankenstein’s monstrous wretch-but rather intelligent computers, A.I. (artificial intelligence) in robots, androgynous androids dreaming of electric sheep. Computers will soon know more than we know. Silicone implants will soon supplant our memories and enhance our sex lives. Scariest of all of these scenarios is the most likely, since it is already underway: genetic manipulation of the heredity of peaches, drosophila, and pigs, not to mention genetic and reproductive manipulation of our mothers and fathers, the eggs and sperm and genes that make you into you and me into me. Nonhuman genes implanted into human fetuses, fecund fertility clinics, sperm banks and amniocentesis: in all such cases we see wild reproductive nature transformed in our bedrooms and bio-labs and cities, yet another version of urbanature.
We can now describe the important details of human biology in terms of our connection to dust mites and deer ticks, maggots and mushrooms, flowering trees and fiddlehead ferns, white-tailed deer and bowhead whales. Unlike those early Romantic naturalists-Erasmus Darwin, William Bartram, Gilbert White-we are now interested not only in the large visible creatures around us, mega-fauna, but in a wide panoply of nonhuman events: the sun-cycle and wind-cycle, the rain and gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, plant reproduction, animal population balance, the food supply, the big picture, the whole environmental enchilada. These wide-ranging concerns point toward another major paradigm shift in our new century, toward a new ethic that is not just about preserving wild spaces and wild places.
The new ethic needs to see skyscrapers, superhighways, jumbo-jets, and genetic research labs as parts of our “new” nature, no less natural because they were crafted by members of the human species. The skyscraper is made of sand (for glass), bauxite (for aluminum), and iron (for steel). The jet burns fossil-fuels or bio-fuels and flies on aerodynamic principles. Natural laws and natural materials allow us to create and to control every skyscraper and every jet, so how are the skyscraper and the jet unnatural? Our new nature will not be the mysterious nature that our ancestors once feared (wolves and thunder and winter) nor will it be the nature that the Romantics taught us to love (nightingales and daffodils and springtime). Out of ecomorphism comes another new idea, urbanature. As I have written elsewhere, urbanature is the essential version of all nature that keeps us closer to each other and closer to organic, as well as inorganic, matter.