Commentary: Canaries in a coalmine

The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-EnquirerJanuary 11, 2013 

Two unrelated items popped up on the laptop screen last week. No, that's wrong. They're not unrelated at all.

The first was a report in the Brunswick News that a young humpback whale had been spotted off the Georgia coast. Humpbacks, an endangered species, are not indigenous to this region, but a Department of Natural Resources biologist was quoted in the paper as saying one or two show up every year.

The other item came from one of those "Quotations" websites where you can find interesting observations attributed (sometimes accurately) to famous people. This one was from Walter Gilbert, an American biologist and biochemist who won the 1980 Nobel in chemistry. "We are embedded in a biological world," Gilbert said, "and related to the organisms around us."

It's not a profound or original observation, even from a Nobel laureate. It wouldn't have been profound to Native American, Asian or African peoples of millennia ago for whom the interconnectedness of the natural world was a practical and spiritual given.

But profound or not, Gilbert's observation was a reminder of our curious, selective relationship to science, especially natural and environmental science.

The humpback whale story instantly evoked one of my two favorite Star Trek movies, "The Voyage Home." ("The Wrath of Khan," it goes without saying, is the other). "The Voyage Home" takes Kirk, Spock and the rest of the crew on a journey back to 20th century Earth to capture two humpback whales and return them to the Earth of their own time -- where whales are now extinct, and the resulting chain of environmental consequences is devastating.

Star Trek "science" is in some ways an oxymoron, but the movie's fundamental premise is sound: The natural world isn't somehow separate from the human world, our stubborn Flat Earth denials to the contrary.

You've heard a lot of the latter, for instance, in debates over the quality and quantity of water in the Chattahoochee River. When biologists pointed out that a certain downstream mollusk is a key indicator of the river's health, the phrase "people versus mussels" became the simpleminded sound bite of choice for politicians whose principal interest was … well, let's say something other than the long-term health of the Chattahoochee River.

Every living thing is in some ways the proverbial canary in the coal mine -- an indicator, and sometimes a dire warning, that human beings and human consumption and human comfort and human profit don't exist in a bubble impervious to the natural world around us. Phony either-or choices like economy "versus" ecology or people "versus" environmental health are worse than just cynical lies -- they're lies that deliberately nurture the most dangerous kind of willful ignorance.

There's an enduring metaphor in the H.G. Wells classic "The War of the Worlds": A hostile alien species technologically advanced far beyond humankind's wildest imagination is done in at last -- not by Earth's feeble weapons, but by microorganisms the invaders arrogantly and ignorantly failed to consider.

Speaking of ignorance, and in the interest of candor: I was a mediocre -- at best -- student of the natural sciences. (The fact that my references are to science fiction rather than science fact should tell you something.) Nor am I anywhere close to being an exemplar of environmental responsibility. In our early parenting years we contributed our share of disposable diapers to area landfills; I seldom think about conservation, and recycle mostly when somebody else makes it convenient.

But there's a scary, dismissive contempt for natural science in this culture, and it seems to be getting worse. Perhaps it doesn't matter, but if that baby whale off the Georgia coast is having problems it shouldn't have, in a place where it shouldn't be, we should want to know why.

Dusty Nix: dnix@ledger-enquirer.com.

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