The Magic Door

by Bill McKibben
Fall 2001

I’m worried about all sorts of things – toxic dumps and acid rain and pesticides and foot-and-mouth disease and old-growth logging and you name it, right down the big green list. They’re all Big Important Issues – I write about them, work on them. People have always had Big Important Issues, though, so no use moaning about them.

But I’m scared – stay-awake-at-night scared – only by a couple of things: By questions that seem to me to transcend normal disasters and become what I will call threshold issues. Which is to say, if you don’t solve them you step over a threshold into a different world, one where nothing is the same.

The first of these, now disappearing in the rearview mirror (knock on wood), was nuclear war. The second is global warming. And the third, in some ways most insidious, is genetic manipulation. They are different because they manage to change everything – not one national forest, but every forest everywhere, and every seashore and mountaintop and city street. Thoreau wrote that he could walk half an hour and come to “…some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man.” But if the temperature of that spot has risen a few degrees and with it the species composition, the rainfall and evaporation rate, the timing of the seasons, and so forth, then politics are there. If the plants and creatures that inhabit it have been changed to make their breasts juicier, their tempers more docile, their herbicide resistance more robust – then it is as clear a reflection of human appetite and ambition as Times Square. And as crowded, and as lonely.

Nuclear war was relatively easy to fight: Everyone could imagine hearing the one big bang that echoed like counterpoint to the original. Global warming is far harder, a slow-motion catastrophe driven by the billion explosions of a billion pistons every second – it will be expensive to turn our economy away from fossil fuel, more expensive than so far we’ve been willing to pony up. But genetic engineering – most insidious of all, as I said – doesn’t even seem like a catastrophe. It seems, on its face, like a blessing. It offers More, which we always like, and maybe Cheaper, and perhaps even Cleaner. Nuclear weapons were sold as insurance against nuclear weapons, and climate change has few apostles, but genetic manipulation comes with a vast army of true believers. Those zealots have stumbled a bit, it is true, with genetically modified foods – the opposition took them by surprise. But they’re little slowed, and they’re moving on quickly to other, deeper realms. Their grail, and the real threshold we are now fast approaching, is the genetic manipulation of human beings. Not the use of somatic gene therapy to treat people with diseases – that is reasonable. But the engineering of the human germline to pass on new and improved traits: more intelligence, perhaps, or less aggression, or super-longevity. Sound far-fetched? How far-fetched did cloning sound 10 years ago? But at the moment at least two teams of scientists have labs up and running to clone people. Cloning is a parlor trick, and a tawdry one at that – but it smoothes the way to, in short order, the improvement of the species. Or, to look at it another way, the end of the species, and its replacement with something else. “Post-human” is what the theorists call it, and of all the seductive ideas whispered at us in our long history, it is perhaps the most attractive.

Your gut may lurch, but some part of your brain wants to hear more. If you’ve spent much time with fairy tales you can guess the rest. The only advantage of threshold issues is this: If you manage to fight and win them, then the world is a different place too, and a better one. The fight against nuclear weapons forced people to new conclusions about the desirability of all-out war. If we manage to take on climate change, we may soon find ourselves in a less centralized economy – off the grid not just electrically, but in other ways as well. And if we somehow managed to turn down the blandishments of the gene-splicers – well, it would be the first great triumph for humility in the history of the species. And if not. Well, then we are special creatures, the last gasp of something ancient and sometimes honorable. Look at that rabbit sitting stock still by the boulder, imagining itself camouflaged. Rejoice in it as a rabbit, not yet a rabbit™, shaped to meet our needs ’til it has the same emotional valence as a candy wrapper. Look at that person on the pillow next to you, aging and imperfect and human. Look inside yourself, cloud of noble contradictions. This is life before we jump through the magic door. If you find it sweet, hold on, hold on, hold on.

About the Author

Bill McKibben is the author of seven books, including The End of Nature, now translated into 20 languages. His journalism appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harpers, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Outside and elsewhere. He won the 2000 Lannan Prize for Nonfiction Writing.