Change We Must
[Rachel's Introduction: A federal judge is being asked to stop a scientific experiment that has a very small chance of going wrong and destroying the Earth. This is an opportunity to think carefully about how our laws -- and our habits of mind -- have remained unchanged for a hundred years while our place in the natural order has changed completely.]
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By Peter Montague
The New York Times carried an important story in its science section this week. Two people have sued in federal district court in Honolulu, trying to stop a group of scientists in Europe from conducting a particle physics experiment that, they say, might create a black hole that could destroy the Earth and perhaps the entire universe.

The scientists have spent 14 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland and naturally they're itching to give it a try. They want to smash protons into each other to see what will happen. They say it is "very unlikely" that they will create a black hole and even if they did, it very likely wouldn't eat the Earth, they say.

Just to be on the safe side, they set up a research team to examine the question. The research team didn't say exactly, "No problem." They said, "Very, very likely, no problem." Oddly, members of the research team are not being identified so we have an anonymous group of scientists assuring us that experiments conducted by their colleagues and friends (proton smashers are a small community, after all) will not destroy the Earth. On that basis, these scientist want the judge to give them a green light to smash lots of protons together, to see what they can learn.

These scientists need to look at it from the point of view of ordinary humans. It was 1980 when scientists first announced that 95% of the mass of the universe had gone missing and could not be accounted for. The part of the universe we can see and touch and smell is only 5% of the whole ball of wax, they said in 1980. From gravitational effects, which they could measure, they deduced that there had to be something huge out there making up an invisible 95% of the universe, but they could not detect the thing itself (only its gravitational effects) and they had no idea what "it" was. They named this missing stuff "dark matter" and they've spent the last 28 years trying to get their hands on some of it. So far, no luck.

So here's what it boils down to: scientists in search of the missing 95% of the universe want us to trust them to conduct an experiment that they and their friends say has only a very slight chance of destroying the Earth.

Really, this is not an altogether new problem -- though it is a thoroughly modern problem. In 1775, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the people who invented the steam engine had almost no idea what thermodynamic forces they had harnessed. But they could see the effects and soon they were using these mysterious forces to move pistons and create all manner of useful machines from water pumps to locomotives. One thing was different -- even when these early machines exploded (which they often did) only a few people got killed. They weren't tinkering with the fate of all Creation, or even all of humankind.

Now things are different. Arguably, the difference began to unfold when the petrochemical industry got started in the 1870s. Those early chemists were experimenting with concoctions that would eventually escape and contaminate the entire planet, including all humans, with small amounts of dozens or hundreds of poorly-understood but potent chemical products and by-products. Now the whole planet is contaminated with biologically active industrial poisons and we've built several government bureaucracies, not to mention hundreds of university programs, plus a massive industrial research apparatus, to try to figure out what all these chemicals are doing to the ducks and the jelly fish and your sister. Really, we haven't a clue and it's likely to stay that way for centuries to come. Every time we learn something new, we discover that these biochemistry problems are far more complicated than we ever imagined. Each time our horizon of knowledge expands a tad, it opens up vast new vistas of ignorance.

After industrial chemistry, then came nuclear power, and suddenly everyone could see that humans held the future of the planet in their little trembling hands. When the first nuclear bomb exploded in the desert of southern New Mexico early in the morning June 16, 1945, Robert Oppenheimer -- the project director -- famously said, "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." That summed it up nicely.

Now anyone who's willing to look can see that humans have grown into a force of geologic proportion -- a relentless, expanding presence that all the other creatures on planet Earth must fear and accommodate. Some geologists want to declare officially that the Cenozoic Era has ended and a new geological era has begun -- which they want to name the Anthropocene to signal that human behavior is now the dominant force on planet Earth.

There's a point to all this history. It tells was that things are very different now from what they were in 1775 or even 1875. As Joe Guth explained it for us in Rachel's #846, during those early days of industrial pride, judges and legislators devised laws based on the following assumption:

Economic activity was presumed to be beneficial and if some people got hurt along the way, they would be compensated by the general improvement in well-being. People who ripped up the Earth, and caused ecological devastation in a thousand different ways, were creating wealth and well-being for all of humanity and so they got the benefit of the doubt. To bring them into court was nearly impossible and if you got them into court the burden was on you to show that they had been grossly negligent before they could be held liable for any damages. Our modern legal structure still operates on this basic assumption.

In other words, the law was -- and still is -- set up to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who wanted to build giant steam engines or chemical factories or uranium processing plants or Large Hadron Colliders. To ask a judge to stop these activities goes against 100 years of law.

But that's exactly what needs to happen, which was Joe Guth's point in Rachel's #846. Circumstances have changed, so the law needs to change. Today, there is good reason to doubt whether expanded economic activity (of the traditional kind) is bringing net benefits to humanity. More coal plants? More nuclear power (with its inevitable camp-follower, the restless A-bomb)? There's good reason to think that more bulldozing and more waste dumping and more "development" are now doing more harm than good. (Of course there are many parts of the world that desperately need power plants, roads, and ports. But to accommodate that genuine need the overdeveloped parts of the planet need to cut back, in some cases pretty drastically -- like cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 80 to 90% in 30 years or so, a daunting challenge.)

It's pretty clear that during the Anthropocene Era many of Earth's natural limits have been surpassed -- the planet is becoming biologically impoverished as the oceans are fished out, the forests aren't able to grow back as fast as they're cut, fresh water is already in short supply and dwindling, humans are crowding out the other creatures, which are therefore going extinct, and it's getting hot in here. You can read about new signs of genuine planet-wide ecological distress in most any good newspaper most any day.

So the old conditions have completely changed. The planet is now being stressed beyond endurance by human activities. Much of our economy is now, arguably, anti-economic -- producing more bads than goods.

As Joe Guth told us in #846, "Containing the damage to the earth is the most important task facing humanity.... The law must be transformed so that the earth's limited assimilative capacity will operate as a real constraint on our economy. This transformation in the law can begin with common law judges, who are called on now, as they have been for centuries, to adjust the law to changing circumstances."

So, yes, perhaps the scientists in Europe should be asked to acknowledge that there is no amount of human knowledge worth risking the destruction of planet Earth. We humans have been playing God for at least 100 years now, and it's time we acknowledged that we're not very good at it.

And perhaps the same message should go out to the prideful technologists who want to fix global warming by rocketing mountains of sulfur dust or acres of aluminum needles into space to shade us from the sun, or who want to dump huge quantities of iron filings into the oceans to stimulate the growth of plankton that will eat carbon dioxide, or who want to bury a few trillion tons of liquefied carbon dioxide a mile below ground, hoping it will stay there forever. What else will those parasols in space or those extra plankton do? What if that liquid carbon dioxide starts leaking out in a hundred years? Do we really want to find out the hard way, by trial and error? Maybe it's time to face the fact that, in the Anthropocene Era, the most important characteristic that we humans can develop and foster is humility in the face of our vast and irremediable ignorance. We can't find 95% of the universe. So be it. A hundred years ago it didn't matter that we didn't know what we were doing. We were arrogant but puny.

Now we are still arrogant but we are no longer puny. If we don't change our ways, all of Creation will eventually be destroyed. It's not too late to change -- our habits of mind as well as our laws. Anyone willing to face facts knows we must.