‘Second Nature’: How technology is remaking our world, for better or worse

One chapter in Second Nature focuses on genetic changes that made a rabbit glow green. (Art by Justin Metz for Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

This is a bad time for Mother Nature but its no use trying to turn the clock back. Instead, why not turn the clock forward?

Thats whatNathaniel Richprescribes for whats ailing the environment inSecond Nature: Scenes From a World Remade.And he lays out the symptoms to support his diagnosis.

One set of symptoms is the global prevalence of pollutants, including a class of synthetic chemicals called PFAS. Nearly every American has been exposed to PFAS, which is used in nonstick cookware as well as water-repellant and stain-resistant products. An infamous case of PFAS water contamination and its health effects in West Virginia became the focus ofa story that Rich wrote for The New York Times, and that story inspired a 2019 movie titledDark Waters.

The opening chapter of Second Nature revisits the Dark Waters saga, but Rich goes on to document other ways in which human influences are reshaping nature, through pollution and climate change as well as genetic engineering and land development. The impacts can take the form ofdisappearing glaciers on Mount Rainier ordisintegrating sea stars in Pacific coastal waters, includingPuget Sound.

Its not that intervention in the natural world is new, Rich said. Weve been doing that from the get-go. Whats new is that we are, I think, finally coming to terms as a society and individually with the incredible depth and scope of the intervention, to the point that theres really nothing natural that can be found in the natural world, by any conventional definition of the term.

Rich is due to discuss what ails the global environment, and the strategies that researchers and conservationists are developing to address those ailments, during alive-streamed Town Hall Seattle presentationnext week. To set the stage, Rich explores the theme of Second Nature in thelatest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the intersection of science fact and fiction.

This isnt the first time that Rich, the son of longtime New York Times columnist Frank Rich, has chronicled environmental trends. In Losing Earth,Rich dug into the history of the climate debate and argued that the campaign to hold off the crisis faltered as far back as the 1980s.

Richs magazine article, which was laterexpanded into a book, sparked a controversy among climate campaigners. Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, whosno stranger to controversy himself, has complained that Richs message deflects responsibility from fossil fuel interests and their abettors.

Nathaniel Rich
Nathaniel Rich is the author of Second Nature: Scenes From a World Remade. (Pableaux Johnson Photo)

In response, Rich insists hes no apologist for polluters. He agrees with Mann that addressing the climate crisis will be the leading challenge for the next generation but says its important to review why the efforts of the past generation fell short.

I dont think we can have a serious conversation about how were going to move forward if we deny some of our failures before the situation became so embattled, he said.

One big thing thats changed since the 1980s is that some industry leaders including Microsoft co-founderBill Gatesand Amazon CEOJeff Bezos are putting billions of dollars into solving the climate challenge.

As with everything related to climate change, we need the maximum from everybody, right? Rich said. If billionaires are going to make climate an imporant part of their agenda, great.

Rich devotes a chapter of his book to theclimate debate that has been raging among the ultra-richin Aspen: On one hand, a warming climate could bring the end of Aspens fabled snow-covered ski slopes and whip up more wildfires in Colorado. On the other hand, curbing energy use and managing the land in an environmentally conscious way can clash with the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Theres a lot of ironies in there, Rich said and those ironies make for interesting reading in Second Nature.

Theyre talking about creating new man-made species in a lab that will fulfill the same ecological niche as species that weve killed off, Rich said. I think thats fascinating, and theres something that obviously strikes you as kind of creepy, or disturbing, of crazily hubristic at first encounter with it.

But Rich has come to believe that theres a method to the madness.

We have to become more used to this idea of directed intervention which, after all, has been with us since the beginning of conservation, he said. The most traditionalist conservation folks still talk about land management, which is another euphemism for essentially controlling the conditions of an ecosystem. Its the same kind of work thats going on, but its just using technology thats far more advanced and precise.

Could genetic engineering produce microbes that can break down long-lasting industrial pollutants like PFAS, make sea stars less vulnerable to warming oceans, or result in saltwater-resistant trees that are better able to defend disappearing coastal wetlands? Rich doesnt rule that out. The way he sees it, using technology to remake the world for its own good is already becoming second nature to us.

Town Hall Seattle is presenting a live-streamed conversation with Nathaniel Rich and author Claire Vaye Watkins at 7:30 p.m. PT April 5.Check out Town Hall Seattles website to learn more about the virtual event and purchase tickets. For an extended version of this report, including a bonus Fiction Science podcast and Richs reading recommendations, check out Cosmic Log.

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