Bibliography for "Biodiversity vs. Bioengineering?"

[This article was copied from "The Environmental Predicament: Four Issues for Critical Analysis" by Carol J. Verburg, and is not intended as a copyright challenge whatsoever.]

The following column appeared in longer form in the October 26, 1992, issue of Forbes magazine. Peter Huber is a lawyer and writer specializing in telecommunications and liability issues. A senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank, Huber writes a monthly "Science and Technology" column for Forbes.

It's the new pinnacle of environmental chic. Biodiversity, we are told, is much like oil in the ground: We should conserve it for good, solid, old-fashioned economic reasons. The rainforest probably contains cures for cancer or disease-resistant crops. A decade or two from now, when we desperately need new genetic stock for some reason or another, it won't be there if the forests are gone. Curiously, these arguments are often pressed by the same crew who hate biodiversity when it comes out of the bioengineer's bottle. What we see here, once again, is an important environmental objective getting all tangled up in arguments that don't really wash.

Begin with the basics. Species are defined by genes, and genes are just complex chemicals. We can mine those genetic chemicals from the canopies of the rainforest. Or we can replicate and modify them in kennels, stables, and experimental farms, which have given us such biodiverse beasts as Chihuahuas and St. Bernards. Or, as we've recently learned, we can dice, slice, and splice genes in laboratoties and fermentation tanks, to create transgenic pigs and mice, disease-resistant corn, or bacteria that keep the frost off strawberries.

So, from a strictly economic perspective, where's the best place to explore for useful new genes? Probably not in any equatorial jungle. ... We used to need forests for rubber, then we learned how to make rubber out of oil. We used to get salicylates from willow bark, but the synthetic version, aspirin, works better. We used to rely on sick cows to provide a crude smallpox vaccine (vacca is Latin for cow), but we don't anymore.

... To be sure, Nature has been doing gene chemistry for billions of years, whereas we've been at it only for a short while. But we don't have to rely on blind luck and natural selection, either. On balance, it seems to me, we are far more likely to find economically valuable biodiversity in a laboratory at Genentech than to stumble across it in the upper reaches of the Amazon. Our days as hunter-gatherers of wild genes are coming to a close. ...

This doesn't mean, however, that we should slash and burn with impunity. We don't preserve the pyramids because they contain some magical mathematical formula about the stars, nor do we preserve Niagara just because it generates megawatts. The economic case for biodiversity is weak, but there are still transcendentally important esthetic reasons for treating life on earth with gentle respect. The genetic code of life is a gigantic biological manuscript that we have scarcely yet begun to examine or decode. It is a record as ancient as life on earth, encrypted in molecules scattered across the vast, delicate, shining abundance of the canopies, trunks, stems, and soil of the rainforrest. We should revere life on earth not because we expect it will profit us economically, nor because it is very likely to cure cancer, but because life is a good that requires no further justification.

I suspect many rabid greens [environmentalists] believe that too, but peddle the economic rationalization for biodiversity because they think that's the only thing they can sell to American business or politicians in Brazil. Perhaps they're right. But it's a risky strategy to promise an economic boom that will never come. When the economic case for biodiversity collapses, when it becomes crystal clear that orchids can't cure cancer, the more fundamental truth about the beauty and spiritual qualities of nature may be swept away as well.


Last Updated: Fri, April 21, 2000