What Are You Reading?: Adam Briggle Makes Two Eco-Minded Recommendations
Want to know what drives some of today’s most prominent thinkers to make the world a better place? Read on.
Adam Briggle on Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History (Scribner, 2016)
This summer found me actually (on occasion at least) escaping the gravitational pull of tweets and clicks to pick up two physical books with honest-to-goodness paper pages. I am hoping soon to spend some time in the American West, so I have been diving into Edward Abbey. I started with his rambunctious and scandalous The Monkey Wrench Gang. It is the tale of four self-anointed wilderness saviors gallivanting through the desert canyons destroying the machines that are destroying nature. A regular anarchist anti-industrial revolution told with an intoxicating blend of fury and poetry. Abbey is Thoreau with middle finger raised and teeth clutching a stick of dynamite.
The other book I’m reading, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History, is decidedly more sober yet still captivating in its own right. I was a Biology major in college, but we only learned the facts du jour that seemed to fall from the lips of nature directly into our textbooks, unmediated by history, personalities, culture, or economics. Mukherjee fills in the back story—the boggling and inspiring quest to identify that mysterious unit of heredity, that recipe of life, that pin hole of information that all creatures, no matter how huge, pass through on their way to posterity. Imagine whales boiled down to a near microscopic filament. It is a thought that is at once true and unbelievable and dangerous.
Why dangerous? Well, I believe that the invention/discovery of the CRISPR Cas 9 system is the most ominous development in decades if not centuries. If you have not heard about CRISPR, Google it. Basically, we are on the cusp of editing genomes (human and otherwise) very precisely at low cost and, thus, massive scale. The Gene will take you from Darwin right up to CRISPR. What I take from it is just how easily we slip, like greased pigs, from the quest for understanding into the quest for control. We would not (could not?) stop at reading the code of life … we will (must?) edit and write it. I imagine Mukherjee set out to write the story of scientific discovery, but it reads more like a tale of technological determinism. It’s fascinating that so many thousands of people had to make decisions and cultivate flashes of creative brilliance along the way … yet in the end it seems destined: Of course we would arrive here, like children scrambling our little legs up into the throne of God.
In my mind, these two stories, seemingly so different, have come together like bookends on the spectrum of human possibilities. Abbey takes pains to show us what is lost in our headlong and head-down rush into progress. Roads, bridges, mines, clear cuts, and dams: they all scar and desecrate places that are, arguably, meant for contemplation—simply being rather than incessant becoming. Mukherjee tells us how we have arrived at a clearing in our own genetic wilderness sitting atop a newfangled contraption. The deserts of human identity and canyons of human fate are about to be mined and dammed. All in the name of progress, most assuredly.
But I wonder if there might be someone out there who’d like to stick a monkey wrench in the biochemical bulldozers of DNA. Abbey thought it would take Glen Canyon about ten years to recover once they finally removed that sinful dam. Snow melt and spring rains would move out all the accumulated gunk and garbage. If we ever wanted to recover from a more metaphysical rewriting of nature, at the level of genes, how long would it take to flush the system clean?
To book a keynote from Adam Briggle on the philosophical, ethical, technological implications of the environmental movement, contact The Laven Agency, his exclusive speakers bureau.