By Donella Meadows
–June 24, 1993–
You wouldn’t think Charlton Heston, Rush Limbaugh, and I would have anything in common, especially since Limbaugh likes to call people like me “long-hair, maggot-infested, FM-type environmentalist wackos.” But strangely enough, we all liked Jurassic Park — the book, which is better than the movie.
In fact all three of us picked out the same favorite passage in Jurassic Park, though we chose it for opposite reasons. Just goes to show, as if more showing were necessary, that we mortal fools can grab almost any signal from outside our own heads and twist it into conformity with what we want to believe.
I scattered several paragraphs from Jurassic Park through a textbook I’m writing, because they get across some important bits of planetary science, and because young folks will pay attention to anything related to dinosaurs. One of the passages I chose also caught the attention of Heston. He called Limbaugh to read the piece to him. Limbaugh got Heston to tape it as a “dramatic reading,” which Limbaugh now plays and replays on his radio show.
Here’s the passage as Michael Crichton wrote it:
“Our planet is four and half billion years old. There has been life on this planet for nearly that long. Three point eight billion years. The first bacteria. And, later, the first multicellular animals, then the first complex creatures, in the sea, on the land. Then the great sweeping ages of animals — the amphibians, the dinosaurs, the mammals, each lasting millions upon millions of years. Great dynasties of creatures arising, flourishing, dying away. All this happening against a background of continuous and violent upheaval, mountain ranges thrust up and eroded away, cometary impacts, volcanic eruptions, oceans rising and falling, whole continents moving. Endless constant and violent change…. The planet has survived everything, in its time. It will certainly survive us….”
“Let’s say we had a bad [radiation accident] … and the earth was clicking hot for a hundred thousand years, life would survive somewhere — under the soil, or perhaps frozen in Arctic ice. And after all those years, when the planet was no longer inhospitable, life would again spread over the planet. The evolutionary process would begin again. It might take a few billion years for life to regain its present variety. And of course it would be different from what it is now. But the earth would survive our folly. Life would survive our folly.”
Why does Limbaugh like this quick paleontological summary? Because, I suppose, he thinks it makes environmentalists look silly when they talk of “saving the planet.” I agree with him about that, though in my experience it is not environmentalists, but the media who sling around the superdramatic saving-the-planet language. Serious environmentalists know better. They know the species Homo sapiens couldn’t begin to threaten a planet. What we threaten is our own civilization, and perhaps our species, plus a few million others. That’s just a short-term setback in the life of a planet.
What’s beyond me is why anyone thinks it’s a relief that we can only destroy the higher forms of life. I guess that arch-conservatives of Limbaugh’s ilk want to believe that nature is tough so that business can go on as usual. Bulldozing, plowing, mining, paving, burning, spraying, dumping, and bombing might knock life back to the bacteria, but it will evolve again. So the masters of industry, with firm jaws and dollar signs in their eyes, can shake off the nattering fears of the eco-wackos and stride ahead.
As I read Jurassic Park, everything in it, including the overdone ambushes by velociraptors and disembowelments by dilophosauruses, is saying just the opposite. It’s saying that humanity’s attempt to control nature is arrogant and futile. Crichton’s point, as seen through my head, is not that nature is fragile and therefore we should control our folly, but that nature is tough and therefore we should control our folly. For me the key quote, which made it into my textbook and partially into the movie, but not onto Limbaugh’s show, is this one:
“Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants the power. There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years. Whatever kind of power you want. President of the company. Black belt in karate. Spiritual guru. Whatever it is you seek, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort….”
“Now what is interesting is that … by the time someone has acquired the ability to kill with his bare hands, he has also matured to the point where he won’t use it unwisely…. But scientific power is like inherited wealth: attained without discipline…. There is no humility before nature. There is only a get-rich-quick, make-a-name-for-yourself-fast philosophy…. You don’t even know exactly what you have done, but already you have reported it, patented it, and sold it. And the buyer will have even less discipline than you. The buyer simply purchases the power, like any commodity…. The person who kills is the person who has no discipline, no restraint, and who has purchased his power in the form of a Saturday night special.”
Hey Charlton, hey Rush, that’s not a prescription for business as usual. It isn’t even an endorsement of the right to bear arms. It says drop the swashbuckling and go more slowly and responsibly — which is what the eco-wackos have been saying all along.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993