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Do we need a scientific revolution to save our planet? Or do we have the answers already?

The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things
by Robert Frenay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 545 pp., $30

reviewed by Tim Folger

If the worst comes to pass, and we leave our descendants a ruined, overheated world with shortages of everything but despair, it won't be because we didn't see it coming. The warning signs are everywhere, from the prospect of no snows of Kilimanjaro to disease-spreading mosquitoes breeding where they've never bred before. Many of the problems seem already to be upon us and almost insurmountable, especially given the refusal of the Bush administration even to acknowledge the existence of the threats. What to make, then, of the wildly optimistic take on the future that Robert Frenay presents in Pulse?

Frenay, a former contributing editor to Audubon magazine, believes that civilization is on the verge of a transition that will rival the Industrial Revolution. But this time we'll get it right. We'll have industries that don't pollute, consumers who don't waste, and multinational corporations that will be exquisitely attuned to the rhythms of the natural world. All of this will be made possible, according to Frenay, by something he calls the new biology.

Less a scientific discipline than an emerging worldview, the new biology recognizes that our culture, economy, and technology must be transformed so as to fit seamlessly into the ecosystems of which they are a part. Instead of letting unborn generations cope with our poisonous legacy of pollutants and detritus that never decays, we'll find ways to mimic the ingenious parsimony found in nature, where waste simply does not exist, and where one organism's refuse -- or remains -- is another's food. Or, as Paul Hawken, a conservation-minded entrepreneur quoted by Frenay, puts it, "You can't throw things away. There is no away."

That's certainly a tomorrow to be hoped for. But will we get there in time? Or ever? To build his 545-page case that such a future is not only likely but already in the works, Frenay mines a prodigious range of sources, chronicling the work of entomologists in Brussels, organic farmers in Cuba, artificial intelligence researchers at MIT, and countless others. Much of it is fascinating: There's the researcher who placed 25,000 rat neurons in a petri dish and then trained them to operate a flight simulator; another who studies the unbelievable fuel efficiency of penguins, which can swim 80 miles on the energy extracted from about two pounds of krill -- the equivalent of a ship traveling more than 900 miles on a quarter-gallon of fuel.

Unfortunately, the whole book amounts to decidedly less than the sum of its parts. Frenay's narrative appears to consist of a loosely assembled collection of magazine articles linked by a questionable theme. Worse, it suffers from enervating repetition, sloppy writing, and errors that make one doubt Frenay's grasp of the old biology, let alone the new. He seems unaware, for example, that bacteria are prokaryotes -- organisms that lack a cell nucleus. Frenay's basic premise is that all of our environmental problems stem from an outmoded and rigid way of looking at the world. We're blinkered by what he calls machine-age logic, wherein cause and effect are simple and predictable, and thereby fail to understand the intricate web of feedback systems found in nature. Yet his argument doesn't ring true, particularly when he posits an "academic fray between mechanists and ecological thinkers" in which the good guys are only now gaining the upper hand. Surely nature's complexity is not something that scientists -- or the general public, for that matter -- have only recently come to appreciate. Just count the number of Earth Day celebrations over the last 30 years.

The "machine-age logic" argument is little more than a straw man that obscures our real dilemma: social, economic, and governmental reluctance to make hard choices about energy policy, environmental protection, and dwindling resources. Frenay writes, "It's not as hard to do the right thing as to know what the right thing is to do." It seems to me that the exact opposite is the case. We know that we desperately need to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the waste in landfills, protect wilderness, and so on. The list of what we know we should do is a long one. The list of what we are doing about it all is much shorter.

Moreover, it's hard to discern what's new in Frenay's new biology. The research he cites, which is often intriguing (a robot named Chew Chew eats sugar cubes for fuel), invariably illustrates not a conflict between competing ideologies, but simply the painstaking study and increased understanding that is the natural process of science.

Pulse picks up a bit of steam when Frenay discusses how our economic system subsidizes and hides the true costs of the products we own and inevitably discard. There's something deeply wrong with a culture, he writes, that makes it profitable to "cut down a tree in Alaska that took centuries to grow, sell it for the price of a pizza, ship it three thousand miles to Japan, where it's rendered into snack chip bags, then ship those three thousand miles back to the U.S. for sale." But that is the way the global economy works. The prices we pay for goods bear no relation to the environmental damage wrought in producing them.

Frenay describes potential remedies for such madness. Especially interesting is the concept of life-cycle analysis, which attempts to trace the full environmental costs of the products and energy we use every day. With increases in computer power, the seemingly impossible task of tracking all the environmental ramifications of any given product -- from the raw materials used to make it to its ultimate disposal -- becomes manageable. The author writes that Volvo has used life-cycle analysis software to eliminate thousands of destructive materials from its manufacturing process.

Even more ambitious is the work of Robert Costanza, an ecologist at the University of Maryland who has attempted to put a price on the services nature so graciously provides. Among the data Costanza included in a study published in the British journal Nature were estimates of the value of the work done by pollinating insects, the oxygen production of plants, and the water filtration capacity of wetlands. The bill? Each year we owe the natural world somewhere between $16 trillion and $54 trillion. Frenay discusses how governments might levy "green taxes" on companies so that their bottom lines would begin to reflect the true cost of doing business. All of this material comes near the end of Pulse. It's a shame that Frenay didn't devote his entire book to the idea that by undervaluing nature, we're headed for economic and ecological catastrophe.

For all Frenay's predictions, he omits many possibilities that seem far more likely, sad to say, than the happy scenarios he presents. He says nothing at all about the increasing likelihood that the world will turn to coal as it runs out of oil. When he praises Stewart Brand, the legendary founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, he neglects to point out Brand's support of nuclear power to combat global warming. I wish I shared Frenay's optimism that a growing awareness of the new biology will change the world. For now, at least, the dawn of a new era seems very far away indeed.

Living Green
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The Good Good Pig
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One Planet

As you flip through One Planet, you may catch yourself leaning over the page, poised to brush amber grains of sand away from a pair of camouflaged eyes -- you're staring at a horned viper. Peruse further and you come upon a tranquil stand of water lilies, their anchor lines intertwined, shot from beneath the surface of Botswana's Okavango Delta, eerily sci-fi yet soothing. Then there's the surprising pair of images shown here -- a dove nesting on a pedestrian traffic signal. One Planet is the culmination of the Nicolas Hulot Foundation's mission to catalog earth's stunning diversity of life before we witness the first mass extinction perpetrated by a single species -- us. The book's 250 glorious images were culled from the collections of dozens of master photographers, and Hulot, a French conservationist and journalist who wrote the accompanying text, introduces each of the volume's eight sections -- oceans, forests, cities, and so on -- with anecdotes and facts about each biome. One Planet is an engaging visual anthology of life on earth that evokes joy, awe, gratitude -- and sadness, too, given all that could be lost. (Harry N. Abrams, $55)

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Tim Folger is a contributing editor to Discover and the series editor for The Best American Science and Nature Writing (Houghton Mifflin).

Photo: Henk Harmsen/Foto Natura/Minden Pictures

OnEarth. Summer 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council