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Staying Human in an Engineered Age
By Bill McKibben
Times Books/Henry Holt and Company, 271 pp., $25


The next biological arms race might start this way: A husband and wife on Manhattan's exclusive Upper East Side decide to give their not yet conceived child an advantage that even the very best preschool can't offer. Maybe they want to make sure that little Taylor won't get cystic fibrosis like her aunt. But why stop there? Why not correct a propensity to be overweight -- and while you're at it, add 10 IQ points and the endurance of a marathon runner? Before you know it, the choices of a few have turned up the pressure for the rest of us to follow suit, just one more thing we ought to do to give our children the best. But in this case, the "best" would be genetic material from a lab, and the children wouldn't exactly be our own.

This is just one of the alarming scenarios Bill McKibben explores in Enough . McKibben made his name 14 years ago with The End of Nature , which detailed how reliance on fossil fuels was eroding our relationship with the planet. Now he turns his attention to genetic engineering, and how we as a society might distinguish between medical breakthroughs that improve health and technologies that fundamentally and irreversibly alter what it means to be human. In other words, when do we say "enough"?

It's not an easy line to draw. Scientists will argue that that no mere layperson can understand the technology well enough to take part in the debate, and anyway, there's no stopping scientific progress. But McKibben thinks otherwise. Drawing on examples of cultures that eschewed certain technologies (Japan's 300-year rejection of firearms, for example), he says that now is the time for this debate to take place -- the moment, as he puts it, when the genie's head is poking out of the bottle but her shoulders are stuck. What's more, he says, we need understand only two technical terms: "somatic" gene therapy, used to manipulate the genes of a person who is sick, and "germline" genetic engineering, used to manipulate an embryo. "The gravitational force that we call civilization is just strong enough to hold somatic gene therapy within its orbit," he writes, "but germline genetic engineering is power of another order of magnitude -- a warp drive, not a nuclear reactor."

Some of these issues have stirred up substantial media attention, so McKibben's book is especially welcome now: He explores the subject with the rigor of a scientist, the scope of a philosopher, and the sensitivity of a father. Most important, though, he gives the lay reader the knowledge and context to participate in this crucial debate about where science is leading us, and to decide whether anyone should ever have the right to outfit future generations with new designer genes.
-- Sarah D. Scalet

California's Unsettling Fate
By Marc Reisner
Greystone Books, 181 pp., $34.95

A Dangerous Place

At 2:38 p.m. on February 28, 2005, the Hayward fault beneath the densely populated corridor between Berkeley and San Jose begins to convulse, and all hell breaks loose. Bayside highways and buildings erected on landfill tear apart as the subsoil liquefies. Older, unreinforced masonry structures disintegrate into a rubble of bricks. The decks of the Bay Bridge separate and collapse, launching vehicles into the water "as if by slingshot." When the earthen levees in the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers collapse, salt water from the bay is sucked in and the farms in the San Joaquin Valley and the suburbs of Los Angeles lose half their fresh water supply. But this is fiction, right? Well, maybe.

In a gripping first-person narrative, Marc Reisner describes the horrific aftermath of the next Big One in the San Francisco Bay Area, which sits atop one of the most violently active seismic zones on the planet. A former NRDC staffer, Reisner untangled the byzantine water follies of the American West in his now classic Cadillac Desert . This new, posthumously published volume (Reisner died in 2000) is less exhaustive, but no less lucid and persuasive, and serves as a wake-up call for everyone in earthquake country, particularly the state's builders and the politicians who regulate them. Californians can shrug Reisner off as a Cassandra, but science is on his side. Before he reveals this imaginary doomsday scenario, Reisner devotes two-thirds of his lucidly written book to the historical and scientific groundwork necessary for understanding California's inescapable geologic destiny.

The state's largest cities snubbed nature and flowered in coastal deserts along the most dangerous fault lines. Had anyone a century ago understood plate tectonics (it "still qualified as heresy" in the late 1960s, Reisner explains), would California have been settled differently? Probably not. Do Floridians avoid building on the most hurricane-prone coasts? Reisner asks. Meanwhile, the next Big One could strike any time (scientists now say there is a 62 percent chance that one will hit the Bay Area before 2032), and every American taxpayer will help pay for the devastation. "Give California nationhood. Saw it off from the rest of the United States," Reisner concludes. "That's what they must be thinking in Oneonta, New York, where blizzards are the worst things to come around."
-- Caroline Bates

Asbestos & the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation
By Andrea Peacock
Johnson Books, 256 pp., $17.50

Libby, Montana

You've probably seen the movie: big company, small town, the residents who inexplicably start to get sick... But journalist Andrea Peacock doesn't seem interested in cranking out another legal thriller for the big screen. Though her book tackles W. R. Grace, the same company made infamous by the film and best-selling book A Civil Action, her understated account focuses on a vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana. During the 25 years that Grace operated the mine, the people of Libby never learned that the vermiculite contained a lethal asbestos fiber that continues to unravel residents' lives 13 years after the shutdown of the mine.

Of the 12,000 people that live in Lincoln County, 200 have died of asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, and more than 1,000 have been diagnosed with lung abnormalities. Yet it was only last year that the area became a Superfund site, making it available for federal assistance. Why did it take so long for the government -- or anyone else -- to intervene? Peacock details how the system failed completely, from the town doctors who depended on Grace to send patients their way to state inspectors who were required by law to inform only management -- not workers -- of their alarming findings. Perhaps more damning, EPA aborted an investigation into Libby in the early 1980s, just about the time that the CEO of Grace was appointed by his friend President Reagan to head a committee to scale back government.

Despite the array of choice villains, Peacock isn't content to follow the standard script. She shows how Libby itself often took pains to look the other way. Some residents direct their anger not at Grace, but at the "asbestos people" -- those ailing residents who have sued the company and are regarded as gold-digging cranks who were willing to sacrifice the town reputation (and economy) for personal gain.

Ultimately, this is not just about one town, though Peacock doesn't always drive the point home. For all her reporting skill, readers may find the book fails to explore larger issues -- most significantly, why workers' lives are so often dismissed as nothing more than the price of doing business.
-- Miranda Van Gelder

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OnEarth. Summer 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council