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Cloned American Chestnut: a Trojan Horse for the End of Nature?

Biomass plantation of cloned trees, Clatskanie, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

A group of scientists led by Dr. William Powell are attempting to get permission from Federal regulators to introduce unproven genetically modified trees into the wild. This will be an unprecedented release of GMOs with the ability to reproduce.  This is a radical notion and the American Chestnut tree is being used a Trojan Horse in an attempt to engineer forests, and to wrest control from the power of evolution, god or whatever holy other has brought forth the natural world.

The American Chestnut Foundation, Powell and others hope to use genetic engineering to bring back to prominence their beloved forest icon, the American Chestnut, after its severe decline due to blight and over-logging. Such genetic manipulation comes with many scientific and environmental questions, concerns and dangers.

By forcing foreign genetic material into the genome of the wild American Chestnut tree, Dr. Powell hopes to make it blight-resistant. This goes beyond hybridization. While the consequences of introducing genetically modified organisms into the environment are both disconcerting and unpredictable, what is being eliminated is often overlooked.

Tinkering with life like this edits the results of billions of years of evolution, or as some would say creation.  It is sometimes described as the colonization of the genome, or the commodification of life.  It is also the ending of something. It is in a sense an ending of nature, wildness and providence.

Humans exert a dominant influence on our planet’s ecosystems. Most notably, our dependence on fossil fuels has so disrupted the planet’s life support systems that human survival is now in question. Predictions are so dire that planet-wide geoengineering projects are sometimes offered as ways to save the planet from global warming. The idea that technology may be the only way to save the natural world from wholesale environmental disaster underscores the level of complete dominance the human species is exerting on the planet’s ecosystems.  Can humanity’s reliance on technology that has brought us to the brink of extinction also be our salvation?

There has been a history of believing so. There is a mythology surrounding it, which is epitomized in works of science fiction that portray human kind exploring a universe replete with life. It suggests that other habitable planets are just a hop-skip-and warp-drive away. Often these stories suggest that science will solve humanity’s resource problems and will save the human species from itself.

Serious scientists have also promoted such notions, including Wernher Von Braun, who developed Hitler’s V-2 rocket that terrorized England during the Blitz. In the United States he popularized the exploration of space, including authoring popular science books in the 1950s and 1960s. Von Braun even appeared on features produced by Walt Disney to promote space exploration. No doubt his expertise aided America’s landing on the moon, but also helped to create one of the most enduring visions of modernity, the exploration of Mars, which various Presidents pull out of the cabinet from time to time to inspire us.  In 1966, NASA placed a price tag of $100 Billion on the effort to place man on Mars.

Generally, the exploration of space has been promoted as a wholesale solution to human problems. As noted in Isaac Asimov’s Planets for Man, a 1964 book by the RAND corporation, “As it is now, one planet, the Earth, supports the entire human race.  One planetary catastrophe could completely destroy us. But if the human race were living on a number of planets scattered around the galaxy, its immortality would be assured.”

Mars is considered the most Earthlike planet in our solar system and has long been held out as a candidate for human colonization. There is talk of terraforming the planet for human habitation or more modestly an outpost. There are even a group of individuals that have offered themselves to NASA for the first one-way trip to Mars.  Mars holds a special place in our mythology of seeding the galaxy with human kind.

But Mars, the most habitable planet other than Earth in our solar system is a far cry from being hospitable. Not only does Mars have a thin atmosphere with a dearth of liquid water or breathable air, it also lacks a liquid iron core and therefore does not have magnetic fields to protect against deadly solar radiation. The ambient radiation on the surface of Mars would very much higher than on Earth with occasional blasts of radiation from solar flares that would prove a daunting threat to human life.

The inhospitality of Mars should be a reminder of how intricate the relationships within Earth’s ecosystem are and how humanity has evolved within this complex web of life over the last 4.5 billion years. In over five decades of looking, The Search for Intelligent Life (SETI) has not discovered signals from intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  It may be that the evolution of complex life and the ecosystems that support it is far more infrequent than previously thought. It is becoming increasingly likely that there is literally no place like home in the astronomical sense.

The American Chestnut Foundation, which supports the work of Dr. Powell to genetically engineer the American Chestnut, held its 2018 annual meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, which is also known as Rocket City. The conference’s keynote speaker was Dr. Deborah Barnhart, executive director of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. During the conference the effort to genetically engineer the Chestnut was compared to the Apollo moon missions. The conference’s gala dinner was held in the Von Braun center. It was even suggested by Ms. Barnhart that a mission to Mars may help us solve the Earth’s current climate crisis. To some in attendance this was a surreal juxtaposition of Chestnuts and Rockets, but it represented a natural alliance of those seeking to control Earth’s environment and those seeking to escape it.

Dr. Carolyn Merchant argues that there is a long history of science seeking to supplant nature. In The Death of Nature she mentions that Leibniz, one of the inventors of calculus believed that the entire globe “would be brought into cultivation and assume a garden-like character.” Although according to Merchant, Leibniz admits that parts of the Earth could grow wild again. Leibniz saw this as a reversion, but nonetheless nature would be able reassert itself after almost complete domination, stating that “certain parts of [the Earth] would grow up wild again…”. Leibniz believes in an unremitting force of nature.  He seems to recognize that something outside of human control would reassert itself. It may have been comforting to leave a door open to that something other than human influence to retake the reigns if necessary. But now with genetic engineering and release of GMOs into the wild, we may have the ability to finally defeat nature and exert permanent dominance.

We may be on the verge of extinguishing that something other than ourselves that exists free of human manipulation. It is wildness itself that we are threatening. There should exist a natural world outside humanity’s calculating grasp. This is not only important when it comes to such things as biodiversity, but it also significant for some on a spiritual level, including its violation of some indigenous People’s beliefs. Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network has said, “when we look at genetically engineered trees, a lot of our own people say there is really no life to that tree, there is no spirit to that tree…”.

Unlike hybridization, we are judging and accessing the genomes of species and attempting to circumvent the evolutionary process in the most invasive, brutal and permanent way. Once done, it cannot be undone as in Leibniz’s time. The wild is lost. That something other than and more than ourselves is gone.

If the American Chestnut is allowed to be the Trojan Horse that opens the door to a wholesale reworking of our natural world, we will have succumbed to those who believe in the idea of other planets as humanity’s future home. We will be in a world where, when we attempt to gaze at nature, we see but ourselves staring back, but unlike what Leibniz envisioned, there will be no way back to the wild. There will be no way home again.

Steve Taylor is the Press Secretary for Global Justice Ecology Project and the Campaign to STOP GE Trees.  He is also a professor and holds degrees in physics and mathematics.