Planet Earth

Wha..? or, Making Sense of Inscrutable Reviews

The LoomBy Carl ZimmerMay 14, 2008 1:30 PM


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The New York Sun has a positive review of Microcosm today, and part of me just wants to point you in its direction, let you read about the book's "ecstatically reflective moments," and leave it at that. But there's one puzzling passage that makes me wonder if some printer bent on mischief swapped my page 31 for one that I didn't write. The reviewer observes, correctly, that much of the book is dedicated to drawing parallels between E. coli and us--and all living things as well. While he thinks this works for the most part, he thinks sometimes the comparison is "perhaps too glib."

Mr. Zimmer makes much of the stationary phase E. coli enter during periods when, having surrounded themselves with their own waste, they run out of food. Having befouled their environment and denuded it of its resources, the bacteria quit reproducing, crumple their reproductive apparatus into a compact and rugged crystalline structure, and hibernate -- only to unfold and resume reproducing once lean times pass. At this, Mr. Zimmer remarks ominously, "we humans never get such a second chance." It's a fair shot at anti-greens, except that it's not clear that humans won't be able to persist through similarly difficult conditions, hunkering down while we figure out how to deal with the mess we've made.

I simply can't see how anyone could take that passage as an attack on anti-environmentalists. The "second chance" that we humans don't get is a second chance on life, not a second chance to reduce carbon emissions. And that comparison, the one that is actually on the page, isn't glib at all. (Anyone who has already readthe book can tell me if I'm wrong--just flip to page 31.) Trust me, I've made my share of slams against ignorant attacks on environmental science. And I have serious doubts that we can just slip off to some bio-dome to figure out how to undo deforestation, overfishing, and the biogeochemical overdrive we've sent the planet into. But I don't like being accused of a silly analogy I never made. Okay. I'll be quiet now.

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