Friday, October 05, 2007

The Looking Glass

Some years ago I visited a zoo in Texas and spent a lot of time in front of the chimpanzee exhibit. There inside the cage sat an old chimp. He looked up at me when I first walked up, but then looked back at what he was doing and paid me no mind. I was, after all, just another of the endless stream of meaningless faces on the other side of the glass, and the bugs he was chasing with his nimble fingers were probably more interesting.

For my part how was struck by how alike we are. They way he used his hands, the expressions he used with other chimps, and the simple way he could ignore the people behind the glass. Knowing they were there staring at him, and carrying on just the same with chasing bugs. Living in such close proximity to human beings hadn’t taught him any empathy for the multitude of faces behind the glass.

I was also reminded of a comment I’d once heard about evolution: “How could anyone look at a monkey and think we’re related.”

So I stood there asking myself that same question. And I came up with one answer: Empathy.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Battle of the Fishes

Driving my daughter to school in the morning, or on my way to work, everywhere I look, there are fish. I can’t help marveling at them; all those fish in silvery plastic schools. They’re the little plastic chromed fish you see on the tail ends of cars. There are plain fish, and fish that say “Jesus” or probably the same thing in Greek letters, but I don’t read enough Greek to know. There are “Darwin” fish with little legs on the bottom like lobe-fishes and a big fish proclaiming “Truth” eating little Darwin fish. There are still other fish standing upright, spearing the Truth Fish with tiny plastic harpoons. A veritable cosmological arms race is being played out before us with little metallic-colored plastic fish poised only inches away from trunk spaces carrying groceries from the same supermarkets.

There are flags and banners too, proclaiming the various “truths” precious to the people in front of these bumper battlegrounds. This one’s pro-choice, that one’s pro-life. This one thinks that as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school, and that one kindly offers not to think in your church if you’ll not pray in their kids’ schools. One declares “TRUTH! NOT TOLERANCE!” and but for the little picture of the Bible and the cross, you couldn’t be sure which side they were on. But the battle over Evolution and Creationism is fought mostly by those little fish.

I won’t call it a “War” the way so many debates and struggles are labeled these days. This debate rarely wounds more than anyone’s pride, and the little fish don’t bleed, no matter how harsh their treatment by other fish, or well-aimed shopping carts in supermarket parking lots. But the tone of the debate often makes it seem that way, as if we’re in a desperate struggle for our survival in a total-war. They behave as if the adherents to one cause will at last prove their point beyond a shadow of a doubt with one last witty bumper sticker slogan too sage to refute, and the losers will somehow be as utterly destroyed as old Carthage, the ground salted so that nothing will ever grow in that soil again.

But we know better. The confrontation will never really be that fatalistic, and the debate will never come to so crisp an end. Evolution may take the place of Creationism in the popular imagination, as new knowledge so often displaces the old, but it won’t be the great coup that so many seem to fear. This conflict will have survivors on both sides, and we’re better prepared to handle the new paradigm than we know. The tools of reconstruction are already at hand.

It’s been suggested that some people resist the idea of evolution because they can’t accept the idea of being animals. But this isn’t really the case. We already acknowledge our evolutionary heritage in our daily conversation. After all, we all start out as ankle-biting rug-rats. We quickly grow into little monkeys. My own son learned to climb up the branches of dinning room chairs to forage for snacks on the table before he learned to walk upright, and with my children there’s no shortage of jumping on the bed. As they grow older their mother will regularly complain about how their rooms have turned into pig-sties, and at school field days, we’ll encourage them to run “fast as a race horse.”

As kids get older the animal descriptions grow with them. Some are kinder than others. A boy might one day call my daughter a “fox,” and she’ll probably appreciate it more than I will. I might think of him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Many of the names won’t be nice at all; skunk, porker, dog, male or otherwise. The class clown might be a real ham, who later in life will regret taunting that slightly overweight girl by calling her a cow, especially in college when he sees her again and finds out she was just a late bloomer, and she really did blossom, but by then, he’ll be too chicken to offer her an apology, let alone ask her on a date.

As we mature, we climb the evolutionary ladder just a bit, to become gangly apes, and if we’re lucky, Neanderthals. I’ve known two “Yetis” myself, much more at home with their animal monikers in adulthood than they probably were then they acquired them in their late teens. The modern cave man, reputedly obsessed with beer and football, and bereft of manners is the unremarkable resident of suburbs everywhere. And in a bit of what may be purposeful irony, proponents of Evolution often cite the brutish and superstitious picture of our hominid ancestry as the root cause of their Creationist opposition.

Perhaps Creationists fear that the end of creationism will mean the end of Gods and religious teachings. But this isn’t so either. Our culture is full of religious figures, icons and stories from religions that are out of style, and nothing more dramatic will happen with the religions of today. Many school children know the names of Zeus and Hera, Jupiter and Mars, and even the Mighty Thor. High school cheerleaders still invoke the name of Egyptian Gods in the name of the Home Team, “Ra! Ra! Ra!” OK, I’ll admit that’s probably a complete coincidence, but you understood the joke.

But God, Buddha, Jesus, Mohamed the Angels and others will probably enjoy a bigger role in our minds and culture than those relegated to the pages of mythology in earlier centuries. We’ll still see them more often than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, and they’ll probably continue to be better known than Socrates or Plato. The characters and stories are too well-known, and too comforting to be forgotten. The ancient texts are too full of fodder for creatures that enjoy metaphor as much as we do. Playgrounds will never run short of David and Goliath confrontations, and there are too many serpents offering forbidden fruit to let such stories go.

In all probability, the end of this controversy will probably be nothing more than the beginning of some other. The apes will finally become adults, and they’ll find they care about different things. When a friend asks about the little fish on the back of their old college beater-cars, they’ll say “Oh, I got the car from mom and dad. That was on there when they gave it to me.” And we’ll find the traces of both Evolution and Creationism are no easier to remove than peeling bumper stickers from an old car.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Rockets and Monkeys

Yesterday I got a link from a friend about Google teaming up with the X Prize Foundation to sponsor a new Lunar X prize. The new prize sets a high goal for a privately funded organization to land a robotic rover on the moon, and have it perform a number of tasks on the surface. Perhaps more significant is the lineup of companies and organizations stepping up to form partnerships and participate.

It’s interesting to note how that spirit of cooperation contrasts with the days of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. It’s actually a lot more like the international cooperation among rocket societies in Europe and Asia before World War II. English, German, and Russian aerospace researchers where all freely sharing information before their respective governments drafted them into their weapons and military aircraft programs. Many of the German rocket scientists, and production engineers were “adopted” by the Americans and Russians to develop missile technology and space programs after the war. So it’s taken space exploration the better part of a century to come full circle and back into the non-governmental organizations where it started.

That same day, I also saw an article about recent updates to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Apes are among those species with dangerously declining numbers, and quickly vanishing habitat. Gorillas and Chimpanzees are in danger not only for loss of habitat, but also because they are hunted for meat. In spite of the faint whiff of cannibalism, the Chimps probably wouldn’t find this idea too strange if they were given to abstract reasoning. They are known to hunt smaller monkeys for their meat as well.

But like so many humans, the chimps don’t waste a lot of time thinking about the ethereal implications of eating other simians. They’re hungry, and they like the taste of meat. They probably like the chase too. They’re animals. Just like us. OK, 98% like us. But understanding them, and our relationship with them, past and present, is important. It puts things in perspective. While many protest that they aren’t “a monkey’s uncle,” our continued habit of treating each other with suspicion and cruelty without ever considering our commonality demonstrates our animal nature.

But many of the comparisons between ourselves and the great apes are more positive. Apes, hairless and otherwise, can be tender and caring. We can work cooperatively to great advantage. We have an uncanny ability to make and use tools from the simplest things. And our ingenuity can astound. After all, we’re descended from monkeys and look what we can do; we landed a monkey’s nephew on the moon.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Chimps are from Mars, Bonobos are from Venus

Next week a group of scientists from the Max Planck Institute will be traveling to the Congo to study our close cousins, the Bonobos. We're just as closely related to these great apes as we are to Common Chimpanzees, but a lot more behavioral study and comparison has been devoted to the later. The contrast between the patriarchal chimp social structure and the matriarchal bonobos is of particular interest. While chimps tend to be more aggressive or violent, Bonobos are generally more cooperative, and they are noted for their use of sexual behavior to ease tensions. The researchers will be trying to learn more about the thought processes behind their behavior.

The sad irony is, their work is made more difficult by the recent violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Maybe while we're learning more about bonobos, a little emulation wouldn't be out of order.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Science Live

A friend recently sent me a link to an animation about Black Holes. For the most part, it’s pretty good textbook stuff. The description of the event horizon is a little weak. The reason it's called the "event" horizon is because it's the point where time, relative to surrounding space, starts to warp. Their description doesn't really emphasize that enough. I suspect that the "point of no return" is actually a bit farther out than the event horizon itself.

I’m not sure how many scientists take the wormhole theory seriously. I suspect most agree that we probably couldn't construct a ship strong enough to withstand the gravitational forces involved, rendering the idea useless even if it were true. But hey, it's a flashy idea, and someone took the time to make the math work, so why not play with it?

What I really do like here is the use of simple, episodic animations to teach science, and this is a pretty good example. It’s short, fun to look at, and presents one concept in a neat little package. I’m also encouraged by the increasing popularity of films, long and short, that teach various concepts of science. I'm guessing we're a long way from seeing "The Evolution Story" in claymation on Winter Solstice Eve, it’s still pretty cool.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lunar Advent

Sorry for the short entry. Busy drawing rockets and astronauts with my kids. This is our Lunar-Landing Advent Calendar. We're having oatmeal in plastic baggies and Tang for breakfast tomorrow!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Apollo 11 Launch Anniversary

Today marks the 38th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch. That mission carried three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin to the moon. When Armstrong stepped out onto the Lunar surface, he not only fulfilled the goal set forth by President John F. Kennedy, he realized the work of scientists and researchers stretching back nearly a century, and the dreams of humanity going back to some of our earliest fiction.

I mention this today for two reasons. First, it took the mission four days to get to the Moon and land safely, on July 20th. That gives you a few days to put together a party for this coming Friday, invite some friends, get some rockets to launch, some Tang, and other astronaut food for your guests. The Lunar Landing really deserves celebration.

Second is what the Moon Landing demonstrated. We landed men on the moon on a handful of theories. The Apollo 11 capsule carried them over 200,000 miles through a vacuum to land on the surface of another planetary body with different gravity and no atmosphere to speak of. Then it carried them home again, making the perilous journey through the atmosphere where most objects burn up on entry.

Many people dismiss scientific theories because they define them in the common parlance as little more than opinions or guesses. “Well, it’s just a -theory- anyway.” As used in science, a theory is a logical and mathematical explanation that can be repeatedly demonstrated. The Apollo missions demonstrated that “theories” can be pretty powerful.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


One of the roadblocks to human exploration of space is the effect of freefall on our muscles. We can only stand about six months in zero-G before our muscles start to irreversibly jellify. Since Mars and other popular destinations are considerably farther than we can travel in that short a time, NASA is working on the problem with carbon nanotube neural implants. Yep. You read the right.

Now this is a positively delicious idea for even the most casual sci-fi fan. Brain implants to facilitate space travel! It could pioneer all sorts of new technologies. This particular research is directed at transmitting impulses to the brain. But if that research could lead to receiving impulses, then the possibilities really open up. Imagine what a pilot could do if they didn’t have to rely on their physical reflexes to fly an air or space craft? OK, I know, I’ve seen too many movies.

There is another interesting question that rises out of this line of research. Exploring implant technology indicates that we’re willing to use them to achieve several months, or years in space. It’s not a stretch to assume that some might also endure other enhancements, from the cybernetic to the genetic, in order to travel to other worlds. If we adapt ourselves to space to travel to other planets, will we ultimately find ourselves more at home in the space between them?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An apple a day?

It may take a little more than an apple a day to keep the doctor away, but apparently there are enough politicians around to keep the medicos at bay. Former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona never got to release his report on global health issues, or promote comprehensive sex education. Sadly, it will probably require a groundswell of cultural change to keep the anti-scientific out of office, and culture of that kind changes slowly.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Deep Impact on the 4th of July

Today, NASA's Deep Impact hit the comet Tempel 1 with a "smart" projectile to study the comet's composition, and the effects of the impact. Although this impact is not likely to divert the comet's path, it is exciting to think that 65 million years after the Yucatan impact, there are earthlings who might be able to prevent the next such threat to life on our little pale blue dot.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Family Pictures

I have a relative who spends a lot of time researching our family genealogy. But sadly, she refuses to believe we evolved from a common ancestor with apes. "Why haven't they found any of the missing links?" she asks. I've got two people I'm going to ask her to add to our family tree: 3.2 million year old Lucy, and 3.3 million year old Lucy's Daughter.

Friday, June 29, 2007

A Culture of Science

I've got a lot of reasons to promote a culture that embraces science. My father suffers from a terminal disease for which the treatment is still experimental. I like breathing and eating fish, so I'd like cleaner transportation and more responsible fishing practices. I'd like my kids to live in a better world. I'd like my great-grand children to live on another world. Some of my reasons are personal, others a bit farther reaching.

Thankfully, I'm not the only one thinking about the place of science in our larger culture. Discussion of a "two culture" split as originally proposed by CP Snow, can be found on sites like Serendip, like this one. It's all well and good to discuss the cultural divide between scientists and non-scientists, but I prefer a more engaged approach. When Alexander the Great defeated Persia, he not only allowed a lot of local autonomy, he encouraged his soldiers to marry the locals. Seems that newborn grandchildren have a way of quelling rebellious notions. No, I didn't change subjects.

If science is ever going to be embraced by culture, it has to be a cultural element in and of itself. Very little of any culture is defined by what happens in a lab or at an academic conference. (OK, maybe some of the culture is defined by what happens at the after-hours hotel party at a conference, but that's not the point) In order the thrive in our culture, science has to be a part of our culture.

Culture is expressed in the ways we interact. In restaurants, at company picnics, community fairs, and family birthday parties, we express our culture. Even the television shows we watch or the blogs we write in; active or passive, it's all about communicating culture. So what I find really encouraging is seeing science in things like the poetry and art of The Evolutionist's Prayer,
or the music of Emerald Rose in We Come From Monkeys.
I'm not forgetting the hazard of culture contaminating the objectivity of science. It's a concern that already colors research. I recently read an article about the problem with circumcised scientists researching the benefits of circumcision. But I'd rather risk the possibility of culture having a bit of influence in science than risk the theory of "intelligent design" having to much influence in public schools.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Let's outsource to Mars

Noted physicist Lowell Wood recently outlined a bold plan to terraform Mars. He defines humanity as a terraforming species, pointing to the alterations of our own home planet over the last 10,000 years. He makes some really good points, but the real key phrase he uses when predicting our terraforming future is: "if-and-as" humanity becomes a truly space faring civilization.

A lot depends on whether humanity gets a foothold in space before we push Earth's biosphere past the point of being able to support human civilization. Building a space program, whether private or public, requires a complex infrastructure. If environmental change advances faster than our ability to adapt to the changes, we may no longer be able to mount a space program over and above our struggle to survive. Ironically, we still seem to lack an effective motivation. Even the promise of space tourism on the horizon isn't exactly taking off like a rocket. Maybe the real secret is to tell big business they can emit all the greenhouse gases they want on Mars.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Technorati here we come

In the change or die spirit I do my best to embrace, it's high time I got with the program at Technorati...

Technorati Profile

Friday, June 22, 2007

Out of the petry dish and into irrelevance

So once again, dear old George W. Bush has vetoed stem cell research. No big surprise there. Bush and his ilk seem content to allow our culture to sink into technological irrelevance. Or, maybe the Republican elite is simply content to outsource the research to other countries while pandering to the most conservative portion of their political base.

But he has left a small back door open. While he has denied researches access to important federal funding, he hasn't outlawed the research. The next best thing to federal funding might be a charitable organization like The Stem Cell Research Foundation to support stem cell research. This group provides public education and funds research. They also accept tax deductible charitable donations.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I Don't Need 55

I live about 6 miles from where I work. The place I lived before that was about 10 miles from work. Most of the people I work with live less that 45 min away. The car I use to go back and forth is just a beater. It was my grandfather's last car. For the most part, it goes back and forth to where I work, and otherwise just takes up space in my driveway. You could replace it with a glassed-in golf cart, and I would barely notice. (Actually, a golf cart might ride smoother...) When I go out with my wife and kids on the weekend, we take the family car.

My point here is, the ongoing litanies about how hard it would be to reduce emissions by replacing gas-powered cars just doesn’t wash. We could replace quite a few gas-guzzlers by simply making affordable electrics available. The trick is, they don’t need to be high performance. I don't need a car that will do 0-60 in under a minute to get back and forth to work. In fact, the highest speed limit between work and home for me is 45mph.

Now I know this isn't the case for many other folks out there. I also know people who spend over an hour on the highway to get to work every day. But if these disparate groups represent thirds or even quarters of the driving population, there’s an opportunity to put a big dent in our carbon footprint. I don’t think the solution to these problems is one-size fits all. It’s obvious that we need more fuel-efficient cars, better public transport, and more emphasis on pedestrian traffic. Beyond that, we could reduce emissions with more careful city planning. Traffic circles would reduce commute time, and cut down on idling engines. And, incidentally, the only reason grandpa’s beater hasn’t been replaced with a bicycle is the lack of sidewalks or bike lanes on very busy roads between here and work.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Got Roots? An update...
Back in March I suggested that gardening just might be the secret to sustainable, healthy living. Last weekend my wife and I took the kids outside and started our simple container garden. We started with blackberries, rhubarb, strawberries and mint. We'll probably add more before the summer. We spent the day working and playing in the yard. We even ate our dinner outside. It was the best night's sleep we'd had in a long time.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Gliese 581 C

Astronomers at the Geneva Observatory recently announced the discovery of what might be a terrestrial planet in around the star Gliese 581 in the constellation, While there’s still some debate about just how much solid ground there might be up there, it is interesting to see the progress we’ve made in our picture of the universe.

Four centuries ago, Galileo Galilei ran afoul of the Catholic Church for upholding the idea of a heliocentrism. We’ve since learned that even our Sun isn’t the center of the universe. It’s not even the center of our own galaxy for that matter. Now we’re closer to finding evidence that our solar system isn’t wholly unique in having terrestrial planets.

The discovery of a terrestrial planet in another solar system, some 20 light years away, fills in the edges of our biggest map in some very important ways. And it wasn’t all that long ago that we had a hard time getting a reliable map of someplace right here on Earth! (Really, not long ago at all. The last time I downloaded driving directions to somewhere… but I digress.)

Physicist Steven Hawking has said that in order to survive, the human species must go into space. Finding terrestrial planets outside our own solar system is certainly a step in the right direction, but we shouldn’t get too excited about looking for a westward passage to China just yet. In order to seriously explore the challenges of interstellar travel, we've got to establish a foothold in space right here in our own solar system.

It's also been said that if we can get into orbit, we're halfway to anywhere. In this case, I think the "we" is most important. We need established and functioning bases in orbit or on the moon, and we need to test our legs on Mars. By the time we get those things accomplished, planet hunting astronomers should have a pretty good selection of interstellar destinations to choose from.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Automotive X Prize

On April 2, the X Prize Foundation announced the new Automotive X Prize Like the recently awarded Ansari X Prize for space flight, this prize will go to the first group to successfully demonstrate a car that gets 100mpg, or equivalent energy usage, and is an economically viable production model. The group has already been fielding inquiries from well-known and unknown automakers alike. The foundation was inspired by similar competitions in history, like the Orteig Prize. Charles Lindbergh won the Orteg in 1927 by being the first to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Funds for the X prizes are supplied by a collection of forward thinking corporations and entrepreneurs.

Announcement of the new X prize came on the same day of the Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. the Environmental Protection Agency. The lawsuit included a number of states and organizations frustrated with the Bush Administrations lack of action on global warming. The court’s 5-4 ruling asserts that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. This is in contrast not only the Bush Administration’s position, but to the stated position of the EPA as well. However the court has yet to rule on whether the Agency is in fact required to regulate emissions. Furthermore, a set of standards by which to regulate these emissions would also have to be agreed upon by Congress and the White House.

I’m struck by the contrast in these two announcements. Both reflect the growing concern in our culture over the environment, yet they each represent a very different approach, and pace of change. On the one hand we have the gears of bureaucratic democracy and judiciary slowly responding to public pressure, and on the other we have the enthusiasm of competition and the race to be first in something new.

The winner of the new Automotive X Prize is anybodies guess at this point. But another interesting contest is being played out here. The role of influencing change in our technology and even our culture for the betterment of our environment is in question. Historically, culture and especially market forces move much faster than legislation or justice. But in the end, it’s likely that both governments and the private sector will find some role to play. Maybe for once, the real winners will be consumers and the environment.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Get in touch with your roots

I humbly offer you a seemingly unrelated set of questions that have been bugging me of late:

One: With all the discussion about our impact on the environment and our need to adopt more sustainable living practices, what does a sustainable culture really look like?

Two: How can we effectively combat the growing trend of obesity in youth in the developed countries?

Three: How can we effectively care for soldiers struggling with the emotional problems caused by the trauma of war?

I submit that all three of these questions are related by their answer: Plant vegetable gardens.

Tens of thousands of years of evolution shaped us to be successful as hunter-gatherers, and thousands more have molded our agrarian skills. For millions of years, we humans had our hands in the dirt. We worked, physically laboring with simple tools, working with the forces of nature and other living things. The force of natural selection demanded that we be good at these things. And yet, most of us no longer do any of them.

So lets get down to just what planting a vegetable garden will do to help with such diverse problems. The first one is simple. Food grown in your own yard doesn’t have to be shipped on a truck to your local grocery store. Now unless you can manage a really ambitious garden, you won’t be putting those folks out of work. You’ll still need to run down there for a few things you can’t grow where you live, or can’t grow enough of; but you’ll maybe buy a little less.

But on to the next problem: childhood obesity. Hey, for that matter, I could stand to eat better myself! Homegrown vegetables taste better. And kids who get to pick those veggies, (I know from first hand experience) are actually more excited about eating them. Imagine how much more excited they would be if they actually helped plant and cultivate them. Now we’re teaching work ethic AND good eating habits. This is all to say nothing of the fact that gardening is exercise.

Now maybe you’re with me so far, but how about those vets, you ask? As a veteran myself, this is a subject close to home. I can’t even imagine what some of those young men and women go through. And yet, for all our bumper stickers in support of the troops, it seems, those most in need are the easiest to forget. Many have to learn to walk, or talk or use prosthetics or just function on a daily basis, all over again. Imagine what it could mean for someone to take the time to teach him or her how to nurture a seed. To watch it grow. To nurture something with the same time and care they so desperately need themselves.

Now I’ve already been shopping for some new terra-cotta pots for the container garden I’ll start in the spring. I looked up the local Farmer’s Market, and I’ve even found someone at work who sells farm-fresh eggs. But if you’re still not sold, then I’ll give you one simple thing to do. This coming fall, get yourself a little bucket, or basket, even and old butter tub will do. Drive, or if you can, walk to the nearest clump of woods you can find. Look alongside farmer’s fields, or along the edges of tree-lines. Hunt for berries.

Raspberries, blackberries, or mulberries; they’re all delicious. Careful you don’t pick anything poisonous. If you don’t know, ask someone who does. You’ll get scratches from brush and thorns. Your fingers will be stained with juice, and your feet might even get wet. Your legs will ache from trudging around in the woods, using muscles you’d forgotten you had. But they will be the best tasting berries you’ve had. Sweeter. Brighter. Better.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Yesterday I ran across this site, and would you believe, there are folks out there who think that a "Voluntary Human Extinction Movement" is the right way to go. And yes, they are serious. Just as the name implies, their basic philosophy is that human beings have such a negative impact on the "natural environment" of planet Earth, that we should voluntarily stop breeding and let the human race die out, so that the Earth can return to it's "natural state."

OK, I can sympathize with the notion that human civilization is overtaxing our environment to the point of disastrous consequence, but none-the-less, I find a few holes in their theory:

I've already addressed the notion that human beings are not so divorced from the "natural environment" as these folks seem to think. Nor would we be the first creatures to massively impact our environment to the point of causing other species, and even ourselves, to go extinct. So I won't dwell on that here.

I also find this idea more than just a little shortsighted. Sooner or later, this planet will become un-inhabitable through some very "natural" means. Near-Earth object, Gamma radiation, wandering black holes, or the end of our own sun, take your pick. Life on Earth is a limited engagement, even if we human beings do clean up our act. Human being actually represent the best chance for life on Earth being transplanted elsewhere in the Universe, and hence, averting that end to life as we know it. To let life simply be winked out would certainly be natural, but hardly desirable. I like being alive. So does my dog. So does that squirrel in my back yard.

If I had to choose between being tortured to death tomorrow, or never having been born, I'd take the torture. Better to live and die horribly, than not to live at all.

Thankfully, these folks do have a sense of humor. They realize the futility of trying to convince billions of human beings to stop breeding. But I can't help feeling that their effort might be better spent on another front. If human beings can come to dominate, irrevocably alter, and ultimately threaten the whole of the global environment without really trying to do so, what could we accomplish if we had our minds set on living sustainably within our environment? It's not as if the Environmental movement has been around long enough to really make an impact, either culturally, or environmentally. Both of those things take a great deal of time. And even if we are fumbling at this point, there are people working for change.

Al Gore's new book/movie "An Inconvenient Truth" may be bubbling with political overtones, but there’s also real substance there. The would-be president seems genuinely committed to educating people about the realities of climate change. And people are listening to him. If he changes the thinking of enough people, he may even swing enough votes to win in an electoral college.

At the same time, more and more hybrid and electric cars are reaching the market. There’ve been many to decry this as a false start. Hydrogen and electric power still use fossil fuels in their production, so these cars aren’t yet the cleanly fueled transport we hoped for. And yet, by purchasing these cars, consumers are sending a message to industry that consumers want ecologically sound products. Industry rarely misses a chance to exploit the fullest potential of a market.