The WTC Attack, Sep 11 2001

Commentary and Analysis

Jeanette Winterson: the lunatics are running the asylum

Life on planet Earth
Jeanette Winterson
for The Guardian
Tuesday October 30, 2001

There was once a small blue planet in the outer spiral of a minor galaxy called the Milky Way. In all the universe, bounded by infinity, this planet seemed to be the only one that understood life. Planet Earth - the one that wanted life so much, she got it.

If this sounds like Gaia theory, well, it is. James Lovelock is one of my favourite scientists, and I am attracted to the idea of Earth as a dynamic organism that continues to evolve through time. While there is not much sign of intelligent life on Earth right now, Earth itself may be smarter than we think.

Even if you can't take that seriously, the tiny probability of life here should be. Life is precious and rare -- what other planet is offering us a home? We forget that we are the success story, the winning number; what we take for granted is a miracle.

Since the industrial revolution, human beings have been steadily upsetting the homeostasis of the planet. Since the second world war, we have compromised Earth's ability to regulate its environment and climate. Lovelock accepts that, in theory, science could find solutions to climate change, rising sea levels, soil erosion etc, but he questions the feasibility. He likens the problem to a healthy individual whose body works perfectly, leaving the person free to get on with their life, compared to a body maintained by machines and medicines.

How will it affect us when we have to do for the Earth what it has done freely for us? Stephen Hawking lives inside a body maintained by machines and medicines, which may be why he seems not to care about the future of a healthy planet Earth. For him, an artificial life has been entirely possible -- shifting himself to a space station would probably feel fine. Is this why he is telling us that life on Earth is so threatened that our only hope is to leave it behind and colonise space?

Hawking wants to see genetic engineering 'improve' human beings so that we can cope with space travel. "I don't think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we can spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet."

Accidents? Excuse me. The wipe-out virus that Hawking fears will destroy the human race will not be an accident, any more than nuclear weapons are an accident. If Earth becomes hostile to life -- if its forests, seas, mountains and plains are crippled into toxic heaps -- that will not be an accident. Human beings will be responsible.

When are we going to take responsibility for the way we live? I can hardly believe that we are back into those 70s feminist debates about women, nature, the Earth, life, nurturing and continuity, versus men who have no respect for the natural world, and see it as they see the female body, as something imperfect, approximate and in need of a helping hand from science. Everywhere I look, men are talking about nuclear capacity, about germ warfare, about dedicating 50 years to wipe out terrorism. The Bush administration is delighted not to have to worry about tedious environmentalists and Kyoto protocols and world trade protesters. This is a war -- and the 'big trousers' are back in charge. "Yes, I am the centre of the universe" reads the sign over Hawking's desk.

Iam beginning to think that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. I don't want to be genetically engineered so that I can survive war by living in a space pod. I want to live here, on Earth, the place I call home. I want it to be a safe, beautiful place to bring up children and teach them to love life and to value it. How can I do this when our leaders are treating Earth like a hotel bedroom -- trash it and move on.

Women will have to take a stand against this male madness. I hate the fact that war is gendered -- with men doing the destroying and women picking up the pieces. Yes, I know women fight in the army, but when Hawking is talking about aggression and how it is the superior principle of survival, I know he's not talking about women.

I had begun to hope that gender was becoming less important. Men and women have better social and work relationships than they used to -- they can be now be friends. The hard lines of the sex war had softened. But now we're in a different kind of war, and testosterone is back. Germ warfare or gender warfare? Can somebody tell the guys what planet we're on?

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De Clarke