Idea Log:

It seems that Bill McKibben, the leading enviro author of The End of Nature, might have had Idea Log at least partly in mind when he wrote his latest New York Times op-ed "Unlikely Allies Against Cloning." Defending what he calls a "broad coalition of environmentalists, feminists and other progressives" who have joined religious conservatives to oppose reproductive and therapeutic human cloning, McKibben closed by dissing the "scar[ed] border guards" who have criticized this unexpected political crossover act. These ideological protectionists, he wrote, include "voices on the left excoriating environmentalists and feminists for aligning themselves with conservatives in questioning the use of cloning and urging them to get back to fighting climate change and defending abortion clinics."

As the articles here and here show, Idea Log has been quite a persistent "border guard." McKibben also notes that those on the right who have joined his side on cloning will be getting similar flak from their libertarian friends; and indeed, there's a hearty debate going on at Reason magazine's Web site on this topic right now.

Thank goodness. For though he may not have fully intended it that way, McKibben's op-ed neatly demonstrates why both liberals and libertarians have reason to fear the new and allegedly bipartisan push to curtail therapeutic cloning for medical research purposes.

So as to distinguish itself from religious conservatives like Senator Sam Brownback (author of a bill to ban both human cloning and embryo cloning for research purposes), McKibben's coalition has postured as many liberal-sounding things -- environmentalism in particular. But at least for the time being, leading environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Natural Resources Defense Council don't accept this classification. Meanwhile, McKibben himself stated in his op-ed that his position is "arguably closer to the stance of most conservative Republicans, who want a permanent ban on all forms of cloning." He even fretted quite openly about "liberalism's faith in the onward march of science." Though it may not actually get there, this approach veers perilously close to outright Ludditism.

McKibben frames the therapeutic cloning issue as though so-called "border guard" types lack imagination, and are reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to new political coalitions. "The surge of new technology makes new issues -- and new alliances -- possible," he promised.

But McKibben and his new allies can just as easily be accused of reacting in a knee-jerk manner to new technologies. This is particularly the case with the therapeutic cloning of human embryos for research purposes, currently in the foreground of controversy (nobody wants to defend the outright cloning of humans). Such embryos could be a key source of stem cells and could fuel the research that would lead to cures for degenerative diseases like Parkinson's. But McKibben signed his name to a recent letter to the Senate, circulated by the Center for Genetics and Society, that calls for a moratorium on therapeutic cloning. He thus has turned away from robustly defending this technology at a time when it is severely embattled in Congress and when President Bush has significantly undermined scientific progress in the closely related area of stem-cell research.

McKibben does so in the name of the aforementioned "broad coalition," which certainly includes many distinguished names besides his own, such as Hastings Center founder Daniel Callahan, Students for a Democratic Society founder Tom Hayden, and Princeton's Michael Walzer. Members of this heavily intellectual group describe themselves as "long-time advocates for human rights, the environment, and social justice." They're not supposed to be anti-technology per se; their cautiously worded letter expresses a desire to "encourag[e] the many [technological] applications judged to contribute to the improvement of human well-being."

Indeed, until McKibben's op-ed, this group seemed to have gone out of its way to avoid any semblance of an anti-technological bent. For example, in inquiring why the center's letter was not signed by such well known intellectual therapeutic cloning opponents as Leon Kass, head of Bush's Council on Bioethics, and Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, I stumbled onto a rather revealing fact. Center director Richard Hayes, who's clearly trying to avoid being lumped in with conservative pro-life advocates, notes that both individuals support a ban on therapeutic cloning rather than a mere moratorium, and therefore were not included. Rifkin, in other words, was too much of a Luddite for this middling -- or even hair-splitting -- group.

That's the official line; McKibben's op-ed clearly undercuts it with its worries about misplaced "faith" in modern science. McKibben has also oversold the extent to which green groups are jumping on the anti-therapeutic cloning bandwagon. Sure, more radical environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have extended their mandate to cover human cloning, which is not at first blush an environmental issue. But I called around to this country's leading environmental groups -- something I did once before in January -- and, as of yet, there's no sense in which they're on board with McKibben et. al's legislative mission.

"Our primary focus is the 2002 elections, promoting a smarter, cleaner energy plan. Cloning really doesn't fit in that equation at this point," said Dan Vicuna, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters. Paul Fain, press secretary for the Union of Concerned Scientists, put it even better when discussing the new left-leaning anti-cloning contingent: "It's the whole tamper-with-nature crowd, and although personally I know some of our folks have positions on it, we're not that. We try to stay kind of moderate. Anything that gets pretty philosophical, we leave to others."

I was unable to reach spokespersons at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who had previously informed me that they too had no interest in weighing in on the cloning issue. Indeed, spokesman Elliott Negin was out at a press conference concerning Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force (where good environmentalists no doubt ought to be). A contact at the Sierra Club also said his organization was taking no position on cloning (though certain club officials, acting strictly as individuals, signed on to the Center for Genetics and Society letter).

Which brings us back to Bill McKibben and the philosopher-academics -- they're that at least as much as environmentalists -- in his coalition. In his Times op-ed, McKibben wrote that "cloning of any kind is a step toward genetic engineeringÂ…toward leaving the natural world behind." "Nature," incidentally, is the keyword if you want to know where someone really stands in the therapeutic cloning debate. With remarkable consistency, its usage demonstrates when therapeutic cloning opponents have gone beyond science, which tells us certain things about the natural world, in the direction of prescriptive, philosophical statements about the way they believe the natural world ought to be.

The problem, of course, is that the dichotomy between "natural" and "unnatural" is a spurious one; humans are part of the natural world and all their activities, science, cloning, and otherwise, are therefore hardly unnatural, even if they may be unprecedented. McKibben tries to draw a distinction between his defense of the "natural" and "liberalism's faith in the onward march of science," but there shouldn't be any daylight between these two things. It's not good for science or for liberalism.

Of course, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with finding yourself in new coalitions, as McKibben has. But such alignments can only be assessed by weighing the strength of the arguments that have brought them into being against their more negative consequences. That's why it's so troubling that philosophically weak worries about the "unnatural" have prompted leading liberal minds, like McKibben's, to ally themselves so closely with anti-choice religious rightists like Brownback.