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Unnatural Selection

by Chris Desser
Women's Spring 2001

My grandparents lived in Mexico when I was growing up and I spent part of every summer with them at the beaches of Guaymas, Mazatlan and Acapulco. I loved to sit on the warm sand, lean against a palm tree, and sip coconut milk from a coconut just plucked from the shadow of the fronds high above. Today 29 percent of the palms in the world are endangered.

Everything is connected. Patagonia has fought for 25 years to protect wild forests and salmon streams, and to stop pesticide spraying on agricultural lands. Each of these habitats affects the other. Now we face an environmental menace that threatens them all. That menace is genetic engineering: the scientific process of forever altering wild organisms by rewriting their genetic code. Supporters say genetic engineering may cure some diseases and increase farm efficiency, but at what cost? Eminent scientists warn that genetically modified organisms should stay in the laboratory until we know how they will affect human health and the environment. Industry has ignored this warning.

My grandmother loved roses, from the big, blood red and lustily overripe cabbage roses to the small, fragile pale pink dog roses on climbing vines. When I went to Russia as a teenager, the only thing she wanted me to bring back was an attar of rose that could only be found there. Since that trip, 14 percent of rose species, with their unique fragrances, have joined the endangered species list.

Right now one out of every eight plants on the planet is imperiled - nearly 34,000 plant species at last count - including 14 percent of the cherries, 32 percent of the lilies and 32 percent of the irises. But a plant doesn't disappear without wider ramifications: the whole web of relationship within which it exists is affected. We are part of that web. We are affected, too. The experiences that shaped my grandmother's life and her character - and through her my own life and character - may be unknown to her great-grandchildren.

My interest in these extinct and disappearing experiences is not nostalgia. It is rooted in my concern about how our choices, individually and socially, are re-shaping the world - the actual environmental, sensual and conceptual context that is larger than ourselves. I am concerned about who we are, what we are becoming, what it means to live a human life.

About the Author
Chris Desser is a Commissioner on the California Coastal Commission and is the Coordinator of the Funders' Working Group on Biotechnology. She also serves as President of the Board of Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in the Carson National Forest, a retreat center for environmental and social justice activists.