HUMAN NATURE

A Blueprint for Managing the Earth -- by People, for People

By James Trefil. Times. 249 pp. $26

I began reading this book in earnest on the hottest day of the year. Through all of western Washington state, from the 49th parallel through Seattle and on to Oregon, thermometers pushed above 100 degrees, and some gauges registered much higher. Homeowners saturated their lawns to try to keep them from roasting in the sun, vehicles broke down, and people did what they could to cope with the heat.

Home air conditioning is considered a luxury in the cooler climes of the Evergreen State, so the malls, restaurants and movie theatres were jam-packed -- and some ad hoc lemonade stands did enough business for the little gougers to start college funds. Interstate 5 was choked with cars heading to Canada to try to find relief -- though it was scarcely much cooler north of the border. If the warm air had been accompanied by the kind of humidity that residents of Washington, D.C. are used to, it's likely that corpses would have started piling up. If that sounds far-fetched, recall that nearly 15,000 people died from a heatwave in France last summer. In July 1995, a week-long hot spell in Chicago killed more than 700 people.

Sometimes the natural seems tranquil, maternal even. When winter gives way to spring, only those with severe allergies fail to be moved by the sunlight and the flowers and the wonderful warming breeze. But then a hail storm or a heat wave hits, and our dealings with Ma Nature take on shades of "Leiningen Versus the Ants." In Human Nature, George Mason University physicist James Trefil offers his expertise on such climatological tussles. He says that science is about to give mankind the tools to tame nature and argues that we should use them.

The author nudges readers up to the subject by writing of his acquisition, in the early '70s, of abandoned farmland near the Blue Ridge mountains, where he planned to build a house and raise a family. While canvassing the property and trying to decide where to build, he got a weird vibe. "I will never forget the feeling of -- it's hard to find the right word but I guess 'inhospitality' will do -- I got from the land," he says. "There was no water, no shelter, nothing but the hot sun and the dry grass." By doing this "back-to-the-land thing" that was all the rage in the Me Decade, Trefil acquired an understanding of the natural world that had been missing from his admittedly "largely urban" life. That is: "I learned that nature is not good and it's not bad -- it just is." And that we have to deal with it as best we can.

Trefil argues that this inhospitality has always been the way of things. Ever since our ancestors started walking upright (he spends a tedious number of pages arguing with creationists that evolution really is a fact), the human race has manipulated the natural environment to suit our needs. Hunter-gatherers learned how to attract and manage prey and possibly came up with some very inventive uses of fire. When European settlers came to North America, they were shocked to learn that native tribes did controlled burns of fields ( because the first grasses that shot up after a blaze would draw the buffalo like a magnet).

Farming took this control one step further. Farmers displaced vegetation and bred new strains of plants to favor their own sustenance, not the plants'. Forests were razed to create arable land. Canals and dams redirected water to irrigate crops, a process that profoundly reshaped civilization. Animals were bred to produce traits that humans wanted -- again, against the dictates of what the natural world might have preferred. The weaker but more useful strains of both plants and animals had to be protected against predators, many of which were hunted to extinction. Insecticides helped to kill the insects that would eat the plants, but these chemicals, in their earlier, more indiscriminate doses, were hell on bird and amphibian populations.

We don't yet manipulate weather as we do agriculture, but we are increasingly prepared to do so. In the introduction, Trefil refers to something that a Washington Post editorial mentioned last September: Although storms around the turn of the 20th century tended to catch people by surprise, today weather tracking and forecasting have developed to the point that Hurricane Isabel was in the news a week before she struck. People had plenty of advance warning to either get out of the way or take precautions. Schools were shut down early, and local governments distributed sandbags. Stores could stock up on emergency items and thus be less likely to run out of them and create panics. The Weather Channel and local news outlets followed all the twists of the storm and provided minute-to-minute coverage.

In the long run, says Trefil, we are proving less than willing to take the hand that the natural world has dealt us. He even predicts that, from the genetic reengineering of plants and animals to advances in ecosystem management to innovative methods of predicting and reducing global warming, humanity is set to finally get a firmer grasp on nature.

Of course, there's a difference between can and ought, and Trefil doesn't try to skirt either the science or the ethics of what he's proposing. He thinks that nature can and should be managed like a garden, to the gardener's benefit. Some think that man would make a lousy gardener, or that even if he could, he shouldn't. So let's fight about it. Human Nature is the ideal place to start. *

Jeremy Lott is assistant website editor for the American Spectator. He writes from Lynden, Wa.