THE NEXT TIME I HEAR a politico or banker or Detroit executive talk about institutions “too big to fail,” I’ll direct them to the 34 percent of Americans who are obese. Last I heard, these big Americans, themselves a kind of cultural institution, were failing en masse, racked by diabetes, asthma, heart trouble, and bound for early death. The human form can only grow so big. Or I could point them to Pig #6707. Conceived in the laboratories of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the 1990s, Pig #6707’s embryo was genetically altered with a human growth gene to develop a super-pig, bigger and faster-growing and more productive of meat. But the genetic alterations produced a monster, impotent and nearly blind, its legs arthritic, its body crippled, the creature able to stand up and be photographed only with the support of a plywood board. When asked by a reporter why he created the sick pig, the lead researcher said his intent was to make livestock more efficient.
Physics in the mid-1980s in the UK was a difficult and unfulfilling place. I found no joy in the academy, which was not interested in the ideas to which I was drawn. At that time, I also had a passion for playwriting, and the BBC picked up some of my work. After completing my PhD, I moved to London to make a living as a playwright.
It seemed like a good idea, at least until I received my first few paychecks. I was doing odd jobs to supplement my meager income when, in April 1986, the fourth reactor in Chernobyl melted down. That event galvanized my interest in the nexus of economics, technology, and the environment, and inspired me to make a visit to Greenpeace, where I expressed my skepticism of nuclear technologies and my desire to help develop and promote alternatives. I started working as a volunteer and then as a freelancer, analyzing the economics of renewable energy technologies. Before I knew it, without intention or design, I was an ecological economist. The world told me what it wanted me to do. And I haven’t looked back. After thirty years, I still write plays. But the visit to Greenpeace remains pivotal to my trajectory.