The Most Hated Man In Science

  • The nation's foremost opponent of environmental neglect and genetic engineering is waving a $20 bill as he makes a bet. The scene happens to be a meeting of the Humane Society in Houston, but the wager, which is part of his script, could just as easily be offered to a gathering of born-again environmentalists in Aspen, Colo.; at the Los Angeles home of TV producer Norman Lear; or on a college campus. Jeremy Rifkin bets that no one can answer this question: "What value has emerged in the past 100 years as our most dominant value, a value that is the key to our science?"

    He rarely loses, not because the answer is so obscure but because it's so obvious. At an easel, he writes his answer, leaving the word to hang like a biohazard warning sign: EFFICIENCY. "Everything is efficient," he says. "We're so skewed toward efficiency that we've lost our sense of humanity. What we need to do is to bring back a sense of the sacred."

    Rifkin's performance, which he delivers on average 90 times a year, is a mixture of Jimmy Swaggart, Phil Donahue and Werner Erhard. Twenty years of teaching, preaching and raising consciences -- some would call it rabble- rousing -- have refined this show to the point that it has a slick, thoroughly professional sheen. Rifkin moves through an audience as if it were his private party, talking, interviewing, questioning and, occasionally but ever so kindly, embarrassing. He will perform for 30 minutes or eight hours, depending on the contract. His basic sermon is an attack on "the Boys," as he calls Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, John Locke and other architects of efficiency. And the Boys' great sin? To have created an atmosphere that allows scientists to impose untested new technologies on society without considering their broader implications. Says Rifkin: "Faster is not necessarily better."

    It's a wonderful performance, but in the sour view of many scientists, it is largely flimflam. To them, Rifkin is a Luddite, whose opposition to DNA research is based on skewed science and misplaced mystical zeal. Geneticist Norton Zinder of New York City's Rockefeller University calls him a "fool" and a "demagogue." In a scathing 1984 review of Algeny, one of Rifkin's nine books, Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould wrote that it was "a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship . . . I don't think I have ever read a shoddier work."

    To Rifkin, such criticism is merely evidence that he is on the right track. "My job," he says, "is to point out some of the problems that might arise with new technologies. Scientists should show us how these new technologies work. Then society, not scientists, should decide if it wants to use them. Scientists are not gods; they're just technicians. They're just human beings, with all the good and bad intentions of everyone else. If you criticize them at all, you're stopping the drive toward utopia. But there has to be both sides."

    To be sure, some scientists reluctantly allow that Rifkin does ask important questions about the ethical, economic and social implications of the new technologies, as indeed he does. The problem is that Rifkin frequently presents his case in such a shrill and occasionally unscrupulous manner that in the debates he hopes to encourage, fear and anger frequently replace information and reasoned judgment. As a result, the message is too easily discarded with the messenger. Says W. French Anderson, a gene-therapy researcher at the National Institutes of Health (and a Rifkin target): "In private, he and I agree almost exactly. The difference is that Jeremy is a professional activist, and he says and does whatever he needs to do to draw attention to his position."

    In the field of public policy, no one is better than Rifkin in the martial arts of social activism: lawsuits, petitions, debates, lectures and media manipulations. Each year the three attorneys on the staff of his Washington- based Foundation on Economic Trends file about six lawsuits and threaten more. Among other causes, he has battled surrogate motherhood, animal patenting and agricultural experiments involving open-air use of genetically altered bacteria. He tried to delay the launch of the Galileo spacecraft by warning that a shuttle explosion could rain plutonium on Florida. In Wisconsin he has helped start a boycott of dairy products from cows that are being fed a genetically engineered growth hormone. Indeed, Rifkin's success at blocking research projects led one biotech newsletter to label him "the Abominable No Man."

    In fact, Rifkin probably loses in court more often than he wins. Nonetheless, he has forced the Government to establish regulatory pathways for some genetically engineered products and clarify practices for others. In the world of technological regulation, says NIH researcher Anderson with grudging respect, "it takes some sort of catastrophe or threatened catastrophe to get things to happen, and Jeremy is constantly threatening catastrophe."

    A self-described economist, philosopher and teacher, Rifkin grew up in Chicago, the son of a plastic-bag manufacturer. It was in the late 1960s that Rifkin -- then a student at the Wharton School of Finance, where he was locally famed as both party animal and class president -- decided to become a professional protester. His conversion to the antiwar movement wasn't triggered by emotionalism or peer pressure. He immersed himself in the history of Viet Nam and emerged convinced that America's leaders were dangerously ignorant about Southeast Asia. Did it strike him as odd that he claimed to be better informed than the President? "Yeah," says Rifkin, "I always thought that was weird." Then as now he rarely doubted that he was right.

    Rifkin helped organize demonstrations at the U.N. and the Pentagon, and haunted bars near military bases to find soldiers who would testify about U.S. crimes. After the war Rifkin worked in Harlem as a VISTA volunteer and in 1976 organized a so-called People's Bicentennial to celebrate what he considered the real national virtue: not patriotism but civil disobedience.

    By the early 1980s, a new Rifkin cause was aborning. The Reagan Administration had begun to unshackle American industry by dismantling regulatory standards and environmental protections. At the same time, researchers were refining the new tools of molecular biology, which enabled them to redraw the blueprints of life. Genetic-engineering companies were launched in this era of deregulation with glowing prospectuses that promised both medical elixirs and vast profits from applications of the new technology.

    Rifkin, who has no real science background, has been deeply distrustful of scientists since he visited Dachau in the late 1960s. "The Nazis could have just slaughtered people, but look at the manner in which they did it," he says. "It was detached, rational. It was scientific. The Holocaust represents the dark side of the modern age."

    Is genetic engineering equivalent to mass murder? Not even Rifkin goes that far, but he does argue that the technology represents a grave danger, both environmentally and philosophically. He fears that society, inspired by science, will take a diminished view of human life as no more than a few strands of DNA. "This is a new technology that goes to the heart of our values," he says. "The end result could very well be a brave new world, very damaging to our human spirit." Says Andrew Kimbrell, an attorney for Rifkin's foundation: "Everything that's living has a meaning and is owed reverence and care. There must be a balance between efficiency and empathy. We see ourselves as helping to provide that balance."

    , One of Rifkin's first assaults on DNA technology was directed at Steven Lindow, a plant pathologist for the University of California, Berkeley. Lindow had discovered a way of snipping a particular gene from bacteria so that the redesigned microbes resisted frost formation down to 24 degrees F. Theoretically, crops sprayed with the microbes could be protected from cold snaps. In 1983 Lindow got permission from the NIH to test his bugs, which he called ice-minus, on a small plot of potatoes in Northern California.

    Lindow's bugs were to be the first genetically altered bacteria released into the environment. Although there was strong evidence that the microbes were benign, biologists at Berkeley and the NIH had failed to consider fully the experiment's environmental impact. The oversight allowed Rifkin to sue to block the experiment. The courts agreed, and, thanks to Rifkin, testing was postponed for three years while the NIH, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency struggled to draw up rules under which genetically engineered products would move from the lab to the field.

    Outside the courtroom, Rifkin warned that the widespread use of ice-minus would lead to all sorts of natural disasters, including the disruption of rainfall patterns. (Lindow and his backers say this is hogwash. They note that the ice-fighting bacteria, developed into a commercial product called Frostban, was sprayed on a test field in 1987. As they predicted, it proved harmless.) Typically, Rifkin would plunge into a scientific setting, armed with papers from dissident researchers, and warn about the potentially catastrophic consequences of inadequately regulated research. Says geneticist Zinder: "The accusations are made simply, with simple words. But the proof is very sophisticated and often difficult to grasp." Rifkin acknowledges that he occasionally uses scare tactics. But he claims that the scientific establishment is equally guilty, both of excessive rhetoric and of usurping policy decisions that need more debate than they are being given.

    "Is there any role for the public in ethical, social or environmental discussions of the science and technology being placed into our culture?" Rifkin asks. "Is the proper role of the public only to applaud the claims of scientists? Is that our only role? Or is our role to be informed and engaged in the process? My impression is that the scientific establishment has had a free ride until recently. Even with the mistakes that we might make, we're opening up the process of debate around some of the most important things in our lives. We're opening up science and technology to scrutiny beyond the scientific establishment. If I do nothing else, that is a major plus for everybody."

    Rifkin is surely justified in seek

    ing precise regulations for genetic research, to protect the health of the individual and the environment. And his call for closer public scrutiny of scientific deliberations is laudable, although perhaps impractical in a society where so few laymen have enough technical knowledge to comprehend what the experts are really doing. But there is good reason to question the fairness of Rifkin's angriest assaults on scientists as mad magicians and unethical disciples of Dr. Strangelove. When Rifkin is most successful, he may slow basic research, delay a medical advance, perhaps even damage the economy. Still, it is a small price to pay for the prudent utilization of the powers of science. "It's critical for these things to be done," he says of his work. "Nothing's going to stop it. They'll have to shoot me. They're going to have to deal with me for the next 30 years."

    Maybe longer. Rifkin, 44, enjoys most the college lectures that often have him flying two to four times a week. One recent swing took the Rifkin show to Alfred University in upstate New York. As usual, he charmed and joked, provoked and pleased. He lectured the freshman class about the need for activism at a time of environmental crisis brought about by misguided values. Afterward, dozens of students remained in the gymnasium to form an environmental action group. Leaving the hall, Rifkin looked back over his shoulder and said to a companion that these were the children of the antiwar generation. If they do eventually become Rifkin's political heirs, some would argue, the nation might benefit if they could deliver their messages with a bit more intellectual light, and maybe with a touch less partisan heat.