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Geoengineering: Lessons from Human Bioengineering

[W]e have no non-radical solutions left to deal with climate change… either we face a radical climate catastrophe or we must radically shift our economy and modes of social organisation away from the current fossil fuel economy

That was the message given by David Spratt, author of Climate Code Red, and Ian Dunlop, who formerly chaired the Australian Coal Association but has since become a climate activist, at the Breakthrough 2014, National Climate Restoration Forum, last month in Melbourne, reported by Green Left Weekly.

One source of radical solutions is the growing geoengineering industry. Recently proposed methods for the sequestering of carbon dioxide include  ants, iron sulfate  and artificial trees .

Debate continues about when and how geoengineering might ever be deployed. Amongst environmentalists, support for geoengineering methods is low. Green Left Weekly explains:

as Clive Hamilton describes in his book Earthmasters, geoengineering technologies are supported by leading climate denial organisations and by the fossil fuel industry. This is because they seem to offer a way that fossil fuel use can continue unabated. The side effects of these technologies could be brutal: for example, severe drought in Africa and Asia. Moreover, if spraying was stopped, temperatures would rise rapidly, leading to even more devastating impacts.

Will regulation help? Green Left Weekly argues that governments have been unable to regulate fossil fuel industries effectively, and that they will be unlikely to succeed more here.

It is fruitful to look at comparisons with human genetic or biological modification, or human bioengineering.

Both are complex systems affecting life processes. There has been considerable debate and reflection on human bioengineering, human bioenhancement or genetic selection. Could the results of this reflection be of use in considering the ethics of geoengineering?

1. Geoengineering is already occurring

Many people consider geoengineering to be some futuristic, science fiction, Frankensteinian scenario. But it is, in ethical terms, already occurring. Every day we dump tons of carbon into the atmosphere, foreseeing that it will have effects on ecosystems and the complex web of life on earth. People claim that this is an unfortunate or unwanted side effect but we don’t intend to cause damage by emitting carbon. But so what?

Imagine that we identified that estrogen from contraception or antipsychotic drugs were affecting the germ line or epigenetic factors, affecting the lives of future generations. No one could plausibly excuse themselves by saying, “Oh we didn’t intend to modify the germ line so this does not count as human bioengineering.” Whatever one called it, whether it was permissible would not turn on whether the effects were intended or unintended, but on their nature and magnitude.

Narrowly defined as intentional human-intervention of the climate system, geoengineering might have yet to become a reality. But for what matters ethically, we we are effectively geoengineering the planet now. We should ask ourselves whether we should stop, and if we are not going to stop, what else we should do prevent avoidable bad future scenarios. If filtering toxins, or administering competing binding agents, stopped various environmental toxins adversely affecting the human germ line, then we should employ these measures.

2. The treatment-enhancement distinction is unhelpful

In human bioengineering, many people are attracted to the disease-health and treatment-enhancement distinction in deciding when to bioengineer. But such a distinction is unhelpful just because the distinction between health and disease is a purely statistical one – disease is essentially species-typical subfunctioning, two standard deviations below the mean. This implies about 2% of people are “diseased,” in need of treatment.

But why should the point on a normal distribution curve have ethical significance by itself? 100% of people age and die. It is completely normal. But that does not make it good or acceptable or not worth avoiding. The sun will inevitably engulf the earth – does that mean we should regard it as a neutral or good outcome?

The problem of appealing to normality as a guide to ethical behaviour is even more pronounced in relation to the climate. What is a normal climate? The one which existed 200 years ago, or during the Ice Age, or when the earth was several degrees warmer than it was now?

The lesson from the human engineering debate is that we should choose some valuable outcome, not some statistical outcome, and use science to understand how to realise that, either through environmental, social, psychological or biological means.

We cannot avoid asking and answering the question: what is a good human life? Likewise, we cannot avoid the ethical question: what is a good climate?

3. Non-identity of future generations makes selection, not enhancement, a precautionary approach

We can make better people in one of two ways: by selection or enhancement. Selection involves selecting embryos with more favourable genetic profiles. Bioenhancement involves modifying the genome or other biological characteristics of embryos or future children. If bioenhancement fails to realise the valued outcome, an individual has been harmed in a person-affecting way. That individual is worse off than she would otherwise have been.

Yet if selection fails to bring about an individual with the desired better life, no one has been harmed as that individual would not exist were it not for the intervention. This is called the “non-identity problem”. The exception is if that individual had a life not worth living.

In general, if one is uncertain about the risks and benefits of intervention, selection is preferable to enhancement because it is only associated with “impersonal risk” and not clear risk of person-affecting harm.

The lesson for geoengineering is that slow interventions that will alter the identity of future generations are like selection, and so are associated with less person-affecting risk. We should prefer interventions that slowly modify climate over generations, rather than rapid interventions that carry risk within a single generation, if we wish to adopt a person-affecting precautionary approach.

4. Justice is a major ethical principle

When it comes to human bioengineering, the strongest objection is that it will cause or increase injustice. Yet bioengineering made available to the worst off, would reduce inequality and injustice. Likewise, geoengineering could increase, have no effect or reduce global injustice. Just as modifying biology has no necessary effect on justice, so too does environmental modification have no necessary effect on justice. We must ask, for particular interventions, would be the effect on injustice.

5. Objectivity if unavoidable

In deciding what we ought to do, and not do, questions of objective value are unavoidable. Some deaf people claim that deafness is not a disability but a difference. If this were true, there would be nothing wrong in deafening hearing baby or refusing to use a cochlear implant for one’s child. Some claim this. But this assumes a relativism about value. We must answer the question: is deafness bad, in the way the world is, or is likely to be, or would be under some plausible conception of justice.

Ethics and value are not in the eye of the beholder. Relativism is false. Pain is bad; beauty is good. Knowledge is valuable. Decisions about human bioengineering and geoengineering cannot be made in advance on understanding what is of objective value.

What kind of people should we be? And what kind of world should we live in?

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Naturalism run amok. This is not ethics, it is computational language for machines masquerading as [illusory] living things. If i believed in God i might offer a prayer here that we be saved from such as these … nonetheless i can offer another way to make us better – not just selection and enhancement as the author would have it – rather barring machinists from calling what they do ethics … ethics is about living things. I could amend the new rule by adding profiteers … bar machinists and profiteers from ethics and the entry it gives into structuring political justice, and then the life-world has a chance to flourish … machinists have naturalized the notion they can intervene in nature for their own curiosity and for the profiteers, but that is an Enlightenment aberration of reason in which Nature is a Protestant Christian thing devoid of inherent value, of essence … and once essence, or life, was removed from the life-world, and then God was removed, the only universals, or as the author would have it, “objective value”, are ideological because, as Kant taught the machinists, we cannot know life directly … radical empiricism is a way out of this scientific conundrum, in which we abandon the structures about nature we have naturalized and valorized and recognize and explore the potencies of psyche/nature directly again. Blind the cyclops of science so we can be with all our senses again …

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