Prometheus and the Drive to Mastery

Writers who express caution about the over-enthusiastic embrace of new technologies, such as Michael Sandel, who worries about human enhancement and genetic engineering, and Clive Hamilton, who worries about geoengineering, sometimes warn us about the ‘Promethean attitude’, or ‘the Promethean urge’. According to Sandel, human enhancement and genetic engineering ‘… represent a kind of hyperagency – a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses and many even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements’ (‘The Case against Perfection’, in J. Savulescu and N. Bostrom (eds.) Human Enhancement, OUP 2012, p. 78). Hamilton worries about geoengineers who desire ‘total domination of the planet’. He describes this desire as a ‘Promethean urge named after the Greek titan who gave to humans the tools of technological mastery’ (Earthmasters, Yale 2013, p. 18). Continue reading

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?

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Genetically Modifying Mosquitoes to ‘Bite the Dust’? Ethical Considerations

At some point, most people will have questioned the necessity of the existence of mosquitoes. In the UK at least, the things that might prompt us into such reflection are probably trivial; in my own case, the mild irritation of an itchy and unsightly swelling caused by a mosquito bite will normally lead me to rue the existence of these blood-sucking pests. Elsewhere though, mosquitoes lead to problems that are far from trivial; in Africa the Anopheles gambiae mosquito is the major vector of malaria, a disease that is estimated to kill more than 1 million people each year, most of whom are African children. Continue reading

When the poison is the antidote: risky disaster research

A recent report by Lipsitch and Galvani warns that some virus experiments risk unleashing global pandemic. In particular, there are the controversial “gain of function” experiments seeking to test how likely bird flu is to go from a form that cannot be transmitted between humans to a form that can – by trying to create such a form. But one can also consider geoengineering experiments: while current experiments are very small-scale and might at most have local effects, any serious attempt to test climate engineering will have to influence the climate measurably, worldwide. When is it acceptable to do research that threatens to cause the disaster it seeks to limit?

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Oxford Martin School Seminar: Robert Rogers and Paul Van Lange on Social Dilemmas

In a joint event on November 15th, Prof Robert Rogers and Prof Paul van Lange presented their scientific work related to social dilemmas.

Social dilemmas are situations in which private interests conflict with collective interests. This means that people facing a social dilemma have to decide whether to prioritise either their own short-term interests or the long-term interests of a group. Many real-life situations are social dilemmas. For example, as individuals we would (economically) benefit from using public motorways without paying taxes to maintain them, but if all acted according to their self-interest, no motorways would be built and the whole society would be worse off. In the academic literature, the three types of social dilemmas that are discussed most prominently are the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Public Goods Dilemma, and the Tragedy of the Commons. All three types have been modelled as experimental games, and research from different fields like psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural economics uses these games to tackle the question of under which conditions people are willing to cooperate with one another in social dilemmas, instead of maximising their self-interest. The ultimate goal of such research is to be able to give recommendations about how to solve social dilemmas in society.

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Not all philosophers are equal

Not all ethical issues are equally important. Many ethicists spend their professional lives performing in sideshows.

However entertaining the sideshow, sideshow performers do not deserve the same recognition or remuneration as those performing on our philosophical Broadways.

What really matters now is not the nuance of our approach to mitochondrial manipulation for glycogen storage diseases, or yet another set of footnotes to footnotes to footnotes in the debate about the naturalistic fallacy. It is: (a) Whether or not we should be allowed to destroy our planet (and if not, how to stop it happening); and (b) Whether or not it is fine to allow 20,000 children in the developing world to die daily of hunger and entirely avoidable disease  (and if not, how to stop it happening). My concern in this post is mainly with (a). A habitable planet is a prerequisite for all the rest of our ethical cogitation. If we can’t live here at all, it’s pointless trying to draft the small print of living. Continue reading

Pak-Hang Wong on “Virtuous Climate Making? Towards a Virtue-Theoretic Approach to Geoengineering”

In the final Uehiro Seminar of Trinity Term, Pak-Hang Wong offered a novel approach to the ethics of geoengineering. He argues that if we view geoengineering as a large socio-technical system (LTS), which he asserts we should, then traditional approaches to the ethics of geoengineering that focus on intentions and outcomes are inadequate.

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Values for Geoengineering Governance

Geoengineering as a response to anthropogenic climate change is of increasing interest to members of the scientific community.  The challenges of developing technologies powerful enough to manipulate the global climate are considerable and varied.   As well as the scientific and technical issues, many people (understandably) have concerns about geoengineering.  Hence issues of governance are key. As the technologies are in their infancy, it is futile at present to propose detailed regulatory structures, but one place to start is to discuss the  values by which the development of geoengineering technologies must be guided.   The Oxford Principles, originally proposed in 2009, were one of the first attempts to do so.

A paper now out in the journal Climatic Change, available here, gives an explanation of the values behind the Oxford Principles: Continue reading

The price of uncertainty: geoengineering climate change through stratospheric sulfate

With thanks to Clive Hamilton for his talk.

Stratospheric sulfate seems to be one of the most promising geoengineering methods to combat climate change. It involves the injection of  hydrogen sulfide (H2S), sulfur dioxide (SO2) or other sulfates, into the stratosphere. Similar to what happens after major volcanic eruptions, this would reflect off part of the sun’s energy and cool the Earth, counterbalancing the effect of greenhouse gases (see for instance the “Year without a Summer” that followed the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora).

It is probably the best geoengineering solution to climate change, in that it’s likely to work, should be technically feasible, can be done by a single nation if need be (no need for global consensus), and is likely to be very cheap – especially in comparison with cutting emissions. But it has a few drawbacks:

  1. It will have unpredictable effects on the weather across the globe.
  2. We can’t really test it – the test would be doing it, on a global scale.
  3. We wouldn’t know if it worked until we’d had about a decade of temperature measurements.
  4. Once started, it’s extremely dangerous to stop it – especially if carbon emissions keep rising.

So, should we do it? Narrow cost-benefit analysis suggests yes, but that doesn’t take into account the uncertainty, the unknown unknowns – the very likely probability that things will not go as expected, and that we’ll have difficulty dealing with the side effects. This includes the political side effects when some areas of the globe suffer more than others from this process.

How bad does global warming have to get before we consider this type of nearly irreversible geoengineering? If we had to choose between this and cutting emissions, how high would the cost of cutting have to go before we sprang for this instead? In short, what price do we put on avoiding uncertainty on the global scale? Can we estimate a dollar amount, or some alternative measure of the cost – quality-adjusted life years, or some other human-scale estimate? Or is this an illusionary precision, and do our intuitions and qualitative arguments (precautionary principle?) give us a better estimate of whether we should go ahead with this?

To 1750 – or beyond?

At the current Conference of the Parties in Durban, Libya proposed an ambitious scheme which, it claims, will not only halt, but reverse global warming.   (See

 Effectively, the “Libyan Climate Change Initiative” will turn the Sahara desert, and perhaps the Arabian and other deserts, into a giant wind-farm.  But not your average of wind-farm.  This wind-farm is one which first creates wind out of solar power and then uses it to drive giant wind turbines.   Continue reading