When the planet breaks, maybe this is how we'll fix it

As we leave the Holocene and enter the Anthropocene, is there a synthetic solution to the problems the human race has caused the planet?

30th May 2018
When the planet breaks, maybe this is how we'll fix it © Getty Images

Homo sapiens loves a technological fix.

When a difficult problem confronts us, the most appealing way out often involves the development of a new technology to resolve the challenge. For speedy driving, auto-manufacturers developed anti-lock brakes. For the bacteria that infect us, medical specialists discovered antibiotics. For the unpleasantness of a cold home, engineers developed central heating.

In this current period of Earth’s history, many of the most pressing problems our species faces involve the degradation of the surrounding world. In 2016, a working group for the International Commission on Stratigraphy found that the spread of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, the distribution of radionuclides, the ubiquitous presence of plastics and concrete, and the elevated temperatures and sea levels caused by greenhouse gases all indicate a geologically new period in the planet’s history.

In an epoch they labelled “the Anthropocene,” the human imprint has reached every remote corner of the planet. The times in which we live, the working group declared, are now functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Pristine nature has permanently blinked out of existence.

At the same time as these sober realisations are sinking in, a range of technological fixes to confront these challenges are being developed that are utterly different from anything that has come before. From the atom to the atmosphere, researchers are figuring out how to reach deeper into natural processes than humans have ever managed, reconfiguring them to serve humanity’s needs. For people concerned about the degradation of the natural world, some of these technologies hold a scintillating promise.

Nanotechnology enables humans to reconfigure matter at the atomic and molecular scale, making available new properties that can be put to beneficial environmental uses. Nanostructured materials are key, for example, to enhancing the efficiency of solar panels. Self-cleaning glass made possible by nanotechnology keeps the outer layer of the panel free of dirt. By copying nano-sized patterns found in the structure of a butterfly’s wing, researchers can enhance the ability of a solar panel to absorb available light. A range of nanomaterials are also being developed for the interior of the panels to increase the efficiency of the conversion of light into electricity.

Synthetic biology is crossing new thresholds that allow researchers to design the genomes of bacterial organisms. It is now possible to synthesize a simple genome out of constituent chemicals in a laboratory and then use that artificially manufactured genome to take over a natural bacterial cell.

Future developments will allow useful gene sequences to be added to this minimal genome so that the synthetic bacteria can perform valuable tasks.  A genome could be synthesised that allows synthetic bacteria to clean up pollution at contaminated sites. A different chain of DNA could direct its host to efficiently eat carbon dioxide straight out of the atmosphere. Another design could assist in the production of biofuels by constructing organisms that can help metabolize vegetative matter into combustible alcohols. Fast growing synthetic algae could become part of the biomass from which biofuels are derived.

At the level of species and ecosystems, the technologies being worked on by synthetic biologists dangle the carrot of restoring, or even increasing, the biodiversity that has recently been lost. Highly endangered animals could be cloned to provide a desperately needed boost to their dwindling numbers. The genomes of recently extinct animals such as heath hens and Pyrenean ibex could be rebuilt from scraps of preserved cellular material and implanted into the ova of related species. The result would be close imitations (or “proxies”) of the extinct animals brought back from the dead.

New gene-editing tools could allow common species to be shaped so that they become genetically closer to their endangered or extinct cousins. Band-tailed pigeons, for example, could in future be only a few edits away from becoming extinct passenger pigeons. Anticipating these types of rescue techniques, the genomes of at-risk animals are already being deposited into “frozen zoos” to provide a genetic reservoir for future needs.

A different technology known as a “gene drive” can be used to force desirable traits through wild populations that never set foot anywhere near a lab. This technology puts carefully constructed genetic sequences into the germ line of fast-breeding populations in a way that biases inheritance in favour of more favourable designs. Species that need to be protected against diseases caused by changing temperatures could have a resistance gene inserted. Populations of invasive pests could likewise be suppressed by tweaking the normal rules of inheritance.

Moving up to the level of the atmosphere itself, climate engineers are proposing technical solutions to help put a stop to relentlessly warming temperatures. Incoming solar radiation could be managed by technicians through the deployment of droplets or particles into the stratosphere. These would be calibrated in such a way that the droplets intercept just enough incoming energy to take the edge off the warming climate. Techniques to enhance the rate at which rocks naturally weather could drawdown huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and safely deposit it through runoff into underground caves or the ocean floor. “Artificial trees” could help recompose a safer atmosphere by supplementing nature’s own photosynthetic process with a different piece of chemistry that would extract carbon from its diluted but damaging form in the ambient air.

Nobody who cares about the fate of the Earth in the Anthropocene can hear about these technological fixes and not feel a little bit of excitement at what they promise. The ability to restore and repair some of the damages that have been caused as well as to provide cheaper and cleaner energy to lift populations out of poverty would no doubt be welcome developments. From many ethical perspectives, the opportunity to increase environmental justice amongst human populations as well as to improve Homo sapiens’ track record with non-human species provides a much-needed piece of good news amongst so much bad.

From a different ethical perspective, however, there is something embedded in these technologies that should also provide a moment of hesitation. From the very small to the very large, these types of technologies insert human design into features of the natural world that used to run entirely on their own.

When technicians decide to replace the forces of evolution with lab-designed genomes, when they resurrect and amend species at will, when they make choices about the amount of solar energy that should be allowed to arrive on the planet’s surface from the Sun, they have done something to the planet that marks a profound departure from all previous history. The planet’s most audacious species gets under Earth’s skin and re-engineers its metabolism. Human choices start to determine at a fundamental level what it is that nature is allowed to be.

I call the new period offered by these emerging technologies “the synthetic age.” It is synthetic because the natural world and the forces that have shaped it are increasingly replaced with artificial ones. The “found” is progressively exchanged for “the made.” In the end there might be something deeply unsatisfying about the idea of saving nature by replacing it with something else.

The choices about which of these technologies are desirable and which of them go a step too far will be difficult ones. There is no simple formula that would suggest accepting or rejecting all of them at once. The details will need to be thought about and debated not just by scientists but by citizens, philosophers, wizened elders, younger generations, and as many stakeholders as can be included in the conversation as possible. These are some of the biggest decisions of our time

The nineteenth century English philosopher John Stuart Mill once described nature as “the cradle of our thoughts and aspirations.” Before this cradle is traded out for one that scientists design, we need to stop and think about how far in this direction it is prudent for us to go.

Further discussion of these difficult choices can be found in The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World by Christopher J. Preston (£20, MIT Press)
Further discussion of these difficult choices can be found in The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World by Christopher J. Preston (£20, MIT Press)

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