done PHTR Conference 2020 Christopher Preston 5 November
Hello, my name is Christopher Preston and I am speaking to you from Missoula, Montana, where I work at the University of Montana. Thanks for the invitation. It’s great to be able to join you. And I was instructed to bring environment and sustainability into this discussion of technology and human relations. We’re going to do that by talking about some work in the ethics of emerging technologies that I’ve been dealing over the last several years and then after about half of my time I’m going to take a fairly abrupt pivot into the topic of rewilding.
And there’s two reasons why I want to do this. One, is, there is actually some interesting connections between rewilding in the Netherlands that I think you might find enjoyable and the other is that I think the relations between humans and wildness and rewilding is highly relevant to the relationship between humans and technology. And I hope, as I move through my presentation, that it will become obvious why I think that this is the case.
So, what I am going to do right now is share my screen and pull up my PowerPoint and I will get us going. Ok. So, the work that I’ve been doing in the last few years on technology. I work as closely related to the discussion of the Anthropocene.
But it has a little twist on it. What I realized pretty early on in the discussion on the Anthropocene is that Anthropocene is the wrong word. It’s not the wrong word because it has anthrocas in it. It is not the wrong word because the timing is wrong. It is the wrong word because it is not strong enough. What I mean by that is, if we look at the arguments for why we have Anthropocene, we see here, this is from a paper by the Anthropocene working group of the international commission on stratigraphy, you see the usual list of candidates, the usual list of impacts that humans have had on the earth, and they had on a global level, so a number of those are climate impacts, a number of those are impacts in chemistry, a number of those are bio-physical impacts, on things like sediments, there are biological impacts, on species.
What you see is a compilation of a dozen or more globally significant impacts that humans have had. Now that’s bad. And it’s significant. But it also I would claim an accident, an Anthropocene oops or mistake. So just to be clear what I mean by this.
I put this slide up about a month ago when I gave a presentation and somebody said how can you possibly say, that for example, the damage to climate done by fossil fuel companies is a mistake. It was willful, it was manipulative, it was intentional. Don’t let those companies off the hook by suggesting it was a mistake. I take that point very seriously and insofar as it goes that is correct. But if you look again at the signals the Anthropocene working group is relying upon. What I think you can say about these is no burning of fossil fuels was intended to raise sea levels around the globe.
No burning of fossil fuels set out with the goal for black carbon on every snowfield on the surface of the planet. Nobody intended to change species, distributions at this level of a global signal. So, in that respect, all of these Anthropocene impacts were not deliberate, not intentional, they were bad accidents. With serious consequences. But bad accidents.
So, what if Anthropocene not adequate, what can the word synthetic age do for you. So, this idea of a synthetic age is really like an Anthropocene ramped up to a different power. So, a synthetic age would be where you would not be impacting the earth accidentally but deliberately, first off, and then second in terms of a superficial impact of a sediment or a pollutant.
What you ‘re doing instead is you are getting under the skin of the earth. And reworking its metabolism. This what I claim that is characteristic of the synthetic age, you are deliberately changing the earth and you are changing at a metabolic level. And the case I would like to promote is that you can do that from Adam, literally from the Adam to the atmosphere, through technologies that range from nanotechnology at the plutonic level, climate engineering at the atmospheric level.
And this is the case I made in the book Synthetic age that has been out a couple of years now. And just the be clear this book is not intended to advocate these signals. It is just intended to show that this is in fact what is happening and serious decisions that need to be made. Let me flash out with three different examples what those sorts of synthetic age look like and the three I’m going to discuss are synthetic organisms, gene drives and climate engineering. Let’s start with synthetic organisms. Once you have the capacity to synthesize nuclear bases and to stitch them together in a particular sequence according to a certain design, then you can make a whole genome that you can cause to function in a bacterium.
And the Craig Venter Institute achieved this first in 2010 and then in 2016. And in 2010, what they did, they synthesized an existing bacterial genome, a genome of micro plasma genitalium, and they took that synthetic genome, put it in a natural host and fired it up and had that synthetic genome take over the operation of that bacterial host. That was the 2010 development. Then in 2016, they actually built a genome according to their own design. They did the same thing, after they stitched that genome together, they put it in a bacterial host, they pressed play, excited, got it moving and that synthetic genome took over that bacterial host and became the world’s first artificial species. Artificial in the sense that its genome was designed by humans.
And they called it macro plasma laboratorium. That’s my first example of a technology. Second example. Gene drives. What if you had that capacity to alter genomes? You had that capacity to introduce a trait.
But what you wanted to do with that trait is to send it out not just into organisms that you brought into the lab. You want to send it out in the wild world. You want it to affect every wild breeding instance of an organism with a particular trait. Gene drive is what attempts to do that. So, for gene drive, you need at least two technologies.
You going to need the ability to create or construct the gene. You need to be able construct the trait. You need to be able to put it in organisms in a way that allows that trait to spread through a population. You need gene synthesis and you need CRISPR Cas9, which is going to allow you to put that trait into the organism. So, CRISPR advocates say it’s like molecular scissors that allows you to effect cut and paste types of operations and if you can do that you cut out certain genes in certain places and you can replace them with other genes and other places.
That’s good to create to change you want in that organism, but you are going to have to go a little further if you want to create a change in wild organisms. Sexually producing organisms split their two chromosomes and they join them with the single chromosome of the other organism at sexual production, so you’re always at risk of only having a 50% chance of that trait being passed on. If you want to send that trait into the wild world, you need something like an 80, 90 or 100% chance of that trait being passed on.
CRIPSPR Cas9 allows you to do that. Because it can make a cut in an opposing chromosome and it can replace that upside with exactly the trait that it wanted to pass on. If you look at that top representation there in the sketch. What you see is a cut being made and when the repair happens the other chromosome has in it the trait that you wanted to pass on.
So, what this is going to do is it’s going to raise your 50% chance of being passed on to close to one hundred percent of being passed on. So, normal inheritance on the left, those flies operating according to mendelian inheritance, where only 50% of the time the trait gets passed on. On the right there, you got those flies operating according to this artificial gene drive type of inheritance where the trait is passed on 100% of the time. So, this is the second type of synthetic age technology that I’m going to describe to you. Why would you want to do this? If, for example, you wanted to eliminate a disease vector, such as a mosquito, or a sterility trait throughout the population, or erase a species like various rodents. Or you could activate genes that would make agricultural pests susceptible to biocides and urbacides if you wanted to do that in a population of weeds.
So, there are good reasons to try and develop gene drives, but it is another example of that type of technology of synthetic age. Third example, climate engineering. Specifically, climate engineering with stratospheric aerosols. What you are doing here, is you are inserting yourself into the amount of solar radiation that enters the various layers of the planet and you can do that at a stratospheric level, at the tropospheric level, at the surface of the earth level.
What you’re trying to do is increase albedo, at any of those levels so that you bounce incoming solar radiation out before it has a chance to warm up the planet. It is essentially doing what volcanos have always done. In this representation what you’ve got is a volcano going off and you’ve got somebody trying to put articles in the stratosphere. You wouldn’t want both of those things to be happening at the same time.
This is just for illustration purposes. What you want is a very measured, controlled amount of articles added to the stratosphere in order to bounce back the right amount of solar energy. This is just the sketch of the first proposed test of this technology.
I was under the impression that the first test was going to happen last summer. Looks like it’s going to happen next summer instead. It’s a group from Harvard. It’s called SCoPex trial. This is just an interesting diagram.
What they’ve done here, is they’ve lifted a device up into the stratosphere with a balloon, add devices, it’s going to admit stratospheric particles, and it’s going to fly around, it’s got little propellors on it, into the cloud, and it’s going to sample the optical properties of the cloud. And the idea here is not to change global temperatures, but the idea here is just to get a sense of what sort of particles you would need to create a cooling effect. That’s my third example of a synthetic age type of technology. And you’ll remember my characteristics of these technologies. It had to be deliberate manipulations. It had to be manipulations that took place at a metabolic level and let me explain why I think these examples do that.
When you build a genome from scratch and create from scratch, you are bypassing the processes of mutation, genetic reference, selection and so forth, that used to be responsible for creating organisms. You’re putting your fingers deeply into a process that has been a singular process in creating those organisms up to this point. Let’s look at gene drives. What do gene drives do? They go into the rules of mendelian inheritance and they manipulate those rules for the trait you want to get passed on, gets passed on. That is a process-type alteration, that is wholly intentional.
Then finally, the stratospheric aerosols. It’s similar. The process here is the amount of solar radiation arriving from the sun, which varies naturally, but here you are deliberately altering that quantity, you’re calibrating it so as to achieve particular goals you have relating to climate change. So, here’s three technologies that I call synthetic age technologies. And when you start to bring in the environmental perspective you are going to want to ask yourself, are these technologies desirable for that environmental perspective? And at first blush the answer might appear to be: well yes.
There are some important things that these technologies can do to aid in environmental sustainability and I didn’t mention nanotechnologies, but nanotechnologies promise great things as far as the efficiency of solar panels and the efficiency of storage capacity of batteries. Synthetic organisms could potentially help with biofuels, they could help with carbon capture. They could create wholly new synthetic fuels. What gene drives could do, is they could address certain diseases by controlling the vectors of these diseases that might be increasing because of changing temperatures, dengue or malaria, that are going to move around because of these changing temperatures. Gene drives could help control that. Climate engineering obviously by definition is an attempt to reduce climate risk and I only mentioned one suite of the climate technologies, but there is a whole sphere of other technologies, such as directed at capturing carbon, which off course would be desirable to address the problem.
So, at first blush, you would think well there’s these synthetic technologies and presumably you are going to trust in sustainability, you would want them. Well, yes, but cautiously. These technologies contain a number of fairly significant risks. And I’m just going to take a couple of quotations that I think indicate a measure of these risks here. One is specifically directed towards CRISPR, which, if you only spend a little time paying attention to CRISPR what you learn pretty quickly is that it is not the precise exact cut and paste mechanism that many of its advocates would lead you to believe.
Or at least much of the press coverage on CRISPR would lead you to believe. I believe many of its advocates are much more sanguine of the problems that come with it. But one of the authors of a study that found some strange CRISPR-related events that here in 2018, we really got the wrong idea of how controllable CRISPR is. And it’s because when you make that cut in the DNA and it repairs itself, it turns out that it doesn’t just repair the place that got cut it also creates insertions, deletions, copies, changes in other parts of the genome. It was really unpredictable. It has led a lot of the CRISPR advocates to be a lot more cautious about whether this technology is ready for big time.
With climate engineering, right from the get-go, there was worry about what changing the energy flows does to precipitation. And I looked at the last couple of weeks at what the latest work was saying about precipitation and I pulled this quote up for you and I think it’s an interesting one: the worry right from the beginning was that stratospheric aerosol injections would change the monsoons. Then I though what do people think about monsoons, surely they would resolve that uncertainty a little bit and here’s two studies, one from 2019 and one from 2020 and what you find here is that not only is there a predicted change in the monsoons, but these two studies came to opposite conclusions about the direction of the change. So, clearly there is still plenty of uncertainty left about precipitation and stratospheric aerosol injections.
Now, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a lot of environmentalists have looked at these types of worries of these technologies and say, well look there isn’t that much control available of these profoundly powerful technologies as their advocates hope. Humans have neither domesticated nor control these processes, says Eileen Christ. And Jet Purdy says, okay increasing human dominance yes, but decreasing human control no.
This explains, in part, why even environmentalists acknowledge the promise of some of these synthetic age technologies, they are decidedly uncertain about them, because they’re big technologies, they’re powerful technologies and they come with big risks. Big uncertainties. Now, you might be sitting there thinking, well yes, true, all big technologies come with big risks and uncertainties and perhaps you can overtime learn about those uncertainties and eliminate them, perhaps you can refine them perhaps you can create the desirable consequences that you want.
So, perhaps one thing, one might say to these worries is, look we’ve heard these worries before, it’s what Charles Mann says it’s the debate between prophets and wizards it’s what in an older register we would have called a debate between the romantics and the enlightenment. And insofar as it goes, I think that’s a fair kind of analysis. There is definitely a million types of reluctance about technologies at play in here. But I think there’s more to it and this is where I want to start to move into different kind of conversation, discussion. Evaluating modern technology is not just about evaluating consequences. You have to look beyond the consequentialist lens.
And this was a comment in a paper from 23 years ago about genetic modification. So, it’s a very old comment. But I think it’s highly relevant to what I want to say.
Gaskell says here that irrespective of what people think about the risk of technology, often their moral doubt, what they think about at a different, moral level, not just at a risk level, but at a moral level, that can be a veto. So, what does he mean by a moral doubt or a moral level? Well, there’s a whole bunch of other lenses through which one can look at technologies and evaluate them morally. One might look at the principles of that technology, ways of transgresses, one might look at the justice consequences of a technology, what it will do in a socio-cultural reality. One might look at the character traits it displays, is it a humble technology or a hubristic one.
One might think in terms like balance and harmony. One might think about what that technology says about the human relationship to surroundings and that’s actually where I want to dig in. That’s actually where I want to make my little pivot now and start talking about rewilding. Because the relationship that technology puts you in to the surroundings needs to be the right relationship.
I’ve already said there’s a risk with these technologies. you might think oh these technologies have a certain wild aspect in them. I think you could say that.
But that’s not exactly where I want to go with this. Let me ask this different question. At the same time as this synthetic age is emerging, at the same time as the Anthropocene discussion has taken off, there has been a remarkable push in a different direction, something that looks like an opposite direction towards rewilding.
And this has been particularly large in Europe. I live in the United States, but I’m from the UK. The last few years I spent quite a bit of time in the UK and a little bit of time in the Netherlands.
And rewilding is really taking off in several European countries. Why is it taking off at the dawn of the synthetic age? Why is it taking off at the very beginning of the Anthropocene? I think this is not a coincidence. So let me talk about it a little bit here and see what you think about this. What is rewilding? Well, it’s interestingly in the Netherlands in action. It is the idea of bringing back natural processes, bringing back species that might have been removed from the landscape in order to reestablish certain ecological patterns and certain ecological measures of health.
The European center for rewilding, the epicenter of where this is going on, is Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. That’s the headquarters of rewilding Europe. And there is bunch of rewilding work going on there. You can characterize rewilding into two different ways. There are two terms I’m going to introduce here. One of them is spontaneous rewilding.
And that’s where a landscape gets rewilded spontaneously because an animal just shows up. And the wolf is the best example. On the diagram on the right, you can see is 6 years old, so it’s a little bit out of date, what we’ve seen is the wolf returning across Western Europe. Every country in Western Europe now has the wolf, except the UK.
So, this includes, the Netherlands, in the Veluwe. And also, Belgium. And I put this diagram up, because I think it is fascinating information. A wolf that had a radio call on it was tracked from Germany, left somewhere from near Berlin, crossed over the border in the Netherlands and then turned South and you can see it just heading out of the Netherlands, briefly back into Germany, came back into the Netherlands and ended up going into Belgium, finding a mate and the mate became pregnant.
Now, there’s an interesting story, that pregnant female was killed. Nobody ever found the body, but it just disappeared on the face of the map. And the male that was left alive, obviously a little disgruntled about what had happened and ended up pulling a kangaroo from someone’s backyard in Belgium.
There can’t be that many kangaroos in Belgium, but this wolf found this kangaroo, killed it and ate it. Happily, a few months later on, this male found a female and they did in fact breed and had pups together. So, the wolf is back in the Netherlands. And it is back in Belgium.
So, spontaneous rewilding. Controlled the controlling is the other term. This is different kind of rewilding where the human hand is still involved, sometimes is involved quite dramatically, where dykes are removed, landscapes are recontoured, nature is allowed to reassert itself on the landscape. Outside Nijmegen, Millingerwaard is an example, which now floods irregularly, there’s ponies, that have been brought back into that landscape. Wild cattle to exert grazing pressure, and off course bodies passing.
Another example of what is sometimes called new nature or rewilding nature or nature development. These are two types rewilding. Spontaneous or controlled type of rewilding. Now, this talk started off being about technology and now I am talking about new nature and nature development so why am I bringing this two into the conversation? It gives us an option we need to ask whether nature development or rewilding has a role in addressing some of the challenges that these Anthropocene technologies, these synthetic age technologies, are trying to address themselves. Now, a natural first reaction in here ‘well look rewilding might be quaint, but it’s really just a niche type of activity. It’s never going to solve the gigantic problems the Anthropocene presents us, like climate change.
Well, it turns out that natural solutions to climate change are not as quaint, not as niche as you might think and this paper that came out in Nature about three weeks ago. Identifying certain areas which, if you rewilded them, if you restored from their converted state, so, these are areas that are converted into agriculture or degraded, to some capacity. If you rewilded those areas and if you protected existing natural areas, didn’t degrade any areas further, you could have a quite remarkable effect on CO2 in the atmosphere.
So here are two different measures to that effect. Restoring 15% of converted land which sequesters 30% of the CO2 increase in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. Restoring 30% of converted land can sequester a carbon equivalent to nearly 50% of CO2 increase since the industrial revolution.
So, these are not small changes. These are fairly substantial changes. So, if you think about the human relations in technology and set it alongside the human relationship to rewilding you’re forced to ask yourself certain questions about which direction to go. So, on the top here is an image of the highlands of Scotland where rewilders are attempting to bring back the Caledonian forest and what you see is a forest that is starting to escape out of the valley and head up to the sides of the glens, and on the bottom here you have a technological approach to the same thing. This is carbon removal machine developed by carbon engineering, a Canadian firm.
Same goal. Goal is to sequester carbon. Different method. Different relationship to our surroundings. On the one hand, you’ve got humans placing themselves in relation to the natural world.
On the other hand, you have humans placing themselves in relation to the synthetic world. It doesn’t just stop with forest regrowth. Whales put a lot of nutrients into the ocean. What do those nutrients do? They sponsor phytoplankton growth. What do phytoplankton do? They absorb carbon out of the atmosphere. This idea of blue carbon, is the idea of oceans sequestering more carbon if those oceans return to health.
This is a sea otter. Sea otters were reintroduced to South-East Alaska about three decades ago. They’re doing extremely well.
Sea otters eat sea urchins. What do sea urchins do? Sea urchins stop kelp forests from growing. So now the sea otters are back, these sea urchins are getting preyed upon and those kelp forests are starting to survive. What do those kelp forests do? They suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Beavers help keep water on the landscape.
They help create fire breaks. They help sequester carbon by keeping vegetation growing. And it is not just mitigation that some of these species can provide. They can provide adaptation too. Beavers provide flood protection, water storage, the increase forage for cattle, One interesting thing they do is, after wild fires, so where I live, in the Mountain West, we have a problem with wild fires, and the first big rain storm after a wild fire, all the ashes end up into the creek and the creek get exceptionally high levels of phosphate in them. If you’ve got a sequence of beaver dams in that creek, the phosphate problem is mitigated substantially.
So, you get adaptation benefits with beavers as well. I think you could tell the story in a number of different ways, ways that wolves for example can trim excess populations in deer and wild boar. In the Netherlands 70% of the wild boar are shot to prevent damage on the landscape. The wolf can help there.
Insects, or bats or birds might bring relationships that might be mutually beneficial for us if bat populations or bird populations are kept healthy. Animals such as the wisent or European bison can help with climate control by browsing forests to keep those forests growing and to aid in the sequestering of carbon. So, a few examples of rewilding and I’ve set them alongside technologies which are essentially aimed towards the same goal. And I think what this can do is it can prompt for us certain questions, questions about the balance between bubbling down on technologies which bring us towards a synthetic age versus focusing on strategies like rewilding. And that pole between increasing synthesis and recovering wildness, I don’t want to present it as a zero-sum game, where you have to choose one or you have to choose the other, but I think it is relevant to imagine how much of one should occupy your efforts and how much of the other should continue to be into the conversation. So, I want to leave you with a couple questions here.
Empirically, if your problem is to sequester carbon, what is the best way to do it? Is it synthetic organism, is it climate engineering on a global scale? Or is it a natural solution, like a rewilding valley, or many more whales, sea otters and beavers? What is the right balance empirically, given the magnitude of the challenges? And then I think we should also ask ourselves what is the right balance psychologically given who we are? So, thanks for your attention. Really appreciate it and if the technology works then what’s going to happen is that this recorded presentation is going to disappear and I am going to show up live, in person, and I will be happy to take any questions. So, look forward to chatting. Thank you.