A different solution to environmental problems

By Eric Mathison

When historians look back on the early years of the 21st century, it’s likely that they will conclude that humanity waited too long to address environmental problems. They will also point out, as we are already aware now, the longer the Earth’s degradation continues, the more extreme the solution will have to be.

In February, I wrote an article on cognitive enhancement. I argued that compared to drug use in athletics, in academics there is reason to promote the development and use of drugs that make us smarter. My case was romantic and pragmatic: smarter people will not only cure diseases and improve quality of life, they will increase what we learn about our place in space and time, which adds value to life of a different kind.

Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache look at engineering of a different type, and for a different purpose, in a paper published in Ethics, Policy and the Environment. Faced with the prospect that geoengineering (using chemicals and other means to alter the environment on a wide scale) and human will-power will potentially be insufficient to stop climate change, the authors look at engineering humans to save the planet.

The authors assess the risks and benefits of human engineering — changing humans to be less environmentally destructive rather than changing the environment itself — and their primary project is to evaluate just how effective human engineering can be. Both cognitive enhancement and human engineering involve changing people biomechanically. Indeed, cognitive enhancement is best understood as a subset of human engineering.

Liao et al. begin with behavioural changes like “encouraging people to drive less and recycle more.” They note that such tactics are unlikely to do enough. I know I should drive less, but I find driving really helpful. The authors are concerned with voluntary activities only, so they focus on ways that we can choose to increase the likelihood that we’ll be able to succeed at protecting the environment.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that livestock farming causes 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. So, reducing meat consumption would considerably reduce environment degradation. But the problem is that like driving cars, people enjoy eating meat. Lots of people attempt to reduce their meat consumption, but many fail because they are “weak-willed.”

In principle, it’s possible to create a patch or a pill that, when applied, causes intolerance similar to lactose intolerance. If such a product were created, weak-willed people trying to stop eating meat could use the product and would develop a negative association with eating meat.

Another possible type of human engineering is using a method called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis already in use. pgd currently allows embryologists to screen for a variety of conditions when they implant embryos, but it’s possible to use pgd to implant embryos that will turn into humans who are smaller than they are presently. Smaller humans benefit the environment by consuming less food, less material for clothing and less fuel for transport.

Taking a pill with the goal of quitting meat-eating sounds like a strange cure to a problem like environmental destruction. But are there reasons for prohibiting such pharmaceutical development? Because Liao, Sandberg and Roache are only concerned with voluntary solutions, we can put aside worries about putting nausea-inducing chemicals into our drinking supply.

What types of ethical questions are raised by such solutions? It’s hard to think of problems with using a patch to quit meat-eating without having similar qualms with a patch for quitting smoking. Similarly, if it were possible to create a pill that would make us want to drive less or bicycle more, should we object?

Many people have the intuition that using a pill takes away from the achievement. Mountaineers rank climbing Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen as a much greater accomplishment than using oxygen bottles. Perhaps effort is the same with saving the planet — perhaps effort is good regardless of the outcome.

The risk, of course, is that we might be unable to save the planet if we don’t use human engineering, and if that ends up being the case, all the effort in the world will be pointless. Effort supporters should be willing to be let down a little for the sake of a much greater goal. After all, even with supplemental oxygen climbing Everest is still an accomplishment.

One difference between a pill (to quit meat-eating or to improve cognition) and other techniques is that the latter can be permanent, while the former is reversible. If we end up capable of engineering humans with cat-like eyes so that we can see better in the dark and use less energy (one of the scenarios the paper considers), the off taste such possibility leaves in our mouths might be the lack of reversibility once a person gets cat-like eyes.

To cross the reversibility threshold means that we have permanently changed that person’s life — permanence is why we take tattoos and sterilization so seriously. It might be that what’s underlying our revulsion at any kind of human engineering — for those of us who have such revulsion — is the worry that we’ll one day realize we have gone too far.

This isn’t, of course, the whole story. Many find reversible engineering like cognitive enhancement worrying for different, often hard to articulate reasons, but reversibility might be part of the picture. And even if procedures can be reversed, it doesn’t mean that it’s permissible because of that fact. The procedure itself might be painful, expensive or in some other way unwanted.

We can’t deny, however, that such procedures are on the horizon. In the end, we will be faced with a decision, and whether that decision means putting giant mirrors in space to reflect the sun or having physically smaller people, at some point something will need to be done.