Engineering and Environment
Most people would perhaps not imagine environmental ethics (EE) to belong in a module on technology and ethics -possibly by an approximate reference of environment meant as an extension of nature, with this latter term seen as antithetical to technology. Yet, this would be a misplaced assumption, and we should look at how environmental ethics is deeply connected with advancement in biotechnology and what kind of problem this connection poses.
To begin with, we should look the broader definition of EE, to then move to analyse how, an increased sensitivity towards an awareness of the limits that we should pose to ourselves if we are not to damage the ecosystem beyond a point of no return.
Hence, we will consider what current argument seeking life extension (or even immortality) would imply, what genetic engineering allows us to do to both humans and nonhumans (animals and plants) alike and in which way we could use engineering more broadly to help us facing global warming.
EE is concerned with the relationship of human beings with the natural environment. As a result of the advancements in industry and technology, population growth and economic expansion, since the 1960s the impact of human beings on nature became gradually more the focus of studies due to ethical concerns towards wildlife.
The drastic increase of human population in the last three decades, pollution and the depletion of natural resources have been added worries in regards to the preservation of the earth for future generations, the loss of wilderness and issues of public health, yet we could say that EE evolves around two main questions: what duties towards the environment do we as human beings, and why do we have them? In answering the latter one (in a sense, the most crucial one), other more philosophical sub-questions emerge, such as: would it make sense to care about the environment if there were no human beings left?
Without entering the deep dimension that an attempt to answer this question would require, we must nonetheless point out that a negative response would stress our (surely Western but not only) anthropocentric approach towards nature.
For some, this attitude is a problem. Namely, the fact that in some tradition human beings are the only ones granted with a moral standing, has been seen by some environmentalists as a structural problem that has not helped us becoming sensitive enough towards animals and plants -contributing in making us consider nature as something external, thus exploitable and worth of true care.
Whether we use anthropocentric or non-anthropocentric reasoning to determine what can be considered to be ethical behaviour in relation to the environment, it would appear as if we have reached a stage where we need to act against pollution and global warming anyhow. However, our view could instead shape our evaluation of other ways to implement technology in (broadly speaking) environmental issues.
Genetic engineering, also called genetic modification, is the application of techniques from biotechnology and bioengineering to modify the genetic makeup of an organism. Instead, by transgenics we mean a specific process of genetic engineering that aims at removing genetic material from one species of animal or plant (it is still largely considered unethical to even conceive the idea of applying this technique to humans) and add it to a different species previously deprived of such a characteristic.
Certainly transgenics and genetic engineering have enormous potential -both commercial and scientific. Hence, though worth of attention, care should abound in assessing the limits of the implementation of these techniques, as this form of engineering carries with itself some specific ethical considerations that we need to address through some examples.
GMOs and the environment
Genetic engineering has already been a reality that most of the readers will be familiar with under the name of “GMOs” (Genetically Modified Organisms). Although inclusive of a larger group of GMOs, we usually refer to this group of organisms as fruit and vegetable that have been modified (although the most accurate nomenclature should be GM food), but only by removing some “weak” characteristics (e.g. a tendency to become ripe too fast) rather than including new genetic variables from other species (e.g. a fluorescent tomato might be useful to find in the dark but it is still not worth the risk of being tasted according to the scientific community). More recently, GM food have also included insertion of synthetic genes, but even a less invasive way of altering food does not escape various questions. For example, should these “new” versions of food have priority over old ones?
GM food such as crop for instance, are extremely aggressive towards “old fashion” cousin: in a relative short time, growing two types of crop next to each other will show that the GM one will attack the “biological” version, creating at least two problems. On the one hand, farmers willing to preserve the biological products will have to be guaranteed a sufficiently large “buffer zone”, but where would this land be? On whose field? On the other hand, this awareness should make us question more broadly what are the risks related to GMO: will we eventually lose all non-GM food?
Transgenics as chimeras
The combination of DNA of two different species, could also result into chimeras of course. Though not yet accepted by most of the scientific community -and politico-legal systems- chimeras have been part Western culture (as well as other cultures with other names but same features) for a long.
As a sort of extension of the Posthumanist ideology we referred to in the chapter on enhancement, human-animal chimeras are seen by their supporters as a way forward for humanity, as a possibility to enhance our evolution with genetic traits the we do not (yet?) possess.
Should this scenario become reality though, some questions concerning the outcomes would become apparent. For example, chimeras could also be “mostly” animal but with human DNA, should this new non-fully-human animals be granted special protections and rights? Could we eat these chimeras? In which way will this affect our “scale of priority” in assessing what life is more worthy?
A sort of functional chimeras could be represented by those individuals using organs or living tissues from other animals. This type of operation is called xenotransplantation, and -due to the shortage of human hearts and kidneys for transplants- it is gained popularity as a feasible way to contrast the shortage of organs we face regularly.
Among other animals, pigs have been found to be particularly ideal as candidate “donors” as they have a very similar physiology (recent advancements in gene editing techniques appear to have increased the level of compatibility even further) and organ size.
Hence, this might seem as an uncontroversial issue perhaps, but some question can be raised here too. Should we prioritize our anthropocentrism (kill a young pig to save an elderly human being)? Also important is the social impact that the increased (endless?) availability of organs would entail: will people act less wisely (e.g. binge drinking) on the assumption that their organs are easily replaceable and therefore in need of less care?
Three Parents Baby
Another technique that has recently been accepted in Mexico and the UK is that Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (MRT). As MRT requires the fusion of the DNA of three parents (although of a minimal percentage in the case of one of the two female genitors) into an embryo, it has been often -perhaps questionably- referred to as the way to a “three parents baby”.
The energy needed by any cell in organism to function is provided by structures contained in the fluid surrounding the cell nucleus. Cells can have different numbers of mitochondria, but each will contain specific sequences of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), that comprises of 37 genes -each of which purely aimed at maintaining mitochondrial function. In fact, more than 99% of the DNA of a cell is encountered in the nucleus. Nuclear DNA (nDNA) contains over 20,000 genes, with at least 1,100 of them playing an active role in mitochondria. Mitochondrial diseases (most of which extremely serious and life-threatening) can be caused when mutations occur in either mtDNA or nDNA. However, while nDNA is inherited from both parents, mtDNA is only heritable from the female genitor, therefore any kind of mutation present in this woman’s mtDNA might be inherited by her child. Hence, it is understandable if a woman suffering from mitochondrial disease –or discovers to be a carrier- would want to remove her mtDNA if possible.
Yet, questions abound in this scenario as well. Some concerning the social construction of parenting, others the limits and obligations towards having a genetic link with our offspring (in the face of adoption for example, that is drastically diminishing in rich countries),
The possibility to intervene directly on our cells, DNA and hence “adjust” our body at a micro level unthinkable until just a few decades back, as opened the door to opportunities to tackle “problems” such as that of aging. Aubrey de Grey for example, defines death as an illness and himself as a “crusader against aging”.
Although the idea of extending our lives (perhaps even endlessly) might appear tempting to many at first glance, plenty are the problems related to this way of conceptualizing aging and death.
First of all, in a more existential sense, this view could lead us to take value away from considering some aspects of life assessed as particularly important because they are finite. Shifting our approach on the matter would have a larger impact on how and what we consider worth of pursuing in life.
Secondly, such an approach would have a huge impact on the issue of overpopulation that seems culpably undervalued. Should we all live longer (say 300 years old for example), how much bigger would our carbon footprint be? And more crucially perhaps, who will decide who is going to access this “extended life”, will it be fairly spread across the globe or will we face situations where wealthy individuals will live five, six times as much as other poorer fellow human beings?
Aside from some sporadic exceptions, global warming has been one of the most discussed issues by the international community in the past two decades, and with that the prospect of greenhouse gas emissions reduction. However, as too often is the case when it comes down to coordinating human beings across the globe towards a praiseworthy course of action, the plan has not been successful in its implementation -and we are now facing a situation that appears to be bound to only get worse.
In this state of affairs, the idea of geoengineering began to gain visibility and approval in the last years, possibly also because of impressive advancements in other fields (e.g. medicine) thanks to technology -hence providing hope that technology could be the solution in this context as well.
Scientists have started to really engage with this vision and we now have many enterprises that are actively looking into this option, that also encompasses “green energy” and “green economy”. From sponges that can clean the sea from oil to solar panels with increased power, there are more and more ways to limit our impact on this planet and make our carbon footprints smaller.
Yet, such examples are not sufficient for more drastic changes and that is geoengineering really is about. Let us focus on two specific techniques of this sort.
The first technique we should look at is the one that is most widely discussed among the circles of geoengineers and that is considered to have the best chances of success if implemented: the technology of spraying sulphate particles into the stratosphere -also known under the definition of “Solar Radiation Management” (SRM).
Here the idea is the following: by spraying sulphates particles into the stratosphere, we ensure that those very particles will reflect part of the solar radiation back into space, allowing for our atmosphere to cool off a little.
The other geoengineering technology that we should take into account is the so called “Carbon Dioxide Removal” (CDR).
This technique aims instead at removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through a number of means (from direct air capture to ocean fertilization by growing specific seaweeds). It should be stressed that the big difference between CDR and other forms of prevention against pollution (such as removing CO2 from the emissions) is that here we can tackle also the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere.
Thanks to this innovation, we can conclude this short journey on two positive notes: not only links between technology and responsible, ethical approaches abound and are necessary, but we might also have started to understand how to use those to limit ourselves instead of constantly chasing more even when not needed.
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Pasztor, J. & S. Sy. 2016. The Ethics and Governance of Geoengineering Ethics Matter