5 May 2014

#ESSAY: Beyond Limits: Terra-Enhancement

With emergence of ever more sophisticated 3D printers and the possibility of truly self-sustainable households that might emerge, the obvious criticism is that the raw materials must still originate somewhere and be supplied. Where does the “ink” for 3D printing come from? In fact, one would need to have forgotten the name of our century – the biotech century – to be asking this question. We can now say that the solution to this shortage of “ink” may be a far simpler matter than the development of the 3D printers themselves.

By analogy with human-enhancement and terra-forming, let us consider the possibility of what can be coined as “terra-enhancement”. A possibility arising from the biotech revolution, which is the defining area of scientific progress in our century, is the idea of enhancing the earth itself to sustain more resources. This seems to proceed naturally from the arguments of Ronald Bailey in Liberation Biology. The land of milk and honey may yet be cultivated, if scientists are willing to be sufficiently bold in their conquests.

If it is ethically sound to intervene and modify some biological systems to humanity’s own convenience using technology, it follows that it might be ethically sound to modify all or nearly all biological systems. Already, some simpler organisms are being metabolically altered to help tackle the energy crisis. With petroleum running shorter, it will be increasingly necessary to search for synthetic biology methods of producing the same resource, which can be refined to produce a number of vital products ranging from gasoline to lubricants and plastics. By building new organisms to make these formerly finite resources renewable, the technicians of biology are actually pioneering the possibility of redesigning or enhancing the whole natural world to make resources more accessible to everyone. However, even the biggest enthusiasts for biotech currently hold that such a development should only be explored in labs and carefully protected facilities, but they may be acting irrationally by insisting on such security. What they are doing may simply be aimed at protecting monopoly and thus profit, rather than safety. Why, after all, would it be dangerous to enhance organisms while they are still in their natural habitats?

Humans have historically been prone to errors as they try to build a better world, but this has never stopped them from experimenting before. As contended by Ronald Bailey, we have already been altering the world of biology with agriculture and breeding practices for thousands of years. It is a fact that you will be lucky if you find a single square meter of ground in Great Britain that has not been cultivated, appropriated or otherwise designated for some specific purpose by humans. It is likely that the animal and plant kingdoms will be utilized in every way possible to avert resource shortages as the population expands. To prevent the rampant consumption of our limited natural resources, it is possible to explore synthetic biology to at least make the natural world more robust to consumption during this massive harvest. If natural sources of petroleum are depleted, we will need to engineer new organisms that make the same substance available for access. This access should be allowed to take place not in a highly expensive laboratory or industrial plant, but on the land itself.  Picture this: enhanced bacteria-farmers collecting renewable petroleum from wells dug for this purpose. It seems strange, perhaps, but it is only strange because we are not accustomed to such a sight. Indeed, such an approach might be rational, because it would certainly overcome the expenses incumbent in applying biotechnology in limited plants unable to handle high demand.

What has been considered here may seem undesirable to nature-lovers, but it could present a very great practical solution to many shortages in the world. On the other hand, it could turn out to be the most dangerous idea ever considered. This article is not written in light of any kind of scientific assessment of the risks that would be involved in such an enterprise, but it will instead offer a political judgment.

The current usage of the world’s resources is grossly unfair, with the majority of the world’s population exploited and neglected. People are slaving away in laborious roles to extract what little value can be extracted from the earth. Their work is not rewarded sufficiently, because unequal exchange causes the surplus wealth to be concentrated in privileged centers of power and wealth. One way to judge in favor of “terra-enhancement” – the biological enhancement of the earth itself towards an industrious environment – is to admit that such an activity would serve the interests of the greatest number. Conversely, those who will insist on disproportionately entertaining the risks of such a project are merely offering a judgment in the name of the secure and comfortable minority. In the interests of the greatest number, adapting the world to humanity’s specifications to the negation of all risk is justified.

While the idea of terra-enhancement might be shunned and never gain traction as an actual proposed enterprise in some sanitized lecture theater, it is still inevitable in some ways. Already, enhanced organisms are on the loose in the case of Monsanto’s genetically-modified crops. While these are not actual synthetic organisms, it is not unreasonable for us to anticipate that synthetic organisms will eventually be on the loose and will interact with natural organisms. Rather than seeing this in some apocalyptic sense and failing to consider the good points, as Michael Crichton’s works perhaps have encouraged, this liberation of human-crafted organisms into the wild is no more radical than anything humans have already achieved in the past.

For better or for worse, the human footprint in the world’s ecology is deepening, so the idea of preserving the natural world as something pure and untainted by human activity is far too late. It is not only unrealistic, but it also promotes injustice and oppression because it belongs to the same kind of illegitimate naturalistic thinking that prohibited so-called miscegenation. The same obsession with ordained purity is evident in the archaic thinking that holds we must preserve the world in its natural form, and it is a hallmark of the thinking of the privileged few who see themselves as special. This is not the thinking of the desperate and wretched of the earth, but the thinking of the people who have made the determination that they have an extraordinary lot to lose.

By Harry J. Bentham - More articles by Harry J. Bentham

Originally published on September 11 2014 in h+ Magazine

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