Koko and I went walking with my former neighbor Andy this morning, along the mountain trail made slicker than snot by the same light rain that drifted through the pastures and turned the mountains into ghost peaks and got Koko dirty enough that a bath was the first order of business upon returning home.
As we walked and snacked on guava, Andy I and got to talking about the Flunk Furlough Fridays rally that I wrote about for The Hawaii Independent and how even with cutting state workers and the school year, it’s still not enough to balance the budget.
As Andy noted, things won’t get better here until they start getting better elsewhere, which supposedly is happening as people slowly start spending money again.
But that will just mark the start of another cycle, I argued, and sooner or later we’ll end up right back here again, because the spend-spend approach is unsustainable and we still have all those issues related to oil and climate change to deal with.
That’s one thing about studying history, observed Andy, a retired KCC history professor. You see that throughout time, whenever humans encountered something that they thought would be the end, they figured out a way around it.
It seems we’re at that point right now with the rapidly expanding field of synthetic biology. Many of the scientists involved in it are driven by a hubris that is well-stated in The New Yorker article that quotes Jay Keasling, a professor of biochemical engineering at UC-Berkeley — and now CEO of the Energy Department’s new Joint BioEnergy Institute — as saying:
“We have got to the point in human history where we simply do not have to accept what nature has given us.”
That's right. We still don’t understand exactly how nature works, but we’re already thinking we can dispense with it and "liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution."
The scientists who are all gung ho for what MIT biological engineering professor Drew Endy calls “the coolest platform that science has ever produced” don’t seem to see the irony in creating synthetic biological diversity even as we continue to live in ways that is destroying natural biodiversity.
Meanwhile, the old exploitation mindset dominates the new science. With no new frontiers on Earth left to exploit, scientists are instead engaging in biological colonialism in which they create or alter organisms to do their bidding and produce wealth, in the form of drugs and industrial compounds.
Nor do they seem to have any qualms about abandoning the concept that life has any inherent value as they mix and match synthetic and natural DNA in any order they desire to create living organisms that will become the latest passing fads that are inevitably tossed aside. As theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson predicted:
”Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.”
Biotech games, played by children “down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds,” could produce entirely new species—as a lark. “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous,” Dyson wrote. “Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.”
But is anyone keeping on top of a field that even the scientists admit is growing so fast that predictions, much less contemplation, can’t keep up? No. As Endy noted:
“We are surfing an exponential now, and, even for people who pay attention, surfing an exponential is a really tricky thing to do. And when the exponential you are surfing has the capacity to impact the world in such a fundamental way, in ways we have never before considered, how do you even talk about that?”
According to The New Yorker article, it was talked about, once, back in 1975, when the world’s scientists got together to discuss the challenges posed by this new science:
They focussed primarily on laboratory and environmental safety, and concluded that the field required little regulation. (There was no real discussion of deliberate abuse—at the time, there didn’t seem to be any need.)
Now, even the Department of Homeland Security is in the dark about what’s happening with synthetic biology, which has serious terroristic implications. As Endy said:
“They want to know how far is this really going to go.”
So when is the public debate going to begin? Right now all the talk is about producing drugs that will halt the spread of malaria and new organisms that will eat the carbon in the atmosphere, ostensibly allowing us to consume and pollute without a care in the world. Endy summarized the view of many scientists in his field:
”The potential is great enough, I believe, to convince people it’s worth the risk.”
But those who have been following the debate over genetically engineered food know that the same arguments, the same lofty ideals helped launch that industry. It was supposed to feed the world, remember? Instead, we’ve found that its achievements are far less glorious than promised, and its threats, including inadvertent contamination and the displacement of sustainable agricultural practices, have not been resolved.
Other issues, like the impact on human and environmental health, are only beginning to be addressed, decades after these organisms have been released into the wild and fed to people and animals.
There’s also the question, which the New Yorker touches upon, of just who will control this technology. As Endy again observed:
”It’s a question of money. If somebody wants to pay for it, then it will get done.”
As we’ve seen with GE crops, the chemical industry is the prime benefactor. Now it’s looking like the pharmaceutical and energy companies will be the ones to profit from this latest foray into tinkering with the building blocks of life.
Meanwhile, in laboratories around the world, the experiments continue, out of sight and mind of the general public. According to Jim Thomas, a researcher with ETC Group, a technology watchdog based in Canada, there has been little discussion of the ethical and cultural implications of altering nature so fundamentally.
“Scientists are making strands of DNA that have never existed,” Thomas said. “So there is nothing to compare them to. There are no agreed mechanisms for safety, no policies.”
Some of us know what the scientists know, which is that there’s still so much important stuff that we don’t know about how all these processes work. But caught up in the thrill of scientific discovery, they’re not about to pull back or put on the brakes, even though everything is potentially at risk.
“We are talking about things that have never been done before,” Endy said. “If the society that powered this technology collapses in some way, we would go extinct pretty quickly. You wouldn’t have a chance to revert back to the farm or to the pre-farm. We would just be gone.”
And when you come right down to it, maybe that’s what’s supposed to happen to a species that has for too long been insistent upon mastering nature by destroying it.