28 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington
BioNews asked me to write something about Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg and Rebacca Roache’s paper on engineering humanity to minimise global warming. I’d been meaning to for a while, so this was the prod I needed. Anyway: my take on their paper is here; but I thought I’d also reproduce it on this blog. What follows is the version I submitted; it’s substantially the same, save for a few tweaks that BioNews made to conform with their house style. (They didn’t like the Latin…) I am massively grateful to the student who made the point about small people taking more steps to get anywhere. I’d also like to think that the idea of making people smaller led me to Lilliput, thence to Gulliver, thence to the voyage to Laputa. It didn’t. I’m not that clever. Laputa made its appearance quite unbidden. But – hey, it works.
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There’s a part of Gulliver’s Travels where Gulliver visits the grand Academy at Lagado, wherein one of the academicians is trying to derive sunbeams from cucumbers. It’s tempting to wonder at first glance whether there’s something of the Academy to Liao, Sandberg and Roache’s proposed strategy for combating climate change: that we could engineer humanity to be less of a drain on the environment. Their paper, “Human Engineering and Climate Change” (forthcoming in Ethics, Policy and the Environment, with a pre-publication version here), has already attracted a reasonable amount of media interest, and it’s not hard to see why. The headline proposal is that we could engineer people to be smaller, on the grounds that smaller people require less food and fuel: a population that is smaller on the whole would have less environmental impact. (A small part of this – and I’m genuinely fond of this idea – is that heavier people wear out shoes and carpets more quickly, so are more resource-hungry. On the other hand, as one of my students has pointed out, short people take more steps to get across the room; the carpet might actually suffer more. Moreover, a small person has a greater surface-to-volume ratio, and so would lose heat more quickly, possibly requiring more central heating and more food.) more…