A Small Solution for a Big Problem?

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.)

Other ideas that they consider range from the notion that we could use biotechnology to make people more predisposed to socially solidaristic behaviour – they would then be more likely to adopt the interests of others, and future generations, as their own, and so be more likely to avoid behaviours believed to contribute to environmental catastrophe – to the possibility that we might introduce a mild intolerance of red meat into the population.  This would help combat climate change because a carnivorous diet is massively environmentally damaging: woodland is a carbon sink, and so felling it to make way for grazing releases CO­2 into the atmosphere and, at the same time, reduces the rate at which its scrubbed out.  Moreover – and there’s no delicate way to put this – cows fart.  Methane is itself a greenhouse gas, and it degrades to produce CO­2 and water vapour, themselves potent greenhouse gasses.  Making people less likely to eat meat would remove demand; this would mean fewer cattle farms (if any); and this would only be a good thing environmentally.

While its easy enough to laugh at some of the suggestions, they do belie a serious point: climate change is a problem, and we don’t have a solution.  Market fixes don’t seem to do the trick; geo-engineering might, but it is risky, and at least forms might be very risky.  Human engineering might be risky as well; but if we’re seriously considering about geo-engineering, then, pari passu, we should probably be thinking about human engineering too.

It might be objected that the engineered children of the future would be harmed by our tinkering; but this is not a given.  For example, a reduction of 20cms in average height would not indicate a fall in average welfare.  It’s possible that being intolerant of red meat is a harmed state – the world’s vegetarians could be carnivores if they wanted without becoming ill, whereas this possibility would not be open to the genetically intolerant; but the wrong of causing harm may be reduced if that harm is for good reason – and averting catastrophe might be a good reason.  Besides: being born into the world of increased drought, famine and hurricane that global warming may give us is, by the same token, no less of a harmed state.

Three cheers for the three authors’ vision.  Pondering outlandish possibilities might just lead to a solution to environmental problems.  But I do have a couple of problems with the paper.  One has to do with the claim that, though some may find engineering solutions unacceptable, this is not a reason not to make such solutions available at all.  The problem with this is that it’s not a question of availability, and nor should it be.  To say that something is available is to say that people can take or leave it; but if climate change really is a problem of the magnitude that responsible experts think, then allowing people the option to leave it may be deeply irresponsible.  If the problem really is that great, some mandate might be in order for the sake of everyone.  (The paper’s authors do not want to reduce liberty; but is liberty really sacrosanct?)  Moreover, Liao et al admit that – for example – the short might suffer certain sexual and career disadvantages in comparison to the tall.  But if that’s true, a parent-to-be who opted for a shorter child in a world where others do not take the option would be embarking on a course of action that would put that child at a disadvantage – and this might be out-and-out bad parenting.  If everyone opts for shorter children, the disadvantage would vanish – but now we’re back to mandates.

Most importantly, technological solutions mightn’t be the best fix for environmental problems anyway.  Environmental degradation is a problem about external costs: it reflects the fact that the market price we pay for goods does not reflect their “true” cost.  The market pays no heed to cow-farts.  This is why market solutions to climate change are doomed to struggle.  But there is a way around this, and it’s to abandon or radically rework the market, so that the price to the consumer accurately reflects the external costs of a good.  This would be a radical move; and making a non-market economy efficient and wealthy would be a difficult task.

But engineering our kids to eat less beef is hardly a doddle, is it?

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