How Engineering the Human Body Could Combat Climate Change
From drugs to help you avoid eating meat to genetically engineered cat-like eyes to reduce the need for lighting, a wild interview about changes humans could make to themselves to battle climate change.
From drugs to help you avoid eating meat to genetically engineered cat-like eyes to reduce the need for lighting, a wild interview about changes humans could make to themselves to battle climate change.
The threat of global climate change has prompted us to redesign many of our technologies to be more energy-efficient. From lightweight hybrid cars to long-lasting LED's, engineers have made well-known products smaller and less wasteful. But tinkering with our tools will only get us so far, because however smart our technologies become, the human body has its own ecological footprint, and there are more of them than ever before. So, some scholars are asking, what if we could engineer human beings to be more energy efficient? A new paper to be published in Ethics, Policy & Environment proposes a series of biomedical modifications that could help humans, themselves, consume less.
Some of the proposed modifications are simple and noninvasive. For instance, many people wish to give up meat for ecological reasons, but lack the willpower to do so on their own. The paper suggests that such individuals could take a pill that would trigger mild nausea upon the ingestion of meat, which would then lead to a lasting aversion to meat-eating. Other techniques are bound to be more controversial. For instance, the paper suggests that parents could make use of genetic engineering or hormone therapy in order to birth smaller, less resource-intensive children.
The lead author of the paper, S. Matthew Liao, is a professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University. Liao is keen to point out that the paper is not meant to advocate for any particular human modifications, or even human engineering generally; rather, it is only meant to introduce human engineering as one possible, partial solution to climate change. He also emphasized the voluntary nature of the proposed modifications. Neither Liao or his co-authors, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache of Oxford, approve of any coercive human engineering; they favor modifications borne of individual choices, not technocratic mandates. What follows is my conversation with Liao about why he thinks human engineering could be the most ethical and effective solution to global climate change.
Judging from your paper, you seem skeptical about current efforts to mitigate climate change, including market based solutions like carbon pricing or even more radical solutions like geoengineering. Why is that?
Liao: It's not that I don't think that some of those solutions could succeed under the right conditions; it's more that I think that they might turn out to be inadequate, or in some cases too risky. Take market solutions---so far it seems like it's pretty difficult to orchestrate workable international agreements to affect international emissions trading. The Kyoto Protocol, for instance, has not produced demonstrable reductions in global emissions, and in any event demand for petrol and for electricity seems to be pretty inelastic. And so it's questionable whether carbon taxation alone can deliver the kind of reduction that we need to really take on climate change.
With respect to geoengineering, the worry is that it's just too risky---many of the technologies involved have never been attempted on such a large scale, and so you have to worry that by implementing these techniques we could endanger ourselves or future generations. For example it's been suggested that we could alter the reflectivity of the atmosphere using sulfate aerosol so as to turn away a portion of the sun's heat, but it could be that doing so would destroy the ozone layer, which would obviously be problematic. Others have argued that we ought to fertilize the ocean with iron, because doing so might encourage a massive bloom of carbon-sucking plankton. But doing so could potentially render the ocean inhospitable to fish, which would obviously also be quite problematic.
One human engineering strategy you mention is a kind of pharmacologically induced meat intolerance. You suggest that humans could be given meat alongside a medication that triggers extreme nausea, which would then cause a long-lasting aversion to meat eating. Why is it that you expect this could have such a dramatic impact on climate change?
Liao: There is a widely cited U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization report that estimates that 18% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and CO2 equivalents come from livestock farming, which is actually a much higher share than from transportation. More recently it's been suggested that livestock farming accounts for as much as 51% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. And then there are estimates that as much as 9% of human emissions occur as a result of deforestation for the expansion of pastures for livestock. And that doesn't even to take into account the emissions that arise from manure, or from the livestock directly. Since a large portion of these cows and other grazing animals are raised for consumption, it seems obvious that reducing the consumption of these meats could have considerable environmental benefits.
Even a minor 21% to 24% reduction in the consumption of these kinds of meats could result in the same reduction in emissions as the total localization of food production, which would mean reducing "food miles" to zero. And, I think it's important to note that it wouldn't necessarily need to be a pill. We have also toyed around with the idea of a patch that might stimulate the immune system to reject common bovine proteins, which could lead to a similar kind of lasting aversion to meat products.
Your paper also discusses the use of human engineering to make humans smaller. Why would this be a powerful technique in the fight against climate change?
Liao: Well one of the things that we noticed is that human ecological footprints are partly correlated with size. Each kilogram of body mass requires a certain amount of food and nutrients and so, other things being equal, the larger person is the more food and energy they are going to soak up over the course of a lifetime. There are also other, less obvious ways in which larger people consume more energy than smaller people---for example a car uses more fuel per mile to carry a heavier person, more fabric is needed to clothe larger people, and heavier people wear out shoes, carpets and furniture at a quicker rate than lighter people, and so on.
And so size reduction could be one way to reduce a person's ecological footprint. For instance if you reduce the average U.S. height by just 15cm, you could reduce body mass by 21% for men and 25% for women, with a corresponding reduction in metabolic rates by some 15% to 18%, because less tissue means lower energy and nutrient needs.
S. Matthew Liao is a professor of philosophy and bioethics at N.Y.U.
What are the various ways humans could be engineered to be smaller?
Liao: There are a couple of ways, actually. You might try to do it through a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which is already used in IVF settings in fertility clinics today. In this scenario you'd be looking to select which embryos to implant based on height.
Another way to affect height is to use a hormone treatment to trigger the closing of the epiphyseal plate earlier than normal---this sometimes happens by accident in vitamin overdose cases. In fact hormone treatments are already used for height reduction in overly tall children. A final way you could do this is by way of gene imprinting, by influencing the competition between maternal and paternal genes, where there is a height disparity between the mother and father. You could have drugs that reduce or increase the expression of paternal or maternal genes in order to affect birth height.
Isn't it ethically problematic to allow parents to make these kinds of irreversible choices for their children?
Liao: That's a really good question. First, I think it's useful to distinguish between selection and modification. With selection you don't really have the issue of irreversible choices because the embryo selected can't complain that she could have been otherwise---if the parents had selected a different embryo, she wouldn't have existed at all. In the case of modification, that issue could certainly arise, but even then I think it's important to step back and ask why we are looking at these solutions in the first place. The reason we are even considering these solutions is to prevent climate change, which is a really serious problem, and which might affect the well being of millions of people including the child. And so in that context, if on balance human engineering is going to promote the well being of that particular child, then you might be able to justify the solution to the child.
In the paper you also discuss the pharmacological enhancement of empathy and altruism, because empathy and altruism tend to be highly correlated with positive attitudes toward the environment. To me this one seems like it might be the most troubling. Isn't it more problematic to do biological tinkering to produce a belief, rather than simply engineering humans so that they are better equipped to implement their beliefs?
Liao: Yes. It's certainly ethically problematic to insert beliefs into people, and so we want to be clear that's not something we're proposing. What we have in mind has more to do with weakness of will. For example, I might know that I ought to send a check to Oxfam, but because of a weakness of will I might never write that check. But if we increase my empathetic capacities with drugs, then maybe I might overcome my weakness of will and write that check.
Let me push you a little on that. The Oxfam example is a clean fit for your argument, but might it be the case that drugs of this sort---empathy increasing drugs---would cause people to generate entirely new beliefs, rather than simply mitigating issues having to do with weakness of will.
Liao: It's conceivable, yes, and to be clear, if that's the case that wouldn't be something that we would advocate. We are interested only in voluntary modifications, and we certainly don't want to implant beliefs into anyone. But even then, those beliefs might still be considered yours if they arise from a kind of ramping up of your existing capacities, and so perhaps that could obviate that problem.
I suppose there are already drugs that might be belief-inducing. You might think that antidepressants induce new beliefs about self worth, or about the personalities of other people.
Liao: That's right. That's a great analogy. If you're very pessimistic about the world, and you take a drug that will cause you to develop a more positive outlook, then in some sense those are beliefs that you already desired. In a case like that the ethical issues might fall away on account of the fact that you previously desired those beliefs, and that you're aware of the consequences of taking the drug. We would want as much transparency as possible with these technologies so that people are aware of the consequences of using them, and that includes empathy-increasing drugs, which, if they had the kind of effects you're suggesting, would require warning labels at a minimum.
In your paper you suggest that some human engineering solutions may actually be liberty enhancing. How so?
Liao: That's right. It's been suggested that, given the seriousness of climate change, we ought to adopt something like China's one child policy. There was a group of doctors in Britain who recently advocated a two-child maximum. But at the end of the day those are crude prescriptions---what we really care about is some kind of fixed allocation of greenhouse gas emissions per family. If that's the case, given certain fixed allocations of greenhouse gas emissions, human engineering could give families the choice between two medium sized children, or three small sized children. From our perspective that would be more liberty enhancing than a policy that says "you can only have one or two children." A family might want a really good basketball player, and so they could use human engineering to have one really large child.
"We figured that if everyone had cat eyes, you wouldn't need so much lighting"
I have to push back a little on that point. It seems like those human engineering techniques would be liberty enhancing only in a context in which there were some severe liberty constraint that doesn't exist now. Is there another way these techniques might be liberty enhancing?
Liao: Well, again, I would return to the weakness of will consideration. If you crave steak, and that craving prevents you from making a decision you otherwise want to make, in some sense your inability to control yourself is a limit on the will, or a limit on your liberty. A meat patch would allow you to truly decide whether you want to have that steak or not, and that could be quite liberty enhancing.
Your paper focuses on human engineering techniques that are relatively safe. Did your research lead you to any interesting techniques that were unsafe?
Liao: Actually, yes, although unfortunately the science is not there yet---we looked into cat eyes, the technique of giving humans cat eyes or of making their eyes more catlike. The reason is, cat eyes see nearly as well as human eyes during the day, but much better at night. We figured that if everyone had cat eyes, you wouldn't need so much lighting, and so you could reduce global energy usage considerably. Maybe even by a shocking percentage.
But, again, this isn't something we know how to do yet, although it's possible there might be some way to do it with genetics---there are some primates with eyes that are very similar to cat eyes, and so possibly we could study those primates and figure out which genes are responsible for that trait, and then hopefully activate those genes in humans. But that's very speculative and requires a lot of research.
Some critics are likely to see these techniques as inappropriately interfering with human nature. What do you say to them?
Liao: Well, first, I would say that the view that you shouldn't interfere with human nature at all is too strong. For instance, giving women epidurals when they're giving birth is in some sense interfering with human nature, but it's generally welcomed. Also, when people worry about interfering with human nature, they generally worry about interfering for the wrong reasons. But because we believe that mitigating climate change can help a great many people, we see human engineering in this context as an ethical endeavor, and so that objection may not apply.
In your paper you argue that some of the initial opposition to these solutions is rooted in a particular kind of status quo bias. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Liao: Sure. Take having smaller children for example. People might resist this idea because they might think that there is some sort of optimal---the average height in a given society, say. But, I think it's worth remembering how fluid human traits like height are. A hundred years ago people were much shorter on average, and there was nothing wrong with them medically. And so, if people are resistant to the idea of engineering humans to be smaller because of some notion of an optimal height, they might be operating from a status quo bias.
Taking a look at this from the perspective of deep ecology---is there something to be said for the idea that because climate change is human caused, that humans ought to be the ones that change to mitigate it---that somehow we ought to bear the cost to fix this?
Liao: That was actually one of the ideas that motivated us to write this paper, the idea that we caused anthropogenic climate change, and so perhaps we ought to bear some of the costs required to address it. But having said that, we also want to make this attractive to people---we don't want this to be a zero sum game where it's just a cost that we have to bear. Many of the solutions we propose might actually be quite desirable to people, particularly the meat patch. I recently gave a talk about this paper at Yale and there was a man in the audience who worked for a pharmaceuticals company; he seemed to think there might be a huge market for modifications like this.
Last weekend’s security conference in Munich was a stark reminder that this class has nothing of substance to offer a world in turmoil.
Eighty years ago in Munich, French and British politicians handed Czechoslovakia over to Adolf Hitler’s carving knife. Twenty-five years later, a German veteran of the ensuing war founded a conference in Munich that, in its own way, was designed to ensure that such a mistake would never reoccur. That veteran, Ewald von Kleist, came from a distinguished Prussian military family; he served as an officer in the Wehrmacht, had opposed Hitler, and participated actively in a plot against him. He was sent to a prison camp, and was lucky to have escaped execution.
The conference was originally called Wehrkunde (loosely translated as “military affairs”), and since 1963 it has met almost every year in Munich. The picturesque old Bayerischer Hof Hotel, where the event is held each year, becomes a seething mass of nearly 700 politicians, businesspeople, pundits, and officers, all eyed coldly and shoved out of the way by squads of contemptuous bodyguards. Attendees not eminent enough to have reserved seating often cannot elbow their way to the policy wonk mosh pit that the conference floor morphs into. The bathrooms can barely handle their traffic, and the hotel takes on the moist warmth and stale air of an aging high school gym. But still they come, now in the many hundreds, slowed by the officious motorcades of the truly important, trudging past half a dozen security cordons manned by thousands of vigilant German police.
The president can’t grasp that what matters most about the Russia attack is not what it reveals about his political legitimacy but what it reveals about America’s national vulnerability.
The astonishing thing about Donald Trump’s response to Robert Mueller’s recent indictments is his inability to recognize that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is about something bigger than him. Look closely at Trump’s tweets.
February 16: “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!”
February 17: “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!”
The path to its revival lies in self-sacrifice, and in placing collective interests ahead of the narrowly personal.
The death of liberalism constitutes the publishing world’s biggest mass funeral since the death of God half a century ago. Some authors, like conservative philosopher Patrick Deneen, of Why Liberalism Failed, have come to bury yesterday’s dogma. Others, like Edward Luce (The Retreat of Western Liberalism), Mark Lilla (The Once and Future Liberal), and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) come rather to praise. I’m in the latter group; the title-in-my-head of the book I’m now writing is What Was Liberalism.
But perhaps, like God, liberalism has been buried prematurely. Maybe the question that we should be asking is not what killed liberalism, but rather, what can we learn from liberalism’s long story of persistence—and how can we apply those insights in order to help liberalism write a new story for our own time.
Trump’s gravest responsibility is to defend the United States from foreign attack—and he’s done nothing to fulfill it.
As the rest of America mourns the victims of the Parkland, Florida, massacre, President Trump took to Twitter.
Not for him the rituals of grief. He is too consumed by rage and resentment. He interrupted his holidaying schedule at Mar-a-Lago only briefly, for a visit to a hospital where some of the shooting victims were treated. He posed afterward for a grinning thumbs-up photo op. Pain for another’s heartbreak—that emotion is for losers, apparently.
Having failed at one presidential duty, to speak for the nation at times of national tragedy, Trump resumed shirking an even more supreme task: defending the nation against foreign attack.
Last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian persons and three entities that conspired to violate federal election law, to the benefit of Trump and Republican congressional candidates. This is not the whole of the story by any means. This Mueller indictment references only Russian operations on Facebook. It does not deal with the weaponization of hacked information via WikiLeaks. Or the reports that the Russians funneled millions of dollars of election spending through the NRA’s political action committees. But this indictment does show enough to answer some questions about the scale and methods of the Russian intervention—and pose a new question, the most important of them all.
President Clinton showed that with persistence and leadership, legislative restrictions on firearms are attainable.
As the United States tries to recover from the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a feeling of pessimism is setting in among liberal politicians and pundits about whether gun control legislation is possible. Many Americans who have been following politics have seen this movie before and the ending is usually bleak.
The scenes are as predictable as a third-rate Hollywood film. The crisis opens with a devastating shooting at a school in which a mentally disturbed person uses lethal weapons against children. What follows are families grieving before the television cameras, a nation watching in total shock, and a few brave souls who step up to demand that the government take action. Occasionally, Congress debates legislative proposals to address the national gun problem. Some legislators point out how effective regulations have been in other countries as well as in some states. But in the inevitable next scene, the steel-hearted NRA steps in to remind politicians to whom they have given campaign contributions that there will be hell to pay for anyone who votes yes. Rather quickly, the legislation dies. Nothing else happens. This is how it all played out after the shooting in Las Vegas, when Congress failed to act on the “bump stocks” that a gunman used to kill 58 people on the strip.
The outrage directed against the New York Times writer Bari Weiss is the latest illustration of a culture that undermines the causes it seeks to advance.
One of America’s best attributes wasn’t fully real to me until I studied abroad in Seville, Spain, with Asian American classmates. Their answers to the question “Where are you from?” were often met with confusion by locals, who had trouble even conceiving of a nation without an ethnic conception of citizenship. As a Californian, I knew not only that people of Asian descent were as American as white people like me, but that many of their ancestors arrived before mine. And I saw why Americans who don’t grasp those truths offend.
Another of America’s best attributes concerns those who immigrate here. People who become U.S. citizens later in life—as did Albert Einstein, Desi Arnez, and Patrick Ewing—are no less American, no more “other,” than the native born. In fact, when my friend Andrew Sullivan was finally granted U.S. citizenship, as well as when efforts began to secure legal protections for undocumented immigrants brought here as children, I realized that my own conception about what it means to be an American is even broader than the legal definition: I’d long considered people like Andrew as well as those kids to be “one of us.”
The House Intelligence Committee chairman’s actions are toxic to the democratic process and dangerous to American national security.
Watching the Senate Intelligence Committee’s world-threat hearing last week, it felt like the adults were finally back in town. Republicans and Democrats sat next to each other and spoke politely, in front of the cameras. They agreed that intelligence agencies are vital to America’s national security, not some deep state cabal bent on destroying the Trump administration.
Nobody used the word “hoax” or “shithole.” Senators from both parties asked sensible questions about serious threats—including North Korea’s nuclear weapons, China’s espionage activities, and Russia’s past, present, and future efforts to meddle in elections and undermine democracies around the world. Oh sure, there were screwball moments. This is Congress, after all. Senator Tom Cotton asked some “show of hands” questions to see if anyone would recommend that Americans use Chinese telecom products or services.
The biggest success of the new Marvel film isn’t representation, but its contemplation of identity, responsibility, and the future of a diaspora in an interconnected world.
This article contains light spoilers.
Blackness invites speculation. The very idea of a global African diaspora creates the most fertile of grounds for a field of what-ifs. What if European enslavers and colonizers had never ventured into the African continent? More intriguing yet: What if African nations and peoples had successfully rebuffed generations of plunder and theft? What if the Zulu had won the wars against the Voortrekkers and the British, and a confederation of Bantu people had risen up and smashed Belgian rule? What if the Transatlantic children of the mother continent had been allowed to remain, building their empires with the bounties of the cradle of civilization?
These are the questions that vibrate beneath the vibranium bedrock of Marvel’s Black Panther, due out in theaters this week. The basic premise of a superpowered king fighting crime in a futuristic feline-themed suit is the kind of fresh-off-the-panel action absurdity that marks today’s comic-book movies. But, on a deeper level, the fictional African nation of Wakanda is the same Atlantean archetype that has always haunted this diaspora. And like all variations on that archetypal story, Black Panther is a fantasy about black power.
A new study explores a strange paradox: In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions.
Though their numbers are growing, only 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female. The gender gap only grows worse from there: Just 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women. This is in the United States, where many college men proudly describe themselves as “male feminists” and girls are taught they can be anything they want to be.
Meanwhile, in Algeria, 41 percent of college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math—or “STEM,” as its known—are female. There, employment discrimination against women is rife and women are often pressured to make amends with their abusive husbands.
According to a report I covered a few years ago, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries in which boys are significantly less likely to feel comfortable working on math problems than girls are. In all of the other nations surveyed, girls were more likely to say they feel “helpless while performing a math problem.”
For a century, urban commotion has been treated as a moral failing of individuals. Fixing it will require systemic changes to environmental noise.
What are your ears hearing right now? Maybe the bustling sounds of a busy office, or your partner cooking dinner in the next room. Whatever the texture of the sonic landscape of your life may be, beneath it all is the same omnipresent din: the sound of cars.
That might seem benign, or perhaps even endearing—the sound of the bustle of the big city. But the din of vehicles, along with transit and industrial activity, is making people sick. People forget that noise pollution is still pollution. And noise pollution is everywhere.
Unlike many other injuries, hearing damage is irreparable. It also functions differently. People tend to assume that hearing loss is akin to turning down the volume in one’s head—that everything just sounds quieter. But it’s more complex than that. Sound at certain frequencies just vanishes—birdsong, intelligible human speech, the gentle rustling of leaves, the crispy highs of brushes on jazz cymbals. People can avoid using earbuds excessively or attending loud concerts. But people do not necessarily have the ability to avoid high levels of environmental noise—it’s in their neighborhoods, near their schools, at their workplaces. That makes noise pollution a matter of bodily autonomy.