This page contains Chapter 6 from
Sustainable Superabundance: A universal transhumanist manifesto for the 2020s and beyond
Note: The text of this chapter of the Manifesto is draft and is presently undergoing regular revision.
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6. Abundant food
How many people can the earth accommodate, providing everyone with good quality food and water? Are we near the limit, or might we have passed it already? Alternatively, is that limit located far above the present population size?
Transhumanists envision the quality of life increasing all over the world, at the same time as the global population continues to rise. Wise management of technological innovations can enable a sustainable abundance of numerous kinds of healthy nourishment, with plenty available for everybody. But in the absence of careful forethought and some hard decisions, such an outcome is far from inevitable.
Accordingly, this chapter of the Manifesto highlights a number of key scenarios for the future of the production of food and drink, and the risks and opportunities en route.
Population, onward and upward?
The global population passed the landmark of seven and a half billion towards the end of 2016. It took 33 years, from 1927 to 1960, for the population to grow from two billion to three billion. The next billion were added in just 14 years – by 1974. The next three billion were added in, respectively, 13 years (to 1987), 12 years (to 1999), and another 12 years (to 2011). Extrapolating current demographic trends suggests that the population will reach eight billion in 2023, nine billion in 2037, and ten billion in 2055.
That extrapolation assumes only modest changes in the current rates of births and deaths. However, transhumanists anticipate radical improvements in healthcare that will significantly reduce death rates around the world. If this happens, the population is likely to rise more quickly. Rather than increasing at the present rate of around 220,000 people each day, it could increase at around 350,000 people each day. Rather than it taking 12 years to add another billion to the population, this could happen in just 8 years.
What’s more, transhumanist technology such as ectogenesis – the ability for a baby to develop outside of a mother’s body, in an artificial womb – might impact birthrate in various ways. In some projections, the population could rise by a lot more than the figure of 350,000 per day just noted.
As well as considering the sheer number of people alive, we also need to consider how many resources (including energy, food, and water) each person consumes. As larger proportions of the population become more affluent, and adopt so-called “western lifestyles”, the total resources used by humans will grow more quickly than the population count.
The organisation Earth Overshoot Day regularly carries out calculations comparing the demands of the population to the capacity of the planet to regenerate resources. The supply side of this calculation estimates the planet’s biologically productive areas of land and sea, including fishing grounds, cropland, grazing lands, and forests. The demand side estimates demand for livestock, fish products, plant-based food, timber and other forest products, and so on. The result for 2018 was that the demand exceeds supply by a factor of 1.7. Stated in other words, by 1st August 2018, the human population had already consumed more of nature than the planet can renew in an entire year. Accordingly, the 1st of August is dubbed “Earth Overshoot Day” for 2018. It is said that, if everyone around the world adopted the same lifestyle as people in the USA, Overshoot Day would be 15th March.
If matters continue unchanged, this state of affairs seems unsustainable. It would appear that overfishing, over-harvesting of forests, and overuse of land, should be a cause for real concern.
Indeed, there are reasons to fear potential sweeping unwelcome side-effects from agriculture becoming overly dependent on new chemical treatments and new genetic manipulations. Larger and more mechanised doesn’t necessarily mean more resilient. Biochemical innovations can have longer-term consequences that weren’t evident from short-term trials. The real world is a much messier, more complex place than a carefully controlled research laboratory.
And there are reasons to fear that the pursuit of increased profits by powerful agrochemical corporations will result, not in the feeding of the world, but in the unintentional poisoning of the world. Just because a product makes good short-term financial sense for a company and its investors, that’s no guarantee of a positive longer-term effect on human well-being.
The legacy of Malthus
Some observers dismiss the calculations from the likes of Earth Overshoot Day. These calculations are said to stand in a long line of discredited forecasts of ecological doom and gloom.
The line of discredited forecasts is said to include the predictions of British cleric Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 forecast that population growth could never exceed one billion in any period of 25 years, on account of constraints in improvements in food production. Food production methods could only increase linearly, Malthus maintained, and could not keep up with the tendency of population to increase exponentially.
Malthus had some notable predecessors, including, sixteen centuries earlier, the early Christian writer Tertullian based in Carthage, North Africa. Tertullian complained about the “teeming” numbers of inhabitants he observed, as being “burdensome to the world” which could “hardly support” everyone. That was at a time when the world’s population was less than 200 million.
The line of discredited forecasters also includes, more recently, US professor Paul Ehrlich, who in 1980 agreed a scientific wager with another US professor, Julian Simon. Ehrlich forecast that, between 1980 and 1990, there would be large price increases for each of five metals: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten, as an indication of greater resource scarcity. The wager reflected Ehrlich’s deep apprehension about rapid population growth exceeding possible growth in the supply of food and resources. In reality, Simon won the wager handsomely. All five prices fell significantly over the ten year period, with the prices of two of the metals (tungsten and tin) falling by more than half.
Nevertheless, we should be cautious about any simple extrapolations. The fact that Ehrlich and, before him, Malthus, were proved wrong in their forecasts, is no basis for complacency about the ability of humanity to keep on finding ways of safely extracting more resources from the planet. As transhumanists point out, accumulated exponential changes can give rise to unexpected transitions. Periods of slow change can be preludes to periods of disruptive upheaval. Predictions – whether of flourishing or of collapse – can be dismally wrong, for many a season, before becoming dramatically correct.
Analysts who have studied the famous Ehrlich-Simon wager have concluded that Simon was lucky rather than prescient. In many other ten year periods, both before and after their wager, the prices of these raw commodities have indeed risen (in real terms), indicating growing scarcity.
Indeed, Simon lost a subsequent wager, this time involving another professor, David South, concerning whether timber prices would rise or fall over a five year period. Simon forecast they would fall, but instead they rose 50% in real terms.
Nor were the predictions of Malthus as flawed as some critics like to claim. It took more than 150 years after his ideas were first published, before there was an increase in population by one billion period within any one 25 year period. Hundreds of millions of people continued to live squalid, miserable lives, in a state of deprivation and near starvation, before succumbing to wretched deaths – just as Malthus observed.
Rather than dismissing the concerns of Tertullian, Malthus, Ehrlich, and more recent writers on impending resource scarcity, we need to engage thoughtfully and constructively with these observers. After all, there are downsides as well as upsides to biochemical innovation. As in many other areas covered by this Manifesto, the underlying theme is “technology is not enough”.
Necessity and innovation
Optimists like to proclaim that necessity is the mother of invention. As demand for resources increase, the free market encourages and rewards the innovations that answer these demands.
There are five problems with this viewpoint. First, just because there is a strong demand for the answer to a shortage, it doesn’t follow that an answer will emerge. Vast numbers of people throughout history died, or had their lives horribly stunted, for want of better food or other resources.
Second, if an answer is to emerge, it may need the kind of patient long-term investment which the free market, by itself, is incapable to organise and deliver. Not every problem can be solved by the heroic efforts of dynamic, ambitious, optimistic technology startups.
Third, when answers do emerge, they may have deleterious side-effects. Foods that take away the pangs of hunger may lead to addiction, or obesity, or other health issues. Weed killers that allow crops to grow unimpeded may have adverse impact on local wildlife. Residue from these weed killers may accumulate in human bodies with longer-term consequences.
Fourth, it’s not in the interests of corporations to draw attention to the adverse side-effects of their biochemical innovations. To maintain high profits, these corporations are naturally inclined to employ people to divert attention away from risks, and to throw doubt on any scientific consensus which would question the safety or efficacy of their products. Consider Big Tobacco, assiduously creating confusion about the extent to which smoking might cause cancer. Consider Big Oil, assiduously creating confusion about the extent to which the burning of oil might cause global warming. It’s the same with Big Agrotech.
Fifth, these same corporations are motivated to publicise products and services which can be cleverly marketed as “healthy” and “desirable”, rather than products and services which are objectively healthy and desirable. In this case, it’s not necessity that is the mother of invention. Instead, it’s the profit motivation. To express it better: the necessity that drives the development and deployment of these solutions, is the perceived necessity of increased short-term profits, rather than the goal of increasing overall human flourishing.
In praise of biochemical innovation
Before raising more concerns about the misapplication of biochemical innovation, it’s important to recognise the enormous accomplishments and potential of this technology.
In lists of all the remarkable inventions made throughout history, ranked in terms of how many people’s lives the various inventions saved, one breakthrough often stands alone at the top of the list. This is the Haber-Bosch process, in which a metal catalyst, high temperature, and high pressure, are used to cause atmospheric nitrogen to react with hydrogen to create ammonia (chemical formula NH3).
Because ammonia is the basis of artificial fertilisers, this invention enabled the radical transformation of agriculture. Farmers were no longer dependent on the natural fertiliser of excrement from farmyard animals, or on guano – accumulated bird excrement imported in bulk from far-off lands. As a result, agricultural productivity rocketed upwards. The same area of land could grow a lot more crops than before and, therefore, feed many more people. For a time – before everyone became used to this chemical miracle and took it for granted – the process was nicknamed “bread from air”.
The basics of this process were worked out in 1909 by German chemist Fritz Haber in his laboratory at the University of Karlsruhe. The following year, another German chemist, Carl Bosch, succeeded in scaling up the reaction to industrial level. As a reward for their ingenuity and skill, the two inventors each earned a Nobel prize for chemistry.
The innovation of the Haber-Bosch process arrived in time to avoid impending problems with worldwide shortages of guano. Instead of waiting on nature to deliver more fertiliser, human engineers were able to build vast factories, usually in remote locations, that produced immense amounts of artificial fertiliser. By some estimates, the innovation saved the lives of approaching three billion people, due to improved farming efficiencies.
Another set of inventions that significantly boosted food production was due to US agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug, who is known as “the father of the green revolution”. During the 1940s and 1950s, Borlaug time and again produced new varieties of wheat, with greater yield, higher resistance to infection, and the ability to grow in environments that were too tough for other varieties.
Borlaug achieved his results by thoughtful breeding and hybridisation techniques, coupled with changes in farming practice. His ideas often contradicted local conventional wisdom and were, for a while, resisted, until the bountiful crops produced by experimental deployment were too large to be ignored. In 1970 Borlaug was awarded the Nobel prize, not for chemistry, but for peace – in recognition of the huge humanitarian benefits of the increased food production his innovations enabled. Calculations have suggested that, without these innovations, today’s world population might be reduced by at least one billion. Many other people would be alive but significantly malnourished, compared to today’s actuality.
Impressive as they are, the accomplishments of Haber, Bosch, Borlaug, and many other innovators of the last century, are on the point of being put into the shade by even greater improvements in agricultural productivity from 21st century science and technology. Chief among these is synthetic biology – the creation of brand new variants of life by direct genetic manipulation. This includes the cutting and splicing of genes from one organism to another. Hence the phrase “GMO” – genetically modified organism. GMOs have the potential of greater disease resistance, longer storage periods for produce after it has been harvested, crops that can grow in previously barren landscapes, and individual crops having extra nutritional benefit – such as including much-needed supplementary vitamins or minerals.
The first major success of GMO techniques was in a different field from agriculture, namely medicine. People with insufficient insulin suffer and generally die fairly quickly from diabetes. From the 1920s onwards, diabetics could benefit from injections of insulin derived from animals, such as pigs or cows. But from 1982, a form of synthetic insulin became available. This product, named Humulin, was manufactured inside e-coli bacteria that had been genetically edited to contain the gene for the human form of insulin. Humulin transformed the treatment of diabetics, since it could be manufactured at scale more cheaply than insulin from the pancreas organs of slaughtered animals, and since it was less likely than animal insulin to be rejected by patients.
Developed in the laboratories of Genentech, at that time a relatively small company, Humulin was the world’s first approved genetically engineered therapeutic. Genentech has grown since that time into a biotech giant. Other genetically engineered products from the company’s laboratories include therapeutic antibodies to assist in the treatment of cancer. Newer techniques for genetic editing, such as CRISPR-Cas9, enable more precise usage by lab technicians without detailed scientific knowledge, and are set to increase the speed of innovation yet further.
The first item of food whose manufacturing was transformed by the application of GMO techniques was cheese. Hard cheeses, such as Cheddar and Parmesan, depend on enzymes called rennet being added to liquid milk. For thousands of years, rennet was obtained by killing young calves and extracting it from the linings of their fourth stomachs. As demand for cheese grew, scientists looked for a method to create key rennet enzymes in the laboratory. By the late 1980s, a team at Pfizer had succeeded, with a process involving yeast genetically edited to contain a particular cow gene. Today, upwards of 80% of the cheese in many countries is manufactured using enzymes created by GMOs.
Genes extracted from a number of different organisms have subsequently been used to create new variants of major crops such as soybeans, maize, potatoes, and cotton. In some cases, the new gene enables the crop to tolerate the chemical glyphosate, as contained in the weedkiller Roundup. In other cases, the crop incorporates genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), reducing the need for the crops to be sprayed with insecticide. Genetically modified papaya, containing similar genes, saved the papaya industry in the 1990s from devastation by the papaya ringspot virus.
Many other products remain at a trial stage. One example is so-called “golden rice” which includes a gene that triggers the creation of vitamin A. This addresses a nutritional deficiency that is widespread in developing countries: shortage of vitamin A weakens the immune system and causes more than half a million cases of childhood blindness each year.
More waves of innovation ahead
At least three more waves of biochemical innovation can be foreseen. The first involves so-called vertical farming. Rather than crops only growing at ground level, numerous layers of crops can grow, one on top of each other, inside skyscraper versions of greenhouses. Light coming directly from the sun cannot illuminate all these different layers, so the likes of LEDs will be needed instead. Hydroponic techniques allow crops to be grown without use of soil; instead, the crops are nourished via mineral nutrient solutions. Control of the environment eliminates the need for pesticides or herbicides. Robots and other automation can take care of maintenance. Since the crops grow indoors, dependencies on weather are reduced. Genetic modifications of crops can ensure that crops will thrive in this new setup.
A second forthcoming wave involves the industrial-scale creation of meat in the laboratory, without any need to grow and slaughter whole animals. Lab-grown meat already exists, but is presently too expensive for mass adoption. It also falls short of animal-grown meat in taste terms. Both these challenges are on the point of being solved by ongoing research and development. As an important consequence, it will be possible to repurpose enormous amounts of land which are currently dedicated to the rearing of farm animals for slaughter, and to the growing of crops to serve as food for livestock. As another important consequence, there will be a significant reduction in the contributions from farm animals to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
A third forthcoming new wave of biochemical innovation involves artificial photosynthesis – methods to convert sunlight, water, carbon dioxide and other simple molecules into complex carbohydrates, without any reliance on living plants.
In parallel with innovations that enhance food production, innovative desalination techniques are enabling larger scale conversion of salt water into fresh water. These techniques are increasingly cost-effective and, compared to earlier methods, have fewer adverse side-effects on the environment. Studies are taking place into ways of adding in extra quantities of minerals such as magnesium that are present in rainwater and other natural fresh water, but which are lacking in water created by desalination. Whilst more work remains to be done, this series of innovations is addressing concerns about shortages of natural fresh water.
Towards feeding one hundred billion people
How far could biochemical innovation take us?
An average healthy diet consists of around 2,500 calories per day for a man, and around 2,000 calories per day for a woman. Let’s take 2,250 calories as the mean of these two figures. In energy term, one of these calories amounts to 4,200 joules. Dividing by the number of seconds in a day, the average healthy person’s diet is equivalent to a power consumption of around 109 watts (that is, 109 joules per second).
How much agricultural land is required, to create a sequence of food delivering 109 watts of power? Let’s consider the rate at which energy reaches the ground from the sun, and then let’s consider what kind of efficiency is possible in principle, in converting energy from the sun into energy stored in food.
Energy from the sun strikes the upper atmosphere of the earth at a rate of around 174 petawatts, that is, 174 million gigawatts. Around 30% of that is reflected back out to space. By the time the remaining energy reaches ground level, each square metre of land receives on average around 240 watts of energy from the sun.
Agricultural plants typically have an efficiency of only around 1% at converting incoming sunlight into energy stored in the edible parts of their bodies – although some crops such as algae or sugar cane can reach higher figures such as 3.5%. Sticking for the moment with the figure of 1%, produce from a land area of around 50 square metres would be sufficient in principle to feed a single person.
It is believed that hunter gatherer societies roamed over an average of around one square mile of land to feed each person. That’s more than 2.5 million square metres per person. By the medieval age, farming techniques had decreased the average amount of land required to feed each person by a factor of around 100. By modern times, there have been additional improvements of around six fold – hence the oft-repeated statement that it takes about one acre of land (around 4000 square metres) to feed a person. That’s still around one hundred times less efficient than the figure worked out above.
It’s hard to know how much of an increase in productivity can be expected from biochemical innovations and other improvements in farming in the decades ahead. For the sake of a definite calculation, let’s assume that another ten-fold increase might be achieved, bringing down the land required to feed each person to 400 square meters on average.
The world is presently said to have 14 trillion square metres of arable land, out of a total of 49 trillion square metres devoted to all sorts of agriculture. In turn, that’s a subset of the 149 trillion square metres of the total land area of the earth. Let’s assume that, over time, 40 trillion square metres can be farmed by the kinds of enhanced techniques mentioned earlier in this chapter. Dividing 40 trillion by 400 yields a population of 100 billion people who could be fed by these methods.
Changing some of the assumptions in the calculation will produce different answers. For example, the area of the earth used for food production could be significantly extended by growing more crops in sea water. Another point to note is that the efficiency of artificial photosynthesis has already reached 22% in laboratory conditions, so the energy conversion figure of 1% used earlier could be far too low. Equally, there might be complications working in the other direction. The passage of more time should, however, allow innovations to keep on building on top of innovation, so that any problems which emerge can be addressed. Accordingly, there seems no reason in principle why the world cannot feed a population of at least ten billion in the relatively near future, and of the order of one hundred billion some time later this century.
Of course, before such a large population can arise, many other aspects of human life and human society will need to change. This includes a full transfer to green energy, in order to avoid intolerable quantities of pollution as side-effects of fossil fuels. That theme was covered in the previous chapter. Also needed will be transformations in the way society handles rare earth elements and other raw materials, as included in the equipment and the housing for next generation agriculture. That theme is covered in the next chapter. And as reviewed in the remainder of the present chapter, it will also be necessary to manage the roll-out of biochemical innovation, in a way that avoids major drawbacks.
Risks posed by biochemical innovation
For each of the examples of praiseworthy applications of biochemical innovation described earlier, there are serious questions about potential misuse of the same (or closely related) innovations.
For example, the invention of synthetic ammonia by Haber and Bosch led not only to new types of agricultural fertiliser but also to new ways of manufacturing explosives. Ammonia formed part of a reactive pathway that resulted in nitrates as used in First World War bombs. Military historians have suggested that, were it not for the Haber-Bosch process, Germany would have run out of explosives after just one or two years of warfare. Additional years of battlefield carnage could have been avoided.
Fritz Haber had a different idea in mind, in his quest for the First World War to end quickly, this time via decisive battleground victories for Germany. Using the same set of outstanding skills in chemistry that enabled the synthesis of ammonia, Haber led teams to produce and then deploy poisonous chemical gases – including chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas. But rather than shortening the war, they escalated the level of inhuman cruelty.
On hearing reports of the use of chlorine gas, Haber’s first wife became distraught. A skilled chemist herself, she understood the grim implications of this deployment. She committed suicide, shooting herself with her husband’s military revolver. Undeterred, Haber continued his research into poisonous gases, even after the end of the war. In the 1920s, scientists at his lab developed the formulation of cyanide gas which subsequently found horrific use in Nazi concentration camps. As a chilling example of unforeseen consequences, several members of Haber’s extended family met their death in these gas chambers.
There was no similar overt sinister intention behind any of the “green revolution” work undertaken by Norman Borlaug. Instead, the question that deserves attention is the extent of the risks in the wide adoption of a crop monoculture. A single crop that grows well in a range of types of land may become planted in place of a large number of other variants. However, if that crop falls prey to a fast-spreading pathogen that is particularly deadly to this new crop, devastation may follow.
The terrible tragedy of the potato famine in Ireland in the late 1840s was due to the exclusive adoption of one variety of the crop, known as the lumper. Although the lumper had the advantage of low cost, and could thrive in the wet climate of Ireland, it turned out to be particularly vulnerable to an airborne fungal potato blight. Lacking any resistance to the blight, potatoes all over the country turned into an inedible black pulp. Mass starvation ensued. In a few short years, the population of Ireland declined by around 25%.
In more recent times, fungal pathogens with names such as “wheat leaf rust” and “southern corn leaf blight” have laid waste to large areas of farmland planted with monocultures of wheat or corn.
A different kind of adverse health impact from wheat monoculture may be the growing prevalence of gluten intolerance, including celiac disease, and (perhaps) the increasing tendency towards obesity and diabetes. The green revolution led to the spread of wheat with a number of gluten proteins that were not contained in earlier forms of the crop. Modern wheat should not be considered as simply “ancient wheat in greater quantity”. Instead, it delivers a subtly different combination of proteins. How significant that difference is remains to be determined.
Might the changes in farming brought about by GMOs have an even greater unanticipated impact? This is a deeply important question.
Many scientists observe that GMOs have received an unprecedented amount of safety testing. In their view, there are no special causes for concern about crops that have been genetically modified. The types of new biological variants that are created in this way have no fundamental difference from the types of new variants that were created using earlier breeding techniques. In this view, so long as sufficient testing is carried out before crops are deployed, there is are no grounds to reject the newer techniques. The fact that a new gene was inserted into wheat from the DNA of a quite different species, is no more reason to ban the innovation than if the new gene instead arose by random mutation arising from exposure to ultraviolet radiation or chemicals.
Transhumanists agree with these scientists that there is no fundamental dividing line between the different methods of breeding new crops. This is in line with transhumanist objection to any principle that says “natural is good, and technological is bad”.
However, transhumanists are well aware that the full effects of new chemicals or new organisms may take some time to become apparent. It’s possible that an initial series of tests will find no adverse health impact, but the longer term may involve the slow deleterious accumulation of chemicals in different parts of the human body. This is similar to the way that long term exposure to cigarette smoke gradually increases the likelihood of cancer. It’s similar to the way that emissions of CFC aerosols gradually created a dangerous hole in the ozone layer in the stratosphere.
Moreover, the most significant effects from a GMO may involve, not the GMO itself, but the various other chemicals and techniques introduced in the growing and harvesting of that crop. The population of the monarch butterfly has recently plunged by 90% in some regions. Declines in populations of honey bees are also causing concern. These declines aren’t directly due to GMOs, but appear to be linked to pesticides used in conjunction with GMOs.
Yet another example to keep in mind is that overuse of antibiotics can lead to the emergence and spread of deadly new variants of previous pathogens. Clever manipulations of nature may give rise to an unexpected fightback by evolution by natural selection.
But what’s the worst that could happen? If the upside of biochemical innovation is the ability to provide healthy food for the order of 100 billion people, what downside can be compared with this?
The move from harm to ruin
Special attention is necessary when the potential adverse outcome of an innovation moves beyond “harm” to “ruin”.
Harm arises in particular locations, where there is a fixed bound to the total amount of damage that could arise. Ruin involves changes that are irreversible and fast-spreading – changes that could impact the entire globe before corrective action can be taken. Ruin is the ultimate in unsustainability, since there is no way back from the occurrence to a prior state.
One difference between situations with harm and those with ruin is the degree of interdependence in a community or ecosystem. If the health of an ecosystem is subject to multiple independent influences, it’s unlikely that the ecosystem will fail completely. Even if parts of the ecosystem suffer grievous harm, other parts will survive unscathed. Some animals may die but others flourish. Some species may go extinct, but the ecosystem as a whole will remain vibrant.
But in other circumstances, there can be hidden connections between apparently different causes. These hidden connections magnify the likelihood of extreme outcomes.
For example, to switch from a biological to a financial example, the global financial crash of 2007-2009 took many bankers by surprise, because of their lack of appreciation of the extent of inter-bank lending – especially with so-called shadow banking. Moreover, the likelihood of large numbers of mortgage payments all failing in the same time period was poorly understood. Rather than each mortgage owner being subject to independent circumstances, they were in fact all impacted by the same financial climate.
As another example, note that extreme weather events that at first seem to be random unconnected phenomena, may in fact be linked via changes in the overall atmospheric and oceanic climate of the planet.
Systems where the worst that can happen is “harm” display characteristics that vary with so-called “thin tails”. There is vanishingly small chance of something happening that is ten or more standard deviations away from the average. But if the characteristics vary with a “fat tail”, these extreme events become more likely – and “ruin” has to be taken seriously.
The bad news is that the extinction of biological species is something that has a fat tail distribution. At isolated episodes in the earth’s history, five “great extinction” events have taken place, featuring rapid widespread reductions in biodiversity. Scientists are unsure of the precise causes of the various mass extinctions. However, the patterns in the data indicate the potential for smaller extinction events, initially affecting just a few species, to expand to become hugely more devastating.
We therefore need to consider the possibility of a sixth mass extinction, triggered by a side-effect of a biochemical innovation being deployed in a relatively short period of time all over the world. If something subsequently goes wrong as a result of that innovation, the impact could rapidly become worldwide, rather than being ring-fenced to a local area to which the innovation has been restricted.
The good news, however, is that extinctions take time. Although the mass extinctions took place quickly, when measured against geological timescales, they were spread out over several generations of animal lifetimes. This means that we humans will have a good opportunity to react and intervene – provided we keep our eyes open.
The transhumanist answer to the possibility of an adverse worldwide reaction to biochemical innovation has two components.
The first component is that careful testing and analysis of potential interactions of biochemical innovations must continue, in order to anticipate possible problems ahead of time.
In parallel, we need to prepare for the need of a rapid response to unexpected side-effects. This includes monitoring the entire biosphere for surprise developments, and being ready to intervene quickly and decisively in case anything untoward is noticed.
Systems already exist for rapid response to the outbreaks of deadly infectious diseases, such as new strains of Ebola or swine flu. If necessary, quarantines can be put in place, travel restrictions imposed, and swift experimentation undertaken to create treatments to alleviate the disease. These emergency medical response systems should be extended and enhanced to deal with any indications that sweeping ecological disruption might be imminent. These systems will, for example, pay close attention to observations such as the decline in population of monarch butterflies or honey bees mentioned earlier. These systems will be on high alert for any signs of a tipping point transition.
If these two sets of actions are carried out – the ongoing anticipatory analysis and the ongoing readiness for rapid intervention – then humanity will be en route to a sustainable superabundance of healthy food. Humanity will be well placed to take advantage of the enormous potential benefits of GMOs and related biochemical innovations, whilst prudently managing the risks of any ruinous adverse reactions.
However, one complication stands in the way of these actions. This complication isn’t in the field of science or technology. The complication is in the field of politics and culture. It involves an ongoing pitched battle over the huge power of the corporations who stand to make large financial profits from these biochemical innovations.
Beyond the profit motive
The biggest risk with the development and deployment of biochemical innovations such as GMOs is that society will lose sight of the goal of increasing human flourishing. Instead, the debate will become dominated by other motivations, namely an obsession with financial profits, on the one hand, and a countervailing obsessive distrust on the other hand of commercial corporations.
The first part of this risk is that powerful agrochemical corporations will develop and market products that boost their financial bottom line, without adequate consideration of negative externalities from these products. The logic of short-term boosts in revenues will lead these corporations to suppress or throw doubt on any studies that query the wisdom of these products.
For the sake of good public relations, these corporations position themselves as helping to feed the world – as nourishing the chronically undernourished of developing countries – even though their products are in many cases actually targeted at consumers in countries where there is already plenty to eat.
These corporations also pursue policies that leave farmers dependent on the companies for new seeds every year, rather than being able to store their own.
As one example, the corporation Monsanto has acquired the reputation of an aggressive bully, forcing products on unwilling farmers, and utilising the full might of the judicial system to keep careful control of their industry.
These corporations are skilled at placing into official regulatory bodies people who are sympathetic to corporate viewpoints. There is often an overly cosy relationship between regulatory bodies and the corporations they are meant to regulate, with managers from one side looking forward to future well-paid employment on the other side of that revolving door. In this way, big-spending corporations often “capture” their regulators, distorting their independence via a mixture of overt and covert pressures. The same corporations often allocate large budgets to lobbying efforts.
Another complicating factor is that politicians are inclined to favour “light touch” regulations. These politicians, often swayed by eloquent lobbyists, look favourably at jumps in profitability for the companies involved, because these jumps contribute to overall metrics of the performance of the economy – and because, in the absence of a more balanced set of metrics, society gives undue attention to statistics of economic growth. Unfortunately, light touch regulation often means ineffective regulation.
An excess of force in one direction often leads to an excessive reaction in the other direction. Because the agrochemical industry is perceived by many critics as being a dangerous obstruction to free enquiry and open discussion, these critics in turn often become implacable foes of the entire industry. Accusations and counter-accusations fly in both directions. Minds narrow as battle positions are championed.
In this adversarial situation, the points of valid science raised by supporters of the agrochemical industry tend to be brushed aside by critics, without proper acknowledgement of their validity. Conversely, the valid safety issues raised by critics tend to be brushed aside by industry supporters, under the rationale that these critics appear to be motivated by bitterness and negativity.
Rather than a hostile discussion, we need an open-minded consideration. Rather than an antagonistic conflict between pro-industry enthusiasts and risk-averse critics, we need to be able to appreciate and integrate the valid observations of all participants in the debate. Rather than a shouting match, what we need is the proposed transhumanist practice of superdemocracy. And rather than regulators and politicians being out-of-depth in this fast-moving landscape of ideas and innovations, we need to connect everyone to collective transhumanist intelligence.
Similar social and political transformations are needed to achieve sustainable abundance in each of the seven dimensions of human life covered in this Manifesto. The next chapter turns to the dimension of material goods.