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Will biotech disconnect us from nature – or reconnect us? June 3, 2013

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Among certain segments of the population a common fear of biotechnology, and indeed a common fear of emerging technologies in general, is that it will reduce nature to just another commodity.  With the potential to control the very most inner workings of living organisms soon to be in our grasps, what will stop us from treating life in the same way we have historically treated most of the resources at our disposal?

This is not an argument without merit and more than enough words have been spent elsewhere on it.  However, I would like to invite you, for just a moment, to consider an alternative possibility.  What if, instead of separating us even further from our connections with the rest of the biosphere, biotechnology instead reminds us of our position as simply one species among many, merely one (albeit important) part of the greater fabric of life?

At first glance this probably sounds ludicrous and I don’t blame anyone who thinks that.  After all, the general trend of human thought throughout history has been one of placing ourselves higher and higher atop the pyramid of life.  From religious ideas of man made in the image of God to secular myths of a vast tree of life culminating in humanity, our position towards the rest of the world has not been one of humility.  Furthermore, technology has seemingly only ever exacerbated this problem, putting nature more and more under our control and reinforcing our self image as masters of the world with “dominion over all the beasts of the fields.”

How might biotechnology change this?  As a though experiment, let us think of a house.  As currently constructed, a house usually requires wood for its frame, metal for plumbing and electricity, a water supply to support both the human inhabitants and the inevitable pustule that marks the faces of most modern homes, the front lawn.  All of these things come from somewhere else.  When they break, they are replaced by parts that are also from somewhere.  Virtually nothing within a modern house actually originates in its immediate environment.  Instead, a modern house (indeed, a modern life style) requires a supply chain stretching in many cases thousands of miles to supply the necessary raw materials to build and sustain itself.

How might a house constructed through biotechnology be different.  Imagine for a moment a house grown from a seed (or multiple seeds, the specifics aren’t important).  What would it require?  If it were anything like a normal tree, it would need nutrients, a water supply and light.  Light for the most part is freely available everywhere.  Every second the earth is bombarded by free energy, far more than is currently used by the entirety of human civilization.  A house would require only the smallest portion of that to grow, and once grown an even smaller amount to sustain it’s own basal metabolism.  Nutrients could be acquired through composting of vegetable matter or, for the less squeamish among you, diluting human urine for use as fertilizer.  Depending on the location, water would be the most difficult resources to come across but there is hope.  Numerous plants have evolved novel mechanisms for dealing with arid conditions, mechanisms which could be adapted for our use.

All this is merely details.  The important thing to take away is that a biohouse would be reliant, not on the current monstrosity that is the global supply chain, but on the local ecosystem surrounding it.  It would require care and attention, as all living things do.  It would require an understanding of the place of the house, and the people living in it, with the wider world.  It could (and of course this is only a could) reconnect us to Gaia, to the greater whole of which we are a part.

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