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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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Hedonistic Sustainability: Environmentalism, Aesthetics, And Human Happiness May 11, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Over at Big Think (a site I really need to start reading more often) there is an excellent article up about the integration of architecture, ecology and human happiness, a triad the author refers to as hedonistic sustainability.

What Hedonistic Sustainability does is transform the whole sustainability movement into something very youthful, dynamic and egalitarian. It proves that design and architecture can be economically profitable as well as environmentally sustainable. You no longer need to compromise when it comes to going green.

Now usually when I hear things like that last sentence my mental alarm bells start going off because I know someone is about to sell me something.  In this case however I cannot say enough good things about this.  It’s a sad fact but currently the only way most people are going to reduce their ecological footprint is if you make it fun and fashionable to do so.   On the one hand I can understand this point of view.  After all very few of us, least of all me, want to live like a monk for the rest of our lives but it is often infuriating to see the level of apathy in the general public towards the larger consequences of their actions.  That is why real efforts to integrate ecological sustainability and human happiness excite me so much.

I also think that this is something the environmental movement tends to forget and needs to be reminded ever every now and again.  It’s all well and good to talk about saving endangered species and it’s important to bring to light how our actions are threatening ecosystems across the world but we must never forget that human suffering matters as much as non-human suffering (usually I’m reminding people of the opposite).  A solution that involves a drastic reduction in our quality of life is no solution at all.

Now it’s important to point out that quality of life is not the same thing as prosperity.  Our current consumer driven economies are in no way sustainable even given the promises of renewable energy and greater efficiency.  Capitalism, responsible for so much of the good in our modern world that we take for granted, cannot continue as it is.  As we seek a solution to the environmental crises of our own making we must remember that the problems our system has created will likely prove unsolvable to that same system.  Even the efforts of hedonistic sustainability, wonderful step though it is, will not succeed unless there is an equal change in how both we and our society relate to the natural world.

This sounds like a massive, almost unachievable, undertaking.  I agree with the former but disagree strongly with the latter.  We have the technological solutions to many of the problems we are already facing and the ingenuity to discover solutions for the rest.  The primitivist idea that technology naturally results in environmental destruction is a false one.  Calls to abandon it will not solve anything and indeed will hold us back from the only thing that ever has solved anything.  This is not to deny that technology has never resulted in negative consequences, only that it’s use is inherently negative.  It is not technology that has failed us but we who have failed to use it properly.  Luckily, though we have stumbled a lot on the way, we may be approaching the point where our moral development begins to catch up with out scientific.

In the past few decades we have seen the beginnings of a change in how humanity views the world around us.  No longer putting ourselves above and away from the natural world we are coming to understand that we are a part of it as much as any other species.  This has been seen in the efforts to expand our moral sphere to other animals and to see ourselves as stewards of the earth rather than exploiters.  Now we are approaching a new step, seeing our very society not separate from the natural ecosystems but as an extension of them.  Or perhaps to but it better:

Taking a big picture view, hedonistic sustainability is what happens when you stop thinking about buildings as structures and start thinking about them as ecosystems. When buildings are part of ecosystems, they can be used to help create a closed loop for recycling energy, minimizing your environmental impact and creating positive side products like a higher quality of life. Sustainable cities start with sustainable systems.

Amen brother.