From synthetic life to engineering the climate – how we’re learning to manage the Earth

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Christopher Preston
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It is common to think about “process” in commerce, industry, and society. A well-designed, well-managed process is essential for producing “products” that are desirable across numerous social and business realms.

It is less common to think about process in ecological systems.

If Earth’s products are the magnificent array of species that populate the Earth, together with the mountains, deserts, and oceans where they dwell, then its processes are the major biological, geological, and physical forces responsible for creating these products in the first place.

So, what would it mean to talk about “well-designed” and “well-managed” Earthen processes?

The question is an odd one because these processes have roots buried deep in geological and evolutionary time. They originated without us and they continue to operate independently of us.

Short of the idea of some sort of divine architect responsible for setting them up in the first place, any talk of a management or design seems entirely out of place. Gravity, photosynthesis, and genetic mutation have never been in our species’ wheelhouse. They are the timeless and independent backdrop against which every civilization has been fashioned.

It is no secret that human actions today impact Earth’s “products” to an alarming degree. Species are going extinct, oceans are becoming more acidic, and toxins are inhabiting everything from Antarctic ice, to the livers of leopard seals, to the breast milk of nursing mothers. Global warming is transforming climatic conditions everywhere, from the Arctic to the Sahel.

Shaping Earth’s processes

Despite the startling impact of humanity on Earth’s products, the processes that shape it have not yet fallen into human hands.

Not, that is, until now.

New technologies are fast arriving that will permit the management of fundamental Earth-shaping processes. Two examples of these technologies are climate engineering and synthetic biology.

Motivated by how the politics of greenhouse gas reductions is moving too slow, researchers are in the process of modelling – and soon testing – how to reduce the amount of incoming solar energy permitted to penetrate the stratosphere. Particles or droplets deployed ten to twenty thousand feet above the height at which commercial airliners fly could bounce a meaningful amount of the sun’s rays straight back out into space.

If calibrated right, such deployments could cool the atmosphere just enough to counteract the warming that greenhouse gases are creating. The name for this technology is “solar radiation management” or, a little less ominously, “sunlight reflection methods.”

What these methods promise is that the gradual tilts and wobbles of the Earth’s orbit – known as Milankovitch Cycles – that are baked into the physics of the solar system will no longer determine how much energy reaches the surface of the planet from the sun. Technicians deploying stratospheric aerosols will be making that call. Crucial parts of the thermodynamics of the climate system will be tailored to human needs.

Unlike the climate change Earth is already experiencing due to the buildup of greenhouse gases, these adjustments will be mapped out, planned, and thoroughly intentional.

Synthetic biology

Zooming rapidly downwards in scale from the planetary to the molecular, a similar usurping of natural processes is found in the newfound ability to construct increasingly long chains of DNA in the laboratory.

Synthetic biology is allowing researchers to design and build fully functional genomes – hundreds of thousands of bases long – that can be inserted into bacterial cells to take over their operation. Novel gene-reading and gene-synthesis techniques developed over the last decade have made possible both the copying of existing genomes and the construction of entirely new ones, some of which contain novel types of genetic letters.

After successfully building the world’s first viable synthetic organism in 2010, J. Craig Venter declared, “This is the first self-replicating species we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”

What is striking about this technology is that it is no longer necessary for genomes to be inherited. One can design and build genomes independently of the forces that performed this function for three and a half billion years. Synthetic biologists are taking up a gauntlet thrown down by George Whitesides who once suggested “it would be a marvellous challenge to see if we can out-design evolution.”

In the Synthetic Age, it is not just Earth’s products that are impacted by human actions. Earth’s formative processes themselves become open for redesign.

This level of management of natural processes is indicative of what I call the “Synthetic Age.” Out-designing evolution and re-engineering the climate take management of the Earth to a whole new level.

In the Synthetic Age, it is not just Earth’s products that are impacted by human actions. Earth’s formative processes themselves become open for redesign. Changes to the Earth system are no longer just cosmetic. They are metabolic, impacting not just how the planet looks but how the planet works.

There are plenty of compelling reasons to think that these types of technologies could be highly desirable.

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Climate change is going to cause incredible suffering and loss, mostly for vulnerable populations who are the least responsible for creating the problem in the first place. Climate engineering with solar radiation management may buy some crucial time while global economies take on the immense challenge of decarbonizing.

Synthetic organisms might also perform enormously useful tasks such as assisting in the production of biofuels, bio-remediating contaminated sites, or capturing carbon directly out of the atmosphere. It is hard to take environmental concerns seriously and be immune to the possibilities these new technologies present.

But the moral calculus, I suggest, does not end there. Behind what appear to be some enticing promises, something else of significance is going on.

The Synthetic Age reconfigures the essential background substrate out of which all of human history has been crafted. It calls for replacing a world that is “found” with a world that is “made.” It cuts Homo sapiens loose, perhaps, from important psychological anchors located deep in the recesses of time.

Should our species take this step, it will be crucially important to know exactly what we are doing.

I mean this in both the technical sense and, even more importantly, in the spiritual.

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