Engineering Humans

Posted by Ben Pile on February 6, 2012
Feb 062012

Sometimes it’s hard to know if things you encounter in the climate debate are real, or clever works of fiction or satire.

For example, the website Trees Have Rights Too – ecological justice for all sounds to me very much like a joke, parodying the excesses of some eco-warrior. But it is in fact the website of Polly Higgins, the barrister-turned-Gaia’s-advocate, who really does think that non-human things have ‘rights’. The deranged lawyer wants to make a crime of ‘ecocide‘ comparable to genocide, because killing a nest of ants is a bit like the systematic murder of a race of people. Higgins view of people, then, is that they are no better than ants — so why not let them suffer?

Another crazy idea that has resurfaced recently is Jean-François Mouhot’s idea that

Once, men abused slaves. Now we abuse fossil fuels

Pointing out the similarities (and differences) between slavery and the use of fossil fuels can help us engage with climate change in a new way

In an article in the Guardian last week, Mouhot said,

Intriguing similarities between slavery and our current dependence on fossil-fuel-powered machines struck me: both perform roughly the same functions in society (doing the hard and dirty work that no one wants to do), both were considered for a long time to be acceptable by the majority and both came to be increasingly challenged as the harm they caused became more visible.

Back in 2008, I thought it was a joke when I came across the author making the same argument in an article in an edition of History Today. I blogged about it back then, but perhaps too verbosely. More briefly: the use of oil and slaves can only be moral equivalents of course, if we think oil is capable of subjective experience — will, in other words. There’s nothing about using a substance or an object which is ‘like’ using a person against their own will. Yet it takes an academic historian to wonder whether or not there is.

Trying people for ‘ecocide’ and making moral equivalents of slavery and burning oil speak about two, very much related phenomena: total moral disorientation, and the completely diminished view of humanity.

Which brings me to my most recent discovery, and which I still cannot quite believe, and which I am urging caution on, before any comments are made.

This email found its way to me…

Dear Author:

This is the official solicitation for open peer commentaries for the Summer issue of Ethics, Policy, and Environment (http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/cepe).

For this next issue, 15.2, we have selected a Target Article by Matthew Liao (NYU), Anders Sandberg (Oxford), and Rebecca Roache (Oxford) titled “Human Engineering and Climate Change.” The abstract follows:

Abstract: Anthropogenic climate change is arguably one of the biggest problems that confront us today. There is ample evidence that climate change is likely to affect adversely many aspects of life for all people around the world, and that existing solutions such as geoengineering might be too risky and behavioural and market solutions might not be sufficient to mitigate climate change. In this paper, we consider a new kind of solution to climate change, what we call human engineering, which involves biomedical modifications of humans so that they can mitigate and/or adapt to climate change. We argue that human engineering is potentially less risky than geoengineering and that could help behavioural and market solutions succeed in mitigating climate change. We also consider some possible ethical concerns regarding human engineering such as its safety, the implications of human engineering for our children and for the society, and we argue that these concerns can be addressed.  Our upshot is that human engineering deserves further consideration in the debate about climate change.

 We are now soliciting approximately 4-6 open commentaries in response to this article.  Potential commentators will be invited to write short 750-1500 word responses which will be published simultaneously with the lead target article.

[...]

Sincerely,

Benjamin Hale and Andrew Light

Co-editors

I have no idea how humans could be modified, so that they can become walking, talking solutions to climate change. And I have no idea how the authors make an argument that ‘ethical concerns’ about modifying people to become climate change solutions can be overcome. I am still not sure that it isn’t a joke.

However, the journal exists.  Ethics, Policy & Environment will cost you £109 for just three issues a year.

While Ethics, Policy & Environment centers on environmental ethics and policy, its substantive coverage is wider. Authors have been concerned with a range of subjects, such as applied environmental ethics, animal welfare, environmental justice, development ethics, sustainability, and cultural values relevant to environmental concerns. The journal also welcomes analyses of practical applications of environmental, energy technology, regional, and urban policies, as well as theoretically robust discussions of common arguments that appear throughout debates on environment and energy policy, either in the scholarly literature or in the broader civic sphere.

The articles authors, Matthew Liao (NYU), Anders Sandberg (Oxford), and Rebecca Roache, all seem to be real researchers at respectable institutions — Oxford and New York Universities.

More surprisingly, the journal doesn’t appear to be some half-baked vanity project either. Roger Pielke Jr. and Max Boykoff are listed as Associate Editors, and the Utilitarian moral philosopher, Peter Singer is on the journal’s editorial board.

Academia is of course an area where ideas should be free. (And again, we should wait until we’ve read the paper before leaping to too many conclusions.) But it is increasingly the case that academia isn’t where ideas are free: it is increasingly the place where unorthodox ideas and opinions are shut down, and where independence, which gave the freedom to speak truth to power has been sold off, to instead speak official truth for power. The demand for ‘evidence-based policy-making’ has forced the colonisation of the academy.

Whimsies such as pondering ‘I wonder if it is right to subject people to biological modifications to suit my political ambitions’ once had little or no application outside the stuffy old ethics corridor in the philosophy faculty. Questions about ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ did not concern many outside the quad. But increasingly, the university department has had to prove its value in the real world.

All three researchers, you see, work at the Oxford Martin School (OMS) at the University of Oxford. The slogan on the website of the OMS boasts that they are ‘TACKLING 21ST CENTURY CHALLENGES”. Says their about page:

The Oxford Martin School was founded as the James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford in 2005 through the vision and generosity of Dr James Martin. It is a unique interdisciplinary research initiative tackling global future challenges.

Our mission: to foster innovative thinking, interdisciplinary scholarship and collaborative activity to address the most pressing risks and realise important new opportunities of the 21st century.

There are two main focuses for our work:

Research - supporting forward-looking and interdisciplinary research to address 21st century challenges and opportunities.

Impact - fostering impact-oriented initiatives and facilitating public engagement that will influence policy and effect positive change on a global scale.

Moreover, within the OMS is yet another little school, to which at least one of the authors belong:

The Future of Humanity Institute is a multidisciplinary research institute at the University of Oxford.  It enables a select set of leading intellects to bring careful thinking to bear on big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects.  The Institute belongs to the Faculty of Philosophy and the Oxford Martin School.

So it would seem that the journal article really does intend to offer to the world an ethical argument for the modification of humans, to deal with climate change.

But we will have to see what that is. Perhaps it will make us less sensitive or vulnerable to temperature. Perhaps it will a modification that allows us to run really really fast, so that we no longer need to use cars. Or perhaps it’s a device that makes us more obedient. I look forward to finding out.

Meanwhile, there is more to be said about the institutions that have been set up in Oxford.

The Future of Humanity Institute is the leading research centre looking at big-picture questions for human civilization. The last few centuries have seen tremendous change, and this century might transform the human condition in even more fundamental ways.  Using the tools of mathematics, philosophy, and science, we explore the risks and opportunities that will arise from technological change, weigh ethical dilemmas, and evaluate global priorities.  Our goal is to clarify the choices that will shape humanity’s long-term future.

One of the things I’ve tried to stress on this blog is the difference between positively and negatively defined ideas about humanity and its future. The institutions at Oxford, it seems, have founded themselves on the idea that the ‘big-picture questions for human civilisation’ come from without. Climate change and other risks seem to ‘define’ this generation — it doesn’t get to define itself.

Let’s call the bluff on this idea that the institute is exploring ‘big questions’. The preoccupation with risks is not about finding and answering ‘big questions for human civilisation’. Institutions such as this are simply performances, which act out the narratives that reflect the political establishment’s anxieties. Looking again at the homepage of the Future of Humanity Institute, it is clear that it is preoccupied with ‘global catastrophic risk’, following the link, reveals the claim that,

Global catastrophic risks are risks that seriously threaten human well-being on a global scale. An immensely diverse collection of events could constitute global catastrophes: potential factors range from volcanic eruptions to pandemic infections, nuclear accidents to worldwide tyrannies, out-of-control scientific experiments to climatic changes, and cosmic hazards to economic collapse.

The Future of Humanity Institute is simply cashing in on contemporary scare stories, and the fashion for political ideas to be grounded, not on ideas about progress, liberty, or development, but on catastrophe, disaster, and the impossibility of any form of progress. The purpose of such exercises is to arm increasingly disoriented and disconnected public bodies with legitimacy and purpose. Insofar as the Oxford Martin School, and the Future of Humanity Institute are the coming together of the academy and policy-making worlds, then, they also represent the point at which the establishment sticks its head up its arse.

  40 Responses to “Engineering Humans”

  1. Interesting, thanks. I look forward to seeing the actual article by Liao et al.

    The Oxford Today magazine had a piece by James Martin, see pp 26 – 30
    http://oxfordtoday.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/Oxford_Today_Trinity_2011full.pdf

  2. Uh – sorry – reposting using plain text:

    Interesting to note the frugal way Dr James Martin lives his life. According to his bio on wikipedia he lives on his own private island in Bermuda:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Martin_%28author%29

    Looks nice – here’s a picture on flickr
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxkehrli/3082400175/

    Quote:
    “The island has guest houses, a beach area, a swimming pool, tennis and squash courts and docks. The island is privately owned by British author and multi-millionaire James Martin…. He has built a multi-million dollar development here…. Martin, now in his 70s, divides his time between a mountaintop estate in Vermont, a home in South Africa, and this island.”

    This from the guy who writes “It is possible to immensely improve our quality of life without increasing greenhouse gases or using up an unsustainable share of the planet’s resources.”

  3. “Performance poetry” I know about (I don’t like it, generally). “Performance politics” is verging on tautology. Now “Performance science”? It rings true, certainly. It makes me think of those ‘psychic surgeons’ from South America who were all the thing years ago. Let’s make the graph really big then go up in a cherry picker to point at how high the end point is! End of the World! Eyethangkyou. Jemima will pass among you with a hat please give generously it’s for the children.

    Btw I regularly modify myself in response to climate change. My wife says, “Wear a jumper dear, it’s really cold” and I wear a jumper.

  4. What’s precisely wrong about modifying human beings to respond to climate change? Now, I don’t believe that anthropogenic climate change is an issue of first-order importance since its effects on human life even in the worst-case scenarios are mediated by severe poverty, but suppose that it was and the environmental Cassandra’s were right. If it was a real issue, then it would perfectly reasonable to investigate and to develop human modification to respond. People in a free, liberal societies should have the right to modify themselves, whether for increased longevity or any enhancements they might conceive of whatsoever.

  5. I wonder what Dieter Helm makes of these Oxford institutions, good piece by him here:
    http://www.thegwpf.org/opinion-pros-a-cons/4911-dieter-helm-forget-the-huhne-hype-about-wind-power.html

  6. Liao, Sandberg and Roache should be congratulated for getting their paper published at last. They’ve been trying since 2009 and maybe earlier. (It seems to have originated as a presentation given at the FHI in 2008, ‘Creating Green Dwarves: Should we Engineer Humans to Counteract Climate Change?’) Peer review is a cruel mistress.

    I can’t find the paper online but the authors have written plenty of similar stuff. It looks like they might be advocating drugging people to make them more empathetic and thus more socially responsible. Love us up and we’ll think twice before buying a big car or booking a flight to the sun.

    Are they serious? Roache and Liao might be but Sandberg is a bit of a trickster. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t believe in catastrophic climate change and in some quarters would be classed as a ‘denier’ – he has complained about the climate establishment shutting out unorthodox ideas and opinions. He’s mostly interested in sci-fi speculations about posthumanism (living inside computers) and Illuminati conspiracy theories. One suspects that he has personal knowledge of transformational drugs.

    But I might be wrong. I didn’t read very much of their output. Pointless wibblings by an incestuous and prolific (lots of article-recycling) subculture with lots of group aliases and great wodges of public wonga – a bit like the climate-change-and-health mob, really.

  7. “The Future of Humanity Institute is the leading research centre looking at big-picture questions for human civilization .. using the tools of mathematics, philosophy, and science ..”

    Big-picture questions? Do they mean, like “Where’s Wally?”?

  8. @Vinny, I think I’ve found the Liao/Roache paper you mentioned, about mood enhancement drugs – it’s here:
    http://oxford.academia.edu/RebeccaRoache/Papers/199961/After_Prozac

    Mood enhancement could also benefit the community as a whole. Consider that many societal problems are the result of collective action problems, according to which individuals do not cooperate for the common good. In a number of cases, the impact of any particular individual’s attempt to address a particular problem may be negligible, whereas the impact of a large group of individuals working together may be huge. For example, while air travel contributes to climate change, individuals may see little reason to avoid travelling by air, since commercial planes will make their journeys regardless of whether or not any particular individual decides to travel. However, if people were generally more willing to act as a group, and could be confident that others would do the same, we may be able to enjoy the sort of benefits that arise only when large numbers of people act together.

    Mood enhancement drugs could potentially help with such collective action problems.

    O brave new world. That has such people in’t! http://www.huxley.net/soma/somaquote.html

    And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now.

  9. Ranjit – What’s precisely wrong about modifying human beings to respond to climate change?

    1. We don’t know what kind of problem climate change is. Modifying a human would be no more meaningful than getting a tattoo of Gaia.
    2. We don’t know what the modification the authors consider is. Hence, I didn’t say ‘this is wrong’.
    3. If you want to get modified in the name of climate change, that is surely up to you. I’m not getting modified for climate change.
    4. The point of the above post is to highlight that discussions about the future — in academia and politics — are not about what could or should happen, but about negatively defining it.

  10. Ranjit – What’s precisely wrong about modifying human beings to respond to climate change?

    Most all of the climate worriers are violently opposed to modifying maize! Apparently that is playing God with nature.

    Cloning a sheep, which involves the exact opposite of modification, is also beyond the pale.

    Personally, I can’t see much of a moral issue with genetically modifying people who volunteer for the process. However I imagine I will remain in a small minority for a long time yet. (And I sure won’t ever be volunteering in order to meet someone else’s political goals.)

  11. Rich – “Performance politics” is verging on tautology. Now “Performance science”?

    I thoguht this might qualify as performance science: Major Study of Ocean Acidification Helps Scientists Evaluate Effects of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Marine Life. Science as spectacle. Actually, I think of it more as a ritual. It doesn’t actually create any new knowledge as such, but affirms the beliefs and other structures etc.

    I don’t agree that ‘performance politics’ is tautologous, though. Of course there’s a performance aspect to politics. And that’s almost all there is left. See some previous posts about ‘pastiche politics’, in which people have flattered themselves by comparing their own situation to that of a moment in the past. The popular ones are ‘the New Deal’, the moon landing, the suffragettes, and things from WW2 variously. Once you take the view that you only have to dress up as Churchill, it kind of does away with all the substance of politics — the ideas, ambitions, interests, philosophies… There should be more to it than simply acting out.

  12. Ben (comment 12)
    The “performance science” you link to is in fact a reprint of a news release posted on the website of the University of California Santa Barbara. It’s ritual alright, but journalistic ritual. It says something about a science project (scientists are testing the Ph level of the oceans to find out whether your car’s exhaust fumes are stressing penguins) and then says it again and again in each new paragraph. The Guardian and the Independent used to print article like this almost every day, but they stopped a few years back. (Possibly the science journalists became embarrassed).
    The scientific content can be summed up in five words: changes in ocean acidity affect life. Or three: “change affects life”. The rest is a roll call of scientists and the exotic locations where they work.
    It’s surely no coincidence that the University of California website which publishes it, like the Oxford University magazine linked to by Q in Comment 1, resembles those free magazines put out by supermarkets, which try so desperately to interest you in their wares.
    One quasi-scientific factoid emerges from the article: that acidity varies from place to place. Like temperature, and almost any other variable you can mention. Which is good (for scientists) because without variation to measure, they’d really have very little to do. Nor would we arts graduates, come to that, since change and variability is what life’s about.
    There seems to be a whole generation of biologists who don’t like life.

  13. I did say, “verging on tautology”. Both spectacle and ritual require the use of special dramatic language too. I notice “ocean acidification” for “falling pH”, “negative sea level rise” for “sea level fall”, temperatures have “flatlined” for “failed to show a trend”.

    “And lastly through a hogshead of real fire!” Perhaps we could understand science and politics as exhibited today by going to the circus. I’ll look forward to Harry the Horse dancing the waltz.

  14. Perhaps the climate-dissent-free teaching demanded by the National Council for Science Education in he States will produce the sort of modified humanity required.

  15. Ben,

    I have always admired your prose since following a link to C-R quite some time back.

    Much hilarity on the train today reading the latest evolution of your blogging in your last three posts, in which we get

    halfwit eco-baroness
    big-headed climate twonk
    slightly thick Guardian eco-hack; and
    deranged lawyer !

    ROFLMAO – more power to you !

    It occured to me there is a common link in all this, when I also read this Forbes piece

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/02/07/glencore-hysteria-of-the-day/

    also bursting the Guardian’s bubble.

    It’s the Guardian – it’s a health hazard ! Too much exposure is probably not good for you.

    Pending a peer-reviewed study on the deleterious effects of prolonged Guardian exposure and why we need evidence-based policy to mitigate the worst impacts of Catastrophic Guardian Exposure, limiting your browsing there is probably recommended ;-)

  16. Doubtless we’ll soon find out the advantages of bio-engineered sterility. As everybody sensible knows, if the human race could be reduced to 1% of its present extent, climate change would go away and we’d all live in a Malthusian paradise.
    Will it be voluntary? Are the windmill building impositions on our electricity bills voluntary? Do we have a choice whether we pay the obscene ‘green’ motoring taxes or aviation levies? Do the Chinese have a say in the one-child policy?
    Of course it won’t be voluntary. It’s important that everyone benefits from these policies, even those too stupid to realise how wonderful they are.

  17. The first thing I would like to know is how prevalent and representative of academia is this, a place I’ve always had a very low opinion of. Whenever I’ve met one of these fellows, face to face, they’ve always turned out remarkably ‘dormant’ and stupid.
    But, really, your post reminds us of how little ‘expertise’ means and how much it is greased by history. I mean these ‘schools’ and ‘academias’ surely belong in history! We have seen and heard there very names before! And to ‘engineer human beings’, well, isn’t that new! Lets reprise our sense of humour or horror might set in. And a real sense of action!

  18. No, it’s impossible, Ben. Academics, like the rest of us, are ‘job seekers’ or, once employed, seeking better ‘employment’. What turned, in our last half-acentuary, was that it became respectable to ‘prostitute’ ones ‘self”. Not wages for a hard days graft but you must sign that little soul you have away. So Academics are doing no worse than being sophists whose ‘soul’ is in possession! Property (property is theft!). It reminds me and, perhaps, should you of an old argument. For instance: “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?” (I paraphrase from memory):

    Your in the maths department
    No, the biology department
    O, so it’s you who’s going to turn us all into rabbits … We will be very placid, very obedient, but we will not have any poetry, any history, any romance but will hum and coo and be stroked.

    (That last bit I added because my memory ain’t so good) Yes, these academes. know no history, no philosophy but they know how to ‘coo’!

  19. Thanks, GW. Tax breaks for people willing to be made meat-intolerant, have stunted children, be drugged into empathy or be made smarter so they have fewer children. They argue that such ideas should be taken seriously but I think they’re just larking about. I hope so, anyway.

  20. Human engineering is back in the news with a report from UNEP being puffed here
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/20/climate-change-overconsumption
    Authors Paul Erlich, Bob Watson, James Hansen et al say:
    “To transition (sic) to a more sustainable future will require simultaneously redesigning the economic system, a technological revolution, and, above all, behavioural change.”

    How to do it? Won’t behavioural change require expert help? They say:
    “The long-term answer is … a demystified and decentralised system where the management, control and ownership of the technology lie in the hands of the communities themselves and not dependent on paper-qualified professionals from outside the villages.”

    Note that “communities” and “villages” appear to be synonymous, and this long-term behavioural change is to be in the hands of unnamed unqualified non-professionals from the villages.

    Cambodia, anyone?

  21. The Liao paper is fascinating, so surreal. It describes skin patches to conquer meat addiction, elaborate measures to turn the human race into hobbits, mind-altering drugs… This paper is a mind-altering drug all by itself! Here’s a sample:

    Human engineering could make behavioural and market solutions more likely to succeed in the following ways. For one thing, pharmacologically induced altruism and empathy could increase the likelihood that we adopt the necessary behavioural and market solutions for curbing climate change. Or, pharmacological meat intolerance could make the behavioural solution of giving up red meat much easier for those who want to do so but who find it too difficult.

    Moreover, human engineering could be liberty-enhancing when used alongside behavioural and market solutions. For example, given a certain fixed allocation per family of greenhouse gas emissions, each family may only be permitted to have two children, as Guillebaud and Hayes have proposed. However, if we were able to scale the size of human beings, then given the same fixed allocation of greenhouse gas emissions, some families may be able to have more than two children. Human engineering could therefore give people the choice between having a greater number of smaller children or a smaller number of larger children.

    The sinister Guardian “perfect storm” article is in a different dimension of weirdness. The opaque and deeply odd use of language is a giveaway. The “rapidly deteriorating biophysical situation”… “our unsustainable global practices”… “social problems for which they [sic] are innovative solutions are emerging from the grassroots” … “If fail [sic] to act and the science is right, then humanity is in deep trouble”… “the ecology that we depend on for our health, wealth and senses [sic] of self”…

    You know what it all means, don’t you. Aliens. They’re here. They’re trying to pass themselves off as human, but they haven’t quite yet got the knack of communicating with us. But they’re amongst us, writing bonkers academic papers and issuing bizarre “Blue Planet” communiqués. They’re taking over…

    We have to escape from our village communities and resist! But it’s almost too late…

  22. A recent interview with S. Matthew Liao (h/t Tom Nelson):
    http://tomnelson.blogspot.com/2012/03/do-not-miss-this-article-global-warming.html

    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.

    Liao writes about the possibility of oxytocin (often called the “love hormone” or “trust hormone”) making people more empathic and likely to “do the right thing”. However, here’s an article describing some interesting research indicating that things might not be this simple:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/04/opinion/la-oe-sapolsky-oxytocin-20111204

    Oxytocin, this research seemed to suggest, makes people feel warmer and fuzzier to those they consider “us.” But it makes people crappier to the “thems.”

    We’ve now got some fascinating research that shows the power of a hormone to affect behavior. But the findings also demonstrate the even greater power of social context. In one setting, when you see another person’s similarity to you, you’re likely to feel a responsibility to honor the golden rule, and oxytocin enhances this. But in another context, when what you see in the person standing before you are differences, oxytocin might egg your neurons on to smite him.

    If “us” comprises the people who believe strongly in taking action to reduce CO2 emissions, who might “them” be?

  23. Alex
    Leo Hickman has picked up Liao’s work at
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/mar/14/human-engineering-climate-change-philosophy

    Needless to say, the authors are feeling misunderstood, and Leo (Guardian Envirnomnet’s Agony Aunt, as Ben described him) is helping them out by giving them a sympathetic ear.
    One of the authors (from the Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute) says:
    “Climate change and many other problems have upstream and downstream solutions. For example, 1) human consumption leads to 2) a demand for production and energy, which leads to 3) industry, which leads to 4) greenhouse gas emissions, which lead to 5) planetary heating, which leads to 6) bad consequences …”
    Naturally, he dismisses the accusations of totalitarianism etc. But if you start with a model of society in which human activity is just a series of links in a causal chain which ends up with “bad consequences to the planet”, the antural result is inevitably going to be a fascist-like programme of control. They can’t see this because they can’t think outside their nasty little mindset.
    Meanwhile, on another planet, The Russians are going to the moon, and the Florentine’s are going to unveil a long-lost Leonardo fresco. Hooray for humans who want to do things, instead of stopping others from doing things.

  24. Geoff you’re right about the concatenation of consequences in environmental ‘ethics’. It’s the Franny Armstrong ‘one-thing-follows-the-other’ school of ‘ethics’, which makes you morally culpable for the death of another when you start your car engine. They can’t conceive of a different way of intervening, or understanding the problem, and can only see it as ‘denying the problem of climate change’, rather than engaging with it. This inability to understand the debate — even the academic debate — should be catastrophic for career moral philosophers and journalists claiming to specialise in ‘ethics’. But climate change seems to put mediocrity in pole position. It’s their inability to think straight that makes these researchers ‘useful’.

  25. Johann Hari provides a lovely example of the “one-thing-follows-another” school of ethics in his 2008 essay “A Journey Across the Ground Zero of Global Warming” (h/t Tom Nelson):
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/a-journey-across-the-grou_b_145839.html

    Upon hearing from James Hansen that the Greenland ice is melting and Bangladesh is threatened by a 25-metre sea-level rise, Johann feels compelled to go on a series of long journeys involving planes, motorbikes and automobiles to find out more, including “a month-long road trip across a country that we – you, me and everyone we know – are killing.”

    On his travels (I’m sure none of this is completely made up, by the way), he encounters a village where the children are being killed off by global warming, in the form of bad water. “Why did this happen?” asks one bereaved parent. Johann knows why.

    “It is happening because of us. Every flight, every hamburger, every coal power plant, ends here, with this. Bangladesh is a flat, low-lying land made of silt, squeezed in between the melting mountains of the Himalayas and the rising seas of the Bay of Bengal. As the world warms, the sea is swelling – and wiping Bangladesh off the map.”

    So there we have it. As a famous green philosopher put it: Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering. Suffering leads to a demand for fossil fuels, which leads to industrialisation, which apparently leads to you, me, Johann Hari and everyone we know personally murdering Bangladeshis with our hamburgers.

    “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.” Or something.

  26. More from Hickman’s revealing article:
    Liao, who is professor of Philosophy and Bioethics, says:
    “Our paper is intended for those who believe that i) climate change is a real problem; and ii) who, owing to i), are willing to take seriously geoengineering. All bets are off if someone doesn’t accept it”.
    So this is philosophy for believers only. That’s theology in my book.
    His co-author Anders Sandberg says:
    “People are unused to ethical analysis”.
    Which rather suggests that he doesn’t actually meet many real people. In pubs and on buses and over the breakfast table, ethical analysis is what we do all the time.
    There’s a lot more, but I think I get spammed if the comment is too long)

  27. Alex
    I couldn’t face reading the whole Hariri, so I turned to his last article in the Independent, where he apologised for making things up. Something I didn’t know was that he’d used a false name to change Wikipaedia articles on himself and George Monbiot, and to falsely accuse others of being drunk, anti-semitic, or homophobic.

  28. @Geoff, re Johann Hari, yes his career seems to have taken a very odd turn, of late. A shame, I enjoyed reading his OTT articles in the Indy.

    Re Anders Sandberg, he’s clearly not quite of this world; being an SF fan, however, I find his articles of great interest, although post-humanism doesn’t really appeal. Here he argues for a post-biological human civilisation:
    http://www.aleph.se/andart/archives/2009/03/a_really_green_and_sustainable_humanity.html

    My favourite long-term solution is simply to aim for not just a post-industrial civilization but a post-biological one. We can currently roughly foresee how we could go about it. We would fixate our brains (presumably when near biological death), scan them in detail, reconstruct the functional structure and recreate it as software. The successor version would then go on living in virtual reality, with occasional visits to the physical world using a robot, android or just remote controlled human body.

    That seems, to me anyway, like stasis and death. In the following passage, though, he says something rather sensible (emphasis mine):

    Thinking about sustainability means thinking long-term. Sustainability solutions need to work for enormous timescales (most “sustainability” discussed today is about getting out of our current predicament – laudable and necessary, but not a long-term solution). I think a postbiological ecological niche is very stable, since it has very simple physical requirements (energy, nitrogen, computer hardware and the tools to make it) regardless of what is going on culturally inside it. While that might not prevent future generations from reaching the conclusion that it would be a good idea to cover the Earth with photovoltaics or blow it up to build a Dyson shell from the remnants, that is their choice. We cannot really control the moral decisions of future generations – especially since they might actually know more than we do.

    Allowing the possibility that “we cannot control the moral decisions of future generations”, would include, I suggest, acknowledging the futility of projecting our values (“sustainability” being an example) onto hypothetical future humans and using them as a sort of moral platform from which to dictate our behaviour in the present.

  29. Alex
    Yes, I’ve been reading Anders’ musings with fascination. He continues:

    “… Maybe the most sustainable thing we could do would be to aim at a future ensconced in cold datacenters under the subtropical deserts of Earth. Humanity would largely look like a forest of quiet semiconductor trees. We would indeed have become plants.
    “I personally think that this sketch of a post-biological vegetable humanity is one of the most positive possibilities for our future. I think, once the technology is around, it will attract people voluntarily (after all, it gives the chance for immortality, any conceivable lifestyle *and* is green) … going virtual does not mean we completely abandon the physical world (we would be keeping … a few small colonies of holdouts of Homo sapiens just in case)”.

    Perhaps he had a script idea for Doctor Who rejected when he was fifteen and has never got over it. He’s been churning out this stuff on his blog since 2004. I looked at a dozen or so articles – total comments – zero. Dr Sandberg has already achieved a solipsistic vegetative state. And he teaches at Oxford.

  30. The human race aspiring to planthood reminds me somehow of the Andrew Marvell poem. “Annihilating all that’s made, To a green thought in a green shade”. Who says an arts/humanities education isn’t useful at moments like these?

    Re the Hickman article, even if Liao, Sandberg et al dance around the idea of coercion, one commentator, at least (the rather scary Teratornis), jumps right in.

    …it may not be possible to refrain from some form of coercion, so anyone who behaves coercively in some way while claiming not to favor it is being disingenuous. For example, with respect to climate change, what are the choices?

    1. A person can ignore climate science, go with the flow, and continue burning fossil fuels like everybody else. But this amounts to massive coercion for example by coercing future inhabitants of Florida to abandon half of their state when sea levels rise. Even in the shorter term, fossil fuels cannot be supplied at their current rates without coercion. Can the oil companies plunder places like Nigeria, Alberta, and the Middle East without anybody being coerced?

    2. A person can believe climate science, and do everything in their power to eliminate the portion of greenhouse gas emissions over which they have some influence. But then most other people are still destroying the climate. Is there a way to stop them which won’t involve coercing somebody?

    It’s not a question of whether there will be coercion, it’s a question of who will be coerced and to what end.

    (OT, but have you noticed that the Guardian Environment is staging a fight between George Monbiot and FoE over nuclear power. Funny way to celebrate Climate Week this year, but there we are.)

  31. Alex
    The Monbiot / FoE spat at
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/mar/16/nuclear-power-fail-george-monbiot
    is maybe not so off-topic. If decarbonising our energy supply is as difficult as both sides seem to believe, then human engineering may be the only solution. And turning us all into plants would be an excellent idea in a CO2-rich environment.
    I’m not sure that the participants in the debate aren’t the unwitting victims of a bit of human engineering themselves. By suppressing all dissent on the existence of CAGW, the Guardian has ensured that debate would turn to methods of mitigation. The government and their media groupies can then justify whichever energy choice they make by pointing to the fact that some Greens are on their side. Or they can say “the Greens can’t agree among themselves, so we’re going for shale gas”.
    When Monbiot momentarily saw the light after Climategate, I was hoping fervently that he would become the first major convert to scepticism. Given his incredible talent for splitting any movement he’s involved with, I’m rather glad he didn’t.

  32. As four former Directors of Friends of the Earth, we wrote to the Prime Minster this week setting out eight major economic and political problems facing a new build nuclear programme in the UK.

    Yet amazingly the French seem to manage just fine with a grid almost entirely nuclear powered. So why is it possible in France, yet not in England?

    We advocate a mixture of renewable energies (e.g. on and off-shore wind, solar, waste digestion, wave and tidal), combined heat and power, energy efficiency and carbon-capture-and-storage for gas to meet our energy needs.

    Where your needs – because fortunately FoE are in no position to affect my needs in NZ – are arbitrarily defined by FoE as somewhat less than you might be comfortable with. Because with that mix you are going to be very cold come a windless night in winter.

    I have seen a comment somewhere (Bishop Hill?) that any reference to tidal power is a sign that the person writing is detached from reality. It’s the green equivalent of the fruit-loopery that is cold fusion.

  33. The Guardian article by the ex-FoE directors which Mooloo quotes from (link in my comment #33) provoked a first long reply from Monbiot 18 minutes after it was published, followed by three other long replies at precise 10 minute intervals. Monbiot clearly had prior warning and had prepared his defence. Comment is a lot freer for those with inside knowledge.
    Monbiot’s original article, to which the ex-FoE directors are replying, doesn’t appear on the Guardian’s Climate Change page, despite the fact that it mentions climate change seven times. Monbiot seems to be avoiding debate on the issue, while using his privileged position to his advantage in the only debate he is willing to engage in – that on mitigation.

  34. @Mooloo, @Geoff, tidal energy is one of those ideas that appear promising at first (like electric cars and wave energy – I’m sure I can remember watching TV programmes like Tomorrow’s World about these subjects back in the 1970s, when it all seemed about to happen) and France actually has a tidal barrage that has been generating electricity since 1966, albeit providing only about 0.01% of the nation’s energy needs. However, I wonder whether, in 20 or 30 years’ time, it will still be one of those interesting ideas whose time has almost come.

    On the subject of coercion, the recent Gary Stix article in SciAm has stirred things up quite nicely:
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2012/03/17/effective-world-government-will-still-be-needed-to-stave-off-climate-catastrophe/

    Sentences like: “Would any institution be capable of instilling a permanent crisis mentality lasting decades, if not centuries?” and “In principle, species-wide alteration in basic human behaviors would be a sine qua non but that kind of pronouncement also profoundly strains credibility in the chaos of the political sphere” made me suspect at first that the article was an elaborate wind-up, but apparently it’s not. Here’s the transcript of a podcast by Science Magazine where this “global governance” thing is discussed:
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/suppl/2012/03/15/335.6074.1385-b.DC1/SciencePodcast_120316.pdf

    …we argue in favor of a structural change in global governance to deal with problems of global environmental change. Among others, we argue for the creation of a new counsel within the U.N. system – a counsel on sustainable development that should better integrate sustainable development changes – the economic, the social, and the environmental pillars of sustainable development at the highest level in the U.N. system. We also argue for the upgrading of the existing U.N. environment program toward full-fledged specialized U.N. agencies, which would give this agency better possibilities, better mandate to influence norm setting processes, a better source of funding, and a higher influence in the international governance.

    A “better mandate to influence norm setting processes”… Innocuous-sounding and yet sinister, at the same time.

    Professor Frank Biermann, on the subject of Rio +20:

    Well the times are certainly very difficult for dealing with global environmental issues, given financial crisis, all other kind of political issues that are certainly much higher on the agenda. But on the other hand, the urgencies are there. The urgency is in changes in planetary systems and we very much hope that governments get together the political will to enact a reform plan for global governance in this area in Rio de Janeiro this June and that then in the next couple of years we would see some of the structural changes that we propose to be implemented.

    “The urgency is in changes in planetary systems…” Yes – I knew it! Aliens…

  35. GloGov’s Frank Biermann also crops up on the speakers list at the Planet Under Pressure event starting next Monday:
    http://www.planetunderpressure2012.net/speakers.asp

    Are there any representatives of the ordinary human race going along to this thing to find out what plans our would-be planetary governors have for us? Ben?

  36. Stix in Scientific American and Biermann et al in Science (with the aid of Black at the BBC) are certainly making waves, provoking tons of reaction e.g. at WUWT and Bishop Hill.

    Biermann also had an article at Guardian Environment on the need for Rio to bring in “governance reforms” – an article which provoked just 13 comments
    comment 1: I agree… 0 recommends
    comment 2: great article.. 1 recommend
    comment 3: clean energy isn’t enough… 0 recommends
    comment 4: watermelon gibberish… 49 recommends

    You have to feel sorry for the editors of the Guardian Environment sometimes.
    Why do they do this? The readers of Science and SciAm are well-educated empirical types interested in technical progress. The average Guardian reader is proud of his critical faculties. How come their editors think their readers will be seduced by the fantasies of Pol Pots in suits powerpointing in Rio? It’s so weird.

  37. My local media are slowly catching up:

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/6703760/Final-frontier-of-climate-policy-remake-humans

    What interested me was what was at the bottom:
    Dr Sandberg, of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, said the paper had inadvertently ”managed to press two hot buttons” – climate change and ”messing with human nature”.

    The story may mutate into one that had scientists working on re-engineering people to be green, ”yet another piece of evidence of the Big Conspiracy”, he said.

    So, caught out with making idiots of themselves, Sandberg’s defence for his side is that others are likely to take it the wrong way! I presume that he means that his side are really pretty good guys, and suggestions that people be re-engineered are entirely reasonable. Moreover anyone who dislikes suggestions that the authors are eugenic nutters are, in fact, themselves the conspiracy theory nutters.

    They appear so convinced of their own rectitude that articles that suggest removing democracy or bringing in human engineering are given the green flag. But a person who suggests that they are thereby overstepping the bounds of decency is likened to a Holocaust denier!

  38. Mooloo, this seems to be a common attribute among those like Dr Sandberg, Matthew Liao, Kari Norgaard, etc. I suppose a charitable explanation might be that life in an academic bubble breeds a certain naiivity about how the rest of the world thinks.

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