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Sierra Daily

Mar 13, 2012

Frivolous Solutions to Climate Change

ChromosomesThere is a deeply silly story at the Atlantic's web site by Ross Andersen on "How Engineering the Human Body Could Combat Climate Change." It discusses a forthcoming paper by S. Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at NYU, in Ethics, Policy & Environment that proposes a novel approach to dealing with climate change: biomedical modifications to humans to help them consume less.

For instance, many people wish to give up meat for ecological reasons, but lack the willpower to do so on their own. The paper suggests that such individuals could take a pill that would trigger mild nausea upon the ingestion of meat, which would then lead to a lasting aversion to meat-eating. Other techniques are bound to be more controversial. For instance, the paper suggests that parents could make use of genetic engineering or hormone therapy in order to birth smaller, less resource-intensive children. 

Mightn't it be ethically problematic to do that to your kids? asks Andersen. Liao makes a "greater good" argument:

The reason we are even considering these solutions is to prevent climate change, which is a really serious problem, and which might affect the well being of millions of people including the child. And so in that context, if on balance human engineering is going to promote the well being of that particular child, then you might be able to justify the solution to the child. 

Curiously, Liao suggests tinkering with the human genome in part because geoengineering, last year's hot techno fix to climate change, is "just too risky." But hormone treatments to encourage smaller children or drugs to reduce or increase the expression of certain genes--what could go wrong with that?

Here's my bioethics question: What are the ethical implications of pretending to address climate change with bizarre and impractical technological fixes instead of addressing the real problems--dependence on coal for electrical power and oil for transportation? Again I have the opportunity to quote the English philosopher J.L. Austin: "There are easier ways to kill a cat than drowning it in butter." It may be amusing to concoct Rube Goldberg-like contrivances for cooling the planet, but in the end it's a matter of cultural change (like the country's 12% decline in meat consumption since 2007) and political will.

--Paul Rauber / Image of chromosomes by iStock/BlackJack3D

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