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Human Engineering and Climate Change



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 ordinary 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 it 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 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.
Human Engineering and Climate Change
Forthcoming as a Target Article in Ethics, Policy and the Environment
February 2, 2012
Human Engineering and Climate Change
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 ordinary 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 it
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.
Human Engineering and Climate Change
I. Introduction
Anthropogenic climate change, or climate change for short, is arguably one of the biggest
problems that confront us today. There is wide agreement that climate change will affect
the lives of all people around the world in areas such as food production, access to water,
health, and the environment. Indeed, it has been estimated that millions could suffer
hunger, water shortages, diseases, and costal flooding as a result of global warming
(IPCC 2007; Stern 2007).
The risks of the worst impacts of climate change can be lowered if greenhouse gas
levels in the atmosphere can be reduced and stabilised. To cut greenhouse gas emissions,
various solutions have been proffered, ranging from low-tech, ordinary behavioural
solutions such as encouraging people to drive less and recycle more; to market solutions
such as carbon taxation, emissions trading, and other ways of incentivising industries to
adopt cleaner power, heat, and transport technologies; to geoengineering, i.e., large-scale
manipulations of the environment including reforestation, using space-based mirrors to
alter planetary albedo, and fertilizing the ocean with iron to enhance carbon sinks (Keith
There is lively debate in the relevant literature about these different kinds of
solutions. Each kind has its merits and demerits
(Ekins and Barker 2001; Keith 2000;
Kollmuss and Agyeman 2002). For example, an advantage of behavioural solutions is
that they are ones that most of us could easily physically perform. Their disadvantages
include the fact that many people lack the motivation to alter their behaviour in the
required ways, and the fact that even if widely adopted, behavioural changes alone may
not be enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to mitigate climate
change. An advantage of market solutions is that they could reduce the conflict that
currently exists for companies between making profit and minimising undesirable
environmental impact. A disadvantage is that effective market solutions such as
international emissions trading require workable international agreements, which has thus
far seemed difficult to orchestrate. For instance, it has been argued that the Kyoto
Protocol has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions in the world (Prins and
Rayner 2007). Moreover, it has been estimated that to restore our climate to a hospitable
state requires us to cut our carbon emissions globally by at least 70 percent (Washington
et al. 2009). Given the inelastic and rising demands for petrol and electricity, there are
also issues about whether market solutions such as carbon taxation can by themselves be
enough to deliver reductions of this magnitude. An advantage of geoengineering is that,
in theory, its impact could be significant enough to mitigate climate change (The Royal
Society 2009). Its disadvantages include the fact that, in many cases, we lack the
necessary scientific knowledge to devise and implement geoengineering without
significant risk to ourselves and to future generations. Some have therefore argued that
no institution or nation-state has the right to attempt geoengineering (Jamieson 1996).
In this paper, we explore a new kind of solution to the problem of climate change.
We call this kind of solution human engineering. It involves the biomedical modification
of humans to make them better at mitigating climate change. We shall argue that human
engineering potentially offers an effective means of tackling climate change, especially if
implemented alongside the sorts of solution that we have already described.
To be clear, we shall not argue that human engineering ought to be adopted; such
a claim would require far more exposition and argument than we have space for here.
Our central aim here is to show that human engineering deserves consideration alongside
other solutions in the debate about how to solve the problem of climate change. Also, as
we envisage it, human engineering would be a voluntary activity – possibly supported by
incentives such as tax breaks or sponsored health care – rather than a coerced, mandatory
II. Human Engineering Solutions to Climate Change
To start, it will be helpful to have some possible examples of human engineering. Note
that these examples are meant to be suggestive and we are not wedded to these particular
examples. Although we think that these examples are not implausible, there may be
better examples to illustrate our point that human engineering should be taken seriously.
We invite readers to come up with such examples.
Pharmacological meat intolerance
A widely cited report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates
that 18% of the world’s greenhouse emissions (in CO
equivalents) come from livestock
farming, a higher share than from transport (Steinfeld et al. 2006). More recently, it has
been suggested livestock farming in fact accounts for at least 51% of the world’s
greenhouse emissions (Goodland and Anhang 2009). But even by the more conservative
estimate, close to 9% of human CO
emissions are due to deforestation for expansion of
pastures, 65% of anthropogenic nitrous oxide is due to manure and 37% of anthropogenic
methane comes directly or indirectly from livestock. Some experts estimate that each of
the world’s 1.5 billion cows alone emit 100-500 liters (about 26-132 gallons) of methane
a day (Johnson and Johnson 1995). In addition there are sizeable negative impacts on
water availability and biodiversity (Steinfeld et al. 2006). Finally, emissions from
livestock is expected to increase very dramatically (Goodland and Anhang 2009).
Since a large proportion of these cows and other grazing animals are meant for
consumption, reducing the consumption of these kinds of meat (for brevity, call them
‘red meat’) could have significant environmental benefits (Eshel and Martin 2006).
Indeed, even a minor (21-24%) reduction of red meat consumption would achieve the
same reduction in emissions as the total localization of food production, i.e., having zero
‘food miles’ (Weber and Matthews 2008).
While reducing the consumption of red meat can be achieved through social,
cultural means, people often lack the motivation or willpower to give up eating red meat
even if they wish they could. Human engineering could help here. Eating something that
makes us feel nauseous can trigger long-lasting food aversion. While eating red meat
with added emetic (a substance that induces vomiting) could be used as an aversion
conditioning, anyone not strongly committed to giving up red meat is unlikely to be
attracted to this option. A more realistic option might be to induce mild intolerance (akin,
e.g., to milk intolerance) to these kinds of meat. While meat intolerance is normally
uncommon (Aparicio et al. 2005), in principle, it could be induced by stimulating the
immune system against common bovine proteins. The immune system would then
become primed to react to such proteins, and henceforth eating ‘eco-unfriendly’ food
would induce unpleasant experiences. Even if the effects do not last a lifetime, the
learning effect is likely to persist for a long time. A potentially safe and practical way of
delivering such intolerance may be to produce ‘meat’ patches – akin to nicotine patches.
We can produce patches for those animals that contribute the most to greenhouse gas
emissions and encourage people to use such patches.
Making humans smaller
Another more striking example of human engineering is the possibility of making
humans smaller. Human ecological footprints are partly correlated with our size. We need
a certain amount of food and nutrients to maintain each kilogram of body mass. This
means that, other things being equal, the larger one is, the more food and energy one
requires. Indeed, basal metabolic rate (which determines the amount of energy needed per
day) scales linearly with body mass and length (Mifflin et al. 1990)
. As well as needing
to eat more, larger people also consume more energy in less obvious ways. For example,
a car uses more fuel per mile to carry a heavier person than a lighter person; more fabric
is needed to clothe larger than smaller people; heavier people wear out shoes, carpets, and
furniture more quickly than lighter people, and so on.
A way to reduce ecological footprints, then, would be to reduce size. Since weight
increases with the cube of length, even a small reduction in, e.g., height, might produce a
significant effect in size, other things being equal (To reduce size, one could also try to
reduce average weight or average weight and height, but to keep the discussion simple,
we shall use just the example of height). Reducing the average US height by 15 cm
Kleiber’s law in biology states that metabolic rate scales as the 3/4
power of mass of an animal.
However, within the small size ranges we are discussing here the linear approximation should work.
would mean a mass reduction of 23% for men and 25% for women, with a corresponding
reduction of metabolic rate (15%/18%), since less tissue means lower nutrients and
energy needs.
How could such a reduction be achieved? Height is determined partly by genetic
factors and partly through diet and stressors. While the genetic control is polygenetic,
with many genes contributing a small amount to overall height, the growth process itself
is largely controlled by the hormone somatotropin (human growth hormone). Given this,
there are several ways by which we could reduce adult height in humans.
One way is through preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). While genetic
modifications to control height are likely to be quite complex and beyond our current
capacities, it nevertheless seems possible now to use PGD to select shorter children. This
would not involve intervening to change the genetic material of embryos, or employing
any clinical methods not currently used. It would simply involve rethinking the criteria
for selecting which embryos to implant.
Another method of affecting height is to use hormone treatment either to affect
somatotropin levels or to trigger the closing of the epiphyseal plate earlier than normal
(this sometimes occurs accidentally through vitamin A overdoses (Rothenberg et al.
2007)). Hormone treatments are used for growth reduction in excessively tall children
(Bramswig et al. 1988; Grüters et al. 1989). Currently, somatostatin (an inhibitor of
growth hormone) is being studied as a safer alternative (Hindmarsh et al. 1995).
Finally, a more speculative and controversial way of reducing adult height is to
reduce birth weight. There is a correlation between birth weight and adult height
(Sorensen et al. 1999), according to which birth weight at the lower edge of the normal
distribution tends to result in the adult’s being 5 cm shorter. Birth height has an even
stronger effect for adult height. If one is born at the lower edge of the normal distribution
of height, this tends to produce 15 cm shorter adult height. Gene imprinting has been
found to affect birth size, as a result of evolutionary competition between paternally and
maternally imprinted genes (Burt and Trivers 2006). Drugs or nutrients that either reduce
the expression of paternally imprinted genes, or increase the expression of maternally
imprinted genes, could potentially regulate birth size.
Lowering birth-rates through cognitive enhancement
In 2008, John Guillebaud, an emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive
health at University College London, and Dr Pip Hayes, a general practitioner from
Exeter, pointed out that ‘each UK birth will be responsible for 160 times more
greenhouse gas emissions … than a new birth in Ethiopia’ ((Guillebaud and Hayes 2008):
576). As a way to mitigate climate change, they proposed that Britons should consider
having no more than two children per family.
Guillebaud and Hayes did not say how lower birth-rates should be achieved
beyond suggesting that people should have this information and that they should have
access to contraceptives. There are of course many other available methods of curbing
birth-rates. However, there is also strong evidence that birth-rates are negatively
correlated with adequate access to education for women (United Nations 1995). While
the primary reason for promoting education is to improve human rights and well-being,
fertility reduction may be a positive side-effect from the point of view of tackling climate
In fact, there seems to be a link between cognition itself and lower birth-rates. At
least in the US, women with low cognitive ability are more likely to have children before
age 18 (Shearer et al. 2002). So, another possible human engineering solution is to use
cognition enhancements to achieve lower birth rates. Like education, there are many
other, more compelling reasons to improve cognition, but the fertility effect may be
desirable as a means of tackling climate change. Even if the direct cognitive effect on
fertility is minor, cognition enhancements may help increase the ability of people to
educate themselves (Sandberg and Bostrom 2006), which would then affect fertility, and
indirectly climate change. We shall shortly consider the effectiveness of such an indirect
strategy for tackling climate change.
Pharmacological enhancement of altruism and empathy
Another indirect means of mitigating climate change is to enhance and improve our
moral decisions by making us more altruistic and empathetic.
Many environmental problems are the result of collective action problems,
according to which individuals do not cooperate for the common good. In a number of
the cases, the impact of any particular individual’s attempt to address a particular
environmental problem has a negligible impact, but the impact of a large group of
individuals working together can be huge. 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. Increasing
altruism and empathy may help increase the chances of this occurring (Dietz et al. 2003;
Fehr et al. 2002; Gintis 2000).
Also, many environmental problems seem to be exacerbated by—or perhaps even
result from—a lack of appreciation of the value of other life forms and nature itself
(Kollmuss and Agyeman 2002). It seems plausible that, were people more aware of the
suffering caused to certain groups of people and animals as a result of environmental
problems, they would be more likely to want to help tackle these problems. The fact that
many environmental charities campaign to raise awareness of such suffering as a way of
increasing donations supports this assumption.
There is evidence that higher empathy levels correlate with stronger
environmental behaviors and attitudes (Berenguer 2007). Increasing altruism and
empathy could also help increase people’s willingness to assist those who suffer from
climate change. While altruism and empathy have large cultural components, there is
evidence that they also have biological underpinnings. This suggests that modifying them
by human engineering could be promising. Indeed, test subjects given the prosocial
hormone oxytocin were more willing to share money with strangers (Paul J. Zak et al.
2007) and to behave in a more trustworthy way (P. J. Zak et al. 2005). Also, a
noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor increased social engagement and cooperation with a
reduction in self-focus during a mixed motive game (Tse and Bond 2002). Similar effects
have been observed with SSRIs in humans and animal experiments (Knutson et al. 1998).
Furthermore, oxytocin appears to improve the capacity to read other people’s emotional
state, which is a key capacity for empathy (Domes et al. 2007; Guastella et al. 2008).
Conversely, testosterone appears to decrease aspects of empathy (Hermans et al. 2006)
and in particular conscious recognition of facial threats (van Honk and Schutter 2007).
Neuroimaging work has also revealed that one’s willingness to comply with social norms
may be correlated with particular neural substrates (Spitzer et al. 2007). This raises the
likelihood that interventions affecting the sensitivity in these neural systems could also
increase the willingness to cooperate with social rules or goals.
These examples are intended to illustrate some possible human engineering
solutions. Others like them might include increasing our resistance to heat and tropical
diseases, and reducing our need for food and water.
III. Taking Human Engineering Seriously
Why should we take human engineering solutions seriously? To answer this question, it
is useful first to make explicit an assumption that we are making, namely, ordinary
behavioural solutions such as driving less and recycling more and market solutions such
as taxation and emissions trading are by themselves inadequate to mitigate climate
change. We assume this in part because there is ample evidence that this may be the case
(Rahmstorf et al. 2007; U.N. Environment Programme 2008) and because a number of
experts on climate change seem to take far riskier solutions such as geoengineering
seriously (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 2010). If behavioural
and market solutions were by themselves sufficient to mitigate climate change, it would
not be necessary to take geoengineering seriously. Suppose that we should take
geoengineering seriously and that behaviour and market solutions are by themselves
inadequate to mitigate climate change. There are at least two reasons to take human
engineering seriously. First, human engineering is potentially less risky than
geoengineering. Second, human engineering could make behaviour and market solutions
more likely to succeed. We shall explain each point in turn.
A common objection to certain existing or proposed geoengineering solutions is
that they are too risky. Some geoengineering solutions, such as using space-mirrors to
alter planetary albedo, pose risks to the planet and to future generations – risks that are
compounded by the fact that these solutions often involve novel technology whose effects
are little known. In contrast, at least the human engineering solutions we have described
rely on tried-and-tested technology, whose risks, at least at the individual level, are
comparatively low and well known. For example, PGD – the process that would enable
us to select smaller children – is an accepted practice in many fertility clinics.
oxytocin, which could be used to increase empathy, is already used as a prescription
drug. Furthermore, given that human engineering applies at the level of individual
humans, it seems that we can better manage such risks than the risks imposed by
something like geoengineering which takes place on a much larger, global, scale. If one
should take geoengineering seriously, and if human engineering has the potential to
mitigate climate change while be less risky than geoengineering, this seems to be a good
reason to take human engineering seriously.
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.
For a discussion of the ethics of using PGD for non-medical uses, see, e.g., S. Matthew Liao, 'The Ethics
of Using Genetic Engineering for Sex Selection', Journal of Medical Ethics, 31 (2005), 116-18, John
Robertson, 'Pgd: New Ethical Challenges', Nat Rev Genet, 4/1 (2003), 6-6.
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.
Furthermore, some human engineering solutions could be ‘win-win’ solutions in
the sense that desirable effects are very likely to result from implementing them
regardless of their effectiveness at tackling climate change. Cognitive enhancement, if
effective at reducing birth rates, could enable China to limit or dispense with its
controversial, coercive one-child policy. But even if the effect of cognitive enhancement
on birth rates is disappointing, improved cognition is itself of great value. Or, consider
pharmacological meat intolerance: if this method is effective at reducing greenhouse
gases that result from the farming of certain kinds of animals for consumption, it could
reduce the need to tax undesirable behaviour (such as consuming goods that are most
damaging to the environment). But even if its effect on greenhouse gases is
disappointing, the health benefits of eating less red meat and the reduction in suffering of
animals farmed for consumption are themselves positive goods. In general, as well as
helping to mitigate climate change, human engineering could also help solve some other
serious problems of the modern world: smaller people, more considerate people, and
lower meat consumption, could, for example, help address the problems associated with
unsustainable energy demands and water shortage.
IV. Potential Concerns Regarding Human Engineering
While there are positive reasons to pursue human engineering, there are also reasons to
be concerned with human engineering. To defend the prospect of human engineering
further, we consider some of these concerns in this section.
We have suggested that human engineering is potentially less risky than geoengineering.
However, as with all biomedical treatments—including those routinely prescribed by
medical professionals—human engineering still carries risks. The type and severity of
risk will vary from procedure to procedure. There could, for example, be side-effects of
making children smaller by giving them hormones. Indeed, the steroid treatments
currently used to treat growth abnormalities may risk triggering an early onset of puberty
or other hormonal imbalances. Also, somatostatin analogues may increase the risks of
gallstones (Ahrendt et al. 1991). Or, increasing altruism and empathy using oxytocin
might make a community more vulnerable to those who would take advantage of other
people’s trust and generosity. In fact, a study found that when informed about breaches of
trust in their community, people are less likely to modify their trusting behavior if they
have been given oxytocin (Baumgartner et al. 2008; Kosfeld et al. 2005). The possibility
of these risks means that if people are to be persuaded to undergo human engineering, the
risks associated with it must be minimized.
Our response is that acknowledge these risks exist, but also to point out that these
risks should be balanced against the risks associated with taking inadequate action to
combat climate change. If behavioural and market solutions alone are not sufficient to
mitigate the effects of climate change, then even if human engineering were riskier than
these other solutions, we might still need to consider it.
Also, it is important not to exaggerate the risks involved in human engineering.
This is a very real possibility, since people are generally less tolerant of risks arising from
novel, unfamiliar technologies than they are of risks arising from familiar sources (Slovic
1987; Starr 1969). To counter this effect, it is worth remembering that some of the
technology involved in human engineering – such as PGD and oxytocin – is already
safely available for other uses, and that in non-climate change contexts, our society has
been willing to make biomedical interventions on a population-wide scale. For example,
fluoride is deliberately added to water with the aim of fortifying us against tooth decay,
even though doing so is not without risks. Similarly, people are routinely vaccinated to
prevent themselves and those around them from acquiring infectious diseases, even
though vaccinations can sometimes even lead to death. Given that biomedical
modifications are accepted in these other contexts, and given that climate change is at
least as serious as these other problems, again it seems that we should consider human
Furthermore, as we have mentioned earlier, a number of the human engineering
solutions could be beneficial in other ways. Hence, while human engineering involves
risks, it can also carry benefits over and above the contribution it makes to tackling
climate change. This makes it more likely to be voluntarily adopted than solutions that
entail more costs than benefits to the individual.
On the whole then, with respect to safety, it seems that we should judge human
engineering solutions on a case by case basis, and not rule all of them out tout court.
Interfering with human nature
Even if it is safe, since human engineering belongs to the general cluster of biomedical
technologies that seek to modify or enhance humans, human engineering will raise the
similar sorts of ethical concerns that are raised by biomedical enhancements generally.
Owing to space, we shall just mention one such concern here for illustrative purposes
(Liao 2008). In particular, Michael Sandel has argued that a problem with human
enhancement is that it represents ‘a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including
human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires’ (Sandel 2004). Given that
human engineering is using biomedical means for the sake of climate change, some might
worry that this problem would similarly be present in human engineering. Indeed, a
number of environmentalists believe that it is precisely our interference with nature that
has given rise to climate change. These environmentalists might therefore object to
human engineering on the ground that it too is interfering with nature.
First, the following view is surely too strong:
The Interfering with Nature View: It is morally impermissible to interfere with
human nature, because this is interfering with nature, and it is morally
impermissible to interfere with nature.
Among other things, this view – at least in its unqualified form – implies (implausibly)
that providing vaccination, offering pain relief to women in labor, and so on, are
impermissible, since these acts interfere with nature. Also, not every human engineering
solution involves ‘interfering’ with human nature, if by ‘interference’ one means making
modifications to human beings. The selection of a smaller child through PGD, for
example, involves no more interference with nature than the standard IVF process, a
process to which many people do not object.
In addition, whilst many human engineering solutions involve interference with
human nature, they also – by mitigating climate change – reduce our interference with
nature at large. Indeed, if they turn out to be truly successful, they would bring about a
net reduction in human interference with nature. As such, even those who oppose
interfering with nature should not rule out human engineering on the ground that it
involves interfering with nature, and should even – in the interests of reducing the total
extent of human interference with nature – seriously consider supporting it.
Finally, Sandel is objecting to human enhancement partly because many people
want to use it ‘to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires.’ It is true that human
engineering in some respects serves our own interests and our children’s interests. But
human engineering is also an ethical endeavor in that mitigating climate change can
promote the well-being of many people and animals that are vulnerable to the effects of
climate change, and, as mentioned before, it can play an important role in preserving
nature at large. Given this, it seems that even those who share Sandel’s disapproval of
the ‘Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our
purposes and satisfy our desires’ can consistently endorse consideration of human
Modifying our children
Whilst many human engineering solutions would involve individuals autonomously
choosing to modify themselves, some would involve engineering children. Is it ethical for
parents to make choices that may irreversibly affect their children’s lives? This is an
important issue, but it is worth remembering that not all human engineering solutions that
would involve children are necessarily controversial. For instance, would we as parents
really object to using cognitive enhancement on our children as a means of lowering birth
rates? There is evidence that many parents are indeed happy to give their children
cognitive enhancements. For example, a great many parents – perhaps even too many
are willing to give Ritalin to their healthy children so that they can concentrate and
perform better at school, even though Ritalin is intended for children with ADHD and
certainly has side effects.
With regard to those human engineering solutions that would involve children and
that may be controversial – such as making children smaller – issues about a child’s
present and future autonomy and the limits of parental authority would certainly arise
(Liao 2005). The extent to which we are concerned by this issue will vary from case to
case. As a general remark, it is worth reminding ourselves why more controversial kinds
of human engineering would be contemplated. They might be contemplated because there
is evidence that existing solutions for mitigating climate change are likely to fall short of
their intended goals, and because millions could suffer hunger, water shortages, diseases,
and costal flooding if climate change were not mitigated. In the biomedical enhancement
literature, some people believe that, however controversial a technology may be, parents
have the right socially and biologically to modify their children as long as doing so would
on the whole promote their children’s well-being, and as long as there exists no better
means of achieving such an end (J. A. Robertson 1994). Similarly, given the seriousness
of climate change, and given the possible lack of alternative solutions, we might conclude
that if a particular human engineering solution would on the whole promote a child’s
well-being, then parents should also have a right to implement such a solution even if the
solution is a controversial one. Not everybody would subscribe to this line of reasoning,
and we do not have space here for a full treatment of it; however, it suggests that we have
reason not to rule out even controversial human engineering solutions, but to weigh them
against other options.
Human engineering and society
Human engineering may be fine for individuals, but may turn out to be bad for the
society as a whole. To motivate the ensuing discussion, we shall use the example of
making people smaller, as that is one example that is likely to raise this sort of concern.
Some people might worry that using human engineering to make people smaller would
entail that the most disadvantaged members of societies would bear the brunt of the effort
(and the associated risks) of preserving the environment. For example, the most
disadvantaged members of societies already tend to be smaller than non-disadvantaged
members of societies (Jansen and HazebroekKampschreur 1997). If one were to use
financial incentives to encourage people to be smaller, the most disadvantaged members
of societies might not have the option to refuse these incentives and might therefore
disproportionately bear the burdens of alleviating climate change.
We do not have the space to address this issue in full here, but it seems that the
most plausible accounts of distributive justice should able to address this issue from their
internal theoretical resources. For example, suppose that one were a sufficientarian (Crisp
2003), and believed that there is a ‘sufficiency’ level of height below which it would be
disabling for anyone to be. One might make sure that those who are expected to be
below this level are not given the incentives to take advantage of such human
engineering. This may then ensure that everyone has sufficient height.
Best use of resources
Assuming that we have limited resources – in terms of time, money, brain power, and so
on – to devote to mitigating climate change, allocating resources to pursuing human
engineering will result in our having fewer resources to devote to other types of solution.
This in itself may be a reason not to pursue human engineering. This argument has been
used against both climate adaptation and geoengineering. Some might also worry that,
compared to other solutions, human engineering offers relatively few benefits for the
costs involved. This worry applies especially to human engineering solutions such as
lowering birth-rates through cognitive enhancement or increasing altruism and empathy
through oxytocin, which are relatively indirect means of mitigating climate change, in
that they must pass through many steps in the causal chain before they can have an effect
on the problem. As a result, it might be thought that using human engineering to tackle
climate change is a poor use of resources.
It may turn out to be the case that human engineering is not the best way of
tackling climate change, just as it may turn out that various other, more familiar, types of
solution are not the best ones either. But to concede this point now would ignore the
widely-recognised fact that climate change remains a serious problem today and we do
not currently know which solutions will be the most effective. Discovering the extent to
which human engineering – or any of the other solution currently being considered – is
worth pursuing is largely an empirical challenge, and one that we are far more likely to
meet in a timely manner if we maintain open minds about which solutions will be best.
Limited appeal
Finally and perhaps the most obvious objection to our suggestion that human engineering
solutions should be considered is: it’s a preposterous idea! In particular, who in their
right mind would choose to make their children smaller? We are well aware that our
proposal to encourage having smaller, but environmentally-friendlier human beings is
prima facie outlandish, and we have made no attempt to avoid provoking this response.
There is a good reason for this, namely, we wish to highlight that examining intuitively
absurd or apparently drastic ideas can be an important learning experience, and that
failing to do so could result in our missing out on opportunities to address important,
often urgent, issues. History is replete with examples of issues or ideas which, whilst
widely supported or even invaluable now, were ridiculed and dismissed when they were
first proposed. In 1872, Pierre Pachet, a professor of physiology at Toulouse, dismissed
Pasteur’s theory of germs as a ‘ridiculous fiction’. An internal memo at Western Union in
1876 remarked that ‘this “telephone” has too many shortcomings to be seriously
considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us’.
Lord Kelvin, the president of the Royal Society, claimed in 1895 that ‘heavier than air
flying machines are impossible’.
In 1943, Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM,
doubted that the world could need any more than five computers. And only a few decades
ago, those who worried about climate change – now widely recognised as one of the most
pressing problems of our age – were frequently dismissed as ‘tree-huggers’. The lesson
here is that, whilst we may often be good at judging which ideas are unworthy of
pursuing, we are nevertheless sometimes vulnerable to dismissing useful and valuable
The suggestion that we make our children smaller for the sake of the planet is the
most controversial of the solutions described here. The reason that many people
responded negatively to this idea seems not to be that they were doubtful of its effect on
climate change if implemented, but that they doubt many people could be persuaded to
implement it. There is something to this belief: in our society, being tall is viewed as
being advantageous. Studies show that women find taller men more attractive than
shorter men (Kurzban and Weeden 2005), and that taller people enjoy greater career
success (Judge and Cable 2004). Given this, it seems plausible that people will not want
to make themselves or their children shorter.
In response to this, we can note, first, that the fact that a particular human
engineering solution may not appeal to some people is not a reason to avoid making such
These examples were sourced from http://www.get-
eID/8/ on 10
November 2008.
a solution available. Many things that are freely available in society appeal to a limited
few and are given a wide berth by everyone else. Consider, for example, tattoos, bungee
jumping, and running marathons. In the case of particular human engineering solutions
with limited appeal, all other things being equal, it seems that it is better that these
solutions are available and used by only a few than that they are unavailable to all.
Second, what may be unappealing today may not be so tomorrow. This could be
because people’s attitudes about what is appealing can and do change, especially if there
are ethical reasons for a particular type of intervention. For example, people’s attitudes
towards vegetarianism have changed as a result of vegetarianism’s ethical status.
People’s attitudes towards currently unappealing human engineering solutions may
undergo a similar change as awareness spreads about the effects that these solutions
could have on the problem of climate change. Our attitudes about the extent to which
certain qualities are appealing can also change with changes in the people around us. A
recent study shows that those who care about their weight are more likely to allow
themselves to grow fatter when surrounded by overweight people than they are when
surrounded by slim people (Blanchflower, Oswald et al., 2008). This suggests that, even
if a relatively small number of people made their children smaller, this might result in a
reduction in the extent to which having a certain minimum height is valued by others.
With the right incentives, such as tax breaks, those others might be willing to have
smaller children of their own.
Third, we should be on our guard against status quo bias. Other things being
equal, people are disposed to favour their current situation over a new one. In fact, we are
even disposed to favour the current situation when other things are not equal, and often
prefer to maintain the status quo over a new situation that is measurably better (Bostrom
and Ord). Making our children smaller may be unappealing, but so is the prospect of
having our children grow up in a world blighted by the environmental consequences of
their ancestors’ choices and lifestyles. To attempt to circumvent our preference for the
current status quo, imagine that our pre-industrial ancestors are given a choice between a)
a world populated by nine billion people who have intervened in their own biology such
that most of them are smaller than they would otherwise have been, and who as a result
live in a sustainable world; b) a world populated by nine billion people who have not
intervened to affect their own height and who as a result live in a non-sustainable world;
and c) a world populated by six billion people who have not intervened to affect their
own height and who live in a sustainable world. It is not obvious that, to our pre-
industrial ancestors, a) would stand out as the least appealing option. In fact, it seems
plausible that they might prefer a) to b) or c), given that a) allows more people to live in a
sustainable world. In dismissing certain human engineering solutions as unappealing,
then, we should ensure that we are not thereby implicitly endorsing a more familiar, but
certainly no more appealing, set of circumstances.
Finally, we should note that whilst it is tempting to focus on the most provocative
examples of human engineering solutions – which, in this case, also happen to be the
least appealing – it is not the case that human engineering is synonymous with lack of
appeal. As we mentioned earlier, one way to reduce size and therefore carbon footprints
is to reduce height. But another way to reduce size is to reduce weight, which would
presumably be less controversial. In general, there is no reason why it should not be
possible to develop human engineering solutions that, as well as helping to fight climate
change, are also highly appealing to individuals. Indeed, cognitive enhancements and
pharmacological means of resisting meat are likely to appeal to many people, since
improved cognition and the health benefits of vegetarianism are goods in themselves.
V. Conclusion
In this paper, we hope to have given a flavour of what human engineering solutions to
climate change might involve. We argued that human engineering is potentially less risky
than geoengineering and that it could make behavioural and market solutions more likely
to succeed. We also considered some possible concerns regarding human engineering,
and we suggested some lines of response to these concerns. No doubt much more can be
said for and against human engineering. In fact, our hope is that more will be said
regarding it in the context of climate change. Given that climate change is likely to affect
many aspects of life for all people around the world, and given that behavioural and
market solutions might not be enough to mitigate climate change, we believe that human
engineering deserves to be considered and explored further in this debate.
We would like to thank David Frame, Emily Boyd, Tom Douglas, Wibke Gruetjen, and audiences at the
Oxford University James Martin 21st Century Advanced Research Seminar, the University of Reading
Philosophy Society, and the Northeastern University 2011 Workshop in Applied Philosophy for their
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... Indeed, since geopolitical and environmental problems have reached the planetary scale, relegating the agency of communities and individuals to ever narrower zones of life, "technopower" emerges as the only geohistorical guide. And the fact is that, if the problems derived from climate change find their only solution in geoengineering approaches, such as solar radiation management (Granados Mateo 2021), and even on human engineering through genetic adaptation to altered environments (Sandberg and Roache 2012), the power for governing under these principia remains exclusively in the hands of those who possess the appropriate technoscientific knowledge. Thus, the dream would be fulfilled that, according to Merchant, stems from Baconian utopianism, and in which scientists "not only seemed, but behaved as priests who had the power to absolve all human misery through science" (2020, 94). ...
In the current debate on the causes, consequences and solutions for the climate crisis, it will be argued that the hegemonic discourse of the Anthropocene implies a problematic anthropological, ecological, historical and scientific perspective, as, by reproducing a Cartesian dualist view, it replicates the ideological schemes that are at the origin of the crisis. Therefore, after exposing the main assumptions of the Anthropocene, a critique is proposed by conversing with alternative perspectives. As it will be pointed out, these tend to focus on single elements only gaining importance because of the role they play within the world-ecological capitalist structure, which requires assuming a broader historical and structural proposal: the Capitalocene perspective. In this study, while interrogating the constitutive pillars of the Capitalocene, the aim is to analyze at an even deeper level to highlight that capitalism itself is a material structure built on the ideological foundations of Western thought, whose approach to the predation of nature precedes Cartesian dualism. The objective of this paper will then be to discuss these issues and conclude that it will not be the anthropos that leads us to a new geological period, but capitalism through its Western intellectual foundation: the Capitalocene as a Westernocene.
... In line with what I mentioned earlier, the inconsistent vision of what we should aim at enhancing is epitomised by Matthew Liao et al.'s [13] unfollowed advice on how we should shape future generations even in biological terms. According to Liao et al., should we genetically engineer people in the future, we should make them smaller so to use less resources. ...
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... One alternative to strongly relying on AI to perform demanding tasks, might be the enhancement of one's own cognition. Especially the Transhumanism movement in philosophy proposes the enhancement of human cognition, such as intelligence, so that we are able to solve global problems (e.g., the climate crisis; Liao et al., 2012;Sorgner, 2020). This enhancement should be achieved by enhancement methods such as taking smart drugs, stimulating the brain, or modifying genes (Bostrom and Sandberg, 2009). ...
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... This, however, is not a common motivation. Liao, Sandberg, and Roache (2012) argue that if we enhance ourselves and our offspring so that we consume fewer resources and are more intelligent and ethical, we might be able to find a solution to the pressing problem of climate change. ...
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This chapter examines the contentious Covid therapeutic, hydroxychloroquine, using Andrew Feenberg’s theory of technological democratization. I explore whether the use of this experimental medicine is suitable, fit for, or reflective of a process of technological democratization in a manner that is similar to that of HIV/AIDS medicines and trials. In answering this, I draw on Feenberg‘s technological democratization thesis and extend his conception of care, bodily integrity, and communication in medicine using a reconstructed concept of care as expressed by feminist ethics. My central argument is that technological democratization of Covid-19 treatments and the underlying science has been made extremely difficult because hydroxychloroquine has become emblematic of polarized and polarizing political battles. In doing so, I articulate a model of “distorted technological democratization” to explain this phenomenon.
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Avoiding the most serious climate change impacts will require informed policy decisions. This in turn will require information regarding the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions required to stabilize climate in a state not too much warmer than today. A new low emission scenario is simulated in a global climate model to show how some of the impacts from climate change can be averted through mitigation. Compared to a non-intervention reference scenario, emission reductions of about 70% by 2100 are required to prevent roughly half the change in temperature and precipitation that would otherwise occur. By 2100, the resulting stabilized global climate would ensure preservation of considerable Arctic sea ice and permafrost areas. Future heat waves would be 55% less intense, and sea level rise from thermal expansion would be about 57% lower than if a non-mitigation scenario was followed. Citation: Washington, W. M., R. Knutti, G. A. Meehl, H. Teng, C. Tebaldi, D. Lawrence, L. Buja, and W. G. Strand (2009), How much climate change can be avoided by mitigation?, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L08703, doi: 10.1029/2008GL037074.
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Previous studies have pointed out the importance of empathy in improving attitudes toward stigmatized groups and toward the environment. In the present article, it is argued that environmental behaviors and attitudes can be improved using empathic perspective-taking for inducing empathy. Based on Batson’s Model of Altruism, it was predicted that higher levels of empathy would improve environmental attitudes and behaviors. It was also predicted that a causal model could be established between empathy and environmental attitudes and behaviors. A study using a factorial design (2 × 2) is reported on the relationship between empathy level (high or low), natural object viewed (bird or tree), and environmental attitudes and behaviors. The results of this study indicate that participants who showed a high empathy level displayed stronger environmental behaviors and attitudes. Additionally, a path analysis shows the moderating effects of evoking empathy for a natural object (bird or tree) on willingness to act in a way that protects the environment (attitudes and behaviors).
Advances in reproductive genetic engineering promise to allow us to select children free of diseases, and also enable us to select children with desirable traits. However, using technologies to design the genome of one’s progeny raise a host of ethical concerns, both intrinsic (e.g. concerning the parent-child relationship) and extrinsic (e.g. concerning societal effects). In this chapter, S. Matthew Liao considers two clusters of arguments for the moral permissibility of reproductive genetic engineering, what he calls the Perfectionist View and the Libertarian View; and two clusters of arguments against reproductive genetic engineering, what he calls the Human Nature View and the Motivation View. He argues that an adequate theory of the ethics of reproductive genetic engineering should take into account insights gained from each of these views.
The life cycle and supply chain of domesticated animals reared for food account for about half of all human-caused greenhouse gases (GHG). Emissions from livestock respiration are part of a fast cycling biological system, where the plant matter eaten was itself developed through the conversion of atmospheric carbon dioxide into organic compounds. The extra emissions from landuse for livestock and feed comes to around 2,672 million tons of CO 2e, while livestock generates 37% of human-induced methane. Livestock-related GHGs could be managed by governments through the imposition of carbon taxes, in which case leaders in the food industry and investors would search for opportunities that such carbon taxes would help create. Large organic-food companies might find these opportunities particularly appealing and such companies could establish subsidiaries to sell meat and dairy analogs, possibly exclusive of meat or dairy products.
This book is a valuable boost to the perpetual effort of society to overtake and accommodate new technology, specifically that affecting reproduction. Professor Robertson has produced in his characteristic way a well-referenced evaluation that is consistent and coherent although not without controversy. The analysis subjects seven technical interventions to scrutiny through the "lens of procreative liberty."Robertson is the first to admit that the majority of reproduction will continue in the accustomed way, but he notes that an irrevocable change has occurred in the nature of human reproduction. Technology continually adds to choice in whether (and when) to procreate, continue a pregnancy after conception, attempt to overcome infertility, widen the collaborative character of reproduction beyond the traditional father and mother couple, genetically shape offspring (and how far to go to prevent harm to those in utero), and use reproductive capacity for nonreproductive purposes such as fetal tissue transplantation.He asserts
Abstract The first half of the Review focuses on the impacts and risks arising from uncontrolled climate change, and on the costs and opportunities associated with action to tackle it. A sound understanding of the economics of risk is critical here. The Review ...