[ Sun. Dec. 21. 2008 ]

How ought we, in this historical moment, use science and technology to remake the world?

Americans have been talking about what to do about climate change. Two of the lead voices are, recently, Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Joseph Romm from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Romm recommends a federal cap-and-trade plan that would immediately make carbon emissions more expensive. Sachs, however, believes that the economic costs of cap-and-trade are prohibitive without radically advanced technologies to make a low-carbon economy actually possible. Thus, Sachs proposes large-scale federal investments in development and demonstration of new energy technologies. This is what the climate change debate is now about: whether or not we need new inventions to build a low-carbon economy, or whether our existing tools are good enough to get started right away.

But what is the debate over? The question of whether man will conquer nature occupied Enlightenment philosophers. But today, the best progressive thinkers have moved on to other questions. The new conversation assumes the fact that humans have been remaking the world for millennia.

The first part of the Hebrew Bible expresses this part of human life well, depending on how one reads it. God implicitly invites humankind to be creative: Of this earth you were made, and likewise, you shall remake it. Robert Harrison, in his new book [2], ascribes to the human condition what he calls the vocation of care, of which the act of tending a garden is the best example. In Harrison’s way of reading Genesis, the fall from the Garden of Eden was more of a blessing to be cherished than a loss to be mourned: Adam and Eve were granted the privilege of caring about the world. And what if they were originally created in God’s image? In that case, says theologian Ted Peters, they must participate in the ongoing creation of the world. Peters says we are “created cocreators.”

In any case, Earth’s crust is a dynamic place, and we might as well help it along. Though Sachs and Romm offer different suggestions for climate policy, they are responding to the same question: How ought we, in this historical moment, remake the world again? If one feels alarmed by declining biodiversity, then one understands the importance of this moment. The energy technologies we select, whether they are old, emerging, or not yet developed, will have consequences for the continuing evolution of terrestrial life. The job of democratic citizens, as Walter Truett Anderson has been saying for years, includes governing evolution itself [1]. There is no turning back.


The Left — the party of science, environmentalism, equality, and choice — would do well to understand what this job does and does not include. First, as Oliver Morton explained a couple of years ago on, it does not include saving the planet. Earth and its biosphere is resilient enough in the long term to take what we are giving it: fresh water depletion, species losses, a boosted greenhouse effect, and more. Nothing we can do (or at least, are at all likely to do) can stop biological and geological evolution on Earth. But while the planet can adapt, humans, especially the poorest, could be greatly harmed. The strongest arguments for cutting greenhouse gas emissions start by honoring human solidarity, not the intrinsic value of sea ice.

Second, our job does not include protecting the natural from the unnatural. It is too late, except in some of Earth’s remote polar regions, to preserve any “natural” ecosystems that remain unaffected by the conscious vita activa of men and women. The natural–unnatural distinction now serves no useful purpose. Moreover, it distracts us from other distinctions that do matter for our actual lives, like sustainable and unsustainable development.

The irrelevance of the natural–unnatural distinction matters, too, for our health and our ability to control our own bodies. Consider the rhetorical value of the word, “nature.” Some philosophers use the word to mask moral norms. Leon Kass, for instance, goes to great lengths to explain why the assisted reproductive technologies that he finds repugnant are also “unnatural” [3]. One benefit of decisively discarding the language of the natural and the unnatural is that doing so will prevent people like Kass from using the word, “nature,” as a way of inserting private morals into public politics.

Third, our job does not include transcending the planet or our bodies. This should go without saying, but some writers have acquired some fame by demanding, in the name of the Enlightenment, human enhancement technologies that can deliver immortality and cognitive and emotional bliss.Dale Carrico has explained that these desires ignore both the fact of human vulnerability and the fact that technological progress does not happen without political progress to enable it.

Saving the planet, protecting the natural, and achieving technological transcendence are projects with which many persons of the Left have burdened themselves. Each of these projects is misguided, unnecessary, and counter-productive. By pushing these ideas firmly and permanently aside, we can more easily grasp the challenges we are really confronting.

The climate debate demonstrates the different way of talking about nature. Despite the contrasts between Sachs’s and Romm’s plans, neither of them is a defense of nature. Instead, they are both proposals for how, in essence, to better integrate blind evolution and conscious design, ecology and technology, and nature and art.

Consider the biological history of life. An unknown number of millennia ago, creativity on Earth was blind; intentionality and purposefulness, as we know them, had not yet been invented. Later, genetic evolution gave rise to the modern human. From that time forward, design, technology, and art variously complemented and commandeered the original program of evolution, ecology, and nature. The transition is irrevocable, and now, the challenge is to make it work. Modernity may overflow with excess, but we have little else to build upon. Even if we cannot directly counter Heidegger’s objections to industrial technology, we can still design a humane home on Earth good enough for anyone but the most rabid intellectual opponents of the Gestell. Sadly, we haven’t really started trying.

We must begin with design, which is everything we make and everything else that happens amidst the private and public relationships between human beings. Human consciousness is the key ingredient of design. Sachs and Romm offer different answers to the question: Which specific products of human conscious design should interact with the products of blind evolution, and how, and when, and where, and in what combinations? For the foreseeable future, this is the question that policymakers concerned with science and technology would be wise to ask. The very ability to ask the question suggests that the question itself is urgent. And we shall be better off if philosophers, policymakers, and scientists are not the only ones asking it.

Anyone who lives in a clothed or bejeweled body confronts the question constantly, though most often without realizing it. However, the development of human modification medicine and of nanoscale, biological, information, and cognitive technologies reveals more conspicuously the question’s importance. Here, the politics of choice and self-determination — which the Left played no small part in developing — is indispensable. Again, the question is not how to protect the natural body from unnatural adulteration. Rather, the question is how to enable a new kind of human and extra-human diversity. Carrico calls it “lifeway diversity:” the varieties of ways not of transcending one’s body, but rather of transforming it.

There are right ways and wrong ways to use science and technology for the transformation of our selves and the world. Unintended consequences of science and technology are inevitable. We need to minimize them, respond to them, and learn from them. And while we must not concern ourselves with the categories of natural and unnatural, we also should not forget that many things in the world that came before us — most especially ecosystems — are crucial to a well-functioning technological biosphere. In most cases, public policies should preserve ancient ecological balances that give rise to services we depend on. Technologies will play an ever-expanding role first, in understanding what is actually happening in ecosystems and second, in intervening appropriately.

What is true for ecosystems is also true for the biological and psychological systems of human bodies and minds. This point is most easily understood through the idea (popularized by the authorRichard Ogle) of the “extended mind.” Mental life — cognition, emotion, and creativity — does not happen within the confines of the brain. Instead, it depends on complex interactions between bodies, environments, and culture. Some of these components are evolved; others, designed. Evolution and design interact every time we put our shoes on, read a map, or press the keys on a piano. The better interactions are those that give rise to what the economist Amartya Sen calls human capabilities, such as bodily health, practical reason, and play. Just as technologies should maximize ecosystem services, they should also maximize human capabilities.

The form of economic growth that is implicated in this dual focus on ecosystems and human beings should be the main concern of decision-makers and governments everywhere. Every single one of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals can be understood, at least didactically, as an effort to synchronize design and evolution. Sustainable economic growth comes from technologies that enable ecosystems and humans to do what they have been doing for millions or billions of years — and to do so more abundantly and with more freedom than is currently possible. Imagine everything that is beautiful in the world, and imagine lots more of it, but imagine still being vulnerable. That is the imperfect world that is ready to be slowly forged, whether it is made from tools we have now or tools still uninvented.