Changing Human Bodies to Reduce Climate Change…Why not?

“A round man cannot be expected to fit in a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape.” -Mark Twain

If current humans appear helpless in actually dealing with climate change, why not just change humans?  A forthcoming provocative paper by three ethicists poses the question of modifying the human condition in order to solve climate change.  It has generated extensive debate, cataloged great by The Guardian.

They are not arguing that human engineering should be the approach taken to solve climate change, just that it is a worthy option that should be assessed. Clearing up the most likely strawman of their argument, Liao, Sandberg and Roache write:

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 activity.

Whew, good!  But what exactly is human engineering (hint: it is not eugenics) and how does it deal with climate change.  Simply put, it is efforts to change the human condition to meet environmental pressures.  It seems apparent that humans are always engineered and not simply created; although currently this is done in an ad hoc manner largely driven by environmental vulnerabilities and unequal access to resources.  The authors simply assert that we should provide the options for people to choose to be more sustainable and maybe even provide societal benefits to encourage this.

How could my body be more carbon friendly? 

Aside from becoming a plant, how could my body be engineered to be more carbon neutral is the crucial question and the main focus of the article.  The authors pose a number of possible modifications:

  1. Develop meat intolerance.  Since meat consumption is highly related to carbon emissions, making people reduce their meat desire could happen through a patch or some other focus.
  2. Be Smaller.  They have a whole host of ways to reduce the size of humans.  Reducing height of children could be quite controversial as the authors go to great pains to engage with.  However, looking at where tall people are currently engineered (once again it a non-organized manner) we should be alerted to the consumption issue.  The European countries as the tallest countries on average, and Cambodia as the shortest should lead the critical eye toward seeing that any relationship between height and climate change impact may be mostly caused by consumption patterns and not any independent relationship.
  3. Raising cognitive skills of people.  The authors write: “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, which would then affect fertility, and indirectly climate change.”  Fair enough.
  4. Increase altruistic thoughts with pills.  If there was a pill that made us more charitable, I’d be quite wary of the side effects.  But think about the impacts at the next climate negotiations if everyone was high on altruism pills.

Hint: This isn’t actually about Human Engineering

I find the point of the article not to be about putting patches on ourselves that make meat irritate us, but instead is a way to critically analyze geoengineering and market solutions?  The authors write that:

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.

This is the main point I took from the article is that we are currently considering some very problematic solutions to climate change.  Changing the reflectivity of the earth’s cloud cover seems to be on par with people using patches to reduce their carbon impact through meat consumption.  Market solutions that try to produce win-win-win scenarios where consumers in the wealth parts of the world do not have to change their consumption patterns are as ridiculous as taking pills to make us altruistic.  If human engineering is antithetical to your common sense, following the bread crumbs may show that other popular solutions are problematic as well.

The issue then is simple: We need to change our consumption patterns to deal with climate change.  Geoengineering may be popular because it allows us to change our consumption patterns less.  Market solutions may be politically expedient in allowing small changes and changes.  But, we know at the end of the day those are not getting to the real issue with either of those.


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