Planet of the (little) apes: Save the world by genetically engineering humans to be smaller, suggests NYU philosopher

  • NYU professor suggests we genetically engineer babies to be smaller and more ‘energy-efficient’
  • Other suggestions to save the planet include making humans intolerant to meat through pills or patches
  • ‘The Kyoto Protocol, has not produced demonstrable reductions in global emissions’
  • Authors of study stress they are not advocating the ideas, just opening the debate up for radical cures

By Eddie Wrenn

PUBLISHED: 10:56 EST, 13 March 2012 | UPDATED: 02:43 EST, 14 March 2012

Mankind should consider extreme options – such as taking pills to wean humanity away from eating meat or genetically engineering ourselves to be smaller – in order to reduce our ecological footprint, says a leading philosopher.

From reducing our reliance on fossil fuels to finding more energy-efficient ways to travel, the push is on for humans to combat the threat of global climate change.

But the ways in which we change our behaviour – either culturally or through technology – are still up for debate.

Engineering of the future: Could we re-wire humans to be intolerant of meat and less of a drain on our planet's resources?Engineering of the future: Could we re-wire humans to be intolerant of meat and less of a drain on our planet’s resources?

Professor Matthew Liao of New York University has outlined some of the dramatic ways we can alter our future.

Professor Matthew Liao suggests we debate new methods to reduce our damage to the environmentProfessor Matthew Liao suggests we debate new methods to reduce our damage to the environment

He and his co-authors make suggestions ranging from providing pills that give people an aversion to eating meat to genetic engineering or hormone therapy so that parents give birth to smaller, less resource-intensive children.

Their paper, to be published in Ethics, Policy & Environment, lists techniques which many people will be uncomfortable with.

But Liao and his co-writers, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache, stress that they are not advocating any of these approaches, just offering them up for discussion as to the pros and cons, and they also stressed their support for individual choice.

Speaking about his paper to The Atlantic magazine, Liao said market solutions, such as carbon pricing, were not necessarily enough to solve the problems facing humanity.

He said: ‘So far it seems like it’s pretty difficult to orchestrate workable international agreements to affect international emissions trading.

‘The Kyoto Protocol, for instance, has not produced demonstrable reductions in global emissions, and in any event demand for petrol and for electricity seems to be pretty inelastic.

And so it’s questionable whether carbon taxation alone can deliver the kind of reduction that we need to really take on climate change.’

World in our hands: There's little we can do to destroy the planet, but we may destroy our place within itWorld in our hands: There’s little we can do to destroy the planet, but we may be able to destroy our place within it

Regarding the controversial geo-engineering idea, he said that there were inherent risks with the suggestion, in regards to it being an untested technology and the unforeseen consequences of trying it on a global scale.

He said: ‘You have to worry that by implementing these techniques we could endanger ourselves or future generations.

‘For example it’s been suggested that we could alter the reflectivity of the atmosphere using sulfate aerosol so as to turn away a portion of the sun’s heat, but it could be that doing so would destroy the ozone layer, which would obviously be problematic.

‘Others have argued that we ought to fertilize the ocean with iron, because doing so might encourage a massive bloom of carbon-sucking plankton.

‘But doing so could potentially render the ocean inhospitable to fish, which would obviously also be quite problematic. ‘

Attempts at fiddling with nature, either environmentally or genetically, have been risky in the past. For instance, the introduction of new animals almost always adversely affects the local fauna, such as when rabbits were introduced to Australia in the 18th century – which quickly escaped their pens and decimated wide swathes of the country.

However, in terms of the benefits, Liao said: ‘One of the things that we noticed is that human ecological footprints are partly correlated with size.

‘Each kilogram of body mass requires a certain amount of food and nutrients and so, other things being equal, the larger person is the more food and energy they are going to soak up over the course of a lifetime.

‘There are also other, less obvious ways in which larger people consume more energy than smaller people – for example a car uses more fuel per mile to carry a heavier person, more fabric is needed to clothe larger people, and heavier people wear out shoes, carpets and furniture at a quicker rate than lighter people, and so on.

‘If you reduce the average U.S. height by just 15cm, you could reduce body mass by 21 per cent for men and 25 per cent for women, with a corresponding reduction in metabolic rates by some 15 per cent to 18 per cent, because less tissue means lower energy and nutrient needs.’

Inefficient energy: Liao suggests more than 50 per cent of greenhouse emissions come from our dependence on livestock farming, based on reports from the U.N.Inefficient energy: Liao suggests more than 50 per cent of greenhouse emissions come from our dependence on livestock farming, based on reports from the U.N.

When questioned about the use of pills or engineering to break humanity’s heavy use of meat in our diet, Liao said: ‘There is a widely cited U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization report that estimates that 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and CO2 equivalents come from livestock farming, which is actually a much higher share than from transportation.

‘More recently it’s been suggested that livestock farming accounts for as much as 51 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

‘And then there are estimates that as much as 9 per cent of human emissions occur as a result of deforestation for the expansion of pastures for livestock.

‘And that doesn’t even to take into account the emissions that arise from manure, or from the livestock directly.

‘Since a large portion of these cows and other grazing animals are raised for consumption, it seems obvious that reducing the consumption of these meats could have considerable environmental benefits.’

‘I think it’s important to note that it wouldn’t necessarily need to be a pill. We have also toyed around with the idea of a patch that might stimulate the immune system to reject common bovine proteins, which could lead to a similar kind of lasting aversion to meat products.’


Posted on March 14, 2012, in Health / Medicine, Science / Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. wow, nice details and nice top image!!

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