Sunday, April 8, 2012

Lets Get Small

The manmade global warming alarmists now suspect that all our efforts to reverse imminent planetary disaster may be inadequate and ultimately futile. Always thinking outside the box, they’re suggesting more radical sacrifices than simply upgrading light blubs and trading in gas-guzzlers for Priuses. Forget badgering people to be more energy-efficient, some global warming strategists are asking; why not genetically alter them to be so? “Let’s get small” doesn’t refer just to Steve Martin’s old comedy routine anymore; now it’s a call to bio-engineer smaller humans for a reduced carbon footprint.
In an online interview for The Atlantic, S. Matthew Liao, professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University, expresses skepticism about the efficacy of our current attempts to mitigate climate change, and theorizes that “voluntary” human engineering is one possible solution. He is the principal author of the new paper “Human Engineering and Climate Change,” in the scholarly journal Ethics, Policy & Environment. In it, he and his co-authors propose possible bio-medical modifications to ensure that humans tread less heavily on Mother Gaia.
For example, Liao says, reducing our consumption of meat could have significant environmental benefits. One solution could be a pill that triggers mild nausea upon the ingestion of meat and ultimately creates in us an aversion to meat altogether. Other techniques are more complicated both medically and ethically; Liao and his cohorts even considered the possibility, for example, of giving humans “cat eyes”:
The reason is, cat eyes see nearly as well as human eyes during the day, but much better at night. We figured that if everyone had cat eyes, you wouldn't need so much lighting, and so you could reduce global energy usage considerably.
Then there is the issue of our inconvenient physical size:
[The] larger a 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.
In order to reduce a person's environmental footprint substantially, then, Liao and his partners theorize that parents might submit to genetic engineering or hormone therapy in order to give birth to smaller, “less resource-intensive” children. The authors believe that such human engineering solutions may actually be “liberty enhancing,” especially in contrast to “crude prescriptions” like China's “one child” policy:
What we really care about is some kind of fixed allocation of greenhouse gas emissions per family. If that's the case… human engineering could give families the choice between two medium sized children, or three small sized children. From our perspective that would be more liberty enhancing than a policy that says “you can only have one or two children.” A family might want a really good basketball player, and so they could use human engineering to have one really large child.
That’s the global warming community’s concept of “liberty-enhancing” – a population control policy that gives people the magnanimous option of three undersized children, two mediums, or one basketball player.
For those not enlightened enough to find this option appealing, these philosophers also discuss the “pharmacological enhancement” of qualities like empathy and altruism, traits that are more conducive to positive attitudes toward the environment. When the Atlantic interviewer questioned whether it isn’t problematic to biologically produce a belief in a person, Liao corrects him; it’s not about inserting a belief, it’s about enabling people to overcome their “weakness of will” and make the right choice:
We are interested only in voluntary modifications, and we certainly don't want to implant beliefs into anyone. But even then, those beliefs might still be considered yours if they arise from a kind of ramping up of your existing capacities, and so perhaps that could obviate that problem.
Neither he nor his colleagues approve of any coercive human engineering; they favor “individual choices, not technocratic mandates.” Of course, it’s not voluntary for the children whose parents have made such irreversible choices for them. But Liao points out that it’s for their own good:
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.
Regarding those who don’t feel a thrill running up their leg at this idea, Liao dismisses such resistance as a natural sort of “status quo bias”; in other words, those people are simply clinging to old ways of thinking.
The Atlantic interview sparked some online outrage from readers toward Liao and his co-authors, Oxford’s Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache, for their eyebrow-raising proposals – the trio was compared to Nazi eugenicists, for example. In a separate interview about that reaction, the paper’s authors hastened to reiterate, as Liao did in his interview, that they do not necessarily advocate such speculations. “Philosophers… spend a lot of time discussing views that they do not necessarily endorse,” explained Roache. “It's part of the learning process.
Liao acknowledges that “our proposal to encourage having smaller, but environmentally-friendlier human beings is prima facie outlandish,” but points out that when we dismiss outlandish ideas too quickly, we may be leaving ourselves “vulnerable to dismissing useful and valuable” ones. Even the journal that published the paper described its ideas as “a series of Swiftian philosophical thought experiments.” “None of us are deep greens or totalitarian,” added Sandberg. “We are fairly typical liberal academics thinking about the world.”
When “typical liberal academics” start thinking about the world, beware. They operate from the assumption that manmade global warming is a fact, that humans are inherently detrimental to the planet, and that the right thing to do is to conform everything about our existence for the sake of Earth’s ostensible well-being. That includes floating the idea of a “voluntary” reduction in the number and size of our children. These bioethicists themselves may not be totalitarian, but there are plenty of radical environmentalists who are, and who take such ideas seriously. You don’t need cat’s eyes to see the danger in that.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 4/2/12)