Future Tense

Is “Human Engineering and Climate Change” Paper a Case of Academic Trolling?

Could we fight climate change by making human bodies “slightly intolerant” of meat?

Photo by MIGUEL MENDEZ/AFP/Getty Images

What if genetic engineering could stop climate change by creating people who are more environmentally-friendly?

That’s the idea considered in a paper called “Human Engineering and Climate Change,” to be published in the journal Ethics, Policy, & the Environment. Authors S. Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg, and Rebecca Roache argue that “the biomedical modification of humans to make them better at mitigating climate change … potentially offers an effective means of tackling climate change. …” What sorts of modifications are we talking about here? Tweaking the immune system to create mild meat intolerance, which would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming; making people smaller on the idea that a physically smaller footprint equals a smaller ecological footprint; enhancing altruism and empathy; and using cognitive enhancement to cut down on the birth rate.

Near the beginning of the paper, the authors point out that they don’t think that it “ought to be adopted,” but that it “deserves consideration alongside other solutions.” They also emphasize that human engineering would be voluntary, “possibly supported by incentives such as tax breaks or sponsored health care.”

Earlier this week, co-author Liao spoke with the Atlantic’s Ross Andersen about the paper. In what Andersen described as a “wild interview,” Liao elaborated on some of the ideas considered in “Human Engineering and Climate Change.” For instance, Andersen said that he found the idea of enhancing altruism and empathy perhaps the most alarming part, arguing that it might be “more problematic to do biological tinkering to produce a belief, rather than simply engineering humans so that they are better equipped to implement their beliefs.”

The discussion prompted a torrent of response online, with many considering the ideas dangerous and troubling. Environmentalist Bill McKibben tweeted that these were the “[w]orst climate change solutions of all time.” Others accused the authors of promoting eugenics or being “environmentalist Nazis.” Climate change skeptics were particularly perturbed.

The Guardian’s Leo Hickman reached out to the co-authors to get their reaction to the kerfuffle. Their responses are fascinating. They reiterate that they are not necessarily arguing in favor of these modifications—just consideration—and Oxford’s Sandberg admits that during the writing process, “I felt I was to some extent trolling.” He also notes, “In philosophy we take ideas and test them to destruction. This means that we often bring up concepts or lines of thought we do not personally believe in and then argue them as strongly as possible to see where they go and what we can learn.”

Oxford’s Roache adds:

We wanted to encourage people to think about a group of solutions to climate change that have so far been ignored, despite the fact that in many cases it would be scientifically possible to implement them. Human engineering may seem bizarre and unrealistic, but this does not mean it could not turn out to be feasible and promising: telephones, “test tube babies”, and personal computers are all important aspects of modern life that were once regarded as bizarre and unrealistic. Of course, human engineering may ultimately be unworkable; but this should be because it is impossible to implement, or because its costs outweigh its benefits. It should not be rejected merely because, at first glance, it seems unappealing. And discussing it is itself valuable: it is by exploring and assessing potential responses to a problem that we make progress towards solving it.

Read the Atlantic interview, the Guardian discussion, and the full paper.