California’s Race to the Future

With memories of the devastating Camp Fire yet to be extinguished from our minds and with the chilling implications of the IPCC’s recent report on global temperatures settling in, perhaps there is some solace to be found in California’s efforts to salvage an escape-route from the approaching climate storm. The state has consistently been a leader in progressive environmental policy and it stands on the cutting edge of the technological developments these policies will require.

Hakan DahlstromWhile embracing this forward momentum, a careful eye should linger long enough to notice in some of these efforts a startling threshold about to be crossed. In entering this new period of uncertain planetary history, humans may engineer significant reconfigurations of some of earth’s most formative natural processes. Crossing this threshold presents a new and deep kind of moral challenge.

First the good news.

Senate Bill 100’s target for entirely carbon-free electricity, California’s nation-leading electric vehicle market penetration, the Energy Commission’s recent mandate for rooftop solar, the Water Board’s efficiency mandates for 2022, the recent hosting of the Global Climate Action summit (the list goes on….) all demonstrate how the Golden State leads the nation in progressive climate policies.

These policies continue a long history of far-sighted land and water stewardship. California has the largest number of federally protected Wilderness acres in the nation and the most National Parks. More than a hundred marine protected areas promote conservation on sixteen percent of its coastal waters.

Adding increasingly progressive policies to this strong legacy of protection will be essential as the world moves further into the geological epoch known as the Anthropocene. In this epoch, the planet displays human impacts from pole to pole. With such an extent of human-caused transformation, how should those who want to preserve remnants of the natural world through a geologically significant transition proceed?

Some say the answer is to begin a series of more pro-active forms of environmental management. This can mean engaging technology to reengineer some key planetary processes from the ground up. California, unsurprisingly, is located on the cutting edge of these promises.

Synthetic bacteria, being constructed at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, hold out the promise of organisms with purpose-built DNA performing valuable tasks in an Anthropocene future. In a laboratory built to produce more energy than it consumes, researchers are exploring computer-designed organisms that can provide cheap bioenergy or serve as effective anti-bacterial treatments in medicine. Other novel organisms could be manufactured to grab carbon out of the atmosphere, serve as biosensors in the environment, or to help clean up contaminated sites.

The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco is sponsoring research directed towards the de-extinction of the passenger pigeon and the woolly mammoth. A gene editing technique known as CRISPR, pioneered in Berkeley, can be used to manipulate the genomes of living species so that they closely approximate the genomes of extinct ones. By implanting carefully edited ova, Revive and Restore in Sausalito believes it will be possible to recreate something close to an extinct species. Ecological functions provided by these “proxy” animals might help restore degraded ecosystems and provide opportunities for enhanced carbon storage.

The Emmett Institute at UCLA is studying the legal mechanisms necessary for technicians to attempt to deliberately engineer the climate back towards cooler temperatures. Mimicking the effects of volcanoes by strategically deploying droplets or particles into the stratosphere has the potential to temporarily reduce global temperatures, buying some time for a more permanent de-carbonization of the economy. Unevenness in the effects of aerosol deployment on temperatures and precipitation, coupled with the potential for geopolitical turmoil if individual nations (or coalitions) went forward without a global consensus, make this particular technology both a scientific and political hornet’s nest. Increasingly detailed modelling of the effects of stratospheric aerosols and a careful mapping out of potential governance mechanisms are important pre-requisites if such a dramatic technology were to move forward. Californians are actively engaging in both of these tasks.

Mark BehrensWhile the state’s researchers, theorists, and funders are at the vanguard of some of the most dramatic visions of an Anthropocene future, something important about these technological developments should not be ignored in a state with such a notable track record of nature preservation.

To set evolution aside while engineering new lifeforms, to bring proxies of extinct animals back from the dead, and to deliberately manipulate atmospheric physics in the face of global warming is to embark on a level of deliberate intervention into natural processes that is unprecedented in both depth and scope. Natural processes baked into the system would be reconfigured to serve human interests and needs. In attempting to save nature, these developments may replace it with something of our species’ own design. It would be unfortunate if, in attempting to restore something Homo sapiens has damaged, technology inadvertently brings it to an end.

California brings to the table the nation’s richest history of nature preservation and some of its most progressive visions of a sustainable future. As emerging technologies make it possible to mold the physical and bio-chemical contours of this future, it will be important not to neglect the ethical discussions this prospect demands.

The future of nature, after all, is something in which everyone has a stake.

Flag picture by Hadan Dahlstrom
Leaping bather by Mark Behrens

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