In 1959, the American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman gave a historic talk at the California Institute of Technology entitled “There Is Plenty of Room at the Bottom”. Feynman hypothesised that much more space than previously assumed exists deep inside any individual piece of matter. Once humans gained control of the arrangements of these atoms, Feynman predicted, “they would discover a greater range of possible properties that substances can have and the different things they can do.”
Although Feynman’s lecture went largely unnoticed at the time, his ideas would later launch scientists and engineers into a flurry of research and development focused on nothing less than remaking the physical world. Today, Feynman’s dream has, in many respects, come to fruition. The replacement of natural processes with synthetic ones indicates a world that is becoming increasingly more pliant and malleable. By deliberately tinkering with some of the planet’s most physical and biological operations, humans stand on the verge of turning a world that was found into a world that is made.
As the environmental philosopher Christopher Preston points out in his latest book The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species and Reengineering Our World, molecular manufacturing offers unlimited potential for repurposing the planet and ecosystems we inhabit.
Moreover, the new technologies driving this new epoch will not only transform how the planet looks but will drastically alter how the planet works too.
“Perhaps the most radical suggestion from Feynman’s lecture was that matter is not fixed,” Preston explains, from his home in Montana in the United States. “If we can make a difference at an atomic level, we can make a difference anywhere, all the way up to the atmosphere, reconfiguring the world in a way that we couldn’t possibly have imagined before.”
Indeed, as Preston’s book continually stresses, we humans are no longer just surrounding ourselves with new physical materials that offer the promise of a startling synthetic future. Our species is now gaining the ability to reengineer several key planetary and biological processes. These include learning how to synthesise and stitch together new arrangements of DNA and useful organisms; fabricating novel atomic and molecular structures with new material properties; reassembling the species composition of broken eco systems; and even studying how to deploy technologies that will deflect the sun to keep the planet cool.
Briefly put, we are now learning how to replace some of nature’s basic functions with synthetic ones of our own design. Nanotechnology is one area where rapid change has occurred in recent years.
Preston recalls that the nano revolution began stealthily, with the first consumer products containing nanomaterials entering commercial markets in 1999. It has come in leaps and bounds in the two decades since.
The US government, for instance, now invests around USD 1.5 billion annually into the National Nanotechnology Initiative to promote invention and discovery at the nanoscale across the U.S economy. So what kind of opportunities might nanotechnology offer in the near- to medium-term future?
“Theoretically, you could produce something akin to Feynman’s dream,” says Preston: “So, a nanobot submarine that gets into the blood stream and eats cholesterol, perhaps even going into individual neurons and working surgically on them.”
Not everyone agrees that nanotechnology is a force for good. Preston points out how some environmentalists tend to have an all-or-nothing approach to it.
“Environmentalists are always saying no nano, no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), no synthetic biology, and no climate engineering,” Preston explains.
The philosopher is calling for a more balanced approach which delineates both the advantages and disadvantages of nanotechnology. When the latter outweigh the former, Preston says firm lines need to be drawn. Synthesising the human genome from scratch, for example, is simply crossing a moral boundary between science and nature, which ought to be left alone, Preston believes.
He mentions the famous geneticist George Church who, when interviewed for SCENARIO in 2014 said that “The creation of genuinely synthetic life would represent key progress in understanding what makes life possible” (SCENARIO 06.2014).
“Church has recently talked publicly about putting together the chemicals of the human genome,” says Preston: “I think we should draw a line and say let’s not go there. You might synthesise certain bacteria that can perform some useful functions. But let’s not synthesise whole human genomes.”
In fact, from the moment we began our conversation, Preston wants to make one thing abundantly clear: He is no utopian techenthusiast.
Humanity is at a critical juncture, the philosopher believes. Crucially – and this is the central point of Preston’s book – we need to decide as a species what the future of nature will look like. Particularly as technological tools enable us to reshape nature completely to the point where it no longer makes sense to talk about nature as something that exists independently of us.
“There used to be this thing called nature,” Preston says. “It built itself through ecological and evolutionary forces. Then we humans arrived and had to respond in relation to it. As you look back to the end of the Holocene and our entry into the Anthropocene, we can now say that we have altered everything.”
The author explains how most of human history has taken place in the epoch known as the Holocene: a geological period that began roughly 12,000 years ago. The Holocene, however, is now becoming the past tense due to how vigorously humans have altered the earth in the interim. The new dawn of history is more commonly referred to as the Anthropocene. Its exact starting point is debated, but many geologists believe that date should be set to the Trinity Test in July 1945, when humans started spreading artificial radioactivity on Earth by exploding nuclear bombs.
As we enter this new age, two things have happened, Preston explains. Firstly, we have realised that there is no nature untouched in the world anymore.
“You can go up the artic and find pesticides in whales, or you can pick up a teaspoon of ocean water, where you find dust residues produced by human activity,” says Preston. “So, we have arrived suddenly at this moment where some people are even talking about the end of nature.”
Secondly, if nature has indeed ended, Preston believes we – as a global community – need to ask the fundamental question: Where are we heading now?
“Looking to the future, this is what I chart through these various technologies in my book,” Preston explains. “All the way from atom, starting with nano technology, right up to atmosphere with climate engineering.”
“But right now the narrative is being driven by futurist dreamers,” Preston adds.
Preston believes that the conversation about the progression of technology and demise of nature is a one-sided debate. Primarily led by synthetic age enthusiasts, who never want to look backwards. “We need to occupy this space and think more critically than we are presently doing,” the philosopher explains.
Despite assurances from synthetic age enthusiasts, Preston believes wildness will always remain in the biological world, even in the physical things we construct.
“You cannot get away from wildness,” says Preston: “And the more dramatic our efforts are to synthesise the world, the more likely we are to encounter that wildness and run into problems.”
Preston cites one example where attempts to replace the natural world with a synthetic one are not so clear cut and simple: climate engineering. This is a process that involves tweaking Earth’s climate systems, usually with the goal of bringing down global temperatures. The most common method is known as Solar Radiation Management (SRM). Typically, this involves putting some form of reflective particle or droplet into the stratosphere to intercept solar energy before it gets any closer to the earth.
“SRM doesn’t solve global warming though,” Preston says. “It doesn’t take carbon out of the atmosphere.”
What SRM does do, however, is act like a sun shade, cooling down the globe’s temperature for a period of approximately 40 years. Crucially, it buys us time, before we can finally figure out how to remove from the atmosphere climate change’s chief culprit: carbon dioxide. The best way to implement this, Preston explains, is to introduce Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR).
There are a number of ways this can be done. But principally, Preston points out, two common methods are used. The first is a process that generates massive blooms of phytoplankton in the oceans. This can be done by spreading powdered forms of vital elements such as iron, potassium, or phosphorous on the ocean surface, in areas that are otherwise nutrient deficient.
With the additional ingredients introduced into the soup, phytoplankton – naturally occurring at the ocean surface – will proliferate and take up increasing amounts of carbon dioxide as they photosynthesise. And so large amounts of phytoplankton will quickly enter the food chain. Consequently, some portion of the carbon taken up by the microorganisms will eventually end up sinking towards the deep ocean. It is hoped that this large deposit of carbon will end up in long term storage in sediments on the ocean floor.
However, Preston warns that it’s still not fully understood by environmentalists and scientists whether the carbon actually ends up in safe long-term storage on the ocean floor. Moreover, he says the jury is still out on how much carbon microorganisms can absorb as nutrients are sprinkled on the ocean surface.
The other method of CDR Preston mentions is Direct Air Capture (DAC). This involves using an engineered structure like a windmill that would capture carbon from the breeze. The carbon harvest could then be extracted from the chemical, before being transported and stored in the geological formations in which oil and gas are also stored.
But regardless of what methods are used, Preston believes it is paramount to “take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”
Preston is keen to stress the distinct differences between SRM and CDR.
“SRM is a fundamental interruption into a natural process: It’s dramatic, and a very bold action”, he says. “It takes something which has been integral to the formation of the planet on which we live for four and a half billion years – the solar energy that comes in – and tries to recalibrate that for our purposes,” Preston adds.
CDR, on the other hand, takes something that we now realise is a pollutant out of the atmosphere, Preston explains: “CDR is cleaning up a mess, whereas SRM is recalibrating the earth.”
“CDR is not going to cool the climate down right away, but it seems like a much more reasonable course of action than SRM,” Preston adds.
As the impact of anthropogenic climate change becomes more pronounced, Preston points out how a number of species will simply be cooked to death if they remain in their historical geographical ranges. And so, environmentalists and biologists are suggesting that struggling species should be given a helping hand. This is most commonly referred to as managed relocation.
“The first thing to notice is that the idea of managed relocation is a product of the synthetic age,” Preston explains. “Humans are inserting animals into nature and making decisions about how nature should work.”
Can managed relocation act as a viable solution for endangered species?
“On a case by case basis, there may be some species that can survive if they are moved,” says Preston.
Here, Preston cites how two British scientists, Jane Hill and Steven Willis, embarked on one of the earliest experiments in managed relocation back in 2000. Concerned about what climate change was doing to a pair of local butterfly species, the marble white and the small skipper, the researchers moved five hundred individuals of each of the species up the A1 highway in north eastern England. Careful studies in the decade since the relocation have indicated that the method worked successfully.
“But there may be some species with which you simply cannot do that,” Preston goes on. “You cannot move polar bears further north. So, for some species managed relocation will work, but others not so much.”
“With managed relocation, nature increasingly becomes synthetic nature, the thing we choose nature to be. We are redesigning the earth, from atom to atmosphere,” says Preston. “And we have to decide if those are good choices to make or not.”
As we reach the end of our chat, Preston raises his scepticism towards some researchers presently working in areas such as molecular manufacturing and synthetic biology. There is a growing sense, the philosopher believes, that something fundamental is at stake – that these technologies fast approaching offer a chance to change the world completely. And that we must embrace them at all costs. But Preston begs to differ. Above all, Preston believes that nature is a fundamental element of being human: “When you hear talk about the singularity and cyborgs, I don’t think that’s a direction that appeals to vast amounts of people,” says Preston.
“And people are going to do what is required to maintain their connection to nature,” Preston concludes: “Rather than accepting a full throttle synthetic age.”