Bioethics or Biowaffle?

According to this BBC article, scientists are reported to be developing a new super coral resistant to global warming. This involves using natural mutations (some corals are resistant to very high water temperatures) and ‘training’ coral to become more resistant to rising water temperatures and ocean acidification, problems expected to get worse as the world warms It seems to me that the scientists concerned are starting in the right places: sourcing what natural resilience there is out there, and testing it in the lab.

Inevitably, in the interests of maintaining ‘balance’, the BBC found input from ‘bioethicists’ to cast doubt on the undertaking. The words of wisdom of these learned authorities are quoted in full:

‘No-one fully understands the ecology of reefs, so by putting a genetically modified organism on it you can’t possibly know the unintended ecological implications,” says Prof Rob Sparrow, an expert in applied ethics at Monash University. “It’s foolish and unwise.”

Prof Sparrow also argues that the genetic engineering of coral distracts from a solution governments already have to prevent coral extinction.

“When people read a story about a high-tech solution, it makes us feel good in that it distracts us from what we should really be doing – moving towards a zero emissions economy,” he says.

Prof Paul Komesaroff, director of Australia’s Centre for Ethics in Medicine and Society, raises a different concern.

“The closest analogy to this would be GM [genetically modified] crops, where strains of rice are constructed to better resist pests,” he says. “And one of the outcomes of that has been that companies own the intellectual property to produce those crops.”

“I’m sure the scientists behind this are doing it for the right reasons, but they won’t be able to turn their discovery into a commercially viable option without capital investment,” Paul Komesaroff says.

“This is how biotech works in the real world; it’s driven by profit. So we would potentially be looking at a scenario where the Great Barrier Reef is owned by a company like Monsanto. And that would be a game-changer.”

Of the two wise men, we will deal with the second one first. Why the Director of Australia’s Centre for Ethics and Medicine in Society is considered an authority on coral reefs is beyond me but no matter. His observation that the scientists will need ‘capital investment’ is true enough. It will probably need private sector backing as environmentalists will probably lobby against the provision of public funds to support the project.

Prof Komesaroff seems to think that Monsanto owning the Great Barrier Reef is a bad thing. But why? He makes no effort to explain. He seems to think that evoking the words ‘Monsanto’ and ‘profit’ in the same breath suffices to spell out what his ethical objections are. If the price of saving the Reef is having Monsanto own it, then I would certainly have reservations about that. But if the alternative is the extinction of the Reef then let Monsanto own it.

Now, let’s turn to the first one. Prof Rob Sparrow’s reservations are an obvious expression of the precautionary principle. Of course we do not know what the ‘unintended’ consequences of putting modified coral out in the wild is. How can we be? That is why it is being tested in the lab first. Granted, even with extensive testing, no one can be sure that there won’t be ‘unintended consequences but on what basis does he assume that these will be negative? And why is it ‘foolish and unwise’ to describe something that has not been done yet? Can he give reasons and relevant examples? To answer that we cannot pursue a technological option because of unintended consequences would halt technological progress – including the development of green technology.

In fact, the precautionary principle provides no guide for action in the real world. It does not tell us what should be done, how we go about it or even how we can find out whether its apprehensions are well-founded. Indeed, it is a double-edged sword. Conservative climate change ‘sceptics’ can wield the same argument, to demand we refrain from economic policies that might cause unforeseen harm.

Prof Sparrow says that high-tech solutions make us feel good. Yes, they do. And what is wrong with that? What’s wrong with feeling encouraged with good news, that gives us hope? Well, he would say, it distracts us from the task of moving toward a zero-emission world. But how is this going to be done, if it is not going to involve technological innovation? And should the precautionary principle be applied to developing new green technology, too? And how realistic is it? The only way we could move to a zero-emission economy right now is stop burning fossil fuels. This would have dreadful social and environment consequences. Poorer people would not live in greater harmony with nature but would strip it bare in order to survive. When India blockaded Nepal last year, cutting off import of cooking gas, a fossil fuel, people resorted to stripping forests for fuel instead.

We are going to have to wean ourselves off carbon but even if were to do that tomorrow, and managed to do it painlessly, existing greenhouse gases will carry on warming the world. That means we will have to cope with it and technological palliatives are going to be necessary, and not just dealing with the impact of climate change on coral reefs. Calling for a zero emission economy, without having the faintest clue how this is to be done in time to avoid the harmful impacts of climate change, is not moral reasoning but posturing.

Given that Professor Sparrow’s alternative approach is not viable in the short to intermediate term, that means GM Reefs should be considered. We are left with two options. One is to do what the scientists are doing, sourcing natural resistance to build more resistant reefs. A second option is to do nothing.

The first option is vulnerable to the objection of unintended consequences, of possible harms unforeseen. The second option is vulnerable to the objection that doing nothing is certain to do harm.

Against consequences that we cannot foresee, there are the consequences that we can see. Since we know that doing nothing will do harm, there is good reason to take action. Against this, there is Prof Sparrow’s law of unintended consequences. There is no way we can refute this law a priori. Only experience can do that. But, which would Prof Sparrow prefer? Would he prefer to avoid unforeseen harms, at the expense of taking action to deal with harms that we can see? I doubt it. That is why he calls for an alternative solution. But if his alternative solution is not viable, and it is not, then he cannot duck this question.

Since we cannot refute Prof Sparrow’s dictum,we have to settle for second best: testing in the lab, followed up by controlled experiments in nature. But if you still think that it is better to do nothing rather than something, even if you cannot produce evidence to show how doing nothing is better than doing something, then you are not expressing a moral position but a dogma.

Indeed, the implicit structure of the article, scientists playing with nature on one side of the ledger, ‘bioethicists’ standing in judgement of them on the other, is perhaps revealing. The presumption is that someone with the phrase ‘Professor of Applied Ethics’ in their job title is somehow morally superior or wiser. But their own moral assumptions are not beyond scrutiny or challenge. There is no reason to think that Prof Sparrow, despite the ring of sanctimony his title confers, is uncontaminated by ideological bias, a bias which affects much of the green movement. This accepts the authority of science when it comes to climate change but challenges it when it comes to some of its suggested solutions, especially biotech and nuclear power, for fear that these solutions might just secure industrial capitalist modernity’s future, along with the profit-motive that underpins, a motive that few intellectuals are prepared to defend.

Sure, scientists are not above criticism or scrutiny but neither are their ‘ethical’ critics. The two examples we have discussed above have not demonstrated disinterested, dispassionate reasoning. They are ideologically motivated. They rehash traditional apprehensions about technological advance, apprehensions acute in the case of biotech but not other areas of technology (an article on carbon capture technology did not attract comment from ‘geoethicists’). And, aside from that, invoking the word ‘ethical’ as a basis for your objections indicates that you really do not know what you are talking about.


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