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. 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.
In this era of the Anthropocene, humanity is rapidly altering our ecosystems and outpacing existing rates of evolution and adaptation for many organisms. Our species’ impact on the oceans, the land and the atmosphere has become an inescapable feature of the Earth. The chemical and biological signatures of our species are everywhere. Transported around the globe by fierce atmospheric winds, relentless ocean currents, and the capacious cargo-holds of millions of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, nowhere on Earth is free from humanity’s imprint. Pristine nature has permanently blinked out of existence.
It is not just that human activities have stained every corner of the entire planet. The simultaneous arrival of a range of powerful new technologies are starting to signal a potential takeover of Earth’s most basic operations by its most audacious species. From this time forward, technologies such as the gene-editing technique CRISPR and climate engineering will transform an already tainted planet into an increasingly synthetic whole.
Humans are no longer just surrounding themselves 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. We are now learning how to replace some of nature’s basic functions with synthetic ones of our own design and develop a range of technologies that will reconfigure Earth’s very metabolism:
- fabricating novel atomic and molecular structures with new material properties, nanotechnologies that can restructure natural forms of matter, molecular manufacturing that offers unlimited repurposing;
- learning how to synthesize and stitch together new arrangements of DNA and useful organisms, synthetic biology’s potential to build, not just read, a genome, biological mini-machines that can outdesign evolution;
- reassembling the species composition of broken eco systems, the relocation and resurrection of species;
- climate engineering attempts to manage solar radiation by synthesizing a volcanic haze, cool surface temperatures by increasing the brightness of clouds, and remove carbon from the atmosphere with artificial trees that capture carbon from the breeze.
Human societies are pushing hard to find new solutions to save and protect ecosystems, generating research on manipulating genetics of wild organisms for the goal of conservation. The crossing of this line represents radically new territory for both our species and for the planet. Nature itself will be shaped by processes redesigned and improved by geneticists and engineers. We should call this transition the beginning of a synthetic age, a time in which background constants are increasingly replaced by artificial and improved versions of themselves. This remaking of the metabolism of the Earth strikes at the very core of how we understand our surroundings and our role in them.
This synthetic age – Assisted Evolution, Intervention Ecology, Geo-engineering – raises challenging ethical questions because the intention is not to revert to a previous status quo, but to modify a community so that it survives better in the conditions we have created. In so doing, our role changes toward designers of nature, which requires a rethinking of what is natural, and whether altering or influencing genetics of wild organisms changes the way we conceptualize nature. This completely new territory could also perpetuate damaging habits and dispositions, such as commodification and technological intervention, which have caused the harm in the first place. Even if we feel morally obliged to repair ecosystems, we still risk further havoc if our attempts to fix our damage are affected by ignorance.
An unconstrained gallop towards a synthetic techno-utopia in which human manipulation of every aspect of the Earth system is embraced and maximized and, on the other, a mixture of carefully selected interventions designed to balance innovation with some re-establishment of Holocene style sustainability.
What does it mean when humans shift from being caretakers of the Earth to being shapers of it? And in whom should we trust to decide the contours of our synthetic future?
Humanity is at a critical juncture. 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. Wildness will always remain in the biological world, even in the physical things we construct. The more dramatic our efforts are to synthesize the world, the more likely we are to encounter that wildness and run into problems.
As important as the technologies themselves is the need to have the widest and fairest discussion about them. Doing that is perhaps the worthiest political task of our time.