OBQ: Should we bioengineer animals to live in our damaged world?
In October, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its biennial Living Planet Report, detailing the state of the planet and its implications for humans and wildlife. The report warned that two-thirds of global wildlife populations could be gone by 2020 if we don't change our environmentally damaging practices.
At the Singularity University New Zealand (SUNZ) Summit we met up with Dr Amy Fletcher, Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Canterbury, who spoke on the topic of public policy and exponential technology at the Summit. As part of our regular "One Big Question" series we asked her whether we should consider bioengineering animals that could live in the world we're creating, rather than die in the one we're destroying?
That sort of relates to the whole de-extinction debate, and again, I would pay money to see a woolly mammoth. But I do take the point that the world of the woolly mammoth is gone, whether we like it or not, same with the moa – I mean this comes up a lot in criticisms of the bring back the moa project. You've got to have huge swathes of undeveloped space - maybe we still have that, but we don't have as much as we did in the 16th century.
I guess it comes back to not making the perfect the enemy of the good. Working in conservation, extinction issues like I do, I meet a lot of people who are deeply opposed, actively opposed, say to zoos. I think in an imperfect world, I'd rather have animals in a well run and ethical zoo than not have them at all. But I do have colleagues in the animal rights movement who say, if we don't value them enough to let them live in their natural environment, then we should pay the price of having them go. It's sort of that same thing, I mean, if the alternative to living in a world of simply humans, rats, cockroaches and pigeons is bioengineering animals, I would have to say, alright yeah, we're going to have to do that.
I'd like us to make sure we've exhausted every possibility, and that's where I think practical policy is important – I grew up in the suburbs, it was great for my aspirational, newly middle class parents, it was the 60s and the 70s, it fit the moment, but boy would I love to see people moving back into the cities. Cities are the best thing that ever happened to the environment in terms of trying to live with modern man, but our cities are so hollowed out now. Certainly in the States, but increasingly around the world, cities have become a place you can only live if you're very poor in public housing, or you're very rich. The middle class is fleeing.
Another kind of aspirational project that's quite controversial but I hope they make some noise, is rewilding. Rewilding in a sense intersects with de-extinction because the rewilding groups, which seem to be very active in Arizona and California, say exactly that – if we would create these unbroken corridors of wilderness again and just leave them alone, it'll regenerate. But we're not going to be able to have that highway cutting through.
So I guess the answer to the question is I'm kind of one of those pragmatists. I would find it regrettable if we end up having to bioengineer animals to survive us, but I would rather have that than have no animals at all. But my preference is surely to goodness we can come up with ways to avoid that – increasing city densification, rehabilitating the environment, creating these wildlife corridors that we just leave the hell alone – I'd rather try that first than just go, ah bioengineering.
Disclaimer: Darren Quick attended SUNZ courtesy of SU.