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Bioethics Forum Essay

Fix the Planet, or Change the Creatures In It?

Possibly as many as half of the coral reefs that existed 100 years ago have been destroyed, sometimes by removing them, covering them up, or blowing them up, but mostly just because of climate change, which is gradually heating the water and making it more acidic. The solution everyone who cares about the reefs most wants is to stop or reverse climate change, but some reef scientists—fretting that their role in the climate change debate is mostly to point out that the reefs are dying and then to stand by and watch as the reefs die—are trying, according to a story in the New York Times, “to create tougher reefs — to accelerate evolution, essentially — and slowly build an ecosystem capable of surviving global warming and other human-caused environmental assaults.”

The work is a yet another example of an assortment of proposals to help other species survive the momentous changes we humans are making to the planet through habitat destruction, hunting, pollution, the movement of invasive species, and climate change. Some of the proposals are fairly modest: relocating species from habitats that are no longer suitable for them into habitats that are becoming suitable—introducing the Pica to new mountaintops, for example. Others are more out there: attempting the “de-extinction” of species we may have helped hunt out of existence, or using gene drives to attempt the local extinction of species that we have moved around accidentally and that are threatening other species in their new habitats.

Yet others involve strategies to help species adapt to the changing planet. For the coral scientists discussed in the Times, the plan is to find a few hardy survivors in the dying reefs, take them back to the laboratory, breed them, and return the new population they create back to the oceans. Along the way, they are also studying the survivors and trying to learn why they survived. In theory (though the article does not say so) what they learn could suggest still other strategies for preserving corals, perhaps environmental interventions that can keep struggling corals going through a heat crisis, or perhaps a way in which genome editing could be used to enhance or spread whatever might be genetically unusual about the survivors.

The Times story highlights the ethical questions surrounding the coral proposal—and the many other similar proposals being floated. As one of the scientists interviewed laments, “How do you decide what interventions are right and when to intervene?” But that’s pretty much where the story leaves it; most of the rest of the story is about the science.

The problem, I think, is not that there’s nothing to say about the ethics but that there’s so much to say, and it’s conceptually complicated. Here are a few of the puzzles, almost paradoxes, that the scientists—and all of us—seem to be wrestling with: Can we preserve nature by changing it? What is our goal for the human relationship to nature—to build and enhance and make stuff out of it, or to leave it alone, or something in between? Is there a moral difference between making changes to an organism that’s in a very heavily humanized context, such as crops on a farm, and making changes to a species in the wild? Do we have different views about altering different kinds of organisms—cows, corn, or E. coli? Does the kind of intervention matter—breeding versus genome editing? Should we think of genetic changes as minor, discreet molecular alterations, or as aggressive alterations to the very essence of an organism? What does a precautionary approach call for: leaving well enough alone for fear of inadvertently making things worse, or jumping in quickly before too much time is lost and all the corals are destroyed?

A friend of mine who’s an adventuresome scientist and a lover of coral reefs raised a question whether work like this is aimed at the right problem. He wrote to me: “It seems like a last resort solution when the first resorts haven’t been tried.” We’re ruining the planet, and our response focuses on fixes to corals rather than on a fix for the planet. The planetary solution is “objectively superior in every way,” he said—surer and safer—while the coral fix is an easy but also iffy way out that may just take pressure off addressing the root cause.

He’s right, of course. But I find myself pushing back anyway, wondering whether moving forward tentatively on multiple fronts isn’t possible and acceptable. If the hardy coral breeding effort is described not as a fix but as exploratory work on a desperate problem, maybe it doesn’t distract us from fundamental problems.

It seems to me that this is typical of the moral judgments we make about environmental protection and preservation. All of the puzzles, I think, arise around contrasts between competing ideas—natural versus human, leaving things alone versus remaking them, scientific prohibition versus scientific progress, long term versus short term, root cause solution versus quick and superficial fix—and in each contrast, the opposite poles are too spare and too simplistic. The struggle environmentalists have had in articulating their guiding ideals—John Muir’s preservationist ideal, Gifford Pinchot’s conservationist standard, Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” and the “gardening ethic” and the “ecomodernist manifesto” proposed by various contemporary environmentalists—has mostly been the result of seeming to get pulled too much in one direction or the other, when the way forward is somewhere in between.

But we should not ask too much of a guiding ideal. In moving forward through the contrasts, there is probably little possibility of deciding “what interventions are right.” In most cases, the right ones cannot be known because the conceptual terrain simply lacks the signposts, the clarity, that would make knowledge possible. What we can hope for is an ideal that points us in the right direction, even if it does not tell us precisely where to go. My friend described his concern with the coral work as a “disquiet,” and that seems like appropriate language: in many cases, interventions can be better or worse, more or less promising or troubling.

Breed a high temperature-tolerant coral? It seems a long shot, it doesn’t get at the root problems, and whether it should be released into the oceans would depend on what’s learned in the course of the research, but I’m also open to letting the proposal play out.

Gregory Kaebnick is a research scholar at The Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report.


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