In a previous post, “Biodiversity, Extinction, and Hacking the Code of Life,” I contemplated the effects that genetic engineering would have on modern environmentalism. The post suggested that open source hacking of the DNA of endangered species would pose an existential threat to the modern environmentalist movement. As technology opens new possibilities for anthropocentric manipulation of the environment, the application of 20th century environmental policy will seem like trying to run some old version of Microsoft Windows on an iPhone.
Recently Brazil announced that they will be cloning endangered species to ensure that these sensitive species aren’t lost. Just as the scientific priesthood couldn’t condemn the geoengineering project of Russ George quickly enough, the old guard environmentalists who made public comments on Brazil’s announcement demonstrates the stark recognition of a movement in the early throes of existential crisis. For decades anyone who would dare question the environmental movements reliance on soft sciences, would be instantly labeled as anti-science. The following passage from GlobalPost is telling:
Yet that reasoning has baffled leading experts consulted by GlobalPost, who regard the scheme as a costly distraction from the urgent task of efficiently targeting scarce conservation dollars at the species in biggest trouble.
In particular, they warned that cloning does not address the cause of the overwhelming majority of extinctions — the runaway loss of natural habitat as it is destroyed or occupied by human beings.
“Cloning is not a useful tool for conservation. This does nothing to focus on the threats to the species, which is frequently habitat loss. You can’t clone habitat,” Sybille Klenzendorf, director of species conservation at the US branch of the World Wildlife Fund, told GlobalPost.
The article also ends with this passage:
He added: “We always try to engineer our way out of these problems instead of thinking about getting to their root cause.”
For the committed environmentalist, if a solution to an environmental problem doesn’t involve limiting and controlling human behavior, then the solution is labeled as ineffective, too expensive, and a waste of time and resources. Of course if conservation dollars were to go to cloning efforts and research in genetic engineering, then this would be a direct funding competition to the World Wildlife Fund, so naturally their lead spokesperson is against such an effort. Notice how once the economic resources of this organization are threatened the organization adopts a decidedly anti-science posture against the hard science of biochemistry.
Cloning technology is in its infancy. Think of it as a steam powered engine in the late 1800s that is about to give way to more expansive and ambitious scientific efforts. Cloning and genetic engineering are the future of species conservation, and habitat protection and captive breeding are the past. Any organization that claims to be fighting to preserve biodiversity and protect against the loss of species should be aggressively supporting cloning and eventually genomic restructuring of endangered species. Groups like the World Wildlife Fund have been preaching the virtues of biodiversity for decades, and they have amassed substantial influence and funding along the way. The pioneers of genetic engineering are likely ushering in an explosion of anthropocentric biodiversity. The World Wildlife Fund has much to lose if biodiversity were to change course from a rapidly depleting resource to an abundant resource that can be conjured at will in the lab of a genetic engineer. If biodiversity is as inherently virtuous as the World Wildlife Fund has led us to believe, then the exploration of this new scientific frontier will provide incalculable benefits for humans and the environment that we steward.
It might be unlikely that we will clone habitats in the near future, but we might be able to modify the genomes of organisms to the point that they are better able to adapt to the habitats that are available to them. Of course we can expect any solution to an environmental problem that doesn’t involve radically reengineering humanity to be met with derision by anti-science organizations like the World Wildlife Fund.