End Times

We Need Tech — and Even More So Wisdom — to Solve the Extinction Crisis

For too long, human beings have used technology to pillage the planet. With limits approaching, we must find a better way.

Asteroids, supervolcanoes, nuclear war, climate change, engineered viruses, artificial intelligence, and even aliens — the end may be closer than you think. For the next two weeks, OneZero will be featuring essays drawn from editor Bryan Walsh’s forthcoming book End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, which hits shelves on August 27 and is available for pre-order now, as well as pieces by other experts in the burgeoning field of existential risk. But we’re not helpless. It’s up to us to postpone the apocalypse.

DDwindling biodiversity and escalating climate change are powerful disturbances to life on Earth that shake the human soul. There are lots of reasons to be hopeful that technology will be a force for good in this crisis. But we need to reorient our identities toward protecting the planet with our full humanity if we’re going to stand a chance.

Having studied conservation biology, philosophy of science, written a book on de-extinction, and interviewed hundreds of scientists, ethicists, and ecological thinkers, I can offer an introductory guide to how we might unleash a radical reset in our technological culture.

Expecting surprises

We need to acknowledge the severity of the ecological crisis, the enormous amount of both human and nonhuman life at stake, and the deeply inequitable impacts that are already being felt around the globe. The World Bank predicts that by 2050, there will be 140 million climate refugees within Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia while other estimates put the number at over one billion. Mass migrations and resource scarcity increase the risk for violence and war. Meanwhile, the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reports that humans are driving up to one million species to extinction.

The seeds of our ecological destruction were sown by a false sense of division between humans and nature. The development of a suite of extractive practices, from fracking to deep-sea drilling, enabled us to keep taking from the Earth — and convinced us we could do so without paying painfully for it. But our awakening has come, and it may be our last chance to take genuine care of this planet. Throughout history, we’ve faced many rude surprises when we’ve used technology to take from the Earth. Now we must gather the wisdom to use tech to give back to it.

“Nature is emergent. Things are going to surprise us.”

Science historian Andrew Pickering argues that Western civilization’s biggest mistake has been to think that the world is fixed and fully knowable and that humans are its only true agents. It is an asymmetrical belief system, one where humans make decisions that shape the world, and all other things exist passively, without agency. So far, we’ve gotten away with the idea that we can control nature, grab it by the throat, and make it do what we want for us. But Pickering points out the gravity of this mistake:

“I got hung up on the Deepwater Horizon disaster when they were drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and it spilled for 87 days in 2010,” he says. “Does it make sense to think that we can drill for oil a mile below the surface of the sea and control that? I think the answer has to be no. There might have been a few engineering mistakes, as one would say, but we should expect things to go wrong, and the more and more desperate we become in trying to dominate the planet, the more dangerous these things become. Nature is emergent. Things are going to surprise us.”

Attunement to grief

When I was writing my book Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics and Risks of De-Extinction, de-extinction advocate Stewart Brand gave a TED Talk in which he told the audience why we ought to use gene editing, cloning, and other biotechnologies to re-create close versions of extinct species in the name of conservation. When a species disappears, he said, “Don’t mourn — organize!” In other words, instead of getting sad, get down to work and get the species back.

It’s a great slogan, but it’s far too simple. Nothing about de-extinction — or any pressing ecological problem — should be decided in haste. Thom van Dooren, a philosopher of extinction, argues that we should not skip over any ecological grieving or mourning process because that is what allows us to re-learn the world and how it has changed after an extinction. Mourning is a transformative process of coming to terms with how the world is now forever different. This allows us to consider how we can adapt to it and not repeat the same mistakes. Rushing to fix the problem with technology masks this need.

But the role of emotions in technology need not be black and white. One can take technological action while also demonstrating our full humanity. If we learn to embrace more nuance in how we apply tech, using not only science but also our passions, intuitions, and deeply held feelings, we might create a more ethically attuned way of intervening in the world.

Honoring multi-species life

Donna Haraway, the biologist and feminist philosopher, argued in her 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” that it no longer made sense to think of boundaries between humans and machines. Today she applies a similar logic to our relationship with the environment. “Environmental justice or ecological reworlding,” she writes, requires “nurturing and inventing enduring multispecies — human and nonhuman — kindreds.”

Biotech is exploding with new possibilities for what it means to be human, animal, and something in between. We’re shaping the course of evolution. No longer at the whims of natural selection, we can directly intervene in the heritable traits of any species. Haraway believes that this can be used to beneficially multiply the diversity of life on Earth — if we think of other life-forms as part of our same clan. “This kin making,” she writes, “is crucial for imagining and crafting with each other still possible — barely possible — flourishing worlds, now and to come.”

If we are to responsibly manage our powerful biotech tools like CRISPR and induced pluripotent stem cells, we have to see ourselves as just one tinkerer among many. If we take into account the agency of other living creatures, we might find ways to creatively amplify and strengthen multispecies dynamics.

Slowing down while still going fast

Philosopher Isabelle Stengers argues that a vital part of scientific and technological culture must change if we are to avoid rushing blindly off a cliff out of competition with other nations or for capitalistic gain. Her work has observed how scientific culture often says, “‘Leave us alone, we are scientists, and science must advance.’ Everything that complicates it, makes obstacles, and brings back the mess of the world is an enemy.” But we cannot afford to let any single perspective guide something so important as the relationship between science and society.

We have a small window in which we can act effectively on climate and biodiversity, so we do need to act fast. But Stengers reminds us we shouldn’t just use tech everywhere simply because we can. Sometimes responding ethically requires a social solution and no tech at all. We will be in a better position to restore our environments and create new ones if the solutions we seek come from diverse sources of wisdom.

Technology has always been our savior as well as our downfall, but it doesn’t have to be both of those things in equal measure. We can thrive in the future if we stop ravaging the Earth immediately while seeding new values in our embrace of tech with a focus on compassion, equity, and humility. The roadmap I offer here is just one way to think about doing this work. Building a culture of technological maturity to meet our greatest planetary challenges may not look likely, but it is within reach. Whatever comes of these next decades is up to us, so let’s start building.

PhD, Author of Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics and Risks of De-Extinction, co-host BBC Tomorrow’s World podcast.

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