The disappearance of Lohachara island off the coast of India, once home to 10,000 people, marks the first time an inhabited island has been submerged by rising seas many attribute to global warming.
It’s important to recognize that despite our current environmental consciousness and efforts to live sustainably, we continue to destroy our planet’s ecosystems at an alarming rate. Right now, for example, Texas is planning to build coal-burning power plants that will produce 78 million tons annually of the carbon dioxide that leads to global warming, more than entire countries like Sweden. Meanwhile, in Africa’s Congo Basin, forests are disappearing at a rate of 3.7 million acres a year.
These are just two of the headlines received here at Green Technology Forum on the day this story was written. Unfortunately, every day reveals similar bad news for the environment. Taken cumulatively, this amounts to a crisis that threatens the survival of life on earth.
But our actions and the technologies we use can heal as well as harm. Our every action, our every thought, affects the quality of life on earth for all things. Right action begins with knowledge—the knowledge of environmental systems and impacts necessary to guide our actions in the proper direction. The goal of Green Technology Forum is to offer information, insight and ideas that will help you make informed decisions, particularly about emerging super-technologies like nanotechnology and biotechnology, to ensure their responsible use and help heal our planet’s living systems.
Are there limits beyond which humans should not venture? Many advances in nanotechnology and biotechnology raise this question because they enable us to do things, even to be things, we never could do or be before. They give us the power to manipulate the most fundamental building blocks of nature and the ability to transform anything according to our desires. Many people feel that extreme transformations, such as taking control of our own evolution, violate a fundamental aspect of our humanity instilled by nature or by God. They argue that we should be content with our nature, with our DNA, and with our lot in life. They feel that through our technology we reached a line we should not cross, or have already crossed as we are, for example, currently engineering future generations through genetic diagnosis and selection.
To better understand the argument for limiting human exploration, let’s take it out of the nanoworld, where it can be frustratingly abstract, and apply it to another frontier—outer space. While not as radical a departure as redesigning our DNA, space exploration raises similar concerns for many. Shouldn’t we learn to care for our own world before we venture off to others? How can we justify the billions of dollars required to take us to another planet while people starve on ours?
Many people feel that space exploration offers an exciting frontier to humanity. When, for example, President George W. Bush called for a manned mission to Mars in 2004, the echoes of manifest destiny were obvious. “Two centuries ago,” he said, “Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left St. Louis to explore the new lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. They made that journey in the spirit of discovery, to learn the potential of vast new territory, and to chart a way for others to follow. America has ventured forth into space for the same reasons. We have undertaken space travel because the desire to explore and understand is part of our character.”
An earlier milestone in space exploration was an occasion for at least one observer to offer an opposing view. On July 20, 1969, as Apollo 11 settled onto the surface of the moon, Shunryu Suzuki, abbot of the San Fransisco Zen Center, addressed his students. “If you say, ‘This is a rock from the moon,’ you will be very much interested in it. Actually I don’t think there is a great difference between rocks we have on the earth and those on the moon. Even if you go to Mars, I think you will find the same rocks. I am quite sure about it. So if you want to find something interesting, instead of hopping around the universe like this, enjoy your life in every moment, observe what you have now, and truly live in your surroundings.”
In admonishing his students to focus on enjoying their lives here and now rather than go hopping around the universe in search of something more interesting, Suzuki Roshi seemed to be suggesting limits beyond which the quest for more exotic experience causes us to miss the fullness of the here and now. Bush, in contrast, displays the more typically western attitude that in order to enjoy life we must be free to expand our horizons.
The contrast between these opposing views reminds me of a comment attributed to Brian Eno, who said, “Western religion is one of self-improvement; Eastern religion is one of self-acceptance.” The question with respect to nanotechnology and biotechnology is, how much self-improvement is acceptable. In fact, some of what we consider improvements at the time could prove in the long run not to improve things at all. And, as author Bill McKibben observes, we may even run the risk of losing the “self” in self-improvement if we take it too far, altering ourselves so radically that we lose whatever it is that makes us fundamentally human.
Nanocables that convert light into electricity could power nano-sized robots or micro-machines. Their similarity in size and function to the antennae used by bacteria for photosynthesis means it might also be possible to connect them to such organisms, creating hybrid devices.