I'm skeptical of the synthetic age, says ecology philosopher Christopher Preston

Christopher Preston

Christopher Preston suggests we need to fully understand the profound impact we are now having on the natural world. 

Christopher Preston, the environmental philosopher, has observed how human beings have transformed every aspect of the environment, leading to a new era in natural history. His book The Synthetic Age suggests we human beings make conscious decisions about how we influence this impending future. JP O'MALLEY interviews Preston for The Ecologist

We are redesigning the earth from atom to atmosphere, and we have to decide if those are good choices to make or not.

Two British scientists, Jane Hill and Steven Willis, moved five hundred individuals of each of the marble white and the small skipper species up the A1 highway in north eastern England in 2000 as they were concerned about what climate change was doing to a pair of local butterflies.

Studies in the years since have indicated that this, one the earliest methods of managed relocation, worked successfully. 

A number of species will die if they remain in their historical geographical ranges as the impact of the anthropogenic climate becomes more pronounced. And so environmentalists and biologists are suggesting that struggling species should be given a helping hand.

Deploy technologies

But Christopher Preston, the environmental philosopher, argues that with managed relocation humans are now deciding what nature is. Speaking to The Ecologist from his home in Montana in the United States, he said: “We are recomposing ecosystems and choosing its members. And so nature increasingly becomes synthetic nature:the thing we choose nature to be.”

Preston adds: “We are redesigning the earth from atom to atmosphere, and we have to decide if those are good choices to make or not.”

Preston is originally from the UK and moved to the US two decades ago. He has recently published The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species and Reengineering Our World.   

Human beings are now learning how to replace some of nature's most historically influential operations with synthetic ones of their own design in a myriad of ways.

These include: learning how to synthesise and stitch together new arrangements of DNA and useful organisms; fabricating novel atomic and molecular structures, which will create entirely new material properties; reassembling the species composition of ecosystems; and even studying how to deploy technologies that will turn back the sun to keep the planet cool.

Vital elements

This last technological breakthrough is known as climate engineering: a process that involves tweaking with the fundamental workings of the atmosphere to bring down global temperatures. The most common method is known as Solar Radiation Management (SRM).

Typically, this involves putting some form of reflective particle or droplet into the stratosphere to intercept solar energy before it gets any closer to the earth. “SRM doesn't solve global warming though,” Preston warns: “It doesn't take carbon out of the atmosphere.” 

What SRM does do - however - is act like a sun shade: cooling down the globe's temperature down for a period of approximately 40 years. Crucially, it buys the global community time, before it can finally figure out how to take out of the atmosphere climate change's chief culprit: carbon dioxide.

We are redesigning the earth from atom to atmosphere, and we have to decide if those are good choices to make or not.

The best way to implement this - Preston explains - is to introduce Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR). And there are a number of ways this can be done. But principally, Preston points out, two common methods are used.

The first is a process that generates massive blooms of phytoplankton in the oceans. This can be done by spreading powdered forms of vital elements such as iron, potassium, or phosphorous, on the ocean surface, in areas that are otherwise nutrient deficient.

Solar energy

With the additional ingredients introduced into the soup, phytoplankton - naturally occurring at the ocean surface - will proliferate and take up increasing amounts of carbon dioxide as they photosynthesise

However, Preston warns that it's still not fully understood by environmentalists and scientists whether the carbon actually ends up in safe long term storage on the ocean floor. Moreover, he says the jury is still out on how much carbon microorganisms can actually absorb: as nutrients are sprinkled on the ocean surface.

The other method of CDR Preston mentions is Direct Air Capture (DAC): this involves using an engineered structure like a windmill that would capture carbon from the breeze. The carbon harvest could then be extracted from the chemical, before being transported and stored in the geological formations in which oil and gas are stored. 

Preston says it is paramount to “ take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere” - regardless of what methods are used. The environmental philosopher wants to make one thing abundantly clear:he is no utopian-tech-enthusiast.

Critical juncture

He is also keen to stress the distinct differences between SRM and CDR. SRM takes something which has been integral to the formation of the planet on which we live for four and a half billion years— the solar energy that comes in— and it tries to recalibrate that for our purposes,” Preston adds.

CDR - on the other hand - takes something that we put into the atmosphere that we now realise is a pollutant, Preston explains.

“The idea of replacing nature with something synthetic is highly problematic,” Preston states categorically: “Humans encounter nature as one of the fundamentals of human life.”

Humanity is thus at a critical juncture, the philosopher believes:to decide what the future of nature will actually consist of. Particularly as technological progress offers to reshape nature like no previous time in our history; and, as we gain total dominion over the natural world too.

“There used to be this thing called nature,” says Preston. “It built itself through ecological and evolutionary forces. Then [humans] arrived and had to respond in relation to it.”

The author documents how until recently, most notable pieces of human history have taken place in the epoch known as the Holocene: a geological period dating back from the present day to roughly 12,000 years ago.

Bold choices

The Holocene age, however, is now becoming the past tense. This is due to how vigorously humans have dominated the earth in the interim. This coming new dawn of history is more commonly referred to as the Anthropocene.

As we shortly enter this new age, two things have happened,Preston explains. Firstly,we have realised that there is no nature untouched in the world anymore.

“You can go up the artic and find pesticides in whales, or you can pick up a teaspoon of ocean water, [where] you find dust residues. So we have arrived suddenly at this moment where some people are even talking about the end of nature.”

Secondly, if nature has indeed ended, Preston believes we need— as a global community— to ask the fundamental question: where are we heading now? He believes the future of the natural world essentially comes down to two bold choices.

Are we really going to take control of the earth and synthesise it from nanotechnology? Or, are we going to return to where we were before, keeping some hope of there being something natural out there?

“I'm skeptical of the synthetic age,” the philosopher concludes: “ I have nostalgia for the idea of nature. I think it's an essential background for us; and believe people will choose it over accepting a full throttle synthetic age.”

This Author

JP O' Malley is a freelance journalist and cultural critic who writes regularly on politics, history, literature, society, the environment and technology, for numerous publications around the globe.