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Confronting 'The Synthetic Age' With Christopher James Preston

Jun 6, 2018

We have all heard that there are no longer any places left on Earth untouched by humans. The significance of this goes beyond statistics documenting melting glaciers and shrinking species counts. It signals a new geological epoch. In The Synthetic Age, Christopher Preston argues that what is most startling about this coming epoch is not only how much impact humans have had but, more important, how much deliberate shaping they will start to do.

Emerging technologies promise to give us the power to take over some of Nature's most basic operations. It is not just that we are exiting the Holocene and entering the Anthropocene; it is that we are leaving behind the time in which planetary change is just the unintended consequence of unbridled industrialism. A world designed by engineers and technicians means the birth of the planet's first Synthetic Age.

The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World
Credit MIT Press

The following are highlights from a special extended conversation with Christopher James Preston about his book, The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World. Click the link above to listen now or subscribe to our podcast.

Sarah Aronson: As opposed to the Anthropocene, what is the Manthropocene?

Christopher James Preston: The Manthropocene is a label feminists have concocted in order to point the finger at masculinity as being the cause of a lot of environmental problems. So if you call it the Anthropocene it suggests that the whole of humanity is equally implicated in the kinds of destruction that we’ve caused. If you call it the Manthropocene, you’re pointing your finger.

One of the things this book taught me is that we’re actually not in the Anthropocene. Can you clear up the idea of the next geological epoch and where we are now?

So, there is a working group from the International Commission on Stratigraphy who are studying this time that we’re in and they’re hoping to define whether or not we’ve entered a new geological epoch. The consensus among the working group is, yes we have. The Holocene is now behind us.”The signatures that will appear in rocks many millennia from now, indicate that we’ve moved on.

My concern though is that the Anthropocene as defined by this working group is really this giant accident—all of these things we’ve done—unintentionally, we didn’t plan to warm the climate, we didn’t plan to reduce species numbers so greatly, we didn’t plan to put toxins in Arctic ice. And so the idea of an Anthropocene is misguided. It really should be called The Big Accident or The Scene of Destruction, or something like that. So in my work I seek to redefine it and give it a better name and call it The Synthetic Age.

Break

What you write is, “The thing that should scare us most about the Synthetic Age is the prospect of these types of massive decisions, literally world-shaping decisions, not being made democratically.” So what’s your advice to the commoner, who may not know anything—like I did—about the technology that is happening without us knowing?

So one can’t just have a knee-jerk reaction and be anti-technology. If you’re concerned about the natural world you have to be aware of what technology can do to protect it. So the path is a complicated middle path: looking at the technologies that are desirable, being suspicious of the ones that aren’t. In order to shape those technologies that fit within our ethical ideals, as many people as possible need to be involved in these discussions. These are not things we want to happen to us where we’re just sort of this passive observer sitting back and seeing new products show up in the stores which we may or may not choose to buy. The kinds of things that are happening are changing our home planet. We all need to be a part of it, we need to be as aware as possible. We need to know who are pushing these kinds of developments, why they’re pushing them, what role we can play. Nothing can be better than a higher state of awareness about what’s going on.

Break

I want you to make your best pitch to me about how we can retain awe and wonder as we move into the Synthetic Age…

There’s no problem with being awe-struck by the power of our technologies. Many of them are remarkable. Many of them do wonderful things for us. So we certainly should not be frightened at admiring the technologies and those who build them. The danger, I think, is when we lose sight of the world that those technologies are built out of and the world that those technologies are designed to look at. Because that’s the world that’s the source of everything we build. When we lose sight of life and replace it with machine. When we forget about climate because we think we can just reengineer it to be more conducive to our interests, we lose something that is elemental to us. We lose something fundamental. It’s still there, and it will remain there but our language can take us away from it, our focus can take us away from it. We can get too wrapped up in the things we can do and we can lose sight of what the world does for us.

My call in The Synthetic Age is not to reject the technologies that can do immense good for people: it can lift people out of poverty, it can increase health, it can increase access to energy. So my call is not to reject those technologies but to remember the world that lies behind those technologies, and to keep appreciating its richness, to keep appreciating its independence from us and to help cultivate that independence to flourish where we can.

About the Book:

Imagining a future in which humans fundamentally reshape the natural world using nanotechnology, synthetic biology, de-extinction, and climate engineering.

We have all heard that there are no longer any places left on Earth untouched by humans. The significance of this goes beyond statistics documenting melting glaciers and shrinking species counts. It signals a new geological epoch. In The Synthetic Age, Christopher Preston argues that what is most startling about this coming epoch is not only how much impact humans have had but, more important, how much deliberate shaping they will start to do. Emerging technologies promise to give us the power to take over some of Nature's most basic operations. It is not just that we are exiting the Holocene and entering the Anthropocene; it is that we are leaving behind the time in which planetary change is just the unintended consequence of unbridled industrialism. A world designed by engineers and technicians means the birth of the planet's first Synthetic Age.

Preston describes a range of technologies that will reconfigure Earth's very metabolism: nanotechnologies that can restructure natural forms of matter; “molecular manufacturing” that offers unlimited repurposing; synthetic biology's potential to build, not just read, a genome; “biological mini-machines” that can outdesign evolution; the relocation and resurrection of species; and climate engineering attempts to manage solar radiation by synthesizing a volcanic haze, cool surface temperatures by increasing the brightness of clouds, and remove carbon from the atmosphere with artificial trees that capture carbon from the breeze.

What does it mean when humans shift from being caretakers of the Earth to being shapers of it? And in whom should we trust to decide the contours of our synthetic future? These questions are too important to be left to the engineers.

About the Author: 

Christopher James Preston
Credit Christian Sawicki

Christopher J. Preston is at various times a professor of philosophy, a commercial fisherman, a gardener, an author, and a student of powerful emerging technologies. The most inflated title he ever possessed was Distinguished Visiting Fellow in the Ethics of the Anthropocene.