05.04.2011

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Playing God – Geo Engineering and Synthetic Biology

As a response to climate change and other crisis, big technological solutions are discussed by scientists, governments and industries - reaching from the fertilization of oceans with iron to the dimming of the atmosphere with sulfate. The dangers are unforseeable, says Pat Mooney. Not less dangerous: The creation of new life forms through synthetic biology, a technolgy which "makes classic genetic engeneering look like a child's play".

Gäste: 

Pat Mooney, awardee of the "Right Livelihood Award" and director of the „Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration“ (ETC), Canada.

Transkript: 

David Goessmann: Welcome to Kontext TV from Dakar. We are here at the library of the University and we are here for the World Social Forum. Our guest today is Pat Mooney. Pat Mooney is with the action group on erosion technology and concentration in Canada. He has been extensively researching campaigning on issues of the dangers of emerging technologies such as geo engineering that is the technical manipulation of earth systems and nanotechnology.

Fabian Scheidler: He is also author of a book called “The next bang”, which has been come out in German first, and will be probably published in English soon. Welcome to Kontext TV, Pat Mooney.

Pat Mooney: Thank you for having me.

David Goessmann: Since the World Summit in Rio 1992 many international conferences on climate change and global environmental issues have been taking place. What is your assessment of this process and its outcomes until now?

Pat Mooney: We’ve been saying that we really shouldn’t be talking about Rio+20. We should be talking about Stockholm+40. With the first major environmental conference was hold in 1972 in Stockholm and then Rio was twenty years after that. And in that context the outcome is quite clear. We have experienced a kind of a Stockholm-syndrome in civil society where all of us have fallen in love with our captors, we’ve fallen in love with the UN-system and we’ve fallen in love with UN-negotiations and with being the cap followers in the sense to everything happens in terms of international environmental debates in the United Nations. So I think the outcome is been truly bad. I think we in civil society perform badly. And I think that the governments have performed terribly over the last four decades.

David Goessmann: Why have we failed?

Pat Mooney: Governments haven’t taken issues seriously. I mean governments were captured immediately after the Stockholm Conference in 1972. They were captured by neoliberalism and the big push towards big economic growth and the big push toward technological fixes to solving our problems. So, we now find a world full of governments that say we don’t really need to do social policy, we don’t need to think about stuff anymore. All we got to do is let industry tell us what the technological fix would be. They would get us out of the food crisis, out of the fuel crisis, out of climate change, out of the financial crisis. They will care for us. We just have to give them tools. The regulatory mechanisms they need to solve a problem. And that attitude is hopeless, I mean, that actually just lead to … last year as loosing two per cent of our plant diversity on the planet, four per cent, five per cent, pardon to me, of our livestock diversity on the planet. Loosing 26 different languages last year. A cultural diversity is been lost at enormous rate. And yet they carry on. And think that they can just again have a technological solution to everything.

Fabian Scheidler: Mr. Mooney you have been warning for quite a long time about possible dangers of technocratic green economy proposals of so called full solutions to combat climate change and other environmental problems. What technologies do you mean particularly and what are the dangers of these technologies and this technocratic approaches?

Pat Mooney: Well, I should be clear, that, I mean, I love science and technologies, I think it’s all great. Not all great, but, I mean, I’m fascinated by it, I want to encourage more science and so on. But what is being proposed isn’t the solution. What is being proposed is that instead of dealing with peak oil as a reality, instead of dealing with the fact that we over consume in terms of energy resources and cannot continue that. Instead we’re being told don’t worry, we’ve got nanotechnology. They will massively make it easier for us to harness the energy of the sun and wind power and so on. And will let us massively reduce our energy requirements for machinery and so on. That is the answer. And in the case of, also the case of the food crisis and ideal biofuels and plastic and so on, we’re being told don’t worry about that, we will develop a second or a third generation of biotechnology which is called synthetic biology. And that will solve the problems. So, relax. Don’t worry, be happy. It’ll be done.

Fabian Scheidler: What is meant by synthetic biology?

Pat Mooney: Well, it’s sort of a biotech on steroids, I guess. The idea is that, with biotech what you do is you move a gene from one species to another. A very simple, a very messy frankly in the end of the day, it doesn’t really work. But that’s what you do. With synthetic biology you build your own DNA. You start from the bottom up and structuring the DNA to exactly design what you want to have. So you build the base pairs. And you decide exactly how you want to make the organism to do things. In the theory is, I guess, it’s entire a theory, is that with synthetic biology then, building your own DNA, you can create micro organisms the world never has seen before. They can gobble up the synilossic fibroin in the forest and to convert that into sugars, they can be converted into plastics or food or fuels or furniture or what ever you want. If you don’t need to worry about what you build finally, you just need to take biomass, control the biomass and convert that biomass with these new micros into the end product you want.

Fabian Scheidler: What is the danger of this technology?

Pat Mooney: Well, it’s incredibly powerful and it’s incredibly dangerous. It may not work. It probably won’t work particularly well. It may work kind of half, you know, well. It may work some of the time. But, we think it’s creating life forms that we’ve never seen before. It makes again standards sort of geneticall modified organisms (GMOs) look like child play. They’re building things we can’t even imagine. Last year for example, scientist of Cambridge University discovered that they could trick, using synthetic biology, they could convince the cell to not build 20 amino acids which is the basis for all the living materials, but to build 276 amino acids. Imagine, I mean, the difference between life made of 20 amino acids and a life made of 276 amino acids means that you could have more biological diversity in a test shoe than you would have in all of the Amazon. And an unnatural biological diversity the world hasn’t seen before. Well, what do we do with those life forms? What if they’re released into the environment? Everything always escapes in the lab into the environment. What happens when this starts? Last year we also learn through synthetic biology that it’s possible not just to build a life form, but to actually build for the first time ever, an artificial self-replicating life form. When we will keep on multiplying and mutating afterwards. And again: The power of that technology as sloppy as it may turn out to be or as ineffective as it sometimes turn out to be is something we’ve never seen before in the planet.

David Goessmann: Who is financing these sorts of science?

Pat Mooney: The same wonderful folks that bothers climate change in the first place, who geo engineered our planet into the crisis that we’re in. It’s BP, and EXXON Mobil, and it’s Shell, and it’s the big plastics chemical companies, Dupont and Monsanto and BASF. Well all the ones that are taking a lead in this research. And it’s our governments, its huge investments coming from US-department of energy, huge investments from the US-department of agriculture, from the British government and so on as well.

Fabian Scheidler: What is meant by the term geo engineering and what are the dangers of this?

Pat Mooney: It’s an interesting term, isn’t it? Because to me, we thought it was being proposed which is to restructure the circles of the oceans, to restructure the stratosphere to block sunlight, for example. We thought, my god, that’s geo engineering. And we thought that’s the most derogatory term we could think of, geo engineering the planet. We find that the scientists who were doing this work they call it geo engineering as well. They think it’s a good thing; we think it’s a terrible thing. They say of course that they prove a principal, that human beings can geo engineering the planet is before us. We had climate change, industry again, the BPs and the Duponts of the world have geo engineered the planet into this crisis. So they were saying: don’t worry folks, we’ll take care of it, we’ll geo engineer you out of the crisis again. And the two brought tools they were talking about to do that are one that you can again change the biological surface of the ocean so it will absorb greenhouse gases, and then sink them to the bottom of the ocean to get them out of the way. Or you can block sunlight, do a variety of different methods of blasting sulfate into the stratosphere for example; you can block the sunlight so you can lower temperatures and probably at the same time lower methane emissions as well in the arctic areas. Which would again buy time for us to perhaps another solution down the road. The danger of that is probably obvious, but the most amazing thing to me is that we don’t know enough about our planet, we don’t know enough about how the planetary systems work. To suggest that we can play god with the oceans, or play god with the sky, and do it in a way which is, in any remote way, safe, any remote way equitable to the poor world. It will not happen.