BV: Well, one psychologist I interviewed for the book, Tracy Gleason at Wellesley, talks about how some people, when they think about the future, feel paralyzing anxiety. And certainly when you look at predictions of coming refugee crises or the warming planet, it can cause a sense of despair. What Gleason talks about is imagining the future with agency, and also making decisions in the present to affect it.
NT: So if you put somebody in a virtual reality headset, and you show them a coral reef and it’s been completely obliterated, and it’s all dead, maybe they’re going to say, “Well, this is impossible!” and just go drink and then throw all their plastics into the ocean. Right? But what is the level of coral reef obliteration that is optimum for people to make the proper decisions about the future?
BV: So that’s a good question and we can’t perfectly calibrate the answer. But the philosopher Peter Railton talks about how when people are given too many possible futures, they will just lock in on one. So after that coral reef experience, what we need to do is give people a sense of: What are the action steps that can happen today?
NT: Let’s move to some even bigger questions. There’s a moment in your book where you talk about genetic engineering, you talk about CRISPR. And CRISPR of course is the process of cutting our DNA so that you can have certain traits that are passed on to children, or plants, or animals. And you can manipulate humans so they’re resistant to HIV; you can manipulate a tomato so it’s resistant to cold. This will have some wonderful benefits! And it could also be catastrophic. How do we weigh the 100 percent chance of short-term benefits, the 100 percent chance of long-term benefits, and the non-zero chance of total obliteration of our species?
BV: I don’t know if I’d pick 100 percent on long-term benefits odds, because any predictions of the future should be hedged, right?
But I do bring the idea of heirloom thinking to this very problem. If we think about how to leave the most options to future generations, we want to be able to leave them knowledge that they can use, and we want to not destroy irreplaceable resources. I think of the diversity of the human genetic pool, the diversity that has allowed life on earth and humanity to thrive, as an irreplaceable resource. So if we go in and we edit embryos and the heritable traits; if we start to see that happen on a large scale, we can change the human genetic pool. We can reduce human genetic diversity because people can use this tool to decide that they want to have kids that have certain color of eyes and hair or certain other traits.
On the other hand, if we don’t use or research CRISPR at all, we won’t be leaving the knowledge and the tools to future generations. And so my position on that is that we use CRISPR to edit people that are alive (somatically) and not edit the germline in embryos. In other words, we don’t edit heritable traits. But we do edit to solve disease, and we continue to do the research.
NT: Let’s talk about another big issue: geoengineering.
BV: I believe it’s premature to use or deploy some sort of large-scale climate intervention, right? What people talk about doing commonly is to fly planes into the stratosphere and put sulfates out that would reflect some of the sunlight away from Earth in order to reduce the amount of solar radiation. And I really believe that there’s so many issues with this, first around who gets to decide how we set the thermostat on Earth, how we actually would do it in a collaborative way, how we would deal with the potential unintended consequences of that.