Yet another Modest Proposal: save the world from climate change by genetically engineering your kids

Modest proposals, in sense given the phrase by the great 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift, are flavour of the month in the bioethics community. Hot on the heels of an infanticide proposal in a leading journal comes a modest proposal to genetically modify children to save the world from climate change.

In a soon-to-be-published article in Ethics, Policy and Environment, three bioethicists, from New York University and from Oxford, float some quite eye-popping ideas. An interview with the S. Matthew Liao, of NYU, in The Atlantic sparked a firestorm on blogs.

Dr Liao explained that human engineering must be explored because other solutions for climate change, like international agreements and geoengineering, are clearly not working.

Among his suggestions are drugs to provoke aversion to meat to wean people off eating animals. This would help enormously, because half of the world’s greenhouse emissions may come from livestock farming.

Genetic modification and drugs to make people smaller is another solution. “For instance if you reduce the average U.S. height by just 15cm, you could reduce body mass by 21% for men and 25% for women, with a corresponding reduction in metabolic rates by some 15% to 18%, because less tissue means lower energy and nutrient needs.”

One of the most intriguing proposals is inducing positive attitudes towards the environment with drugs, although he sees it as a way of boosting willpower rather than inducing beliefs.

“If you crave steak, and that craving prevents you from making a decision you otherwise want to make, in some sense your inability to control yourself is a limit on the will, or a limit on your liberty. A meat patch would allow you to truly decide whether you want to have that steak or not, and that could be quite liberty enhancing.”

He proposes an interesting twist on the one or two-child policy advocated by some environmental groups: a child-per-family quota based on volume and weight rather than number:  

“…given certain fixed allocations of greenhouse gas emissions, human engineering could give families the choice between two medium sized children, or three small sized children. From our perspective that would be more liberty enhancing than a policy that says ‘you can only have one or two children.’ A family might want a really good basketball player, and so they could use human engineering to have one really large child.”

Preposterous? Not so fast. “Human engineering may seem bizarre and unrealistic, but this does not mean it could not turn out to be feasible and promising: telephones, ‘test tube babies’, and personal computers are all important aspects of modern life that were once regarded as bizarre and unrealistic,” another author, Rebecca Roache told the Guardian.

The article has been criticised even by colleagues, Anders Sandberg told the Guardian. But the authors are unperturbed by labels like “eco-Nazis” and “eugenicists”. “We are fairly typical liberal academics thinking about the world,” Sandburg says.

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