The Military’s Strange Push To Green Our Explosives

What's to come?
Jan. 19 2012 10:11 AM

The Military’s Push To Green Our Explosives

Environmentally friendly weapons, synthetic biology, and international law.

(Continued from Page 1)

The SERDP request is part of a drive across the military to find defense applications for synthetic biology. Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, pledged $30 million for what it deems high-value materials and devices made using Living Foundries, and the Office of Naval Research proposed using synthetic biology to produce TNT intermediaries, presumably for weapons.

If successfully built, explosives-producing microbes will come with sticky problems beyond international law. The military has a checkered history of containing its technologies, and the touted environmental benefits won’t keep the new technologies from falling into undesirable hands. Losing track of rifles, Patriot missiles, or drones is bad enough; losing track of self-reproducing factories for explosives is another matter entirely. The quality that makes microbes so powerful will also make them difficult to contain: A single microscopic cell, acquired by a criminal or enemy, could in principle multiply to fill a vat within a few days.

Despite programs that will strike some as ethically equivocal, we should encourage military funding for synthetic biology. Perhaps most importantly, the technology can strengthen our national security by providing alternatives to foreign oil. But we must also be wary. Not all military projects are worth their price—morally, financially, or otherwise. The BWC already delineates how biology may be used in military applications. The U.S. government should carefully consider research funding that may confuse the issue, since other countries, and potential adversaries, might take a cue and aggressively employ biology in decidedly unsavory ways. Proceeding without adequate reflection risks undermining four decades of international moral consensus about appropriate uses of biology. It also threatens our national security.

Advertisement

In writing this, we asked ourselves where on the spectrum do appropriate uses of biotech become inappropriate. It’s a shifting line that may fall into the unsatisfying category of “you know it when you see it.” If as a society we educate ourselves on the potential of the technology and actively monitor its development, we may not know exactly where the line sits, but with vigilance and dialogue we’ll be able to recognize research that crosses it.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Rob Carlson is a principal at Biodesic and the author of Biology Is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life. He has briefed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and numerous U.S. government agencies on synthetic biology.

Daniel Grushkin is a science journalist who covers the intersection of science, business, and culture. He co-founded Genspace, a community biology lab and education space.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 9:22 AM The Most Populist Campaign of 2014
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 9:13 AM Clive James, Terminally Ill, Has Written an Exquisitely Resigned Farewell Poem
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.