Freeman Dyson Solves Global Warming and All Other Problems

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June 1 2008 6:19 PM

Freeman Dyson Solves Global Warming and All Other Problems

The solution—"technology"—seems not to have occurred to anyone else. See here :

The science and technology of genetic engineering are not yet ripe for large-scale use. We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp. Keeling's wiggles prove that a big fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes within the grasp of biotechnology every decade. If one quarter of the world's forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

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Climate scientists and other spoilsports predictably charge Dyson with bad science—as though it were such a big deal to replace a forest half the size of the United States with carbon-eating, liquid-fuel excreting trees that haven't yet been invented. (Perhaps the trees could also be designed so that they can give directions to lost hikers.) Rather than carping about the details, the critics should stop and ponder the implications of Dyson's optimism about technology for all the other problems that the world has not yet been able to solve.

If we think of all the complex, expensive, and not very effective treaty regimes that already exist for solving multiple problems—nuclear proliferation, the depletion of ocean fisheries, the destruction of the ozone layer, war, international terrorism, trade protectionism, etc.—we immediately see that all of these problems, like global warming, could be more easily addressed with a technological advance than with regulation. Why, for example, should we try to improve treaties that govern fisheries when it would be simpler and easier to await biotechnological advances? We have already glimpsed the future in Woody Allen's prescient movie Sleeper , which shows gigantic bananas—able to feed entire villages!—being grown on a farm. If gigantic bananas, why not gigantic fish? It ought to be easier to catch a single 1,000-foot-long tuna than hundreds of small tunas. If the gigantic tuna could be genetically engineered so that it can breathe air, it could be grown organically on carbon-neutral farms; perhaps it could graze on carbon-eating grasses and be endowed (unlike cows) with a greenhouse-gas-neutral digestive process. Oceans, meanwhile, would be left undisturbed. We could also invent nuclear weapons that can't cross borders without presidential authorization, chemicals to fix the ozone hole, and an army of genetically engineered humanoid fighters to kill terrorists and other bad guys. All we need is technology—the more, the better!

Meanwhile, we could solve virtually all of our environmental problems though the simple expedient of genetically engineering human beings to be 4 inches tall. "Biotechnology is enormously powerful," says Dyson, so why not?  Four-inch-tall people would consume fewer of the world's resources, ensuring sustainable development for the benefit of our tiny descendants living thousands or even millions of year in the future. Four-inch-tall people would need much smaller automobiles, which would have correspondingly higher fuel efficiency.  Because of the smaller mass of automobiles, collisions will have less destructive effect, and thousands of lives per year would be saved. To be sure, the reduction in mortality would put a strain on our planet's resources—fewer traffic deaths mean more people eat more food and consume more fossil fuels—but people could be engineered to have a reasonable, sustainable lifespan and to have no more (tiny!) children than necessary to keep the size of the population constant. If Dyson is right that technology will solve the problem of climate change, why stop there? Technology ought to be able to solve all our less serious problems as well—no need to adopt regulations in treaty or domestic law.

Sourpusses think that every new technology just creates new problems for which regulations are needed. Isn't the coal-fired power plant just a kind of technology? However, if I understand the logic of Dyson's argument correctly, we should expect still-newer technology to solve whatever problems that soon-to-be-old new technology creates. If carbon-eating, liquid-fuel excreting trees self-combust, causing the world's largest forest fire, we can try again with carbon-eating, liquid-fuel excreting trees that incorporate miniature sprinkler systems.

Here's a prediction. One hundred thousand years from now, a wise and prosperous race of 4-inch-tall, carbon-neutral people, whose atmosphere has been scrubbed clean by forests of carbon-eating, liquid-fuel-excreting, fireproof trees that give directions to lost hikers, will look back at us with bemusement and pity, wondering why we troubled with climate treaties, lawsuits, cap-and-trade programs, and other expensive, unnecessary sacrifices, all for their benefit, when we could have lived it up and left technology to clean up our mess.

Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is author of The Twilight of International Human Rights Law. Follow him on Twitter.

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