Four ways we could hack human bodies to save the environment

Could prescribing a pill or introducing a widespread genetic tweak save the environment? Should we change ourselves in order to reduce our impact on the world? An ethicist has proposed four biohacks for the human race that could stall the effects of climate change.

In an upcoming issue of Ethics, Policy and the Environment, S. Matthew Liao, an associate professor at NYU's Center for Bioethics, proposes these human hacks in a paper titled "Human Engineering and Climate Change." Viewing anthropocentric climate change as one of the greatest threats currently facing the human population, Liao suggests human engineering as a way to prevent environmental disaster:

Pharmacological meat intolerance: Citing the environmental impact of livestock rearing, Liao proposes reducing the demand for meat. While he acknowledges that societal and cultural pressures could reduce those demands, Liao suggests that we might utterly cure people of their desire for cow by inducing a mild meat intolerance, one that induces nauseous upon consuming beef. Liao further suggests that such an intolerance could be created pharmacological, with meat addicts wearing a "meat patch" much as smokers wear nicotine patches.

Making humans smaller: Smaller people means a smaller ecological footprint. Smaller people eat less, require less fuel than larger people do to carry them the same distance, and wear out manufactured good less rapidly. Liao proposes reducing the median height of men by 23% and women by 25%, with corresponding changes in metabolic rate. How? By using genetic screening to select for shorter children.

Lowering birth-rates through cognitive enhancement: Noting a correlation between low cognitive ability and early childbirth, Liao suggests performing cognitive enhancements on the population. He doesn't explicitly say how this would be achieved, so presumably this would be something where we'd have to wait on the technology. Even if cognition is not directly the cause of birth rates, Liao suggests that improved cognition in the human population might lead to an increase in education, which correlates with lower birth rates.

Pharmacological enhancement of altruism and empathy: What if we could take a pill to make ourselves more thoughtful people, more considerate of others? Liao believes that if we were able to enhance our innate sense of human empathy, that individuals would be more inclined to work toward the common good, and thus more likely to make sacrifices for the benefit of all. In short, if we cared more about each other, we'd be moved to care more about the environment.

While I'm betting on the meat-quitting patch becoming a real thing, I'm not sure how realistic Liao's solutions are. And even if the technology were readily available, you'd need a large-scale social change to convince humans to enact these changes in a sizable portion of the population. If you can convince entire nations to select their embryos for short stature, you'd think you'd be able to convince people to invest in public transit, conserve energy at home — or even eat less meat.

Image by higlu.

Human Engineering and Climate Change [via Big Think]