Not Enough (Yet)

I’ve just finished reading Enough, Bill McKibben’s jeremiad against genetic engineering, robotics and nanotechnology. The argument, as suggested in the title, is that we’ve done enough science, and we should stop developing nanotechnology and genetic engineering now, before we lose irrecoverable aspects of our humanity. It’s an important book, a compelling book in some ways, and I’m surprised by how much I agree with it. I accept a lot of McKibben’s arguments about what it is to be human, and like him I find that the posthumanists’ creed that we should happily trade in our humanity for some ill-defined post-human nirvana very unattractive.

I part company with McKibben at the point where he dismisses the claim that we need better science and technology to improve our current human condition. It’s easy, as McKibben does, to find anecdotes about the way in which, say, high technology agriculture has made the lives of third-world farmers worse rather than better. But another excellent book from my summer reading list – Enriching the Earth, by Vaclav Smil, makes it clear how much humanity as a whole depends on intensive agriculture, and in particular on artificial nitrogen fertilizers. For privileged inhabitants of rich countries, like myself and Bill McKibben, a rich diet based on non-intensive farming is entirely possible and indeed very agreeable. But for the majority of the world’s city dwelling population this simply isn’t an option. Smil’s book lays out the figures – non-intensive farming, without artificial fertilisers, could supply only 40% of the world’s current population at current average diets, a figure that would rise to 50% if everyone adopted a minimally nutritious but frugal diet.

This is just one example of the way in which we are currently existentially dependent on technology for the survival of the human race at current population levels. But the technology we depend on is not sustainable and has many well-known disadvantages – taking this example, artificial fertilisers are produced using a huge amount of fossil fuel based energy, with serious negative consequences like global warming, and the direct consequences of waste nitrogen fertiliser run-off on ecosystems are now well known. The world population is now starting to level off, and we do have it in our grasp to have a future in which the world has a stable population with a decent standard of living, obtained in a sustainable way. But to get to this point the technology we have now is not enough. We’ll need clean energy, clean water, better medicine, ways of cleaning up the environment and keeping it unpolluted. Nanotechnology should play a big role in all these developments.