Oil Spills and the Unexpected in a Synthetic Age

When U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced plans in January to greatly expand offshore drilling to ninety percent of the U.S. coastline, the condemnation of the move was immediate, vocal, and bi-partisan.

The governors of the majority of coastal states – including Republican governors in Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and South Carolina – immediately objected to the proposal. A group of senators from Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire responded by introducing legislation into the U.S. Senate to ban offshore drilling along the New England coast. Thirty-seven other members of Congress sent an unusually forthright letter of opposition directly to Zinke. More than sixty environmental groups immediately signaled their intent to challenge the plan. When the public comment period opened on January 8th, one can only imagine that the Interior Department’s phone and internet lines immediately started crackling.

Oil Spill_Peter MaThe New England senators’ statements included numerous warnings about the catastrophic risk that drilling posed to their communities. Amongst other condemnations, they described the plan as a “reckless choice,” “risking another BP oil spill,” and as “all risk with no reward.” They expressed an unwillingness to expose their constituents to “the dangers of oil spills or drilling pollution,” to the “economic and environmental devastation that comes from oil spills,” and to possible repeats of the “greatest man-made natural disasters of our time.”

Whether the Department of Interior heeds these concerns is yet to be seen. But there is something notable about the direction of this opposition that contains an important message about the perception of environmental threats. The fears being expressed are largely fears of accidents and unplanned events. Although a small portion of the opposition to the drilling plan was rooted in a rejection of the idea of locking the U.S. further into a fossil fuel economy, for the most part, the views expressed were not fears about drilling and transporting oil when those activities go well.  They were fears about what happens when it all goes wrong, fears about the accidental and sometimes calamitous by-products of industrial activity.

There is good reason to be worried about these by-products. The left-overs discarded by advanced industrial societies have by now done enough damage to the planet to change its whole shape and course. They have set the earth off on an entirely new trajectory. This is something captured by the term “the Anthropocene.” The Anthropocene is the new geological epoch the planet has entered in which the traces of human activity can be found everywhere you look on earth.

The working group from the International Commission on Stratigraphy assigned to evaluate this new geological designation used a paper published in Science to point out all the different ways that the inadvertent release by humans of various materials has soiled the natural world. Carbon and nitrogen pollution, radionuclides, black carbon, pesticides, lead, PCB’s, and methane emissions are just some of the tell-tale signatures noted by the experts. On the basis of these signatures, the panel concluded that the current geological epoch (the Anthropocene) has become “functionally and stratigraphically distinct” from the last one (the Holocene).

Like the oil spills that concern the opponents of offshore drilling, the impacts that have made the Anthropocene are nearly all accidents of industry. They are the inevitable consequences of actions intended for other purposes. The Anthropocene, then, is not a deliberately chosen condition. It is a giant mishap. It indicates a planet transformed unintentionally. The ‘–cene’ in Anthropocene is more accurately a ‘scene’ of devastation or, less dramatically, a scene of global-scale sloppiness and negligence.

All of this is clearly something to lament. But behind this familiar version of environmental concern lies another one which is rooted in an even greater transition that is now underway.

Certain technologies under development today promise to take the mechanisms that have historically shaped the world around us and replace them with new ones. These technologies will take large portions of the natural world and turn them into something humans intentionally design.

Synthetic biology, for example, has the potential to turn genomes from biological entities previously explained by Darwinian accounts of evolution into something built from scratch in laboratories according to technical design. Climate engineering promises to turn global temperatures and precipitation patterns into something determined by computer models and intervening atmospheric engineers. De-extinction could result in natural ecosystems in which humans, not ecological and evolutionary forces, are responsible for choosing constituent members. Nanotechnologies, assisted evolution, and gene drives all pledge different versions of the same synthetic world.

DNA_Miki YoshihitoIn each of these cases, it would not be the accidents of oil spills, PCB contamination, and methane pollution that would give the world its artificial taint. It would be the plans and designs of engineers and technicians that would intentionally create a new world shaped by a certain subset of humans. In both cases, the part of the world that used to be called “nature” gets replaced. But in the one case it is replaced entirely as a result of mishap. In the other, it is replaced calmly and deliberately by those with the power to make these changes.

I call this new time we are entering The Synthetic Age. For me, this is a far more descriptive term than the idea of an Anthropocene, which conjures up only a scene of human-caused carelessness and clutter. In the Synthetic Age, what happens is not an accident. It is the result of deliberate choice.

Perhaps that sounds good.  Presumably it is better to create things deliberately than to arrive at them by accident.

Good, that is, until you start wondering what will be the new equivalents of radionuclides, black carbon, and nitrogen pollution in a Synthetic Age. When it comes to big new technologies, humanity does not have a good track record of everything working out according to plan from the beginning. We can well expect that a Synthetic Age will be plagued by a number of mishaps.

And what will be their cost? With the high stakes present, Senators are sure to go on a verbal rampage when these unplanned events occur. And it is unlikely to be mere oil spills that will then be characterized as the “greatest man-made disasters” of the Synthetic Age.


First photo by Peter Ma
Second photo by Miki Yoshihito

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