This will be about technology, and this is one of my favorite topics. When we talk about the Anthropocene, I think we seldom miss the point that so much of what happens in the Anthropocene, and the fact that we might be in the Anthropocene, happens through technology; it’s been through technology.
And one of the favorite examples that I take up with some of my students and some of my talks is this example. A couple of years ago an NGO and a couple of researchers discovered a new monkey type in the Amazon called the Titi Monkey, a new type of Titi Monkey. And they needed money to promote conservation efforts for the monkey. So they decided to make an option, an online option to sell the naming rights of that monkey. So they did that, and it was quite successful. They managed to get $650,000, and the company that won that auction was an online casino called GoldenPalace.com.
So GoldenPalace.com officially gets to name the monkey, so the official name of this Titi monkey is actually GoldenPalace.com Titi Monkey. And it has a Latin name called Callicebus aureipalatii, which I believe means golden palace.
And it’s quite a bizarre example, of course, but I find it quite intriguing that we’re modifying – we’re affecting nature at such a deep level that we’re even auctioning out the naming rights of a monkey species to an online casino.
I think the three interesting topics in here that are more general that this quite bizarre example. One deals of course with biodiversity and how we protect biodiversity. And there’s another issue related to politics of course. I mean where are we, is this a good idea should we really pull in private funding in this way? And giving – selling out naming rights in this way? And of course the third topic [is] about technology. Who would have thought 10 years ago that an online casino would have bought the rights to name this particular monkey?
Now I think this really brings us to an illustration of the next generation of environmental challenges in the Anthropocene, and new governance challenges facing us.
This is a quote from a New York Times article from one of the researchers a paper showing that the west Antarctica ice sheet was collapsing irreversibly, risking to create very large increases in sea level rise. And the quote from the scientist of course is, “This is really happening. It has passed the point of no return.” So it brings us back to the issue of tipping points and new risks.
Once these news were out there of course you hear discussions about trying to stop this from happening through technology, so essentially geo-engineering interventions. Sending out ships to spray out salt particles in ways that would make clouds whiter and then cool down the area, and hopefully, ideally, theoretically, cool the area down so much that you could stop the glaciers from collapsing. And of course this is just one example of many, many of these tipping point elements. This is a famous image from Tim Lenton’s work on tipping points in the Earth system.
And the issue here is of course if there are tipping points, and some of these might be a very, very large scales, and affect the Earth system as a whole, are there ways by which we can use technology to stay away from these, or mitigate these, or adapt to these in smart ways? And of course that triggers a lot of controversy and political conflict. And geo-engineering is a brilliant example of the interplay between risky tipping points, technology, and technological interventions and the political conflicts and debates those sort of discussions trigger.
And it’s not just about climate. I mean I just gave you a climate example. Some scientists propose that you would need to promote a new generation of conservation efforts that are more active to cope with climate change in ways to protect coral reefs.
So one example of tangible interventions were to create artificial coral reefs, or create big umbrellas, or to protect and cool down coral reefs, to create gene banks, etc., etc. Another interesting observation is from a workshop that was a few years ago in the UK where researchers and NGOs got together to discuss whether we can use synthetic biology to promote conservation and to maintain biodiversity. And there’s an emerging discussion about something called the extinction, so essentially using DNA from extinct species and use that DNA to bring these species back, and would that be a way to maintain and protect biodiversity?
Highly, highly controversial of course, and quite intriguing. I think one of the general reflections and reactions to this from the public and other scientists would be, but are we allowed to do this? Doesn’t this inflict on the precautionary principle? Now the precautionary principle that states that we shouldn’t do anything that might create harm. I mean that would be the popular perception of that.
But in fact if you look into international agreements, such as the Commission on Biological Diversity, it states something different. It says that, and I’m goint to quote here, “Where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.” So essentially actors, NGOs, a few researchers, used the precautionary principle as support for these sort of intervention[s].
And is that the proper framing of the precautionary principle, or should we have a more moderate interpretation of that? And what would that look like? So I think that’s just a simple illustration of the sort of challenges that tipping points, emerging technologies, get mixed up in a way that create[s] new political controversies and new governance challenges.