For as long as I’ve been involved in nature conservation, it’s been unmistakably interdisciplinary. During my studies for a MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, the conservation community was busy forging relationships with development (see ICDPs), economics (see REDD), anthropology (see CBNRM), and even religion (see ARC). Fast forward a few years and some unfamiliar partners are on the scene. A new breed of conservation is emerging…
Last autumn I found myself in Hyderabad, India at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s biennial jamboree. While the familiar facets of biodiversity conservation remained high on the agenda, my focus was on two new potential game changers: synthetic biology and geoengineering.
The former involves the design and construction of novel biological parts, devices and systems. While the latter entails the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system in order to combat global warming. Two distinct concepts, I’ll grant you that; and both at different stages of development. Yet when viewed through the lens of conservation, synthetic biology and geoengineering have more in common than first meets the eye:
- Both could be helpful or harmful for biodiversity.
- Both represent a ‘technofix’ or ‘sticking plaster’ – they fail to deal with the root causes of our environmental woes.
- Both raise a moral hazard – will over-reliance on technology lead to under-ambition in mitigating climate change and saving species?
- Both raise ‘who’ questions – who will develop the technologies, and who will govern them? This is particularly pertinent to conservation, given its commitment to access and benefit sharing.
- Both are new to conservation, and not yet normalised.
In the case of synthetic biology, this final point was writ large at last week’s Wildlife Conservation Society conference (see my previous post). Although the gathering sought to foster collaboration between synthetic biology and conservation (and was largely successful in doing so), the tone at times teetered on the verge of ‘us and them’. At one point, Imperial’s Dick Kitney complained that the dialogue resembled sensible adult conservationists chiding unruly teenage synthetic biologists. Ed Gillespie of Futerra summed up the occasion nicely: was it the start of a long and fruitful relationship, or just another one-night stand?
For clues on how modern conservation might embrace or eject its new bedfellows, I’ll be following the Cambridge Conservation Initiative’s review of the potential impacts of geoengineering on ecosystems and biodiversity. I’ll also be attending Foresight Action Network’s event on the future environmental applications and implications of synthetic biology. Join me by sharing your vision for the future of conservation below.
The Royal Society has published two reports on geoengineering: ‘Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty’ (2009) and ‘Solar radiation management: the governance of research’ (2011). For details of our synthetic biology work, check out our project pages.