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Environment

Will Science Save Us?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 18, 2012 8:17 PM

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Wired magazine has an interesting interview with biologist and science entrepreneur Craig Venter, who, as Wikipedia describes, is

most famous for his role in being one of the first to sequence the human genome and for his role in creating the first cell with a synthetic genome in 2010.

The discussion is wide-ranging. At one point, Venter talks about his work on the synthetic life front, and how he's now involved in trying to create a cell to "harness photosynthesis." Here's the idea:

We're trying to coax our synthetic cells to do what's happened to middle America, which is store far more fat than they actually were designed to do, so that we can harness it all as an energy source and use it to create gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel straight from carbon dioxide and sunlight. This would shift the carbon equation so we're recycling CO2 instead of taking new carbon out of the ground and creating still more CO2. But it has to be done on a massive scale to have any real impact on the amount of CO2 we're putting into the atmosphere, let alone recovering from the atmosphere.

Hence the headline for the Wired interview, "Craig Venter wants to solve the world's energy crisis." What's interesting to me is Venter's mindset, which views science as the primary means to solve the world's greatest challenges. No doubt this perspective is widely shared, but it is also at odds with those (including many scientists) who instead emphasize social change. For example, on the issue of global sustainability, technological solutions don't seem to have much of a place in the tool box that's featured in major scientific reports and at conferences. Rather, what we often hear is the need to reduce consumption, population, and economic growth. I'm not suggesting that one approach should be chosen over the other, but it does seem that our conversations on energy and climate-related issues minimize (and often caution against) the use of technology to better humanity and the environment. On that note, I'll conclude with the final exchange in the Wired interview. Wired: I want to end with a big question: In 1990, Carl Sagan wrote that "we live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology." That seems even more true today. Do you think we respect science enough as a society? Venter: I think the new anti-intellectualism that's showing up in politics today is a symptom of our not discussing these issues enough. We don't discuss how our society is now 100 percent dependent on science for its future. We need new scientific breakthroughs"”sometimes to overcome the scientific breakthroughs of the past. A hundred years ago oil sounded like a great discovery. You could burn it and run engines off it. I don't think anybody anticipated that it would actually change the atmosphere of our planet. Because of that we have to come up with new approaches. We just passed the 7 billion population mark. In 12 years, we're going to reach 8 billion. If we let things run their natural course, we'll have massive pandemics, people starving. Without science I don't see much hope for humanity.

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