'Progressives' Against Progress

Why do environmentalists oppose human genetic enhancements?


The July/August issue of World Watch magazine, published by the dependably alarmist Worldwatch Institute, makes it clear that ideological environmentalists are now members in good standing of a broad, growing neo-Luddite coalition.

In this special issue devoted to opposing the development of human genetic enhancements, Bill McKibben, the Rod McKuen of environmentalist writers, first repeats "the whole damn litany" of green doom, featuring global warming, disappearing species, and acid rain. But that isn't enough. McKibben says human genetic engineering is even more menacing than the traditional environmentalist bugaboos. "I think it may turn into the single greatest battle environmentalists have ever fought," he writes, "the one for which the Grand Canyon and the African elephants and Amazon deforestation and Love Canal were preparing us. The real test."

Marcy Darnovsky from the Center for Genetics and Society and Tom Athanasiou from EcoEquity make the green bias against technology clear. "The history of environmentalism is instructive here," they say. "Advocates of ecological sanity have for decades expended oceans of sweat and tears to show the need for caution in the face of powerful new technologies—nuclear power plants, large dams, Green Revolutions."

One might cynically conclude that environmentalists are running out of causes: They have cried wolf for 40 years, and the world has not come to an end. In fact, by many measures the state of the natural world has improved and is likely to improve even more during the course of this century.

More likely, the activists have turned their baleful attention to medical biotechnology because environmentalism is no longer an ideological movement devoted chiefly to defending nature. Almost unnoticed, environmentalism has been hijacked by anti-capitalist "progressives," many of whom migrated to the movement when they lost faith in socialist ideology after the implosion of the Soviet Union. For them, environmentalism is just another means by which to oppose the economic system they loathe.

The World Watch special issue highlights the fact that radical egalitarianism lies at the heart of today's ideological environmentalism. "The techno-eugenic vision," according to Darnovsky and Athanasiou, "urges us, in case we still harbor vague dreams of human equality and solidarity, to get over them." They fear that biotechnology will "allow inequality to be inscribed in the human genome." Richard Hayes, a anti-biotech gadfly who runs the Center for Genetics and Society, argues that the movement opposing human genetic engineering "will need to be of the same intensity, scope, and scale as the great movements of the past century that struggled on behalf of working people, anti-colonialism, civil rights, peace and justice, women's equality, and environmental protection."

Ideological environmentalists seem to be arguing that human equality depends on the fact that we are all exposed to the random luck of the genetic lottery. This is an ahistorical understanding of political equality. The ideal of political equality arose from the Enlightenment's insistence that since no one has access to absolute truth, no one has a moral right to impose his or her values and beliefs on others. Political equality has never rested on claims about human biology. We all had the same human biology during the long millennia in which slavery, patriarchy, and aristocratic rule were social norms.

The environmentalist Luddites plan to oppose the advance of biomedical science by pulling out the Death Star of public policies: the "precautionary principle." Worldwatch Institute analysts Brian Halweil and Dick Bell declare that "the precautionary principle is a way of legislating the humility which humanity has so long lacked in dealing with technological change….We believe that if ever there were a time to apply the precautionary principle, the advent of human germline engineering is it." McKibben agrees that it's "preposterous" that biotech is not subject to the precautionary principle.

The precautionary principle can be summed up as "regulate first, ask questions later." It requires that proponents of any new technology prove that it will have no bad effects before they are allowed to introduce it. Indeed, some versions demand that a new technology be shown to be "socially necessary" before people can have it.

To understand the implications of this principle, consider what might have happened if it had been wielded by candlestick makers and livery stable owners. Would they have considered electric lights and automobiles "socially necessary"? After all, lots of people die of electrocution and car crashes. The precautionary principle is a recipe for technological and economic stagnation that would ultimately increase human misery and harm the natural world.

As examples of the horrors that the biotech future may hold, the World Watch contributors cite the eugenics programs in which thousands of disabled Americans were forcibly sterilized in the 1920s and '30s and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Crucially, they ignore the fact that the sterilization programs were government mandated and that Huxley's dystopia is a totalitarian nightmare. All people of good will must fiercely oppose any eugenics program proposed by any government.

Instead of a dystopia, proponents of biomedical progress foresee a future in which parents can use biotechnological advances to give their offspring stronger immune systems, nimbler brains, and more athletic bodies. Rather than exacerbating human inequality, it is much more likely that in the long run safe genetic engineering will enable parents to give their children beneficial genes that other children get naturally. That doesn't seem like a problem, environmental or otherwise, to me.