Our planet is in crisis: Climate change is just a symptom. Outdated technology is the problem.
Humanity needs to upgrade its infrastructure to have a healthy relationship with our home planet and to explore beyond it.
Climate change used to be something that I completely ignored.
The world was so big. The value of an individual’s impact seemed so small.
Today I believe that climate change is the biggest threat to our way of life that we’ve ever faced.
The UN Environmental Program is unequivocal that climate change is real and that if we don’t change course, we’re going to see things happen that could negatively affect millions or even billions of people and cost our economies trillions of dollars.
This is starting to happen already.
Extreme weather events like heat waves and droughts. Wildfires. Tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease moving into new regions. Rising sea levels. The one that I worry about the most is water scarcity. In the western United States, rivers, and lakes are disappearing. When taps run dry, crops die, industries shut down, and people have to move.
None of this should come as any surprise. We’ve been knowingly overdrawing from the bank account that is our planet’s natural resources — water, trees, fish, hydrocarbons, helium, and even sand — for decades now. Earth Overshoot Day — the calendar date that marks when we tip into the red — falls on July 28 this year. Fifty years ago, it was December 14!
Altering our way of life won’t be easy.
People tend to hold fast until they are either forced to change (fires and floods are good for this, I’ve learned by living in California) or their internal balance sheet changes in a major way.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent “climate fiction” novel, Ministry for the Future, imagines what could push us towards a more sustainable future. The novel’s powerful first chapter describes a heat wave event in India that kills 20 million people. This tragedy catalyzes various effective (but perhaps overly optimistic) political, technological, and economic shifts but also some plausibly scary acts of eco-terrorism.
But writing my own book, The Genesis Machine: our quest to rewrite life in the age of synthetic biology, I glimpsed a different path — one that actually gets me excited about our future.
The way that I see it, the root cause of climate change is technology.
The technologies that we’ve developed over the last few centuries — indoor plumbing, electricity, transportation networks, agriculture, digital technologies, and so forth — have made humans the most successful species that has ever lived. Our population has exploded. Cities have supersized. Industries have mushroomed.
Climate change is a side effect of this incredible success.
Our technologies were created for a simpler time. When the exhaust from burning gasoline or diesel was quickly dispersed by the wind. When there was plenty of water to pump into our taps. When there were billions fewer of us. The solution? We need to fight fire with fire. We need to upgrade the technologies that support us and apply them on a global scale.
This is a very hard problem. But the good news is that we’ve never been better equipped to do the job.
Right now, we’re at ground zero of the most profound technological shift ever. Digital technologies are intersecting with other technologies and radically accelerating them. This is happening in dozens of fields, from materials science to quantum computing to nuclear fusion, and it’s giving us a new toolkit for engineering the future. But the most important one in my opinion is that biology is digitizing.
Biology is what makes you, me, and every other living plant, animal, or microbe. This is a given. But it also touches virtually every human activity and industrial process under the sun. The only thing that even comes close to this penetration is computers — but these devices are relatively crude compared to the continuous biochemical orchestra that composes a living organism.
We are rapidly learning how to program living cells to make the things we need to thrive. This is the main job of synthetic biology — harnessing the incredible manufacturing capacity of living systems in a way that is direct, efficient, and scalable. It’s difficult to explain to people just how big a deal this new capability is.
Living cells are near-magical microscopic factories. They can make complex molecules like drugs, structural polymers such as wood, or energetic molecules like oils and fats — and much more — all from everyday feedstocks that include plain old table sugar or CO2.
The invisible, gaseous, and supposedly nefarious poster child of climate change. Look beyond its bad reputation, and you’ll realize it’s the most important biological building block out there other than water. Just ask any tree.
As we get better at programming biology, we’re going to replace just about every toxic, wasteful, or energy-consuming material or process with one that involves growing something. No other technology holds so much promise to clean up the messes that we’ve made over the last hundred years.
Some of the things on the horizon are personalized medicines, limitless organs for transplantation, animal-free meats or dairy products, and giant factories for producing everything from liquid fuels to fresh water from seawater. There will be countless more applications, all made just by writing some genetic code.
Synthetic biology will also allow us to slow and eventually stop the mass extinction events that we’re responsible for. We’re already taking steps to bank seeds and the cells and DNA of endangered organisms. And as we get better at programming cells, we’re going to design and build new biosystems, all in service of our particular needs. Think of this as Cambrian Explosion 2.0.
Best of all, anything we make with biology can be broken down and reused again and again, indefinitely. Nature has been doing this recycling for over four billion years and counting. Biology is literally the definition of “green”.
All we need to do is be better students and follow nature’s roadmap that has been refined over the eons.
By itself, the understanding of how synthetic biology can upgrade humanity is, for me, enough to squelch the doom and gloom messaging about climate change or the end of the world. But there’s something more that is unfolding right now in technology, something big. Even bigger than our planet.
It’s the unprecedented advances being made in aerospace.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) symbolizes the most advanced research and highest ideals of the United States of America, and perhaps humanity. It brought people to the Moon, built and maintained a fleet of shuttles, and built telescopes that changed our understanding of the universe.
Today, without question, the organization that is pushing the boundaries of aerospace is a privately held company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., aka SpaceX.
Just two decades old, SpaceX has racked up an impressive list of achievements that were once only within the reach of a handful of nations.
To start off, they stood on the shoulders of groups like NASA and a century of work by engineers the world over. And then the company went on to do things that no one believed were possible, like land and re-fly a booster stage. Not just once, but over a dozen times.
Seeing is believing.
Once an “impossible” goal has been demonstrated, it opens our minds to new realities. There’s no going backward, only forward. SpaceX has seeded a global revolution in next-generation space development.
Now the company is developing a completely reusable orbital-class Starship and booster with a 100-ton lift capacity — something CEO Elon Musk has described as the “holy grail” for making human life multi-planetary. And while Musk’s development timelines routinely miss the mark by a wide margin, his record for eventually accomplishing his ambitious goals is unarguable.
So humanity is on the cusp of being able to successfully move megatons of people and equipment off-planet at a reasonable cost. This is a completely new capability for our species.
When commercial jet travel became possible and then affordable, it forever changed the way we traveled and shipped materials around the world. We should expect nothing less for commodified rocket travel.
Gateway to the Stars
The International Space Station (ISS), now 23 years old, has always been a kludge, the product of five space agencies and 15 countries. It’s also cramped, supporting a typical crew of just seven astronauts. As of May 2022, just 258 people have visited the ISS, a number that includes the first four commercial astronauts. Now the station is aging out and is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2030.
Several companies have already won contracts to begin the development of private stations, including Axiom Space and Blue Origin. These new stations will have to be bigger — much bigger. Starship promises to bring hundreds of people to orbit at a time, for less than US $1M per return ticket. This means that more people will work in space, for longer periods. They’ll need to be housed. Some will need family housing.
And then there are the tourists.
The ISS was the ultimate adventure destination but it was almost impossible to book a bed. Over the last twenty years, only 10 private individuals ever made the trek to the ISS, starting with Dennis Tito in 2001. Each reportedly paid between US $20M and $35M for the experience.
Starship is going to bring a huge surge of travelers.
This means that we’re going to have to get better at building space stations that are both functional and comfortable. To start, these stations will have to be modular in design, constructed on the ground, and then transported to space for final assembly.
California-based Orbital Assembly Corporation has already announced its plans to build a 125,000 square foot hybrid “work, play, and thrive” station, named Voyager — a smaller version of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Space Station V, the rotating gateway for those traveling to the moon.
Voyager and similar stations are just the beginning. Other groups like the National Space Society are already scoping out even bigger projects — O’Neill cylinders — as well as bases or even cities on the moon and Mars.
Here’s why this excites me so much: Building these completely sealed habitats — closed systems — could be the key to achieving true sustainability here on Earth.
Earth has systems that maintain life. Collectively these are called a biosphere. Because our planet has such plentiful natural and biological resources, we haven’t put much value on them or taken many steps to fully understand their operations or maintain them. Instead, we’ve abused and stressed them with sub-par, polluting technologies. We’ve been able to get away with it for as long as we have because the planet is relatively large.
In a smaller closed system, like a space station, we’d poison ourselves.
We have almost zero experience with engineering any type of closed ecological system that can support the population growth we could see in space in the next few decades. The ISS once housed 13 astronauts but only for a few days. Biosphere 2, the world’s largest enclosed ecosystem, located in Arizona, failed to sustain just eight people. Nuclear submarines, which can deploy for months at a time with 100+ souls on board, must carry massive supplies of canned foods and other produce.
The construction of large space stations will demand the development of far better life support systems—next-generation technologies to keep the air clean, water flowing, and upcycle any waste products. Similarly, every aspect of food production and preparation will need to be reimagined. While it will be possible to resupply stations in low orbit, being as self-sufficient as possible will lead to greater resiliency and efficiency. True independence becomes imperative, though, as we move further out into the solar system.
Closed systems will also demand the rethinking of almost every aspect of how we live and work together.
Sealed into bottles, everything is connected, and every person, material, and action must be precisely accounted for. This is a very different “economy” than most people are used to here on Earth — a molecular accounting system that cannot crash or even run at a deficit or people begin to die. Developing the right social contract for closed systems will also be crucial, as private property and private space will be extremely limited.
Bioengineering will absolutely have an integral role in the development of these life support systems. Life sustains life. I expect that the intersection of synthetic biology and aerospace engineering will be a fruitful area of R&D for the foreseeable future.
New City Seeds
As modular construction techniques and life-sustaining biosystems for off-world applications improve, scale, and become more affordable, building closed or semi-closed systems for terrestrial urban development projects will also become feasible.
Why do this?
Because it will give communities the capability to plant new city seeds pretty much anywhere on the planet without depleting the natural resources of the region. This opens up even the most desolate and extreme locations on the planet to development. For me, this is a really compelling future. I foresee self-sustaining communities appearing around the world and growing fast, almost like bacterial colonies.
I expect that some of these colonies will be built underground, where real estate is inexpensive, the temperatures are predictable year-round, and communities are shielded from natural disasters, pathogens, and attacks, even nuclear ones. Importantly, underground sealed communities would be ideal laboratories for prototyping colonies on Mars. Amy Webb and I devoted a full chapter of our book to exploring this scenario, most of which is excerpted here in Tim Ferris’s blog.
Radically changing our urban development practices sounds mad to most people today.
Saudi Arabia knows this firsthand. In 2021, they announced that they’re going to build The Line, one of the most ambitious real estate projects ever proposed. A 170 km skyscraper built horizontally and meant to house 9 million people, it’s intended to be a solar-powered city without cars, streets, or carbon emissions. It’s also meant to have data-driven AI governance.
The Saudis aren’t the only ones attempting to build a techno-utopia. Stateside, billionaire entrepreneur Marc Lore is stumping to create Telosa, a new zero waste city, although they have yet to purchase land on which to build.
Are these cities templates for our urban future or a dystopian nightmare?
We may be able to make greener technology but can technology bring us together? Social technologies that promised to connect us have fueled deep divisions. Digital technologies have spawned a deep web of surveillance systems.
We’re still early in the learning curve when it comes to technology-enhanced urban infrastructure and governance systems. If AI systems can solve how to make a community a great place for each and every resident to live, work, learn, play, and raise a family — they may lead to the best new cities ever built. And maybe even new nations.
Some people will worry that new technologies won’t be evenly distributed. We’ll end up in a future where the ultra-wealthy live idyllically in an orbital city while the rest of us fight over the scraps left behind, like in the Matt Damon movie Elysium.
This is laughable. Space, the Moon, Mars — these are extreme environments far worse than any location on Earth. Survival in these places is completely dependent on technological systems that must operate continuously and flawlessly. Pioneers may accept these risks as the price of unique experiences and explorations, but few would wish them on their families. Like it or not, Earth is the only home we have and we need to take care of it.
So open a window and take a deep breath.
Care for a backyard garden. Take a walk in a forest. Go for a swim. Marvel at a dark sky. These natural and simple pleasures — so easy to take for granted — are what must be honored and protected by the future technologies we will develop.
Engineering vibrant closed systems for our ventures into space could kindle a wider realization that we are already astronauts on a marvelous spaceship.
That if we can erase border lines, share our technologies and products more universally, and smooth out the economic disparities between individuals and nations, we all benefit.
These things are within our reach — if we choose. As one former Biosphere 2 resident, Mark Nelson, noted in a 2018 essay, “We are facing a species IQ test that will determine if humans can show the intelligence, resilience, and adaptability to be a cooperative, creative part of our planetary biosphere — or whether we are headed to an evolutionary dead-end.”
I don’t see us reaching the end of the road just yet. If anything, our journey is just beginning.
Andrew Hessel is the co-author of The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology. He’s also the co-founder of Humane Genomics, a company that makes artificial viruses that target cancer, and the Genome Project-write, an international consortium focused on whole-genome engineering. He loves thinking about possible futures through the lens of biology.