Bioethics and lifestyles to protect the environment in the age of biotechnology
Journal: pp. 42-49 in Traditional Technology for Environmental Conservation & Sustainable Development in the Asian-Pacific Region Edited by Ishizuka, K., Hisajima, S. & Macer D.R.J., (Master's Program in Environmental Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Japan 1996).
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer
Two types of bioethics
The word "bioethics" was first used in English in 1970. People may say bioethics started because of advances in life support systems, reproductive technologies and patient right movements; and in the growing concerns about the environmental crisis. However, bioethics is seen since ancient times in all countries (1).
There are two ways to think of the term bioethics, one is as descriptive bioethics - the way people view life and their moral interactions and responsibilities with living organisms in life. The other is prescriptive bioethics - to tell others what is good or bad, what principles are most important; or to say something/someone has rights and therefore others have duties to them. Both these concepts have much older roots, which we can trace in religions and cultural patterns that may share some universal ideals. This is especially true when we talk of agriculture, reproduction and genetics, themes of family, which have been discussed for millenia (2).
The word "bioethics" means the study of ethical issues arising from human involvement with life, and I have called it simply the "love of life" (1). Love is a broad term, but includes the concepts of balancing benefits and risks. Love is the desire to do good and the need to avoid doing harm. It includes love of others as oneself, the respecting of autonomy. It also includes the idea of justice, loving others and sharing what we have - distributive justice. It includes love for oneself, love for other people, love for the environment around us, and love for God. These cover all the ideas and concepts of bioethics, and are found in ancient writings around the world - both as descriptions of behaviour and as prescriptions that others have made on the desirable standards of society.
There are large and small problems in ethics. We can think of
problems that involve the whole world, and problems which involve
a single person. We can think of global problems, such as the
depletion of the ozone layer which is increasing UV radiation
affecting all living organisms. This problem can be solved by
individual action to stop using ozone-depleting chemicals, if
alternatives are available to consumers. The international convention
to stop the production of many ozone-depleting chemicals is one
of the best examples yet of applying universal environmental ethics.
Another problem is greenhouse warming, which results mainly from
energy use. This problem however can only be solved by individual
action, to reduce energy use. We could do this by turning off
lights, turning down heaters and air conditioners, building more
energy efficient buildings, shutting doors, and driving with a
light foot. These are all simple actions which everyone must
do if we are concerned about our planet, yet not many do so.
Energy consumption could be reduced 50-80% by lifestyle change
with current technology if people wanted to. New technology may
help, but lifestyle change can have much more immediate affect.
This reminds us of the economic interests of the major electricity
and oil companies, which slow any substantial reduction in energy
Sustainable living - S.E.L.L.
In the midst of growing awareness of environmental change and damage we should be aware of the need for sustainable living. We not only have to view the environment in its role as essential to human existence, but we should value the environment itself. Sustainable living involves not just efficient agriculture, but also minimising our energy use and pollution. It involves changing public policy and the very way people think. We must realise how important the use of new technology is when it aids this process, and work towards this goal.
The type of actions that are required for a transition to a lasting earth are of four general types:
1. The use of science to discover the workings
of nature, such as elemental cycles, and developing technology
for energy and resource conservation.
2. Developing economic systems that are
consistent with sustainable living. Recent reports suggest that
technical change alone will not allow a switch to sustainable
living because the global economic system may not be able to be
made compatible with sustainability (3). Even with an optimistic
view, the time delay in global implementation of new technology
would mean that the world may be very different from that of today.
3. We need a fresh approach to add to the battle of protecting the environment. In the long term the most important approach is a lasting change of human attitudes to those that are compatible with sustainable life. We need lifestyle change. We cannot isolate any environmental problem from the whole crisis of modern life. The environment is influenced mainly by human behaviour, national and international development, economics and politics.
4. We may need the introduction of laws
to aid lifestyle and attitude change. The recognition that we
live on "Spaceship Earth" has led to the growing acceptance
of international accords, such as the United Nations Bills on
Human Rights, the Law of the Sea, the Montreal Protocol to eliminate
the production of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, and the
Antarctic Treaty ban on mining. As people's of the world attempt
to unite more, especially in the increasingly positive international
spirit of the last few years, further agreements on global responsibility
will be made. However, lasting attitude change to proper stewardship
is required to save the planet. There is a danger that like the
many short-lived public concerns of the last few decades, the
focus on ecological survival will pass. In order to assure the
permanent attitude change that is necessary for a lasting earth,
we must ask how people view life.
Lifestyle change as a moral choice
In fact, the most important change required for sustainable living is lifestyle change. Already the social, cultural and religious customs of many cultures do attempt to control human lifestyle for the benefit of the environment. The concept of harmony with nature is found in many cultures. The problem is that selfish behaviour of people, combined with the preeminence given to modern economic policy which does not value the environment, mean the environment is destroyed and exploited. Even a country like New Zealand, seen as a home of nature, has had 80% of its forests destroyed since humans came. It is interesting that before European colonisation, at which stage there was still a majority of forested land, it was suggested in Britain that the whole colony be a national park!
There are two phases in the lifestyle transition to sustainable living. One is the dramatic change in lifestyle, and action, to clean up the pollution already made and to avoid making more of it. In any event there will be a changed world, but immediate action will reduce the difference between the world we have today (or in the recent past before widespread pollution) and the possible future sustainable world. The next is to continue to live in a way healthy for the world and for future human society.
Human lifestyles have changed dramatically over the last few centuries, and will continue to change. We need to direct the change in the direction of sustainable living consistent with a lasting and healthy world. The life goals of people can change, and the image of money as the most important life goal can be changed if replacement images are provided. We may not have immediate change, but even if people start adopting new lifestyles today, it will not be too early, and it will still take decades for the whole world to change. The human addiction to intervention in nature needs to be changed so that we can enjoy more of what nature we have left. This will also give human beings more emotional security for living in the lasting earth.
We cannot leave it to governments to look after the planet, the actions of individual members of the human community are required. Some types of environmental improvement can be brought about already by individuals. Some useful guides have already been produced (4). Using alternative products is one option. In many countries improving the efficiency of lighting, in houses and street lighting, can result in very large reductions (50-75%) in energy consumption. Not only do the consumers save electricity charges, the lights may also be cheaper. There also should be a change in behaviour that uses excess resources, such as a reduction in the use of unnecessary lighting. Another example is how we can reduce the human health damage caused by the increased UV radiation. The quality of sunscreen lotions, the clothes that we wear, and changes in people's behaviour are needed, what is called preventive medicine.
Birth control is essential, to reduce the numbers of humans. This is a medical and political issue, and even some scientific academies of the world do not agree. In 1993 an international gathering of scientific academies called for zero population growth, however, the academies from Africa disagreed, saying overpopulation is not a problem for Africa (5). Let us hope that in several generations time their children do not have to face the dire consequences of ignoring population growth. In addition to growth in population, other lifestyle factors are important. Fairness in the distribution of food and materials would decrease the needs of the poor, an economic and political issue. More efficient agriculture will also reduce the the land that is required for agriculture, a scientific issue. Reducing consumption will aid this, an issue that the public as individuals must change.
Ethically, one guiding principle is to try to pursue the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, happiness is not necessarily related to the consumption of energy and goods, and creation of pollution. In fact, many people will admit that the most enjoyable moments in their lives are times like being with their family, being on the beach or in a forest, or playing sport; activities which are often compatible with very low levels of consumption. Yet at the same time, driven by peer pressure, and advertising ideals imposed by the media, people purchase expensive and large cars, pursue wasteful pursuits, practicing high levels of consumerism. In addition, in industrialised countries, especially in the USA or USSR, people's lifestyles are based on a false low cost of energy. The energy prices need to be changed to reduce CO2 emissions, as a result of change in lifestyles because of economic pressure. The increased cost of transport will affect lifestyle in all industrialised countries, but especially in those that use the least efficient energy conversion.
Generally, the real quality of life will not be decreased by decreased energy and resource consumption. There should not be much debate on whether particular pursuits, such as driving large high speed cars, really improves life, rather they may impose great costs on society both in energy use, in potential medical costs, and in environmental damage. It is symbolic that in the pictures of life we found in response to the International Bioethics Survey, a picture from Thailand had someone riding a bicycle in the countryside, whereas in Australia or Singapore, for example, they were driving a car!
The International Bioethics Survey performed in 1993 in Australia, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore and Thailand considered some of the issues of genetics and science, at a descriptive level (1). The topics included attitudes to science; environmental concerns; genetic engineering; privacy, genetic diseases and AIDS; prenatal genetic screening; gene therapy; assisted reproductive technology; and education. Further international comparisons were made around the world. What the data suggests is that the same concerns and hopes are found, that there is similar wide diversity of opinions in all countries, that international approaches do provide insights for policy development at both national and international level, and there is strong need for education and debate about bioethics and genetics.
One of the questions looked at environmental attitudes, as summarised in Table 1. The set questions on environmental concerns (Q2) revealed some differences in the actual behaviour of people, that may be more realistic than the idealistic questions of belief in a valuable property of nature. There was also an open question on images of nature (Q15), and the ideas were placed into categories, as shown in Table 2. This question followed several questions on genetic engineering, so it is not surprising that many included a comment that nature is something that should not be touched by human beings. The ethical limits of genetic engineering may in the end be decided by perceptions of "nature", however, this is very difficult to define and this survey is an attempt to begin a search among ordinary people around the world on what these limits might be. We all have some limit, whether it be blue roses or chicken with four legs - and we also realise these limits change through time.
How can we change these values? Respecting autonomy encourages free lifestyle choice, and suitable environmental-"friendly" options could be promoted as "trendy" pursuits, however, these are likely to be insufficient. One ethical possibility is personal environmental quotas as an incentive to lifestyle change, which I suggested in 1991 (6). These would be possible if people of the world believe that the environmental crisis is important, and are prepared to change their lifestyles. These quotas would give every person an equal quota of environmental currency. We could modify so that people could trade these quotas with others for a regulated set cash price if they wanted to do so.
The image of a normal life has been changing throughout human history and especially during this century. Quotas would provide encouragement, and some penalties for those who can abuse the system. We could impose environmental sales taxes on luxury products in money terms, but this would still allow the rich to purchase them and continue their pursuits, while the middle class could not. This would be inconsistent with the ethical principle of distributive justice. The consumption of all goods could be given an environmental points value, and this could be summed for each person. The consumption would be monitored, rather than the production (which would be subject to government pollution emissions control). If a production facility uses a more polluting method it would result in high demerit points, whereas if it was very clean and energy efficient it would be given a low demerit point score. This would allow consumer pressure to result in a change in production efficiency, and also would limit excessive consumerism. The consumption would be assigned to the country of consumption, rather than the country of production. There should also be production efficiency limits. This would still allow free international trade, but would encourage the adoption of more environmentally sustainable processes.
The main objection to this approach comes from the group who
claim that the pursuit of individual freedom is the most important
ethical principle. If people cannot pursue their freedom to consume
as much as they wish, they call it a violation of individual liberty.
However, we also recognise limitations on individual liberty
when activity prevents others from pursuing the same amount of
liberty. The actions of many people living in industrialised
countries today is resulting in environmental destruction which
will prevent others in the future from pursuing their liberty.
Permitting humans to pursue their unlimited selfish drives is
not consistent with the goal of reaching a lasting earth. The
few percent of humanity that create the most waste, and pursue
the most wasteful lifestyles must not be allowed to sacrifice
the whole planet. Above all, the destruction of the environment,
disregard for other people, ignores love. Love has more claims
to be the principle ethical ideal than desire coming from autonomy.
Bioethics does involve all of life, if we do not love all of
life we cannot love other people. We need to seek ways to balance
need and desire, and just distribution of the freedom that everyone
is allowed. We should not only aim to give the greatest good
for the most, nor the greatest freedom for the most, but the greatest
love for all.
Table 1: Environmental attitudes
Q2. During the past 12 months have you...?
1 Yes 2 No 3 Don't know
a. Bought foods labeled as "pesticide free"
b. Stopped buying a product because it caused environmental problems
c. Contributed money or time to an environmental cause
d. Changed your life style in significant ways to protect the environment
e. Stopped eating a certain food because of concerns over its safety
f. Sorted out certain types of household waste (glass, papers, ...) for recycling
g. Saved energy, for example, by using less hot water, by closing doors and windows in winter to save heat
Abbreviations: NZ=New Zealand; A=Australia;J=Japan; P=Philippines; S=Singapore; HK=Hong Kong;
R=Russia; s= student, otherwise public samples. The results to question f and g for the UK, France,
Germany from Eurobarometer 37.0;
1992; are (f: UK=75, F=84, Ger=93; g: UK=86, F=82, Ger=86; Yes).
Biotechnology and Sustainable Agriculture
Changing the way human beings behave towards each other is a supernatural task, that can be aided by all of us changing our attitudes. We must ensure that efficient and sustainable agriculture is encouraged, but recognise it is only part of a broader solution. Sustainable agriculture could be defined as the appropriate use of crop and livestock systems and agricultural inputs supporting those activities which maintain economic and social viability while preserving the high productivity and quality of the land. Technology does change the way we live. We need to improve agricultural efficiency to succeed, however current research interests in biotechnology are not necessarily the best way to provide sustainable agriculture. Large corporations are developing new techniques that may require constant application. An example is biological weed control where about one case in six has worked, and is very cost effective (most projects cost less than US$150,000) (7). This success rate is still much greater than that achieved in searching for useful agrochemicals, and much cheaper.
Some of the criticism is against technology, and needs balanced consideration. For example, there are valid criticisms about the development of herbicide-tolerant plants, that biological control is better, but they do have immediate environmental advantages in some cases. For example, maize growers make 4-6 herbicide applications a season, but if the crop was tolerant to a broad-spectrum post-emergence herbicide only one application would be needed. Reducing herbicide use and switching to biodegradable products is consistent with sustainable agriculture and is an important practical step in that direction, as long as commercial interests do not prevent the eventual widespread use of the ideal, biological control.
Some people, from all countries, say that some developments of science and technology such as genetic engineering are interfering with nature because "nature knows best". In all activities we should not ignore the detrimental interventions that our lifestyle has upon nature. We have some good reasons to interfere with parts of nature, for example, we try to cure many diseases that afflict humans or other living organisms and we must eat.
We also need to ask what type of world is sustainable? Current economics do not consider the environment and its value, and this needs to change. By taking into account the value of the environment, we are thinking of long term interests, something that is not considered in most modern economic policies. In industrialised countries technology will allow the shift to renewable energy resources over the next 50-70 years. This will reduce the emissions of pollutions substantially. However, in developing countries it will take longer. The level of pollutants can be reduced to one that is compatible with sustainability, but the world may be in a different state from that today. It will not be possible to return the world to a state that existed before the industrial age. The biological regions will be different. This leads us to more easily accept some human directed change of the natural regions of the earth.
Some proposed solutions have been called "eco-engineering". These include biochemical changes such as increasing the efficiency of carbon fixation, by the engineering of certain cell enzymes. It may be useful to do this to agricultural crops, or specially planted forests that will be used for biomass production. For example, recently hybrid Black Cottonwood trees that grow twice as fast as parent trees have been bred. The price of alcohol from woody sources will be competitive with petroleum products in the near future, and by the time those trees grow it will be a clear advantage (8). Transgenic plants of the nitrogen-fixing tree, Allocasuarina verticillata, have also been grown. This tree is a member of the family Casuarinaceae, which as fast growing trees will be important in efforts to reforest desert areas of the world, and to provide fast-growing wood sources (9).
However, the affect of introducing genetically modified species is not ecologically predictable for natural ecosystems, so genetic engineering should not be used in "naturally" occurring ecosystems. Large scale afforestation has already been conducted in many countries, such as New Zealand, and is underway in many countries. Forestry has become much more important with the recognition of the role of forests as a carbon dioxide "sink" (if carbon dioxide is taken up into plants or dissolved in the oceans there will be less increase in greenhouse warming). To prevent deforestation is still more effective, however, because it preserves biological diverse ecosystems, which may also be more stable to climatic change. In the future the greening of deserts can occur, though also in this case, desertification is a major problem. For example, Libya has just completed the construction of water tunnels to utilise ancient underground water reserves, and it also intends to use these to green the desert to produce agricultural crops. The extreme of eco-engineering is the atmospheric conversion of the entire planet Mars, in order to grow plants there, and over long time periods, to make it habitable (10). More importantly, we should concentrate on not ruining the planet we already have.
Sustainability may occur only in a more human-constructed and
designed world than that of today. The cities may include many
artificial parks rather than natural parks. Ornamental plants
are already selected for specific characters, and genetic manipulation
will add to the choices possible. However, from these choices
of humans will select which varieties to plant in the parks, so
that more "nature areas" and parks will be artificial.
Nature which contains less diversity and complexity may be the
norm for many. To retain a major proportion of the original biodiversity
is only possible if people decide to leave some of the areas of
nature undisturbed, and some for nature to reestablish.
Table 2: Images of Nature
Q15. Will you please express freely, in sentences and/or pictures,
the images which come to mind when you hear the word "nature",
and/or any ideas you have on "nature".
Data from Macer, D. Bioethics for the People by the People (Eubios Ethics Institute 1994). Abbreviations: NZ=
New Zealand; A=Australia;J=Japan;
P=Philippines; S=Singapore; HK=Hong Kong; R=Russia; s= student.
In order to have a sustainable future, we need to promote bioethical maturity (11). We could call the bioethical maturity of a society the ability to balance the benefits and risks of applications of biological or medical technology. It is also reflected in the extent to which the public views are incorporated into policy-making while respecting the duties of society to ensure individual's informed choice. Awareness of concerns and risks should be maintained, and debated, for it may lessen the possibility of misuse of these technologies. Other important ideals of bioethics such as autonomy and justice need to be protected and included in the benefit/risk balancing which is important for the ethical application of biotechnology in medicine. Concern about technology should be valued as discretion that is basic to increasing the bioethical maturity of a society, rather than being feared.
An important measure of the progress of society and cultural maturity is the degree of the development of better ethical discretion in the personal and societal use of technology. The criteria of technological progress as a measure of social progress is inadequate because technology may be misused, or may be unavailable. Part of the maturity is justice, to give everyone a fair chance. Methods to increase the ethical discretion and maturity of individuals and social systems should be developed.
A lasting earth is possible only if we all share proper concern. Both social and technical approaches are required to solve the environmental crisis. We should reduce pollution by adaptive changes to our human society and system. Reducing consumption is something that the public as individuals can already change and must. Birth control is essential, to reduce the slowing but continuing population explosion, this is a medical and political issue. Fairness in the distribution of food and materials would decrease the needs of the poor, an economic and political issue. We should work towards life philosophies emphasizing the shared earth that we live in.
Over the medium term the industrialised countries can switch to alternative energy sources, and more efficient energy use, combined with more significant lifestyle change. This would be aided by the early introduction of personal environmental quotas to ensure people are conscious of the environmental costs of different products and behaviour. The use of new technology will aid us in reaching a lasting earth. More efficient agriculture will reduce the land and energy that is required for agriculture, and the pollution arising from agriculture, a scientific issue. Changing the way human beings behave towards each other is a supernatural task, that can be aided by all of us changing our attitudes. We must ensure that sustainable living is encouraged, but recognise that it is only part of a broader solution. Sustainable living involves not just efficient agriculture, but also minimising our energy use and pollution. It involves changing public policy. It involves changing the way people think. In developing countries the population growth rates must be decreased, and economic pressures that lead to the destruction of the environment must be eliminated.
In the medium-long term the whole world can be using a large proportion of renewable energy sources, such as biomass and solar energy, combined with efficient agriculture using new varieties of crops. In the long term (50-100 years), the world could be living in a stabilising earth, with a stabilising population. Improvements in lifestyle can be made through the increase in energy efficiency brought about by technology, and by the acceptance of more natural things that consume less energy, as the pleasures of life. Let us hope that urbanisation does not mean that people lose the enjoyment from being able to be in the presence of undisturbed nature under a blue sky.
People make claims that science is ethically neutral. This implies that scientists do not have responsibility for the production of knowledge. However, this belief confuses the findings of science, which are ethically neutral, with the activity of science, which is not (12). Some pursue the neutrality argument, by claiming that the moral burden lies with those who choose to implement knowledge for all purposes. We may not be able to predict the abuses of pure knowledge, however, scientists are still moral agents and must think in advance of the possible abuses. They may not be solely responsible, but they share responsibility with all of us. All human activity needs to be subject to ethical discretion. Technology has been the most powerful agent of change in the recent past, therefore, we can clearly see the need for universal ethical maturity, and understanding.
Similarly, economic growth is pursued for its own sake. Countries try to increase their economies by a certain percentage every year, regardless of the environmental and social consequences. There is only a limited correlation between economic growth in % terms and increased living standard, other measures such as personal wealth and ease of living are economically desired. Yet further measures are required for life goals of societies, for sustainable living. There must be an end to consumer demand and increased economies - or is this the only goal that people have for themselves?
These questions need international and cross-cultural answers
for the world we live in, which is one of the goals of the Eubios
Ethics Institute. The word "Eu-bios" means good-life,
and such a life must be sustainable. We are still at the synthesis
stage for determining what bioethical maturity is, and how it
may be measured, but the comments from peoples in different countries
from the International Bioethics Survey is another necessary part
of the total picture needed to formulate any international measure
of bioethical maturity, and to develop approaches to improve maturity.
1. Macer, D.R.J. Bioethics for the People by the People (Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1994).
2. Macer, D.R.J. Shaping Genes: Ethics, Law and Science of Using Genetic Technology in Medicine and Agriculture (Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1994).
3. Krupp, H. ed., Energy Politics and the Problems of Global Sustainability. The development of industralized societies between short-term growth and long-term welfare (Heidelberg: Springer, 1993).
4. Corson, W.H. ed., The Global Ecology Handbook: What You Can Do About The Environmental Crisis (Boston: The Global Tomorrow Coalition 1990).
5. Nature 366 (1993), 3.
6. Macer, D. Eubios Ethics Institute Newsletter 1 (1991), 43.
7. Crawley, M.J. "Biocontrol and biotechnology," pp. 969-978 in Proceedings of the Brighton Crop Protection Council Conference, Nov. 20-23rd, 1989 (Farnham: BCPC 1989).
8. Science 252 (1991), 1469.
9. Biotechnology 9 (1991), 461-6; Nature 327 (11 June 1987), 452.
10. Nature 352 (8 August), 489-96.
11. Macer, D.R.J. "Public acceptance of human gene therapy and perceptions of human genetic manipulation", Human Gene Therapy 3 (1992), 511-8; Macer, D.R.J. "Perception of risks and benefits of in vitro fertilization, genetic engineering and biotechnology", Social Science and Medicine 38 (1993), 23-33.
12. Bronowski, J. The Identity of Man (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Press, 1965).
Please send comments to Email < Macer@sakura.cc.tsukuba.ac.jp >.