Research

Forget the anthropocene: we entered the synthetic age

One fact about our time is getting bigger.famous. No matter how far you travel, what direction you point, nowhere on Earth is there a place that is free from traces of human activity. The chemical and biological features of our species are everywhere. Imprints of humanity are transported across the globe by strong atmospheric winds, incessant ocean currents and capacious cargo holds of millions of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. Untouched nature has disappeared forever.

Holocene was replaced by anthropocene

These planetary changes were characterizedgeographers, geologists and climatologists as the end of one geological era, the Holocene, and the beginning of the next, anthropocene. In this newly designated “human age”, the impact of our species on the oceans, the earth, and the atmosphere has become an integral feature of the Earth. And this idea that humanity has caused a geological transition attracts people's attention not only because ages rarely give way. The fact is that our species is obsessed with the idea that we have planetary powers.

The second fact about our era is much lessattractive We are changing the planet. The point is not only that human activity has stained every corner of the planet. The simultaneous emergence of a number of powerful new technologies is beginning to signal the possible interception of the most basic operations of the Earth with its most daring look. Starting today, technologies like the CRISPR gene editing method and climate engineering will turn an already spoiled planet into an increasingly synthetic whole.

In February of this year, when entomologist Ruth Mulleropened a container with genetically modified mosquitoes in a high-security laboratory in the Italian city of Terni; she did not just experiment with a new powerful tool from the world of biotechnology. She made changes to the Mendelian laws of inheritance that govern all life on Earth.

Mosquitoes, which she released, carried away "genedrive, activated with CRISPR, to distribute them to the mosquito group. This will test whether people can successfully impose a modified trait on the entire free-living population of the species. The laboratory in which Muller works has been carefully designed so that at the moment the changes took place on a limited scale and strictly indoors. But gene drives in theory can spread without help to any corner of the globe in which populations of interbreeding mosquitoes live. They change genetic rules wherever they travel.

Mueller’s laboratory studies literally make changes to planetary rules.

At the beginning of this summer, a group of scientists from HarvardUniversity will conduct the first field trials of climate geoengineering. They plan to use a high-altitude balloon to place reflective particles in the stratosphere over the arid landscapes of the southwest United States. There they will study how effectively the particles reflect the incoming solar energy. At a proper scale, this technology can be used to change the planetary rules so that they balance the changes inscribed by gene drives.

Anthropogenic climate change has already changedthe process of moving heat through this system. But climate change has never been a matter of deliberate planning and design. Our species has never tried to calibrate what the sun supplies. This heat coefficient was baked in solar system physics. If we decide on a large-scale placement of reflective particles in the stratosphere, it will rewrite the equation in our own hands.

Technologies such as genetic engineering andclimatic engineering is making a qualitative leap beyond what the stratigraphs had in mind recommending renaming this epoch to anthropocene. Stratigraphs are specially trained people who are responsible for naming eras. There is a huge gap between accidental changes and deliberate changes. David Keith, one of the scientists at the Harvard Climate Engineering Project, points to the huge difference between deliberately developing something and creating confusion. In the first, a sense of responsibility is much higher. Consider why premeditated murder is much worse than unintentional.

Unlike habitat destruction, emissionscarbon and other anthropocene epoch signatures, the technologies experienced today are designed to consciously control some of the key physical processes that shape our world. Natural laws of nature do not disappear anywhere, but become subject to deeper manipulations. Think of them not as “cosmetic” changes, but as “metabolic”. Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, and agreements on atmospheric physics become a subject of delicate revision.

The intersection of this line representsa completely new territory for both our species and the planet. Nature itself will be shaped by processes reworked and “improved” by geneticists and engineers. We should call this transition the beginning of the "synthetic age", a time when background constants are increasingly being replaced by artificial and "improved" versions of themselves. This alteration of Earth’s metabolism affects the very essence of our understanding of the environment and our role in it.

Scientists, politicians and people of all countries will have toTogether to overcome these thresholds. For some, they promise exciting prospects, for others - terrible. The anthropocene epoch demanded psychological adaptation. Synthetic era will require something much larger.

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