Bioethics Blogs

Sacred versus Synthetic? Nature Preservationism and Biotechnology

One of the long-term contributions of Earth Day is that it offers a regular, semi-official reminder that a sense of the sacred is a vital part of environmentalism. The spirit of John Muir lives on in the notion of “Respect for the land” that was emphasized in the famous Keep America Beautiful public service announcement that was launched on the first Earth Day. But in the era of biotechnology, the notion of sacredness can pull in other directions.

On April 14, a public forum on synthetic biology hosted by Friends of the Earth and some other civil society groups effectively brought out how the notion of sacredness is woven into objections to genetically modifying microorganisms to produce fuel, cosmetics, medicines, and other chemicals. The event was titled “Sacred versus Synthetic: Competing Visions for Life on Earth,” and what was especially remarkable and helpful about it was that the presentations continually brought concerns about the possible practical harms of GM microorganisms back down to concerns about the very idea of GM microorganisms. In the view that the speakers offered, the genetic modification of an organism is by definition a harm to nature, and it is perhaps the most fundamental harm to nature. We need, said one speaker, to protect life “right down to the cellular level.” (Full video of the event is available here.)

The goal of protecting life and preserving nature is a good moral starting point. It’s a goal I share, anyway. But a concern to preserve the natural world still requires careful thinking about which ways of altering nature constitute fundamental harms to nature.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.