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Bill McKibben and john a. powell discuss climate change, gene editing, and our common future

Photo by Julia Spieldenner

Decades of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions have hurtled us closer to a global climate crisis. Meanwhile, scientists have unlocked the key to editing human DNA. How are these two related?

“The climate crisis and human genetic engineering seem like two separate conversations,” said Osagie Obasogie, the Haas Distinguished Chair and Professor of Bioethics in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. “But a closer look allows us to see that both ideas are driven by a common ideology.”

On October 18, Obasogie moderated a discussion between renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben and social justice scholar john a. powell. The ideology in question is one where a select few in society profit by the exploitation and dominance of nature and people at the margins. A technological revolution in extractive industries changed the composition of our atmosphere, leading to the current crisis in social justice and environmental destruction. McKibben and powell now ask: What might a revolution in bioengineering give us, without closer scrutiny?

There’s medical promise in gene editing technology like CRISPR, developed at UC Berkeley, with the potential to target and eliminate genetic defects. CRISPR could save lives, many of its advocates argue. But McKibben and powell call for a healthy skepticism when it comes to human control of natural processes.

“We’re in a world where we’re turning the power off to keep California from burning,” said McKibben. “With human germline editing, it would be good to have the conversation before, not after, we turn the world upside down.”

McKibben, whose 1989 book The End of Nature is credited for introducing the topic of climate change to a general audience, has spent the last three decades advocating for federal action on climate change. His newest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? challenges us to imagine a world with which we could have a relationship of communion rather than one of dominance. When it comes to “editing” our children, he writes, the quandary is no different: What does it mean to be human?

powell (who spells his name in lowercase to counter that ideology of dominance) directs the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. He has written extensively on racial and social justice, including his book Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society. The climate crisis is an issue of environmental injustice, he argues, where it’s clear who benefits. “The notion of the right to exploit, the right to dominate is already deeply embedded in whiteness. Who are these people that believe that nature is to be dominated, that everything has utility? That’s the core of the ideology of whiteness and white supremacy,” he said. Now, powell asks, how would technology like CRISPR fit into a world of social and racial inequality? Who would benefit, and who wouldn’t?

The provocative talk, entitled “Climate Crisis, Designer Babies, Our Common Future,” was co-sponsored by the Center for Genetics and Society, the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and Berkeley Public Health. The event marks the first time McKibben and powell shared a stage to discuss their areas of expertise together at the nexus of technology, social justice and ethics.