What we used to call Nature is no more. Almost every part of the world has been changed due to human activity, whether by direct action, or by the indirect change of the global climate. The mark of humanity is distinctly imprinted upon the Earth, for better and for worse. As stewards of the planet wracked with a guilty conscious, many humans have tried to preserve the nature that was once untouched by humanity. Designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg suggests a non-typical approach – what if we drastically change the natural world in order to ‘protect’ it?
By bringing together the knowledge of Ecologists and Synthetic Biologists, Ginsberg designed an exhibit, Designing for the Sixth Extinction, featuring synthetic organisms created to protect other organisms and foster biodiversity. It may seem quite paradoxical to introduce artificial organisms in order to take care of naturally occurring organisms, but it’s something that is worth examining.
Ginsberg’s creatures include a slug that neutralizes acidic soil by secreting alkali, a porcupine-like creature with sticky spines to catch seeds of endangered plants and disperse them as it moves, a self-inflating membrane that bursts when detecting tree-damaging pathogens in order to inject serum into the tree, and a biofilm that absorbs pollutants and viruses on leaves. Ginsberg’s solutions, while very non-traditional, seem to me quite elegant, in an eerie kind of way. Of course, one has to get over the fact that these are genetically engineering organisms, bred for a certain purpose. The fact that these organisms will also have a genetic kill switch is also unsettling, and raises many ethical questions (well, the whole area of Synthetic Biology raises many ethical questions). But the kill switch is necessary in order to limit any unforeseen effects on the ecosystem in question. Ginsberg insists that these organisms would work only in closed ecosystems, but is that enough to protect other natural areas from unwanted effects of these synthetic organisms? How could one safely test such “products?”
Like much of art, Ginsberg’s designs are meant more to spur conversation and thought than to be actual plans for implementation. But nevertheless, the technology for creating synthetic organisms is arriving at a rapid pace. In an interview, Ginsberg mentioned that a scientist she conversed with explained that scientists already can engineer bacteria to perform certain tasks, and they are releasing them into the environment, it’s only natural (see what I did there?) to assume that the next step will be larger life-forms.
Ginsberg’s designs were envisioned to be used by corporations in order to effectively clean up any of the environmental damage they may have caused. This would mean that the organisms would be patented by corporations. In a sense, nature would be commoditized and these clean-up creatures would be sold as products. This is a radically different nature than one that many of us are comfortable with. A commodified nature, where we can create certain elements and introduce them into the wild. The planet would have an entirely new ecosystem, shaped by humanity (a prime example of Nextnature). While such strategies could be efficient in reaching multiple targets without human oversight, the unforeseen consequences (both environmental and social) could be numerous.
Perhaps it isn’t necessarily the synthetic organisms that are the key topic of conversation, but the design of the solution. The reason why Ginsberg’s designs could be appealing is because these organisms could function on their own, make their own decisions, and provide the desired results without much human oversight. Once released into the wild, the organism does it’s thing and humans won’t have to worry about it every again. This is a far different approach than how human currently implement solutions. Today’s solutions require constant oversight and maintenance. Often, humans don’t feel comfortable about a plan unless they have full control over the outcome. But Ginsberg’s creatures present a different method of design. Could we design solutions, not necessarily synthetic organisms, but perhaps machines, that respond to environmental stimuli? Nature works on bio-feedback loops, could we design products and systems that also utilize feedback loops in order to continue function and provide desired results? I am reminded of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, mobile wooden frames that act incredibly life-like, moving in response to the wind around them. Jansen even said so himself that his dream was to one day release his Strandbeests into the wild and have them survive on their own. Could we design systems that self-regulate? For instance, for temperature control systems, could we design microbes that would emit heat when the environment was too cold, or consume heat when the environment was too hot? Instead of having the human have to directly control every aspect of function, could we design things that respond on their own? If the flow of the pipe is too low, could the pipe constrict as to maintain a constant velocity? How can we start designing to relinquish control and tap into environmental systems as sources of power and decision making? Should we do such a thing?
As the exhibit’s website posits, “Can we ‘preserve’ by looking forward?”
(More images of Ginsberg’s Designs can be found here)