Links: Aliens, Clintons, the single life, and cleaning up oil spills with a 1-800 number

From Matt: What’s the deal with the oil spill off the coast of Vancouver? What began as a small bunker fuel spill last Wednesday in English Bay, near Vancouver, is quickly becoming a fiasco. The Mayor of Vancouver and the B.C. Provincial government both allege that the response from the Coast Guard was too slow, and that it took 12 hours for the city to be notified. Both the feds and the Coast Guard have defended the response. Brand new reports say the spill is larger than originally reported.

A small spill right next to a major port city should in theory be easy to clean up, so what was the problem in this case (if there was one)? In an interview with CBC News, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May argues in considerable detail that severe budget cuts at the federal level are to blame. Among these cuts was the Environmental Emergencies office of Environment Canada near Vancouver, and several others like it, closed in 2012. They were replaced by a “1-800 number in Quebec”, as May puts it.

For me, the fact that we barely have the environmental disaster response capacity left to contain a small bunker oil spill right next to Vancouver underscores the perils of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would require supertankers carrying dilbit (much harder to clean up than bunker oil) to navigate the Douglas Channel. It also underscores the fact that ‘smaller government’ – a common promise from conservative politicians – is often just what it sounds like.

From Ian: Advances in science and technology making existing ethics, law and policy obsolete: round 2

This week featured a surprisingly diverse list of ethical, legal and policy dilemmas  posed by rapidly advancing scientific and technological progress. Here are a few such dilemmas, continuing what will become a regular sub-series of my links posts:

1. Active SETI?

With increasing numbers of earth-like planets being discovered and evidence from earth’s history suggesting that life forms readily under the right conditions, planetary scientists are increasingly coming to the consensus that our quest to find alien life is no longer a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’. This progress motivated a discussion amongst scientists of the pros and cons of initiating an active search for extraterrestrial intelligence (active SETI). Rather than merely listening for alien signals coming from space, active SETI consists of sending focused signals aimed at nearby star systems with messages of our own aimed at eliciting a response. So where is the dilemma? Essentially it is this: since our civilization is very young in astronomical timescales, any intelligent civilization we are able to contact is more likely to be older and thus probably more technologically advanced. This provides the potential for us to learn a great deal from such a civilization if we make contact (and they are willing to share). However, it also exposes ourselves and our position (and knowledge of a resource-abundant planet out there) to such a likely more advanced species, making us vulnerable. The history of our own species shows that when two civilizations make contact for the first time, one is almost always nearly obliterated (either by war, disease, genocide etc.). By extension, it is argued the same would be true if we ever came face to face with an intelligent alien civilization, one of us (probably us) would likely perish. Should we take that risk? I say we don’t and continue to look passively. Considering the rapid progress we are already making in finding and characterizing new exoplanets, the risks (although remote) don’t seem worth the incremental benefits at this point, even if they would only manifest a long time in the future. Luckily, even if we do and we make contact, most likely the return message won’t come back for thousands of years (most other start systems are so far away, even our signals take generations to travel back and forth). So if we start an alien war, it will be a problem for generations far in the future.

2. Genetically modified humans?

According to a recent report, Chinese scientists have, for the first time, created a genetically modified human embryo that is capable of transmitting these modified genes to its gametes (sperm/eggs) and thus to the next generation. The ability to edit the genome of IVF embryos before implanting them could have profound implications. They could allow parents to clean their genes of undesired or disease-causing mutations, for example dramatically reducing breast cancer risk or imparting immunity to HIV by editing out the gene that codes for the virus’s target receptor protein. However, the same technology could be applied for eugenics-like purposes, and could perhaps lead to unwanted social ills by forcing people to define ‘bad’ traits apart from ‘different’ ones. Bioethicists are now beginning to look at the implications of this technology and decide an appropriate course of regulatory interaction, with a few calling for a moratorium. Unlike active SETI, I think this is an experiment that should be allowed to continue, albeit with careful regulatory monitoring (as all medical research is in North America anyway). Considering all the low-hanging fruit of awful genetic diseases that could be cured, the benefits seem worth the risks. However, the regulatory bodies can – and should – severely restrict which genes can be targeted.

3. An international regulatory framework for geoengineering?

As Matt has pointed out in many posts here already (as well as in numerous letters to The Globe), climate change, and its human causes, are not only scientifically undeniable, but they are actually already observably happening, and are beginning to have devastating effects on our ecosystems, civilizations, and agriculture (the California megadrought is a great example). Already in the scientific community, this has led to a shift in discussion, going beyond just prevention (e.g. emissions reduction, carbon capture) to also include adaptation and mitigation. The topic of geoengineering, attempting to macroscopically re-cool our climate system (by releasing millions of tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere for example) has also begun to resurface. A recent Editorial in Science asked us to think about how such efforts should be regulated. Suppose, for example, that Californians decide to resort to geoengineering to end their drought. These actions would not only affect their climate, but would almost certainly affect neighbouring climates as well, perhaps even distant climates. As Marcia McNutt of Science puts it, “What does this action mean for any individual country? Will it make the drought in Saõ Paolo better or worse? If the wheat yield falls in northern Russia, could it be due to the albedo modification? Can science apportion damage caused by such an intervention? Should the United Nations block such action?” One of the challenges of these scenarios is that there is little known about the global impacts of such measures. A recent NRC panel concluded that much more research needs to be done in this area. However, the idea of this type of research raises significant concerns with some scientists. There is a worry that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t: that doing the research could lead the public to embrace these drastic measures as an easy ‘backup plan’ and accelerate their eventual deployment, whereas if no research is done then no-one will understand the hazards (and maybe the best way to do it if there is one) before some desperate country unilaterally pulls the trigger. I tend to agree with the NRC panel, that it is time to start doing this research. In the meantime, we should ask ourselves how we have gotten to this point and take more serious steps toward emissions reduction (and adaptation), so that we never have to find out what geoengineering’s side-effects will be. A modest Canada-wide carbon tax and further diversification of our energy portfolio including expanded nuclear energy (where Canada has significant geopolitical advantage over other countries) would be great places to start.

From Niya: 

Hillary Clinton has declared her intention to run for President. Justifiably there has been a fair amount of press about how her potential victory will break new ground, impact the glass ceiling and set precedent for women in leadership positions. The staff at the Daily Beast have been wondering about a similar gender-based position switch in the White House that will result from Hillary Clinton’s election. More specifically they are wondering which First Lady/Gentleman/Spouse former President Clinton will model his groundbreaking position on. I found it interesting that the article makes no mention of Dennis Thatcher, or of the Thatchers at all, since they held a similarly groundbreaking position – Margaret was the first, and so far only, female Prime Minister of the U.K. While they are certainly of different political stripes, they seem, on the surface at least, to have similar marriages. If Clinton wins the title, I will be curious to see how much groundbreaking the former President does in terms of openly supporting his partner, and how he uses an office that has been traditionally associated with more the “female” interests – children, families, literacy – to make change and the areas in which he chooses to do so.
Kate Bolick (who surprisingly doesn’t have a Wikipedia page) recently released her “progress report” for women – Spinster (Random House, 2015). It’s in line with her writing on the matter of the economy’s impact on gender roles, the effect it has had on masculinity/men in general and how women are dealing/not dealing with the changes. I haven’t read Spinster yet – and probably won’t, primarily because I don’t think a pseudo-memoir can truly describe the progress women have made, and secondarily because as a memoir writer the author probably doesn’t address the level of privilege she has (white, attractive, affluent. etc) while supposedly speaking for all women. But that isn’t why think link made me think. Laura Kipnis, who recently released Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation (Metropolitan Books, 2014), is the author of the review. Her book, similar to Bolick’s, is based on her personal experiences and fascination with men. What made me think was the tone, and the content to Kipnis’ slow but somewhat clumsy shredding of Bolick’s work. Kipnis’ closing statement about disagreeing with Bolick about the level of justification that society seems to require for one’s life choice is amusing because her book essentially justifies her fascination with a broad range of men. The piece made me think about the decline in thoughtful criticism and the conversation that comes with it, the role that critics play in our society and how we would likely be better served by both encouraging critical thinking and fostering spaces where that sort of conversation can be safely had. If nothing else, it would make for better literary criticism than the pot/kettle sort of stuff that seems to pass today.

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