Techno-upoopia : "Let 'em eat poop!" (29/7/2007)

1.Techno-upoopia : "Let 'em eat poop!"
2.Making Ends Meet


1.Techno-upoopia : "Let 'em eat poop!"

Techno-utopianism refers to the belief that science and technology will provide us with the tools to create a society free of problems. A recent article drew attention to how it influences predictions for the future of agriculture. In the 1950s, for instance, what was envisioned owed much to the contemporary excitement over the possible technological applications of nuclear physics:

"agriculture would be irrigated with water from icecaps that had been melted by nuclear explosions, this water… would be stored in ponds also "dug" by nuclear explosions."

By the 1970s another generation of experts was no longer in thrall to the nuclear age. Instead, they were predicting :

"an era of remote control tractors and multi-story farms. Electromagnetic ploughing would prepare the soil for crops that would require only half an inch of recycled water per year and specially coated seeds would be blasted from pipes into crop-specific patterns channelled by underground magnetism."
(Does the Knowledge-based Bio-economy add up?)

More recently, expert predictions about the future of agriculture have owed more to genetics.

In the non-agricultural sphere, genetics had earlier given rise to techno-utopian claims for perfecting society, as David Suzuki, a professor of genetics, has noted :

"No group of experts should be more aware of the hazards of unwarranted claims than geneticists. After all, it was the exuberance of geneticists early in this century that led to the creation of a discipline called eugenics. These scientists were every bit as clever, competent, and well-meaning as today's genetic engineers."

Suzuki points out that the enthusiastic claims of geneticists:

"...provided scientific respectability to the US prohibiting interracial marriage and immigration from countries judged inferior, and allowed sterilization of inmates of mental institutions on genetic grounds. In Nazi Germany, geneticist Josef Mengele held peer-reviewed research grants for his work at Auschwitz. The grand claims of geneticists led to 'race purification' laws and the Holocaust."
(Experimenting with Life)

Today's fashionable leading-edge in genetics, says Suzuki, centres on biotechnology which has given us the ability to tamper with the very blueprint of life. And if this raises profound dangers, then this time the risks of scientific fashion are compounded by massive commercial interests.

"According to Wally Green, biotechnology promises a better future for all of us. In Africa, biotechnology has the capacity to bring about near instant solutions for problems like hunger, malnutrition and poverty, and South Africa, where Green is the Monsanto Biotechnology Regulatory Manager, is in a race to take advantage of the cutting edge science. "
(Biotechnology Promises Better Future for All)

Such techno-utopian claims and predictions appear to be largely science free.

But heady claims for novel unproven technologies are hardly something new. In the 18th century, following a visit to the Royal Society in London, Jonathan Swift set about satirising the RS in the section of Gulliver’s Travels where Gulliver reports on his visit to the grand academy of Lagado on the flying island of Laputa (a near-anagram of utopia, la puta means "the whore" in Spanish).

Gulliver describes, "The arts wherein the professors employ themselves" within the academy. The projects include one aimed at extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, and another for making spiders spin naturally coloured silk for stockings.

Other projects include attempts to convert human excrement into food, breed sheep whose entire bodies are bald, and to develop a novel form of ploughing, using pigs and acorns, of which Gulliver reports:

"…upon experiment, they found the charge and trouble very great, and they had little or no crop. However it is not doubted, that this invention may be capable of great improvement."

Swift was also unsparing about the academicians' funding drive:

"[he] intreated me to give him Something as an Encouragement to Ingenuity, especialy since this had been a very dear Season for Cucumbers. I made him a small Present, for my Lord had furnished me with Money on Purpose, because he knew their Practice of begging from all who go to see them."
(Gulliver's Travels, 1726)

As we've noted, Swift's satire was inspired by a visit he made to the Royal Society (in 1710). Nearly 300 years later we can still better appreciate the absurdity Swift was lampooning. Below's an article from the early 1970s about an actual attempt to fulfill the Laputian project of turning excrement into food.

Note the claim, "The direct use of human excreta in the human diet could play a major role in solving the world's food problems." A better future awaits.

Note also that the project was inspired by a study of the use of excrement in animal feed. Animal excrement has, of course, been used in feed on a vast scale. In recent years it's also emerged that human sewage has in some cases made its way into animal feed.

Nowadays satire's not an easy business.


2.Making Ends Meet
By Anthony Tucker
(science editor of The Guardian)

In the interests of nutritional science, Mr Jack Tolley, a chemist in the department of civil engineering at Liverpool University, yesterday began to eat his own excreta.

Prompted by a continuing experiment by a group of scientists at Manchester University, in which processed human excreta is fed to chickens as their basic diet, Mr Tolley

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