Ecological limits and limits of science

Cavallet de mar fet amb materials reciclats. © Curro Palacios

Climate change is the major political, social and cultural challenge of our time, but it also constitutes a major challenge for science and technology. The City and Science Biennial, held in Barcelona this June, has afforded us the opportunity to learn about and discuss with leading experts, from here and abroad, the possibilities and limits of science to reverse an ecological crisis that will call for supranational consensus and global scientific cooperation.


Humans are faced with a desire and an urgent need. Firstly, the desire to extend our life expectancy and even to improve the cognitive and moral capacity of our species; an aspiration that, according to the postulates of transhumanism, seems within our reach thanks to genome sequencing and breakthroughs in genetic bioengineering. Secondly, the urgent need to preserve the planet on which we live, whose balance has been thrown off kilter as a result of human predatory activity. These are two aspirations that are not irreconcilable; some might even say that they are complementary, but they do present very different levels of urgency.

Climate change is triggering natural disasters that we can no longer consider to be one-off incidents but rather episodes of a progressive catastrophe. The destruction of ecosystems has led to the rise of zoonotic pathogens and the spread of new viruses between animals and humans, which have sparked a pandemic such as COVID-19.

On the other hand, as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, scientific advances in the field of biogenetics imply the end of nature, which can no longer be understood as a simple receptacle of our production activity, but has become a historical-social category: as soon as we determine the rules behind their construction, natural organisms are transformed into objects subject to manipulation. Meanwhile, will we be able to limit the degradation of the planet? And what are the limits of science when it comes to coordinating the reconstruction of (our) future?

In this forum we summarise and contrast some of the contributions to the debates held during the City and Science Biennial.

Challenging a time of disasters

Retrat d'Israel Rodríguez

Israel Rodríguez

Researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3).

“We are lacking conceptual tools to deal with disasters,” affirms Israel Rodríguez, who works on the sociological study of disaster and puts forward the concept of slow disaster.

Disaster is a word of Occitan origin that means that some event that is not aligned with the stars, an unexpected and freak event, wreaks widespread destruction in a certain length of time. “Apart from severe and occasional disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or the Fukushima leak, we live with slow disasters that lead to progressive degradation: persistent pollution, radiation, plastic waste... not so obvious but chronic damage that often affects more impoverished and invisible communities.

The slow disaster is no longer just unexpected, but can be routine. More accelerated disasters, such as a fire, a heat wave or even a pandemic, should be slowed down. In the case of COVID-19, we must go beyond the concept of health emergency, which reduces the pandemic to the most clinical, biological and acute facet of the contagion, and puts the focus on curves, waves and alerts, even developing into war narratives. Social inequalities in the contagion’s dynamics (in the case of seasonal workers in Lleida or housing precariousness in certain neighbourhoods) and gender inequalities have been ignored, underestimating the fact that women, more dedicated to caregiving work, have also been more exposed… We have also seen that COVID-19 has long-lasting effects on mental health, forcing us to critically rethink the effects of the pandemic beyond immediacy.”

Retrat de Paula Bruna

Paula Bruna

PhD in Fine Arts from the University of Barcelona (UB).

It is important to challenge the language we use to talk about catastrophes. Too often we understand disaster as an unfortunate incident that has struck, as if we had nothing to do with it. The concept of natural disaster perpetuates this fictitious separation between us and disaster, and frees us from responsibility. Another dubious concept is that of the climate emergency, as if global warming were something that has occurred without anthropogenic causes. The disaster is not the climate, but the economic model of unlimited growth that has led us to transcend all planetary boundaries, jeopardising our own survival. Another erroneous expression is the “climate fight”, as if we had to fight against an external element, when we should rethink our productivist model instead. We are part of the environmental disasters we cause. Habitat degradation and the loss of biodiversity have brought into contact with pathogens such as SARS and COVID-19. Sick and impoverished ecosystems make for sick and impoverished humans. This society based on unlimited growth culminates in a catastrophic and limiting future, in which we cannot see an alternative. Rational thinking will not be enough to get there. We need to eradicate the roots of the anthropocentric paradigm, which only allows us to sustain a model but not to change it. To overcome the current model we must transcend the limits that constrain our thinking. Artistic imagination may be a means to afford us non-human points of view with potential for transformation that allows us to think about new models of ecological coexistence.

Retrat de Laura Benítez

Laura Benítez Valero

PhD in Philosophy, independent researcher and curator.

“Disaster is often used to shut down the political imaginary, to limit the prospect of an emancipatory future and to render a different present impossible,” asserts Laura Benítez, moderator of this debate, also attended by Bob Trafford, from the multidisciplinary research group Forensic Architecture. “When we speak of shutting down the political imaginary, it means that we accept how the axiomatic arrogance of capitalism works, which means that we must not be held accountable for the inequalities that exist and we cannot see the potential for change in disaster. We must afford political attention to the crisis of COVID-19, which is not only a health crisis, but also a crisis of sovereignty. Hyperstimulation of the collective imaginary with pictures of tragedy can also be crippling and alienating. Making a radical change is hard. In universities, for example, there is a critical view of what we teach, but, over the pandemic, most faculties have used the private software of big tech companies and it is these platforms that are dictating what can and cannot be done from a pedagogical point of view. We need to place value on the humanities and the arts when it comes to breaking down walls and reimagining things, from a position of power and through mutual support networks,” affirms Benítez.

Retrat d'Agustí Nieto-Galan

Agustí Nieto-Galan

Professor of History of Science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB).

The fire that devastated London in 1660, the earthquake that wiped out Lisbon in 1755, or the volcanic eruptions that occurred in 1815 and 1883 in Indonesia are three examples of disasters that marked a before and an after in the self-perception of humanity. Since the London fire, Rousseau has questioned the urban life of cities. The clever pessimism of Voltaire’s Candide stemmed from the Lisbon earthquake. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora spawned the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a work that tells us about the human capacity to transform life and that builds the foundation for scientific imagination and science fiction. The Krakatoa volcanic eruption in 1883 bore an immediate global impact and symbolically became a global and synchronous event. These catastrophes are associated with constructive reflections, scientific creativity and a greater capacity for communication. Disasters take a devastating toll, but also create opportunity. The Black Death in the Late Middle Ages spawned a new culture. COVID-19 has created a crisis of expertise and legitimacy. Now nobody is sure what needs to be done, doctors disagree, vaccines are competing, people are realising that science is not objective and neutral, and we are noticing vulnerabilities on many levels. The classification of knowledge is also opening up, because traditional knowledge does not guarantee anything and we have a unique opportunity to rethink fundamental issues, such as the subjects in our education systems, which come from the 19th century and are still being perpetuated.

Challenges and limits of scientific progress

Retrat de Pere Puigdomènech i Rosell

Pere Puigdomènech i Rosell

PhD in Biological Sciences from the UAB. CSIC [Spanish National Research Council] researcher. Member of the IEC [Institute for Catalan Studies].

I will start with two strong statements and further explain them later: Is there scientific progress? Yes. Should there be limits to science? No, there shouldn’t be. If we examine scientific progress over the last hundred years, we see that our methodology has allowed us to analyse objects with a depth we could never have imagined. What’s more, scientific ideas have become much more comprehensive and the applications of this knowledge have grown too.

Science should have no limits because human curiosity is infinite, and freedom of research must be upheld. However, there are limits. Firstly, methodological limits, because there are experiments that are materially impossible to perform, such as going back 3.5 billion years to observe how life originated on planet Earth. There are also economic limitations, as there are experiments that cannot be performed because they are excessively expensive, such as increasing the size of the CERN accelerator ten-fold. And finally, there are regulatory and ethical limitations, which ensure biosafety in relation to experiments on humans. We only consider the research that guarantees good practices admissible for science. So there are obvious limits to scientific work, but we need to make sure that we have the best possible science when it comes to deciding on these limits. Science is ultimately the set of methods we have for understanding our world and an essential tool for a democratic society that wishes to make the right decisions.

Retrat de Miquel Porta Serra

Miquel Porta Serra

Doctor and epidemiologist at the Hospital del Mar Research Institute (IMIM). Professor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the UAB.

Clearly there is progress, but it is never purely scientific, because it is the result of the sum of a great deal of knowledge. I admit that there can be pure scientific knowledge, the one that does not aim to have immediate application. But there is a scientific knowledge that must be embodied in social issues. The vaccine has been an example thereof. We have seen that making a vaccine is not enough; we must also have people on the ground who can convince us of its legitimacy and persuade the population to get inoculated.

There are indicators of progress that are not without their drawbacks. I would like to distinguish between two different limitations that science comes up against. First of all, the limits of the researchers’ conflicts of interest and the lack of courage of some of them before powerful institutions that fund them. Given this situation, we need critical thinking and democratic scientific institutions, which are well equipped and independent of power, and that can tell the truth to those in power without being manipulated. The pandemic has been an opportunity to see the need to integrate all social factors into scientific knowledge. We need critical journalism to do its job, to help us fight technoaltry, the uncritical adulation of technology, which is religious and unscientific. If there is a genomic bubble on Wall Street, we need to be able to report it.

Retrat de Annelien Bredenoord ​

Annelien Bredenoord

Professor of Bioethics at Utrecht Medical Center University.

In the debate surrounding the ethics of genome editing, a distinction must be made between somatic cell editing, which are the cells of adults like us, and germline gene editing, which are human eggs and embryos. The latter is the focus of the ethical debate, because when the germline of an embryo is edited, the child will have a modified genome, but so will their offspring and subsequent generations, bearing major consequences.

In principle, there are no invalidating arguments against the systematic use of germline editing. However, it is imperative that a series of requirements be established if we are to use germline editing to produce healthy children.

Firstly, it must be safe. It is a technical requirement. Secondly, equity in the use and supply of the technique must be ensured; in other words, that either everyone or no one has access to it, because this requirement prevents fierce competition and growing gaps between people on account of their genetic make-up.

Germline editing will constitute the next step for biomedical developments. It makes no sense to just wonder whether you are for or against it; we need to think about what values we wish to promote if we apply this technology and for which diseases it is ethically acceptable to offer it. They must be very serious genetic diseases with a high risk of harm.

Let’s stop debating whether or not we’re in favour of germline genome editing, and start thinking about safe policies as well as international guidelines for the clinical application of human reproductive technologies.

Retrat d'Insoo Hyun

Insoo Hyun

Professor of Bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

In the field of bioethics, not only do we reflect on what we can do but also on what we must do. I disagree with Annelien Bredenoord when she asserts that it makes no sense to question germline editing. Before modifying an embryo, we need to ask ourselves what alternatives we have. Suppose you wish to procreate but you run the risk of having a child with genetic issues. Right now, there are three alternatives: adoption, a sperm donor and in vitro fertilisation, or the creation of an embryo with one’s own sperm and egg and its analysis before implantation to rule out genetic problems. These are realistic options, which provide us with guarantees when it comes to having a healthy child. However, germline editing carries a number of risks that we could avoid for now thanks to these three options. To conduct effective research into germline editing,

a large sample of eggs is needed. Then an embryo needs to be created that will be used for research purposes only and that will eventually have to be destroyed. Nevertheless, there are countries that ban the destruction of fertilised eggs. In Canada, embryos cannot be fertilised just to study them. Research of this type financed by federal research funding is not allowed in the United States. Nor can leftover embryos from fertility clinics be used because some of these embryos have an excessive number of cells and, if an attempt is made to modify them genetically, there are cells that do not incorporate the change and it results in genetic mosaicism. It will be much safer to create human sperm and eggs from stem cells in the future, an experiment that has already been carried out in mice. I am not against genetic modification if the purpose is to cure diseases.

Retrat de Núria Montserrat

Núria Montserrat

ICREA Research Professor at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC).

Synthetic biology uses the synthesis of biomolecules or engineering to build biological systems with new functions that are not found in nature. Pluripotent stem cells have the power to self-proliferate, self-organise and self-divide, and generate any cell in our body. Synthetic biology allows us to programme these types of cells and to create genetic circuits to form human microorganisms, organoids. It’s not just about applying engineering principles, it’s about thinking about biological principles. We start with a living system to understand how cells communicate and, from there, gradually adjust the responses to build new living systems.

In the laboratory at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia, we have generated kidney microorganisms to understand how the tissue of an organ is organised or why an organ stops working. We investigate how an organ develops to understand the model system from which a kidney is generated and thus is able to convert cells into kidney cells. No such organoid has yet been implanted in a patient, and we are still far from generating living systems with cognition or memory, but it is interesting to be already discussing them.

REtrat de Julian Savulescu

Julian Savulescu

Professor of Applied Ethics at Oxford University.

Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to enhance human beings. Not only to treat diseases, but also to improve longevity and our physical and cognitive abilities. The first transhumans have already been created with the birth of Nana and Lulu in China, two children whose embryos were genetically modified to make them resistant to HIV.

My motto is “to be human is to be better”. It’s not just about being healthier or living longer, but about improving our moral capacities. Psychopathologies have a strong genetic component. Using the right techniques, we could reduce the rate of psychopaths.

Firstly, genetic engineering may exacerbate inequalities between people, as do all new technologies. However, when it becomes less expensive and more accessible, it will be within the reach of one and all, as has been the case with smartphones, or education and health, which we all want to be universal services.

We must exercise caution. The capacities we wish to improve are dependent on many genes. We might create a smarter human, but also a more autistic one. Genetic engineering has its risks, but the challenges facing humanity are even greater. We need biology to modify ourselves, because we ourselves are the problem. We are the elephant in the room.

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