Sustainocene: Beautiful World from Global Artificial Photosynthesis

In 2014 I coordinated a second international conference on this theme at Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire with assistance from the Royal Society. The new aim was for leading researchers in the field as well as representatives of major potential public, philanthropic and private stakeholders, to analyse basic ethical principles and governance structures behind a global project on artificial photosynthesis. One of the main research outcomes from the Chicheley Hall meeting was a statement that the moral vision of any global initiative on artificial photosynthesis research should be to  ‘work cooperatively and with respect for basic ethical principles to produce the scientific breakthroughs that allow development and deployment of an affordable, equitably accessed, economically and environmentally sustainable, non-polluting global energy and food system that also contributes positively to our biosphere’. This was published,  along with other papers from the conference,  in a special open source edition of the  Royal Society Interface Focus journal on  6 June 2015 and in the edited book Nanotechnology Toward the Sustainocene (Pan Stanford Publishing 2015).

Sustainocene: Beautiful World from Global Artificial Photosynthesis


The Chicheley Hall meeting also expressed widespread support for the view that photosynthesis in its natural form should be considered to fall within the concept of ‘common heritage of humanity’ under international law. The implication was that knowledge of fundamental photosynthetic processes should not be owned entirely by profit-making interests, militarised or manipulated to promote social inequality or environmental degradation. The conference identified threats to the globalisation of artificial photosynthesis from corporate interests in oil and coal acquiring patent thickets and utilising procedures in investment agreements to challenge government policies supporting the  new technology. Such outcomes led me to conclude that a global initiative on artificial photosynthesis had to be linked to an ethical vision – one that saw the benefit of this technology as being not just to feed and fuel humans and their activities, but to support the ecosystems of the Earth. This represented a shift from an era of corporate-focused dominance over the processes of the Earth (most noticeable in man-made climate change) to one where global artificial photosynthesis could also assist fulfilling emerging obligations to maintain ‘safe’ planetary boundaries. These arose in areas such as land use and land cover, coastal and maritime ecosystems, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, atmospheric aerosol loading, riverine flow, interference with nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus cycles, climate change, as well as global freshwater use and biological diversity loss. I came to view this as a technology-driven transition from the Corporatocene to Sustainocene epoch. The term ‘Sustainocene’ was coined by the Canberra-based Australian physician Bryan Furnass in 2012. It refers to a period where governance structures and scientific endeavour coordinate to achieve the social virtues of ecological sustainability and environmental integrity with ‘steady state’ economies that not only value the services of the natural world in economic calculations, but also grant them enforceable rights (through guardians). The songs in this album tell stories about people attempting, despite all their usual imperfections, insecurities and obstacles, to apply universally-applicable principles in a world where every road and building is making, without exploiting plants, clean fuel,  food and fertilizer just from sunlight, water and air, primarily using nanotechnology. Principled globalisation of artificial photosynthesis, by assisting to create the stable material and moral preconditions for peaceful coexistence and environmental sustainability, may encourage humanity  to begin a moral revolution in its collective consciousness. One analogy would be to compare this to the Copernican revolution; towards recognition of the intrinsic dignity  of all life on Earth – humanity across the globe no longer viewing itself and its interests at the core of ethical thinking, but wishing to consistently apply principles that respect the capacity for all life on Earth to flourish. The idea of writing an album of songs to communicate research findings is a novel one and my sincere thanks go to all those who helped make this a reality. Particular thanks should go to my friend Mark Walmsley, who was willing to bring his considerable experience and creativity to this task; it’s been a great joy to collaborate again, particularly on something so inspiring. John Mackey at the ANU School of Music offered unhesitating support and his outstanding skills.

-Mark Walmsley & Tom Faunce August 2016

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