Like everyone else, I’ve been obsessed with the news coming out of the Trump administration in recent months — the tweets, the scandals, the staff turnover, the chaos.
But on Wednesday, news broke that scientists had used the gene editing technology CRISPR to repair a genetic mutation linked to a devastating heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in 36 human embryos. It is worth repeating what happened here: Scientists, for the first time, rewrote part of the genetic code of a human embryo to prevent a life-threatening defect. Yes, it was just an experiment, a proof of what is possible. But it is a fearsome wonder nevertheless.
CRISPR is a technology that stops me short, that makes me wonder if I am missing the real story of our time. We are living in an era when human beings have discovered a way to find and edit their own DNA. The technology is young, immature, and expensive, but its transformative potential is almost beyond imagining. It holds the promise, at least, of repairing genetic defects that are incurable now. But if the technology continues to advance, far more becomes possible — humans, in ways both thrilling and terrifying, could use it to drive our evolution, to choose our traits.
The moral questions this raises are profound, and so too are the practical and even geopolitical ones: What if countries like America sharply restrict CRISPR’s use even as competitor countries like Russia and China do not? What if it becomes a tool available only to the rich, portending a new era of genetic inequality?
It is possible this is what historians 50 years from now will remember us for — Donald Trump’s presidency might look, in retrospect, like a weird distraction from the moment human beings took control of their own genetic destiny, for better and for worse.
Nor is it just CRISPR. Technological advances are also fomenting a quiet revolution in the way we feed ourselves, and in the way the billions of animals we use for food are treated.
This week, the grocery store Kroger announced that it would begin carrying the plant-based Beyond Meat burgers in the meat aisle of 600 of its stores. This follows years of explosive growth for plant-based meat and dairy, which is increasingly indistinguishable from animal products. Diners line up to buy Impossible Foods burgers at hip restaurants like Momofuku, Starbucks advertises almond and coconut milk options, and sales for plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy topped $5 billion last year. Meanwhile, lab-grown meat — meat grown from animal flesh that was never part of a sentient being — is coming closer and closer to production. Venture capitalists and other investors have noticed, with players ranging from Bill Gates to Google to Tyson Foods investing heavily in the space.
The moral and ecological cost of livestock production is difficult to face. The animals we raise and consume are treated so cruelly that there are literally laws prohibiting the public from seeing the savagery behind their dinner. The resources that go into their production are so vast that a new study estimates the United States could fulfill up to 74 percent of its carbon emissions goals by 2020 if Americans simply replaced beef with beans.
If we are on the verge of a world where animals are no longer required to produce the meat we eat, those costs are going to become less and less defensible. Technology often drives ethics — it’s much easier to see the wrongness of a practice that’s easy to abandon — and I wonder if we’re not on the cusp of just such a shift.
Even in politics, I worry that the noise is drowning out the signal. Take health care. Two months ago, it seemed like we were watching the destruction of the Affordable Care Act. Now Senate Republicans have pledged themselves to a bipartisan process and are begging the Trump administration to refrain from sabotaging the exchanges.
Democrats, meanwhile, have learned a powerful lesson: The Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion was a success that likely saved the law, while the private insurance-based exchanges were troubled enough to nearly doom it. That’s why much of the party has joined Sen. Bernie Sanders in supporting single-payer, at least in theory.
If, 10 years from now, America has extended Medicaid or Medicare to everyone who wants it — an outcome that seems increasingly likely to me — the GOP’s assault on Obamacare will have been a crucial step in that process. Republicans will have discredited solutions based on private insurance while revealing the political strength of solutions based on public insurance. With the benefit of hindsight, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan’s most important policy legacy may well be a truly national health care system.
If there are ways historians might see more progress in this era than the daily headlines suggest, it is also possible that they will look back and see more catastrophe. This week, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel hit theaters — reminding us how far we remain from averting the climate disaster described in An Inconvenient Truth. Meanwhile, millions read New York magazine’s fearsome cover story imagining a world in which global warming spirals out of control. It’s telling that the most common criticism of the piece was that it was so scary it might paralyze the public into inaction.
The reality is we are worse than paralyzed: After pulling out of the Paris accords, the Trump administration is trying to unwind the Obama administration’s rules on power plant emissions and is quietly setting up internal teams to try to discredit climate science and give themselves cover to reverse what progress has been made.
Even if you only believe there’s a 30 percent chance that climate science is right, well, that’s about the odds political forecasters gave Trump of getting elected. Given all we know, and all we’ve been told, if we pass on a climate catastrophe to our descendants, they will not care much for our excuses or our protestations. That will be the story of this age, and we will be its villains.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the stories that might come to define us, nor a confident one. It’s missing driverless cars, the rise of China, the spread of AI, the development of VR, and tensions both in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe that could lead to catastrophic wars, to name just a few. I don’t know what historians in 2100 will think mattered in our age. But I’m pretty sure it will surprise us.