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Forests of the future? Photo courtesy of E. Hoffman, FoE-US

[For footnotes, see here]

The industrial revolution replaced wood for fossil fuels as the driver of the engine of progress, leaving living plants to take a back seat in energy production. Now, with the advent of a set of technologies known as synthetic biology, industry groups and the US Department of Energy are celebrating the advent of a new “bioeconomy” – an energy and materials economy in which products and processes previously derived from petroleum will be produced through the exploitation of biomass and biotechnology. By employing the rapidly expanding techniques of synthetic biology, the new industrialists want to turn microbes into “living chemical factories” engineered to produce substances they would not produce naturally, such as biofuels, bio-plastics, industrial chemicals and oils, and even medicines.

However, early indications show that such an approach likely harbors all of the ill-effects of the fossil fuel economy – simply swapping out black carbon for green – combined with the assault on biodiversity brought on by biotechnologies such as genetic engineering of crops. Humans have already caused a state-shift in the global ecosystem,... see more