Professor Carole Collet, Reader in Textile Futures at the University Of The Arts, and founder of the Textiles Futures postgraduate degree course at London's Central Saint Martins College, elegantly approaches the stage in 5inch heels. Within two minutes of her French accentuated presentation, the audience is in complete owe of her charm, her many scientific titles and her undeniable depth of know-how on the subject: sustainable biofacture. This is the blonde, sexy scientist that any film producer would like to add to the cast of X-Men. Only that she is for real, very real and very serious about her research: to genetically modify plants so that they sprout enhanced edible produce and weave... textiles in factories.
To illustrate the wondrous Brave New World that she can't wait for us to enjoy, she shows the audience a video animation of the biofactory of the year 2032. A visionary and futuristic 3-D rendered model shows a factory where thousands of strawberry plants grow shiny black berries and weave incessantly something that looks like a mesh, an intricate Irish lace of the future. The soundtrack to these images is a kind of 'insect sounds overture' that makes me imagine a future where these blue-collard plants will be more akin to John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids than to Willy Wonka's happy singing Oompa-Loompas.
What scares me the most is that Professor Collet's project is a cheap deal to finance: just around the $100 million according to what an entwined biogenetics laboratory in Denmark has already budgeted for and confirmed to her. In the world of corporate innovation funding, the prospect of having textiles produced by workers that one will never ever pay wages to sounds like a bargain. Workers that will produce 24/7, without going on strike or taking paid holidays. Workers that will not defect to a competitor or take maternity leave to bear the next offspring of future workers.
I can see why professor Collet is excited. I can foresee why, this spring when she takes this sci-fi show on the road to the Espace Fondation EDF in Paris to take part in "ALIVE: Designing With Living Technology" some banker or two will salivate at the prospect of investing in the industrial revolution of the future. The benefits will be endless, not just cost-cutting: "Biofacture promotes the convergence of biological living matter with inert nanomaterials", Collet confirms. "It will be possible to attach gold nanoparticles to a sample of live DNA, thus rendering the DNA conductive, (...) opening the doors to designing biotechnically enhanced smart textiles". Some people in the audience must also show the long- horsy face that I myself must have been displaying since the video kicked in. To this, professor Collet throws an olive branch of appeasement: "With living technology comes a whole new set of ethical concerns", she adds knowing that if biofacture takes place on a larger scale many of us will question the rights of plants to be left alone the way God created them. Moreover, that some of her peers in the scientific community will feel concerned knowing that performing DNA alterations in living organisms will have to be operated in controlled environments to perhaps avoid that these lace-making berry plants may one day decide to jump off their plot and chase humans down the road. Worse: that the fabulous, anti-oxidants loaded strawberries may continue mutating human DNA when consumed. This is a scientific way to argue that this whole biofacturing may not be such a great idea after all, but that is not the concern I have.
My impulse to leave the room and write this article is motivated by my refusal to condone societal attitudes that continue to exploit living organisms, in this case plants. I can accept that the Dickensian times of women and children industrial exploitation was motivated by a society that justified a class system of the rich and the poor and hence the understandable emergence of a Marx and an Engels, of the Suffragists, as the immediate rebuttals to counterbalance this very unfair code of industrial practice. But it is still a long road and a hard rock to crack, still some 100 years later. For it will surprise many that only in 1992 the female population of Appenzell in Switzerland was allowed to cast their vote in local and general elections. For it continues to be a cause worth fighting for if you are a female so much so that even a couple of days ago, during his acceptance speech, President Obama still reminded the nation that women should be equally paid for their skills. Unbelievably, the early years of the twenty-first century seem to continue carrying some of the shameful issues that are still latched to our backs from the previous decades. But thirty, fifty years from now, one should expect that the New Millenium human civilisation will have finally come to realise that the human race has no God-given right over the lives of the animal and the plants kingdoms.
Human progress as a society is not solely a path of scientific endeavour. Along the way we have learned to appreciate that what makes us human and not just smart homo sapiens that send men to space is that we care beyond utilitarian and rational practices. That we do not abandon our disabled or weakest offspring like a pack of wolves, but we take them to hospitals and care for them even more intently. That we create laws that protect animals, whether they are pets, working livestock or destined to an abattoir to become steaks. That more and more cosmetology laboratories are abandoning animal testing. That less and less rich ladies want to acquire fur coats to display economic superiority.
Science is a challenging path of proving that humans can achieve innovative endeavours. What I disagree with science in the year 2032 is that it will still continue to exploit other living creatures because it can, not because there won't be any other ways to produce the same. If in the year 2050 the chemical industry is not able to weave for me a beautiful, futuristic Irish lace made of some non-organic material, it will be because someone in the year 2014 gave professor Collet $100 million dollars. I surely hope the future is not such bleak prospect of enslaved plants but a life where we all commune with what's around us, perhaps singing "Oompa, Loompa, do-ba-dee-doo, I've got a perfect (planet) for you". Fingers, paws and stems crossed.