Dorothée Browaeys

Urgency of the living: "The bio-economy forces liberal logics to reform".

Dorothée Browaeys is what you might call a life activist. She runs Tek4life, an organisation that runs several platforms calling for the responsibility of public and economic players in the face of biotechnological issues, but also those of nanotechnology and digital technology. She is also a journalist and has been collaborating for several years with UP' Magazine. Her latest book will be published on 6 September: L'Urgence du vivant published by François Bourin. Preview meeting.

UP': Dorothée Browaeys, in your latest book, you describe an industrial system that, in your opinion, is forced by necessity to adopt new ways of counting, innovating, regenerating and investing. You tell us in great detail how agro-ecology, green chemistry, bioenergy and bio-inspired inventions are giving rise everywhere to a new economy, an economy based on solidarity with living things. You evoke the idea of a new pact to be concluded urgently with the living. What is the urgency and what is the nature of this urgency?
DB The emergency concerns the habitability of the earth and becomes a matter of human security. Why is it an emergency? Because we can no longer rely on the dampening of climatic and living systems. They are showing every sign of disruption. Global warming is accelerating beyond statistical predictions. Populations of living species are collapsing with drastic and unpredictable effects on food chains: the disappearance of 80% of insect or phytoplankton populations in the oceans in thirty years is like a pantry going up in smoke. This sinking diversity is our life insurance. It is the condition of all sovereignty.
But if these emergencies are real, contingent, the most important one is elsewhere. Although we have become aware of our interdependencies, we are unable to act, to convert our modes of production and our lifestyles. The urgency lies in our collective capacity to imagine the next world, to put an end to cheating with resources (as if they could always be renewed) and with time (as if we could compensate for everything).
UP': Nicolas Hulot's resignation revealed, if need be, the difficulties, if not the impossibility, of reconciling the defence of the environment with the principles of political and economic realities. However, in your book, you call for the emergence of a new economy, an economy based on the living, a bio-economy. Why and in what way would this bioeconomy be compatible with the liberal economic societies in which we evolve?
DB It is not a question of "defending the environment"! This erroneous posture of the former ecologists, proposes "safeguards" and presents the environment as a setting to be respected. Modernity has thought about progress, production and economy in a logic of exploitation of an available and unlimited good. It is aberrant, we must get out of it...
In my book, I recount in detail how we have "missed" at various times the opportunities to rectify this trajectory, to take into account the real, the interdependencies. Physiocrats in the 18th centurye century with François Quesnay attempted to recall the biological origin of the productive engine, physicists have shown that the economy is not mechanical but a matter of thermodynamics (of flow and energy), the economist Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen insisted on the irreversibility of phenomena that dissipate energy, except for the living that organizes.
Since most of our resources are biological, it is logical to consider production as integrated metabolisms. This is what the circular economy deploys. Most of the machines we develop seek to imitate living things: nanorobots resemble cellular components; additive manufacturing makes objects "grow"; "deep learning" copies our brains or immune systems. In the same way, bacteria or yeasts that make drugs or fuels are miniature factories. All this embodies the emerging bioeconomy. And if the economy takes care of machines and their depreciation, then it must provide for the regeneration of biological systems. To rely on the living is to take care of them. Every farmer knows that we cannot deplete organisms, soils and ecosystems or we will lose everything! The bioeconomy forces liberal logics to reform because it "puts under the carpet" many externalities (air, water and soil pollution; carbon dioxide emissions; depletion of resources; collapse of biodiversity, etc.). The market economy is not a problem, what is obscene - to use a term from Muhammad Yunus - is to let it lie, keeping it blind to its engine, which is the living world .
UP': We often oppose capitalism and ecology. This is not your case. Indeed, in your book, you support the idea that the debate is not there, that we need to go deeper: to question industrialization, and to place financial and accounting techniques in this perspective. Can you develop this idea and do you think it is realistic in today's world?
DB : Ecology is neither left nor right. Both capitalist and socialist economic models aim at productivity and growth. Neither of them are counting on the "ecological truth" that jumps out at us today with a planet turned into an oven and living species in extinction. I like to quote Oystein Dahle, former Exxon president for Norway and the North Sea, who said "... the world is a greener place, and the world is a greener place. Socialism collapsed because it did not let the market tell the economic truth. Capitalism can collapse because it doesn't allow the market to tell the ecological truth. ». You could say that the ecological reason is its lifeboard! 
Today the market only considers the short term and the shareholder. But for the last fifteen years or so, the market has been trying to recognize the quality of life (health, housing, relationships, etc.) and to measure progress in a way other than GDP. The fundamental question concerns what we care about collectively. And today, we can only come together to take care of the living. This is the "resonant and reasonable progress" to which the younger generation aspires. New indicators of wealth, new accounting methods that integrate living capital (such as the Care method developed by Jacques Richard), disinvestments from fossil fuels and reallocations to sustainable projects... are the levers of this ongoing transformation. These tools serve the countless initiatives to eat healthy, share transport and equipment, recycle and repair.
There is no other course than these transitions that redistribute value to the territories. Of course, this implies enormous financial risks that public authorities must support. This is the meaning of thecall to "unleash green investment" launched by Alain Grandjean and Gaël Giraud.
UP': The bio-economy you are advocating for wants to be inspired by and respect living things. You speak of a "pact with the living". How can this approach be implemented in practice? How can the living be a source of inspiration for economic innovation?
DB The transformation valves of our companies are wide open. We have the means to transform energy from manure or the sun, extract cosmetics from algae or do chemistry with yeasts. high tech or low-techThe range of tools is vast to act in synergy with living beings. Agriculture, forests and oceans are no longer simply our pantries, but they can also clothe us, shelter us, transport us and provide us with light. Thus, the agricultural world is a trailblazer for industrialists who want to convert their processes and reduce their negative externalities. All it takes is for consumers to stop buying oil-based products, to see Lego decide to manufacture all its bricks from vegetable matter by 2030 or Ikea announce that 100% of its plastics will be biosourced! The driving force behind this dynamic comes downstream: Coca-Cola, Danone, Nike, Adidas are asking chemists to supply them with bio-based materials (cosmetics, insulation, lubricants, glues, plastics, composites, paints, etc.) that many startups such as Amyris, LanzaTech, Global Bioenergies, etc. are inventing. As soon as the price of a barrel of oil passes the 100 $ in a sustainable way, this economy will explode... But to become "allies of the living" is not only an economic stake, it is a cultural pact. It is to exist and to think with our environment (and not to overlook it as modernity wants). It is betting on solidarity.
UP': By developing new forms of production based on living organisms, do we not run the risk of repeating the same mistakes we have made against the environment: enslavement or even plundering of nature, disregard for the negative externalities produced by industrial processes, etc.? Is this not a new risk?
DB : This is a major issue: this bio-economy confronts the players with scarcity, production hazards and the instability of matter. Farmers know better than anyone else that to produce with animals or plants is to expose oneself to the unpredictable. We will have to multiply negotiations, human arrangements to deal with dilemmas (eating or rolling) and ecosystems (to ensure their regeneration). Especially since the bio-economy can starve us if we prefer the full essence of some to the full food of others. It can also outbid land grabbing!
Political control of the use of biomass and its allocation and capital. This is the raison d'être of the BioRESP Forum on the bio-economic transition that we have put in place in France.
It is clear that we must ensure that we consume less, waste less and give several lives to our objects: it is the circular economy that passes through the recovery of waste. 
If we follow the trajectory that should take us towards 2050 to zero net carbon emissions, half of the economy will come from photosynthesis. To encourage this prospect, nothing could be better than highlighting positive externalities: avoidance of damage from oil extraction (especially hydraulic fracturing for shale gas), ecosystem services, substitution of natural resources that could eventually become scarce (natural rubber extracted from rubber trees, omega-3 from fish, terpene derivatives extracted from plants or animals, etc.) through the use of yeasts or bacteria.
UP': In your book, you mention a multitude of experiments carried out today, all over the world, in the field of biotechnology. In your opinion, some of them could be a source of solutions for a sustainable bioeconomy. But the experiments you cite are often marginal and sometimes conducted by exotic entities. I am thinking of the biohackers you mention in your book. Are we not, with the incredible panoply of biotechnologies at our disposal, opening up Pandora's boxes of living things that we will find it difficult to control?
DB The initiatives I'm describing are not anecdotal: they are at the heart of the strategies of major groups like Total, DSM, Mitsubishi Chemicals, DuPont, Basf, Arkema and Michelin. Creativity is simply more evident in innovative start-ups and small companies like Avantium, Amyris, Metabolic Explorer and Roquette, whose adventures I am recounting. They are the ones who invent new production methods, using algae, bacteria, yeasts, etc. The major groups have been refining petroleum chemistry for a century, and it will take time for chemistry with living organisms to take hold, unless there is a shortage of oil. I also talk in detail about the new genetic tools (in particular the CRISPR Cas9 method, which enables the genome to be "patched" together) that are used to enslave living organisms in order to make "molecular culture" (chemical production). This is a crucial point of democratic reflection. We will have to be able to collectively question the purpose of these "new GMOs". For the experience is instructive: 90% of the GMOs used today are made to resist herbicides: they thus make it possible to sell more and more herbicides such as glyphosate! We can aim at other objectives!

READ UP : Organisms modified by CRISPR are legally GMOs

In this context, biohackers who often choose socially useful projects are interesting. They make ink with bacteria, morphine with yeast, steaks with starsAll this is not insignificant and shows that it will be difficult to control practices and avoid possible terrorist abuses.
UP': The first lines of your book take the form of a conversation with a child. You are thinking of the generations to come, those to whom we are leaving a planet in a pitiful state. What message do you finally want to bring them with this book?
DB For thirty years, the alerts have been going on and on, from Rachel Carlson and her Silent Springpublished in 1962 until Al Gore and The inconvenient truthToday, young people want to be pragmatic: they act locally, immediately and are suspicious of politics. However, it is necessary to "turn the corner" and agree on a coherence of action... Between those who think that everything is going to collapse and those who reassure themselves by talking about "phoney solutions", I wanted to find a passage, to identify the dynamics of the world afterwards. The trajectories are diverse and can be envisaged in a new attachment to the world. Not a link that limits, but a link that liberates. Not a paternalistic care, but a belonging. Not a knowledge, but a recognition of community of origin and destiny. Not technical intervention, but participation.
I think we are at a "relationship turning point". We define ourselves by our networks, our friends, our hybridizations. Biology increasingly shows us that we are made of bacteria, that confrontation with viruses makes us stronger (immunity), that our environment even influences the functioning of our genes (epigenetics). This reveals another relationship to the world: we are becoming homo resonans...that vibrate with their environment.
But all this ignores the digital world where automatons conquer more and more autonomy, and where we are abandoning our own. A very energy-intensive universe... Are we going to witness a war between the proponents of the digital and those of the biological? The fundamentally technomimetic transhumanism is a way to lock us into narcissism and contempt for the world. The colonization of our societies by automatons is a threat if we lose control of our choices and our destinies. The urgency of the living is also to integrate our vulnerabilities, our diversities, our unpredictability. This is "the greatest challenge in the history of humanity", say the 200 signatories of the appeal launched by Juliette Binoche. With the power of the imagination!
Interview by Gérard Ayache

Towards a new pact with the living

In the moment we are in, the question of survival is being asked. There are countless films and comic books that show the end of man. The real spring of the future is the living. We can count on the tremendous regenerative energy of the living world, provided we understand (and accept) how much we depend on it. On the condition that we inscribe our techniques in the logic of the living, without enslaving or endangering it. Ensuring the conditions for its regeneration (and for our survival) leads us to found a new economy. Some call it regenerative economy, others permaeconomy, or bioeconomy. It is always an economy with the living. […]
We are already observing that our techniques of domestication, manipulation, digitization, hybridization are transforming everything: our ways of consuming, cultivating, exchanging, meeting... Inexorably and more and more rapidly, we are mutating! And our lifestyles too! Animals and plants, fungi and plankton, yeasts and bacteria are becoming the plants of the future to make fuel, medicines, fibres or molecules for chemistry... opening up biomasses to new markets beyond traditional food. Are they genetically manipulated, natural or synthetic, enslaved or spontaneous? Already, the boundary between nature and artifice, between biological and cultural, is becoming blurred. And our points of reference, and our values with...
Controlling and manipulating the living has become the central political issue of our time. This kind of "organic cybernetics" is not a matter of machines or automatons. It is our common responsibility. "This is cybernetics back," Michel Serres noted in 1990 in his Natural Contract where he considers that political science has become "physiopolitical", since the natural world is "our symbiote". We will therefore have to invent social metabolisms to live together in good balance...
I propose to take the pulse of the enormous mutations that are shaking the world today. We will first go through critical situations in which the living world is toasting: collapses, intoxications, predation of living species... [...] We will take the measure of the cynicism of certain behaviours to envisage an indispensable break in the face of the deadly crimes that we call "ecocide".
We will then visit the players in the bio-economy, those who make microbes work to make new chemicals, fuels or medicines. ... This industrial-scale "living artefact factory" is generating unprecedented risks. For how can we control synthetic viruses, fast-growing salmon released into the oceans, or mosquitoes infected with bacteria? ...] For this "progress" is paid for by the destruction of forests, species, ecosystems and natural, cultural and economic diversity, all of which are a guarantee of our planetary equilibrium.
We will then have to go back, together, to revisit our history, see where we come from and what our industrial roots are. We will explore Western conceptions of nature, life and technology. ...] Industrialization has united the spiritual and secular orders in a "deal for performance" that is wearing us down. And this has been the case since the 12th century.e century! This look back will allow us to understand the architectures of our current economy that exclude the price to be paid to the nature that supports it. This awareness is the condition to install play, a questioning and the design of alternatives that are already at work. If we see all kinds of initiatives flourishing (fablabs, resource centres, coworking areas, permaculture or hydroponics experiments...), we are also witnessing, above all, the reorganization of agricultural and industrial models and new investments towards sustainable activities.
We will finally grasp the seeds of the future, by discovering local experiences that reconnect us to the territories, that take into account the soil and that recycle waste. This movement is accompanied by a change of compass. Criteria such as quality of life, social ties, responsibility, and the resilience of organisms temper the omnipotence of GDP. Investors are demanding that companies take action against climate change. Massive movements are shifting financial values from fossil fuel activities to renewable practices. Thus companies are beginning to take into account their externalities and the renewal of natural and human capital with environmental accounting.
We're at a fork in the road. ...] Our modernity, rooted in mechanistic dualism, does not consider the relationship. The relationship is always put out of reach of the scientific experiment that evacuates the subject. But smugglers are now working to restore our equilibrium. ...] Our neurons, our immune system, our microbiotes are forged in the course of our interactions. Nature is not outside of us. If we integrate this vision, everything changes. Our values are reconfigured. Our ethical and economic capacities are renewed. As a result, the externalities of our current economic system appear... unsustainable.
It is the ambition of this book to take everyone along in this bio-economic revolution. With it, the transitions take on meaning: we are re-inscribing ourselves in time and territories, with regenerative and circular modes of production. But will we be able to invest in the long term, giving future generations a perspective? Will we manage to assume our autonomy, without delegating everything to machines?
Pollution, injustice and global risks have already moved many people, who eat differently, want to participate in the sharing of wealth and change their lifestyles. ...] It is not at all a marginal dynamic, but that everything is being reconstructed, even our imaginations and aspirations. Betting on living dynamics means dealing with the diversity of possibilities. By embracing... the unknown. ...] This story reveals a new landscape where people of all kinds act in a common sense without necessarily knowing it. In the face of complexity and uncertainty, they invest in the forging of the living, the forging of relationships. No more self-referential modernity, the irresponsibility of an above-ground posture, the myth of omnipotence. The living tames us. This is thehomo resonans. »
Dorothée Browaeys is President of TEK4life, which coordinates the dialogue platforms BIORESP, NANORESP and DIGIRESP, dedicated to the ecological and social issues of the new technologies. Scientific journalist and founder of VivAgora, she is a contributor to the journal Études and the online magazine UP'Magazine. She teaches technical controversies and concertation at the University of Paris 7. She is the author of several books, including Le Meilleur des nanomondes, (Buchet-Chastel, 2009), Fabriquer la vie. Where is synthetic biology heading? (with Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Le Seuil, 2011), and Cerveau, sexe et pouvoir (with Catherine Vidal, Belin, 2005).


Anything to add? Say it as a comment.

Header photo : Dorothée Browaeys - © Rencontres de Cannes, 2018

Why not enjoy unlimited reading of UP'? Subscribe from €1.90 per week.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
embryo design
Previous article

A British ethics committee considers it "morally acceptable" to genetically modify babies.

bio-based plastic
Next article

Bioplastics: Pepsi opts for 100 % biosourced plastic

Latest articles from Bio innovations



Already registered? I'm connecting

In order to contribute to the information effort on the current coronavirus crisis, UP' proposes to its readers a free entry to the latest published articles related to this theme.

→ Register for free to continue reading.



You have received 3 free articles to discover UP'.

Enjoy unlimited access to our content!

From $1.99 per week only.