To save the earth, human nature must change

From the inaugural lecture given by Michael Redclift, the professor of international environmental policy, at King's College London
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The Independent Online

This lecture examines the meaning of "security" and "sustainability" in the post-Cold War era, and the way in which the human individual is shifting the balance with nature.

This lecture examines the meaning of "security" and "sustainability" in the post-Cold War era, and the way in which the human individual is shifting the balance with nature.

The discovery that we live in a "global village", illustrated most vividly by the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, was prompted by unforeseen problems in the systems through which we breathe, eat and reproduce. The reality of globalisation was revealed in the major food scares of the 1980s and 1990s, such as BSE, and the even larger, and more complex, issues prompted by the spread of HIV and Aids. BSE and Aids are examples of systemic problems which prompt unease with the links we have established between humans and "nature", and the reliability and risks of "science".

The occurrence of these types of problems also served to undermine an earlier, more confident, view of "mastering" nature through science. The Modernist impulse to conquer and consume seemed to have been stopped in its tracks. It is difficult to stand "inside" or "outside" global issues such as climate change, BSE or Aids, since they permeated territorial boundaries and space. Significantly, they also permeated the body.

In a sense, "security" questions have shifted toward "nature", forcing us to reconsider what we mean by "sustainability" and "society". Genetic modification has already reached the stage at which the individual is being recombined - beginning with the biological components of the body. By blurring the boundaries between animals and humans, this is changing what it means to be human.

The technological processes embodied in the new genetics serve to redefine the individual's relationship to society, by changing what it means to be an individual. In place of civil society as the ground of social negotiation, trust and rights, we have the "alchemy" of the individual.

We already live in a global society where selecting a co-parent for genetic characteristics is a reality, and where surrogate motherhood is commonly practised. The research community has forced genetic cloning of animals on to the political agenda, and politicians, wary of something they have not begun to think seriously about, have reacted warily. Patenting nature in vitro has provoked mixed responses, as it appears to give transnational companies carte blanche to invade and remove genetic materials from the environments of "other peoples".

Where does this leave "environmental security"? Can we transform the politics of human genetics, as well as those of "external" nature? As the human subject itself is changing, then so must the notions of citizenship, democracy and entitlements with which it is linked. I suggest that in the new world of the 21st century, materiality and consciousness bear an increasingly complex relationship to each other. As species boundaries are eroded, and genetic choice dictates individual and public policy, the very meaning of "sustainability" changes. The different rationalities being brought to bear on environmental problems will need to include those of genetic choice and management. The "securities" and "insecurities" that have been identified outside ourselves have been incorporated into our being. Nature, if not the "environment", has returned to the human subject.

I want to end by suggesting that mapping the geopolitics of environmental security in the new century should begin with the human subject. While we have been grappling with "external" nature it is we who have been changing. It is not simply the transformation of the environment that is at stake but our transformation of ourselves. What happens "inside" the city walls is heavily influenced by what happens "outside". And the city walls are no longer "society" but the "individual". Perhaps this is a new grand narrative in the making, for the 21st century?