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

Share

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?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it