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

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough, Cam...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Benedict Cumberbatch attends a special screening of his latest film The Imitation Game  

Benedict Cumberbatch race row: What's the actual difference between 'coloured' and 'person of colour'?

Matthew Norman
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)  

What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

Matthew Norman
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy