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Section 3

The truth is that we have an inconvenient nature

P.F. Van Haperen, B. Gremmen and J. Jacobs Wageningen University and Research centre, META, Hollandseweg 1, 6707 KN Wageningen, the Netherlands;,,

Climate change is expected to have a huge impact on food security. The debate about the role technology can have to mitigate the effects of climate change is in our view hampered by an a-historical and dualistic view on nature and the natural. Using the movie An inconvenient truth as an example, we see parallels with the debate about genetic modification. In both debates nature and naturalness are categories that are placed opposite categories such as technological, cultural and the human. We come to the conclusion that in order to move forward, also when it concerns climate change, a different, dynamic, and multi-facetted understanding of nature is needed in societal debate. We also believe that there is a scale possible to measure the relative representation of these aspects. The approach we propose intends to replace nature and wilderness as references to one specific and static binary with a triangulated relation that integrates the multiple aspects of nature. This provides an approach that can enable stakeholders to arrive at a standard for nature that is dynamic, doing justice to basic ethical concerns. Keywords: nature, biotechnology, dualism

It has been a warm year again (NOAA, 2011) and it wasnt only this year that was warm. Over the last decades the global temperatures are rising and many worry that climate change will have detrimental effects for agricultural production. The world population is ever increasing and universal food security is still far from being reached. Since the 1960s global agricultural output has multiplied though, and the yield per hectare of the most important crops has almost doubled or more than doubled. With growth and an industrial -largely fossil fuel dependent- agriculture however, many increasingly problematical side effects have appeared as well. Agriculture itself now contributes to climate change and a degradation of natural resources. Deforestation and the use of fertilisers contribute to greenhouse gas build up. Agriculture forms a threat to biodiversity, occupies most of our arable land, is increasingly vulnerable to diseases and uses up water resources (IAASTD, 2009). As a result, the (green revolution) goals of increased productivity and economic efficiency are slowly shifting towards sustainable growth and mitigation of the negative consequences for the environment (Smith, 2000). Life-scientists like to promote innovations in biotechnology, like genomics based crop enhancement, as possible ways to counteract climate change and the food security consequences of this climate change. Others, conservation oriented actors, rather put the emphasis on restoring the natural balance and tend to distrust a so called technological fix. The contrast between these two approaches corresponds with ideologies related to the modern, dualistic understanding of nature that we possess. This understanding divides our world-environment in dichotomies such as nature-culture, nature-technology or nature and human(ity). This paper is aiming to point out that this dualistic thinking leads us to a stalemate in policy setting, as was the case in the controversy about genetically modified crops, where the same oppositions played such a role in the given arguments (Van Haperen et al., 2011). Therefore, we come to the conclusion that in order to move forward, a different, dynamic, and multi-facetted understanding of nature is needed in the discussion about climate change as well.

T. Potthast and S. Meisch (eds.), Climate change and sustainable development: Ethical perspectives on land use and food production, DOI 10.3920/978-90-8686-753-0_13, Wageningen Academic Publishers 2012


Global warming and climate change

An inconvenient truth
Nothing did put climate change more under the attention of the public eye than the movie An Inconvenient Truth (West, 2006), presented and narrated by Al Gore. When we start watching An Inconvenient Truth, we are immediately presented with the two facts about nature that set the tone for the rest of the movie. The first follows a shot of an idyllic and romanticized river scene with a voice-over telling us how Al Gore rediscovered how good nature feels, how beautiful it is and how nature is too much of a treasure to risk its destruction. The message here is: No one can deny the fact that nature is good and is to be valued. Not only for our own sake but also intrinsically, for nature itself. The second fact is presented in a shot that immediately makes clear that when we watch this movie, we cannot do it any longer from a local or even only-human perspective. Seeing Earth from space, pulsing and shifting, shows us that the planet is a wonderful living thing and that it is a system with a fragile balance. What is presented here, is that there is a natural existence outside of our cultural understanding that functions autonomously in a precarious equilibrium that took billions of years to develop, and that we are about to destroy it in mere decades if we do not respect its workings. We are witnessing now, according to the film, a collision between our culture and the earth. As climate change is widely believed to be human induced, it is suggested, that since our use of technology caused it we should also be able to remedy it with technology if only we change our culture accordingly. In the movie it is simply stated that we have all the technological means to turn the tide and reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to stop the warming up of the planet. What lacks, it says, is the political (cultural) will to do it. No matter how much it might be appealing for Al Gore, to broadcast the message that what we are dealing with here is a collision between our culture and the earth, it is slightly misrepresenting the issue as well. The romantic river images that are shown and the tranquility that is suggested to represent the earth, are not the same thing as our environment without greenhouse gasses or global heating. Also without greenhouse gas emissions cities and industries remain, representing another reality than the idyllic rural world. An inconvenient truth eventually falls back on nothing more than a static non-critical romantic concept of nature represented by anti-urban and anti-industrial images of rural landscapes, to get the suggested solution of a clean technology across. In the real world however, as is the case with debates about biotechnology in agriculture, there is much more doubt over the right methods and the right measures to implement climate change mitigation technologies and policies (Lomborg, 2001). There doesnt seem to be an easy way to find a balance between the ecological damage done by fossil fuel-based technology and the need for fuel-driven technology in order to achieve the appropriate growth that can meet the demands of a forever increasing global population and economy.

Wilderness and nature, technology and culture

In An Inconvenient Truth, nature and the wild as a concept are embodying the very thing they are supposed to deny: human interference. Nowadays, in order to give back nature its place in the world, all sorts of things are created, manipulated and labored. Natural parks and preserves are regulated, managed and maintained with one thing in mind: that they look like being untouched and pristine. In virtually all of its manifestations, our concept of nature represents a flight from history. Wilderness has become the natural antithesis of an unnatural civilization; The illusion that we can wipe out the slate of our past (Cronon, 1995). With climate change being a consequence of us burning fossil fuels, it is undeniable that our impact on the environment is ubiquitous. The notion we once possibly had about a still existing wilderness, the presence of parts of pristine nature, untouched by human culture, has now gone forever. This a-historical nature is an epistemological myth that needs to be addressed. The planet heats up everywhere and not only where we live. Thus, the very idea of a place wild and untouched by man can now, in an absolute way, no longer be upheld (McKibben, 2005). The disappearance of true wilderness is not without implications. It is in the wild, in nature itself, that we seem to find everything worth keeping. In the wild, the ecosystem is thought to be in balance, and within this balance we find
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all the raw natural resources we need to provide us (through technology) with the products we need to live our cultured lives (Cronon, 1995). But, as Cronon deftly points out, there seems to be a paradox here. And this paradox neatly fits with the myth of wilderness. The value of natural resources, indeed nature, becomes apparent only in so far as we can attach meaning and purpose to those resources, which we do through cultural and technological action. We value that what we need and what we can exploit, if only to enjoy it while walking through. Recreating nature with technological means though, seems a contradiction in terms. After all, from the previous perspective follows that where we are, nature is not, and where nature is, we should not be. In Deep Ecology the view is even brought forward that more or less all use of technology is disruptive and potentially robs humanity of essential resources by destroying the natural balance. This dualism between human presence and no human presence, prevents us from getting a clear sight on what the ethical, workable and sustainable human place in nature can be. But then, in order to responsibly tap into natural resources, to ensure a sustainable way of life, what can our approach be? It cannot be the position taken within Deep Ecology, when it claims that the very start of agriculture has also marked the beginning of the disruptive violation of nature. A complete withdrawal is no option. What is nature to us when we cannot make use of it? Even though, An Inconvenient Truth is hardly anti-technological in its approach, it leans upon this same dualism, when we are presented with the almost religious serenity of the pristine landscape, unscathed by greenhouse gas induced climate change. Cronon (1995) sees the presentation of these natural images as a denial of history. Being environmentally friendly in our technology, does not really make it possible to reinstate unscathed pre-industrial nature and/or wilderness. This would simply come down to a denial of history. This denial is not coincidentally the strongest in people who are the farthest removed from the daily laboring of the land. It is the alienation from nature that gives rise to the idealization of it. The origin of environmentalism is urban, not rural (Lemaire, 1970; Weiner, 1992). Thus the resulting image of a tamed, benevolent wilderness, which is both our cradle and our future, embodies the dualistic vision in which culture and technology are ultimately placed entirely outside of the natural but nevertheless shape the images of a nature that can be enjoyed and exploited. Seeing our blue planet from the sky as we do in Al Gores movie ethical also has an ethical implication. Whatever the perspective we use, with entering space-age, the global ecosystem is now understood as a complex organic-like system that should remain in balance, with or without technological assistance. With this perspective the idea has also arrived that there are limits to the disturbance we can induce to that system (IAASTD, 2009; Lovelock, 2000). Not safeguarding the global equilibrium is a deontological mistake. There is thus an acute awareness that a technological fix could mean further intervention in a system, already out of balance. An awareness that we need to handle with care and maintain boundaries to what and at which speed we, as technological humans, allow ourselves to affect this system. Can it be responsible to put technology to work to reach sustainable levels of modern life? Technology is about optimization and seems to belong to a linear way of thinking, sustainability aims to make processes cyclical and aims at an equilibrium (Karafyllis, 2003). Questions about nature and how it functions and what it aims at, are at the heart of debates about biotechnology and sustainability. We nowadays can come across the idea of geo-engineering as a way to preserve a balance in the global ecosystem and remedy climate change. Geo engineering is presented as a mimicking of the kind of climate control we find in nature by letting the environment absorb or emit substances that are short or in excess. The outburst of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines had a global cooling down effect as the ash clouds reduced the amount of solar heat reaching earth. Inspired by this example, engineers are now working on techniques to disperse minerals in strategic places to induce the uptake of greenhouse gasses (Trenberth and Dai, 2007). This idea to mimic nature with technological means, resembles the idea that genetic modification in plants can be regarded as a natural process, as it is no more than imitating the working of the agrobacterium tumefasciens (Van Wordragen And Dons, 1992). Its also no less controversial. This is why the Royal Society has started a public debate on the ethical boundaries of Geo-engineering (The Royal Society, 2009). To what extent these approaches can indeed cross-pollinate
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with ideas of preservation and restoration and whether technology can become an appropriate means to reach sustainability, seems to stand or fall with the assumptions made about how nature itself can reach optimized states, and to what extent this state would be enhanced or hampered again by our technological interferences. Starting from the dualistic image of nature, climate change thus seems to pose us with the problem how we possibly can use technology to remedy a nature thrown out of balance by means of, again, technology. If culture is completely technology dependent and if, as said in the movie, there is a collision between our culture and earth, it should follow that there is a collision between technology and earth as well. How then would technology possibly offer a way out of this collision? Binary understanding, the opposition of technology and nature, culture and nature, indeed human and nature, will trouble us in setting the right mitigation policies and developing sustainable ways of production, because it is impossible to make a choice between nature and technology, when it is technology and our technological ontology that shape our images of nature.

Away from dualism

Climate change is not only about controlling the atmosphere. What should interest us, is to what extent the issue of global heating is significant in relation to our life-world (Lomborg, 2001). Climate change has put nature center stage once more. The debates provide us with new questions about our natural and social worlds. How we deal with climate change is directly linked to how we (re)produce the world symbolically and materially. Elaborating how nature is construed should help us to better appreciate the diversity of the different natures and environments that we carry around in our heads while discussing our policies and institutional structures. To accomplish this, we must emphasize that the epistemology of nature shifts in dimension and meaning, together with the life-world that we know and together with the changing (technological) environment we live in (Soper, 1995; Weiner, 1992). No need to stress that there is a political dimension as well. We must avoid however, to let nature become merely a cultural categorization if we dont want the environmental problems, which are very real, become mere subjective interpretations too. So where, on the one hand, we need to create the understanding that a social construction is present in our images of nature and the environment, we must on the other hand make clear, that we keep the agency of nature central, in order to provide us with the deontological handles to solve environmental problems in an ethical way (Eden, 2001). Nature is not only a concept that signifies the separation of our cultural and technological selves from the natural, but it can simultaneously function as a standard (if something is against nature, it is not right) that sets boundaries to human intervention and disruption too. In the public debates about Genetic Modification in agriculture (GM) which we discussed in a previous article, nature was also put in opposition to other core categories such as culture, human disruption, technology, management, and so on (Van Haperen et al., 2011). These oppositions proved to remain problematic, because they left little room for negotiation when something simply is or is not accepted because it is deemed natural. The public debate on climate change in our view risks the same fate if the used concepts of nature and wilderness remain a dualistic, closed and static reference for our thinking. As nature is at the center of the issue of climate change, we believe that a similar concept as proposed for the GM debate can be used to avoid dualistic pitfalls. In this concept, in analogy with Williams (Williams, 1983), we consider technology (exploiting and working the material world), culture (attributing qualities to objects and symbols) and ecology (understanding and using the -global- system and its workings) as the most important aspects that compose our image of nature. Other than Williams, however, we maintain that all three of these aspects are always present in every interpretation of nature and that they affect each other when changes take place. Through production, the symbolic value of resources changes, through belief systems, the value of production changes, and through a changing environment, the believe and production systems alter again. For example: an important issue with climate change debates is control and organization. Climate change discussions are not only linked to reduction of
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greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating effects of climate change, but are also about responsibilities and control over resources and means of production. The cultural and ecological perspectives we have concerning nature are important parameters to decide what are ethical and responsible ways to put nature to good use in our production schemes. This can be clearly seen when the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), formed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), are putting the millennium development goals on their agendas (IPCC, 2007). It is also clear that the nations that contribute most to the greenhouse gas emissions are the most developed nations, and that the consequences of the global warming could be felt most by the less developed countries. The most developed nations are also the tech-savvy nations that have the possibilities to work on sustainable technologies. In addition, the global negotiations about reducing greenhouse gas emissions favor the agendas of the more powerful nations (Hertwich and Peters, 2009). Hence, it is clear that power and control over climate affecting technologies are in the hands of the wealthiest nations and that a fair distribution of wealth and resources is in the climate change debate as much an issue as it is in the debates about gen-technology in agriculture. In public debate and from an ethical perspective, what needs to be re-arranged when each of these (ecological, cultural and technological) aspects change, is the relative importance of them vis--vis each other. Our position is that if one or two of these aspects of nature are underrepresented in our dealings with the environment, this is for most of the world not acceptable. We also believe that it is possible to construct a scale to measure the relative representation of these aspects. Siipi presents us with sets of comparative relations forming gradient scales that express whether something can be considered to be more natural than something else. Summarized we can discriminate three relations: (1) something is more or less subjected to human interference/disruption; (2) something is more or less fitting images of normality and biological/genetic-based action; (3) something is more or less in accordance with human nature/purpose (Siipi, 2008). Scientists and policymakers are increasingly convinced that technological innovations need to be accompanied by a dialogue between science and society which is true to the context and content of the developments. It is thereby important not to ignore the results of previous dialogues and consultations and to come to an integrative approach (Goven, 2006). The approach we propose intends to replace nature and wilderness as references to one specific and static binary with a triangulated relation that integrates the multiple aspects of nature. This provides an approach that can enable stakeholders to arrive at a standard for nature that is dynamic, doing justice to basic ethical concerns.

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