Reinventing nature

Underlying the recent shifts in the environmental political agenda is the recognition that the ecological problems confronting humanity have taken on ever more awesome proportions. For some, this implies that a more ambitious, or comprehensive, response is necessary, while for others, it has inspired even more refined methods of human intervention in the affairs of the non-human world. Not only has human ingenuity continued to modify the landscape and turn it into something fundamentally "man-made." In recent years, particularly with the coming of the new techniques of genetic manipulation, and the continued human encroachment into previously preserved wilderness areas, it has become increasingly apparent that an autonomous world of nature has largely ceased to exist in any meaningful sense (Turner 1996; Haila 1997). And it can be suggested that this perceived disappearance of a separate, non-human sphere of existence has helped to spawn a new definition, or conception, of the environmental problematic - from protecting nature to transforming society. In the words of Bill McKibben:

How can there be a mystique of the rain now that every drop - even the drops that fall as snow on the Arctic, even the drops that fall deep in the remaining forest primeval - bears the permanent stamp of man? Having lost its separateness, it [nature] loses its special power. Instead of being a category like God - something beyond our control - it is now a category like the defense budget or the minimum wage, a problem we must work out. This in itself changes its meaning completely, and changes our reaction to it. (McKibben 1989: 210)

It has been a series of dramatic events, or disasters, over the past fifty years, that has helped make us aware of the disappearance of a separate realm of non-human nature.2

Early on in the 1950s there was the mercury poisoning in Minimata Bay in Japan which, more than any other single event, announced the coming of the environmental crisis in the form of a deadly and previously unknown disease. In the 1960s there was the ecological devastation of Vietnam, and the countless discoveries of waste and pollution in fields and factories around the world - the inevitable "side effects" or social costs of postwar prosperity (Mishan 1969). But, for the most part, the tragedies of the 1960s were still far off in the so-called periphery, while the "center" of the capitalist world system had not been seriously affected.

In the 1970s, the crisis started to hit closer to home. There was the disaster in Seveso in Italy in 1976, when a factory exploded and the fumes laid waste a town in the outskirts of Milan. Soon after came the nuclear accident at Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania, outside of Harrisburg in 1979 which, although not catastrophic, did bring on a new phase of antinuclear mobilization around the world. It led, for example, directly to the Swedish government's decision to hold a referendum on the future of nuclear energy, and gave serious impetus to the development of alternative, renewable forms of energy - the "softer" energy paths that Amory Lovins and many others had come to envision in the heat of the energy debate (Lovins 1977).

In 1984, there was an explosion at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal in India, killing and blinding tens of thousands of people in poisonous fumes. Perhaps the first example of a "glocal" environmental catastrophe (i.e., it took place locally but had global causes and repercussions), the Bhopal disaster led to a drawn-out legal dispute between American and Indian officials, the formation of an international support alliance for the victims, and offered a telling example of the ways in which environmental problems were being exported from the Northern industrial countries to the southern developing countries, where regulations were slacker, enforcement weaker and the apparent need for foreign investment greater than in the over-developed North.

In 1986, there was an accident at a nuclear energy facility at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, spreading radioactivity across northern and central Europe. Again, the international character of the environmental crisis was painfully brought home, but, this time, the overwhelming danger intrinsic to the continued use of poorly designed technological facilities, with insufficient mechanisms for oversight and control, was also implanted in the public consciousness (Beck 1995).

In 1989, an oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez, went aground off the coast of Alaska, spilling more oil than had been the case in any previous accident and affecting fishing and fishing-dominated communities for hundreds of miles. Besides wreaking havoc on a sensitive natural landscape, the Exxon Valdez disaster was one of the key factors that encouraged many large energy- and resource-exploiting corporations to begin to clean up their act. Soon thereafter, the Business Council for Sustainable Development was established by Exxon and other transnational corporations to present a business perspective at the upcoming UN Conference on Environment and Development, the Rio "Summit" of 1992, as well as to sponsor a transition to what has since been labeled eco-efficiency (Schmidheiny 1992).

In the 1990s, the catastrophes have continued, however, and, in many respects, they have grown even more ominous:

• vast uncontrolled fires in tropical rainforests, with the precise causes unknown but attributable, to a large extent, to inappropriate forestry practices and an ever more brutal exploitation of fragile ecosystems;

• unusually intense storms, particularly in the past few years, due, quite probably, to changing global climatic conditions;

• recurrent accidents with trains, passenger ferries, and automobiles, because of faults in operation systems, maintenance, driving capability, and inadequate regulatory regimes, but primarily due to increasing amounts of traffic, and

• the emergence of new threats, especially the so-called "mad cow disease," or BSE, due to a combination of ignorance, sloppiness, and lack of controls in such crucial matters as food production.

In contrast to earlier, more localized environmental calamities, the new problems tend to be more international, or global, in scope, reflecting the growing interconnectedness of the world's economic activity, and the attendant difficulties in keeping that activity under any kind of meaningful social control at a national, or sub-national, level. And unlike many of the environmental controversies of the 1970s, when concerned citizens organized themselves into action groups so that they might move the risks away from their own neighborhoods, these new environmental challenges cannot so easily be moved away: they are in everyone's "backyard."

As such, the so-called NIMBY ("not in my backyard") response, which was characteristic of much of the environmentalism of the 1970s, in both Europe and the United States, has become an insufficient and inadequate form of response, although it still continues to proliferate and take on new manifestations.3 While the environmental protests of the 1960s and 1970s, in most of the industrialized countries anyway, led to the enactment of more comprehensive legislation and to the creation of substantial administrative-control bureaucracies - as well as to major efforts in scientific research and technical development in the name of environmental protection - the newer, more global dangers associated with science and technology-based production tend to resist effective management and control. Paradoxically, the more expert knowledge we have, and the more "use" we make of it, the more calamitous the ensuing problems seem to be.

At the same time as the problems have been changing character, new risks have also been identified. Or, rather, dangers that had previously been considered hypothetical have been shown to be real. There has been increasing evidence from scientists investigating the atmosphere that a hole is growing bigger in the layer of ozone that protects the planet from dangerous radiation; what was generally ignored in the 1970s as a "doomsday" prophecy is now a major topic for policy deliberations. There are also ever more frightening indications that the earth's temperature is getting warmer, not due to any one particular pollutant, but, it seems, because of the very growth of productive activity itself, and the ensuing emissions of carbon dioxide that are the unintended but inevitable result. Again, this was predicted earlier, but the idea of global warming seemed too outlandish to require any consideration of measures that might be taken.

Most ominous of all perhaps is the creation of a new set of genetic technologies that are based on the manipulation and transfer of genetic material from one organism to another. The first experiments with genetic engineering in the 1970s led to major public debates, particularly in the United States, as a result of which many of the scientists involved in the new genetic "technoscience" took their knowledge-making out of the public domain and into the private sector of commercial activity (Baark and Jamison 1990). Now, when genetically manipulated products have begun to be marketed, the public response has been intense in many countries (Durant et al. 1998). New forms of production are being promulgated for which there is little apparent need, and which represent a significant economic threat to those involved in food production in many parts of the world (Shiva 2000). The risks and dangers associated with these new products are extremely difficult to assess. It is impossible to know exactly what this "revolution" will entail for the natural environment and for human health, but there are many who have expressed their concern, as genetically manipulated products have begun to emerge from the research laboratories. But even in this area, with almost thirty years of warning and preparation, the possibilities for effective social control seem almost to have slipped out of reach.

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