Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Phil Sutton (1999) 'Genetics and the Future of Nature Politics'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

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Received: 9/9/1999      Accepted: 27/9/1999     Published: 30/9/1999


This article is concerned with the extent to which recent environmental campaigns against GM food trials are likely to be successful, and whether the symbolic protests that have typically characterised environmental activism will remain effective in the future. Although the recent direct actions have highlighted the continuing salience of 'nature' as a major source and symbol of political protest, the paper also considers whether the development of genetic technologies is creating new opportunities for collaborative collective actions across diverse new social movements. Following Beck's theory of the emergence of a 'risk society', sociologists have begun to see environmentalism and issues of 'life' politics (including genetic research and its commercialisation) as increasingly important in shaping the future direction of modern development, and the paper concludes with some thoughts on the convergence of the new 'life politics' with the nature politics of environmentalism.

Genetic Engineering; Biotechnology; Environmentalism; Life Politics; Nature Politics; New Social Movements; Risk Society; Symbolic Protest.


Recent attempts to disrupt genetically modified (GM) crop trials should not be seen in isolation. Despite media presentations which tend to produce an impression of single-issue 'environmental' campaigns such as the Newbury anti-roads protest and demonstrations against the Manchester Airport runway extension, there are good reasons to see all of these kinds of protest as part of an emerging and more widespread 'politics of nature' (Dobson and Lucardie 1993). And whereas in the past, defending nature has meant opposing destructive industrial development, conservation of open and wild spaces, protesting the loss of countryside and so on, we are now seeing a shift or perhaps more accurately, an extension of nature politics to take in a redefinition of the concept of 'nature' including human nature. Developments in the 'life' fields of biotechnology, genetic screening, genetic engineering and gene cloning are at the forefront of this redefinition, hence opening the prospect of a convergence of nature politics with the politics of 'life' (Melucci 1989; Eder 1993). The genetic modification of food is an example of a contentious issue which straddles both nature and life politics, raising concerns of ecosystemic contamination and the social construction of life forms. Such issues might enable environmentalists' concerns to mesh with the concerns of more 'humanistic' social movements, such as disability, feminist and socialist movements.

Rather than concentrating wholly on GM food technologies, the paper discusses genetic research more generally, as it is when seen in this context, as part of new ethical questions in contemporary societies, that the theoretical potential of a future politics of nature becomes visible. Drawing on the recent work of Beck, Eder and Melucci, the paper proffers the theoretical possibility that unlike older environmental campaigns, the 'new genetics' might generate more unified political protest across several social movements.

The Limits of Symbolic Protest

Genetic technologies are promoted on the basis that their potential benefits outweigh the problems and risks involved. In relation to modified crops for instance, benefits might include higher yields, increased disease resistance and drought tolerance (Yearley 1992: 169). In relation to recent GM field trials, environmental activists argue that not only do these threaten the integrity of nearby organic farms but may also allow the escape of modified organisms into the wild with unpredictable and possibly irreversible results. Whilst not necessarily opposed to GM experimentation in principle, groups such as Friends of the Earth argue that this research should take place only in controlled laboratory environments. Recent protests involving established organisations such as Greenpeace, together with non-membership groups like 'Genetix Snowball' claim that their direct actions to disrupt such trials is legitimate because they are unnecessarily risky and even 'bad science'. But how effective are such direct actions today after three decade of symbolic protests?

It is increasingly difficult to assess whether direct action campaigns do get the protesters' points across and contribute to a more widespread understanding of environmentalists' concerns. So far the disruption of crop trials has involved relatively small numbers, mostly of highly motivated activists, though some local people have been drawn into such actions (Vidal 1999a: 2-3). And while there is little doubt that a fairly widespread unease exists about genetic modification with many people sharing some of the fears and concerns of environmental activists, it is much less clear whether there is widespread public hostility to scientific crop trials and experiments. There may not even be agreement on this within the wider environmental movement, with some organisations such as the RSPB, in favour of limited field trials to uncover the possible consequences of allowing large-scale growing of GM crops in the future.

Of course, the current spate of protests have followed the tried and tested pattern amongst activist environmental groups which stretches back to the early 1970s and even before. These direct actions are non-violent, largely symbolic demonstrations (Melucci 1985) designed to produce 'tightly bound eco-dramas' (Harries-Jones 1995) in which contentious issues are brought before the public - via the mass media - in ways which portray the gallant underdog struggling against an organised, established, often uncaring and undemocratic enemy. Whilst these symbolic protests have been extremely effective in attracting support and raising funds in the past, it is questionable whether they can remain so in future. The limits of this kind of action may already have been reached, particularly for the more successful mass-membership organisations like Greenpeace. In the recent anti-GM protests, there are signs that the strategy has started to backfire, because the standard symbolic presentation has been reversed, with Greenpeace itself presented as the large, well organised and undemocratic enemy of local communities and farmers.

Media reports of Greenpeace involvement in the direct action in July to destroy an experimental GM maize crop in Lyng, Norfolk, contrasted the organisation's activities unfavourably with local farmers struggling to make a living in difficult economic circumstances. In this way it was possible for the farmers to be portrayed as underdogs and Greenpeace as the undemocratic 'outsiders' with money, power and influence. Greenpeace Director, (Lord) Peter Melchett was also presented as an urbanite unable to fully appreciate the problems of rural living (see Vidal 1999b). There is a certain irony in this reversal given that this particular trial used the fields of local farmers but was organised under contract to the Norfolk firm AgrEvo (albeit with some involvement from English Nature and the RSPB). The maize crop had been engineered to tolerate the company's own herbicide 'Liberty', an example of the way that companies can use GM technology to tie farmers exclusively to their own products (Honigsbaum and McKie 1999). It also shows that rather than reducing the amount of pesticides being used in agriculture - an argument used by farmers to justify the research - '... crops which can tolerate a particular herbicide may actually encourage the more extensive use of agro-chemicals, thus burdening the environment even more.' (Yearley 1991: 170). But rather than assisting in presenting these counter-arguments to the wider public, the imagery of Greenpeace activists in white laboratory suits and dust masks, pulling up crops was the main focus of media coverage.

This raises some old doubts about the effectiveness of symbolic direct actions per se. Some critics within the wider Green movement see media-dependent campaigns as self-defeating for environmentalists who are trying to raise awareness of ecological problems and involve local communities. The difficulty is that, because eco-dramas depend for their effect on mass media coverage, they can produce a passive reaction even among concerned people, as it appears that professional campaigning organisations are the experts best left alone to do the job. As Draper (cited in Porritt and Winner 1988: 26) argued in relation to anti-whaling campaigns:

To base our hopes on television is to leave our movement vulnerable to changing tastes and escalating demands for more entertaining action. Successful environmental organizing lies in uniting communities around commonly felt threats and translating the support into political power. The alternative is to let the folks stay happily planted on the couch, safe in the knowledge that the whales are being taken care of. It's right there on the tube.

Something similar happened in the case of the tunnel-digging campaign by a small group of activists to delay the A30 extension at the Fairmile site near Exeter. The media's attraction to the unconventional aspects of these kinds of environemntal campaigns means that the coverage comes to be dominated by images rather than the issue itself. Television and press maintained an interest as long as the campaign could be presented as newsworthy 'entertainment' with 'plucky' protesters tunnelling under the site, but the wider issue of the role of private companies in the design, finance, building and operation of new roads (the DFBO initiative) was a secondary concern. It is unclear whether the campaign did in fact contribute to a more widespread understanding of the issues around new road building schemes.

This problem is in fact heightened in the case of genetic modification, because the science involved is beyond a simple presentation or understanding, adding to perceptions of the need for the expertise of knowledgeable, professional environemntal activists. The opportunity for opening a real debate on what kinds of GM trials are acceptable and why this technology is required at all disappeared in the wave of publicity surrounding Greenpeace's protest and the arrest of its activists. Once again, the main issue became submerged beneath the sensational symbolic demonstration itself.

Despite the recent direct actions, established environmental organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have over time become increasingly professionalised and dependent on rational modes of argumentation which rely heavily on scientific research as a way of gaining credibility and respectability. This has put them in an especially difficult position in relation to GM crop trials however, as they now find it extremely difficult to mount an effective case against the scientific experimentation which might provide answers, to allay or confirm their fears of inevitable contamination. It appears that the moral argument against human hubris in relation to natural processes is continually being undermined by environmental organisations' increasing reliance on scientific research findings.

There is a further reason why dependence on scientific findings works against environmentalists, especially in genetic research, which Beck has highlighted (Beck 1995: 22):An examination of the present state of research, with its protestations of innocence in these matters, will not convince many. It all adds up to an inequality: one side may continue its researches, no matter how far beyond the pale, while the other may not even ask any further quest- ions. And is not the crucial point, this time at least, that questions should make clear the possibilities before these become actualities and thereby render questioning pointless?

In this way, even the groups formed in the most recent phase of international environmental activism are finding out that science is not just an 'unreliable friend' to the environmental movement (Yearley 1991: ch.4). At worst, reliance on science brings Green protesters into genetic debates at a disadvantage, as the terms of the debate have already been set and the research is already underway. To oppose genetic research rather than its commercial applications puts at risk the hard won credibility and respectability of the established Green organisations. If environmentalism is to re-engage with the wider public and other social movements in the next century, then perhaps now is an apposite time to re-assess the way environmental arguments are framed and campaigns organised.

Wider Alliances?

It is not surprising, given the involvement of Green groups and organisations in the recent protests, that the issue of genetic modification has come to be seen as an 'environmental' one. That is, one which is primarily concerned with the limits of society's interference in 'nature'. Indeed the idea of human intervention in natural processes and structures seems to be moving to a different stage with genetic modification. Not only interventions in an 'external' non-human nature which is 'outside' of us, but intervention in human 'nature' itself is now on the horizon. Precisely because genetic research is pushing the acceptable boundaries of intervention into human nature and turning fate into choices, the possibility that wider alliances may be forged between environmental campaigners and other humanistic social movements can realistically be proposed.

Perhaps the GM issue does at least show us at least the initial contours of some future connections between movements. Genetic modification of food is only one aspect of the wider development of genetic engineering which takes in health and medicine, disabled groups' concerns of a new eugenics, reproduction technologies and gene cloning experiments. A glimpse of the kind of connections across movements can be seen in concerns about experimentation involving disabled people, raising fears of what Beck (1995) calls the emergence of a new 'eugenic age'. Such concerns are forcefully expressed by Rock (1996: 126):

'... I can only believe from current medical ethics and practices that disabled people, especially disabled women, are becoming an endangered species in our lifetime. .... We must arm ourselves with knowledge of what is going on in the medical profession, anti-abortion lobbies, international euthanasia and being done in our name on our behalf to shorten our lives'.

Genetic research and biotechnologies re-visit some of the Darwinian style arguments of earlier British eugenicists such as Galton and Fisher who argued in favour of the genetic 'improvement' of societies to eliminate 'defectives' (Pfeiffer 1994), though in the present context, concerns are raised not only in relation to state policy and corporate profit-seeking, but also to the increased choice being made available to individuals through genetic mapping and screening. In some ways this also has parallels with the abortion debate which also centres around individual rights and choices.

In short, genetic research and its commercial potential, is beginning to concern activists in several social movements, bringing into question the extent to which human intervention in nature is admissible and where the boundaries of scientific work should lie. The possibility of common interests in this area does hold out the prospect of more collaborative actions in the future, though this will only be possible if the 'problem of nature' is reframed as something more than a 'simple' environmental issue to do with defending nature, but as a problem of what kinds of social relations are acceptable. In this respect, there is still much theoretical and clarificatory work to be done.


The environmental (or ecological) movement has been the main 'carrier' of nature politics in the advanced industrial societies in the twentieth century, campaigning to defend nature and opposing damaging forms of continuing modernisation. There are just the first signs however, that in the twenty-first century, nature politics and the new 'life politics' may begin to converge. Given the broad raft of issues involved in this process, some sociologists argue that these are forming the basis for a different kind of progressive politics of the future. For example, Eder (1993) argues that the environmental movement is at the heart of contemporary post-industrial politics, Melucci sees 'life politics' as a newly emerging political constellation outside existing class based forms, whilst Beck (1992; 1995) ties nature and life politics to the emergence of a 'risk society' in which the consequences of industrial processes have become more significant than those processes themselves, thus bringing 'nature' and 'life' into the realm of political decision-making. Therefore, as Eder concludes (Eder 1993: 118):

The answer to the question of whether there is one new social movement representing thenew social movement which is replacing the old labour movement as a historical actor, has been left open by Touraine. A good candidate for this has been the environmentalist (or ecological) movement ... Therefore, instead of continuing to talk of 'new' social movements, the time has come to give these new social movements a name. Any term from environmentalism, ecological movement, life politics movement might serve as a possible candidate for name giving. They all denote the same problem: the nature-society relationship, or 'the question of nature'.

Although Eder is right to point out the importance of the nature-society relationship as a key motivation for environmentalists and others, there is still some doubt as to whether 'nature' can provide a central focus for drawing together the new social movements

The sheer diversity of issues on which the 'new' movements engage appears to militate against more unified forms of opposition. Although some strategic alliances can be envisaged on particular issues, it is not so easy to see a more permanent coalescence around the issue of 'nature' or 'life'. Some movements are positively opposed to what could be perceived as a suspicious essentialism in environmental politics. For example, in women's movements and lesbian and gay movements, the perception of an inherent essentialism in the politics of nature may pose a serious theoretical obstacle. After all, these movements have worked hard to break free from naturalistic definitions. Women's movements have not widely embraced ecofeminist attempts to connect the exploitation of women to that of nature (Griffin 1978; Merchant 1982), often seeing a social constructivist or poststructuralist approach as more effective in challenging patriarchal forms of domination (Conley 1997; Sandilands 1999). In addition, movement diversity has become a normative preference for many activists working within a broadly postmodern framework, so that any attempt to squeeze out this diversity can appear to be a regressive political strategy.

Paradoxically then, the very effectiveness of 'nature' or 'life' as symbols for motivating environmental activism in relation to the commercial funding and exploitation of genetic technologies may also be the main factor militating against a more concerted opposition involving the 'human-centred' social movements. And although a theoretical possibility for the future, it is certainly not inevitable that 'nature' will become 'a new field of class struggle' (Eder 1990).


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999