Virtual and Genetic Challenges to Green Politics and Planning (2002)

Is sustainability possible in a world of cloned cats, animals and rights of robots?

By Sohail Inayatullah

Professor, Tamkang University, Taiwan; Sunshine Coast University, Sippy Downs.

Based on a keynote speech presented to the Environmental Institute of Australia, Brisbane, August 2, 2002.

Clearly, few of you in the room have a virtual cat or an animat and I doubt if you spend your nights thinking about the rights of robots. I am not here to argue that you should but rather here to consider the futures of environmental management in the context of different futures. Among these futures is one where the nature of nature will dramatically change, wherein cloned cats and animats will become the norm not the wild-edge of weird science.

Without a doubt, traditional notions of the environment are undergoing dramatic changes – from nature to the built environment to a world where the notion of nature and technology is blurring. What this means for the environmental manager is that their workload will increase and become dramatically more complex. This is a deepening, but also an expansion in the sense that an environmental managers will need to consider issues not just of the environmental impact of new urban development but technological issues as well. What this also means is that there will be new entrants into the market, focused on specific issues concerned with the new technologies – the likely impacts of germ line enginneering or, less grand, that of the surveillance mosquito just now being developed, or of the rights of robots.

First some methodological notes on determining the nature of possible change.
There are three relevant methods. First is the s-curve. The goal here is to discern emerging changes (not just trends), to anticipate them before they become dominant.

Second is the futures triangle. That is, along with competing images of the future (artificial-spaceship/gaian/realistic) there are other forces exerting pressure on the future: pushes (technologies, values shifts and globalization, for example) and the weight of history – that which is difficult to change. : power, bureaucracies, politics, the right way of doing things. As my son said, in response to a TV show on the 14 ways to make a baby, “when I grow up, I want to do it the proper way”. Unfortunately, for him and other children, when the time comes for ‘making’ children,, their kids will be of the double-helix variety, and there will be no ‘proper way’ at all. Nature will have become created by man.

Of course, one can get forecasts wrong. : Bill Gates once said, 64k is enough memory for anyone. And, forecasts can gather dust. For example, the World Trade Center twice hired security expert Charlie Schnabolk to consider if terrorism was a threat to their building. Scenarios were developed – predictable (bomb threats); probable (bombing attempts) and catastrophic (aerial bombing). Later, in 2000, he argued that the greatest threat was from “ “someone flying an airplane into a building”.”

Futures thinking must be living.

But there is another lesson here. And this is that: strategies to counter risk can never be only technical – a better firewall, more security systems, better impact statements – they also must include an understanding of the system that creates risk as well, and the paradigms that uphold those systems.

Now, I do not think your work is that different from that of a futurist. You must consider the implications of current policies, into the immediate, medium term and long term future. You must assess risk, manage risk and most importantly, communicate risk. The last part is the key: since we live in different worlds, we have different perspectives of what futures we desire. And we are no longer a united.

Challenges to the Future

Multiculturalism challenges the traditional view of ‘we’ as one race in one nation under one god.

Feminism challenges the gendered nature of the ‘we’ – we as male.
Postmodernism challenges the view that the ‘we’ always was and always will be.

Virtualism challenges the ‘we’ seeing communities not physical, but as intended and virtual – the cyber friends.

Genetics challenges the we at an even deeper level – we can now become who we want to be. As we learn, in Blade Runner when the genetic engineer is asked what he does and he replies: I make friends”  he means, ‘manufacture’ friends. Thus, the stable evolutionary nature of us is being contested.

Of course, perhaps ‘I shop therefore I am’, or god, nation and family will live on forever. And perhaps not.

Cats are being cloned, and animals created. Artificial agents are swiftly becoming or will become part of our lives, creating routines that mimic our tastes, thus reducing the burden of choice.

With eco-bots and health-bots we will have immediate information about our desires. We will be able to make better choices knowing the full value chain – who made what profit, where something was made and its ecological footprint.
Health bots will alert us to the dangers of foods – too much cholesteral, too much fat. They will also be tailored, learning from us, focused on our changing needs. Of course, we may prefer to turn off the health-bot, but will the state let us?.  Won’t that be the way to reduce health costs – the big brother that is always ‘on’, ensuring we stay healthy and reduce public expenditures. And, there is always the surveillance mosquito in case you try and take off the bot.

While we may resist, and double helix kids will jump at this, and even the current generation prefers to change capitalism buy buying their desired futures. Witness drops in  Shell and Monsonato stocks.

But, over time, these artificial intelligence bots will gain rights, not because of anything inherent in their essence, but because they will part of the air we breathe. Indeed, with the advancement of functional foods and nutraceuticals (smart foods), they will be part of the food we eat.

It is certainly a new world we are entering. One may call this ‘the future of artificial societies’, but it is one in which we will no longer distinguish the artificial from the natural. It is a world of nano-technologies, super cities, world governance – the main questions will be not only “Do androids dream of electronic sheep?”, but “What do humans do?”.

Clearly the impact on the environment will be enormous. However, the nature of the environment is likely to change, manifested in a variety of ways. : far more fluid and flexible. In much of the traditional environment, lost species are likely to be recreated either genetically or virtually. The zoo will change dramatically, once again becoming central to the city. Indeed, one can easily imagine three Olympics – a drug free one, a doped up one, and then the gene enhanced one.

The impact of these new environments on how we think and, how we know the world will become major issues. As we move to germ line intervention and create novel new forms of life, again, the issue of how new life forms impact traditional notions of the environment will be of concern. However, with the environment in flux, the issue of preserving or protecting our past will be far less of an issue. The issue will be ensuring that the new environments we are creating are managed within agreed upon terms.

The terms for this future world are yet to be created. Certainly, doing no harm is likely to be one of them, that is, Asimov’s laws of robotics – not harming humans. But over time, humans will be just one of the many thinking beings on this planet.


The other competing future is that of sustainability – a commitment to future generations; policies that are soft on the earth (taking into account our ecological footprints). This is, essentially the triple bottom line approach but writ large on the global level. Education in this future would not be about the environment but for the environment. Indeed, over time it will be in interaction with the environment – Gaia becoming alive.

In one survey of preferred city futures, only 1% preferred the city as suburb image. Sustainable development and the living city (sensing us and mothering us) was the future preferred by the others.

For environmental managers, this means not only an increased amount of work, but enhanced work routines and expanded responsibilities. Environmental management would move to include issues of social justice-multicultural-gender balance and not just development.  The environmental manager would become the triple bottom line manager.

However, with sustainable development becoming THE paradigm, environmental management may disappear as a field (becoming so successful that it becomes routinized) or become flush with entrants that are low on expertise and experience.

There are two factors. One, : problems with capitalism. That is, it capitalism can grow wealth but distribution and impact on the earth remain quandaries. The second is a values shift, the rise of the cultural creatives – a new demographic group focused on gender partnership, spiritual values, ecological pluralism and planetary governance and consciousness.

Either the system will transform, moving away from capitalism,  in a dramatic transition, or, most likely, it will move softly away – using the law, procedures and institutions to regulate a softer society.

Business as Usual

The third possibility is Business as Usual but with enhanced technology and a bit of sustainability and perhaps some international agreements in the form of treaties (carbon trading etc.) thrown in.

This is the Bush-Howard worldview. Images come and go, but at the end of the day it is power and money, narrow self-interests, and conservative family values that will rule the day. Nature is fine … but cars are better.

Sustainability is used by businesses as a competitive advantage and nations claim they are pro-environment but developers still win the day.

Education in this future is about the environment with no recognition of Gaia. Gaian alternatives stay on the margin. New technologies are merely used to increase efficiency and not to increase participation of stakeholders through, for example, cyber-democracy. The Business as Usual scenario is the one where markets come first, with environmental problems worsening and no one responsible to fix them.


Thus, there are three scenarios:

1. Continued growth (business as usual) but add a bit of sustainability – environmental management but no real gain in consciousness. No real change in the nature of us.

2. A dramatic change in humanity as we, in one generation, redo a few millions years of evolution. The eighth day of evolution creating new “‘we”’s.

3. A third response is the Gaian – deep foundational spritual change for sustainable development at a planetary level, creating a united planet moving inward and outward, softly.

And of course, there is a fourth response – collapse. Asteroids, volcanos, sea-level rise …


Continued Growth – business as usual and more

Artifical Transformation – the eighth day of evolution

Gaian transformation – sustainability for all

Collapse – end time

Final Questions

Which future is likely to come about?. At this stage it is difficult to tell. The weight of history suggests Business as Usual. However, this assumes a linear pattern of history. Those who lost millions in the dot. com collapse know that reality is also cyclical. What goes up, goes down. The more successful you are, the less you can see the warning signs. Success is the final step on the ladder of failure. As Cisco learned, having the best real time forecasting system means nothing if the assumptions in that system are wrong. So business as usual may continue, but as Jack Welch of GE suggests, you better face the brutal facts.

Among those brutal facts: , 3 individuals have the same total wealth as the 48 least developed nations. ; 256 have the same total wealth as half the world’s population. The amount American and Europe spend on perfume and pet food could take care of the basic needs of the entire planet. wizards did not face the facts. Will the Business as Usual gang. ¿ If not, perhaps they will achieve the same end as the Chinese ‘gang of four’.
Technological innovation suggests that the Artificial society is likely to dominate. : a global-tech world. But to do so, issues not only of the fundamentalism throughout the world but the proper traditional ways of operating will remains. We are perhaps not ready to push into outer space, changing our genetic nature many times in one life, designing children to up their IQ, –the real smart state.

What is likely is that with this resistance, a mix of cyber-gene-green futures may eventuate.

As much as the Gaian image of sustainable development and the living earth moves the hearts of many, the feet stay put. As one department of transport suggested, everyone wants green and public transport, but no one wants to travel on it.

And, if the collapse does come – asteroids and ice ages,  – we will need the technology to  leave this planet – I know we can leave spiritually but some of us still like our bodies.

Thus, we really don’t know which future will arrive. We do know the future that does come about will be a result of a mix of the pull, push and weight. We also know that civilizations prosper when they have a positive vision of the future and the belief that it can be achieved. But for the vision to actually move us forward, it will need to be inclusive, gender- friendly, soft on the earth, concerned for basic needs, but innovative as well – above all, it will need to be planetary.

All of us.