University of Tasmania

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The Environmental Ethics of Domestication: When Biotechnology Reframes Nature

posted on 2023-05-26, 14:23 authored by McLean, S
Controversies about genetic engineering in agriculture mobilise the concept of nature in ways that reframe nature with significant conceptual implications for the field of environmental ethics. The political economy and regulatory environment of genetic engineering excludes non-technical, non-expert and non-market perspectives in official assessments of biotechnological risk, but broader public conceptions of risk include philosophical concerns about the implications of genetic engineering for nature. Critical attention to the philosophical substance of these concerns is moderated by the conceptual ambiguity of their articulation in terms of unnaturalness and the ubiquity of other rhetorical appeals to nature as a source of precedence, legitimacy and morality. These discourses of naturalness are primarily concerned with whether genetic engineering represents a significant departure from conventional and traditional crop breeding practices or merely their continuation. This tension is seen in contrasting visions of biotechnology as either evolutionary or revolutionary and is resolved by recourse to particular narratives of domesticatory, evolutionary and cultural histories. Strong associations between traditional, conventional and biotechnological domestication cast the previously overlooked moral dimensions of domestication in relief. Protest against genetic engineering on philosophical grounds reinvigorates domesticated nature with positive natural values so that conventional domesticates appear more natural in comparison to genetically engineered plants. Biotechnology debates indicate that the moral dimension of domestication reaches a moral limit in genetic engineering and that both of these are subjects for environmental ethics. The recasting of domesticates as natural effectively extends the nature that environmental ethics theorises and seeks to protect, and presents a challenge to the established perimeters of the field. Environmental ethics is, understandably, biased in favour of wild nature and has traditionally dealt with domesticated nature only incidentally or has omitted it from ethical consideration altogether. This has limited the scope and instructiveness of its contributions to biotechnology debates. The leading conceptual tools of environmental ethics require adaptation and expansion in order to meet the new political imperative to save domesticated nature from biotechnological intervention. An assessment of the value of the nature/artefact distinction for understanding the ontological status of both domesticates and genetically engineered plants is instructive, but ultimately encourages revision of the split between wild and domesticated nature. The development of a more nuanced environmental ethics appreciation of domestication as a human-centred use of nature comes through the recognition of the persistent wild characteristics of domesticated plants and the reframing of the domesticatory relationship in collaborative terms.





School of Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences


University Of Tasmania

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