Trans-ecology and Post-sustainability

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Editors: Michael Bess and Diana Walsh Pasulka
Date: 2018
Posthumanism: The Future of Homo Sapiens
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Series: Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 9
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 435

Trans-ecology and Post-sustainability

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Svein Anders Noer Lie
Associate Professor, Philosophy Department
UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø

Fern Wickson
Senior Scientist and Leader of the Society, Ecology and Ethics Department (SEED)
GenØk Centre for Biosafety, Tromsø, Norway

Biotechnologies are currently evolving at a rapid rate as the enhanced digitalization of genetic information and the development of new methods for genome editing and synthetic biology continue to open new horizons of possibility at the interface between biology and technology. When transhumanists propose embracing (often somewhat uncritically) the latest advances in science and technology as a way to overcome biological constraints and transcend the physical limitations of the human body, they seem to endorse the principle of the technological imperative that “whatever is possible to be developed should be developed.” This chapter articulates the challenges and problems facing this approach from an ecological perspective. The first sections of the chapter explore the meaning of humanism, transhumanism, and posthumanism, particularly in terms of their ideas concerning the relationship between humanity and nature and the future aims for how this relationship should develop. Next is a discussion of why transhumanist efforts to transcend biological limits through the widespread uptake and integration of biotechnological enhancements is problematic. Finally, the chapter argues that the most radical vision for moving beyond humanism is not actually a transhumanist transcendence through biotechnological enhancement but rather a posthumanist grounding into our ecological relations through a wholehearted embrace of our inherent interconnections with various forms of life on Earth.


If transhumanism is understood as an agenda to transcend humanism, it is important to first take a step back and ask “what is humanism?” so as to understand what it is exactly that the transhumanist may be seeking to transcend. It would be misleading to specify a single and strict definition of humanism (for detailed explorations of diverse interpretations of humanism, see, e.g., Soper 1986; Davies 2008; Halliwell and Mousley 2003 ). This chapter, however, follows the interpretation that the idea of humanism that arose in the 1300s in Renaissance Italy and continued through the Enlightenment and up until today is primarily about the pursuit of two intertwined goals: emancipation as a process that leads to autonomy ( Knights and Willmott 2002 ). In other words, while the driving goal for a person living in Page 436  |  Top of Articlethe Middle Ages was typically salvation, the shift toward a more secular society and set of values saw humanism develop around a compulsion for what is commonly called freedom but which may be more precisely termed emancipation leading to autonomy. “In modern humanism … the will of ‘man’ (sic), rather than magical forces or the word of God, becomes the center and measure of all things. Becoming autonomous is tantamount to becoming fully and perfectly human” ( Knights and Willmott 2002, 63 ).

Depending on different ideas concerning what human beings are, ideas of what would really emancipate us also vary; emancipation may be seen as achievable through, for example, Buddhist meditative practice, social security systems, the market economy, or technological development. Humanism therefore does not necessarily contain any specific idea about what exactly can emancipate human beings (or indeed any particular agreement on what we are being emancipated from) but rather embodies the idea that human beings should seek emancipation and autonomy (rather than salvation or enlightenment, for example) and that these are in some way the ultimate and defining norms of our species.

Pursuing emancipation and autonomy as a defining human goal is strongly related to a desire for disentanglement and control. The driving desire here is arguably to become independent of “everything else” so as to have the freedom and possibility to control and define who you are and the power to develop into your own individualized self. For the transhumanist, this extends to include the freedom to control human evolution through the development and use of technological tools for biological enhancement. The underlying idea that informs this pursuit of freedom and control is that there is nothing fundamental or necessary about our current human form and relationships with other beings and that we can therefore choose how we want to develop and be connected to others, if at all. This includes relationships not only with other human beings and social entities but also with nature more broadly.

We normally relate to others in a way that German philosopher Martin Heidegger ( [1927] 1992 ) calls “ready-to-hand.” This means that we typically do not question those things that we experience as a part of our world and/or our way of being in that world. Therefore, to “access,” critically reflect on, and thereby eventually be open to changing our relationship to aspects of the world, we first need to step out of the familiar “ready-to-hand” way that we normally relate to the world and begin to objectify and question the things around us. Accordingly, to “seek emancipation” is not our normal mode of being because pursuing this first requires that we step out of our normal (inconspicuous) relations before we can even begin to consider emancipating ourselves. A religious person, for example, will not “naturally” seek emancipation from his or her religious culture and belief system. The desire for emancipation can be ignited only if the culture, system, or set of relationships can first be conceptually separated from the self, objectified, and then critically questioned. In other words, before we can see that “things could be different,” we have to step back from and objectify the relationships that normally remain unquestioned in our everyday life.

This is why the role of the ego that doubts (i.e., objectifies) everything “outside” of itself, as famously presented by French philosopher RenéDescartes ( [1641] 1993 ), has been so important for the development of humanism and the modern quest for autonomy and emancipation as ultimate goals. (In this chapter, the words ego, I, and self are used as synonyms.) Descartes's “I” separates itself from and objectifies everything that is familiar and “ready-to-hand” and, through that move, brings everything in the world into question, except the ego itself. Descartes then proposes that this critical stance is the defining position of the (modern) human being. To be in this position in which the self critically questions and Page 437  |  Top of Articleobjectifies the world around it (instead of just accepting things as they are or as God created them) becomes the first but necessary step toward the pursuit of the defining humanist goals of emancipation and autonomy.

In this way, humanism totally depends on a concept of an independent and rational self, because it is this self that is at the center of the emancipation project—the thing that is seeking autonomy and emancipation from the ideas, beliefs, and physical realities that constrain its full flowering, self-control, and expression (see Knights and Willmott 2002, 64 ). If someone or something threatens this self we call it oppressive, inhumane, antiliberal, or totalitarian, and if this self were to disappear, then humanism would go with it. German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that human beings—by virtue of their being rational agents—are “ends in themselves” and should be treated as such ( Kant [1785] 1998 ). This means that the total objectification of the world is thought to reach a limit at the boundary of the human species; we should not treat other humans as objects. That is why humanism is “humane” and focused on human rights—and not barbaric with everyone out for him- or herself despite being driven by an urge for emancipation.


Following Kant's reasoning, everything that is not a rational human being belongs to the realm of objectifiable and manipulatable means. Interestingly, for the transhumanist, this also includes human bodies and biology (i.e., our material body that is thought to exist beyond the rational thinking self or ego). Normally we would not seriously question our own biology before there was a real chance to change it. This is why science and technology—particularly the possibilities afforded by biotechnological enhancements—have become a driving force for the transhumanist agenda. Technological advance is now offering “new possibilities,” which creates an opportunity to imagine how things may be different and opens the door to the potential for change. Through the possibilities being offered by biotechnological advance, we are therefore now being enabled to first objectify our biology and ask this question: is there any rational reason why I need to put up with the biological constitution that I have inherited?

What enables the transhumanist dream of emancipation from the constraints of human biology is therefore the conception of a self that is independent and that will remain unchanged no matter what alterations are made to a person's biological conditions through technological enhancement or modification. Enhanced memory, enhanced capacity for reasoning or running, enhanced vision or feelings of pleasure, and so on would all, and also for the transhumanist, be an enhancement of something—namely, the unchanging self. Without this idea of an independent and unchanging self, there would be nothing that could make the choices for enhancement or that would remain present after such enhancements were adopted. This notion of a rational and independent self that is separate from its biological and technological constitution therefore appears to be a foundational necessity for the transhumanist agenda. And indeed, it is from humanism that transhumanism has the idea that there exists a self independent of our biology (and indeed also our technology). Transhumanism is therefore not really transcending humanism in its agenda but rather is deeply indebted to the fundamental ideas of humanism concerning the existence of a rational and isolatable self that is seeking emancipation and autonomy and may in fact be even more humanist than humanism itself. To question our own biology and make changes to it in the way that the transhumanist wants requires a disembodied, abstract self that is fundamentally cut off from any preexisting relations to the world.

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One way to transcend humanism would be to give up the notion of the disembodied self. This could be done by the transhumanist embracing all types of technological possibilities (i.e., the technological imperative) and accepting that there is no rational and unchanging self that will persist through all the modifications or that is even present and making the decisions. However, another approach that does not argue for technological determinism, which was arguably adopted and elaborated in poststructuralist and postmodern critiques of modernity (see, e.g., Foucault 1970; Deleuze and Guattari 1987 ), has been to challenge the perceived independence of this self and its capacity to make autonomous choices. The argument here is that the self is not a solid or isolatable unit but rather a fluid and dynamic entity that is undergoing constant change, redefining itself and continuously being shaped and reshaped by the biological and social forces that surround it and with which it interacts.

Indeed, drawing from postmodern and poststructuralist critiques, a range of posthumanist literature has now emerged across various fields to make similar challenges, including within feminist and postcolonial studies, race theory, geography, environmental humanities, and science and technology studies. This literature is powerfully diverse (for examples of possible typological overviews, see Ginn 2017 and Sharon 2014 ). Together, however, these works collectively challenge the humanist agenda in a number of ways. These include:

  1. a challenge to a universalistic concept of humanity and an essential set of human experiences and goals by highlighting diversity and multiplicity;
  2. a challenge to the idea of the rational self as primary and the measure of all things by drawing attention to the significant role of emotion;
  3. a reemphasis on the importance of materiality and physical bodies for defining human experience and unfolding;
  4. demonstrations of inherent entanglements between entities that have classically been conceptually separated, such as science and society, technology and humanity, and humanity and nature; and
  5. an ontological reorientation focused on the significance of relations and emphasizing the foundational importance of socioecological and sociotechnical interrelations in shaping human experience and identity.

For some of these authors, posthumanism represents a new age of possibility being brought into being through the emergence of biotechnological advance and interventions in the world ( Haraway 1991; Braidotti 2013 ), whereas for others, posthumanism is emphasized as an ontological view that has always been available but has perhaps been spurred into specific articulation by the latest wave of biotechnological possibilities (e.g., Latour 1993; Barad 2007 ).


By seeking independence from all sorts of conditions that are seen to be constraining the fulfillment of human potential, the transhumanist dream appears to be of a day when human beings are fully disentangled from every relation to the world that is not self-imposed or chosen, including the biology of their own body. Is this dream realistic, though, or is every Page 439  |  Top of Articleattempted disentanglement in the search for greater autonomy and emancipation simply followed by the creation of a new set of relations of interdependence?

A classic example of a figure who has to pay a price for his autonomy is the mythical figure of Odysseus. The price Odysseus has to pay for the ability to control the external nature of the world is, according to Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno ( [1947] 2002 ), that he also has to control and tame his own inner nature. He cannot put his destiny in the hands of the Creator, or just “let it be” ; instead, he has to make decisions based on goals set by himself. Horkheimer and Adorno therefore claim that the domestication of nature is inevitably followed by the domestication of ourselves.

For Horkheimer and Adorno the promised land lying at the end of the enlightenment tunnel is not actually emancipation from all relations of dependence but rather a new set of entanglements. For them, the most important and fundamental goals that underlie modern western civilization, that of autonomy and emancipation, have an inbuilt failure that makes the quest doomed from the start—namely, the failure to recognize and adequately account for the interconnected nature of the world in which humans live. Using a similar line of reasoning, Ulrich Beck (1986 ) has shown how our technoscientific culture may appear to emancipate us from reliance on nature and the potential dangers it poses (e.g., floods, drought, predators, pandemics), but all these efforts have effectively just replaced these dangers with new types of risks (e.g., from nuclear waste and radiation, industrial pollution, and an increased toxic load).

What Beck is describing is a process whereby the current attempts to emancipate humanity from nature (and from the perceived constraints of what we call nature) have inevitably led to a worsening of future conditions to such a degree that the main focus shifts from being (individually) emancipated to an attempt to avoid and (collectively) distribute the risks that arise from our emancipation attempts. The constraints, limitations, and risks we face have not been removed; they have only been changed and rearranged. This means that what we aim to achieve is being intrinsically counteracted by an internal logic of the world we live in and, more concretely, by the feedback loops that exist in practice within our ecological reality. Is there something about the transhumanist agenda that should make us think that these feedback loops will not apply? Can we truly free ourselves from our earthly connections through the ever greater development, uptake, and use of emerging technologies?


As suggested earlier, humanism fundamentally assumes that we can fulfill our true potential only when we “disentangle.” Various strains of posthumanist literature, however, argue that the ability to disentangle from our dependence on the physical world of nature through an enhanced embrace, development, and use of technologies is a myth. Seeking to transcend the biological limits of the human body will never lead to a “trans-ecology” or a situation of “post-sustainability” concerns. Adopting and embracing new biotechnologies cannot free us from our relations to the physical and biological world because, in a very basic sense, all new technologies are inherently dependent on natural entities, processes, and products for their creation. As we all know, the silicon chip requires silicon, the metals required to make machines have to come from the ground, and the energy we need to create and operate the envisaged technologies of biological enhancement all come from the elements of the earth—that is, the sun, the wind, the water, the atoms, or organisms that died long ago, and so on. Page 440  |  Top of ArticlePursuing a transhumanist agenda will therefore not be able to free us from these earthly bonds. We may change our biology and the relations we have with the rest of life on Earth, but we can never transcend our ecology. There is no escaping our interconnections with the rest of life on Earth; there is only ever the possibility of changing and shifting the networks of relations ( Lie 2016 ).

If you fundamentally believe that humans are able to be disentangled—that we are in essence isolatable entities—then you will be inclined to think that your current entanglements are simply random and contingent and that you may become more emancipated as you gradually free yourself from those entanglements. To think that we are intrinsically and inevitably entangled, however, is to think fundamentally differently about the nature of the world and the nature of human beings as a species within it. Who you are is no longer seen as contingently related to your entanglements. Instead, who you are and the capacities that you have are shaped by and constituted through the range of entanglements that you were born into and which you engage in throughout your life.

This means that in a philosophical sense it is possible to think about being in the world in a disentangled way only if we assume that the relations we find in the world are already contingent (what is often called a Humean view [based on the work of eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume]; see, e.g., Molnar 2003 ) and that the things and properties that are inflicted on us are external and carry no internal or shaping relationship to who we are. If the world is contingently related in this way, we may freely add and subtract different “vectors” in accordance with the desired autonomy. If I, for instance, want to make it possible for people to enhance their memory, in a world that was completely rearrangeable I would assume that I can change this property independently of everything else, because the relation between beings and properties is contingent in the first place. This ontological idea of how the world is connected is what several posthumanists see as the main problem with the transhumanist approach and agenda. If you think that, rather than being randomly connected and completely rearrangeable by entities that have stable and isolatable identities, the world is instead relationally connected in a way that the relations are internal and co-constitutive of the entity, its characteristics, and identity, then you will see any attempt to isolate one property and enhance that property “independently of everything else” as a naive and misguided attempt that will always lead to unexpected feedback loops and new Odysseus-like dependencies.

Looking, for example, at the problems facing (pedigree) dog breeding, we can easily see something of what we might expect from bioenhancement under the transhumanist dream. In dog breeding, the biological givenness of the properties of a dog are gradually substituted through human choice in the pursuit of some kind of ideal. This is an ideal that is chiefly governed not by biological need or evolutionary adaptation to a network of environmental demands and relations but rather by human fashion, taste, and desire. When these ideals decide how dog breeds should develop, we end up with dogs that have certain properties that have been “enhanced” independently of any consideration of how these may hang together with and affect other properties. This results, for example, in the production of “ideal” dogs that cannot breathe properly, that suffer from spine and hip problems, and that have immune or digestive issues (see Advocates for Animals 2006 ).

One may argue that this stems from the “unscientific” attitude or lack of comprehensive knowledge of the breeders in terms of their ability to maximize multiple aspects simultaneously. However, would the attitude or limited knowledge of complex systems really differ significantly in relation to human enhancement? Most transhumanists argue that the choice for enhancement should be made by the individual (on an open market presumably) and not in terms of Page 441  |  Top of Articleeugenic programs instigated and managed by the state (see, e.g., Harris 2007 ). If we add to this assumption the fact that we are dealing with enhancements that can change our biology on multiple scales (from the nano to the macro level), understanding the impacts on and potential implications for the functioning of the organism as a whole arguably becomes only more complex and unpredictable. This is because making changes at the level of an organism's genes, for example, requires a recognition and understanding not only of the relationally connected changes created in properties at that level of organization, but also of the effects such changes have on higher levels of organization (see Lie 2016; Noble 2017 ), as well as how such changes may relate to and affect the capacity for emergent properties and systems to arise.

The transhumanist agenda is therefore seeking emancipation based on manipulating properties on one level of complex autopoietic systems (that is, living systems capable of maintaining and reproducing themselves) according to a flawed ontology in which the relational network of this system is not seen to be in any way constitutive of its properties and in which all changes made on one level will be fully comprehensible and predictable in their effects on other levels of organization. This creates a situation in which the expected rise of control and freedom when pursued on one level actually leads to feedback loops from other levels of reality, creating continuous surprises that the humanist emancipation program is unable or unprepared to understand. In the same way that a scientific experiment is an abstraction from reality that requires that all surrounding conditions are maintained as constant for the property of interest to be investigated, the transhumanist search for autonomy not only leads to abstracted versions of human beings but also requires that the “laboratory conditions” of life be constantly kept stable for this to function, which actually leads ultimately to more rather than fewer entanglements. Given that this agenda would be pursued under a flawed ontology and taking into account the type of properties that are likely to be selected and chosen for enhancement within modern industrialized and capitalist societies, the attempt seems doomed to produce more problems than it solves and to ultimately create more dependence than freedom.


This chapter proposes that transhumanism, understood as the use of emerging technologies to attempt to free humanity from its biological constraints, is not actually transcending humanism as traditionally defined but rather simply extending a fundamentally flawed traditional humanist agenda with its age-old goals of autonomy and emancipation. In other words, the transhumanist dream in which humanity becomes increasingly emancipated from the constraints of its inherited biology is actually just the logical extension and end point of humanism, through which we have previously sought emancipation from the constraints posed by religion, nature, and social bonds, with our attention now turning to the biology of the material body as the next thing to try to transcend in the ongoing search for independence and autonomy.

To truly go beyond humanism and pursue a more radical agenda therefore demands that we transcend the very idea that the ultimate goal for human beings is that of independence and autonomy in the first place. Overcoming the Cartesian notion of a rational, stable, and isolatable self as the measure of all things need not lead to the claim that there is no self there but instead can involve a recognition that this self is fundamentally coproduced by the relations that it is engaged in. The continuous production of the fluid self happens in relation to its interactions with other entities in the world. To go beyond humanism could therefore Page 442  |  Top of Articlemean to accept and indeed embrace our relatedness—our relatedness to each other and to earth. To embrace these relations does not necessarily mean a postmodern embrace of an absolved self. Instead, within a particular posthumanist framing it can mean to accept and pursue an understanding of what humans are that radically accepts a fate of being inherently interconnected. This means accepting that the self exists only because of networks of social, ecological, and technological relations and that all are engaged in a process of mutual coshaping and unfolding. This interconnected, entangled unfolding of our common evolution needs to be recognized in the development of our emerging technologies so that we do not pursue false ideals of independence and autonomy and thereby risk the inevitability of surprise.

Posthumanism thus enables us to accept our inherent interdependence and thereby embrace rather than seek to escape what we really are. Therefore, the most radical agenda for transcending humanism would actually be to transcend the purported goal of emancipation and instead rejoice in our relatedness. Some of the questions that may be immediately raised concerning this approach could include a worry that the self will simply (and unacceptably) dissolve and disappear into its relations (see Lie 2016 for a possible ontological solution to this problem) or what the ethical implications of adopting such a relational ontology might be (see Wickson 2015 for an argument that developing the more relational frameworks of care and/or virtue ethics will be more appropriate for a biotechnological age than the currently dominant consequentialist- or utilitarian-based approaches). However, despite the ongoing (philosophical and political) work that may be required to advance this posthumanist rather than transhumanist agenda, it seems clear that the transhumanist search to replace our biology with technological enhancements can never liberate us from our earthly bonds and will only ever create new sets of entanglements, and the potential for ongoing surprises as the feedback loops we fail to acknowledge continuously deliver unexpected results. The most radical form of moving beyond humanism would therefore be to pursue a posthumanist goal of moving beyond the limiting concept of ourselves as isolated human entities and embracing our interconnected, multifaceted, and biologically diverse ecological selves.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3662000047