Can the Concept of Gaia be Redeemed for Biology and Earth System Science?

For some, the announcement of the arrival of the Anthropocene has sounded the death-knell for serious consideration of the concept of Gaia. After all, if there is anything that the end of the Holocene demonstrates, it is that the homeostatic stabilisation mechanisms that are enacted in Gaia to regulate habitable conditions for life on Earth have been decisively overwhelmed by the destabilising effects of human-induced activity. [1] What further use can there be for Gaia, then?

But don’t speak too soon. For this forthcoming article in The Anthropocene Review, “Life on Earth is Hard to Spot” (Timothy Lenton, Sébastian Dutreuil and Bruno Latour) makes a case for the ongoing value of the concept of Gaia to the disciplinary fields of biology and Earth System Science (ESS), and to philosophical and theological speculative thought in general.

In broad terms, the authors argue that the productive deployment of the concept of Gaia within the natural sciences has been in eclipse not because of the arrival of the Anthropocene as a fundamental paradigm disrupter, but because “different scientific disciplines have persistently missed the extraordinary and variable influence of Life on the Earth”. Here, the term “Life” (with a capital “L”) is being used in contradistinction to the word “life” or “living beings”. By referring to “life” or “living beings”, biologists and Earth system scientists have construed the biotic component of Gaia too narrowly; what is addressed is this particular living thing as a subset of other living things. The authors suggest this sort of error is found, for example, in “niche construction theory” (pace Lalande), whose examples of adaptive environmental effects are drawn from an overly-localized empirical field: the building of nests and burrows by these particular animals or the alternation of nutrient cycling by those particular plants, for example. No doubt, there is certainly more work needed to formulate and substantiate this accusation.[2] But conceptually the authors of this article wish to contrast this narrow definition of “life” with their own concept of “Life” (with a capital “L”). Here, “Life” denotes the “total ensemble of all living beings”. There are no subsets or genera of “Life”. The context in which “Life” operates is only the abiotic. “Life”, then, becomes a suitable candidate for the role of biotic partner in homeostatic regulatory processes of the sort identified by Lovelock and Margulis. Or, to put it another way, the formula “Life + abiotic environment” can be taken as an apt definition for the mechanism of Gaia.

The bulk of the article goes on to provide a sort of genealogy of the category errors that have been made by confusing “life” with “Life”. By focusing their study on the physical systems of the Earth (biogeochemistry, climatology, oceanography, solid Earth geophysics and so on), ESS, for example, failed to see how the negative entropy of the Earth’s heat exchange had to pass through “Life”. The article points out that, for many Earth system scientists, the raw logic of their work would lead them to posit a “Mars system” as analogous to that of the Earth system, even though there are no living beings on that planet. “Life” indeed! This is an ironic inversion of Lovelock’s original insight about life on Mars made whilst he worked at the JET Propulsion Centre in Pasadena, California. It shows how a basic misapprehension of what constitutes biota has slipped in to ESS. The article provides similar diagnoses of the assumptions lying behind the Earth system models of NASA and the IGBP.

By positing “Life” as the most accurate definition of the biotic component of the Earth, then, the article argues for a redemption of the concept of Gaia within biology and ESS. And yes, even its teleological pretensions! This is where the article gets interesting for political theology. For one of the key reasons why Gaia theory has been dismissed is on account of its invocation of goal functions and the apparent purposiveness that seems to indicate. Conceptually, the very notion of teleology was thought to imply a consciousness that biologists believed could in no way be attributed to the Earth system. How can this be reconciled?

The article merely hints at an answer to this question. But the crucial point is this: Lovelock introduced ideas of feedback, self-regulation, homeostasis and goal-seeking behaviour from the field of cybernetics. The type of functional talk upon which he was drawing does not imply norms: it does not specify what the entity should do in this particular system. Insofar as biologists defer from the teleological implications of Gaian mechanisms, then, the error (so this article claims) comes not from the side of Gaia theory, but from the intellectual history of biology itself. As the authors put it: “the issue of teleology […] is embedded within discussions from 18th century natural theology, where the functions of organs within organisms or of species at the surface of the Earth were designed by God or where the apparent design of a biological entity was used to prove the existence of God”. So there is a political-theological aetiology to biologists’ own critiques of Gaia as teleological.

I think there is great potential in this suggestion. But more work is needed here to show what is meant. How and when did the biological sciences imbibe a concept of teleology that originated in theistic, rationalistic proofs for the existence of God? The article ends with this plea:

Two issues merit further discussion which we leave for further papers: a more detailed history of ESS and its relationship with Gaia, and a serious discussion of Gaia’s teleology, linking the theoretical efforts developed by the Gaian scientific community with philosophical debates on causality and on the way Gaia has changed what we mean by ‘life’.

There is much to be said here. And I will take up aspects of this challenge in my forthcoming book: The Political Theology of Bruno Latour.

But one text that will certainly be useful in this regard is that of French epistemologist of science Philippe Huneman, whose 2008 book Métaphysique et biologie Kant et la constitution du concept d’organisme shows how Kantian notions of “regulatory principle” and “natural end” fed into the early stages of the development of the discipline of biology and inclined it to a certain understanding of teleology.

So more work needs to be done.

But this is an important intervention in the field of Gaia Studies, drawing attention to the value the concept retains at the time of the Anthropocene.


[1]  A classic statement of this is Crutzen PJ (2004), ‘Anti-Gaia’, in: Steffen W, Sanderson A, Tyson P et al. (eds) Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure. Berlin: Springer, p. 72.

[2]  Is it really the case that evolutional biology can be arraigned for being neglectful of the category of “Life”? Much of this claim rests on a prior argument made by one of the authors, cf. Dutreuil & Pocheville (2015), ‘Les organismes et leur environnement: la construction de niche, l’hypothese Gaia et la selection naturelle’, Bulletin d’histoire et d’epistemologie des sciences de la vie, 22: 27–56.

Notes on Michel Serres, “The Natural Contract”

Recently I posted some of my own written notes on Serres’ 1985 book, The Five Senses. Here, on request, I post similar notes on The Natural Contract.

You will find here a summarised transcript of the text itself, broken down into chapter headings that I have supplied myself. Please note that there is no attempt here to introduce comment of my own of any sort. And I take no responsibility for accuracy! But the document may be of interest to some who are working through the book themselves.

Do check out Chris Watkin’s amazing posts on the same book and his recent interview on the Hermitix podcast.

Exiting from “The Economy”, translation of a piece by Dusan Kazic

I was delighted to read this very interesting article from anthropologist Dusan Kazic published on AOC. Building on aspects of Latour’s work, both in the Inquiry and elsewhere, Kazic presents a compelling vision for exiting from “The Economy”, that artificial metaphysical construction that dissociates us from the interactions that comprise real “economic” activity. Here is a translation. Kazic has a book forthcoming with La Découverte, based on his doctoral research, entitled Plantes animées. De la production aux relations avec les plantes. Latour has referred to him in some of his recent work.

I hope you enjoy it!


COVID-19, MY AMBIVALENT ALLY
DUSAN KAZIC
PUBLISHED IN AOC, 15 SEPTEMBER 2020

COVID-19 arrived at the end of 2019, at the very moment I was defending my thesis, which set out to describe the multiple dynamic relationships between French farmers and plants.[1]

Barely three months after that defence, COVID-19 became my “ambivalent ally”. Awfully, it confined me to my house, along with half of humanity. And yet, at the same time, it served as a scientific ally by putting a clear stop to what can be called the universalist “grand narrative” of the Economy – to be understood here in the disciplinary sense – which asserts that humanity is obliged “to produce in order to live”.

The COVID epidemic has imposed a hiatus upon this highly naturalized story, which tells us that production constitutes the materiality of humanity, that we cannot live without it, and that we are obliged to produce in order to subsist. In this story, a world without production is impossible to imagine or conceive, for the reason that humanity would starve and life on Earth would be made impossible. All that can be imagined are ways of “producing and consuming differently”, that is, ways of changing “modes of production” and consumption. At a push, we might think about “getting out of growth” or “conceiving of a society without growth”, but getting out of production itself is altogether unthinkable.

And yet, that’s what the issue boils down to. My anthropological work, based on surveys and observations of about sixty farmers in France, breaks with the production paradigm on which the two predominant political regimes of modernity rest – capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other – and proposes that we enter new worlds that I have called (for want of a better word) “post-productive”. This term “post-production” does not refer to futuristic or utopian worlds. It refers to present, real worlds, ones which do not exist under the auspice of “naturalistic” epistemologies where humans “produce in order to live”, but by means of epistemologies where we try our best to exist with the other-than-human world through multi-specific links [au travers de liens multispécifiques]. To put it another way, it is about moving from a paradigm of production to a paradigm of relationships with plants, conceiving of an agriculture without production, which at the same time would not prohibit us from feeding ourselves.

In describing the multiple relationships between farmers and plants, I have tried to show that production does not constitute the materiality of our modern world, but rather that it is our relationship with plants that constitutes our true materiality. The concept of production is an abstract, economic, universalist and naturalized concept that has spread on this Earth through two political regimes that emerged with the arrival of modernity – capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other. These two regimes, which are a priori opposed to each other, agree on one thing (one could say that they share a common epistemology), namely, that they both consider “production” necessary if humanity is to be kept fed.

Contrary to what ecologists and les décroissants say, capitalism and socialism are not productivist regimes, but regimes of production in their own right. They are conceived and designed to produce, not to live alongside the non-human world. By critiquing (only) the “productivism” of these two regimes, both ecologists and les décroissants seek a form of “good production”, and at least for one of them this has to take place without growth . However, this idea of “good production” only serves to essentialise “relations of production” and does not break with the paradigm itself.

Capitalists and socialists have been fighting for more than a century to get hold of the famous “means of production”, all the while being in agreement on the core matter, namely that production constitutes our materiality and that we are obliged to produce in order to feed ourselves. This is why, since the beginning of the COVID epidemic, all leaders – whether they are capitalists, communists or ecologists – have wanted to “restart production”. But none of these regimes take into account our links with the other-than-human world because they don’t think they live alongside them, or rather they consider these to be “secondary” to the production that is supposed to constitute our materiality.

I showed in my thesis that farmers have never been in a relationship of “production” with their plants, but of “co-domestication”. Farmers domesticate plants just as plants domesticate farmers, and this has been going on since the dawn of time. In concrete terms, this means that neither farmer, nor carrot plant, nor tomato plant, nor courgette plant, nor chicken, cow, pig or sheep has ever “produced” a single carrot, tomato, courgette, chick, calf or lamb. If we eat and live on this Earth, it is thanks to our relationships with living beings, without which no-one could live. This is why we cannot say we are suffering with hunger more during the lockdown than before it. As we enter into a new world, then, it is entirely possible “to imagine preventative measures against the resumption of pre-crisis production”, to use the title of Bruno Latour’s article – because we have never lived in production, but always in a world that is about more than merely the human.[2] 

How did we arrive at such a naturalisation of the concept of production such that we have deemed it constitutive of our materiality? What has happened to make this concept of the Economy – which can be defined “as the exploitation of resources of labour and capital in order to produce goods or services” – become so dominant that we have come to believe deeply that it causes us to live?

To do this, we need to reopen a story. This will not be pleasant reading for Marxists. Accusing “capitalism” of all the evils on this Earth in order to place oneself on the right side of history, that is to say on the side of socialism, theirs is a simplified and hazardous story that leads nowhere. It was not the liberals who most naturalized the concept of production, but Marx himself, and the Marxist discourse that ensued.

By calling farmers “barbarians”, by deeply despising them (as did many authors of his time), that is, by understanding nothing of the agricultural world, Marx at the same time made a serious mistake in his analyses of “capitalism”. Capitalists do not appropriate to themselves the means of production in order to create wealth through private property – the commonly accepted definition of “capitalism”  – rather, aided by private property and the concept of production, capitalists make wealth by severing [réduisent]their relations to the world, which is exactly the opposite of what Marx thought. In other words, capitalists ontologically strip living beings in order to reduce them to the status of “resources”, then transforming them into “products” and “commodities”. Marx postulated without any empirical foundation that man is a being who produces in order to satisfy his basic needs. The act of production in the Marxist doxa is a universal and ahistorical anthropological category that refers to humans everywhere, whereas in fact no one has ever produced anything. Neither capitalism nor socialism nor “societies outside the orbit of those developed by the Enlightenment”, in the words of anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, are based on production, but on “certain relations of life and death between humans and the non-human world”. There have never been different regimes of production on Earth – there has never been socialist production, there has never been capitalist production, there has never been Asian production – but there are different ways of living alongside the non-human world, as anthropologists have taught us over the last century and a half. By making production the materiality of all humanity, Marx gave the Economy a power it could never have imagined, that of generating naturalized, universalist grand narratives (about the Market, about Production, about Growth, about Consumption) on a gigantic scale, with no connection whatsoever with our “animated world”, cutting us off deeply from a world that is more than the human.

Capitalists and Marxists are heirs to Economists, those formerly called “physiocrats”, who emerged in France in the 18th century by asserting this very strange idea, without any empirical basis, that “agriculture produces to make the nation rich” (while the farmers themselves had never heard of the term production), then opposing it to other sectors considered “sterile”. Instead of criticising the concept of production itself, liberals and Marxists will criticise the physiocrats by stipulating that other sectors are also productive, thereby extending the concept to the whole social domain. After the Russian revolution, the Marxists transposed the concept of production into the regime which was being established, and then to all Socialist countries, by seeking to develop “productive forces”. Capitalists and Marxists are enemy brothers both fighting for the “means of production”.

We now understand why we all agree with the idea that we have to produce in order to live. In this sense we are not all Marxists or capitalists, but we are all physiocrats. We all have the same vision of the Economy down to the decimal point. We just seek to house it in two opposing regimes that are essentially in agreement on the core matter. The physiocrats have locked us into a dead-end story. This is why I became an “eco-agnostic”.

To get out of this naturalised story, it is not enough to get on board with “green socialism” or with “green capitalism”. We will have to re-describe ourselves afresh as being in relation with the non-human world by not believing what the Economy says. This is the meaning of the questionnaire proposed by Bruno Latour at the end of his article on preventative measures, which invites us to imagine the preventative measures that could be taken against the return of pre-crisis production. 

In order to stop being a physiocrat, I proposed to “animate” the plants so that they are no longer reduced to the status of “resources”, as the Economy does, so to be able to enter into relation with them. The concept of production severs us deeply from our relationship with the non-human world and renders us “without ground”. For example, the act of talking to plants, entering into particular relationships of partnership with them or subjecting oneself mutually to them, is not allowed by these epistemologies because it is seen as “far-fetched” or secondary. This is why it is vital to break with the central concept of the Economy in order to plunge ourselves into our true materiality which is constituted through our links with the non-human world.

To begin to uncover this “animated world”, we must stop believing the Economy when it says that humans and corporations produce in order to put “products and goods on the market”. The suspension of this narrative provides an opportunity to account for the world in a different way and to see how we might live when we are not reduced to the status of resource by the Economy. A smartphone, a plant, a cow – these are products and goods for the Economy, but not for the people with whom they are in daily contact. The computer on which I write is not for me a product or a commodity; it is a writing machine that allows me to give shape to what I think.

In order not to fall back into production, that “second nature”, we’ll have to get rid of the prophecy with which Das Kapital began:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.

This must be replaced with a simpler sentence stating that corporations make lots of “animated things” with which people relate in a multitude of ways. This makes it possible to get out of the “second nature” on the one hand, and on the other hand, not to turn things into inert and inanimate objects with no power to act on us. Our world is as animated as that of other peoples, as the philosopher David Abram has shown, but the modes of animation are not the same. In order to achieve a good symmetry between Us and Others, we must get rid of the idea given to us by the Economy (but not exclusively) that we should be characterised as living in a “society of production and consumption” surrounded by “products and goods”. Of course, we are still that white people who have decimated countless indigenous peoples and who are in the process of devastating the world, but “we must reject the idea that we are a people of merchandise” (cited from here).

With this shift in theory, we no longer find ourselves in a production regime or in a “market society”. The question is no longer how to relaunch production or choose which modes of production we should put in place, but to know which animated things we have to make and transform, with which living things we wish to enter into relation, and so on.

To get out of production, we must “get out of the Economy”. The construction site is huge. In order to lay a first stone, we could, for example, advance the hypothesis that the jobs to which such questions inevitably lead us do not depend on the Economy, but on the “state of the world” [l’état du monde]. This is what COVID-19 has shown: jobs cannot be created or maintained without taking into account the state of the world.

With the ecological changes that are underway, as we know, some jobs will disappear and others will be created (this is why I maintain that universal income – with a decent income – must be part of all public policy proposals, because there won’t be jobs for everyone – and that’s a good thing!) What I basically want to say is that we should stop thinking of jobs depending on the Economy, or rather that we must distinguish jobs from the Economy. I am fully aware that this is one of the most difficult theoretical, epistemological and political journeys to make, but COVID helps us to think about this turning point. The idea that “you have to relaunch the Economy in order to create jobs”, the story that the Economy tells, is one where you never know what “relaunching the Economy” means, because you never know what you are relaunching when you say that.

To bring home the strangeness of this fully-naturalized motto, we can make a comparison: it would make no sense to say “that anthropology or philosophy must be relaunched in order to create jobs”. We can deduce from this that jobs are not created by the Economy, but by something else. In order to find out by what, we have to carry out investigations free from the economic episteme. Nor should we believe that the circulation of money depends on the Economy. In his Debt: 5,000 Years of History, David Graeber taught us that the invention of money predates the birth of the Economy.

Economics is a discipline born in the 18th century that tells stories about this world. It’s up to us whether to believe it or not. The problem is that, as physiocrats, we believe much more in the stories that Economics tells than in those told by other social sciences. In order not to fall back into the physiocratic episteme, that is, into the world before, we should not plead for “another Economy”, as many authors do. If we need a slogan, it could be that “nothing is Economic”. At least it leaves the door open to tell new stories.

For example, when Total destroys a mountain to build oil wells, one must resist the hasty claim that this is part of its “economic activities” or even that it is the “fault of capitalism” – socialism would do the same thing. This is part of its problematic relationship to the other-than-human world, which has absolutely nothing to do with the Economy. It can be said that it is an activity that destroys the world, derived from the fact that Total does not live with this mountain, unlike the humans and living beings who do. On the one hand, we are faced by a mountain that has been de-animated by Total so as to be reduced to a resource, helped by the stories of the Economy; on the other hand, we are faced by a mountain that is animated by humans and other living beings who live there. The effect of this displacement is that an “economic activity” becomes an “anthropological problem”, and ultimately a political one, since it concerns our ways of living with human and other-than-human beings. We are no longer in the Economy, but in an animated world engaged in ontological conflict over our ways of living.

Some may object by saying “we can’t escape the fact that the money has to come in at the end of the month so we can eat”. Again, just as it makes no sense to think that eating and earning a living depend on philosophy or anthropology, there is no reason to believe that this is a matter for Economics. We don’t need a “relaunch of production” or an “economic restart” [reprise], but rather a restart [reprise] of anthropology so as to manufacture non-economic realities. Our existence depends not on the Economy but on many other things.

Clearly, we must resist giving Economic explanations to destructive events, just as much as to events where money is involved. Above all, we must resist criticising these realities in order to replace them with other realities, which means that we will have to describe ourselves differently without resorting to Economic notions. In other words, to get out of Economy and out of production, that is, to stop being physiocrats, we will have to enter into a conflict of realities through which we might re-describe “capitalists” in a different way, rather than continuing to criticise them. In his novel Les Furtifs, Alain Damasio writes that the ultimate goal of capitalism is to “sell reality” [vendre la réalité].

To extend this idea and reverse the perspective, one must no longer believe that those who destroy, de-animate and oppress the world are “capitalists”. I leave it to the readers to imagine what else to call them, in the hope that we will be able to describe relations of power and domination between humans, but also between humans and non-humans, in a radically new way.


[1]  See « Plantes animées. De la production aux relations avec les plantes », soon to be published at Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond.

Notes on Michel Serres, The Five Senses

If it is of interest, here are some of my own written notes on Michel Serres’ 1985 book, The Five Senses.

You will find here a summarised transcript of the text itself, broken down into chapter headings that I have supplied myself. Please note that there is no attempt here to introduce comment of any sort. But the document may be of interest to some who are working through the book themselves.

Interview Recording on Michel Serres, “The Five Senses”

It was wonderful to have the opportunity to speak recently with the Hermitix podcast about Michel Serres’ wonderful book, The Five Senses. You can access the interview here, on YouTube or via any of your usual podcast platforms.

Among other things in a long conversation, we discussed some “tools” by which a reader might approach this book, then embarking on a chapter-by-chapter analysis. So I hope this recording might be useful for new and old readers, and indeed for anyone who wants to dip into the wonderful world of Michel Serres.

New Publication: “COVID-19: Environment, Justice and the Future”

I’ve contributed some writing to the latest Grove Ethics booklet COVID-19: Environment, Justice and the Future. It’s a study of what we can learn for the longer term from our response to the Covid-19 pandemic—and the hope for the future that we can grasp, despite the challenges of the present.

You can order the booklet from the Grove website, post-free in the UK or a PDF ebook.

My colleagues, Martin Hodson, Margot Hodson and Ruth Valerio, contributed the substantial parts. But here’s an extract from the Introduction I wrote to whet your appetite for the whole:

Sloterdijk on Ecological Theology

The next edition of Temple Continental: Philosophers for our Time is now available.

This new series aims to address the growing interest in a range of Continental thinkers, prompted, not least, by the so-called ‘theological turn’ that has taken place in various strands of recent philosophy.

In this volume, Tim Middleton takes up the task of introducing the work of the contemporary German/ Dutch philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and probing what it might offer to ecological theology in the light of our current ecological breakdown.

Download the tract for free here    

Latour, Coronavirus, Public Health and the Role of the State

The reign of ancient Egyptian pharoah Akenhaten, the assassination of le bon roi Henri in the year 1610, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the gilets jaunes protests that took place in 2018 … Latour is a great thinker of moments of crisis. He diagnoses and interprets moments in history where shifts in societal thinking become apparent. But more than that, he is able to see where such moments are propitious, that is, where they hold out hope for something new to emerge.  

The coronavirus pandemic is palpably one such moment, albeit since the earliest days of lockdown Latour has been repeating his view that COVID-19 must really be understood as a shadow or forewarning of the greater crisis still to come, that is, the global environmental crisis.

This article, published a few weeks ago in Esprit, is a great place to start for those wishing to understand Latour’s thought on the signifcance of this particular moment. It can be added to others I have recently mentioned. Here, however, Latour goes further in showing how ecology can divide within social classes and how the state as yet lacks authority to pursue habitability and permaculture; its authority to tackle the disease as at present is really an old-fashioned authority that need renewing, resetting or refreshing from within civil society.

The article is at present only available in French, so here is a summary for those who are interested, with minor explanatory headings added in by me. I offer here simply a summary, with no comment of my own. I hope it is useful.

[start of summary]

The current health crisis is of such a dimension that it begins to give some small idea of the future crises that will surely be imposed by climate change.

How, then, should the state respond?

We have (more or less) gladly undergone drastic precautionary measures in response to the pandemic over the last few months.

But what if the nation-state (the apparatus of government) were to impose upon us equally drastic measures in relation to the environmental crisis?

The reality is that it is unlikely we would accept these measures! “Si l’on a accepté pour un temps de multiplier les « gestes barrières » à la contagion d’un virus, je ne suis pas sûr que l’on soit prêt à accepter du même État l’imposition de gestes barrières pour favoriser la santé de la planète!

Why so?

A. The state and the pandemic

In relation to public health, we’ve become used to “trusting” the authority of the state: “quand il s’agit de santé et de protection de la vie, on bénéficie de plusieurs siècles derrière nous au cours desquels la société civile a pris l’habitude de s’en remettre à l’État et, en gros, malgré d’innombrables critiques, à lui faire confiance”. This is because over many centuries civil society has seen fit to cede this authority to the state, such that the state comes to be seen as having an almost maternal responsibility for its citizens. This is what Latour calls biopolitics 1 (a Foucauldian concept); the idea that the government manages the life, the number and the well-being of the populations over which it has rights.

B. The state and the environmental crisis

The situation is entirely different with the environmental crisis.

Here, it is the state that is often seen as an obstacle to the efforts of civil society to bring about change. Thus, there is no sense of a “general shared will” (“volonté générale partagée”) between the administrative apparatus of the state and the public on this issue, since neither share common conceptions (“ne partagent des conceptions communes”) of what should be done:

The government’s current ‘software’ is out of step with the new task of exploration necessary to cope with ecological change. As a result, every decision of the state is in radical or partial conflict with the needs of the transition. For these new issues, the administration can therefore in no way play the role of paternal management and give reliable directions to its “sheep”.

Thus, while civil society agrees to delegate to the state as protective (maternal) role in relation to public health, it has not yet decided to offer the state this same authority to help it through the even larger transformation represented by the environmental crisis.

But this negative loop is caused by the fact that civil society does not have precise and general idea about its “will” either. It is therefore impossible for civil society to delegate to the state the task of implementing what it wants because it does not know it itself.

To make progress, we must distinguish between:

  • “Biopolitics 1” (as described above); a form of contract where civil society accepts a certain degree of coercion in return for public health assurance.
  • “Biopolitics 2”; this would extend the notion of the well-being of human populations to include the much broader conditions that allow humans to exist (to breathe, to grow, to prosper in an environment). This is what has not (yet) been ceded or agreed.

For biopolitics 2 to develop, we would need to extent to politics a notion that is already quite familiar in scientific ecology: “habitabilité”. This idea is developed in the recent article Latour co-wrote with Tim Lenton and Sébastien Dutreuil, “Life on Earth is Hard to Spot”, The Anthropocene Review (2020), and is further explored in the upcoming volume edited by Latour and Peter Weibel, Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth. This describes how an environment conducive to life is created by waste products and the discharge of other living things.

The idea of habitability obviously challenges “biopolitics 1”, where the state adopts a public health attitude to attack microbes by vaccines or drugs.

But it is, in spite of everything, where the new and future protective duty of any state that claims to ensure the good life of its citizens in the future lies.

What kind of mechanism could the state adopt to pursue this new form of biopolitics?

One must work from a completely different idea of the relationship between the state and the general will. After all, the general will is difficult to discern and may change. And the state is only a provisional and revisable tool that civil society has the right to change when the questions it has worked on for a long time become too long or too complicated to be dealt with satisfactorily.

For example:

  • Civil society might suddenly give up taking it upon itself to describe its own situation and rely instead on the state to steer it in the right direction: this would equate to a depoliticization from below (“il y a dépolitisation générale par le bas”). 
  • Or the government, believing itself to be the infallible guardian of the general interest, imagines that it can resolve by itself the issues entrusted to it without ensuring that civil society takes over: this would equate to a depoliticization from above (“il y a dépolitisation par le haut”).

In France, as in other countries, “depoliticization from below” and “depoliticization from above” have jointly emptied the procedures that would make it possible to explore the general will on these subjects.

Latour refers to this as “the conditioned reflexes of a form of phantom politics”: we address ourselves vertically to a state that does not exist complaints that come from our own inability to connect horizontally to one another.

So there must be a constant adjustment between civil society’s exploration of the matters that concern it and the government’s application of the powers that society has delegated to it. Or, to put it in other terms, the state must receive a political charge from civil society to do its bidding. Latour describes this with the term “recharger”. 

Another way of putting this is that civil society has to construct for itself a common representation (“une représentation commune”) of what it wants to change, and then share how it wants the government administration to take on tasks of implementation, monitoring, evaluation and possible rectification of this representation.

Latour calls this “the work of civil society upon itself to find out what it wants” (“ce travail de la société civile sur elle-même pour savoir ce qu’elle desire”).

This work of representation is made harder by the globalised world in which we live:

The tragedy is that citizens, politically drained by fifty years of globalisation, used to addressing the state of Reason as the only possible interlocutor for their anxieties, reinforced by the acceleration of social networks that give the impression of expressing themselves when they often only transport the same products to the chain in fake news factories somewhere in Siberia, no longer have any reference points to decide who they are, where they are, against whom and with whom.

This is where we need to abandon the far too simplistic notion of “civil society”, and certainly that of “social class” or “class struggle”, and replace it with the idea of the “geosocial” (“les nouveaux conflits de classe que nous appelons géosociaux”). This term encompasses the relation of all people to place, soil, land and land use.

The distinction between the concepts of “social class” and “geosocial class” is the same type as that between “biopolitics one” and “biopolitics two”:

  • In the old mode of “class struggle”, there was an assumption that “production” had to continue (even if the ownership of the means of production had to change). This is the claim of Pierre Charbonnier’s recent book: Abondance et liberté. Une histoire environnementale des idées politiques (especially the chapters on Marx and Polanyi), which I am currently reading myself.
  • But with the concept of the “geosocial”, this changes completely: here, the idea is “to ensure the maintenance of the subsistence conditions of all participants necessary for human habitability”.

This frames a debate between (A) various land and labour uses versus (B) existential conflicts over the definition of what prosperity is and what humans are. Think of a person supporting a Parisien out-of-town development for reasons of work, who finds himself misaligned with people from his own “social class” who contest it for environmental reasons. As far as Latour is concerned, the small salary distributed for a time by a Chinese investor in a giant supermarket does not carry the same weight as maintaining the conditions that generate a plethora of living beings in the Île-de-France region.

But how are we to measure this?

There is no common metric to measure the relative weight of the interests of these two activists who are equally engaged, one in a class conflict, the other in a geosocial class conflict.

In order to begin to imagine constructing these metrics that would make it possible to weigh the contradictory interests of the different actors and thus to modify what are called “power relations” there is no other solution than to go through the process of “description” and “representation” mentioned above. This is “the only way to situate citizens in the material conditions of dependence and subsistence on which they depend”.

The purpose of “revolution” (insofar as that word applies to Latour) is now no longer to seize the means of production, but to seize the “subsistence surplus” (“le surplus de subsistance”) captured up to now by those who occupy the land and sterilize the conditions of engendering that others are trying to save and defend.

[End of summary]