Notes on Face à Gaïa (Lecture 4)

I must continue with my posts on Face à Gaïa. Remember, these are nothing but notes: they don’t contain any of my own interpretation, so it’s really the case that they’re just a record of some of the themes and content of the book.

This chapter, lecture 4, is wonderful.

face

Lecture Four: L’anthropocène et la destruction (de l’image) du Globe

The sub-commission 

The sub-commission on Quarternary Stratigraphy (SCQS) represents an expression of the NRC and its proposed redistribution of agency: ‘les travaux du groupe de travail animé par Zalasiewicz offrent à qui veut bien les lire un passionnant exemple de cette redistribution des puissances d’agir que nous suivons de conférence en conférence’.

The Anthropocene as avatar for the NRC

Being more concrete, the concept of the Anthropocene that the SCQS is uncovering has a number of implications for Modernity:

  • The Anthropocene merges the old epistemologies of Nature and Society (cf. Arcimboldo effect paintings: do we see in them primarily natural objects or a human face?).
  • Thus, the Anthropocene represents a heuristically powerful avatar of the NRC and disrupter of Modernity: ‘le concept philosophique, religieux, anthropologique et, comme nous allons le voir bientôt, politique le plus pertinent pour commencer à se détourner pour de bon des notions de ‘Moderne’ et de modernité’; it provides a ‘désagrégation progressive de tous les ingrédients qui participaient, dans l’Ancien Régime Climatique, à la figuration conjointe des humains et des choses’.

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The Anthropocene redefines both Nature and Society

What is the nature of the ‘désagrégation progressive’ that it enacts upon the bifurcation of Modernity?

  • Nature: this no longer accepts to be called mute and deanimated.
  • Human: there is no single actor called ‘human’ who bears singular responsibility for the Anthropocene, in such a way as this human could ‘act’ to rectify the situation: ‘parce qu’il n’y a aucun moyen d’unifier l’Anthropos en tant qu’acteur doté d’une quelconque consistance morale ou politique, au point de le charger d’être le personnage capable de jouer sur cette nouvelle scène globale’.[1] Thus, if humans have a part to play, which they certainly do, then it will not be ‘l’humain comme agent unifié’ . Instead, there will have to be a new (political) configuration of humans into different people grounds composed in a new way: ‘qui doit être décomposé en plusieurs peuples distincts, dotés d’intérêts contradictoires, de territoires en lutte, et convoqués sous les auspices d’entités en guerre—pour ne pas dire de divinités en guerre’.

Thus there is an inversion, whereby when we find ‘human’ we encounter what was hitherto known as ‘nature’, and vice versa: ‘partout où l’on avait affaire à un phénomène ‘naturel’, on rencontre ‘l’Anthropos’—au moins dans la région sublunaire qui est la nôtre—et partout où l’on s’attache aux pas de l’humain, on découvre des modes de relation aux choses qui avaient été auparavant situés dans le champ de la nature’.

In summary: avec le concept d’Anthropocène, les deux grands principes unificateurs—la Nature et l’Humain—deviennent de plus en plus invraisemblables.

The Anthropocene dissolves the image of the sphere

What is the significance of the image of a sphere in the light of the Anthropocene?

C’est une image de la pensée qui était restée intacte dans toute l’histoire de la philosophie, l’idée d’une Sphère qui pouvait permettre à n’importe qui de ‘penser global’ et de porter sur ses épaules le poids total du Globe—cette étrange obsession occidentale […] En d’autres termes, nous devons mettre fin à ce qui pourrait s’appeler ‘la malédiction d’Atlas’.[2]

Latour cites various recent articles on the ‘implausibility’ of the globe as an item of knowledge:

  • Olwig, Kenneth, ‘The Earth is Not a Globe’, 2011.
  • Diederichsen, Diedrich, and Franke, Anselm, The Whole Earth Catalogue, 2013.
  • Grevsmühl, Sebastian-Vincent, La Terre vue d’en haut: l’invention de l’environnement global,

But most of all, in 2015, on account of the Anthropocene, it ought to be finally possible to sever ourselves from the fascination with the figure of the sphere that has held us in thrall since the time of Plato (146).

Sloterdijk

For Latour, Sloterdijkian immunology (or, we might say, spherology) represents nothing less than the first fully and properly anthropocenic discipline: ‘la première discipline anthropocénique’ (131).

In summary, this is because Sloterdijk is the first philosopher to provide a properly ‘material’ or ‘re-materialised’ understanding of what it means to live on this earth:

Ainsi de page en page, Sloterdijk rematérialise d’une façon nouvelle ce que c’est que d’être dans l’espace, sur cette Terre, nous offrant la première philosophie qui réponde directement aux contraintes de l’Anthropocène de nous ramener sur Terre.

Sloterdijk’s contribution can be broken down in more detail as follows:

  • Latour takes him as following the same model of agency/ composition as himself, focused on how an entity ‘se protège de la destruction en construisant une sorte de milieu intérieur bien contrôlé qui lui permette de créer autour d’elle une membrane de protection’.
  • Contra this enveloping, the sphere (which Latour tends to call the ‘Globe’) represents a premature unification: ‘d’après Sloterdijk, la singularité complète de la philosophie, de la science, de la théologie et de la politique occidentales est d’avoir insufflé toutes les vertus à la figure d’un Globe—avec un grand G—sans accorder la moindre attention à la façon dont il pouvait être construit, entretenu, maintenu et habité’. And again: ‘la figure du Globe autorise à sauter prématurément à un niveau supérieur en confondant les figures de la connexion avec celle de la totalité’.
  • When the Moderns attempt to assert global thinking, then, they are asserting something highly destructive: they will end up acting so as to sever their own livelihoods, that is, ‘rompre toutes les enveloppes protectrices nécessaires à la fonction immunologique de la vie’.
  • The premature unification embodied in Globe-evangelism and its advocates throughout history represents nothing less than a ‘utopie’ .
  • Sloterdijk therefore enacts a reversal of the position-from-nowhere of a MP: ‘il devient très improbable qu’on puisse voir quoi que ce soit depuis Sirius’ .

Deus sive Sphaere

Latour deems this sub-chapter of Globes II to be absolutely vital.

globes

In fact, by means of the concept of Deus sive Sphaere, Latour credits Sloterdijk for addressing the primary problem that has afflicted the entire humanities and sciences: ‘de lever la principale difficulté commune aux sciences et aux humanités quand elles abordent la question du super-organisme’. *Note: the religious metaphysic that underlies this, there is a theological underpinning to global thinking!

  • Sloterdijk identifies a ‘bifocalisme non résolu’ in all imagery of the classical metaphysics .
  • This arises from the difficulty of representing both God and the earth in one view: either one or the other had to attain to the centre, but not both .
  • Sloterdijk argues that the philosophia perennis has in fact denied the fact that there can’t be at the same time an all-ordaining God at the centre and a fully animated earth.

At the end of the chapter, Latour picks up Sloterdijk’s distinction between monotheism and monogeism :

  • Monotheism: obsessed with building a Globe; but one that has a contradiction at its heart (cf. Deus sive Sphaera).
  • Monogeism: conscious of only having one earth; but able to progressively compose from that point.

The Globe forestalls space-time

In Deus sive Sphaere, Latour thinks Sloterdijk has demonstrated nothing less than the impossibility of space-time (or we might say the bastardisation of space-time) under the Modern Constitution:

*Voilà pourquoi il n’y a pas d’histoire—et encore moins de géohistoire: dès que la philosophie croit penser globalement, elle devient incapable de concevoir aussi bien le temps que l’espace.

*Une sphère n’a pas d’histoire, pas de commencement, pas de fin, pas de trou, pas de discontinuité d’aucune sorte.

What the chapter is moving towards, of course, is the conclusion that only when this Globe is destroyed can real history (or progress) pick up again. Thus, the final words of the chapter are: ‘le Globe une fois détruit, l’histoire se remet en marche’.

The theological Globe leads to the scientific (rational) Globe

Although (via Sloterdijk) the Globe can be shown to have theological roots, Latour now argues that the same default has carried through to science, and from that to rationality in general: ‘c’est que la même incohérence s’applique exactement à l’architecture par laquelle la rationalité a été construite’. So, it follows that science just as much as theology has sought to determine reality by metaphysics, whilst denying the way it is progressively composed on earth: ‘le même déni d’une telle impossibilité, se retrouve parmi les scientifiques et les philosophes exactement au même endroit que chez les théologiens et les mystiques’.

The question is, which came first?

  • *Latour is explicit that it doesn’t really matter. This is because it is the same error (the translatio imperii) that is at play in both cases: ‘c’est le même problème répété deux fois—la première dans l’histoire de la religion, la seconde dans l’histoire de la Science, grâce à cette translatio imperii dont il existe tant d’exemples’.
  • However, this is the point that can be challenged in Chapter Four of the thesis. And at various points in FG, Latour seems to suggest the (Christian) theological motive is primordial: *‘construire un globe c’est toujours réactiver un thème théologique’.

When scientists think according to the Globe they are acting like God

  • First, because it situates the scientist outside the very networks in which his rationality is defined and given: his work ‘prend inévitablement la forme d’une sphère transparente qui pourrait être inspectée par un corps désincarné à partir d’un lieu de nulle part’.
  • Second, because it prevents the scientists from looking at the networks by which his rationality is defined and given: ‘la forme sphérique arrondit la connaissance en un volume continu, complet, transparent, omniprésent qui masque la tâche extraordinairement difficile d’assembler les points de données venant de tous les instruments et de toutes les disciplines.

Thus it is plainly stated: ‘ceux qui regardent la Terre comme un Globe, se prennent toujours pour un Dieu’ .

Global thinking is thus impossible in any discipline

The point was made in relation to science, but can be extended to any discipline. This is because global thinking always presupposes a fixed composition that can be seen from the outside: it can never represent ‘le monde lui-même dans lequel tout est censé être inclus’.

Global thinking indicates a non-history

To think in terms of a globe is done when one is ‘tired’ of history (geo-history): ‘[…] la Sphère c’est ce qu’on souhaite passivement contempler quand on est fatigué de l’histoire […]’.

By contrast, Gaia is what returns us to history by recalling us to the immanent space and time: ‘Gaïa est une puissance d’historicisation. Encore plus simplement, comme son nom l’indique, Gaïa est le signal du retour sur Terre’.

However, when science operates according to Nature Two, it takes on again a history

In Gifford Lecture 4, this is given as: *‘data flows again in its original form of historical narratives’ (GL4, p.92); in FG this is given as ‘les données affluent à nouveau dans leur forme originale de fragments, en l’attente d’une mise en récit’.

Loops

By contrast with global thinking, Latour now introduces the concept of a movement ‘en forme de boucle’.[3]

  • The virtue of thinking in loops is to avoid over-animating or de-animating agencies, with the necessary corollary of a MP: ‘c’est le seul moyen de tracer un chemin entre les puissances d’agir, sans passer par les notions de parties et de Tout que seule la présence d’un Ingénieur tout puissant—Providence, Évolution ou Thermostat—aurait agencé’.
  • Thus, thinking loops introduces the disciplines of a ‘profane’ science, a ‘profane’ politics and even a ‘profane’ theology: ‘c’est le seul moyen de devenir profane en science aussi bien qu’en théologie’. This is a corollary of Latour’s use of the word ‘secular’.

Loops are the primary principle by which nonmodernity must function: ‘faites en sorte qu’une boucle soit traçable et publiquement visible’.

Loops should not be conceived cybernetically

  • There is something about cybernetics that defers to a MP: ‘comme on le sait, dans l’étymologie même de cybernétique, il y a tout un gouvernement qui prétend tenir la barre’ .
  • To conceive of the loops as a fixed cybernetic system would be to take them as ‘un modèle avec gouvernail, gouverneur et gouvernement mondial’.
  • If the term can be redeemed, the objective would be to shift from a ‘technical’ definition of cybernetics (MP) to a ‘political’ one in which response and re-adjustment becomes the norm: ‘la question est de savoir si la métaphore glisse du côté de la technique—on multiplie les servocommandes et les centres de contrôle—, ou du côté de la politique—on multiplie les occasions d’entendre protester ceux qui exigent de rétroagir aux commandes’.

Loops of agency in environmental awareness

  • Building on recent work proposing different start dates for the Anthropocene,[4] Latour points out that there have been numerous dates since the eighteenth century when the alarm has been sounded on escalated environmental change.
  • That these have not been heeded is determined by the fact that we have used the ‘vocabulaire du sempiternel Globe’, whose eternity militates against the sense of urgency that the conditions really demand. In fact, this shape will always resist radical behavior on the behalf of humans: ‘par définition, la géohistoire ne se laisse jamais penser sous la forme d’une Sphère dont on aurait découvert une fois pour toutes la forme englobante’.
  • However, if these dates are understood as progressive (bike spokes) in the composition of human awareness about the environment, then all of a sudden perhaps they can be justified as different start dates for the Anthropocene: ‘si les boucles de réflexivité se ressemblent par la forme, le contenu, l’échelle, le rythme, chaque fois diffèrent’ .
  • To think this way will avoid the idea of zero-sum ruptures of knowledge: ‘il ne sert à rien de prétendre qu’on le savait déjà et que d’autres avant nous l’ont dit’ .

Reprise, not repetition, vis-à-vis the environment

*Repetition vs reprise:

  • Repetition: global thinking predetermines this space-time phenomenon of repetition, by dint of the fact that it entails radiating lines of the same from a centre, and a corresponding lack of understanding of that which is novel: ‘l’impression de répétition du même vient de la forme du Globe avec lequel chacun cherche à figurer ce qui lui arrive de nouveau’ .
  • Reprise: thinking in terms of loops, by contrast, would entail a historical thinking in terms of loops: ‘l’histoire, elle, surprend et oblige à tout reprendre chaque fois’ (147). The rhythm of this phenomenon is progressive, emergent and elongated: it constitutes something like: ‘la découverte, chaque fois bouleversante, d’une connexion nouvelle et dramatique entre des puissances d’agir inconnues jusqu’ici, et à des échelles chaque fois plus éloignées, selon un rythme chaque fois plus frénétique, cela, oui, est vraiment nouveau’.

Definition of a loop

The loop speaks for itself in the practices that are required before a globe can be thought

  • Material: bringing your pencil back to the start point .
  • Empirical: required the navigation of ships around the globe, cf. Magellan .
  • Moral: feeling the impact of your action, such that one accepts ‘responsibility’.

Definition of progressive composition by loops

This leads to a definition (or perhaps, a series of images) of how living-by-loops is necessary:

  • faufiler, de fil en fil.
  • envelopper.
  • être ressentis .
  • sentir.
  • entremêlement.

Gaia is not a sphere

  • Latour introduces the idea of Gaia representing a thin membrane of habitable earth, a critical zone: ‘Gaïa n’occupe qu’une petite membrane, de guère plus que quelques kilomètres d’épaisseur, l’enveloppe délicate des zones critiques’.
  • This militates against the idea that Gaia could be a sphere, with corresponding ‘centre’ and ‘control room’: ‘elle n’est pas globale au sens où elle fonctionnerait comme un système à partir d’une chambre de contrôle occupée par quelque Distributeur Suprême surplombant et dominant’.

Thus, Gaia is not a Globe: ‘si vous m’avez suivi jusqu’ici, vous aurez compris que Gaïa n’est pas le Globe, ni une figure globale, mais l’impossibilité de s’en tenir à une figure du Globe’.

Rather, Gaia functions according to loops

Just as there were loops of retrospection, and therefore history, in the dating of the Anthropocene, so there are in Gaia: ‘elle est une suite d’évènements historiques dont chacun se répand un peu plus loin—ou pas’.

The detection of Gaia will only come be rendering ourselves more and more sensitive to complex, and yet provisional, groupings of loops: ‘on ne peut que faire s’entrecroiser leurs chemins potentiels avec autant d’instruments que possible pour avoir une chance de détecter de quelles façons ces puissances d’agir sont connectés entre elles’.

Our responsibility is to become sensitive to these loops

  • This will take the form of those who ‘suivre les boucles pour éviter la totalité’.
  • Or, by contrast, those who refuse to foreclose them, those who do not ‘interrompent, effacent, négligent, diminuent, affaiblissent, nient, obscurcissent, défavorisent ou déconnectent ces boucles’.

This sensitive responsibility is the definition of politics

Definition: ‘suivre les boucles pour éviter la totalité, c’est évidemment aussi se rapprocher de la politique’.

But Gaia will not provide a soothing form of politics

Although Gaia is shifting us towards a new form of politics, we should not expect this politics to be an easy unification of fractured humanity

Rather, Gaia will require the taking of sides, and thus clear friend/ enemy distinctions among humans: ‘inutile d’espérer que l’urgence de la menace soit si grande, et son expansion si ‘globale’, que la Terre agirait mystérieusement comme un aimant unificateur pour faire de tous les peuples éparpillés un seul acteur politique occupé à reconstruire la Tour de Babel de la Nature’ .

This undermines the dream of a utopia provided by ‘Nature’

À l’époque de l’Anthropocène, tous les rêves, entretenus par les écologistes profonds, de voir les humains guéris de leurs querelles politiques par la seule conversion de leur soin pour la Nature, se sont envolés.

This dream is usually centred on the unifier ‘Science’, of course.

A new politics

Such a utopia is not possible, then.

But this is not to say that there can be no politics in which we don’t make progress towards a greater whole, even a ‘universality’.

However, if this is to come to pass, it will come to pass via a politics of progressive composition,[5] and nothing else:

*l’universalité que nous cherchons doit être de toute façon tissée boucle après boucle, réflexivité après réflexivité, instrument après instrument.

This is the form of universality that clearly states its own principles of composition via a mechanism like the ‘cosmogramme’.

This universality, perhaps even it is a utopia, will arrive via a form of politics that is careful to distance itself from both of the following:

  • A politics of nature: where unity is found, but it is a unity secured by a MP.
  • A politics of cultures: where multiplicity is found, but it is secured according to arbitrary cultural markers, rather than compositional principles.

Thus: ‘ces collectifs, c’est là toute la différence, ne sont pas des cultures—comme avec l’anthropologie traditionnelle; ils ne sont pas unifiés par le fait d’être, après tout, des ‘enfants de la Nature’—comme c’était le cas avec les sciences naturelles de naguère […]’.

There is an opportunity to enact this new form of politics with the advent of the Anthropocene: ‘vivre à l’époque de l’Anthropocène, c’est se forcer à redéfinir la tâche politique par excellence: quel peuple formez-vous, avec quelle cosmologie et sur quel territoire’ .

Political Theology

Earlier in the chapter, we’d noted Sloterdijk’s the distinction between monotheism (build a Globe from a position away from the earth) and monogeism (conscious of one earth, and determined to build from it). At the end of the chapter, there is the following interesting comment:

Les monogéistes sont ceux qui n’ont pas de planète de rechange, qui n’ont qu’une seule Terre, mais qui ne connaissent pas plus Sa forme qu’ils ne connaissaient la face de leur Dieu d’antan—et qui sont ainsi confrontés à ce qu’on pourrait appeler un genre entièrement nouveau de théologie géopolitique.

The politics of composition, then, has an echo in the old forms of theology, but only where that old form of theology was determined not to know the agency it was handling in advance, that is, ‘qu’ils ne connaissaient la face de leur Dieu d’antan’ (154). This is the form of [REL] in history.

References

[1]   Cf. Hache, Tremblez (2015).

[2]   Latour also calls ‘Atlas’ malediction’: ‘la fatalité du Globe’ .

[3]   Latour confirms that ‘loops’ are precisely what he called ‘ondes d’action’ in Chapter Three .

[4]   Cf. in particular Fressoz (2012), L’Apocalypse joyeuse and the article by Hamilton and Grinevald, (2015), ‘Was the Anthropocene anticipated?’.

[5]   It is interesting to note that Latour here equates the politics of the Anthropocene with both a ‘metaphysics’ and a ‘cosmology’: ‘c’est ce que j’ai appelé une métaphysique ou une cosmologie’.

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A New Political Triangle

An important new text from Bruno Latour on a ‘third way’ (or should it be: a ‘third point’) to advance a political theology in the contemporary moment:

Terroir, Globe, Earth – A New Political Triangle

Formerly, we used to enjoy ‘splendid weather’ or put up with a ‘lousy climate’. But in recent months we’ve found ourselves on the receiving end of some ‘awfully splendid’ weather. What is true of the weather is also true of politics. The present moment is both awful and tremendous: thanks to the concurrence of terrorist actions, the rise of the so-called ‘national’ Front, and the conclusion of COP21, it is possible that we might finally be coming to appreciate where we are and what kind of politics we have to pursue.

Up to now, most of the points of reference for assessing whether one’s position was ‘progressive’ or ‘reactionary’ have been situated along the length of a single, unique vector—either you were lamenting the old terroir or you were committed to globalisation. Between those two extremes there was a continuous line incorporating us all: the only thing that could vary was the position of the cursor. At the forefront of this modernisation front were those advocating ‘progress’—behind them, all those who were backward.

This entailed a contradiction, one that was well-known, depending on whether the vector concerned morality or markets. One could care about the emancipation of morality to the exclusion of economic globalisation (approximately the position of the traditional left); or one could desire the liberalisation of markets and oppose the emancipation of morality (let’s say the position of the moderate right). Alternatively, one could also wish for the joint emancipation of both morality and markets (the frenetic ideal of modernisation espoused by the ‘advanced’ sectors of left and right). Or, finally, one could fight against both.

For all that to function as a frame of reference, the elites themselves also had to believe in the existence of a world, of a globe, that had the potential to become a universally modernised planet, if only they were able to bring it about.

It’s at this point that we have to combine commonplace analysis of the political sphere with that of another sphere entirely: the planet that has made its entrance into politics. The historic importance of COP21 was that it enabled us to become cognisant of an entirely different way of proceeding: this planet Earth does not in any way resemble the globe of globalisation. To put it bluntly: there is no planet corresponding to the Promised Land of globalisation. There has been a signalling error! And so those positions no longer need to take their bearings solely by means of the classical polarisation that ranges from local to global, from national to universal, from identity to the ‘wide open spaces’ of the global market.

This classical politics was able to function only as long as the elites led us to believe that the world towards which we were modernising really existed. However, for thirty years now they have ceased to believe this. Those who recognised this first were not only the ecologists, but also those we call climate-sceptics. Contrary to what we often suppose, their denialism has nothing to do with archaism or with a lack of understanding. In fact, what they’d seen only too well was that if there was no planet corresponding to the world towards which we were supposedly modernising, then we’d have to defend ourselves by shutting ourselves away in a fortress of inequalities. The enormous shift that has seen the richest 10% become the richest 1%, and then 0.1%, cannot be understood until we appreciate that the elites have abandoned all hope of ever sharing their territory with those they had asked to modernise—or perish.

To understand quite how the times have changed, all we have to do is compare the scowl of Donald Trump (‘you’re fired!’) with the Hollywood smile of Ronald Reagan. It is no longer possible to allow ourselves to be hoodwinked as it was in the 1980s: previously optimists, the elites have now become sinister; where previously they led the way, now they have become defensive. If America is to continue to map out our future, the one proposed by the Republican Party, among others, sends chills down the spine.

All the more so as the masses have most certainly understood that, if the elites themselves no longer believe in modernisation, they will have to fall back in double quick time on the crumbs of identity that are still available to them. From Hungary to France, from Italy to England, from Russia to the United States, large numbers of people are acting as if to say: ‘if not the globe, at least let us have our terroirs!’ The white race, pork meat, nation, flag, caliphate, family, it really doesn’t matter what—as long as we’re not left with nothing. Everyone to the lifeboats! Of course, these communities are imaginary; not a patch remains of those former lands, now obliterated by globalisation. But one utopia for another: it is understandable that we should cling to the one that seems the least up-in-the-air.

Here is the turning-point at which we find ourselves, a fatal and decisive moment: is there an alternative definition of what it means to be attached to a ground, other than those provided by the ‘territory-terroir’ or the ‘territory-globe’? Could we postulate a third point that would allow us to redistribute all those positions and avoid the contemporary tragedy of a battle between the utopia provided by modernisation and that provided by national identities?

Such a triangle has not yet been mapped out, I know very well, but to the line that joins the ‘territory-terroir’ to the ‘territory-globe’ it now seems legitimate to add two lines linking those two traditional attractors to a third point, the apex of a triangle: this would be the ‘territory-Earth’ (we might call it the planet, or Gè, or Gaïa—the name matters very little). This is what I’ve called the ‘New Climactic Regime’. It is clear that the planet that was assembled at the astonishing climate conference in Paris has very few traits in common with the space towards which globalisation was supposed to be leading us, which was as undifferentiated as it was boundless. That planet possesses a climate, a ground, boundaries, front-lines, an entire geopolitics, with as little resemblance to the old maps of national identity as it does to the globe of the former world known as ‘natural’.

This third attractor is not opening a ‘third way’ between identity and universality (nor between ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ of course, which are two projects without a ground). But its presence, its weight, its novelty are capable of radically transforming the political spectrum. It requires us to redefine the very soil to which we belong, and to reconfigure who is to be deemed reactionary and who progressive. In any case, if we don’t manage to re-territorialise ourselves on this earth very quickly, unfortunately it’s a war of the terroirs that will soon confront us.

I can’t recall a New Year’s Eve where the weather [temps] has been so ‘awfully fine’, nor a new year that leaves us with as little time [temps] between a decisive presidential election and the urgent requirement to claim back the climate in such a political manner.

triangleofpolitics

 

‘Laudato Si’ and a Political Theology of the Anthropocene

In the last few posts I’ve been embarking on a rather systematic survey of Bruno Latour’s concept of ‘religion as a mode of existence’, [REL]. But every now and then I’ll jump off that carousel in order to consider or apply some aspect of Latour’s political theology as a whole—that is, I’ll assume some of what I haven’t yet demonstrated.

So today: some thoughts towards a political theology of the Anthropocene.

It was wonderful last Saturday at an Oxford Theological Seminar to be involved in a discussion with Oxford University academic Myles Allen. Myles is Professor of Geosystem Science in the School of Geography and the Environment, as well as being Head of the Climate Dynamics Group in the University’s Department of Physics. He has served on both the third and fourth IPCC assessments. In particular, his work proposes the use of Probabilistic Event Attribution techniques to quantify the contribution of human and other external influences on climate. (And here he is explaining the science of the carbon cycle to Will.i.am for good measure).

myles

Myles’ sober description of the politics of emissions targets was based on the indubitable authority of his own personal involvement in various commissions and panels since the 1980s. And what really stood out in his various reports was his residual optimism: we can act now, he said, and what’s required is more (not less) of the dirty work of assembling governmental actors in the room in order to qualify these targets. In response to my own, impish question, Myles strongly disavowed the role of apocalyptical language in this operation. There’s no need for shock tactics in the way politicians or scientists communicate with the public, he argued, after all, that sort of rhetoric hasn’t caused us to shift our behaviour so far, so what’s to say it ever will? No, what’s required is more down-to-earth and hopeful: working now, with respect to the energy requirements of developing nations, and with an agreed framework in place. There’s a useful, short summary of his position here if you’re interested.

Myles confessed himself to be on the ‘soft’ side of this debate, even as it is understood within his own field. But his basic trust in the power of politics reminded me of aspects of the Good Anthropocene strategy: the eco-modernist idea that whatever limits and tipping points the Earth might throw up in the future, human technology and ingenuity will transcend them. With eco-modernism, there are no planetary boundaries that need limit the advance of the human race and its consumption requirements: instead, the human will increasingly be decoupled from nature, through the construction of  eco-citadels that are maximally efficient and minimally spatially burdensome, in such a way that nature will finally be allowed to go its own way in peace. Indeed, for eco-Modernists, as we enter the Anthropocene, the only barrier to a grand new era for humanity would be self-doubt—self-doubt fostered, it would seem, by the climate change scientists themselves, forever bombarding us with their gloomy statistics and dystopian predictions, rendering the general public frightened and even supine in the face of such apparently overwhelming odds.

(If you want a summary and critique of the eco-modernist manifesto, do check out Philip Conway’s superb series of posts from earlier this year).

Of course, there is surely much to be celebrated in such a strategy. For one thing, at least it doesn’t shy away from the problem. And anyway, pragmatic optimism doesn’t sound like a bad bet—or indeed, might we not even say that it sounds like good politics? If history shows anything, it shows that policy makers and their publics are far more likely to spare nature if at the same time they’re allowed to continue  (or even up-scale) their current trajectories of consumption and development. Wouldn’t this represent a more durable and functional political movement than one assembled, say, around sacred, moral or ideological reasons? Eco-modernism sounds like something that could work, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we go ahead and get on-board?

And yet, I wonder if it is not precisely because it self-consciously withdraws from the sacred, the moral and the ideological that the Good Anthropocene strategy falls short. Its politics may sound convincing, but it simply cannot provide the political theology that is needed at the time of the Anthropocene.

To show why, we need to consider an alternative perspective on the science of the Anthropocene, one that has been helpfully outlined for a layman like myself by Clive Hamilton (for example, here) and is being increasingly taken up in a philosophical register by Latour (for example, here). We might call this an Earth-system strategy.

The idea here is as follows. Where the Good Anthropocene strategy has gone wrong is in failing to make the cognitive leap from ecological thinking to Earth-system thinking. Ecology is the science of the relationship between organisms and their local environments. Earth-system thinking, by contrast, is the science of the whole Earth as a complex system beyond the sum of its parts.

In making the shift to Earth-system thinking, we’d be beginning to appreciate that, however much humans may be able to have a positive impact on some of the local ecologies in which they themselves are embedded, by means of their techno-utopian interventions, it doesn’t really count for anything if this does not address the Earth-system, that is, the Earth as a totality, as a unified, complex system comprised of atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and biosphere, all dependent on each other in their mutually-interacting operations.

And when you think about it, isn’t it the case that Earth-system thinking (as opposed to ecological thinking) is precisely what the Anthropocene is now demanding us to think about? What we’re facing in the Anthropocene is not just a collection of local environments susceptible to recovery and amelioration if only we could gather enough political will to do it. Rather, what we’re facing in the Anthropocene is a single, integrated, dynamic, volatile system. An Earth-system strategy shifts us out of eco-modernist thinking and into an appreciation of the world as interconnectedness, from top to bottom.

And this, I think, is where the recent encyclical, Laudato Si, begins to make a contribution. In fact, we might provocatively say that Laudato Si should not really be considered an ecological treatise at all (even though that’s what it’s always called)—but rather it should be considered an Earth-system treatise, in the sense defined just now.

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Perhaps this explains why, in spite of its call for constructive political engagement by us all in our local and national contexts, as much as we can, at various points Laudato Si complicates the idea of a purely political solution to the problem of climate change. In paragraph 106, for example, we’re reminded that various options are provided to us by science and technology to tackle the problem. But will we fall into the trap of using them according to ‘an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm’? What is this paradigm that we should be so careful to avoid? LS goes on to explain: it’s the assumption that ‘a human subject, using logical and rational procedures, can progressively approach and gain control over an external object’. The language here is fascinating: ‘logical and rational procedures’, ‘gaining control over an external object’—perhaps we could just about say that a human collective could manage such things for a local ecosystem (although it would require time, money, and a lot of political consensus), but to do so over the ES? This would be beyond possible. And so the paragraph continues: ‘to think that way is to suppose that the human subject might find himself in the presence of something formless and completely open to manipulation’. The language of ‘formlessness’, with its echo of Genesis 1, seems most apt here: to act providentially over the Earth-system would be the preserve of the Creator alone, the very one who hovered over a scene that was ‘formless and void’ and made order out of it. For humans to think that they might do the same is an overstepping of the mark, a libido dominandi we might say.

I think this is what I most appreciate about Laudato Si—the subtlety of its diagnosis. It doesn’t fall into the trap of demonizing the usual targets: those who just don’t care about the Earth, the capitalists, the corporations, the Protestants, those who show only brute rapaciousness and greed concerning the materials that the Earth offers up to them. A critique like that would be so easy to make. And yet somehow it seems to smack of a politics that has been superseded and that needs to be shifted up to a new realm of subtlety in the time of the Anthropocene.

Rather, Laudato Si gently reminds us that all human action on climate change is liable to overstep the mark, that all human action is subject to the charge of libido dominandi, even when it is carried out for the most pious and well-meaning of reasons. This occurs whenever we believe that we can act upon the Earth monolithically. Or, to put it another way, it occurs whenever we mistake the Earth-System for ecology.

In paragraph 111, Laudato Si calls this the error of ‘globalized logic’. I like that phrase a lot, especially having spent the last month of my life working through Peter Sloterdijk’s monumental Spheres trilogy, in which he seeks to recalibrate the metaphor of human agency away from its fixation with the shape of a globe, with its connotations of navigation, conquest and achievement, and towards structures that are more aware of their delicate, contingent, local construction.

peter

The same ‘globalized logic’ can be seen in the well-meaning clarion call of the eco-modernists for us to take responsibility for the future we want to inhabit. Once again, this betrays their assumption that politics, somehow, ought to be sufficient to get the job done. If only we would take responsibility, then the human race would be mobilised to put into practice the techno-utopian vision they have enunciated.

And yet, as Latour has reminded us, as soon as that word ‘responsibility’ is uttered, hundreds of different people will at once raise their voices and say that they feel no responsibility whatsoever for those deeds at a geological scale.

Here again, Laudato Si demonstrates its awareness that the political solution proposed by the Good Anthropocene strategy is inadequate. In paragraph 49 it makes the following bold statement:

Today we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. (Laudato Si, paragraph 49)

It won’t work to assume that all humans are ready to assemble as one to face the Anthropocene together, as the eco-modernists seem to assume. We can’t even agree on emissions targets, as will be painfully obvious once again at the end of the month in Paris. If there is to be any political unity to face the challenge of the Anthropocene, it will be hard won, and it will come not as a small group of humans propose a techno-utopian future that will sweep us all up on its triumphant progress, but rather it will come as the whole of humanity opens itself up to the possibility of new unscripted and non-controlling forms of reciprocity not just between humans and nature, but between people themselves:

In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation […] and it is faith alone that allows us to interpret the meaning and the mysterious beauty of what is unfolding (Laudato Si, paragraph 79).

I think that this second strategy, what I have called the Earth-system strategy, is really where the theology of Laudato Si begins. That is to say, Laudato Si takes us out of the realm of politics (which is the best that the Good Anthropocene strategy can offer), and into the realm of political theology. In this realm, there is no less requirement on humans to act. But they must act with an awareness of their own finitude and limits, and with an openness to new forms of interconnectedness that come from seeing the Earth not as an territory to be managed, but as a creation to be shared.

Perhaps that is what Laudato Si means in paragraph 10 when it proclaims its aim to show us ‘just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace’. To have only a politics is to have humans without nature; but to have a political theology is to have humans with nature.