Bruno Latour | Ecologizing the Future


Notes towards an emancipatory ecologistics? * What would be required of us cognitively, technically, and practically in our attempts to alter our ways of existing for more adaptive modes?

Bruno Latour, from ‘To modernize or to ecologize? That’s the Question’ (1998):

In the new regime, everything is complicated and every decision demands caution and prudence. One can never go straight or fast. It is impossible to go on without circumspection and without modesty. We now know, for example, that if it is necessary to take account of everything along the length of a river, we will not succeed with a hierarchised system that might give the impression, on paper, of being a wonderful science with wonderful feedback loops but which will not generate new political life. To obtain a stirring up of politics, you have to add uncertainty so that the actors, who until now knew what a river could and could not tolerate, begin to entertain sufficient doubts. The word ‘doubt’ is in fact inadequate, since it gives the impression of scepticism, whereas it is more a case of enquiry, research and experimentation. In short, it is a collective experimentation on the possible associations between things and people without any of these entities being used, from now on, as a simple means by the others.
Political ecology, as we have now understood it, is not defined by taking account of nature, but by the different career now taken by all objects. A planner for the local agricultural authority, an irrigator, a fisherman or a concessionaire for drinking water used to know the needs of water. They could guarantee its form by assuming its limits and being ignorant of all the ins and outs. The big difference between the present and the previous situation does not lie in the fact that, before, we did not know about rivers and now we are concerned about them, but in the fact that we can no longer delimit the ins and outs of this river as an object. Its career as an object no longer has the same form if each stream, each meander, each source and each copse must serve both as an end and a means for those claiming to manage them.
At the risk of doing a little philosophising, we could say that the ontological forms of the river have changed. There are, literally speaking, no more things. This expression has nothing to do with a sentimentalism of Mother Earth, with the merging of the fisherman, kingfisher and fish. It only designates the uncertain, dishevelled character of the entities taken into account by the smallest river contract or the smallest management plan. Nor does the expression refer to the inevitable complexity of natural milieux and human–environment interactions, for the new relationships are no more complex than the old ones (if they were, no science, management or politics could be done on their behalf, as Florian Charvolin [1993] demonstrated so well). It solely refers to the obligation to be prepared to take account of other participants who may appear unforeseen, or disappear as if by magic, and who all aspire to take part in the ‘kingdom of ends’ by suddenly combining the relationships of the local and global. In order to monitor these quasiobjects, it is therefore necessary to invent new procedures capable of managing these arrivals and departures, these ends and these means — procedures that are completely different from those used in the past to manage things.
In fact, to summarise this argument, it would have to be said that ecology has nothing to do with taking account of nature, its own interests or goals, but that it is rather another way of considering everything. ‘Ecologising’ a question, an object or datum, does not mean putting it back into context and giving it an ecosystem. It means setting it in opposition, term for term, to another activity, pursued for three centuries and which is known, for want of a better term, as ‘modernisation.’.
Everywhere we have ‘modernised’ we must now ‘ecologise.’ This slogan obviously remains ambiguous and even false, if we think of ecology as a complete system of relationships, as if it were only a matter of taking everything into account. But it becomes profoundly apposite if we use the term ecology by applying to it the principle of selection defined above and by referring it to the Kantian principle for the justification of the green regime.
‘Ecologising’ means creating the procedures that make it possible to follow a network of quasi-objects whose relations of subordination remain uncertain and which thus require a new form of political activity adapted to following them.


One response to “Bruno Latour | Ecologizing the Future

  1. I’m also interested in how we cope day to day with knowing that something like this line of thought (along with Stengers, Pickering and all) is what is would be required but that it is alien to even those on the far left and so we are (as usual) a tiny minority having to live with/in majorities that don’t share our interests.

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