"What good is it for a man to gain his soul and yet forfeit the whole world?”
In his essay on post-environmentalism ‘Love your Monsters – Why we must care for our technologies as we do our children’, Bruno Latour argues passionately for scientists and environmentalists to cease imagining Nature as separate from Humanity. In the following critique I will show how this argument is both valid and necessary.
Nature has never been a separate “thing”.
Using the popular metaphor of Frankenstein and his monster, Latour turns the familiar narrative on its head. The crime is not that Frankenstein created the monster. The real crime was that Frankenstein abandoned his monster, left him alone in a world full of fearful people, with no skills to cope. Likewise Latour argues, we should not pull back from our creations just because there are fearful people and unintended consequences.
There are always unintended consequences.
His thesis centres on the argument that we should embrace compositionism and either abandon or reimagine modernism. According to Latour, modernism fails because it expects Science to reveal Nature, a Nature formally obscure to humanity. Modernism expects that “Tomorrow, we will be able to differentiate clearly what in the past was still mixed up”. That in the future there will be fewer messy entanglements. To Latour this is absurd. In this essay he states that the process of human development leads not to liberation from Nature, but to an ever increasing attachment to a “panoply of natures”.
He maintains that green politics has failed, largely because it fails to integrate humanity with nature, wanting instead to ‘save’ it. The narrative, framed by the green movement, of a dismal future has led to the marginalisation of eco politics.
Returning to his opening metaphor, Latour asks that we look again at the notion of Mastery, not in the traditional context of the Dominion of Man over Nature, but in the sense that we bear a responsibility to steward, manage and integrate nature within the fabric of society.
We cannot abandon our monster, our unintended consequence. We must take on the responsibility of our creation.
Nature is not separate:
Latour’s Essay was published in an anthology produced to provide both a harsh wake-up call and at the same time a glimmer of hope to a demoralised green movement. The anthology itself was commissioned by The Breakthrough Institute, which was founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger with the intention of modernising the environmental movement. Their central conceit is that the argument of ‘Environment as separate’ is a fallacy. We can only hope to save the environment by engaging with other actors in it, be they politicians, industry or unions (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2004).
It is from this that Latour frames his essay.
“Every-day in our newspapers we read about more entanglements of all those things that were once imagined separable – science, morality, religion, law, technology, finance, and politics. But these things are tangled up together everywhere”
Since the evolution of humans, there has never been a time that the environment has been a separate thing. Within the same anthology as Latour’s essay Erle Ellis writes that humans have always altered natural systems to best suit themselves, and at the same time “the earth became more productive and more capable of supporting the human population” (Ellis, 2011). In a similar way Latour asks that we acknowledge we can never be separate from a nonhuman world. In this he sets himself at odds with current environmental thinking.
The prevailing narrative from the Green movement is that we should stop interfering with nature, that humanity will destroy nature if we do not immediately back away from it. This allows the eco-political discourse to be framed by those who do engage. Or at the least, those who provide a better narrative than the one above.
As Sarah Mills notes in her essay on Michael Foucault, “discourse should be seen as a system which structures the way that we perceive reality” (Mills, 2003). The discourse or narrative that the green movement embraced is one of disengagement. We have done this much damage, we should aim to do no more. To Latour this is the equivalent of Frankenstein abandoning his monster.
When Latour states that the movement should embrace the ever increasing attachments between things and people he is asking that the environmental movement change their internal discourse. He suggests that rather than retreat from nature, environmentalists should connect with it, and in doing so engage with the technologies developed in the last century to assist in saving it. This failure to break through the existing discourse and reframe the narrative from “special interest” to “relevant to all” is the root cause of the green movement’s marginalisation. If they face the growing eco-political challenges with science and technology in hand, he argues, there may be a chance for the movement to gain momentum once more.
“The return of consequences, like Global Warming, is taken as a contradiction, or even as a monstrosity, which it is, of course, but only according to the modernist’s narrative of emancipation. In the compositionist’s narrative of attachments, unintended consequences are quite normal”
Latour is a strong proponent of the Actor Network theory, which, according to Latour “approaches science and technology in the making” rather than “ready-made science and technology”. It is with this approach that his advocacy of Compositionism makes sense. Rather than seeing the science or the technology as finished and boxed off, he wants the environmental community to adopt it, work with it. To borrow from Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, “Our politics lose the indulgence of guilt with the naiveté of innocence” (Haraway, 1991). The movement cannot afford to indulge in guilt.
Failure to adopt a more integrated approach can be seen clearly within the ongoing debate on Climate Change and also with GM food production.
The green movement frames the first as a technical problem to overcome. They engage with the science but have little success with the political. The resulting ‘debate’ is framed by industry and media outlets such as Fox News. While the science behind it is solid, the green movement has had difficulty in progressing the conversation. Latour argues that this is the result of political ecology failing to engage with a composite reality.
Indeed, the founders of the Breakthrough Institute argued similarly, “What’s frustrating about Boiling Point is the way the authors advocate technical policy solutions as though politics didn’t matter. Who cares if a carbon tax is the most simple elegant policy mechanism to increase demand for clean energy solutions if it’s a political loser?” (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2004)
By refusing to acknowledge that it is not the job of the environmentalists alone to save the world, but that everyone from the public, government, unions and indeed industry has a part to play, the job of saving the planet becomes significantly harder. While it may be easy to paint Monsanto as an evil corporation, this does nothing to assist food production in the developing world.
“In the modernist narrative, mastery was to require such total dominance by the master that he was emancipated entirely from any care or worry”
In reality, as Latour has argued, there is no emancipation. We are, and have always been, nature.
Ellis, E. (2011). The Planet of No Return. In T. Nordhaus, & M. Shellenberger, Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene (pp. 37-46). The Breakthrough Institute.
Haraway, D. (1991). A Cyborg Manifesto. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (pp. 149-181). New York: Routledge.
Mills, S. (2003). Discourse. In S. Mills, Michel Foucault (pp. 53-66). Routledge.
Nordhaus, T., & Shellenberger, M. (2004). The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming politics in a post-environmental world. Environmental Grantmakers Association.
"What good is it for a man to gain his soul and yet forfeit the whole world?”