The Value Of Nature – A Critical Account Of Anthropocentrism In Politics, Part 2 (Anne Fremaux)

The following is part two of a three-part article. Part one can be found by clicking here

 

The alienation from nature and the loss of freedom

This debate may sound abstract but actually is not when placed in the context of the opposition between nature and artefact. For instance, Jeremy Rifkin cites the estimation that by 2020, 95% of human body parts “will be replaceable with laboratory-grown organs” (10). The artificialisation of the “natural” body or the ability to deconstruct and reconstruct it in an artificial way points again toward the side of techno-science and capitalism insofar as the body might be, soon, treated as a commodity like any other, any ethical wall protecting it being abandoned (like it is almost already the case in the U.S.).

Analysing Arendt’s conception of nature, Macauley observes that “the attempt to make life in the test tube and to create superior human beings with advanced technology […] is (for her) of the same nature as our desire literally to escape the earth, so that it can be seen as part of the phenomenon of earth alienation” (1996: 112, emphasis added). As the word “alienation” suggests, a loss of freedom is at stake in this process and Arendt anticipates, here, the darker implications of Foucault’s biopolitics.

The process of commoditisation applies not only to work on human biology and nature but also to the external world. In Ecologie et Liberté (Ecology and Freedom), André Gorz observes that what characterizes natural processes is the fact they are free of charge (98). The artificialization of nature goes hand-in-hand with the creation of new markets for the capitalist economy, whether through the process of privatization or through the creation of shortages. Indeed, when the supply of uncontaminated water, nonpolluted air and viable soil dramatically contracts, new profitable technologies are more and more offered as privileges for the wealthiest.

Nature has, without doubt, something to do with freedom. Although often described as a source of alienation (in Hegel’s philosophy for instance), or as a “realm of necessity” that must be overcome to reach “the realm of freedom” (Marx), the concept of the natural still implies “freedom.” In a kind of negative dialectic, the mastering of nature that was supposed to free humans has become such a source of alienation that the next step should be “the mastery of mastery” (although the mastery, as the environmental crisis shows, is far from being achieved). Freedom is not only sought in the artificial world. As Macauley puts it:

[Freedom] is already present in the realm of nature, in which humans find themselves first embedded […]. The political task, then, is not only to enlarge social and political freedom but to reintegrate ourselves with the freedom which exists naturally and to create an ecological sensibility which permeates the human world that has been sharply divorced from the realm of nature (1996:120).

Indeed, etymologically, the word “nature” comes from the Latin nasci that means “to be born,” “to arise,” and “to develop.” Nature is what has in itself the causes of its own development, that is, that part of the world that does not originate in human action but can reproduce and persist, freely, on its own, without external intervention. From this point of view, the concept of nature is undeniably associated with the concept of “autonomy” understood not in the Kantian meaning but in the Greek sense of “Autopoiesis” (autoproduction): nature is an autopoietic system in so far as it regulates itself by and for itself (pour soi/für sich).

In this way, we become partly reconciled with Aristotle’s definition of nature, that is, nature defined as things that have within themselves a principle of motion, an innate impulse to change. But we oppose Aristotle’s concept of nature when he separates it from our “artefacts” (that is, things that are produced by technicians) since some human productions may have a “natural destiny,” that is, a destiny that completely escapes human power. Nature is that part of the world that can develop under human intervention but also without human control, in its own way, in virtue of itself–and upon which we are utterly dependent.

Nature is linked, therefore, to creativity (creation of novelty) as described by the French philosopher Henri Bergson in his book L’évolution créatrice (Creative Evolution). According to this conception, the natural world constitutes a global transcendence that supports the cultural world (instead of the contrary) even though the influence of humans on natural processes has reached unprecedented levels.

The concept of technonature

The connection between the natural and human worlds is so deep that it is mostly impossible to distinguish between nature and artefacts: if we look at the world around us, we see cities, countryside, rivers, which all bear the prints of human activity. Nature, indeed, has always been transformed by humans (homo faber) but the extent of this activity is such that to define the current geological epoch.

Environmental scientists commonly use the word “anthropocene,” popularised by the Nobel Prize winning scientist Paul Crutzen (17-18), in order to underline the fact that human activities have reached such a scale that they have become significant geological forces (for instance, through deforestation, fossil fuel burning, mining, etc.) competing with natural processes. Humanity in the “anthropocene” is now in nature is a biotic but also a geological force on the planet.

Taking into account this relatively recent interaction between natural and artificial processes, the French philosopher Catherine Larrère emphasizes the “common destiny” and interaction of nature and culture and defines this new interaction under the concept of “technonature” (260). Indeed, it is no longer possible to distinguish between the results of human actions versus natural forces. Both processes are intertwined and the natural changes have become our own products.

Phenomena such as depletion of the ozone layer, the icecap disappearance, or global warming, which are the most visible parts of this new type of perturbations, are neither only environmental or human made processes, but the product of both. Instead of saying, as constructivists do, that nature (defined as the opposite of culture) is “dead,” nature takes over our own products in a complete uncontrolled and unpredictable way:

The artificialization of nature corresponds the naturalization of our productions. How many objects, products and sub-products, are beyond our control? Waste, exhaust fumes from cars, smoke emitted by factories, nitrates and pesticides spread over lands, all these effluents, all these abandoned objects do have a natural future that we do not master. There is no technosphere but rather a techno-nature that comprises our works: the ones we produce with natural processes and those that leave us and whose natural evolution escapes our maintenance (Larrère, 2009: 10, my translation).

Instead of depicting nature in reductionist terms, as mechanistic or deterministic (as in mechanistic biology), we must assert that techno-nature has its own unpredictable path in its interaction with human actions. Hannah Arendt offered a visionary analysis of this new interaction between nature and technology. In The Modern Concept of History, she says:

We know today that […] we are quite capable of starting new natural processes, and that in a sense therefore we “make nature,” to the extent, that is, that we “make history” […]. We have begun to act into nature as we used to act into history […]. The first result of men acting into history is that history becomes a process, and the most cogent argument for men’s acting into nature in the guise of scientific inquiry is that today, in Whitehead’s formulation, “nature is a process.” (589)

Through her comparison between the concept of nature and the concept of history, Arendt underlines the fact that humans have carried their own unpredictability into a realm that has been formerly characterized by (relative) necessity:

If, therefore, by starting natural processes, we have begun to act into nature, we have manifestly begun to carry our own unpredictability into that realm which we used to think of as ruled by inexorable laws […]. To act into nature, to carry human unpredictability into a realm where we are confronted with elemental forces which we shall perhaps never be able to control reliably is dangerous enough. Even more dangerous would be to ignore that for the first time in our history the human capacity for action has begun to dominate all others […]. It is beyond doubt that the capacity to act is the most dangerous of all human abilities and possibilities, and it is also beyond doubt that self-created risks mankind faces today have never been faced before. (ibid.,589-590)

Slowly but inexorably, members of our species are re-discovering that above the matrix of social relations exists a biological matrix of life that follows its own path and that absorbs, in its way, our own creations.

My argument, in many regards, could be seen as close to the constructivist argument according to which nature and culture cannot be separated anymore but are linked in a hybrid form of agency that involves both human and nonhuman actors. However, unlike constructivists (Latour, for instance), I believe that the nature/culture dyad is still valid in some extent and that the idea of “hybridity” does not render the concept of objective (or essentialist) nature meaningless or useless. Indeed, the natural world operates in an autonomous way and produces “disasters” (considered for us as disaster) that perturb the social agency. All hybrid objects are indeed embedded in natural processes that escape control. As Pollini puts it, “Aren’t disasters, for example, the unexpected consequences of unknown processes generated ‘out there’?” (31), and further:

Between the tendency of societies to produce a cultural world that they wish to control and whose natural content is reduced, and the tendency of the natural world to produce disasters that pose a threat to societies, humans have to find their own way. This requires an assessment of the implications of both natural and cultural processes and necessities, which is precisely why we should distinguish between nature and culture (ibid.: 32).

While producing a world of flawed representations (radical constructivism), humankind is in danger of ignoring natural laws. These flawed representations of nature are particularly characteristic of modern consumer and service societies that have delocalised their sites of production and have virtualised social life. The debates about the reality of nature would have no consistency in other parts of the world where the resistance offered by natural processes cannot be ignored.

Therefore, I contend the holistic point of view according to which “the nature of the part [cultural life] is determined by its relationship to the whole” or “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” (111). What must be done is to separate realities and their representations and to offer a definition of the word “nature” that is compatible with both an essentialist view of nature (nature as an external truth) and the interaction between natural and man-made phenomena. It means the rejection of the normative claims made in the name of nature but also the understanding of natural processes in their objective reality.

As Abram puts it, “The ecological crisis may be the result of a recent and collective perceptual disorder in our species, a unique form of myopia which it now forces us to correct” (101). Constructivism that abolishes nature as an objective reality, or, to cite Ehrenfeld’s famous work, The Arrogance of Humanism (humanism being understood here as “our irrational faith in the limitless power of human reason”) is part of this myopia. This arrogance is linked to assumptions of control that prove to be partly and dramatically irrelevant.

Unsuccessful attempts to mitigate climate change effects or to control the escape of radioactive particles in the environment after Fukushima or Chernobyl show, for instance, how powerless humans are when their experiments leave the safe place of laboratories. But note that Ehrenfeld is not an ecocentric. He does not reject anthropocentrism, merely the “arrogance” – see the 1999 book, Rethinking Green Politics, as Ehrenfeld observes:

The point is that human-designed systems of great power and complexity will always have accidents, as our emotional judgment rightly warns us, and no application of rational control systems, however carefully and skilfully engineered, can possibly prevent them from happening (1981:viii).

Ulrich Beck agrees in the Risk Society (1992). “The future looks less like the past than ever before and has in some basic ways become very threatening. As a species, we are no longer guaranteed survival, even in the short term, and this is a consequence of our own doings, as collective humanity” (1994: vii). The destructive power of our modern mega-technologies, “self-made risk,” has reached unprecedented degree and the faith in the anticipatory controllability of side effects by “expert-systems” is no longer possible:  “The immanent pluralisation of risk also calls the rationality of risk calculations into question” (1994: 181).

If Beck acknowledges that public awareness preselects ecological questions or that the issue of risk is “constructed,” (1995: 41) he does not deny that ecology is an objective matter linked to new “human-made” (manufactured) risks and new technologies (nuclear power, bio-chemical disasters, ozone depletion, global warming, etc.). Risk is the cost of increased opportunities of science and technology, of products created without understanding of the consequences. The 2008 financial crisis mirrors the current ecological crisis we are going through: both prove that the “juggernaut of modernity” (Giddens) has no driver. People discover, with every new disaster, the gap between science’s claim of security and reality.

Consequently, the ecological crisis also brings into question scientific authority in a “risk society” (Ulrich Beck) since it has been struck by the globalisation of industrial dangers. What political dynamics, what moral and social rules will come out of such a new state? Is the normalization and legalization of uncontrollable global systemic threats acceptable? Is this new situation calling for an adjustment of our traditional ethic (calling, for instance, for precautionary principle and the respect of next generations) or does it call for a complete revolution of our frameworks of thoughts and our relation to our environment?

***

Considering nature as an autonomous creative process affected by human activity (“technonature”) is useful for the purpose of building “a political theory of nature” from two angles.

First, if nature is defined as what renews itself autonomously (preservation of life), this autonomy is what is at stake when exploitative human activity prevents natural resources from renewing their stocks and resources – it also inhibits non-human creatures/entities from expressing their “species being.” The ecological crisis lies in the inability of (techno?)nature to carry out its restoration process. The earth’s resources are limited and its balance is mostly disrupted by human activities, thereby creating “unsustainability” in human-nonhuman relations/metabolism. The definition of nature appears henceforth relevant to the practical and ethical issue of the conservation, or even, the respect of nature in which we are interested and which defines environmental ethics.

Second, this definition points out the political problem of the social and political prevention of risks in an uncertain, chaotic and complex world, in which man does not master all of his creations. The total mastering of nature is an unrealistic utopia. This calls for a new ethical approach of our technical power. In human-nonhuman relations we are tasked ethically not to control nature but rather control our relationship to nature.

The French philosopher Stéphane-Hicham Afeissa shows that the two different attempts (that he calls “Anglo-Saxon” and “Continental” approaches) encounter two opposite defects: the Anglo-American theory of intrinsic value faces the risk of dogmatism and political inefficiency when the continental approach faces the problem of its lack of radicalism when generating real solutions to the crisis of Western civilization we are facing. We are confronted, then, with the respective contradictions between “deep” and “shallow” ecologies.

The main issue here may consist in establishing a conceptual connection between these two distinct approaches, the first grounded in metaphysics and ethics, and the second dealing specifically with politics. Indeed, a metaphysical theory can turn out to be useless to set up new patterns of political actions and solve pragmatic issues. But can a social or political theory, insofar as it aims to be critical, avoid appealing to normative (moral or ethical) criteria? But what is wrong with appealing to ethical/normative criteria? As opposed to metaphysical ones? Therefore, what must be defined are the “normative foundations” of an ecological political theory, or the problem of determining what moral norms are valid in green politics.

 

Dr. Anne Fremaux received her PhD ‘Towards a Critical Theory of the Anthropocene and a Life-affirming Politics’ from the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University in Belfast to which she is still associated as a visiting research fellow. Her doctoral thesis has been published under the title: After the Anthropocene: Green Republicanism in a Post-Capitalist World (Palgrave, 2019). She has also published a science-fiction novel on transhumanism, posthumanism and ecological crisis entitled L’ère du Levant and a philosophical essay about ecology and politics, “La nécessité d’une écologie radicale.” She is currently looking for a postdoc or assistant position in the fields of political ecology, environmental philosophy, critical ecology, environmental studies and in general continental and Western philosophy.

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