Monday, March 5, 2018

                      YOU'D   WORRY  ABOUT   CLIMAT   TOO

Monsieur Bruno Latour’s newly translated book, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime  focuses his rhetorical firepower on  nature, culture, and the Anthropocene.

40 years ago he helped launch the discipline of science and technology studies (STS), arguing that the social dimensions of how scientists work are intertwined with the truth claims they make. Critics tried to lump him with postmodern literary relativists — a label he denies, but he wonders if his earlier efforts to question the authority of scientists led unwittingly to climate change skepticism. 

In the 90’s Latour waded into the cultural debate about modernity, famously declaring, in a 1991 book title, We have never been modern, and challenging the belief  that human culture had ever really separated from the nonhuman world. He has  enlisted on the side of the Paris Convention in the climate wars, as an avatar of the larger intellectual project of the Anthropocene, by embracing Jame’s Lovelock’s Gaia theory, and turning his 2013 Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, ( the same venue that gave us Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe)  into Facing Gaia.

Latour has never been a man to run away from a good cliché’, and recalling his early academic days spent working on a Catholic theology PhD, he invokes an impending “apocalypse.” Recently retired as head of the Paris  Sciences Po Medialab, he’s considering turning Lovelock’s life a play along the lines of  Brecht’s  Galileo.

I met Latour here in 2016, and last fall he gave The Los Angeles Review of Books  an interview which, Steve Paulson says ;

“ranged widely over his life and interests. We talked about environmental politics in the age of Trump, his abiding fascination with religion, and his experience growing up in a family of renowned wine growers. After decades of academic jousting with the scientific community, Latour has emerged as something of an éminence grise. Now scientists are asking him to help make their case for the validity of climate change research. The irony is hard to miss.”

Facing Gaia has positioned you prominently among scholars and intellectuals speaking out about climate change. Has this issue been a longtime concern of yours?
BRUNO LATOUR: I’ve been interested in the politics of nature for 30 years. I’m not a naturalist. I don’t follow bugs and spiders and animals. I’m not like many other people who got into this cause because of their interest in nature. My interest is in the way science works. I’ve read Lovelock very carefully for many years, and when debates about the Anthropocene became common in intellectual circles, I was surprised that Lovelock and [Lynn] Margulis’s argument was not being discussed by philosophers and even not very much by ecologists.

I think a lot of scientists wonder if the Gaia theory is real science or some kind of pseudoscience.
They hesitate when they are coming from biology, but not when they come from earth systems science. Lovelock has been very instrumental in the development of this discipline. It’s the people who are interested in biology and ethology who are most suspicious of Lovelock because he arrived during the dawning of the New Age movement. That was to his detriment, but in fact the theory is extremely important and interesting.

Many people who aren’t scientists have adopted Lovelock’s idea of Gaia as a way of thinking that the Earth is alive.
Yes, but that’s a big misunderstanding precisely because for Lovelock the Earth is not itself an organism. That would not be so interesting scientifically but would be terrible politically. It would resurrect all sorts of natural theology arguments and ideas about the cosmic universe. My interpretation of Gaia, which is based on a close reading of Lovelock and also a lot of interactions with scientists, is about the chemistry of the Earth’s surface being modified or transformed by the activity of lifeforms. It’s like a termite mound. The termite mound is dead, but it’s only there because of the activity of the termites. And so with the gases in the atmosphere. It’s like a biofilm. It’s just the skin of the Earth. That’s why it’s so interesting.

My aim is to contribute to a precise definition of Gaia as a political entity. Of course, this is a very difficult thing to do. What sort of entity are we dealing with? Does it impose sovereignty on nation-states? And then there is a very interesting connection between Gaia and the Anthropocene, which is one small moment in the history of Gaia but is of course very important for us as a species.

they didn’t need me. But the wine business is very interesting. It’s globalized now. Burgundy has been globalized since the Romans, of course. I don’t know if the idea of a multiplicity of disciplines comes from that historical fact — because you have to be interested in the commercial business and also in the very complex chemistry of the soil.

And I’m guessing you still enjoy a fine bottle of wine.
Yes, I’m proud of it. Our Burgundy is supposed to be the best. My father was always surprised that people in other countries produce wine. He couldn’t understand why there was wine in Australia or California or Chile. It seemed to him a waste of time. I only drink our wine, in fact. Not Bordeaux — just Burgundy! I’m not a relativist, you see. [Laughs.]

Do you favor a particular metaphysical system?
I’m trying to free religion from metaphysics because it didn’t do any good. And it’s very clear in the case of ecology that the abandonment by so many religious people of any sort of interest in the cosmic dimensions of their own practice has led to an indifference toward the issue of climate change. There is an apocalyptic dimension to all this, especially in this country. Americans consider themselves as being already saved. What is the expression — “City on a Hill”? And now we have the real apocalypse, which is largely not recognized by religious people, so this sort of ecological question does not frighten them. They feel protected. There’s a famous moment when one of your congressmen cited Genesis for the promise that God will not send another flood.