8 june 2020

[4C Note: We have edited out about half of this interview as less relevant to the problem of climate change.]

Bruno Latour: 'This is a global catastrophe that has come from within'

" We cannot endlessly extract resources and discard our waste. In the critical zone, we must maintain what we have."

Jonathan Watts The Observer, June 8, 2020

In the early days of the lockdown, philosopher Bruno Latour wrote an essay for the AOC cultural online newspaper. “The first lesson the coronavirus has taught us,” he wrote, “is also the most astounding: we have actually proven that it is possible, in a few weeks, to put an economic system on hold everywhere in the world…” That essay, translated since into at least 12 languages, has encouraged many to reimagine how different the world could look if we learned from this experience. It has also solidified the reputation of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) emeritus professor as one of the most influential thinkers of our age.

Many countries are now easing out of lockdown. What can we expect to emerge from this period of reflection?
The pandemic has reopened the debate about what is necessary and what is possible. It has put us in a position where we can decide what is useful and what is not. That choice disappeared before. Everything seemed relentless like a tsunami. Now we realise it was not. We can see things are reversible. We can see which jobs are necessary and which are junk. How long that will last, I don’t know. We might have forgotten everything in three months. That depends on how hard the economic crisis becomes. I am overwhelmed by the size of the economic problem, from what I hear from my students.

To put your own question back to you, what would you change?

What we need is not only to modify the system of production but to get out of it altogether. We should remember that this idea of framing everything in terms of the economy is a new thing in human history. The pandemic has shown us the economy is a very narrow and limited way of organising life and deciding who is important and who is not important. If I could change one thing, it would be to get out of the system of production and instead build a political ecology.

Has the pandemic response made you more or less optimistic about humanity’s ability to tackle the climate and nature crisis?
The bad guys are better organised and clearer in knowing what they want. The war we are engaged in is a difficult one. It is not that we are powerless; it is that many of us don’t know how to react.

In your latest art collaboration at ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, you define the scope of human existence as the “critical zone”, a narrow band of Earth that can support life. What is the purpose of this approach?
It is a redefinition of our landscape. The idea of the “critical zone” is useful because it gets you out of nature. Nature is very big. It covers everything from the big bang to microbes. Conceptually, that makes it a complete mess. The critical zone is limited. It is just a few kilometres thick – above and below the surface of the Earth. But all discovered life is within it. This brings us inside in a way that nature does not. It is very different from the way of thinking that makes people such as Elon Musk think they should go on a mission to Mars. That is escapist. But when you think in terms of a critical zone, you are locked in, you cannot escape. What does it mean for politics if we are locked in and not in the infinite cosmology opened by Galileo? It means we cannot behave in the same way. It means we cannot just endlessly extract resources and discard our waste. In the critical zone, we must maintain what we have because it is finite, it’s local, it’s at risk and it’s the object of conflict.

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