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Political Ecology and Modern Politics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 March 2020

Bruno Karsenti


The increasingly pressing need to politicize ecology depends on our capacity to conduct a critique of modern politics, reexamining its fundamental concepts and its history. This thesis, developed in Bruno Latour’s most recent book, Facing Gaia, raises the question of what kind of critique is best adapted to this end. This article seeks to address this question by tracing the arguments of Facing Gaia and its recomposition of the relations between science, politics, and religion. These relations, which are constitutive of the experience of modernity, appear differently depending on the conception of collectives that one emphasizes and how one understands their anchoring in their environment. Unlike Latour, this essay argues that it is within the framework of modern societies, understood as an entirely new kind of collective whose history has been distorted and ignored by modernist ideology, that a conception of a specifically ecological justice must be formulated. The critique that is necessary to the politicization of ecology implies a new way of determining the actors involved in the environmental crisis, breaking the particular ties that modernity has forged between societies, the forms of self-awareness they produce as they develop, and the expectations of justice that result from them.

The Anthropocene
© Éditions EHESS 2019

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This article was translated from the French by Amy Jacobs-Colas and edited by Chloe Morgan and Stephen Sawyer.


Warm thanks to Antoine Lilti and Gildas Salmon for their readings and wise remarks.


1 See the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2015,, particularly article 4, § 4 of the Paris Agreement: “Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.”

2 Latour, Bruno, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy [1999], trans. Porter, Catherine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).Google Scholar

3 Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo, From the Enemy’s Point of View: Humanity and Divinity in an Amazonian Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Descola, Philippe, Beyond Nature and Culture [2005], trans. Lloyd, Janet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 For an overview of that debate, see Aykut, Stefan S. and Dahan, Amy, Gouverner le climat ? Vingt ans de négociations internationales (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2015)Google Scholar.

5 Latour, Bruno, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime [2015], trans. Porter, Catherine (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017).Google Scholar

6 Latour, Bruno, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns [2012], trans. Porter, Catherine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 2013).Google Scholar

7 Latour, Bruno, We Have Never Been Modern [1991], trans. Porter, Catherine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).Google Scholar

8 The Marxist critique subsequently evolved on how to defend the notion of immanent critique and characterize capitalism’s cyclical crises. In the 1960s, when the impoverishment of the working class and the criterion of economic exploitation came to seem less relevant, Marxist critique turned to the political crises involved in legitimating capitalism, producing the figure of late or advanced capitalism. But the model of immanent critique remains the cornerstone of Marxist and post-Marxist analysis; see Habermas, Jürgen, Legitimation Crisis [1973], trans. McCarthy, Thomas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975)Google Scholar.

9 Latour, Facing Gaia, 10–14.

10 Ibid, 14.


11 On the pseudo-controversy of climate skepticism, see Oreskes, Naomi, “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science 306, no. 5702 (2004): 1686CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, and Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik M., Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoking to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010)Google Scholar.

12 Callon, Michel, “Pour une sociologie des controverses technologiques,” Fundamenta Scientiae 2, no. 3/4 (1981): 381–99Google Scholar; Latour, Bruno, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Lemieux, Cyril, “À quoi sert l’analyse des controverses ?Mil neuf cent. Revue d’histoire intellectuelle 25, no. 1 (2007): 191–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 On this point, Latour’s thinking developed through a dialogue with Philippe Descola, and their two projects have fueled each other over the last twenty years; see Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture. In Facing Gaia, Latour once again positions the moderns as naturalists. That move and its effect, which is to anthropologically relativize the meaning of the nature/culture split, constitute political ecology’s first lever of critique.

14 “Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this body politic were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that fiat, or the Let us make Man, pronounced by God in the Creation”; Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (London: Andrew Crooke, 1651), 1Google Scholar. In this passage, according to Latour, we can detect the founding proposition of modern political philosophy.

15 Lovelock, James, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity (New York: Basic Books, 2006).Google Scholar

16 Latour, Facing Gaia, “Third Lecture: Gaia, a (Finally Secular) Figure for Nature,” 75ff.

17 Latour, Bruno, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)Google Scholar. This is what moved Latour to adopt the minority approach of the “sociology of association,” inspired by the thinking of Gabriel Tarde, as against the majority Durkheimian approach, which he dubbed the “sociology of the social.” See Tarde, Œuevres, vol. 1, Monadologie et sociologie [1895] (Le Plessis-Robinson: Institut Synthélabo pour le progrès de la connaissance, 1999).

18 Latour, Facing Gaia, “Fifth Lecture: How to Convene the Various Peoples (of Nature)?” 167ff.

19 See in particular Karsenti, Bruno, D’une philosophie à l’autre. Les sciences sociales et la politique des modernes (Paris: Gallimard, 2013)Google Scholar.

20 Karsenti, Bruno and Lemieux, Cyril, Socialisme et sociologie (Paris: Éd. de l’EHESS, 2017).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 Latour, Facing Gaia, 58.

22 This is the substance of Émile Durkheim’s theory of social symbolism, fully developed in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life [1912], trans. Karen Fields (New York: Free Press, 1995). See in particular Durkheim’s assertion that collective representations are constructed through relations with the external, material world, not internally within a collective consciousness conceived as generated by the fusion of individual consciousnesses (231–32).

23 It is important to reexamine Polanyi’s central concepts if we are to adjust to the political challenge of climate change in a way consistent with socialist thinking. On this subject, see recent texts by Pierre Charbonnier, particularly, “Le socialisme est-il une politique de la nature ? Une lecture écologique de Karl Polanyi,” Incidence 11 (2015): 183–204.

24 Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1944).Google Scholar

25 For a critique of this humanitarianist vision, see Chakrabarty, Dipesh, “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change,” New Literary History 43, no. 1 (2012): 1–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Latour, Facing Gaia, 181–82.

27 The need to resuscitate our historical consciousness in order to politicize ecology is one of Latour’s main and most insistent points; see Facing Gaia, 165, 182, and 195, n. 33.

28 Crutzen, Paul J. and Stoermer, Eugene F., “The ‘Anthropocene,’Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000): 17–18Google Scholar. On the resonance of this concept and its implications, see Bonneuil, Christophe and Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us [2013], trans. Fernbach, David (London: Verso, 2016)Google Scholar; Grinevald, Jacques and Hamilton, Clive, “Was the Anthropocene Anticipated?The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1 (2015): 59–72Google Scholar; Steffen, Willet al., “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1 (2015): 81–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Charbonnier, Pierre, “L’ambition démocratique à l’âge de l’Anthropocène,” Esprit 12 (2015): 34–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Latour, Facing Gaia, 143.

30 Ibid.


31 Schmitt, Carl, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of Jus Publicum Europaeum [1950], trans. Ulmen, G. L. (New York: Telos, 2003), 140–51.Google Scholar

32 Latour, Facing Gaia, 227.

33 It is remarkable that in probing the political meaning of his own thinking as he does in Facing Gaia, Latour should return to the classic sociological question of authority as formulated in Durkheimian sociology. At the end of his life’s work, Durkheim defined the cardinal problem of constituting social facts in terms of authority, not constraint or coercion; see The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 210–11, n. 6.

34 Latour, Facing Gaia, 140.

35 Vernant, Jean-Pierre, “Cosmogonies and Myths of Sovereignty,” in The Origins of Greek Thought [1962] (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 102–18Google Scholar; Détienne, Marcel, Apollon, le couteau à la main. Une approche expérimentale du polythéisme grec (1998; repr. Paris: Gallimard, 2009)Google Scholar.

36 “Authority, not truth, makes law.” On how this adage operates in Hobbes’s thought, see the opposed views of Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political [1932], trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), first note to chap. 7, and Voegelin, Eric, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 152–59Google Scholar. For an elucidation of this opposition, see Biral, Alessandro, Storia e critica della filosofia politica moderna (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1999)Google Scholar. On this question in Voegelin’s thinking, see Karsenti, Bruno, “La représentation selon Voegelin, ou les deux visages de Hobbes,” Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 96, no. 3 (2012): 513–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 Latour, Facing Gaia, 145.

38 For an overview of contractual mechanisms, see Terrel, Jean, Les théories du pacte social. Droit naturel, souveraineté et contrat de Bodin à Rousseau (Paris: Éd. du Seuil, 2001)Google Scholar. For a critique of the contractualist model as a limitation in modern political thought, see Duso, Giuseppe, ed., Il contratto sociale nella filosofia moderna (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2006)Google Scholar.

39 On this danger see Eric Voegelin’s work on and against Nazism, Political Religions [1938], trans. T. J. DiNapoli and E. S. Easterly III (Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1986).

40 Assmann, Jan, The Price of Monotheism [1997], trans. Savage, Robert (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).Google Scholar

41 Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 111–12.

42 Toulmin, Stephen E., Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).Google Scholar

43 As I see it, this concept of attention is cardinal in Latour’s philosophy. See Karsenti, Bruno, “Tenir au monde, le faire tenir. Linéaments d’une philosophie de l’attention,” Archives de philosophie 75, no. 4 (2012): 567–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 Latour, Facing Gaia, 153.

45 Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 210–11, n. 6.

46 Durkheim, , The Division of Labor in Society [1893], trans. Halls, W. D. (New York: Free Press, 1984), 149ff.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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