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The Chair read for you Culture Écologique by Pierre Charbonnier

Published on 22 April 2022

Based on his teaching experience at Sciences Po, Pierre Charbonnier’s book Culture Écologique [1] seeks to enlighten the reader on the debates that are organizing the ecological question today. At the crossroads of anthropology, history, sociology, political science, geography, economics and philosophy, Pierre Charbonnier exposes the nature of current debates from three interconnected and complementary angles: the study of the construction of knowledge on natural environments and societies, the study of forms of power, domination and contestation that take shape with the taking over of resources, and, finally, the study of the physical and biological characteristics of the Earth system.

Through a journey into the distant past of humanity, the first chapters review the major characteristics of the evolution of the relationship between humans and nature. Our dualistic and simplistic framework of thought opposing the innate from the acquired prevents us from seeing the reciprocity of exchanges between humans and the environment. Indeed, the author describes the human being as an ecological engineer, an integral part of his environment, constantly recomposing our ways of life to test the external conditions and modifying these conditions in return. The Neolithic period is a perfect example of this, since it marks the introduction of a new socio-ecological regime based on the domestication of plants and animals and opens up an anthropological as well as political debate concerning the emergence of centralized political institutions.

Moving forward in time, two major techno-scientific innovations have actively participated in the process of human reorganization of its environment and in radical changes of the pre-industrial socio-ecological regime. On the one hand, the successive improvements made to the steam engine in the 18th and 19th centuries made it possible to displace the spatial and energetic constraints that previously conditioned pre-industrial societies. On the other hand, the invention in the 20th century of the Haber-Bosch chemical process to synthesize ammonia broke the constraint of limited productivity of the earth by artificially increasing soil fertility. The term “anthropocene” then takes on its full meaning: it emphasizes the global dimension of the impact of human action on the environment, while at the same time insisting on humanity’s responsibility for the modification of its environment. In Western thought, this ethic of responsibility assumes that the protection of nature can only be achieved through a relationship of domination that humans maintain over it.

This journey through time is punctuated by a short stop on the history of science, necessary to understand our relationship with the Earth. Until the 19th century, under the influence of religious thought, humans studied the world through theological glasses that gave an anthropocentric view to their reasoning. In the 19th century, and even more strongly in the 20th century, the scientific revolution and the rise of natural sciences allowed us to approach the study of planetary equilibrium in a much more systemic way: planetary evolutions are no longer the result of a linear and repetitive process, but rather the consequence of interactions and transitions between different phases and actors in a dynamic process.

The success of the scientific development makes it one of the three matrices within which the structures of the relationship between nature and modern Western societies have been set up. This success is interpreted as the omnipotence of the human being in relation to nature. For humanity, everything is subject to a logic of rationalization and quantified anticipation of human and non-human behaviors, but also of random events. This logic is anchored in the search for an ideal of total control of the human being over himself and his environment. The second equally important matrix in the modernization process of Western societies is its relationship to time. This one passes by the emergence of a positive attitude towards the future, notably by the sacralization of the notion of “progress“. Indeed, this notion has an eminently political dimension, since it makes it possible to consider the environment as a tool that can be used by systems of power to ensure the loyalty of their population by promising them a better future. Finally, the third and last matrix of the modernization process is the management of space, through the dynamics of territorial conquest and the notion of “frontier“. The latter can be seen as a space of contact between a world perceived as concentrating the social values to be diffused to another unknown world considered as a territory to be conquered, a process that is then seen as a fight against nature. Here again, we observe a process of domination of the Western human on his environment, but also on the populations that inhabit them.

This relationship with nature based on the race for techno-scientific progress in order to establish the superiority of human reason over its environment, have been the subject of numerous criticisms over the last two centuries, which the author examines in turn in a second part. A first criticism revolves around the capitalist production model. The perversity of the capitalist system lies in its capacity to integrate the social and material limits it encounters and to displace them. The critique of the capitalist production model highlights parallels between socio-economic struggles and the impoverishment of the relationship between humans and the natural world. For example, an analogy is made between the overexploitation of workers and that of natural resources, which would obey similar mechanisms. Thus, this critique tends to put back at the heart of societal issues the very limits that the capitalist system strives to internalize or reject.

A second set of criticisms targets the notion of “progress“. On the one hand, the process of modernization in the industrialized countries at the turn of the 19th century was initially rejected in favor of a conservative defense of the traditional order. Nature was then used as a strong ally since it embodied the immutable order of things. On the other hand, during the same period, workers’ revolts broke out and rejected the notion of progress by turning their anger against machines, which were likely to be substituted for human work, thus becoming a source of poverty and participating in the alienation of workers. Finally, the critique of progress is also expressed within the decolonized countries. Following the process of decolonization, the leaders of the newly independent countries used the argument of the race to modernization by qualifying it as an essential process to lift the population out of poverty. In this way, they contribute to forging an anti-imperialism based on the exploitation of natural resources in order to reach a level of development equal to that of the industrialized countries of the North. The subalternist critique, represented by Gandhi in India in the first half of the 20th century, opposes this vision. For its representative, the guiding ideals of modernity are the product of the colonial experience and contribute to the alienation of the population of the recently decolonized country. The resumption of their independence by the marginalized populations can only be achieved by the extirpation of modern political culture from the minds of the individuals and by a return to a local mode of production.

These various criticisms gradually led to the birth of a social movement that linked the protection of human dignity, freedom, and autonomy with the preservation of nature. In North America at the end of the nineteenth century, two kinds of environmentalism confronted each other: a conservation environmentalism, which considered the management of nature to be necessary for the construction of national sovereignty, and a preservation environmentalism, which sought to redefine the hierarchical relationship between humans and the natural world in its entirety, granting an almost equal status to all living things. From the second half of the twentieth century, we also see the emergence of a universalist environmentalism. Idealist and utopian, it is based on a desire for dialogue between nations, using nature as a vector and science as a means, with the aim of pacifying the whole world. International institutions such as the IUCN in 1948 or the UNFCCC in 1992 were created for this purpose. But this current can be qualified by the fact that it has a navel-gazing vision of the world, since it assumes that the pacification of the world is only in the hands of a few men from Western countries. We also see the creation of different environmentalisms between the countries of the North and those of the South, as well as a partisan environmentalism in Western countries, highlighted by the crisis of the welfare state in the 1970s, allowing green parties to appear on the political scene.

Today, the ecological question feeds many debates. The rules of the capitalist system as a system of production need to be redefined in order to integrate the planetary limits within it. It is in this context that new modes of development are being developed. With the introduction of the notion of “green capitalism“, we are now witnessing a questioning of the power of economic language. Indeed, without calling into question the current capitalist system, the latter only sees the integration of planetary limits in terms of costs and benefits, making price both the problem and the solution of the ecological crisis we are experiencing. This mode of development intends to respond to the ecological crisis through the implementation of instruments such as carbon taxes at the borders, or a market of pollution rights (EU-ETS). Nevertheless, these measures remain ineffective today. With the concept of the Green New Deal, we observe that a reflection on market failures calls for a long-term reflection on the capacity of public power to regulate the mechanisms of capitalism and to take up the issue of the ecological crisis. This relationship to the State is a source of division between the labor movement and environmental movements. The former sees it as an institution to be convinced in order to achieve their rights, while the latter tend to adopt an attitude of distrust towards it and prefer governance initiatives on a more local scale. Finally, the author also paints portraits of the degrowth, ecofeminist and postcolonial movements.

In order to face the ecological crisis we are experiencing today, it is unfortunately not only the production system that needs to be redefined, but also all the normative structures that govern our social behaviors and our relationships with the outside world. More and more social initiatives are defending a different ethic from the one we know today, centered on a deeper knowledge of our interaction with the living and the territory. The animal cause is a perfect example since it challenges the dominant patterns of modern society by considering the animal as a being almost equal to the human. The emergence of agro-ecology is another example that makes it possible to shape forms of social solidarity that are out of step with the search for short-term profit and traditional market mechanisms. This shows that a new mode of production is possible, far from the normative structures through which we study and shape the world. These new questionings take shape in the evolution of militant organizations critical of the capitalist socio-economic system. We observe a rapprochement of social and ecological claims with the aim of giving birth to a political and ideological proposal that would put social justice, the respect for planetary limits and the preservation of living at the heart of our social project.

The richness of this book lies in the author’s ability to combine a large number of formalized and less formalized fields of knowledge in order to provide the most complete analysis possible of the ecological question.  The author reminds us that today the urgency of the ecological crisis that we are experiencing forces us to review the structures of our relations with the outside world. He brilliantly demonstrates that ecological culture as a teaching of knowledge and norms regulating our relations with the world is a necessity for every citizen, and more particularly for the economic and political elites. It is a necessary condition in order to preserve the democratic debate while initiating a process of transition towards a socio-ecological system more respectful of humans and the natural environment in which they evolve. A little extra, advice on readings, films, documentaries, and podcasts are provided at the end of each chapter, so that the reader can go further in his or her reflection if he or she wishes.

Pauline Cizmic, PhD student “Regulation, oil and gas industry and banking institutions: a love triangle at the age of climate change”

[1] Charbonnier, P., (2022), Culture Écologique, Presses de Sciences Po, Collection Les Petites Humanités, Paris