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Monday, 6 July 2015

Conservation against politics

This week I ended my course on the prospects for a philosophy of Earth discussing Bergoglio's encyclical letter Laudato Si. He starts out beautifully with Francis of Assisi and his community - or family - with the non-human but quickly drifts towards conservation-like rhetorics. The conservation line is one where the non-human is there to be kept comes what may, either as a resource that requires management or as a vulnerable minor that requires protection through custody. The pope's slip towards it is nastily illustrated in the anti-abortion paragraph (120) where he quotes Ratzinger rant on accepting the vulnerable: the embryo is a fragile being needing tutelage (supposedly from the law of the State and the Church) as much as anything else that is made vulnerable by the increasing human power. It becomes clear that the quasi-pagan move of Francis where the non-humans are empowered as members of a community is left behind and a discourse on the non-humans as minors who require care takes over. The discourse centered on conservation is focused either on resources that must be kept - for humans depend on them - or on fragile beings that need especial protection. To be sure, Bergoglio intends to re-orient the church towards a new kind of anthropocentrism, as opposed to what he calls "misguided anthropocentrism" (119). The new image makes space for the Earth to be thought as the territory of God and therefore to be respected, cherished and kept. But still takes the issue as one between God and the humans, both sides mirroring the other. That is, there is no political animation beyond this all too human negotiation between humans and their creator - all the others are minors and therefore have to be kept under custody. Maybe there was little hope for the pope to say something different - to move ambiguously from the conservation of resources to the conservation of the vulnerable - for he is bound to image that the non-human itself is never sovereign unless through God. In other words, Francis of Assisi cannot be made a pagan. That the sun and the moon and the leaves are not gods but only Godly creatures means that they are politically incapable of political action. In any case, the conservation framework affords at most a swing-like movement where the non-human is either a commodity or a lesser being to be cared for.

It is easy to see that both poles are hopeless as far as political ecology is concerned and that in practice they amount to the same. If we decide to conserve resources, biodiversity, say, might as well do it in shelves inside a well equipped lab together with well-collected ethological descriptions of how an organism lived (see, for instance, the case of the stick insect in Lord Howe Island and other sources of clean water or global temperature maintenance can be found. If we decide to conserve the vulnerable, there is no non-human-centered way to decide which and how much of the vulnerable non-human population of the Earth will be conserved for they are all treated on the same basis. But if the decision has to be human-centered, then we are back to the conservation of resources. This makes clear how much better it would be to see humans and their allies in terms of contingent networks: humans are not alone in the dominating network, their pole in a war of humans against the earthbound (as Latour puts in his fifth Gifford Lecture) and no non-human is necessarily alone (and vulnerable, and fragile). The Yasuni-ITT initiative about which I was reading today in the inspiring booklet of Alberto Acosta - and that is now likely to fail - is a good illustration. The initiative tried to put forward a way to keep crude oil untouched undergound in the Yasuni-ITT area in Ecuador by trying for many years to engage a network of humans and non-humans to support the crude oil to stay where it is. It was not (just) an appeal to resources to be conserved (the ones conserved in Yasuni national park) or to the vulnerable beings to be conserved (those humans and non-humans living in the park) but rather the quest for support, for sponsorship against the ordinary course of things - that is, petrol being drilled out no matter the consequences. The battle looks lost now, but it was a battle. And in a battle, as Latour would remind us by quoting Carl Schmitt, there are enemies - and therefore genuine politics is possible. In politics, because it is not an exercise of policing, there is always a minimum of clarity: there are those who are with us and those who are against us.

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