Bruno Latour faces Gaia in the Gifford Lectures 2013

February 25, 2013

ImageLast Thursday (21 February) I went up to Edinburgh with Maia Galarraga for the third in Bruno Latour’s fascinating Gifford lectures, Facing Gaia: six lectures on the political theology of nature. The Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology have been given annually by a parade of luminary scholars since 1888, and Bruno Latour, the eminent French anthropologist of science, is the latest to tackle the topic, focusing on James Lovelock’s concept of Gaia. In his deft hands, both ‘natural religion’ and ‘Gaia’ came to look very different.

In the first two lectures, Latour destabilised both of the constituent terms in ‘natural religion’, using the device of a ‘table of translation’ like those that were used in the ancient world to find homologies between the different gods of the peoples gathered in cosmopolitan cities. With a nod to his Edinburgh setting, he used the example of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion to show how, as normally conceived, the ‘nature’ of science and the ‘God’ of religion are indeed almost wholly homologous.  Both assume an already unified universe ‘out there’, and are understood through an ‘epistemological’ focus on the final objects of knowledge rather than the situated practises that give rise to them.  And both convene a ‘people’ – the people of nature, and the church respectively – in a similar way.

In contrast to this ‘Nature 1’ and ‘Religion 1’, he proposed a ‘Nature 2’ and ‘Religion 2’, both based on a principle of ongoing unification.  ‘Nature 2’ – a provisional term which he later dropped because of the problematic word ‘nature’ – would have been familiar to anyone who has followed Latour’s work.  This is a ‘nature’ that is not exterior but interior to scientific practice, not unified but multiple, that does not de-animate but multiplies agencies, and is not undisputable but disputable. ‘Religion 2’ would be less familiar – a reconstruction of religion (and particularly Christianity) in a similar way, as concerned not with the far but the near, not as dogma but as the fragile extension of the Gospel message in everyday encounters.

Lecture three developed the idea of a secular Gaia, in the sense of Nature 2 and Religion 2 – as without a transcendence or pre-existing unity.  Latour first made the provocative comparison between James Lovelock and Galileo – not just because both were persecuted as heretics, but because both radically altered humanity’s sense of its position in the universe.  But whereas Galileo opened up the Earth, showing that it is the same as all other heavenly bodies, Lovelock closed up the Earth again, showing its radical difference from other, lifeless worlds, and making us more clearly Earthbound.  He suggested that despite suspicions Gaia is in fact a less religious concept than nature (understood as Nature 1) because it is not prematurely unified.  He then drew parallels between Lovelock and Pasteur, who both had to struggle against a de-animated worldview dominated by chemistry and physics, in order to introduce new agencies.  Latour argued that Lovelock showed that everything we took to be de-animated scenery in the environment was in fact active and mobile.  But there was no holistic design of Gaia, no natural harmony or final cause – simply a ‘mess’ when the plan of every of living thing is subverted by those of others.  The result is that there is no longer any such thing as an environment to which organisms adapt, or individuals who adapt to it. Gaia is neither chance nor necessity – instead it has a history, what he termed ‘geostory’ – a narration that is not told by some overseeing entity but which unfolds from the interaction of multiple agents.

In the next lecture (tonight), Latour will start talking about the Anthropocene, and the people that are gathered by the post-natural object that is Gaia.  This lecture series looks set to make a significant contribution to our thinking about the politics of nature.


Trade Unions and the Environment conference, Blackpool, 21 July 2012

July 22, 2012

Green Unions at Work logoYesterday, Larry Reynolds and I attended the excellent one-day conference For a Future that Works: Trade Unions and the Environment, at the Savoy Hotel in Blackpool.  The event was organised by the North West TUC, and attracted around eighty people to explore the role that trade unions can play in advancing environmental agendas.

The morning session was taken up by introductory talks from Clara Paillard (Merseyside TUC Green Officer, and clearly the main force behind the conference), Derek Wall (former Green Party principal speaker) and Chris Baugh (PCS Assistant General Secretary), followed by a lively discussion session.  Three broad themes were established in the morning’s contributions, and extended throughout the day.  The first was the TUC’s Green Workplaces initiative, with its idea of each trade union appointing a ‘union green rep’ in order to advance environmental awareness in each workplace (green staff travel plans, waste and energy reduction, sustainable food, and so on).  The second connected the environmental problematique to more broader questions of political economy and class politics – in particular, the austerity agenda of the coalition government.  The One Million Climate Jobs campaign, organised by the Campaign against Climate Change in collaboration with a  number of unions, was a key reference point here. The third theme was the need for trade unions to act in support of local environmental struggles.  This was the main focus of the afternoon, when participants were divided into four workshops.

One of the afternoon workshops was on fracking, the controversial process of extracting gas from shale rock by fracturing the rock with a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals.  In a sense, it was fracking that had got us to Blackpool – the focus here was on the struggle in the Fylde against Cuadrilla, who are currently test-drilling in the Fylde with a view to extracting the 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas that they estimate lies under the Fylde, and thereby create a purported 5,600 jobs in the UK, 1,700 of which they say would be in Lancashire.  It was welcome to see trade unions looking past that headline figure of promised job creation to engage with the wider politics of fracking.  The concerns we heard about in the workshop included the contamination of water and food supplies by toxic and radioactive substances, air pollution and even earthquakes – but also wider global issues about how the surge towards ‘unconventional’ or ‘extreme’ fossil-fuel sources such as tar sands, shale gas, and underground coal gasification will more firmly tie us in to fossil fuels and make impossible any transition to a low-carbon economy.  We had a talk from Barbara Cookson, UNISON Green Rep and one of the Frack Off activists recently found guilty of aggravated trespass after occupying a fracking rig in November,  Members of Residents Against Fylde Fracking (RAFF) were also present to explain further details of the campaign in the Fylde. A follow-up meeting on the campaign against fracking will be held in Preston on Saturday 4 August between 11.00 and 16.00, at the St. Wilfrid’s Centre, Chapel Street, off Fishergate, Preston (see Google Streetview image at http://g.co/maps/4y3wv).

Another workshop, on ‘Energy from waste’, could also be said to have been about ‘extreme energy’ in the North West. The workshop started with a detailed account from Jeff Meehan, Chair of Halton Against the Incinerator (HAGATI), of HAGATI’s five-year struggle against plans to construct a waste incinerator in the borough of Halton, which combines the industrial towns of Widnes and Runcorn in Cheshire.  The firm Ineos Chlor, who already have two industrial plants in the Halton area, applied in February 2007 to construct a huge energy-from-waste facility at Weston Point, Runcorn, which when completed would burn 820,000 tonnes of RDF (refuse-derived fuel) per annum – greater than any other UK incinerator. HAGATI’s campaign, supported by the national campaign organisation UK Without Incineration (UKWIN), in the end failed to block the incinerator.   In May of this year the Environment Agency announced that they were ‘satisfied that the proposed facility poses no significant risk to the health of local residents or to the environment’, and granted the environmental permit.  They deemed that the predicted ‘process contributions’ of various pollutants, added to background concentrations, would still not breach the Environmental Quality Standard for any substance.

Jeff Meehan explained why incinerating waste for power is such a bad idea, and why HAGATI would have greatly preferred anaerobic digestion or gasification as a solution. Particular health concerns mentioned include: PM2.5, tiny particulates that are not caught by the planned filtering systems and can travel long distances; mercury (for example from all the discarded low-energy light bulbs in the trash of Greater Manchester that would be destined for the incinerator); the production of massive amounts of toxic fly ash and Flue Gas Residues (FGR).  He also explained how the heart exchangers in the plant create ideal conditions for producing dioxins as the waste is combusted.

But HAGATI’s arguments were also based on the idea that the plant will be inefficient and wasteful.  We were told that RDF as a fuel is poor, so produces far more carbon per kWh than coal.  Furthermore, plastic that could have been removed from the waste and recycled is left in, in order to keep calorific content high and ensure the RDF will burn well.  The Environment Agency also allowed Ineos to classify the plant as an incinerator that happens to produce power, rather than a power station that happens to burn waste, so be exempt from carbon tax.  According to HAGATI, only 3% of the waste to be burnt at the plant would come from Halton itself, raising arguments over environmental justice – about the ethics of adding a large load of pollution to an area which is already very polluted due to its industrial history, and with high levels of deprivation and poor health.  The workshop ended with a call for participants to find out what happens to waste from their own place of employment, and to keep alert for incinerator plans.

The other workshops were on ‘Transport and climate change’, featuring a talk from Kevin Morrison (RMT and ASLEF, Manchester) on the Campaign for Free Public Transport, and on ‘Food and climate change’, with contributions from Ian Hodson, President of the Baker’s Union (BFAWU), and Clara Paillard, in which discussion focused on the excessive power of supermarkets in the food supply chain, and the hidden cost of so-called cheap food in terms of the effects on health, the environment, and workers’ skills.

It would have been good to have had time to have had more critical discussion of some of the taken-for-granteds of the day, for example the persistent ‘green Keynesianism’ that imagines that a green stimulus package could restore the economy while protecting the environment, but without addressing the question of whether this can be done within existing capitalist social and economic relationships. But nevertheless this was a very productive and enjoyable conference.  As we left the hotel at the end of the afternoon, Blackpool looked at its best, bathed in glorious sunshine, and participants seemed to take with them renewed energy and a commitment to make things happen.

Posted by Bronislaw Szerszynski


Welcome to the CSEC blog

July 20, 2012

Welcome to the CSEC blog! This is an initiative of the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, a research centre at Lancaster University, UK.