Sunday, 22 May 2016

STEM facing Gaia, or what to make of Bruno?

The year 2016 may be the 'hottest on record', again, as forecasters say. These days, the heatwave in India broke national record, peak temperatures well exceeding 50°C. People are suffering. Somehow these news are getting routine. 

The news triggered memory of the notion "nouveau regime climatique", coined by Bruno Latour, philosopher and sociologist. For French, European citizen the notions "nouvelle regime" versus "ancien regime" mark the transition to the modern world, as it was driven by the French revolution. The reference is to that kind of dramatic change that Bruno Latour makes by "nouvelle regime climatique". It's about a completely different view on the world and peoples places in this world.
Scale model of Sant Michele
Beginning 2016 I crawled through the book 'Face à Gaia' by Bruno Latour; presenting in its first chapter the notion 'geohistory' to characterize the process to gear up the Anthropocene. The book is written in French, generalizing a series of conferences at the University of Edinburgh. I recall too the experience, that beyond benefiting from challenging thoughts, that that reading about the same subject in different languages, and such facing different cultures, provides particular insights. On top, the prose is well written, for an intellectual audience that's keeping the pencils ready. Very French, indeed.

At the outset, Bruno Latour envisages to dissect the notions that we use to describe the processes gearing up to the Anthropocene. Some quotes from the first pages: (1) '...nous sommes tous des contre-révolutionaires, essayant de minimiser les conséquences d'une révolution qui s'est faite sans nous, contre nous et, en meme temps, par nous...' (p.55) [...we are counter-revolutionaries, trying to minimize the consequences of a revolution that happens without us, against us, and in the same manner by us] (2) '...rapeller à quelle point nous sommes tous mal équipés - affectivement, interlectuellement, moralment, politiquement, culturellement - pour absorber de telles nouvelles [de la géohistoire]' (p.62) [... to recall that we are completely unprepared - affection-wise, intellectually, ethically, politically, culturally - to take up such news [of geo-history] ], (3) '...cette Nature au sein de laquelle tant de scientifiques croient enore devoir se réfugier pour se protéger du sale boulot de la politique...' (p.64). [...this Nature in which the scientists took shelter from the dirty political work].

Half-way through the book, struggling with difficult matters, Bruno discusses how concepts in humanities have to change, now entering the Anthropocene. The evidence for an geo-history of the Anthropocene (past, present, future) is made. The aeon-old dichotomy of culture and nature, the supposition (in humanities & science) of a guiding 'agency' replaced by a continuum of interchangeable actors, avoiding anthropomorphic concepts and keeping exchangeable subject/object... all is a challenging reading. 

Happily, the Möbius-strip gives a good metaphor for the continuum of nature an culture in the Anthropocene: discussing from different (related) angles how self-perception of "humans" should evolve because we 'made' the Anthropocene. Understanding the Anthropocene means to force us that we internalise 'nature' into our multiple cultural realms. Gaia to be understood as a 'force of historisation' (p.283) or as a secular aggregation of all possible 'agents' by bias of feedbacks (p. 363).

Old rock fall - Piemont
The general line of Bruno's arguments comes evident: The Anthropocene implies that humans lost (overcome) an external reference, the Nature. Nature is internalised into our various cultures. In consequence Nature is - as 'kind' and not as 'object of' - an intrinsic part of culture, history and politics, and thus offers options to 'tame' the Anthropocene as one can handle a/any wicked problem. And thus, we have to agree among us about the compromises, which we like to make (to survive). The agreement at COP21 in Paris in December 2015, possibly, is a good example.

Is it worth to study Bruno's book, even for a STEM educated person? Yes, evidently it only can be a start into more reading and thinking. 

Without having published end 2015 a paper [*] on matters relating remotely to matters discussed in Bruno's book, I possibly would no have finished reading his book. 

The reading experience was perplexing. It oscillated between fascination and being bored, intersected with impression: 'stupid', I cannot grasp the argument fully. I guess that will the (hard) bread of (future) Anthropocene, the "nouveau regime climatique". It will be much more that hot days, weeks, years; it is question our 'raison d'etre'.

[*] Handling of Human-Geosphere Intersections, Geosciences 2016, 6(1), 3; doi:10.3390/geosciences6010003