Sunday, February 07, 2016

Politics in a full world

When Scientific American published Herman Daly's "Economics in a Full World" in September 2005, few people knew what lay ahead: oil climbing to $147 a barrel, the relentless rise in global temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions, the food riots of 2008 sparked by rising food prices, the economic crash that followed, and the development of an increasingly yawning gap between the rich and everyone else in subsequent years. For the vast majority of people on the planet, growth effectively stopped in 2008. Their incomes have essentially flatlined or declined.

Daly's thesis seems more relevant than ever as government policymakers puzzle over lackluster global economic growth despite unprecedented government spending (and debt) and ground-hugging interest rates in the seven years since the crash. Maybe we have reached the point, as Daly would argue, when economic growth is uneconomic, when the costs outweigh the benefits (except, of course, for a very narrow stratum of people at the top who get to put the costs on everyone else).

If we are moving toward a low-growth or even no-growth world because growth is becoming much more difficult and problematic, then Daly's outline of a new economics will need a companion outline: politics in a full world. I have a preliminary candidate for that outline: Bruno Latour's Politics of Nature. Daly's steady-state economics always implied a revolution in governance without being explicit about it.

Latour never mentions Daly and may never have read him. But Latour clearly understands that politics--which has always held nature at arm's length while nevertheless dealing daily with its demands--must now explicitly invite the natural world to the bargaining table.

This is not about being a "nature lover" who only cares about animals and plants, but not about humans. On the contrary, it is about observing and interrogating a nature which we had previously assumed could not be questioned, but which just "was." Instead, we must grapple with what Latour calls the "parliament of things," no longer separating the world into distinct social and natural compartments to be governed separately. We must bring the human and the nonhuman together for careful consultation in order to govern them jointly.

But how to do this? Doesn't nature stand mute? How can we make it speak? Well, it is already speaking in the language of heat waves and hurricanes, floods and droughts, fisheries collapse, soil erosion, water depletion and thousands of other ways available to our senses and our intellects. In this regard nature is not a god, but rather an active participant and agent in our world. We need to understand what it is saying in order to govern ourselves appropriately.

Nor should we think of the natural world as monolithic. Our perceptions of that world are mediated by poetry as much as biology. And even in the sciences, the red-blooded world of field biology reveals a much different universe to us than does the manufactured environment of the physicist's particle accelerator.

Science with a big "S," as Latour likes to call it, wants to throw out the poetry at the beginning as merely irrational and fanciful before any deliberations begin. But Latour would like to keep the poetry in the discussion, and the sociology and history and philosophy and even religion so that we might consider for a time what disciplines help us see the world better and help us to govern ourselves better in our households, our communities and our countries.

The word "Science" in Latour's outline is a misnomer. We have sciences--plural--which reveal a world with astonishing variety that is seemingly impossible for us to unify under one coherent heading. We move in his schema from what he calls "mononaturalism" mixed with multiculturalism to "multinaturalism" mixed with multiculturalism.

If nature as we've imagined it is not just one gray mass of primary qualities--height, width, depth and mass--but also a riotous display of color from the rainbow, then we will encounter it with more attention and fewer preconceptions--or at least with ones that we now regard as merely provisional.

Much of the new politics which Latour outlines is devoted to what he calls "taking into account." This step must not be rushed, and those things which beg to be considered must not be dismissed too quickly. We must, however, finally sort through the things and people we encounter in our deliberations to determine which we will listen to and which we will screen out. (The screening process, however, only temporarily dismisses people and objects until we are obliged to reconsider them in another round of consultation in another context.)

Latour's politics does not embrace relativism, so much as it embraces deliberation. It does not dismiss the sciences or any other endeavor as merely a social construct with nothing to tell us about the world outside ourselves.

But what he insists on is that we not draw any dogmatic conclusions from our investigations. There are always new objects, people, animals, chemicals, machines, buildings, roadways and unfamiliar phenomena jostling for our attention. We must with all due deliberation take these into account, consulting with the relevant parties who have something at stake, before we decide how to move forward.

To govern is to choose, and choose we must. But our current way of choosing starts out with choosing to exclude so much from our consideration that we as an entire species could not see the colossal dangers of climate change until we reached a point very late in the game. We moderns had understood wrongly that the world is something humans act upon--not something that acts upon us as well. It is the endowment of agency in others--especially nonhuman others--that opens us up to a world very much alive with consequences which we don't control, a world with a mind of its own that is often inscrutable to us.

The sciences have indeed been bringing the natural world to us, just not in the way we thought. We thought they were bringing us Science, a unified, coherent, utterly rational world that essentially determined our destiny and yet also strangely left us entirely free in the social and political realm. Instead, we find the world to be broadly variegated and full of more questions than answers--so much so that we may now have to talk about going for a walk in natures (plural) as well as visiting other cultures.

Just because the world we now live in is all mixed up with cows and lions and trees and rocks in the midst of human endeavors, all acting as colleagues or enemies--just because we find ourselves in such a world does not mean our lives or our societies are ungovernable. They are governable, but by different more deliberative processes. We must now make the invisible, visible; the implicit, explicit; the excluded, included.

For we can no longer afford to imagine that we live in an empty world in which we can safely ignore or abuse the nonhuman beings and objects in it with minimal consequences. Rather we live in a full world, cheek by jowl with all its inhabitants crowding into our lives with real, tangible consequences--inhabitants that now ask to be considered before the voting begins.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

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