On the Emergence of an Ecological Class
Author: Bruno Latour Nikolaj Schultz
Bruno Latour died Sunday, October 9th, after a prolonged sickness, where he also managed to stay energetically productive. We have lost a great thinker who understood where the battle stands in our time: that politics as such has become ecological and that all our acquisition and mediation of knowledge must henceforth be framed by the task of coming down to Earth – and understand the complexities that encompass us.
Ecology has become a part of all ecological life, even where – or precisely where – it is absent or neglected. Even if we all are enmeshed by ecological relations, it still makes sense to speak about the ecological class, consisting of precisely those who care about ecology and try to learn from it.
The young Danish sociologist Nikolaj Schultz, who works on a theory of what he calls «geosocial classes» at the Sciences Po university in Paris, has joined forces with the university’s famous veteran in a strategic analysis of the geopolitics of the environmental movement. The result is a sharp-witted, refreshing, and deeply convincing pamphlet directed addressed to the environmental movement and green parties around the world. A clear and rhetorical language free of all notes and references helps them effectively approach what they call «the new ecological class» from different angles and to shed light on its different features.
Ecology has been in the spotlight of the public sphere for quite some time, but being a science, the communication of ecology has been too pedagogical, where it should be political. In a typical spirit of enlightenment, the assumption was that spreading ecological knowledge – together with knowledge from earth systems science and climatology – would lead to action. Yet, really significant actions to save the climate – and ecosystems remain conspicuously absent.
Quarrels on water rights, agricultural practices, acceptable limits to emissions, conservation, access to minerals, developments of dams and wind farms
Nature, which we keep evoking, does not unite us but is increasingly often the apple of discord: water rights, agricultural practices, acceptable limits to emissions, conservation, access to minerals, developments of dams and wind farms – we quarrel and fight over it all. But, Latour and Schultz argue, what is common to all these conflicts is the desire for resources for production. And this is where the ecological class make their charge: they explore and react to how the constant intensification of production erodes the very foundations of our lives.
Marx regarded productivity in a quite positive light, but the ecological class theory expands this materialism of Marxism. The production we are talking about is no longer just our own: the productivity of nature as such – other species, ecosystems, soils, the atmosphere, and the ocean. All these systems have material boundaries and conditions, which we keep ignoring and pushing against: «The system of production has become synonymous with the system of destruction.»
The world we live on
The classic class theory, the authors point out, was a powerful tool for people to clarify what sustained their living, where in the social structure they resided and who they were fighting against. In Schultz’ and Latour’s interpretation, such mappings of one’s situation become decisive for raising ecological awareness and to trigger a new class identity and awakening. Farmers will, for instance, need a climate and weather which is not volatile and extreme if they are to grow their harvests. The ecological class coalesces the world we live in and the world we live on: the other classes, particularly the bourgeoisie of the 20. Century did the opposite thing. They split the world of products from the foundations of life provided by the Earth.
The class question turns out to be a question of classification, new ways of ordering the world and orient oneself. To find out who friends are and possible enemies, you need to ask. «Who do you feel closest to, and who do you feel very remote from when discussions touch upon matters of ecology?» It is no longer a matter of right and left: What unites the world we live in and the world we live in are these progressive; what separates them are those reactionary.
The ecological class coalesces around the imperative to protect the habitability of the Earth, the continuation of life and conditions for life. In the light of such a task, the former classes involved in modernity’s march of progress suddenly seem outdated. The concern with the durability of life is rational in a superior way against which the «objective class interests» of the other classes have little to show for. This also means that the ecological class will be tasked with continuing the process of civilization, being the only real progressives.
Control of the means of destruction
In light of Schultz’ and Latour’s radicalization of the class issue itself, we might have to ask: Can the ecological class take control of the forces of destruction and the relations of destruction to play on Marx’ own parlance? The immediate impression is that a such a control would lead to a dismantling of mass destruction, resulting in a dismantling of mass production and a drastically reduced productivity. In today’s progress-oriented modern world, any scaling down appears to be an extremely problematic setback. But this is in itself an ideological construction, the authors claim: a one-dimensional arrow of time brought to bear on history, where we have to push ahead to avoid sliding back constantly. If we leave this frame of mind, we can instead quietly move in several direction and regain our touch with the ground we stand on.
Circularity is no naïve dream; it is the condition of our survival. The best agricultural and forestry practices are already practicing basic sustainability, and these exceptions must become the rule. Hence, control of the means of destruction must also mean a certain control of both the markets as well as military powers. In such enterprises, the ecological class has a long and strenuous way to go.
A new struggle under new conditions
Refreshingly, the ecological class struggle will not follow the blueprint of former class struggles: it obeys its own logic and doesn’t necessarily follow a classic revolutionary pattern, the authors point out. It will take cunning and luck. And taking a stance against Marx’ historical materialism, the authors reject deterministic forces or a preordained destiny in the ecologization of mankind. The comforting words of Hölderlin that where the danger grows, so does the saving power is denounced as a «diabolically false phrase». Nothing will save us, especially not danger. “Success will depend entirely on our capacity to seize opportunities as they crop up.” Schultz and Latour succeed to the utmost degree and have seized the moment we are in.
This book does not only deserve to be read but to be studied and discussed. Discussion is in itself a prerequisite for success, a point which is also a part of the book’s argument. The historical classes – the bourgeoisie and the working class – took shape through a long and arduous political awakening, which could take a century or more. The new ecological class has much less time at its disposal but might also, after 50 years of maturation – enter a more resolute and politically conscious historical stage.