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Green New Deal?

A crayon drawing of a red apple, half an apple, and an apple core

Art by Emer Sukonik

Bahar Ganjvar considers positioning ecology in the 'Marketplace of Ideas' in Nikolaj Schultz and Bruno Latour's On Emergence of an Ecological Class: A Memo (Polity Press 2022) and Schultz's Land Sickness (Polity Press 2023).


The late sociologist Bruno Latour and his collaborator Nikolaj Schultz are at the forefront of a newly conceptualised ecological battle. Both On the Emergence of an Ecological Class: A Memo and the upcoming Land Sickness seek to incorporate ‘nature’ into the realm of the socio-political. For the time being, the authors foresee this ‘battle’ as taking place solely in the realm of ideas, where grand narratives of liberal modernity and the ‘indisputable telos’ of progress must be put to the test. They seek to replicate, as far as possible, the evolution of historical class struggles, arguing that values, ideas, and sensibilities must be the first to transform.

The two books demand to be read together, with the joint Schultz-Latour Memo setting out in theory what Land Sickness seeks to anchor in semi-fictional, individual practice. In combination, they act as a recipe, with the meandering personal narrative of the latter interspersed with the precise instructions and ingredients of the former.

Both A Memo and Land Sickness advocate the ‘ecologisation’ of culture, and an embrace of an ‘ecological aesthetic’ capable of encouraging political mobilisation. The earlier joint text is a self-proclaimed political memorandum addressed to ‘members of ecological parties and their present and future electors,’ aiming to delineate the conditions necessary for the emergence of an ‘ecological class’. Land Sickness, meanwhile, takes the issues explored in A Memo and transposes them into what Schultz terms an ‘ethnografictive’ essay rooted in personal experience. Seeking ultimately to effect a ‘transvaluation of values’ – the creation of new values by redefining current or older ones – the texts invite readers to consider how successful each of these works are in supporting such aims.

But which is the more successful weapon of choice, a didactic memorandum or Schultz’s work of ‘ethnografiction?' A Memo could arguably fare well as a standalone piece; its aims as a text are watertight and clearly articulated. Land Sickness, on the other hand, appeals more to the ‘affective registers’ and therefore has greater potential for resonating with readers.

A core throughline of both texts is the ‘mobilisation crisis’ that has greeted the threat of imminent global catastrophe. Diagnosing the sources of paralysis in a fear of kicking established habits, Latour and Schultz place the ecological movement as fundamentally opposed to the dominant liberal consensus. They reject the idea of history as a forward march of progress, arguing that it is precisely in the devastating impacts of unregulated production that the roots of the climate crisis can be found. Instead, the movement proposes limiting growth to foster a prosperity reliant on the maintenance of habitability conditions.

While in previous centuries, ‘nature’ was considered to be external to social concerns and useful only as a resource for production, the aim of the ecological movement is to extend ‘the horizon on which history unfolds’. Thus, in uniting ‘nature’ and ‘society’, the hope is that the ecological class can ‘move on from simple disputes over, say, eating meat, to real class conflicts.’ The authors argue that this requires a redefinition of concepts like ‘nature’ and ‘freedom’.

Crucially, Schultz and Latour advise that to overcome the crisis of mobilisation, the movement’s values and ideals must be imbued with more ‘exciting’ than ‘punitive’ associations. Yet, populated by existential wanderings, Land Sickness does not exactly fill the reader with hope for future prosperity. The narrator instead becomes thoroughly disorientated when considering the extension of horizons urged by the ‘New Climate Regime’.

He locates himself at the ethically ambiguous junction between what Pierre Charbonnier distinguishes as ‘the world we live in and the world we live off’. The latter has traditionally been considered marginal to the former; Latour’s example that ‘we, the ubiquitous moderns, live off Brazil’ since the Amazon rainforest ‘is one of the ways we breathe’ is a perfect illustration of the overall concept. It is thus the role of an emerging ecological class to explicitly connect, or ‘superimpose’, the worlds we live in and live off. As a result,

The new relationship demanded by

taking the world we live off into account

within the logic of the world we live in

does not tally with the distinction and the

connection between inside and outside

that traditionally defines the monopoly

of power in nation states.

Land Sickness displays a distinctly ‘modern’ sense of neurosis – an alienation of the self-conscious individual – that places it in a long-standing literary tradition of anxious subversion. It feels familiar in its fin-de-siècle ruminations on degradation and decay brought about by industrial capitalism, but where late-nineteenth century writers saw moral decay, Schultz sees this in the nature that envelops him. Schultz’s narrative of neurosis is a refreshing attempt at broaching an ecological aesthetic, but whether it inspires action or alienation is a different question. Indeed, it is destabilising for a person to view the world in decay, even more so when self consciousness of your own role in its destruction.

The narrator of Land Sickness despairingly admits the damaging environmental impacts of his everyday consumption of items like air-conditioning, paper, avocados and coffee, concluding that: ‘Every day, I realise that the problem is me.’ Schultz reflects on this experience in an emotionally-charged passage:

It seems that I exist from others, like a

spider in a web, sustaining myself by

catching and feeding off them. As I

weave my silken threads, my being and

its trails constantly borrow from, overlap

with and obstruct the continuous being

of other entities...Intermixti, ergo sum:

I mix and interfere, therefore I am, and

continue to be.

Here, we have the death of the liberal autonomous individual and the birth of a new ecological being. There is a cursory attempt to define this new being: Schultz refers to the microbiological concept of ‘holobionts’, proposing the notion that humans consist of the organic agents vital to human life. ‘Among other things, I am made of the air I breathe and the bacteria I cross paths with,’ writes Schultz, dismantling the traditional oppositions between body and space, and humans and nature, that have formed the basis of liberal ideas of freedom. Specifically, this is the negative conception of freedom as the absence of external constraints. In Land Sickness, Schultz accuses the ‘modern’ individual’s allegiance to negative freedom of contributing to the current system of destruction:

By making a limit between body and

space, and by imagining freedom as an

unobstructed movement through this

space devoid of traces, one necessarily

generates a limitlessness, driving one past

the earthly conditions for habitability.

This problematic delimitation of the relations between all living things makes the ecological movement’s struggle one of classification, of seeking new ways of ordering the world. To lay the foundations for the emergence of an ecological class, one must first see a redrawing of boundaries and a relocation of limits between inside and outside, body and space, and humans and nature, to allow for a more ethical freedom

within the limits of material conditions. Initial alienation must lead to future emancipation.

A reorientating principle of ‘envelopment’ therefore defines the ecological battle for cultural hegemony. It is a question of making borders more porous, by acknowledging that society is ultimately a co-construction of both human and non-human living beings. Previous boundaries between humankind and nature meant that preceding generations had a ‘framework that didn’t react to our actions; now it does react, and at all levels – virus, climate, humus, forest, insects, microbes, oceans and rivers’.

The production-oriented framework of ‘nature as resource’ that was stable and marginal to social concerns has now been revealed to be less steady than once imagined. Recognising this destabilisation of framework may either inspire fear towards the newfound imposition of ‘nature’ or instil a sense of the individual being

‘re-grounded’ in the land.

Indeed, a crucial but oft-overlooked by-product of industrialisation is the abstraction of the land that political ecology demands be reinstated ‘under the feet of the people’. In fact, the unique characteristic of the Anthropocene, as historian Dipesh Chakrabarty notes in the postface to Land Sickness, is its more material associations than most other abstract historical periodisations. One is again reminded of fin-de-siècle anxieties: in his In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust prefers journeying by motorcar to railway, finding it ‘in a sense more genuine, since one would be following more clearly, in a closer intimacy, the various contours by which the surface of the earth is wrinkled’. As a central component of the Industrial Revolution, the railway severely disrupted organic spatio-temporal relations between people and places, flattening and abstracting the land by reducing the time and distance of travel between territories.

Relating such a concept to the present, Schultz considers Brexit: ‘You see people who are deeply depoliticised, completely seized by the idea that you need no attachments, suddenly realising that if you are cut out of Europe then you are nothing much’. The danger here can again be seen as emanating from notions of negative freedom, stigmatising everything outside of the individual as restrictive. The reversal of this process of land-abstraction would require a redefinition of the modern individual as being in constant negotiation with external nature in their joint construction of space and place, in turn decentralising the individual.

What Schultz and Latour advocate is a recontextualisation of the land within a new ecological framework, one that redefines it as ‘territory’. This reclassification gives land a social dimension that enables it to be more readily connected with the people in preparation for political climate action. It is difficult to task a mere reclassification of language with the reform of an economic and material status quo that remains in thrall to the idea of progress.

But Latour and Schultz argue that the ecological movement’s approach to the battle of ideas must first be a descriptive one: ‘how can you have interests if you can’t describe in enough detail the concrete situations you find yourself in? If you don’t know what you depend on, how will you know what you’ll need to defend?’ Both texts deliver on this descriptive front, with A Memo laying the groundwork of a theoretical description of current habitability conditions, on which Land Sickness builds with a ‘self-description’ whereby the narrator attempts to orientate himself within the overlap of the worlds he lives in and lives off.

Ultimately, works on issues of climate are assessed on the basis of their potential for inspiring action. Yet, a crisis of mobilisation persists. No matter how pressing the current climate catastrophe, people are paralysed in the face of danger. Schultz and Latour thus take it upon themselves to try a new angle. By looking to history and the evolution of class struggles, they lend significant strength to their theories by building on sociological tradition and expanding its field of enquiry to include the Anthropocene.

Schultz then takes further steps towards cultivating an uneasy but hopeful ‘ecological aesthetic’ in Land Sickness. Their call to arms is refreshingly self-conscious, advocating a blurring of distinctions, limits, and boundaries that makes no pretence at the possibility of consensus within a homogenous ecological class. Rather, the authors suggest the potential for a ‘collective dissensus’, as posited by Felix Guattari in Three

Ecologies, whereby the ecological class is united in their opposition to territorial destruction. If such an outcome is achieved, it will be largely because these sentiments have been naturalised in the crucial battle of ideas that Schultz and Latour have instigated.

BAHAR GANJVAR is a third year at Merton reading History & English and writing Letterboxd reviews.


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