The human in society and their technical relations with the environment: Neither nature nor Gaia (an ecosocialist perspective)





Claude Calame

École des Hautes Étudesen Sciences Sociales, Paris


‘In Fourier, technology appears as the spark that ignites the powder of nature. […] The later conception of man’s exploitation of nature reflects the actual exploitation of man by the owners of the means of production. If the integration of the technological into social life failed, the fault lies in this exploitation.’ These words of introduction are drawn from Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, intended as an introduction to his incomplete Arcades Project (1939/1999, p. 17).


They belong tohis reflection on the ‘arcades’ of Paris, the very ones that supposedly inspired the urban and social organisation of the ‘phalansteries’ proposed by Charles Fourier. These ‘gallery-streets’ combining shops and housing bear witness to the beginnings of industrialisation: the exploitation of human labour, but also the exploitation of ‘nature’; the exploitation of what is now referred to as ‘human resources’, just as our environment is reduced to a totality of ‘natural resources’.

In short, by drawing this connection between the exploitation of humans and the exploitation of ‘nature’, Benjamin anticipates the beginning of what is now conceived as the Anthropocene; in other words, a new phase in the development of the Earth in which human activities have become the main driving force behind geological changes. Among the changes affecting what is referred to in this context as the Earth System (with capital letters!), climate change is now particularly evident. These changes also include the collapse of biodiversity and cumulative changes in the biochemical and geochemical cycles of water, nitrogen and phosphate. In addition, we have to reckon with the artificial changes made to ecosystems such as the clearance of land to extend grazing pasture, interventions in the soil for the growth of crops and, above all, the process of urbanisation, with ever larger transport infrastructures between urban centres that have expanded to become metropolises. This growth also involves technological development and energy consumption based on coal, oil, natural gas and uranium, which is now almost fifty times higher than it was at the beginning of the 19th century (BonneuilandFreissoz, 2016, pp. 19-23). There is now a general recognition of the effect of humans living in society on an environment that continues to be referred to as‘nature’.

Why, then, have we seen a proliferation of these human activities in society, through the invention and use of increasingly sophisticated and efficient technologies, in relation to an environment objectified as nature?

This leads us to question not only the consequences of these increasingly striking interventions by humans on their living environment, with the various types of pollution that they entail, but also the causes of those interventions. Furthermore, this sociological and political questioning calls for an interrogation of the very concept of ‘nature’ and the uses that are made of its corresponding reality by people living in society. Nature on one side, humans in society on the other; on the one hand, a physical, vegetable and animal environment which isessential to our material and physical survival; on the other hand, societies organised in networks of social relations and sustained by a culture understood as a complex set of norms and rules of behaviour, representations and symbolic manifestations; but culture is also a range of speculative and practical forms of knowledge accompanied by the signifying actions that arise from them, and which are necessary for our organic, mental and psychic existence.

This binary opposition, presented here by way of introduction, will be criticised and refuted in this brief reflection on the relationship between society and nature from an ecosocialist perspective. The aim is not only to assert the anthropological imperative to move beyond the Eurocentric opposition between nature and culture, but above all to put forward some proposals, along the lines of a comparative ecosocialist anthropology, regarding the need to fundamentally rethink our concrete social and cultural relations with an environment conceived as a biosphere.

1. The Enlightenment: Nature subject to reason?

The modern concept of nature owes its origin in particular to René Descartes’s reflection on a mechanical model of physics corresponding to that of Newton. This model would make it possible to ‘find a practical philosophy, by means of which, knowing the force and the actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, just as distinctly as we know the various skills of our craftsmen, we might be able, in the same way, to use them for all the purposes for which they are appropriate, and thus render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature’ (1637/1998, p. 35).

There is a mistaken belief that the definition of nature as being dominated by human reason became established in the Enlightenment. Notably, the article on ‘Nature’ in the Encyclopédie presents no fewer than sixteen different definitions, associated in turn with the idea of a system, the concept of an essence (of the soul, or of matter), the idea of a natural course of things, the idea of a human nature guided by a ‘spiritual and reasonable soul’, etc. However, through an explicit reference to Newton, the Encyclopédie’s article on ‘Nature’ also alludes to the ‘laws of Nature’. These are defined as ‘axioms or general rules of movement and rest observed by natural bodies in the action they exert on one another, and in all the changes that occur in their natural state’ (Louis de Jaucourt, 1765, p. 40).

The article also mentions the theological definition of nature, which distinguishes between nature naturansand natura naturata: on the one hand, the God who created all things, and on the other hand, the creatures who received their nature from the hands of another!

It is not until Buffon that we find a direct opposition between the power of Man and the power of Nature, both endowed with a capital letter! Henceforth, human beings would be considered capable of subduing Nature, thanks to their intelligence, by observing it and then cultivating it; man is thus destined to draw ‘new riches’ from a Nature that seems to possess‘inexhaustible fecundity’ (Buffon, 1780: II, p. 210). In this dual perspective, man’s intelligence and reason are endowed with a universal value in the face of a nature that responds to purely physical laws.

2. A detour through Greece: The phúsis of the ‘Presocratics’

It is clear, then, that the concepts of both nature and reason are situated in space and time, and that they are both marked by social and cultural factors. They existas representations,shared in common by a certain social and cultural community in a given historical situation, however vast, complex and diversethat communitymight be. It can therefore be useful to adopt an anthropological approach to the representations found in another culture, removed from our own in space and/or time, in a process of differential comparison. This approach involves a double movement of decentring: first a movement towards the other, distant culture, and then a movement of return, in a critical spirit, towards our own system of representations.

I shall therefore turn briefly to ancient Greece, as I have been attempting to inhabit this culture for several decades, albeit principally through the mediation of texts. Let us begin with the term and concept of phúsis. Morphologically, the term is based on the different forms of the verb phúein, which can mean ‘to generate’, ‘to be born’, ‘to grow’, ‘to become’. The linguist Émile Benveniste (1975: pp. 78-85) shows that, in this respect, the concept of phúsis is based on the idea of fulfilment as becoming; this explains why it is both process- and result-orientated. The idea of growth, in this case plant growth, is, for example, implicit in the designation of the leaf, by way of metaphor, as phûllon. In search of a definition of phúsisthat would anticipate the modern concept of nature, we would obviously look neither to the philosophers nor to the Presocratics, but to the pre-Platonic sages. In fact, this definition is nowhere to be found, even though Aristotle sometimes uses the termphusiológoi (‘physiologists’, e.g. Metaphysics 1, 986b 14 and 990a 3) to refer to these sages whose verses and statements have unfortunately reached us only in small fragments.

One obviously thinks here of Parmenides’s verseslisting the components of the ether, referred to as the ‘ethereal phúsis’: the sun, the moon (which has its ownphúsis!), the sky, the stars. What is there to justify the term ‘Perìphúseos’,which was used retrospectively to denote many verses among the writings of the pre-Platonic sages? In fact, Parmenides’s verses place these ‘natural’ elements from the outset in the perspective of the man who observes them and, more precisely, in the perspective of the addressee of the versified propositions, whom the sage addresses as ‘you’ (fr. 19 D12 Laks-Most). It is then a matter of grasping the indications, the signs (sémata) produced in particular by the movements of the moon and the sun. The phúsis of the stars must be visually apprehended in theirmovement, which needs to be interpreted by that well-informed man, the pupil of the sage. It is also the faculty of thought (nóema) that allows man to grasp the phúsis ofhis own limbs (fr. 19 D51 Laks-Most), in a theory of sensation whose development is difficult to follow. ‘Nature’ is therefore constantly placed in relation to the human who perceives and interprets it.

Democritus goes even further, as I have already discussed elsewhere, when he compares phúsisto teaching (didakhé, fr. 27 D403 Laks-Most). These two concepts are comparable insofar as teaching directs man’s rhythmic movement and, through this change of cadence, ‘creates a nature’(phusiopoieî). Thus, not only is phúsisgrasped here in its dimension of movement, and not only is it extended to include the nature of man (ánthropos), but above all we find that teaching — an unmistakably social and cultural practice — shapes a nature characterised by its rhythmic movement.

3. From Thucydides to Hippocrates: The influence of the environment on human nature

Certainly, with regard to the existence of human nature, we can recall the words with which Thucydides concludes the prelude to his treatise on the conflict between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians: ‘those who wish to see clearly both things that have happened in the past and similar things that, in accordance with the human (katàtòanthrópinon), will happen in the future, may judge what I have written to be useful. It is a possession forever, rather than a prize performance for an immediate audience’ (1, 22, 4). Tòanthrópinon, ‘the human’: this unchanging factor determining human action would therefore constitute, if not a human nature, at least a pattern of behaviour common to all humans, or in short, a habitus shared by all humans, a habitus corresponding to the will to dominate, accompanied by violence if necessary.

Twice, however, the Athenians in Thucydides’s account use the term phúsis to refer to this will towards domination of the strongest over the weakest. In their confrontation with the Lacedemonians and the latter’shegemony over the cities of the Peloponnese, the Athenians attach this will to powerto ‘human nature’ (anthrópeiaphúsis; 1, 76, 3). This tendency towardsdomination can nevertheless be compensated for by a sense of justice, which is, conversely, attached to shared laws(nómoi). Similarly, when the people of the island of Melos refuse to submit to their power, the Athenians refer to a phúsis, a necessary habitus that leads one to dominate others as soon as one has the power to do so (5, 105, 2); and this attitude is attributed to both the ‘human’ (tòanthrópeion)and the divine! Thus, not only humans but also the gods are associated with a ‘nature’ that is itself opposed to a set of stated rules, shared (nómos, in the etymological sense of the term) and respected by humans, or at least by a civic community. Could this be the outline of an opposition between the inescapable universality of nature and the relativism of the cultures of humans living in society?

At this point it will be useful to turn to Hippocratic medicine and the treatise ‘On Airs, Waters, Places’, included in the Hippocratic Corpus and more or less contemporary with Thucydides. This text addresses the influence of ‘airs, waters, places’ (and also food, in addition to these environmental factors) on the morphology and character of humans, and consequently on the illnesses that can afflict them. From the outset, therefore, the environment, the body and the character of humans living in society are brought into a relationship of interpenetration on account of their shared qualities, and especially by means of the absorption of food and drink. In the second part of the treatise, while focusing attention on the differences between Asia and Europe with regard to the morphology of their respective populations, the author broadens the scope of the discussion: ‘I argue that Asia differs entirely from Europe in the nature (phúsias, in the plural!) of all things, both the products (phuómena) of the earth (khóra)and human beings’ (12, 2). The author goes on to affirm that, because of the moderate degree of seasonal variation,everything in Asia becomes larger and more beautiful; on the one hand the country (khóra) is gentler, on the other hand the characters (éthea) of humansthere are more friendly and more forgiving. Soil, plants and people are therefore all associated with the same (natural) developmental processes. In contrast,peoples in Europe are taller and more vigorous, and therefore more spirited and valiant,as a result of the sharper contrast between seasons.

There is therefore no separation between nature and culture, but on the contrary an interpenetration between the qualities of a land, the plant-life that it produces, the waters that flow through it, the morphology of its inhabitants, and their characteristics and habits. This is emphasised by the example of the Macrocephali, which shows that over time, custom (nómos; 14, 1-4) can influencethe process of development (phúsis). The custom of wrapping the skulls of children in strips of cloth at birth has resulted in this remote peopletaking on the cranial morphology indicated by its name, in a process by which nómoscontributes to phúsis. We might say, in modern terms, that the culture and action of humans can be inscribed in an external nature and modify it, while the climate has a determining influence on the nature of humans. In the concluding chapter of this brief medical treatise on the environment, the author returns to the relationship between the qualities of the inhabited earth, the climate and the character traits of the humans who inhabit these different places. He even goes so far as to state, with regard to courage and endurance, that custom, and in this case the political regime, can combine with the effect of phúsis to strengthen these qualities of the soul (24, 3)! He concludes: ‘For where the changes of the seasons are most frequent and most sharply contrasted, there you will find the greatest diversity in physical appearance, in character and in natural processes (phúsias). These are the greatest differences that are due to nature (phúsis). Next come the effects of the land in which a man is reared, and the water. For in general you will find that the physical appearance and behaviour of men correspond to the constitution (phúsei) of the country’ (24, 6-7).

4. The approach of modern anthropology: Nature vs. culture?

Our differential and critical comparison with ancient Greece therefore forces us to abandon the modern clear-cut distinction between nature and culture, and consequently between nature and society.

In cultural and social anthropology the canonisation of the opposition between nature and culture is generally attributed to structuralism, and therefore in a sense to Claude Lévi-Strauss. Certainly, the introductory sections of LesStructures élémentaires de la parentédraw a clear distinction between the order of nature, which would be universal and characterised by spontaneity, and the order of culture, which would be attached to norms, and is therefore relative and particular.But this distinction is actually set up in order to be applied to humans, and in this case as a way to set up an opposition between the apparently universal rule of the prohibition of incest and the relative variability in the practices of marriage to close relatives (1949/1967, p. 10).

In a field of anthropology still strongly marked by structuralism, Philippe Descola (2005) is the most notable figure who has transferred the concept of nature to apply to an environment formed by ‘non-humans’. But he does so as a way of inviting us to move‘beyond nature and culture’, in order to undertake a vast and impressive comparison between the different modes of being-in-the-worldavailable tohumans. Like any good study based on differential comparison, the investigation requires a unifying operational concept. In this case, an instrumental distinction is drawn between ‘interiority’ and ‘physicality’, where the former defines the human, and the latter defines what modern thinkers conceive of as nature. At the end of the study, this leads to the definition of four ‘ontologies’, four different modes for humans’ relation to their environment, four types of relationships between, on the one hand,humans as ‘social beings’, and on the other, ‘natural objects’.

Firstly, in the case of animism, the human subject tends to project an ‘interiority’ similar to their own onto a different ‘physicality’, which corresponds to the diversity of the surrounding world. Secondly, the totemic ontology, which corresponds to a system of reciprocal equivalences between physicalities and interiorities, conceives of objects as sharing with humanscertain traits of interiority and physicality while maintaining differences from each other. Thirdly, analogismtends to divide the totality of existing things into discrete entities, both different and close to one another, in order to integrate them into a system where they become intelligible through the resemblances that characterise them in a network of relations of correspondence with the subject. The fourth and final ontology, that of modern naturalism, focuses on human expressions and manifestations that are considered to be cultural, and are therefore related in their diversity to the universal laws of the physical universe and the biological world; external entities are thereby constituted as objects devoid of interiority, but possessing a physicality similar to that of human beings.

As we can see, we remain within the structural logic of binary opposition, while running the risk of essentialisation, if not naturalisation, by defining as ontologies, or even cosmogonies, these four modes in which the human, living in a society organised by the practices and representations of a culture, relates to their environment. In this respect, one of the conclusions that Descola draws from a reflectionon what he calls ‘the ecology of others’ seems to me to be significant: ‘It is more plausible to admit that what exists outside our bodies and interacts with them appears as a finite set of qualities and relationships that may or may not be actualised by humans depending on the circumstances and ontological options that guide them’(2011, p. 76).

It is still necessary to question both the modes of the interface between the human body and the set of ‘qualities’ that make up its exterior, and the type of relations that humans can actualise based on that interface. So let us therefore return briefly to ancient Greece, and first of all to Aristotle, since he is considered to be the founder of the modern concept of nature. In fact, we discover from reading the preliminaries of the first two books from the collection gathered under the title‘Lecture on Physics’ that the investigation focuses on the principles, causes and elements of a phúsis that doesnot receive a prior definition. Among these principles, and in reference to the pre-Platonic sages, we find air and water. However, the essential principle is revealed to be movement, understood in terms of doing and suffering. Furthermore, among the beings that exist ‘by nature’ (phúsei) are animals, plants and ‘simple bodies’, such as earth, fire, air and water (192b 8-11). Each of these beings is characterised by a principle of movement or, on the contrary, one of stability, in particular by increase or reduction of that movement. In this respect— and this is the essential point for us — these beings differ from objects such as a bed or a garment that are the product of a ‘technical art’(tékhne; 192b 18); in contrast, they possess, through their phúsis, their own principle, which is a cause of movement and rest.

5. Between humans and their environment, the ‘technical arts’

We should recall at this point that the notion of phúsisis attached to movement, a dynamic process (in accordance with the etymological meaning of the term), and also that the production of manufactured objects implies the intervention of the technical arts, the tékhnai. It is in Attic tragedy that we find a critical reflection on nature and the uses of these technical arts to allow man to survive despite his mortal condition. In the song that comments on the beginning of the action of Sophocles’sAntigone (vv. 332-375), the chorus made up of the old men of Thebes lists the means that allow man to overcome his shortcomings, including the following skills: navigation, which allows man to cross the sea harnessing the power of the wind, catching birds and fish, agriculture and the use of the plough, which allows man to work the Earth,‘the highest, most powerful of the gods, the indestructible, the untiring’. Like the domestication of beasts of burden with the yoke, the construction of shelters or the use of medicine to escape diseases, these practices correspond to the use of ‘ingenious means’ (mekhanaí, v. 349). The chorus concludes by singing: ‘Man, the holder of an industrious knowledge in technical art (sophóntimekhanóentékhnas), takes sometimes the path of evil, sometimes the path of good’ (vv. 364-365).

No doubt this is the reason why, at the start of their song, Sophocles’s chorusdescribes man as the most wondrous thing among the world’s many wonders, with a sentiment torn between the fear and indignation inspired by evildoing, and the admiration elicited by power andskill; and this is not to mention the philosophical speculations that the term deinóninspired for Heidegger. As for the choice between good and evil in the application of the technical arts, the chorus provides a useful clarification. The exercise of this practical knowledge can lead to good if the laws of the land and the justice of the gods are respected, but to evil if recklessness prevails: man can then go from occupying the foremost position in the polisto being excluded from it: a man who was hupsípolis can becomeápolis (v. 370). This explains why ploughing the land means ‘exhausting’ it (v. 339) and domesticating animals involves the use of ‘ingenious means’ through coercion… Whatever the means of their implementation, the exercise of practical knowledge and the technical arts belongs to the social context of the civic community.

Our discussion of the poetic representation of man’s relationship with his environment through technical means that depend on his practical intelligence would obviously also benefit from taking into account the famous tirade of the enchained Prometheus inPrometheus Bound, traditionally attributed to Aeschylus. As I have discussed this passage elsewhere (Calame, 2015, pp. 37-42),let us simply recall that, in order to enable man to leave the animal state to which he is condemned by the poor acuity of his sight and hearing, Prometheus boasts of having invented and taught to men a series of practical skills that he defines, at the end of his tirade, as tékhnai(v. 506, and see v. 514): techniques such as the domestication of animals for agriculture and trade, the art of sailing for navigation, mnemonic arts such as arithmetic or writing, the concoction of medicines to cure illnesses, the arts of divination to predict the future, etc.

These various technical arts are initially presented as ‘ingenious means’ (mekhanémata, v. 469), ‘practical knowledge’ (sophismata, vv.459 and 470), means by which man can extricate himself from his impasse (póroi, v.477). These tékhnairequire not only the skilled and cunning intelligence denoted by the term mêtis, but also sophía, that is, the capacity for practical knowledge; this is also the faculty possessed by the poet. Let us recall Plato’s version of the story of Prometheus in the Protagoras: the knowledge that Prometheus bestows on man, with the gift of fire, stolen from Hephaestus and Athena,in order to save man from his helplessness and lack of resources,is referred to as ‘industrious knowledge’ (éntekhnossophía; 321c). Furthermore, the exercise of these technical arts depends on the identification of ‘signs’ (sémata, v. 498) and ‘indices’ (tékmar, v.454); in other words, the practice of technical arts is based on an interpretation of the environment. Finally, this knowledge based on an artisanal and practical intelligence contributes to the production of those ‘advantages’ and sources of profit(ophelémata, v. 501) that are bronze, iron, silver and gold, which until then had been hidden from mankind in the bowels of the earth. However, the application of these various technical arts would be nothing without the greatest gift that Prometheus gave to mortals, namely fire (v. 252). In short, there are no technical activities without energy!

In order to save humans from merely surviving like animals, the civilising hero invents the technical arts for their benefit, which are both semiotic and practical. These technical arts enable men, through the use of their sense of sight and hearing, and through their practical intelligence, both to interpret their environment and to make use of it for food production, trade, housing, health, communication and, in the case of divination, for relating to that which is beyond them, conceived here as divine powers. And when Sophocles’schorus makes these technical arts the characteristic feature of human beings, it explicitly refers to the human being living in society, motivated by shared values, and to what we would call culture; a cultural human being who is not placed in opposition to ‘nature’, but rather in interaction with a deifiedEarth.This Earth is presumably an allusion to the Gaia of Hesiod’s Theogony, theprimordial power that appears with Eros, after Chaos, produces Ouranos and is joined with him.

We therefore find ourselves once again beyond an opposition between nature and society/culture![1] Let us recall once again that Aristotle does not fail to include man in phúsis, if only when he asserts at the beginning of thePolitics (1, 1253a 1-18) that man is a political animal ‘by nature’ (phúsei). This expression is very frequently repeated and interpreted, yet its context is constantly overlooked. If man is a political animal, it is because the polis — or in modern terms, society —is one of the entities that exist‘by nature’. Moreover, if man is a political being to an even greater extent than bees or other gregarious animals, it is because, alone among animals, human beings have (again, by nature) the faculty of lógos,in the sense of ‘speech’; this faculty allows humans to express feelings, pain and pleasure, but also to formulate that which is either useful or harmful, just or unjust. Therefore, phúsisitself leads us back to the human being.

6. From Descartes to the Capitalocene: The commodification of nature

As for the relationship between nature and society/culture, let us return, in an attitude of critical comparison, to the paradigm of European modernity established by Descartes and developed in the Enlightenment. There is an overlap, firstly, in the claim that, alongside a ‘speculative philosophy’, there is also a practical philosophy, and secondly in the recognition of active forces in the different bodies — fire, water, air, stars, heavens — that make up our environment. This practical knowledge makes it possible to exploit the forces concealed withinwhat has, by this point, become nature. Furthermore, we find in Descartes a reference to two of the fields in which practical knowledge can be applied, in agriculture and especially in medicine — two fields of practice that are also mentioned in the list of Promethean tékhnai. Above all, we find an awareness that a science such as physics must submit to ‘the law which obliges us to procure, as much as is in our power, the common good of all men’(Descartes,1637/1998, p. 35); it should therefore be counted among forms of ‘knowledge that would be very useful in life’.

In the final pages of the Discourse on Method, Descartes — himself the author of essays onDioptrics, Meteors and Geometry— returns several times to this notion of the usefulness of knowledge and the sciences; as suggested by the very title of theDiscourse on Method, which was intended as a preface to the three scientific treatises mentioned above, it aimsto find truth in the sciences by means of reason. There is, however, a fundamental difference with the Greece of Prometheus, insofar as the use of practical knowledge, through the application of the sciences, could ‘make us masters and possessors of nature’ (1637/1998, p. 35). If the collective ‘we’, to which Descartes’s Discourse on Method occasionally refers, is made up of law-abiding humans living and acting in society, the environment to which he refers is objectified as a nature endowed with its own autonomous forces.

Thus, from a completely Eurocentric perspective, and faced with a nature whose ‘resources’ can be exploited by humans, the human faculties of practical intelligence and semiotic interpretation presented in the tragic story of Prometheus have now been reduced to a faculty of technical reason, on the model of Newton’s mathematical and mechanical physics. In short, it is this technical reason that allowed industrialisation, and even an industrial revolution —developments which made an undeniable contribution to the improvement of the material condition of human beings, but were rapidly turned instead to other purposes. Indeed, through a mechanisation that drew on humans’ technical intelligence, and through the burning of fossil fuels drawn from the available environmental resources, industrialisation has undoubtedly contributed to strengthening the indispensable material and biological basis for the social and cultural emancipation of humans living in society.

However, the development of new techniques, and then technologies,in support of industrialisation, then digitalisation, in a constant spirit of innovation, was carried out with the sole aim of increasing commercial productivity. In summary, since these things have been repeatedly stated elsewhere, particularly in various texts published in Les Possibles:free markets imply freedom of trade and of industry, on the principle of ‘free and undistorted’ competition (which, via the Maastricht Treaty, has become the organising principle of the European Union), the need for growth measured in purely economic and financial terms, the division and Taylorisation of labour with the aim of increasing surplus value in the Marxist sense of the term, the creation of new needs fuelled by omnipresent advertising in order to provide markets for the products produced by labour, etc. In this way, the social and cultural relations between people of different communities have been largely commodified in response to the need for profit imposed, through the logic of capitalism, on enterprises of industrial and technological production. In Marxist terms, the use value and the symbolic value of the objects produced are now subordinated to their exchange value alone; both the social utility and the cultural significance of practices based on the technical arts are subject only to their market value and the economic constraints of the market. As for the environment, through the productivism andextractivism demanded by the logic of growth,which requires a constant increase in production and consumption, it is suffering the damage and destruction that has,albeit belatedly, been widely condemned since the end of the last century. It is significant, and worth repeating, that through the economic and financial logic of capitalism the biosphere has been reduced to a set of ‘natural resources’, while human practices, both in production and in services, are now conceived as ‘human resources’.

The technical arts were therefore diverted from both the civilising intention and the semiotic function of social and cultural construction of the human being that the tragic poets attributed to them while addressing the Athenian public of the classical period. In the transition from the Anthropocene to the paradigm that some are now calling theCapitalocene (Bonneuil&Fressoz, 2015, pp. 247-279), the tékhnai developed on the basis of the enormous progress of the ‘natural’ sciences have been subordinated to the sole commercial and financial logic of profit maximisation and capitalist accumulation, and to the neoliberal principles that underpin that logic. This shift has been strongly accentuated by the great movement of economic and financial globalisation which has taken shape since the Bretton Woods agreements, dominated by the United States and the United Kingdom. The processes of globalisation can be seen in a vast delocalisation of industrial production, in free trade treaties that free the economic actors and companies of rich countries (which have now become multinationals) from the social and ecological regulations of the countries whose labour power and environment are being exploited, in the economic and financial domination of the countries of the Global South by those of the Global North (the ‘structural adjustment’ measures imposed by the WB and IMF, etc.), and in the colonial, and later neo-colonial destruction of the social and cultural codes of communities who have their own system of symbolic and practical relations with their environment. Through these processes, globalisation has had two main effects. On the one hand, the sharp increase in income inequalities and the deterioration of living conditions in the dominated countries have led to forced migratory movements, whose victims the rich countries refuse to accept; on the other hand, the various forms of pollution caused by the over-exploitation of soil and raw materials, but also by the over-consumption of hydrocarbons and nuclear energy, have led to the destruction of the environment, which is essential for the survival of human beings in society.

7. Critical approaches: From Latour to Tanuro

I shall comment here on only two of the responses that have emerged to face the challenge of the social, cultural and ecological destruction inflicted by deregulated and globalised capitalism, which imposes a purely economic and financial logicon the indispensable symbolic and practical relationship between humans living in society and their environment.

The first of these responses comes from the sociologist and philosopher of science Bruno Latour, who, in his work Face à Gaïa.Huitconférences sur le Nouveau RégimeClimatique (2015),takes up James Lovelock’s hypothesis with regard to the environment that we have objectified as ‘nature’. According to this hypothesis,the Earth should be considered as a living organism, a system regulated by homeostasis, a ‘super-organism’with its own physiology; it is then given the name Gaia, not in reference to the powerful and primordial Hesiodic deity, but in recognition that it constitutes an organism, that of the EarthSystem. However, while recognising the importance of the harmful effects on this system produced by the human practices associated with the Anthropocene, Latour resorts to the linguistic subterfuge of putting Gaia in the plural (still with a capital letter…) and to the fallacy of the historicist argument: Gaia does not correspond to Nature, but ‘Gaia are the localised, historical and secularavatars of Nature’ (2015, p. 358). Humans, conceived as Terrestrials, are therefore attached to this plural Gaia, and once they become adults, Terrestrials and Earth (‘Terre’)share the same fragility. Consequently, ‘Gaiarequire[sic!] only that power be shared as secular and not religious powers’ (2015, p. 360). In this institution of ‘Nature’as a person whom we can address, these plural Gaiashould not be considered as a sovereign state, but they nonetheless invite us to respect their majesty…

Gaia is therefore a long way from any deified figure such as Pachamama or Gé, or any sort of transcendence, and instead it corresponds (now back in singular form) to ‘finitude, a very worldly finitude’ (2015, p. 370); as such, it forces us to abandon the image of Man situated at the centre of a global and circular Nature, sometimes threatening it and sometimesprotecting it… This does not prevent Latour from concluding, in a statement that he places under the aegis of Christopher Columbus, asthe ‘bearer of Christ’ (in accordance with the etymology of his first name): ‘We should rather accept to weigh less heavily on the back of that which carries us across the ford of time, namely Gaia’ (2015, p. 373).

One might expect Latour to suggest some of the means by which to establish this new relationship between humans and the biosphere. The title of a short essay published subsequently, Oùatterir?(2017), seemed to promise some answers to the question. According to this work, humans’ intervention in nature would be limited to a very narrow‘critical zone’ between geology and space. It is in this critical zone that humans’ action on the Earth[2]would be situated, thereby defining a ‘Terrestrial’domain between ‘Nature’ and ‘the human world’; and ecology would invite us to commit to acting only in this Terrestrial domain. Thus,‘redirecting attention from “nature” towards the Terrestrial could overcome the disconnection that has paralysed political positions since the emergence of the climate threat, and has thereby endangered the connection between so-called “social” and “ecological” struggles’ (2017, p. 105). The entry into a period that is appropriately named the Anthropocene would be the symptom of a ‘repoliticisationof all planetary issues’ (2017, p. 108).

This work raises the greatest doubts when it emerges that the proposed site for our ‘landing’ (the ‘atterrissage’ of the title) corresponds to Europe… admittedly, not the traditional, ethnocentric idea of Europe, but a ‘provincialised’ Europe. Although Latour acknowledges that, in the name of ‘civilisation’, Europe has conquered lands and territories by destroying the cultures of their inhabitants, and attempting to eradicate the inhabitants themselves, Latour never questions the neoliberal system inspired by the English-speaking world which, by means of economic and financial globalisation, subjects the world to the regime of neo-colonial domination mentioned earlier, with similar destructive consequences in both the social and the ecological order. The replacement of capitalism by ‘some other regime’ (2017, p. 122) is only very cautiously envisaged as a ‘huge and paralysing’ issue…

This is not at all the case in the latest essay published by the environmental engineer Daniel Tanuro, Trop tard pour êtrepessimistes! (‘Too late to be pessimistic’, 2020). In the context of the relationship between man and nature (nature placed in quotation marks), the essay draws on data from three successive intergovernmental reports: one on global changes in the geosphere and biosphere, one on climate (the IPCC) and one on biodiversity. It is a well-known claim that the different dimensions of the global crisis ‘ultimately lead back to the same fundamental problem: the relative limits of sustainable human development on a finite planet’ (2020, p. 76). Because of the major role played by energy production, the climate occupies a central place in this crisis. On this point, Tanuro is quick to state the objectives of ‘carbon neutrality’, to be achieved through technological processes whose application would be determinedby the laws of the market; this carbon neutrality would therefore be subject to the regime of ‘neoliberal dogma’, based on (economic) growth and innovation. The tékhnai, now conceived as ‘engineering sciences’, once again prove to be powerless if their use is not subject to criteria other than those of capitalist profit!

Moreover, Tanurois reluctant, no doubt with good reason, to accept the notion of a transition from the Anthropocene to theCapitalocene, insofar as productivism was also the governing principle of the planned economy of the USSR, whose ecological and human consequences we know all too well. Nonetheless, while all the projects of the Green New Deal fail to challenge the economic and financial system at the origin of the global ecological crisis, we can turn instead to Karl Marx’s analyses of the concepts of labour and modes of production (see the references provided by Tanuro, 2020, p. 241 n. 264, to which we should also add Corcuff, 2012, pp. 110-120). In both industry and agriculture, the desire to increase productivity drives the capitalist mode of production to exploit, by means of technology, the two main sources of wealth, namely the worker and the Earth.[3]

Following on from such insightful observations, Tanuro’s conclusions are all the more disappointing as they are presented as being ‘ecosocialist’. The proposed ‘ecosocialist plan’ would involve ‘economic democracy’ and ‘political democracy’ (2020, p. 264). With regard to education and research, his proposals include (in no particular order): reform of teaching, public funding of research, the abolition of patents, social innovation, school education that aims to ‘awaken children to the beauties of nature’. With regard to production and labour, he proposes: a campaign against waste, the restriction of programmed obsolescence, an extensionof the right to organise and carry out industrial action in (presumably private?) businesses and services, an improvementin salaries and working conditions. All of these measures are intended to lead to us ‘producing less, transporting less, sharing more’. So be it. But how will this happen: through which modes of production, which criteria of use, which technical means, which democratic institutions, and in pursuit of which social and environmental objectives? Will spontaneous activity, self-organisation and self-control only on the side of the exploited and oppressed be sufficient to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene? And how are we to respond to the ‘class struggle’ that the dominant wage against the young, women, racialised people, wage earners, indigenous peoples, agricultural workers and, ultimately, ‘the living in general’ (2020, p. 301)? In fact, all the concrete measures proposed by Tanurocan be achieved within the current economic and financial system; the private ownership of the means of production is apparently not called into question. We cannot therefore be satisfied with the aspiration, however pressing, for ‘the re-emergence on a massive scale of an emancipatory project capable of facing up to the terrible threats that productivist madness poses to humanity’ (2020, p. 309).

8. For an ecosocialist transition

In response to both Latour and Tanuro, we can refer instead to the thirteen theses provided by Michael Löwy in conclusion to his essay on ecosocialism, ‘XIII Thèses sur la catastrophe (ecologique) imminenteet les moyens (révolutionnaires) de l’éviter’ (‘Thirteen Theses on the imminent (ecological) catastrophe and the (revolutionary) means to avert it’). They involve a break from the productivist model of the capitalist system and, beyond changes in forms of ownership, they demand ‘a change of civilisation, based on values of solidarity, equality, freedom and respect for nature’ (2020, p. 150). Following on from my work in a recently published article (2020), and drawing on several contributions previously published in the journal by authorised contributors, I shall make several proposals. These proposals include, on the one hand, a new definition of work that includes services (not just personal care) and guarantees full employment in accordance with criteria that place the economy under the auspices of social and environmental justice, and on the other hand, with regard to economic production, an industrial reorganisation and forms of decentralised planning, to be achieved through the socialisation of large-scale private property — all in the context of a relationship with the environment redefined according to ecological and social criteria.

To this end, Jean-Marie Harribey’s proposals in response to the social and ecological crisis of capitalism are crucial, both with regard to the concept of value and to the rehabilitation of work with a wider definition. If the wealth produced by humans is not to be reduced to its market value, and if nature is not to be viewed in terms of its intrinsic economic value, work must be reconceived as living work and rehabilitated both with regard to its meaning and its purpose. ‘The question of property, that of the social and democratic management of enterprises, and that of the sharing of produced and natural wealth between all humans, are inseparable’ (2020, p. 266).

Nevertheless, questions remain as to our understanding of the environment, or biosphere, which both Löwy and Harribey refer to as‘nature’, and also as to the signifying and practical relations that exist between humans and their environment, guiding their use of technical arts, which are a distinctive feature of human beings. The Hellenic conception of tékhnaihelps us to clarify this. The practice of the technical arts invented by humanshas a determining impact on both human communities and their environment,owing to the fact that they are a semiotic form of creation; as far as communication is concerned, the same can be said of humans’ discursive practices. In their different uses, techniques and technologies give meaning to the environment in order to transform it for the benefit of humans in society,in accordance with the representations and criteria that define these uses. Indeed, this can be seen in the case of the neuro-psycho-economic complex itself, which naturalises both nature and society by projecting an entrepreneurial and managerial conception onto phenomena of biological organisation. As Geneviève Azam concludes, ‘the fusion carried out by the discipline of economics between nature and society, between the biological and the social, responds to that opposition by naturalising societies’(2015, p. 208); which is not a reason, as we shall see, to attribute rights to the Earth…

Putting aside any objectification of our environment as ‘nature’ for exploitation and profit, as discussed above, it should be recognised instead as a world that is fundamentally made meaningful through sensory and intellectual perception; the environment is constantly configured and refigured by our representations, our knowledge, our practices and our discourses, in an interaction that now confronts us with the ecological problems we know. Faced with the urgent need for an ecological turning point, and faced with the ecosocialist break that this entails from capitalism’s destruction of human communities and their environments, techniques and technologies must not only be redesigned and recreated, but must also be directed towards ends other than capitalist profit alone. From this perspective, what we continue to conceptualise as ‘nature’, from a largely Eurocentric and anthropocentric perspective, leads us back to society.

Does this mean that, in order to escape the implicit anthropocentrism of the naturalisation of the environment, we should consider the biosphere as a living organism? Should it be venerated as a Mother Earth, like the Andean figure of Pachamama, who combines mountains, glaciers, air, rivers and oceans as living beings, and who would interact with the cosmos, at the risk of instigating a new theology? Should this Mother Earth, representing Nature and corresponding to the biosphere, be granted legal personhood, becoming a legal subject with rights to be enshrined in a constitution, as is the case in Ecuador and Bolivia under the term Vivir Bien (living well)?[4] Is the hope of living in harmony with nature capable of overturning the world’s economic and financial order? Article 71 of Ecuador’s 2007 Constitution asserts that, ‘nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and produced, has the right to be respected with regard to its existence and the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, its structure, its functions and its evolutionary processes’. Unless all living beings are included in this Mother Earth as ‘independent beings, intimately linked by a common destiny’, as they are in the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth (Cochabamba, Bolivia, 2010), it is unclear who would be empowered to legally defend environmental rights in person.

Admittedly, as Pablo Solón’s proposal claims, ‘the rights of Mother Earth can only prosper if property rights are redefined in an eco-society that is not governed by the logic of capital’(Attac, 2017, p. 58). But actually, the Earth cannot be established as a legal entity, as it is neither an individual endowed with consciousness, nor a subject of discourse capable of defending itself publicly. Both the formulation and the defence of rights depend on discursive and political practices that, until we learn otherwise, are unique to human beings, and specifically to human beings living, in one way or another, in a social and political community. We cannot escape the social anthropocentrism imposed on us by our inevitable action on our environment.

9. An anthropo- and eco-poietic conclusion

Let us return, then, to humans and society, humans beings who, from a physical, biological, if not neurological point of view, share a whole series of characteristics with their biosphere, and who are in constant and constructive interaction with it. From an anthropological point of view, the transition, or evenecosocialist break from former practices, requires an anthropopoietics coupled with an ecopoietics of a semiotic nature, two operational concepts with rather learned names (thanks to their Hellenic roots): on the one hand, anthropopoiesisrefers to human being’s social and cultural production, in collaboration with and in distinctionto other humans, in the course of the construction and ongoing maintenance of an identity that is both personal and social; on the other hand, ecopoiesisrefers to the transformation and productioncarried out by humans in society on an environment that is indispensable to their material and mental, if not neurological, survival. These two anthropological concepts lead us not only to rethink the complex interactions of humans and their communities with an environment that can be identified with the biosphere, but above all to reconfigure, symbolically and technically, this interaction, which is essentially connected to production. Whatever the physical and biological characteristics of this environment may be, once it is perceived through our sensory apparatus and our intellectual, and now neurologicalfaculties, it is fundamentally endowed with meaning. We cannot make use of it without interpreting it, through the unavoidable cultural and social construction carried out by all human beings.

Once anthropopoiesis is recognised as the foundation of all human identity and consequently of all social and cultural communities, it moves from the status of an operational concept to that of a social need. And in light of the complex and practical interaction that unfailingly exists between humans living in society and the biosphere, anthropopoiesis becomes an anthropopoietics, and must develop in turn into an ‘ecopoietics’. From an epistemological point of view, this recognition requires the development of an eco-semiotic anthropology, of a cultural and social nature. This anthropology will involve the comparative investigation of the principles underlying the semiotic and discursive construction of human beings in relation to their social group and their environment, through the procedures of anthropopoiesis and ecopoiesis specific to each culture; the essential supports for these processes include both ritual and technical practices.

This comparative review of the discursive, ritual and technical practices, of an anthropopoietic and ecopoietic nature, of other cultural communities — notably that which is offered to us by ancient Greece, its history and its varied city states — firmly commits us to rethinking the technological, commercial and repressive paradigm that dominates the contemporary world. Comparative research can contribute to the definition of new ecosocialist criteria for the development and use of technology, within the framework of the signifying and practical relationships of humans and their communities with their environment, which is indispensable to their survival. This polymorphic and evolving paradigm, inspired by ecosocialism, entails a break from a neoliberalism characterised by deregulation, commodification, and the maximisation of individual profits, in a generalised desemioticisation of the poietic and interactive relationships of humans among themselves and with their environment.

Let us recall that, in March 2016, the head of the prefecture of Pas-de-Calais ordered the destruction of the makeshift camp housing more than 6,000 exiles trying to reach the United Kingdom from Calais.Yet these migrants with many different origins, completely destitute, had managed to claim for themselves a piece of wasteland close to the motorway in order to arrange the shelters of their shantytown into a precarious sort of urban fabric, with its own social spaces: a cultural centre, a church, a mosque, a school, shops, a few bars, all in spite of the extremely poor sanitary conditions. Far removed from any idea of nature, the victims of the destructive and repressive effects of neoliberal globalisation had demonstrated the creative force which, in contrast, sustains the vital relationships between a social network, which is indispensable to humans, and its environment.

Translated by Dr Sam Ferguson

Publication in French: Les Possibles 26, 2020-21




Attac (Ch. Aguiton, G. Azam, E. Peredo, P. Solón), Le monde qui émerge. Les alternatives qui peuvent tout changer, Paris, Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2017.

Geneviève Azam, Osons rester humain. Les impasses de la toute-puissance, Paris, Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2015.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, tr. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1999 (published in German: 1935).

Émile Benveniste, Noms d’agent et noms d’action en indoeuropéen, Paris, A. Maisonneuve, 1975 (1stedition: 1948).

Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’événement anthropocène. La Terre, l’histoire et nous, Paris, Seuil, 2016 (revised 2ndedition).

Claude Calame, Avenir de la planète et urgence climatique. Au-delà de nature et culture, Fécamp, Lignes, 2015.

—, ‘Pour une transition écosocialiste en rupture avec le capitalisme’, Les Possibles 25, 2020 (issue no. 25 of Les Possibles).

Philippe Corcuff, Marx. XXIe siècle. Textes commentés, Paris, Textuel, 2012.

René Descartes, Discourse on Method, tr. Donald A. Cress, Indianapolis, Hackett, 1998 (original edition:Leyde, Jan Maire, 1637).

Philippe Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, Paris, Gallimard, 2005.

— ,L’écologie des autres.L’anthropologie et la question de la nature, Versailles, Éditions Quae, 2011.

Maurice Godelier, Au fondement des sociétés humaines. Ce que nous apprend l’anthropologie, Paris, Flammarion, 2010 (1stedition:2007).

Jean-Marie Harribey, Le trou noir du capitalisme. Pour ne pas y être aspiré, réhabiliter le travail, instituer les communs et socialiser la monnaie, Lormont, Le Bord de l’eau, 2020.

Louis de Jaucourt, ‘Nature’, in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (eds), Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. XI, Paris, André Le Breton et al., 1765, pp. 40-44.

Bruno Latour, Face à Gaïa. Huit conférences sur le Nouveau Régime Climatique, Paris, La Découverte, 2015.English translation: Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, tr. Catherine Porter, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2017.

— ,Où atterrir ? Comment s’orienter en politique, Paris, La Découverte, 2017.English translation: Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, ed. Peter Weibel, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 2020.

Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon, Les Époques de la nature, 2 vol., Paris, Imprimerie Royale, 1780.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Les structures élémentaires de la parenté, Paris – La Haye, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme – Mouton, 1967 (1stedition: 1949).

Michael Löwy, Qu’est-ce que l’écosocialisme?, Montreuil, Le Temps des Cerises, 2020 (2ndedition).

Daniel Tanuro, Trop tard pour être pessimistes!Écosocialisme ou effondrement, Paris, Textuel, 2020.

[1]For an anthropological attempt to define ‘culture’ and ‘society’ in terms of complementarity, see Godelier’s proposals, 2010, pp. 106-108 and 160-161.

[2]‘Terre’ (Earth) is, unusually, capitalised in the French text, implying a degree of personification.

[3] ‘Terre’ is capitalised once again.

[4]The terms ‘Vivir bien’ and ‘Buen vivir’, adopted by governments in Bolivia and Ecuador respectively, are loose translations of the Andean terms ‘suma qamaña’ and ‘sumaq kawsay’.

DisclaimerOpinions expressed in articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Global Ecosocialist Network

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