Bruno Latour passed away on Sunday 9 October after a long illness. We have lost a great thinker who understood where the battle stands in our time: that all politics has become ecological, and that all our acquisition and dissemination of knowledge requires us to come down to earth. We must understand our complex circumstances.
Ecology has become part of all political life, even there – or especially there – where it is absent or neglected. Although we are all woven into ecology, it makes sense to talk about the ecological class, precisely as everyone who cares about ecology and tries to learn from it.
The young Danish sociologist Nikolaj Schultz works with what he calls geo-
social classes, at Sciences Po in Paris. Together with the university's famous veteran Bruno Latour, he has made a strategic analysis of the geopolitics of the environmental struggle. The result is a punchy, refreshing and highly persuasive pamphlet aimed at the environmental movement and the world's green parties. A clear and rhetorical language without notes and references allows the authors to effectively circle what they call "the new ecological class" – and it is illuminated from many different sides.
Ecology has long been in the public spotlight. But since ecology is a science, its dissemination has been too educational and too little political, the authors point out. In the spirit of public education, it has been assumed that the spread of ecological knowledge – together with the science of earth systems and climatology – will lead to action, but significant measures to save climate and ecosystems are conspicuous by their absence.
Nature, which we constantly call upon, does not bring us together, but increasingly becomes the bone of contention: Rights to water, agricultural practices, emission limits, protection of wilderness, access to minerals, development of waterways and wind turbines – we argue and bicker about everything. No wonder we end up in a political quagmire! But, argue Latour and Schultz, what is common to all these arguments is the desire for resources for production. And this is precisely where the ecological class comes into critical action: They examine and react to how a constant intensification of production undermines our basis of life.
Marx saw productivity as a fairly undivided good, but ecology's class analyzes extend this Marxism's materialism. The production in question is no longer just our own; the productivity of nature itself must be taken into account – other species, ecosystems, soil, the atmosphere, the sea. All this has material limits and conditions, which we destructively constantly push and exceed.
The world we live in
The classical class theory, the authors point out, had the advantage that it gave people a clear understanding of what which allowed them to survive, where in the social structure in which they found themselves, and whose they fought against. In Schultz's and Latour's interpretation, such situational descriptions become decisive for ecological awareness, a class-based gathering and awakening. Farmers, for example, need a climate and weather that is not extreme if they are to be able to cultivate the land. The ecological class joins that world we live in, and that world we live off. The other classes, especially the bourgeoisie in the 20th century, have done the opposite: They split the world of products from the earth's basis of life.
Arguments about rights to water, agricultural practices, emission limits, protection of wilderness, access to minerals, development of waterways and wind turbines.
The class question becomes a question of classification, a new way of ordering the world and orienting oneself. To find out who are friends and possible enemies, you need to ask: "Who do you feel closest to, and who seems terribly distant when the discussions turn to ecology?" It is no longer a question of left and right: Those who bring together the world we lives in, and the world we lives ofis progressive, those who separate them from each other, will be from now on reactionary.
The ecological class is united around the imperative to protect the earth's habitability, the continuation of life and conditions. In the light of this approach, the earlier classes that took part in modernity's march of progress seem out of date. The concern for the duration of life is rational in a superior way that none of the other classes' "objective class interests" can oppose. Thus, it is also the ecological class that can carry the civilization process forward and be truly progressive.
Control over the means of destruction
In the extension of Schultz's and Latour's reactualization of the class question, we may have to ask: Can the ecological class take control of the means of destruction and change the conditions of destruction, to twist Marx's jargon? At first glance, it seems that such a control would lead to a reduction in mass destruction, with the result that mass production would also have to decrease. In today's modern, progress-oriented world, any downsizing seems like an extremely problematic step back. But this is in itself an ideological construction, the authors claim: a one-dimensional arrow of time for history, where we must rush forward in order not to slip back. By abandoning this mindset, we can rather move quietly to more edges and regain something of a lost ground contact.
Circularity is not a naive dream, it is the condition for our survival. The best agricultural and forestry practices are already an expression of fundamental sustainability, and it is these exceptions that must become the rule. Control over the means of destruction must therefore also mean a certain control over both markets and military power. The ecological class has a long way to go here.
Read, studied and discussed
Refreshingly, the ecological class struggle is not a copy of previous class struggles; it has its own logic and does not necessarily follow a classical revolutionary pattern, the authors argue. It requires cleverness and luck. And contrary to Marx's historical materialism, the authors see nothing fated in the ecologicalization of humanity. The comforting Hölderlin poem that where the danger grows, there also grows the rescue, is frankly described as a "diabolical illusion". Nothing will save us, and especially not the danger: "Whether we succeed depends only on whether we seize the opportunities that present themselves." Schultz and Latour succeed to the highest degree and have grasped the moment in which we find ourselves.
This book deserves not only to be read, but to be studied and discussed. The discussion is in itself a condition for success, and this is part of the book's argument. The historical classes – the bourgeoisie and the working class – took shape through painstaking political awareness that could take a century. The new global ecological class has far less time, but is perhaps also – after fifty years of maturing – moving into a more active and politically aware stage.