Ecocriticism and Nihilism

Just go Monsieur Latour, you have had your time


Why ‘Compositionist Cosmopolitics’ is like dealing with Climate Change the way Nero dealt with Rome on fire


Introduction: The Predicament of Contemporary Eco-Criticism

The predicament of contemporary Ecocriticism was starkly brought to light at a recent Conference in Paris titled “Thinking the Anthropocene”, an event which brought together world-renowned climate scientists, experts in the environmental humanities and sociology of science theorists. On that occasion speaker after speaker from the natural sciences warned that climate change is not the figment of some farfetched ‘dark green, deep ecology’ fantasy. It is instead a reality and a menace to the material condition of possibility of Global Society. As a result it is important for all present to get the message across and make sure it had an appropriate attitude and behaviour-changing impact. To increase the chances of this happening, the suggestion was made, notably by Will Steffen[1] and Clive Hamilton[2], that humankind’s aspirations, values, choices and acts be subjected to the influence of an attitude and behaviour modifying ‘function system’ analogous to the one played by myth and religion in ‘traditional cultures’. The discrete but unmistakable implication was that environmental humanities scholars play a leading role in the task that lies ahead.

The response from the ostensibly eco-friendly colleagues so addressed was telling. Led by Bruno Latour, they let it be known that it was out of the question for them to respond favourably to their well-intentioned but misguided homologues in the hard sciences. Doing that entailed tacit approval of all the ‘naïve’ Foundationalist, Modernist, Structuralist and Positivist métarécits and myths so roundly decried by the high-priests from who they imbibed their cherished deconstructivist-reflexivist orthodoxies.

Obviously one should not overlook why it is to the credit of these rigorists of “critical thought” to adopt such a position. Since Nietzsche it has been an article of faith among educated people everywhere that totalising, all-unifying “higher principles” like those that structure and modulate Platonic, Kantian and Hegelian thought amount to “higher swindles”. And few today would argue with Foucault, Deleuze, Popper and others who emphasise that these ‘fictions’ have been cynically manipulated for centuries by “state machines” to constitute “hegemonic signifying regimes” or totalising epistemic orders.

But if this is legitimate as a concern, so also is it legitimate to believe that Global Society should be refused no resource that could be useful for negotiating an entente cordiale with Nature and in that way assure its ecological conditions of possibility. Which is why it is hard to see the sense of repudiating those colleagues who believe that to deal with our climate change emergency part of the solution could lie in adapting to our own needs the conceptual and speculative resources used by pre-modern cultures to deal with a similar challenge. To gauge the strength of the case they make, one has only to consider how they see the problem and what they think is a simple way to deal with it.

Can Primitive Cultures provide a model to follow in fostering and facilitating improved Man-Nature Communications?  

For them the root of the problem is that fact that nature or “Gaia” and her interests are voiced in none of the forums where we deliberate on what to do about the consequences of the way homo consumens has fracked the global eco-system to edge of a ‘tipping point’ that could precipitate ‘civilisation collapse’ or even a ‘sixth extinction’. To press the point, one could even say that the interests of everyone in the world are represented at IPCC Working Group meetings except those of the world itself. As a result the best source of intelligence about what we need to stop doing and start doing is never heard and therefore never aired in the periodic IPCC Assessment Reports or Policymaker Summaries.

An obvious way to correct this shortcoming would be to extend to humankind’s ‘Other’ a privilege that, in principle, no one would deny any other human being. Namely, recognition of the right to make sure one’s interests are respected and where they are not to have recourse to a tribunal where one can seek redress for the prejudice incurred. To facilitate this sort of arrangement, a strong case can be made for emulating the strategy used by almost every other civilisation or culture in the history of the species. Namely, postulate the existence of a higher order, cosmos-embracing, all-normatising organising principle and make it a milieu or metaplatform where man and his more-than-human “Other” can convene to dialogue, negotiate and contractualise their respective minimum demands and bottom lines and seek redress where one party or the other fails to respect what serves the interests of neither.

This, only this is the reason respected Earth Systems scientists urge us to look at the way traditions in other times and places harnessed human values and behaviour to sustainable production and consumption practices. Their point is not to proselytize on behalf of Islam, Buddhism and Aborigine nature lore. Nor is it to decry modernism or threnodise about the passing of an Edenic past that exists nowhere except as a conceit in the imagination of some romantique attardé. What they see in the pre-modern or traditional strategies for engineering a sustainable modus vivendi with nature is their instrumental value. Alternately, they adopt a ‘consequentialist standpoint’ to assess the worth of various ways to find solutions for our climate change emergency and conclude that it isn’t inconceivable that the conceptual and speculative resources one finds in ‘traditional societies’ could be a part of the blend. So as long as that is understood, as long as it is clear that no one is invoking “the transcendent” for anything other than its instrumental value as a means to prevent human activity disserving the interests both of our more-than-human Umwelt and therefore of ourselves, what, they ask, is the problem?

The answer to the question was provided by Bruno Latour with his habitual candour: there is no transcendent and one cannot attempt to breathe life into it by making it a meta-platform to facilitate man-nature dialogue without affronting human dignity by denying homo sapiens sapiens the right to deal with the problem with his reason and his sense of responsibility. So what, according to Bruno Latour, would be a better alternative?

It lies in ‘modernising modernism’ with a variant of social constructivism he calls “compositionist cosmopolitics”.

“Compositionist Cosmopolitics”: Dealing with Ecocide the way Nero dealt with Rome on fire?

To see what this means and how it is relevant to contemporary Eco-criticism one needs to understand that for Latour climate change is not a “matter of fact” because “matters of fact” don’t exist, only “matters of concern”[3]. Moreover, because “matters of concern” on any particular issue vary from one group of stakeholders to the next, they are always intrinsically “disputable”. Hence, it is unacceptable for any one group of concerned stakeholders to impose their ‘disputable’ views on how to deal with any given issue upon anyone who doesn’t share their concern. That’s why we need ‘compositionism’. In other words, as rational and responsible stakeholders in the future well-being of the cosmos among other rational and responsible stakeholders all facing the need to deal rationally and responsibly with a real problem, we are enjoined to get together to “compose” a sane, viable and just solution to our common problem.

Now it is hardly surprising that an ambitious, communication savvy head of research in a political science institute would say such a thing. And no doubt what Latour says about compositionism will be heeded by the environmental policymaking establishment with the same attentiveness they show to the panglossian storylines generated by Latour’s friends in the Ecological Modernisation Studies[4] and those who see climate change as an ‘opportunity’ to geo-engineer ‘smart climate’ or ‘climate resilient growth’[5].

Still, it is hard to see how he succeeds in what is his main goal. Namely addressing and allaying the concerns raised for decades by ‘deep ecology’ zealots and their Neo-Marxian or Neo-Malthusian fellows-in-arms. Their view is that this is exactly what we’ve been doing for years. We’ve subcontracted our responsibility for what to do about ecocide to rational, responsible, informed, concerned, qualified individuals like Monsieur Latour so he and his peers can ‘compose’ an adapted, just and workable solutions. And how have we been rewarded for our trust and patience? With ever worsening biodiversity depletion, deforestation, desertification, deglaciation, rising sea levels, atmospheric pollution, etc. Little wonder therefore that they look at Latour’s ‘compositionist cosmopolitics’ as tantamount to dealing with climate change the way Nero dealt with Rome on fire. Indeed in some quarters consternation at ‘compositionism’ goes a good deal further. In other words, some suspect that Latour knows that his solution does not work and that therefore the point of advocating it isn’t to work toward and implement real, adapted, appropriate solutions. To the contrary, the point can only be to forestall or pre-empt any measure that can bring about the necessary changes because and to the extent that it brings about real change[6].

But plausible though such conjecture may be in the absolute, let us not dwell upon it. First, because there is no actual proof of Latour’s complicity with climate criminals. Second, Latour is not alone in rejecting the idea of positing a transcendent agency and giving it a normatising mission in human affairs even if, indeed especially if it could be useful for curbing ecocide. As a result, there would be little point or justice in criticising him for holding this view if one didn’t also criticise Niklas Luhmann, Ulrich Beck, John Urry, Phil Macnaughten and countless others who hold substantially the same view. Besides Bruno Latour per se is not at issue here. In fact, all that interests us about his discourse is what it reveals about the predicament of contemporary eco-criticism. For the logic and motivations deployed in this sort of casuistic isn’t taking place outside and against contemporary eco-critical thought. It is taking place at the very heart and even as eco-critical thought. Many even think this is what eco-criticism means and in a sense they are right.

Eco-criticism’s appetite for Self-criticism: A dangerous Intellectual Nihilism?

The whole point of contemporary eco-criticism has become to argue that anyone who advocates ending ecocidal behaviour needs to subject their own motives for doing so to the same standard of critical and moral rigour they use to critique fracking so they can prove it makes better sense to condemn it than it does to engage in it oneself. And this they cannot do because they cannot prove their “concern” is any less partial, subjective, sectaire, motivé, intéressé, human, all too human than those who treat the planet like frack fodder for personal or corporatist self-gain[7]. All of which suggests that Ecocriticism is at a crossroads: either its proponents will continue to cling to now dated constructivist-reflexivist pieties and shibboleths and thereby consign themselves to irrelevance, or they will liberate themselves from those sterile dogmas and begin work on the “redress” of Ecocriticism.

How then do we propose to do that? How do we pass from merely identifying what’s wrong with Eco-criticism today to giving it what it needs? Namely, the fresh approaches, frames of reference, interpretive strategies, organising principles and methodologies that can be used to synthesise adapted and applicable solutions for real and urgent ecological problems.

Humbly, and with no doubts about how difficult our task will be, we propose to accompany reflection on this question in the direction gestured at by the scientists we mentioned at the outset of this paper. That is to say we will attempt to unearth and enflesh the principles at work in the way communities in times bygone negotiated an entente cordiale with their greater-than-human environment. However, because of space constraints and afortiori our limited expertise in this domain, our reflections will be much less far-reaching and comprehensive than they could be. In fact, we will confines ourselves to a discussion of only one exemplar of traditional man-nature communication strategies to see what it was, how it worked and assess if it can be reengineered to provide aevum nostrum with what it needs to deal with our ecological crisis. That culture is that of ancient Irish culture. However, our treatment of this subject shall be dealy with anon in a separate post.


[1]. Scientific adviser to the Australian Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee.

[2]. Member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government, and Founder and former Executive Director of the The Australia Institute.

[3]. Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, Critical Inquiry 30, N° 2 (2004): 225–48.

[4]. Cf., inter alia, Lynas, Mark. The God Species. London: Fourth Estate. 2011 ; Mol, A.P.J., Sonnenfeld, D.A. & Spaargaren, G. The Ecological Modernisation Reader: Environmental Reform in Theory and Practice. London: Routledge. 2009 & Almlund, P., Jespersen, P.H. and Riis, S. Rethinking Climate Change Research: Clean Technology, Culture and Communication. Burlington: Ashgate. 2012.

[6]. To justify this assessment these critics point to five salient characteristics of what Latour proposes. First, notwithstanding the things he says about the need to take “the non-human” into account, the process involves no one who isn’t a member of the species that, collectively, is responsible for ecocide. We can be certain of this because for Latour “the non-human” means nothing but what is mediated by ‘our political awareness’, ‘our consciousness’, ‘our most personal and deepest emotions’ and ‘our sciences, technologies, markets, morality, religion, law and finance’ where the ‘our’ always refers to humans (cf. “‘It’s development, stupid!’ or: How to Modernize Modernisation”, Second, no group of stakeholders is better represented in the forums where cosmopolitical compositionism is practiced than the ones who have the most to lose if anything is done to stop treating the ecosphere like frack fodder. Third, to be sure their interests are not unfairly penalised by any particular measure, they make sure that it is impossible to compose, adopt, implement and enforce an appropriate solution they cannot veto. Fourth, every appropriate proposed measure will always be perceived by a majority of the deliberators to be unfair to their interests because the practices that appropriate measures would curtail or interdict are the very ones they make a living from. Finally, Latour is in no position to deny he is aware of this flaw in his compositionism in as much as it is exactly the same as the one he blames for the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit. So knowing that ‘compositionism’ is tantamount to dealing with climate change the way Nero dealt with Rome on fire, and nevertheless proposing it as a ‘responsible’, ‘adult’ way to deal with climate change, some conjecture that the point of adopting it is not to do or advocate doing something about our worsening climate emergency. The point is to create conditions in which appropriate, concrete measures can be dismissed as ‘juvenile’, ‘naïve’, ‘reactionary’ or ‘irresponsible’ because and to the extent that it is realistic, adapted and appropriate.

[7]. More on which, see Cohen, Michael P. “Blues in Green: Ecocriticism Under Critique.” Environmental History 9. 1 (January 2004): 9-36



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