Bruno Latour's Initiative for Fundamental Research in Political Ecology

2022-04-26

On Tuesday, April 26 the Sciences Po American Foundation hosted a conversation between Professor Bruno Latour and award-winning journalist Ava Kofman around Sciences Po’s Initiative for Fundamental Research in Political Ecology. 

The conversation began by acknowledging that we do not lack an abundance of facts about climate change, but as Latour pointed out in many of his works, scientific facts alone are not persuasive enough on their own to prompt mass action. Latour highlighted the recent results of the 2022 French Presidential election, in which green or environmental party candidates received little electoral support, as evidence of weak mobilization towards political action organized around ecological concerns. 

Bruno insisted that one principal obstacle is our conception of ecology itself, “We have too little an idea of what ecology means,” he tells us. He continues, we have on the one hand been trapped into only a global understanding, the project of mitigating change to 2 degrees, which to individuals feels like climate concerns may be removed from their own civilization project.  Another issue pointed out by Latour is that ecology is not well integrated into society, its conceptualization is at once too global but also too narrow, including only those things which have been labeled “green” to the exclusion of processes related to organizing life and to do with social justice; paradoxically severing the social from the ecological.

The problem is not only of mobilization, but organization Kofman articulated; Latour insists that all these disciplines: law, political science, economics, and political philosophy must be remade to absorb not only the novelty of ecological questions but also accounting for the way these fields are fundamentally concerned with ecology merely as a result of the fact that ecology is woven into the fabric of society that concerns them. For these, Bruno says we need to push and link the natural sciences with the social sciences. Indeed, this is an ongoing project for Latour; Sciences Po, he noted, has invested in the development of thinkers with dual formations in the natural and social sciences, making it the ideal home for this type of work.

In terms of the need for fundamental research, we cannot wait. Corporations, and individual citizens alike, in urban and rural spaces, are everyday impacted by ecological concerns and environmental changes in ways that completely disorient them. This initiative is at its core concerned with developing the tools that do not wait for a trickling down that is characteristic of how basic research moves from the academic realm into the public over many years, but that is instead intrinsically connected very closely with how people are impacted by climate change. One specific example Latour mentioned related to European research on agriculture. The process of modernization since the 60s has resulted in a dire state of the soil and a fruitless future if these methods continue. He emphasizes if we were to wait for the typical slow process through which research eventually becomes practically enacted it will take years before there is any change, years which we do not have. The work that is at the center of this fund are initiatives that look for intersections between a basic question, such as “what is the model for an agriculture that doesn’t destroy its own condition of existence?” but which are radically actionable, implementable by actual farmers, and which does not create an opposition between ecologists and researchers and farmers. This last point is crucial, and is the reason it is necessary to include those artistic expressions in the project as well because they are uniquely able to carry questions which are novel, complex, highly technical, and largely based in the hard sciences, to the hand of those individuals and communities which are impacted by the issue at hand; a radical break from the status quo.

Though the scope of the project seems relatively small, its impact will nevertheless be significant. First, fundamental research in political ecology, that is uncorrupted and independent, is seriously lacking, individuals, corporations and institutions alike suffer from this absence; the research questions that the project seeks to fund will be powerful and numerous in their applications and the novel approach towards basic research that is connected to those practically affected by its subject address the immediacy of the need. Secondly, the initiative has the ability to, at the same time, shift the understanding of the interconnectedness of the ecological and the social, reorienting the university as a whole.

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