Bruno Latour is a philosopher, sociologist, anthropologist and professor emeritus of Sciences Po University in Paris. His works have been translated into some thirty languages, making him the most widely read contemporary French-speaking author in the world.
His work on the climate crisis has made him a world figure on the ecological issue, he is “the thinker who inspires the planet,” as the cover of the weekly L’Obs styled him last year. He lives near the Odéon, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. He answered the questions I put to him during our conversation with the well-founded hope that comes from attending to important issues, based on almost 50 years of research, teaching, writing and commitment. It was a shared look at the sunset of life.
On many occasions you have praised in articles or conferences the prophetic character of Laudato Si’ (LS). How has this text of Pope Francis assumed importance in your research?
I was immediately very impressed by the text of Laudato Si’. The encyclical was issued the same year as the release of my book Face à Gaïa, too late for me to take it into account. For my part, I was trying to grasp what I call “a cosmological mutation,” which is also a mutation in the relationships between materiality, spirituality, and politics, everything that calls into question the change in the notions of “world” and “nature” for the benefit of the Earth. I was amazed while reading Laudato Si’ to see how the prophetic and eschatological dimension of the new situation was beautifully and completely expressed in Pope Francis’ text. It contains historical statements not far divergent from the COP21 of the time.
I was deeply moved by his prophetic and eschatological openness to issues that I had somewhat despaired of getting Catholics to be interested in. On a whole range of topics, the encyclical offered an unhoped-for opportunity to ensure some very important issues of theology and communication were better understood. Until that moment, reflection on Nature during the last three centuries had ignored the insights of Christian spirituality that the new ecological situation needed. This appealed to me. The text interested my ecological friends, the exponents of the so-called “natural sciences,” in a way that clearly opened a new dialogue that had become impossible, perhaps since the 17th century.
What in the text is attuned to the emergence of the new cosmological situation?
Technically, the key point is that of the new understanding of what living involves. By linking the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor, the pope establishes a link between ecology and injustice, and also takes note of the fact that the Earth, somehow, becomes excited, can act and suffer: “A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS 49).
The encyclical succeeds in restoring a cosmological dimension to themes that until now, from the point of view of a Christian, inside or outside the Catholic Church, were treated on a moral level. I have always been struck by the total absence of the cosmos in modern theology. The cosmological dimension had been lost, in general. Suddenly, with the ecological crisis, the cosmos imposed itself with an extraordinary intensity, on Christians as on everyone else.
At the same time we have witnessed a second revolution that is quite extraordinary. The so-called “social questions,” such as poverty, were reformulated by the pope in relation to this re-appropriation of the cosmological issues. This is a connection that has no precedent in “official metaphysics,” in which the Earth is not something that cries out, and the poor who complain about their condition have no connection with this “cry of the Earth.”
So, there is in this a shock, a boldness of transformation that for me meant we are changing cosmology, that is, our worldview.
You call for a “Parliament of Things” I make the connection with the cry of the poor, which is also the cry of the Earth. They are the mouthpieces of the world. “This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22)” (LS 2).
Reconstructing a cosmology reintroduces an interest in the sciences and eliminates a thorn in the side that the Church has endured for three centuries: that of never knowing exactly how to relate to the natural sciences. This is the part that seems to me to be most innovative for the earth sciences. The impact of these new disciplines changes many things: they open up a whole series of possibilities; they make it possible to talk about the fact that the sciences no longer come from what in English is called “the view from nowhere,” which defines a material framework, to which then, if necessary, the spiritual, aesthetic, and moral elements can be added. Suddenly, the very notion of materiality has changed, and this allows for resonances. Mysteriously, the pope has allowed himself to be transported into this different cosmology that allows us to see that the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth are connected.
Many Catholics seem to struggle to understand how the Earth can cry out?
It is an effective metaphor; it is not constitutive; it is not ontological. But it turns out that from the perspective of what I call the “second scientific revolution” it makes a lot of sense. This is because the beings that make up the Earth each have their own power to act, in that they have created through their unintended effects the fragile surface of the planet where all living things reside. This action spans billions of years – we now find out abruptly – and causes brutal reactions against our human activities over a very short period of time. The long history of the Earth and the short history of human societies meet in conflict. This reaction of the Earth brings about a change in a cosmological framework that had been closed since the 17th century, despite all the revolutions within the history of science.
So, this text is an enlightenment. Not that it is metaphysical, but it arrives during a new situation: the interdependence of beings that have gradually constituted the provisionally habitable world in which we find ourselves. It is prophetic.
This allows us to recall that the Earth is mother. “Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us... This sister protests against the evil we cause her…” (LS 1-2). And this without being New Age, without falling into metaphorical terms.
Unfortunately, not enough people give adequate consideration to understanding the revolution in Earth sciences. People continue to live in the material world as traditionally understood, because they still live within an antiquated conception of science. It is disheartening; it is not understood. It doesn’t matter how many initiatives there are…
But why isn’t it understood?
I’d like to know. When you explain that the living are those who constructed the conditions in which they find themselves, it causes a change. The Earth, and what my colleagues and I call the “critical zone,” did not have conditions particularly favorable to the evolution of life. The change was made possible by the living beings themselves, who created those conditions. The Earth is not living in the New Age sense or in the simplistic sense of a single organism, but is built, produced, invented, woven by living things. It is not a simple frame within which the living move. When I look at the sky above me, its atmosphere, its composition, the distribution of gasses, all this is the result of the action of the living.
Changing cosmology offers a chance to hear again some of the things the pope says. The new climate regime and the shock caused to our understanding of the world by earth sciences open a doorway where spiritual realities are rich in meaning for our condition as earth dwellers. The Church allowed itself to be invaded in the 17th century by a science that is out of touch with the world and that imposes a conception of materiality that is very interesting for understanding the universe, but that does not have the insight to understand what is happening on Earth. The materialism of the preceding centuries – one notes with sorrow – is in fact very unearthly. It is important to return to a conception that corresponds to the experience of living on Earth. We are living and mortal in the midst of living and mortal beings who have constituted that small, very limited and very confined circle within which history has unfolded for 4.5 billion years.
If Laudato Si’ is not well received in some Christian circles, it is because people are still in a phase of reaction to a materialistic and mechanistic cosmology. In the final analysis, the Earth is only a background. The pope asks us for a conversion of perspective to understand that the Earth is like a mother and a sister, and we are interacting with it. Did your colleagues also understand the text in this way?
It is necessary to read, to discuss, and this induces us to reason differently, thanks to that other contribution of Laudato Si’, the link with the poor. If one makes the connection between the classic social issues of inequality and the cosmological issue in the sense just defined, there is no way out. When we were talking about cosmology, social issues were unrelated and could be considered somewhat secondary. But if you make the connection with the new cosmological situation, you find yourself in an entirely defined space, occupied by the living. Consequently, there is the big issue of the Anthropocene: industrialized humans occupy an extraordinary place in this story. So, the fundamental question of the poor changes meaning completely, because this is no longer a residual problem. This translates into many issues, such as crop failure, pollution, and poor living conditions. Fundamentally, it is a new situation. This time we are aware of the social issue.
According to the 20th century approach, we still had time. You could always say: things will work out, the social question is very important. Now we have moved into the dimension of space, and this space is reduced, fragile and active, reacting to our moves at full speed. In a way, this brings to the fore the issue of poverty and inequality in a much stronger way. This is described very well in one of the chapters of Laudato Si’. People who live in already terrifying ecological situations not only are poor, they also suffer ecological misery. In a sense, this is true for the rich as well. The world is devastated for everyone, but the rich have the means to flee and hide, like Cain. The problem is that it took us a long time to become modern, about three centuries, and now we understand that in doing so we are damaging the planet. It’s traumatic.
Amazingly, while the Church has been asking the question of modernity for nearly 120 years, the very project of modernization is collapsing! Are we or are we not to modernize? We are now approaching a situation where uncertainty about cosmology is shared by all and where the project of modernization is in question everywhere.
We need to relearn how to move in the world we are in, while the temptation is to sermonize on the environment or political morality in the abstract, remaining out of touch with the world. In the meantime, the new climate regime and climate science urge us to be attentive to the mass of beings that compose our Earth, our “habitat.” Is this done in the workshops you organize?
What enables us to survive? What are our livelihoods? How are those livelihoods threatened? What are we prepared to do? Why? What are we doing to resist? These are very simple questions of awareness and orientation, but addressing them collectively, without immediately trying to find out whether or not we should build wind farms, whether or not we should sort our waste, has truly therapeutic effects. In our workshops, the collective sharing of descriptions of our living conditions takes place. It is the first step toward a political articulation in order to express common interests.
We have organized these workshops in many contexts: town halls, parishes, cities, the countryside… At the beginning, the participants say that they survive thanks to completely abstract things, but, at the third or fourth session, they become concrete factors. It can be a farm whose water supply is polluted because there is a car wash next door. Or someone who has a disease the cause of which is unknown, and a long investigation begins to find out if it is related to food or not. Each time we see a therapeutic effect, a conversion effect that allows us to take a step forward.
There’s also a whole dimension of working on emotions…
Yes, the passions that are associated with current politics are very old passions, very sad, very narrow, unsuited to the ecological question, which requires taking an interest in many bizarre things, such as landscapes and ecosystems. So we also work a lot with artistic methods to reactivate basic capacities of expression that had completely disappeared. The isolation of individuals today is such that they cannot even be citizens. A citizen is someone who sees other citizens and engages with others. We try to restore the ability to listen and the ability to move through space. These are absolutely basic things, but essential. The goal is not to discuss the drama of the situation – I don’t know what will become of my two-year-old grandson – but to “embody” our existences. Participants must ask themselves: what can I do?
Real spiritual exercises!
The workshops “Where to Land?” or those at the Bernardins are spiritual or ecological exercises of liberation: they exorcize modernism and a certain domination from us. They are eschatological devices, because decisions have to be made there. Once again, space prepares better than time for liberation. Right now, what are you doing? The problem is that all these exercises, which are exercises of “incarnation,” are not always considered spiritual exercises. This is the difficulty. This is where the criticism comes from: why is the pope dealing with such matters that are not “religious” issues? Some worry about the number of children in catechism classes, but not about the disappearance of wetlands! That the issue of the wetlands and the issue of children in catechism classes are caught up in the same spiritual issue, and that this enters little by little as the very definition of what it is to be a Christian, is not evident. Yet these are incarnational issues!
What lessons have you learned from this worldwide confinement due to the pandemic?
I published a book to give a warning. When we get out of health confinement, we will enter planetary confinement. We have changed location. We are not in an infinite space; we are housed within a situation in which human beings are now a powerful geological force. Don’t imagine that by coming out of medical confinement you will be “deconfined” forever. You are confined for life! It’s a little distressing at first, but it’s a way of saying: this is where you live, this is where the living have always lived, this is where the living will live forever. There is no escape.
Space, and no longer just time, becomes the apocalyptic horizon. The time for decision is now, precisely because there is no other space in which one can imagine projecting oneself afterwards, as if all the acts of charity that have not been done in the present will be done in the future. No, it is now, as in the Gospel; it is now. It is a very simple idea, where again there is a kind of evocative power or possibilities offered by the fact that we have Earth sciences, renewed to an extent, which reopen and define a space-time and a cosmology, within which all the questions of Christian preaching are posed in a new way.
The theme of confinement is a bit negative, but what is interesting is the terrestrial, an expression that I try to make widely understood: we are terrestrial beings, mortal living beings, and this is what we have to take into consideration. Earth does not interest moderns, believers or the indifferent. This is also one of the reasons why some people have problems with Laudato Si’. Why is the pope interested in issues such as the health of ecosystems? First, it’s not a religious topic, and second, it’s not very interesting, at least not as interesting as escaping to Mars. In fact, to be interested in it, one must have already experienced change. That’s why the exercises are necessary, because suddenly people change their perspective and say, “Ah! that’s where I am.” Environmental defense issues that seem abstract and overwhelming, given the immensity of the problems, suddenly become concrete: this is the world they are in.
It’s strange that you have to insist so much to be “materialistic”!
We should have been so during the modern period! Actually, we weren’t at all. We dematerialized and thought of an abstract world, which has many useful functions within the scientific networks, but it is not the Earth. With the new ecological situation, we return back to Earth.
This begs the question for believers: what is the impact on salvation history? The basic question is very interesting: after the Middle Ages, after the Modern Age, there is a new period in which the Church can establish itself in terms of completely renewed civic relations with other modes of existence, and not try to install itself in a morality, a politics, a science… In this there is a worthwhile focus for theology. I don’t know why, but I feel more than others how difficult, if not impossible it is to speak of such religious matters to those close to me or to my contemporaries. What can I do to make such words accessible? After all, one no longer knows whether it is a question of believing in a cosmology or listening to a word of conversion. It is true that the word of conversion acts on its own: it is like water; it goes everywhere, into every crevice, but in any case the preaching must be accessible. Pope Francis opens a gap with his text.
You have been researching this area for more than fifty years: what is the meaning of what you have experienced, if you think back on your path?
I have simply realized one thing: truth has several modes, which moderns have discovered, and they do not know what to do with them. My philosophical discovery is to have explored for 50 years these different modes of truth systematically.
We have admitted, we have learned, we have understood the extraordinary power of scientific truth, the extraordinary necessity of political truth, the formidable power of fiction; and now, with ecology, the formidable, essential and substantial existence of the reproduction of beings. Now a possibility opens up, which was previously closed, to support religious truth as well.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.6 art. 1, 0622: 10.32009/22072446.0622.1
. See www.bruno-latour.fr
. See L’Obs, No. 2933, January 14, 2021.
. Cf. B. Latour, Face à Gaïa. Huit conférences sur le nouveau régime climatique, Paris, La Découverte, 2015.
. B. Latour – P. Weibel, Critical Zones. The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2020.
. Cf. A. S. Breitwiller – B. Latour – F. Louzeau, “Adam, où es-tu? Prêcher à l’époque de l’Anthropocène”, in Esprit, July-August 2021, 193-204.
. Cf. B. Latour, Où suis-je? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres, Paris, La Découverte, 2021.
. Cf. V. Westhelle, Eschatology and Space. The Lost Dimension in Theology Past and Present, London, Palgrave, 2012.
. Cf. B. Latour, Enquête sur les modes d’existence. Une anthropologie des Modernes, Paris, La Découverte, 2012.