"I am interested in Europe as an ecological problem"
What is Europe to you? 1
I am not an expert on Europe, but I try to differentiate between Brussels-Europe — meaning the post-war system that linked European States — and what, in my opinion, represents 98% of what we report on Europe in the media and opinions, and this is the Europe that interests me. This other Europe could be Renan’s Europe for France or even Heimat-Europe 2 for Germany, in the good sense of the word. I get/understand from this a metaphysical, anthropological Europe which is a common space, a cultural commons. I probably would not have made this distinction ten years ago. But today, given the current geopolitical situation, with a Europe that is surrounded by enemies, it is even more important to be critical of Brussels-Europe and have a passion (not necessarily love, but a passion) for Heimat-Europe.
In the last part of your recent book, Down to Earth, you conclude in an almost laudatory way, saying that Europe has succeeded, thanks to an “incredible assembly”, in making the link, the “overlap”, between national interests. Are you referring specifically to the European Union as an institution?
Yes, because I am interested in Europe as an ecological problem. The questions we are asking ourselves are those which go beyond borders or scales, and we must ask ourselves in which framework we can approach them. As it turns out, only Europe — this time European Union-Europe — was able to come up with obviously cobbled together and a bit precarious, but very significant, mechanisms for superimposing interests that had in the past only been national.
Do you think that the European Union has been able to overcome this contradiction that you mention in your book, that between the local and the global?
No, absolutely not. I have written about a long article in a geopolitical review on this very subject. 3 Obviously, Europe invented the notion of global. There is a Chinese global and there have been as many globals as there have been conquests. But the interesting element in Europe’s case is that it invented a model of the global which in a way turned against itself, through world wars, decolonization, followed by decolonial thinking and the provincialization of Europe, and which today is coming back with the immigration question.
And so, if there is a place where all the problems, where the blurring of all scales — local and global — arise, it is in Europe. It is the historical responsibility of Europe for having invented this strange element, a perception that it tried to impose on everyone, and to now “uninvent” it, to find other formulas to move away from this Imperium mundi, which does not exist, but which Europe itself has created. Peter Sloterdijk has written a very nice book on this subject, Si l’Europe s’éveille, which asks the question “what can we do with Europe right now?”. Europe cannot be small, that is the problem. It has been provincialized, but it cannot be small, because there is the problem of having invented this global system, which is now being disrupted by the ecological crisis. There is therefore a real philosophical problem of redefining not a European mission, which would make no sense, but a European responsibility.
The European question is today almost inseparable from the question of borders. Are you in favor of eliminating borders?
No, I am for increasing borders. It is an illusion to think of Europe as superior to nations. It is not that there are no borders, it is that there are, in addition to national borders, overlapping borders due to immigration and the ecological crisis, and it is clear that the question of borders as identity is not the same thing as borders as attachment. We must distinguish between identity, which amounts to putting up barriers and assuming that we can manage on our own — in other words, what is happening in Italy at the moment, which is inventing a world that we know full well does not exist — and the question of attachments. If Italy were to describe its attachments, they would obviously never fit within the confines of Italy. This does not mean that we transcend borders, but that we think of ourselves as attached, as intertwined, which are not at all the same things.
And so, the problem is that machine-Europe, the European Union-Europe, has been taken over by political scientists who have imagined that there were either nation states, or a superior structure, or the model of Empire. But there is an entirely different definition of having borders: that of having attachments. These are things you care about, and these things that you care about are not isolated with walls around them. There are a thousand tensions and entanglements between these different issues. That’s the whole challenge of this shift: to move beyond this space of European invention, to the concrete space that I call the “terrain de vie”.
Nevertheless, confining these intertwined issues in strict categories of thought and representation may seem necessary for any form of governance…
My question is not about the ideal organization for European Union-Europe; my interest is in the definition of an existential belonging, such as Heimat or Patrie. This does not offer any guidance on the practical organization of institutions. There is no solution to this problem at the moment because we are in the middle of a conservative revolution. It is not a structural problem; the problem is existential. Europe is threatened from an existential point of view, from both outside and from within. Faced with an existential threat, we must think about priorities: what does it mean to make the understanding of Europe as a territory exist for each of us? What really surprises me with regard to questions about Europe is that when we talk about Europe, we only talk about Brussels. And yet we live in a Europe that has a completely different substance.
But can the European Union really coexist with this “Heimat-Europe” of belonging? Is the European space, in the way you understand it, threatened by Brussels and its model of governance?
What I am trying to do is simply to place the Brussels government within a larger whole, which is an existential matter for it. The criticism of Brussels-Europe leads to a reflection on institutional reforms that are incomprehensible to the general public. Independent of questions related to the Union’s reforms, there is an existential Europe that is being attacked by the United States, abandoned by Brexit, and let down from within by countries that themselves are inventing nation-states that never existed — reinvented nation-states. The reason for the brutalization of public life is that people know that it does not exist. What is Italy on its own, separated from the European Union? It doesn’t exist. Besides, in a context of ecological crisis, no nation-state exists. Yet we need its protection; this is the great contradiction. We must draw out — and this is the end of my book — those forms of belonging that are based not on identity but on attachments. That is to say, on what allows us to survive.
What can you tell us about the mobilization methods that must be put in place to move towards this third “attractor” that you talk about in your book, this path that offers a new axis of representation that is freed from the right/left, conservative/progressive schema, which, according to you, is no longer suitable for dealing with the ecological crisis?
Like everyone else, I’m at a bit at a loss when it comes to the mechanism. It’s very complicated to have political positions because interests are impossible to define as people no longer vote for their interests because they don’t know what their interests are. In order for there to be interests, there has to be a world that can be described in a somewhat material way. There can be no interests if there is no world, and because of the ecological crisis and globalization, our interests are fluid. There are Brexit subsidies, but you vote against Europe: your opinions are floating around in an off-the-grid way somehow. I am not a political scientist. I am approaching this question as an enlightened amateur, but, in my opinion, the main problem is the abstraction of the description we have for the conditions of life, because we have forgotten about the ecological crisis that is redefining the entirety of belonging and the question of how many are we, where are we, who are we with, and what are our means of subsistence? These are absolutely fundamental questions, which are basic geopolitical questions upon which we are re-projecting the only two models we have: either globalization, which says that we no longer have borders, or conversely the idea that we must return to national states that did not exist before. Orbán’s empire is a new creation, which in fact never existed; there is no “eternal Hungary”. We therefore have two complete fictions: either people without lands who seek them, or lands that have no people.
Should the ecological question be depoliticized? Should it become an epistemological issue or an ethical and moral issue?
We must do away with ecology. We have made ecology a part of politics and it has not worked. We must talk about politics, period. In politics there are living beings that are interconnected, who have converging or diverging interests, and this is what we must discuss: the politics of the living. We could have parties if we could manage in an extraordinary way to re-describe the interests and positions of individuals. At that point we would have aggregated grievances to have parties with agendas and platforms, as we had before. If we had this before, it was because we shared the idea of modernization, apart from some questions of distribution. When there is no longer a common world, parties no longer exist. They will be re-formed the day we have returned to a certain degree of pixelation of political issues, on an almost individual scale.
On this topic, you use the example of the French Revolution’s “cahiers de doléance” in your book.
This is a situation that fascinates me because it created the French people, who understood themselves in describing their attachments and injustices. And this is what interests me about the second Europe: if we describe the Europe of attachments, there is not a single individual in France who is not European, who is without attachments. It is obvious that we are not globalized, but universalized. Everyone has a network of attachments and these clearly extend beyond borders.
But we also need — and the notion of attachment expresses this in a way — security and protection. But borders do not provide security and protection. Borders are like the Great Wall of China: it has never stopped anyone from crossing it. In order for there to be parties, there must be grievances, and in order for there to be grievances there must be interests, and in order for there to be interests there must be a world which can be described.
The anti-capitalist left’s agenda seems unthinkable at a time when so many people vote conservative or far right. If we cannot say to those who vote for the National Front: “Yes, you are right to want security and protection, and yes, you are right to want attachments and belonging, but please describe your attachments and belonging, and let’s see what it looks like”, then all parties are anti-European. And they are all inventing nations, like Orbán’s Hungary, which doesn’t exist economically without means of subsistence. This is the present drama: it is the brutalization of today’s politics that lets people know that the models offered to them are impossible, while simultaneously they feel that globalization is coming to an end.
Does the global make the world impossible to describe?
The global leads us astray. As soon as we shift to the global, we are lost, because it aggregates everything and we can no longer see a way to get our hands around it. Politics is about getting your hands around it, but in order to do that you have to be able to describe things in practical terms. As soon as you ask people to describe situations, it opens up possibilities to act and redefine connections; that is politics. But if you are caught in the abstraction of a return to the national state, which does not exist, and the global, which also does not exist, to make people talk is to cause them to despair. When the left tells people that they have to be anti-capitalist, what can they do with that? It is the denial of the climate situation that structures this entire political situation. Today people are told at once that globalization has become impossible because of the ecological crisis and also that it is therefore necessary to return to the nation-state, while knowing full well that this is impossible.
My question is this: what can we say today to people who ask — with good reason — for the protection of a national state when that state does not exist from the point of view of their actual interests and attachments? Can we say to them something besides “you are populists, you are neo-fascists who want to go backwards, and all you can hope for is that economic development continues”?
Could you explain what this “third attractor” is that you refer to?
The third attractor, if I can describe it clearly, would attract a lot. It has been widely explored by ecologists. It is made of life forms. It is not simply a space in the geographical sense, it is seized by new legal mechanisms, by people who work on the commons, on alternatives to property rights. It is traversed by all possible and imaginable activists. It is highly populated but has no political orientation. In short, everyone is aware that we are moving towards another mode of belonging.
- This interview, conducted by Louise Eymard and Tristan Dupuy in June 2018, was first published by le Grand Continent on January 30, 2019.
- The German word Heimat, which cannot be translated as such, refers to a sense of belonging, to the homeland, to the place where one feels at home.
- Bruno Latour, Onus Orbis Terrarum: About a Possible Shift in the Definition of Sovereignty, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 2016, Vol. 44(3).
To cite the article
Bruno Latour, “I am interested in Europe as an ecological problem”, Jan 2023, 116.
To read in this issueSee the whole issue
The Green Deal is the New Social Contract
Autumn 2021: for avowed climate activists — of which I am one — this is an autumn full of contradictory signals. On one hand we see the rise in climate anxiety, geopolitical paralysis on the other, and a European political response which is both strong and weak. The publication of the 6th IPCC report in … ContinuedRead the article
A Conversation With Frans Timmermans
Are we witnessing the birth of “war ecology”? Will the Kremlin’s use of gas as a weapon have an effect on perceptions of the transition and, more broadly, of European action? We must realize that Europe must be sovereign when it comes to energy and that our sovereignty can only be built on renewable energy. … ContinuedRead the article
“Finding innovative partnerships is one of the biggest political tasks in the years to come”
What is the state of the environmental and ecological situation in Brazil after Bolsonaro’s term ? The legacy of the Bolsonaro term is the destruction of environmental and climate governance. You can see it through the increasing rate of deforestation. The institutional framework has completely collapsed. Lula’s administration will have the huge challenge of restoring Brazil’s … ContinuedRead the article