B R U N O L AT O U R / D A N I E L S A R E W I T Z / M A R K S A G O F F
P E T E R K A R E I VA / S I D D H A R T H A S H O M E / E R L E E L L I S
M ON S T E RS
PO ST ENVIRO NMENTALISM and t he A NTHRO PO CENE
MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER and TED NORDHAUS
MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER AND TED NORDHAUS
(“Evolve,” p. 8) are executive editors of the Breakthrough Journal and founders
of the Breakthrough Institute.
B R U N O L AT O U R
(“Love Your Monsters,” p. 16) is professor and vice president for research at
Sciences Po Paris, and author of We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard 1993) and
The Politics of Nature (Harvard 2004). He is a Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellow.
P E T E R K A R E I VA
(“Conservation in the Anthropocene,” p. 24) is a Breakthrough Institute Senior
Fellow and chief scientist and vice president of The Nature Conservancy and
a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He, along with Michelle Marvier,
is the author of Conservation Science (Roberts & Co 2011).
(“Conservation in the Anthropocene,” p. 24) is director of science communications
for The Nature Conservancy. He is founding editor of the Conservancy’s blog,
“Cool Green Science” (blog.nature.org).
(“Conservation in the Anthropocene,” p. 24) is professor and department chair
of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University. She recently
coauthored Conservation Science with Peter Kareiva.
(“Planet of No Return,” p. 33) is associate professor of Geography and
Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
(“The Rise and Fall of Ecological Economics,” p. 39) is director of the Institute
for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University and author of
The Economy of the Earth (Cambridge 2007, 2 nd ed).
(“Liberalism’s Modest Proposals,” p. 53) is professor of Science and Society
and codirector of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona
State University. His latest book is The Techno-Human Condition (MIT 2011;
coauthored with Braden Allenby). He is a Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellow.
(“The New India Versus the Global Green Brahmins,” p. 63) is an engineer at
Parametric Technology Corporation and a Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellow.
LO VE Y OUR MONSTER S
WH Y WE MUS T CAR E FOR OU R TECHNOLOGIES AS WE DO
OUR CH ILDR EN
B R U N O L AT O U R
n the summer of 1816, a young British woman by the name of Mary
Godwin and her boyfriend Percy Shelley went to visit Lord Byron in Lake
Geneva, Switzerland. They had planned to spend much of the summer outdoors, but the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year had
changed the climate of Europe. The weather was so bad that they spent most
of their time indoors, discussing the latest popular writings on science and
After reading a book of German ghost stories, somebody suggested they
each write their own. Byron’s physician, John Polidori, came up with the idea
for The Vampyre, published in 1819, which was the first of the “vampire-as-seducer” novels. Godwin’s story came to her in a dream, during which she saw
“the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” Soon after that fateful summer, Godwin and Shelley married, and in
1818, Mary Shelley’s horror story was published under the title, Frankenstein,
Or, the Modern Prometheus.
Frankenstein lives on in the popular imagination as a cautionary tale against
technology. We use the monster as an all-purpose modifier to denote technological crimes against nature. When we fear genetically modified foods we
call them “frankenfoods” and “frankenfish.” It is telling that even as we warn
against such hybrids, we confuse the monster with its creator. We now mostly
refer to Dr. Frankenstein’s monster as Frankenstein. And just as we have forgotten that Frankenstein was the man, not the monster, we have also forgotten
Frankenstein’s real sin.
Dr. Frankenstein’s crime was not that he invented a creature through some
combination of hubris and high technology, but rather that he abandoned the
creature to itself. When Dr. Frankenstein meets his creation on a glacier in the
Alps, the monster claims that it was not born a monster, but that it became a
criminal only after being left alone by his horrified creator, who fled the labo16/
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ratory once the horrible thing twitched to life. “Remember, I am thy creature,”
the monster protests, “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel,
whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed… I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
Written at the dawn of the great technological revolutions that would define
the 19th and 20th centuries, Frankenstein foresees that the gigantic sins that were
to be committed would hide a much greater sin. It is not the case that we have
failed to care for Creation, but that we have failed to care for our technological
creations. We confuse the monster for its creator and blame our sins against
Nature upon our creations. But our sin is not that we created technologies but
that we failed to love and care for them. It is as if we decided that we were
unable to follow through with the education of our children.
Let Dr. Frankenstein’s sin serve as a parable for political ecology. At a time
when science, technology, and demography make clear that we can never separate
ourselves from the nonhuman world — that we, our technologies, and nature
can no more be disentangled than we can remember the distinction between Dr.
Frankenstein and his monster — this is the moment chosen by millions of wellmeaning souls to flagellate themselves for their earlier aspiration to dominion,
to repent for their past hubris, to look for ways of diminishing the numbers of
their fellow humans, and to swear to make their footprints invisible?
The goal of political ecology must not be to stop innovating, inventing,
creating, and intervening. The real goal must be to have the same type of patience and commitment to our creations as God the Creator, Himself. And the
comparison is not blasphemous: we have taken the whole of Creation on our
shoulders and have become coextensive with the Earth.
What, then, should be the work of political ecology? It is, I believe, to modernize modernization, to borrow an expression proposed by Ulrich Beck.
This challenge demands more of us than simply embracing technology and
innovation. It requires exchanging the modernist notion of modernity for
what I have called a “compositionist” one that sees the process of human development as neither liberation from Nature nor as a fall from it, but rather as a
process of becoming ever-more attached to, and intimate with, a panoply of
At the time of the plough we could only scratch the surface of the soil. Three
centuries back, we could only dream, like Cyrano de Bergerac, of traveling to
the moon. In the past, my Gallic ancestors were afraid of nothing except that
the “sky will fall on their heads.”
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Today we can fold ourselves into the molecular machinery of soil bacteria
through our sciences and technologies. We run robots on Mars. We photograph and dream of further galaxies. And yet we fear that the climate could
Everyday in our newspapers we read about more entanglements of all those
things that were once imagined to be separable — science, morality, religion,
law, technology, finance, and politics. But these things are tangled up together
everywhere: in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the space
shuttle, and in the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
If you envision a future in which there will be less and less of these entanglements thanks to Science, capital S, you are a modernist. But if you brace
yourself for a future in which there will always be more of these imbroglios,
mixing many more heterogeneous actors, at a greater and greater scale and at
an ever-tinier level of intimacy requiring even more detailed care, then you
are… what? A compositionist!
The dominant, peculiar story of modernity is of humankind’s emancipation
from Nature. Modernity is the thrusting-forward arrow of time — Progress —
characterized by its juvenile enthusiasm, risk taking, frontier spirit, optimism,
and indifference to the past. The spirit can be summarized in a single sentence:
“Tomorrow, we will be able to separate more accurately what the world is really
like from the subjective illusions we used to entertain about it.”
The very forward movement of the arrow of time and the frontier spirit associated with it (the modernizing front) is due to a certain conception of
knowledge: “Tomorrow, we will be able to differentiate clearly what in the past
was still mixed up, namely facts and values, thanks to Science.”
Science is the shibboleth that defines the right direction of the arrow of
time because it, and only it, is able to cut into two well-separated parts what
had, in the past, remained hopelessly confused: a morass of ideology, emotions,
and values on the one hand, and, on the other, stark and naked matters of fact.
The notion of the past as an archaic and dangerous confusion arises
directly from giving Science this role. A modernist, in this great narrative, is
the one who expects from Science the revelation that Nature will finally be
visible through the veils of subjectivity — and subjection — that hid it from
And here has been the great failure of political ecology. Just when all of the
human and nonhuman associations are finally coming to the center of our consciousness, when science and nature and technology and politics become so
confused and mixed up as to be impossible to untangle, just as these associations
are beginning to be shaped in our political arenas and are triggering our most
personal and deepest emotions, this is when a new apartheid is declared: leave
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Nature alone and let the humans retreat — as the English did on the beaches
of Dunkirk in the 1940s.
Just at the moment when this fabulous dissonance inherent in the modernist
project between what modernists say (emancipation from all attachments!) and
what they do (create ever-more attachments!) is becoming apparent to all, along
come those alleging to speak for Nature to say the problem lies in the violations
and imbroglios — the attachments!
Instead of deciding that the great narrative of modernism (Emancipation)
has always resulted in another history altogether (Attachments), the spirit of
the age has interpreted the dissonance in quasi-apocalyptic terms: “We were
wrong all along, let’s turn our back to progress, limit ourselves, and return to
our narrow human confines, leaving the nonhumans alone in as pristine a
Nature as possible, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…”
Nature, this great shortcut of due political process, is now used to forbid
humans to encroach. Instead of realizing at last that the emancipation narrative
is bunk, and that modernism was always about attachments, modernist
greens have suddenly shifted gears and have begun to oppose the promises
Why do we feel so frightened at the moment that our dreams of modernization finally come true? Why do we suddenly turn pale and wish to fall
back on the other side of Hercules’s columns, thinking we are being punished
for having transgressed the sign: “Thou shall not transgress?” Was not our
slogan until now, as Nordhaus and Shellenberger note in Break Through, “We
In the name of indisputable facts portraying a bleak future for the human
race, green politics has succeeded in leaving citizens nothing but a gloomy asceticism, a terror of trespassing Nature, and a diffidence toward industry,
innovation, technology, and science. No wonder that, while political ecology
claims to embody the political power of the future, it is reduced everywhere to
a tiny portion of electoral strap-hangers. Even in countries where political ecology is a little more powerful, it contributes only a supporting force.
Political ecology has remained marginal because it has not grasped either
its own politics or its own ecology. It thinks it is speaking of Nature, System, a
hierarchical totality, a world without man, an assured Science, but it is precisely
these overly ordered pronouncements that marginalize it.
Set in contrast to the modernist narrative, this idea of political ecology could
not possibly succeed. There is beauty and strength in the modernist story of
emancipation. Its picture of the future is so attractive, especially when put
against such a repellent past, that it makes one wish to run forward to break all
the shackles of ancient existence.
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To succeed, an ecological politics must manage to be at least as powerful as
the modernizing story of emancipation without imagining that we are emancipating ourselves from Nature. What the emancipation narrative points to as
proof of increasing human mastery over and freedom from Nature — agriculture, fossil energy, technology — can be redescribed as the increasing
attachments between things and people at an ever-expanding scale. If the older
narratives imagined humans either fell from Nature or freed themselves from
it, the compositionist narrative describes our ever-increasing degree of intimacy
with the new natures we are constantly creating. Only “out of Nature” may ecological politics start again and anew.
The paradox of “the environment” is that it emerged in public parlance just
when it was starting to disappear. During the heyday of modernism, no one
seemed to care about “the environment” because there existed a huge unknown
reserve on which to discharge all bad consequences of collective modernizing
actions. The environment is what appeared when unwanted consequences came
back to haunt the originators of such actions.
But if the originators are true modernists, they will see the return of “the
environment” as incomprehensible since they believed they were finally free of
it. The return of consequences, like global warming, is taken as a contradiction,
or even as a monstrosity, which it is, of course, but only according to the
modernist’s narrative of emancipation. In the compositionist’s narrative of attachments, unintended consequences are quite normal — indeed, the most
expected things on earth!
Environmentalists, in the American sense of the word, never managed to
extract themselves from the contradiction that the environment is precisely not
“what lies beyond and should be left alone” — this was the contrary, the view
of their worst enemies! The environment is exactly what should be even more
managed, taken up, cared for, stewarded, in brief, integrated and internalized
in the very fabric of the polity.
France, for its part, has never believed in the notion of a pristine Nature
that has so confused the “defense of the environment” in other countries. What
we call a “national park” is a rural ecosystem complete with post offices, welltended roads, highly subsidized cows, and handsome villages.
Those who wish to protect natural ecosystems learn, to their stupefaction,
that they have to work harder and harder — that is, to intervene even more, at
always greater levels of detail, with ever more subtle care — to keep them “natural enough” for Nature-intoxicated tourists to remain happy.
LOVE YOUR MONSTERS
Like France’s parks, all of Nature needs our constant care, our undivided
attention, our costly instruments, our hundreds of thousands of scientists, our
huge institutions, our careful funding. But though we have Nature, and we have
nurture, we don’t know what it would mean for Nature itself to be nurtured.
The word “environmentalism” thus designates this turning point in history
when the unwanted consequences are suddenly considered to be such a monstrosity that the only logical step appears to be to abstain and repent: “We
should not have committed so many crimes; now we should be good and limit
ourselves.” Or at least this is what people felt and thought before the breakthrough, at the time when there was still an “environment.”
But what is the breakthrough itself then? If I am right, the breakthrough
involves no longer seeing a contradiction between the spirit of emancipation
and its catastrophic outcomes, but accepting it as the normal duty of continuing
to care for unwanted consequences, even if this means going further and
further down into the imbroglios. Environmentalists say: “From now on we
should limit ourselves.” Postenvironmentalists exclaim: “From now on, we
should stop flagellating ourselves and take up explicitly and seriously what we
have been doing all along at an ever-increasing scale, namely, intervening,
acting, wanting, caring.” For environmentalists, the return of unexpected consequences appears as a scandal (which it is for the modernist myth of mastery).
For postenvironmentalists, the other, unintended consequences are part and
parcel of any action.
One way to seize upon the breakthrough from environmentalism to postenvironmentalism is to reshape the very definition of the “precautionary principle.”
This strange moral, legal, epistemological monster has appeared in European
and especially French politics after many scandals due to the misplaced belief
by state authority in the certainties provided by Science.
When action is supposed to be nothing but the logical consequence of reason and facts (which the French, of all people, still believe), it is quite normal
to wait for the certainty of science before administrators and politicians spring
to action. The problem begins when experts fail to agree on the reasons and
facts that have been taken as the necessary premises of any action. Then the
machinery of decision is stuck until experts come to an agreement. It was in
such a situation that the great tainted blood catastrophe of the 1980s ensued:
before agreement was produced, hundreds of patients were transfused with
blood contaminated by the AIDS virus.
The precautionary principle was introduced to break this odd connection
LOVE YOUR MONSTERS
between scientific certainty and political action, stating that even in the absence
of certainty, decisions could be made. But of course, as soon as it was introduced, fierce debates began on its meaning. Is it an environmentalist notion
that precludes action or a postenvironmentalist notion that finally follows action
through to its consequences?
Not surprisingly, the enemies of the precautionary principle — which
President Chirac enshrined in the French Constitution as if the French, having
indulged so much in rationalism, had to be protected against it by the highest
legal pronouncements — took it as proof that no action was possible any more.
As good modernists, they claimed that if you had to take so many precautions
in advance, to anticipate so many risks, to include the unexpected consequences
even before they arrived, and worse, to be responsible for them, then it was a
plea for impotence, despondency, and despair. The only way to innovate, they
claimed, is to bounce forward, blissfully ignorant of the consequences or at least
unconcerned by what lies outside your range of action. Their opponents largely
agreed. Modernist environmentalists argued that the principle of precaution
dictated no action, no new technology, no intervention unless it could be proven
with certainty that no harm would result. Modernists we were, modernists we
But for its postenvironmental supporters (of which I am one) the principle
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