abundance and freedom

Image: Vera Nilsson


Newly Released Book Introduction

During the time necessary to write this book, the American observatory on Mauna Loa, Hawaii, indicates that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere passed the mark of 400 parts per million and then 410 parts per million.[I] These measurements attest that, on the scale of an activity as small as writing a philosophy book, ecological reality silently transforms in spectacular proportions. It should only be noted that this value had remained below the 300 parts per million mark throughout all of pre-industrial human history, and that the author of these lines was born when the count was at 340 parts per million.

A widespread German study also showed that the biomass of flying insects was reduced by 76% in 27 years[ii]: despite the protection measures and the creation of natural areas, three quarters of the insects disappeared in a few decades. And this is still just one clue in the midst of a vast body of research on the degradation of soils, water, pollination functions and ecosystem maintenance,[iii] which indicate that Earth's transformation is now occurring at a pace commensurate with the span of a lifetime, and even a simple writing project.

Over the same five-year period, the global political landscape has undergone equally impressive transformations. The rise to power of Donald Trump in the United States, in 10, of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, in 2017, but also the victory of supporters of the Brexit, in June 2016, are the clearest milestones in a series of events often interpreted as the disintegration of the liberal order. In various parts of the world, a return to borders and social conservatism movement ensnares certain losers of globalism desperately looking for new protectors and economic elites determined to involve people in the game of rivalry between nations in order to preserve accumulation of capital.

Before, however, the Paris agreements, signed with general enthusiasm in December 2015, hinted at the emergence of a new type of diplomacy, responsible for bringing the concert of nations into the climate era. Despite the fragilities that constitute this agreement, it is this articulation between diplomatic cooperation and climate policy that the new masters of chaos attacked: thus, the idea of ​​founding a world order taking into account the limitation of the economy is out of the question.

Even during this same period, we witnessed the multiplication of social contestation fronts that question the state of the Earth. The last corrections in this book were made in the rhythm of the mobilizations of the “yellow vests” in France, triggered – not to forget – by a proposed fuel tax. The invention of a new relationship with the territory, within the scope of the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, or on the occasion of the conflict between the inhabitants of the Standing Rock indigenous reserve and the pipeline project in Dakota, began at the moment when I began, in my seminars, to establish links between the history of modern political thought and the question of resources, habitat and, more broadly, the material conditions of existence.

The present time, in short, constantly confirms and feeds the idea of ​​a reorientation of social conflicts around human subsistence. But alongside all that, alongside the climate marches, Greta Thunberg's speeches and the disobedience operations carried out by the Extinction rebellion in London, there is also Haiti, Puerto Rico, Houston: the intensification of tropical hurricanes and the failure of government responses have transformed climate vulnerability into an indicator of increasingly politicized social inequalities. The distribution of wealth, risks and protective measures obliges us to understand at the same pace the fate of things, peoples, laws and machines that link them.

Five years are enough, therefore, to observe great mutations. Five years are enough for us to look at a past even if close as a universe totally different from the one in which we now evolve, and to which we will never return. The speed of these developments poses a grimmer question: where will we be when five more years have passed?

This book is at once an investigation into the origins and meaning of these events and one of their multiple manifestations—microscopic, no doubt. It makes sense in this context of global ecological, political and social changes whose importance we perceive in a confused way, without, however, knowing very well how to describe them, much less how to transcribe them in theoretical language. In a sense, this work consists of inserting the practice of philosophy into this history, recalibrating its methods – that is, the kind of attention it gives to the world – in light of these mutations.

It presents itself as a long historical and conceptual diversion, covering several centuries and forms of knowledge that are quite different from each other. This deviation can be summarized as follows: to understand what is happening to the planet, as well as the political consequences of this evolution, it is necessary to return to the forms of occupation of space and land use in force in the societies of the first western modernity. The implantation of the State's territorial sovereignty, the instruments of conquest and improvement of the soil, but also the social struggles that took place in these circumstances – all of this forms the basis of a collective relationship with things that we are living in the last moments of today.

Even before the actual start of the race for resource extraction, which in the XNUMXth century overlapped with the notions of progress and material development, a part of the legal, moral and scientific coordinates of the modern relationship with the land was already in place. In other words, to understand the oil empires, the struggles for environmental justice and the disturbing curves of climatology, one has to go back to the agronomy, law and economic thought of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries; to Grotius, to Locke, to the Physiocrats. To understand our inability to impose constraints on the economy in the name of protecting our livelihoods and our ideals of equality, we need to return to the nineteenth-century social question and how industry affected collective representations of emancipation. Current debates over biodiversity, growth and the status of wilderness are just the latest stage in a long history in the course of which our social conceptions and the materiality of the world have been co-constructed. The ecological imperative itself, in so far as it is recognized as such, finds its meaning in this story.

In more strictly philosophical terms, this means that the forms of legitimation of political authority, the definition of economic objectives and popular mobilizations for justice have always been closely linked to the use of the world. The meaning we give to freedom and the means employed to establish and preserve it are not abstract constructions, but rather products of a material history in which soils and subsoils, machines and the properties of living beings provided levers of action. decisive.

The current climate crisis spectacularly reveals this relationship between material abundance and the process of emancipation. The US administration responsible for energy, for example, recently christened natural gas, a fossil fuel, the “US freedom molecules”,[iv] thus invoking the imaginary of an emancipation in relation to natural constraints: freedom would be literally contained in fossil matter. This fabulous statement contrasts with everything that research in climatology and its political translation indicate: the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere not only compromises the Earth's habitability, but requires a new conception of our political relationships with resources. In other words, these same molecules contain the inverse of freedom, they are an ecological prison from which we cannot find a way out.

It is, therefore, about composing a history and identifying political problems of a new type, using the present geological and ecological experience as a revealing device, as the visible part of an enigma to be reconstituted. The main thread of this story is indicated by the title of the book: how did the legal and technical construction of a growing society permeate and guide the meaning we give to freedom? How, in turn, did the struggles for emancipation and political autonomy invest in the intensive use of resources to develop? In short, what does a material history of liberty teach us about current political transformations?



I built this narrative and this analysis around three great historical blocks, separated by two ecological and political changes of revolutionary scope.

The first of these blocks is pre-industrial modernity: it is a social universe in which the work of the land constitutes the basis of subsistence and the support of the main social conflicts, an unavoidable reference for thinking about property, wealth and justice. . Land is thus at the same time a disputed resource, the basis of the symbolic legitimacy of power and the object of conquests and appropriations.

And then, progressively, throughout the XNUMXth century, a new ecological coordinate came to join the material and mental universe of humans: coal and, later, oil, that is, fossil energies. A second historical block then begins when societies are reconfigured around the use of these concentrated energies, economical in space, easily interchangeable and capable of profoundly redesigning the productive functions and social destiny of millions of men and women. With fossil energies, modes of organization and collective ideals will pass the test of a great material rearrangement.

Finally, very close to us, a second ecopolitical mutation is unfolding whose proportions are at least as vast and crucial as the preceding one. It inaugurates a third universe, of which we live the beginnings, and which can be defined by the catastrophic and irreversible alteration of the global ecological conditions. The set of biogeochemical cycles that structure the planetary economy is impelled beyond its regenerative capacities by the rhythm of productive activities; the nature of soils, air and water is changing and, with that, inscribing human collectives and their struggles in new coordinates.

After an introductory and general first chapter, chapters 2 and 3 are devoted to the first historical sequence; chapter 4 attempts to describe the characteristics of the first great transformation; chapters 5 to 9 deal with the intermediate sequence; the last two outline the challenges that emerge on the threshold of the climate era. Modern political thought unfolds historically in three very different worlds. An agrarian, highly territorial world; an industrial and mechanical world, which engendered new forms of solidarity and conflict; and a world spiraling out of control, about which little is yet known, except that the pursuit of the ideals of freedom and equality takes on an entirely new face. Each time, collective aspirations and domination relations were profoundly shaped by the specific characteristics of these worlds.



With this book, I would like to contribute to the politicization of the ecological problem and, more broadly, to the construction of a collective reflection on what is happening with the modern paradigm of progress. One can get an idea of ​​the state of this debate simply by recalling the two opposing positions that structure it.

On the one hand, a certain number of global statistical data show a reduction in poverty, disease and ignorance: the average global income almost doubled between 2003 and 2013, a smaller and smaller proportion of the population is below the extreme poverty line[v], life expectancy has increased and literacy has expanded, infant mortality rates and malnutrition have declined. Some intellectuals, such as the British philosopher Steven Pinker, gained celebrity for interpreting this type of data as proof of the virtues of liberal utopianism.

The articulation between capital, technology and moral values ​​centered on the individual – which he referred, in a somewhat monolithic way, to the Enlightenment – ​​would constitute a proven formula to get humanity out of its difficult condition, on a moral and material plane at the same time. The partial successes experienced by the dominant development scheme are thus interpreted in order to block attempts at social and political reorientation and to discourage those and those who, by demanding more, or rather, imprudently weaken this mechanism of progress.[vi]

On the other hand, we naturally find all those men and women who are alarmed by the degradation of biodiversity, the sixth extinction underway, global warming, the depletion of resources, the multiplication of disasters, and who sometimes even anticipate the imminent end of human civilization, if not the world itself. Without adopting the rhetoric of apocalypse, the great scientific institutions responsible for recording changes in the Earth-system, in particular the IPCC and IPBES*, feed a legitimate sense of loss. However, in the same way that one must differentiate between the improvement of certain economic and human indicators and the validation of a theory of development born in the XNUMXth century, there is a gap between the very serious damage inflicted on the planet and the identification of modernity as pure and simple catastrophe. The current vogue of collapse thinking reveals a heightened awareness of ecological vulnerability, and the belief by some that it would be too late to save the world is but the glowing point.

Depending on the indicators we selected and the way we hierarchized them, it is possible to estimate that we live in the best or worst of worlds. The philosophy of history has long established an opposition between the narrative of reason's universal civilizing mission and the counter-narrative of the madness inherent in the will to control. However, this theoretical top is not only reductive in terms of the history of ideas, but above all, it makes us incapable of apprehending the problem we face: it is possible, at least for some, to live better in a deteriorating world.

The contradiction that presents itself to us is not a question of perception, nor even of opinion, but is situated in reality itself and, more precisely, in a differentiated social reality. Economist Branko Milanovic, for example, has shown that the fruits of economic growth over the past two decades have largely benefited a new global middle class – typically, China's huge middle class, spawned by the country's industrial boom.[vii]. But it is also this population that suffers most from pollution, from a congested urban environment, as well as from fierce work discipline, within the framework of a repressive state.[viii].

Measurable growth in the economy, in incomes, is a misleading indication. Because, if it still conveys, for many, the imagination of material and moral improvement, it is also inseparable from the process of planetary disturbance that takes us into the unknown. The proper politicization of ecology resides in the gap that opens up between these two dimensions of historical reality. The angelic enthusiasm and the somber prophecies of the end are, therefore, just two caricatured interpretations of a much more complex reality, which impels us to reconsider the meaning we give to freedom at a time when its ecological and economic dependencies endanger its own perpetuation.

*Pierre Charbonnier is a researcher in philosophy at CNRS-France. Author, among other books, of The composition of the worlds (Flammarion).



Pierre Charbonnier. Abundance and freedom: an environmental history of political ideas. Translation: /Fabio Mascaro Dear. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2021, 368 pages.



[I] See the website of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: .

[ii] Caspar A. Hallmann et al., “More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas,” PLoS ONE, v. 12, no. 10, 2017.

[iii] See especially the works of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services IPBES: .

[iv] "Department of Energy Authorizes Additional LNG Exports from Freeport LNG”. Available in: .

[v] Max Roser,No matter what extreme poverty line you choose, the share of people below that poverty line has declined globally”. Available in: . And, more broadly, the data compiled into: .

[vi] Steven Pinker, Le Triomphe des Lumières, Paris, Les Arènes, 2018, and Samuel Moyn's review, “Hype for the Best. Why does Steven Pinker insist that human life is on the up”. Available in: .

* Respectively, abbreviations in English for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific organization founded in 1988, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an intergovernmental organization founded in 2012, both within the scope of the United Nations (UN). In French, the IPCC is known by the acronym GIEC: Groupe d'experts intergouvernemental sur l'évolution du climat. (NT)

[vii] Branko Milanovic, Global inegalities. Le destin des classes moyennes, les ultra-riches et l'égalité des chances, Paris, The Discovery, 2019.

[viii] See, for example, Matthew E. Kahn and Siqi Zheng, Blue Skies Over Beijing. Economic Growth and the Environment in China, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2016.


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