Whiteside and Latour: Precautionary Politics
Bruno Latour’s philosophy is fundamentally about coexistance. Its about understanding, coming to terms with, and negotiating the fact that each new entity that humans bring into being — styrofoam cups, batteries, thorium reactors, oil tankers, GMOs, flat screens — has its own autonomous existence and its own uncertain capacity to disrupt and create change in the world. What Latour understands best is that a central task (perhaps the central task) which face humans today lies in how to generate an institutional apparatus that understands how to interface human decision making with the reality of the nonhuman entities that populate our world.
It is common practice when discussing environmental ethics, particularly in popular contexts, to focus attention on key entities that can mobilize action and evoke sympathy from human beings. Most often these are entities that look something like ourselves, or at least hang on a nearby branch of the evolutionary rhizome. Polar bears, Lions, Bison, Dolphins, and Whales — these have become the spokesbeings for for an other wise silently suffering ecosphere. But for Latour the question of environmental ethics goes beyond understanding how it is we should protect endangered species — a worthy cause in and of itself — but rather enters into a much stranger ontological space of understanding and relating to the fact that humans are responsible for creating and linking together the wide variety of incommensurable beings that now populate the earth.
In order for the Earth to remain a viable place for life in general (and for most larger animals in particular) it has become necessary for the planet to be cordoned off into different sections that must not be permitted to touch. Oil tankers must sale across the ocean with reinforced steel hulls so that oil does not touch water; nuclear reactors must built inside massive concrete tombs so they can’t touch surrounding neighborhoods; skin must be protected with oils so UV rays cannot strike with their cancerous touch; GMOs are created to better handle pesticides; and wilderness areas are put behind fences to remain “untouched” by civilization. All of these walls require the linking of human beings with nonhuman substances and entities that, moreover, require political practices of law, ethics, and democratic decision making in order to maintain.
Humans are now constantly engaged in round after round of decision making, having not just opened a pandora’s box of wildly unpredictable agents, but actually living inside pandora’s box. As Kerry Whiteside notes in his excellent book Precautionary Politics: Principle and Practice in Confronting Environmental Risk, “Unable to predict all the effects of the processes it lets loose into the environment, contemporary science has, in effect, turned the world into a laboratory. Still, it is a laboratory that we all inhabit” (p. 102). It is in this sense that Latour and Whiteside both agree on some of the fundamental issues that arise on a planet where hydrogen bombs, the rainforest, and humans must all coexist.
No doubt scientific advancements in medicine, technology, and our understanding of evolution have given humans wondrous intellectual insights that have increased the human capacities for justice, healing, and innovation. But the generation of both medicines that enhance and toxic chemicals that destroy humans and their ecological systems has not led to a simultaneous generation of new political practices, of new public domains that understand the ecological (and ontological) implications of global technosciences. The emergence of the Anthropocene, supported by industrialization and achieved at the expense of millions of species, thus raises one of Whiteside’s most compelling questions, “Can we live together?–where ‘we’ is people and all the nonhuman phenomena with which they become entangled” (pp. 105-106).
Whiteside and Latour both argue for a precautionary politics that acknowledge that the complex entanglements forged between humans and nonhumans requires a new kind of politics not bifurcated between questions of nature and culture. These entanglements require a precautionary politics precisely because so many of these entities are simultaneously toxic to, whilst comingling with, one another. Such a precautionary politics also recognizes the properly autonomous agency of things. GMOs, for example, do not behave in controllable, predictable ways; the other species they come into contact with do not “choose” whether or not to become implicated in the evolutionary trajectory of a new, scientifically generated species any more than you or I “choose” to get burned by fire when sticking our hands too close to a flame.
The earth is quickly becoming a crowded place, not just because of the 7 billion people who now inhabit it, but because of the trillions upon trillions of new objects that humans create — each one an independent force unleashed in the ecosphere. When Latour emhpasizes the autonomy of things to interact, surprise, and disturb other things this should not in any way be construed as a denial of the deep structures of relationality that hold ecological worlds together; the autonomy of things is in fact a precondition for relationality, for relations to occur their must exists beings that can relate! Thus while the rest of the developed world has another go around at a lackluster attempt at democratically negotiating global climate change, I am somewhat heartened by the minds of people like Whiteside and Latour for reminding us that sanity is possible, that democracy is the most powerful tool we have, and that we live amidst a society both human and more than human. The precautionary politics Latour and Whiteside argue for represent the germ seed of a cosmopolitical vision that may lead humans into healthier relationship with the nonhuman. If you find any of the above ideas relavent to your own work, I strongly encourage you to pick up Whiteside’s book.