“We live in a world which dehumanizes us”: Corine Pelluchon on Covid and Ecology
What is your main lesson from Covid?
We are all vulnerable and we all have a common destiny. A lot of people have come to realize that they cannot master everything and that the connection with humans is the most important thing. This will hopefully drive us to change our lifestyles and modes of production because our way of living is not sustainable.
You are optimistic?
I am working a lot on animal and ecological issues and I know that it takes time for people to change. There are a lot of obstacles. The main challenge is to fill the gap between theory and practice and to show how it is possible to change. This is very challenging.
Can you explain your concept of vulnerability?
Our vulnerability is connected to our corporality – the fact that we eat, depend on air, on water and so on. We cannot understand humans in the light of freedom. Freedom is important – but our dependence on nature and all the other beings sheds new light on the human condition. And this has far reaching consequences because the foundation of political liberalism is defined by the human being as a free moral agent, which is of course very important and drives us into building society upon human rights.
But we have forgotten the relational dimension of the subject and the fact that ecology, justice towards future generations and justice towards animals are very important. They belong to us. The subject is not only defined in light of his will or her will to have choices and to change them – the subject is never alone. Ecology cannot be separated from existence and existence cannot be separated from ecology.
What is the consequence?
This insight provides the foundation for a different social construct and humanism – which is not based upon an anthropocentric view of the world but takes into account the diversity of living beings. In the context of the ecological and sanitary crisis of Corona this means that there is not less freedom, but a different freedom which is reconfigured in light of our responsibility towards others, including animals and future generations.
We have to overcome the dualism between nature and culture, reason and emotion, humans and animals.
How does the concept of freedom change?
The key notion of this understanding of vulnerability is our responsibility, the openness to others and the ability to be concerned by his or her fate. This focus on responsibility changes from within our conception of freedom. The question is how we can find a way of defending and promoting enlightenment and the pillars of autonomy, democracy and humanity – and at the same time overcome the foundations of the ancient enlightenment, the dualism between nature and culture, reason and emotion, human and animals.
This is the main aim of your forthcoming book - Enlightenment and the Age of the Living.
I think we need a deep critique that explains why the ancient enlightenment did not help us to avoid catastrophe and led to the destruction of conditions of life, nature and biodiversity. We need to build a society upon the acknowledgment of the equality and unity of human beings and not based upon a theological order. But to do that, we have to eradicate the vice of civilization which is due to the fact that we kept civilization from nature. I believe we can build a universalism that is not based upon an unrealistic conception of human beings but makes room for the other living beings.
How does this translate into political theory?
The fact that we insist on earthly conditions, the fact that there is inter-subjectivity and creativity from the moment we are born, the fact that to live is to reform – all of this enlarges the self and provides a foundation for a new political theory.
Which would be different from liberalism?
It can also be a form of liberalism. I don't think that the market is an enemy. The problem today is that the government does not set any limits to the market. Of course, capitalism is not only an economic system, it is also a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of being with others. My project in my forthcoming book is to promote the project of emancipation, individual and collective emancipation, which was linked to enlightenment. But we cannot do it with the old tools, we have to critically examine why reason turns into irrationality.
Does that irrationality include the destruction of the very natural basis of our existence?
When we deeply think about the ecological challenge, ecology is not to be reduced to environmental issues such as the depletion of resources and climate change. These are very important, but ecology also has social dimensions, mental and moral dimensions, it is linked to a way of innovating with others and assessing the place of human beings in nature. The contribution of philosophy is to have a deep understanding of what ecology is.
The role of imagination.
In order to fight against climate change, to reduce your ecological footprint and to stop eating animals, you have to change inside. The contribution of philosophy is to build another imagination that explains how we can reconnect reason and science to the living space. How can we give an account of individual emancipation which is not only a way of fighting against each other, but of building in order to eradicate wars, war against animals or war against nature or work or war against us. The plight of animals is a kind of mirror that sheds light upon the fact that our model of development is crazy.
If you talk about changing fundamental concepts of individual freedom or autonomy – is the consequence of this to change the structures of democracy as well?
Of course! Democracy is a project of society. And a lot of people have the feeling that they have lost their freedom, that we cannot master everything, that the market and other complicated things determine their lives. But we have to understand that we have the power to institute the common good and to change the deep representation that gives strength to a political and economic order. Democracy is an ideal, as the philosopher John Dewey said, but also a method. And we have to reassess the relation between the public, because it does not speak of people as if the people were united.
What do you mean specifically?
John Dewey saw the democratic practice not in a top-down approach, but also not in a bottom-up approach in the naive sense of the term. It requires individuals who are able to organize themselves and have critical skills. We live in a world in which a lot of people say that the future is already written and that we only have to adapt ourselves to the capitalistic order which will be the end of history. We can change things – which of course is very demanding. I insist upon the individual so that some social and structural changes can be done in a democratic way instead of acting out of fear or coercion.
One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –
one of the causes of this crisis is our interaction with animals which sheds lights on the fact that we live in a world which dehumanizes us.
Corine Pelluchon is Professor for Philosophy, Paris, and incoming fellow THE NEW INSTITUTE