“We do not have to politicize ecology – we have to ecologize politics.”
Corine Pelluchon on the New Enlightenment
Corine Pelluchon is a unique voice in today’s discourse, the combination of a deep philosophical conviction and a political mind. She wrote about Leo Strauss and Emanuel Levinas, bio ethics, vulnerability, nourishment, consideration, she published an animal manifesto and just now a major attempt to formulate what are for her the foundations of a new enlightenment: Les Lumières à l’âge du vivant. As a person and as a writer, she is clear and elegant in the way she expresses herself; what drives her – and brought her to THE NEW INSTITUTE – is the concern for the other and our common survival, a longing for a better world that some would call pain.
How do you define ecology?
Ecology is not reducible to the fight against climate change and the erosion of biodiversity – it is also the way we share resources and the burden of the fight against climate change. Ecology has a social dimension, not to mention the fact that it forces us to change the way we work as well as our modes of production. It has an existential dimension that is connected to our relationships with other beings.
And what is political ecology?
Ecology is part of our existence. It cannot be outside politics. That is to say that politics cannot be reduced to all the relationships between us but includes other beings and the way we inhabit the earth. It means that we do not have to politicize ecology – we have to ecologize politics.
The duties of the state cannot be limited to the reduction of inequalities and to security. We need to talk about justice to future generations and animals.
Do you see ecology as an incubator for a more profound change, as a promise rather than as a danger?
The emancipatory force of ecology is important and fosters or calls for a new way of framing politics at the level of the norms of the duties of the state – which again cannot be limited to the reduction of inequalities and to security. We need to talk about justice to future generations and animals and welcome the experiments in transportation, organization, agriculture, and husbandry which are all relevant alternatives to the current development model.
Can you define this specific political form of the ecological age?
For one, decentralizing democracy is necessary, since people do not suffer from the consequences of globalization and climate change in the same way and their resources are also different. We also need to reorient the economy and put it at the service of beings and not multinational corporations – we need to understand that profit is an atomistic way of measuring richness. This has far-reaching consequences for how we set the priorities and goals of the state and of politics.
Are there also changes on a deeper level?
Yes! Ecological thinking calls for an anthropological revolution linked to our way of being in the world and of understanding our place in nature. Therefore, our mode of thinking cannot be rented from the neo-liberals or characterized by profit, dominion and competition. This kind of thinking transforms everything – our relationship to nature, to other beings, politics, work – into a kind of war.
How is this political vision connected to the question of animal rights and a new Enlightenment, as you call it?
It is of course paradoxical to combine the animal cause and enlightenment. A lot of people believe that the Enlightenment fostered the mastery of man over nature and other living beings. I think this is a bit narrow. The Enlightenment was based on the idea of granting rights to the human subject and on equality. It is true that the first Enlightenment in the 18th century often emphasized freedom – which is understood as something that tears us apart from nature and fosters the idea of the atomistic subject.
To overcome the anthropocentric and dualistic foundations of the first Enlightenment, we need to overcome the dualisms between nature and culture, humans and animals.
This is also based on a changing understanding of the subject following the 18th century.
Exactly. By taking into account our vulnerability and the materiality of our existence – the fact that we are dependent on nature and other beings – this sheds a new light on our condition, highlighting the relative dimension of our existence. It changes the foundations of our ethics and politics, no longer reducing them to our relationship with other human beings. Above all it teaches us to reconcile civilization and nature.
What are the philosophical resources of the new Enlightenment?
We need to take very seriously the critique of postmodern, feminist, and post-colonial thinkers, which makes clear that a forced humanism combined with an overbearing rationalism was blind to differences and lead to discrimination of all kinds. To overcome the anthropocentric and dualistic foundations of the first Enlightenment, we need to overcome the dualisms between nature and culture, humans and animals.
How could this work?
The key to this new Enlightenment is a process of self-transformation that implies we take our own mortality seriously. This leads us to deeply understand the bonds that tie us together with other beings and change from within our concept of freedom, which is enlightened by our responsibility. Our subjectivity is also enlarged by the process of individuation, which consists of welcoming others within ourselves and of being aware that we share a common vulnerability with them.
How is this connected to mortality?
The mortality of the other and their existence, their needs, their hunger, oblige me, as Levinas says. It is not essentially their freedom that sets limits to my right to do whatever I please. The fact that I can’t completely understand them – constitute them – puts me in question and shows my limits, sets a limit to my power and sovereignty. But it is their mortality which I see on their face that makes me understand that my relation to the other is essentially ethical: it is a matter of responsibility. And I can’t see this when I am not deeply aware of my own finitude. This knowledge is not simply intellectual. It is also part of an experience.
This process of individuation drives us into changing our mental map, as you explained in your previous book Ethics of Consideration – it is both intellectual and emotional and touches the archaic dimension of our psyche.
When we speak of mortality, we have to acknowledge that there are beings whose deaths we don’t mourn, as if they were nothing but resources: animals. The limitless exploitation of animals and their industrial death illustrates the culture of death we live in. Even if most people are in denial about this culture of death, the violence inflicted upon animals causes collective trauma. I am calling for a new Enlightenment following the collapse of the former Enlightenment – and this requires the recognition of our destructiveness and the culture of death which is due to the oblivion of our mortality and the repression of the community of destiny that we share with animals.
Would you like to discard the term humanism once and for all?
I am far from rejecting enlightenment and even humanism which implies starting with humans in order to protect nature instead of advocating holism or even ecocentrism. I call for a new way of defending freedom, defending autonomy, defending reason, defending human rights – defending humanism, but with a different anthropological philosophy. Ecology and the animal cause are both the driving forces and the results of a deep movement of individual and collective emancipation. Individual because it fosters putting into question one’s heritage. And collective because there is a synchronicity worldwide: a lot of people, especially the young, are interested in ecology and the animal cause, and it goes hand in hand with a deep inquiry into their way of understanding themselves.
Was there a moment of truth for you – an insight or occurrence that changed your thinking about animal rights?
I became a vegetarian in 2003, and this was very important for me. But what really changed my outlook on life was what happened in 2007, when I started to visit patients - especially patients at the end of their lives - in a Parisian hospital three days a week. I met with patients, family and healthcare professionals. This experience turned into a book L’Autonomie brisée, the compromised autonomy, which evolved into what I call the ethics of vulnerability. My question remains: How can we reconfigure autonomy by considering our own vulnerability? And why does it make sense to speak of autonomy at all? Well, the book deals with autonomy in the clinical setting. Not only did I want to understand autonomy without equating it with competence, but I also aimed at providing a concept of identity that makes sense for people suffering from cognitive impairments, including Alzheimer’s.
How does this experience connect to your thinking about animal rights?
When I came back home, I thought of animals. Don’t ask me why. Maybe the fact that I got rid of a lot of things, and that I was exposed to the other, made me completely open to the suffering of animals and cross the frontiers of species. And I was captivated by the animal cause. That is to say, I am always with them, even when I am with other human beings. This goes further than being vegetarian for ecological reasons. To a certain extent, when you make this experience, there is no coming back. And it takes some time to turn the pain into a pragmatic commitment.
Your new work Les Lumières a l’âge des vivants reads like an academic book with a very clear political program embedded in it. What is your ambition with this book?
I want to save universalism and to defend Enlightenment, which is under attack from the Left and from the Right, from critiques with a post-modern, feminist or post-colonial perspective denying any form of commonality and more so from anti-Enlightenment thinking that is found in nationalism, nativism, racism. The Right today has a very coherent message on identity politics, and a lot of people follow it. I think that as a philosopher, I have some tools to provide a lateral and contextual universalism – of course not the universalism of grand papa. In a former book, I was talking about a new social contract. This could have far-reaching consequences.
There is a deep movement connected to the concern for animals and ecology and the desire to have a better life – instead of simply functioning and trying to meet the standards of competition and performance.
You have worked outside of academia with the French fashion industry to change the treatment of animals – do you see allies for your argument for a new Enlightenment?
In all countries, you see these signs of change: young people who want to live differently, who care for nature. There is a huge sense of urgency, but of course there is also strong opposition. To accompany a movement which I call “the age of the living,” there is a way of giving it intellectual coherence and strength so that it wins and avoids some pitfalls, such as the tyranny of the good which we find among animal activists or such as the rejection of Western heritage and modernity, which is sometimes the problem with ecologists. Hatred of reason is very dangerous, but at the same time, the rationalism we inherit is instrumental and often too overbearing. I want to show that we can do things differently and I use the tools of phenomenology, which start with the description of our way of being. But to speak of the age of the living and of new Enlightenment, you don’t need to reinvent thinking. Everything is already there. We just have to pay attention to what happens and to translate it into a rational discourse that also touches the people.
So it is a political program?
There are some guidelines that could make sense at the political level. But it is not my job to do this. What I want is to give a depth to a movement which could foster a kind of moral or civilizational progress, in spite of all the problems with which we are confronted. This is why I try to bring energy into the discourse. This goes deeper than politics. People are difficult to reach, but when you do reach them, people feel they can flourish. This takes me to the question of hope – which is different from optimism. It is a dimension – that is to say that it can coexist with suffering and even anxiety. It is also a method: it requires courage to try to do your best, to try to prevent the worst from occurring and to foster the internal and structural changes that are required to promote a different development model. In this book, ecology means translating into social and political organization an individual and collective process of emancipation. It is very demanding, and it calls for intellectual rigor.
There is a short chapter in your book about the question of violence and revolution – you say that ideas might not be enough to achieve change. Can you explain this?
I think that the role of philosophers or intellectuals is not to say to people what they have to think but to listen to them and to the world, in order to enlighten some phenomena, but also to translate what is going on and and to identify clues to help orient or reorient the future. But the starting point is to initiate a shift which concerns our subjectivity. If we don’t change our mental maps and our ways of being with the world and with others – which have an impact upon our values and our desires - we will never change social and economic structures, at least not in a democratic and peaceful way.
You also take resistance into account.
It is a fight and a revolution, but not in the sense in which we usually understand this word – by aiming at replacing the former masters with new ones and by reinstalling a kind of dominion. The revolution is inside us. Fostering a new development model seems hard, but things can also come more quickly than we imagine. There is a deep movement, everywhere in the world, and it is connected to the concern for animals and ecology and the desire of a lot of people to have a better life, to find more conviviality, more meaning in what they do – instead of simply functioning and trying to meet the standards of competition and performance.
How do you see your role in this moment?
I am a philosopher. If I were a poet, I would do things differently. But my book is not a weapon. And to be sure: the revolution I speak of is not achieved by weapons. The point is to extirpate dominion, which is a threefold dominion: upon others, upon nature outside of and inside of ourselves. It is important to deepen the awareness of ourselves as vulnerable, begotten and mortal beings, and to feel that we belong to a common world that is older and bigger than us. This makes you understand the bonds between yourself and others, be they humans or animals, and to have the desire to transmit a habitable world.
And the aim of the new Enlightenment – like the old one before – is to have this epiphany without religion.
I call it “transdescendence”, the awareness of our belonging to a common world that transcends you although you are part of it. You can experience this belonging or awaken the awareness of your belonging to it. You then stop having the desire to exert your power over things, but you know your place in the world and acknowledge the value of each thing or being. You then have the power to do things that have meaning and maybe to drive change. You then deeply understand that to live is to “live for” as well as to “live with.” This is what I call “consideration.”
Could you complete this sentence: For me this is personal because –
it concerns our capacity to make the changes required both at the individual and collective level to get out of the impasse in which we find ourselves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Corine Pelluchon is a professor of philosophy at Gustave Eiffel Université in Paris, and a fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE in the program The Foundations of Value and Values.