As I detailed in my first post this academic year, I am in Paris on a critical theory fellowship studying French philosophy and environmental history. This month, two particularly significant events took place: the first–as part of the “Make It Work” initiative at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (« Sciences Po »)–was Forum COP21: Civil Society Committed to the Environment; the second was the 2015 iteration of the Nuit Blanche arts festival, where the city stays up all night to look at art. This year’s theme, fittingly in support of COP21, and as part of ArtCOP21, was “atmospheres.”
In this post, I detail both events. My intent is to be more journalistic than interpretive, leaving the content of these events open as much as possible for interpretation by the blog’s audience, excepting a few places where I bring the methods of environmental history and critical thought into play, and experiment with some quantitative analysis of environmental issues.
« Make It Work » :
Forum COP21 was a collaboration between Sciences Po and the Paris-based French newspaper Libération (actually founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge July, in the wake of the protest movements of May ’68). I invoke the historical significance of the contributors to the climate and network of institutions in and atmosphere of Paris, because I believe the long trajectory of development to be key to understanding the events contributing to the development of this year’s global climate accord, as they unfold. The purpose of the event was related to the notion that the success of the December climate conference will pivot not only on the work of governmental and nongovernmental negotiators, but on the participation of, and collaboration between, citizens, experts, media, and business people. The idea was to bring together notable persons from academia, global business, environmental NGOs, the technology sector, and national and local governments to form panels for the discussion of climate issues. I attended the sessions on “What Will the Planet Look Like in 2050?” (« À quoi ressemblera la planète en 2050 ? ») and the “Geopolitics of the Climate” (« Géopolitiques du Climat »). The latter included the contemporary philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist of science Bruno Latour, one of the organizers of the «Make It Work» initiative.
What Will the Planet Look Like in 2050?
In the first panel I attended, my favorite presentations were delivered by the French biologist Gilles Bœuf and the “explorateur” Jean-Louis Etienne. Etienne’s most important remarks hinged on connecting actual consumption with material consequence. As Etienne pointedly argued, “energy is too easy to consume without accountability.” 1 Etienne’s valid point is substantiated by contemporary climate science, and it inspired me to attempt to synthesize some theoretical speculation and quantitative data analysis. 2 On a day-to-day basis, we, or at least many of us, consume fossil fuels without thought for consequence, with respect to environmental degradation, loss of animal life and biodiversity, human costs in the way of labor, and greenhouse gas emissions. 3
Etienne’s talk inspired me to consider the matter with greater care by performing some data analysis of my own to bolster my theoretical musings. The Global Footprint Network, an American, Brussels, and Swiss-based think tank for the advancement of scientific sustainability, has created helpful data-driven metrics for understanding resource consumption using the idea of biocapacity–the quantifiable ability of current global environments to meet varying measures of consumptive demand. However, this is also where humanists must intervene in the science, since scientific modeling often assumes that human sovereignty extends across the entirety of the biosphere. 4
The Global Footprint Network makes both data and tools available to scholars to perform their own analyses. I found that, as of 2014, the United States demands 6.8 global hectares of productive land, per capita, or person, according to the country’s demand for natural resources, including energy, forestry, agriculture, and fisheries. The biocapicity actually available, according to what the Global Footprint Network establishes as the “United States’s share” is 3.7 global hectares, leading to a deficit of 3.1 global hectares. To give a pertinent comparison, the total amount for the countries comprising the entire European Union, excluding Luxembourg and Malta (so 26 of the 28 member nations), is 109.95 global hectares, with a deficit of 16.98 global hectares. These numbers are according to my own calculations, using The Global Footprint Network’s National Footprint Account 2015 Public Data Package. Certainly some context is needed, since the EU comprises the largest world economic entity, by a significant margin. France, for instance, only has a Total Ecological Footprint of 4.2 global hectares, and a deficit of 1.2 global hectares. The point that Etienne gets at, and that we’re missing, is that we currently have need of imagination to connect the underlying social and ecological reality of our patterns of consumption with their larger environmental implications.
Like Etienne’s presentation, Gilles Bœuf’s assertions proved to be some of the more illuminating on the politics and economics of global warming that I’ve been fortunate to hear. Taking as his point of departure the idea of a “révélation” that climate change is identifiable, Bœuf proceeded to link that reality to the relation between energy use and biodiversity. 5 As Bœuf made clear to the Forum, the material actuality of climate turns on energy use, leading to the dispersal of atmospheric carbon that has the potential to negatively affect plant and nonhuman animal life the world over.
Bœuf concluded his remarks with the most trenchant image mobilized that Saturday afternoon: he asserted that the political economy of climate change is akin to living on credit. In financializing the issue of energy and climate change, Bœufs’s simile is appropriate. Burning fossil fuels in the present produces an ecological debt for the future. (Here, I thought there was an specially strong link to the field of inquiry associated with Romantic studies. The idea recalls Adam Smith, and the salience of his work for considerations of the sympathetic imagination–though Bœuf’s must be understood to implicitly tilt against Smith’s economics, which in part underwrote the advancement of industrial modernity at the core of climate change.) In response to the speculative question posed by the panel–whether or not there will be a planet in 2050 (of course there will be, but the implicit question is what will be left)–the panelists’ ideas demonstrate that we need the sympathetic imaginative means to connect practices of everyday living, energy use, and implications for the planet now, and for the future.
This is the panel that included Latour, and consequently was among the best attended of the day. He appeared alongside Patrick Pouyanné, the CEO of the French oil and gas company Total, Laurence Turbiana, the ambassador in charge of the COP21 climate negotiations, and Pascal Canfin, the senior advisor on climate at the World Resources Institute, a research NGO. Fewer ideas were explored, but those expressed were important. Pouyanné quickly addressed two realities, the first being that humanity, at present, has need for the energy capabilities his company supplies. Yet he also offered the hopeful message, with an eye towards the Climate Conference, that with technological innovation for electricity storage, renewable energy will become more competitive. 6 Among all the panelists, though, I was most impressed by Canfin, who carefully trod the ground between theory and policy–showing the way for linking understandings of climate and advocacy that might lead to effective change. To be optimistic for an agreement during the COP21, Canfin maintained, it will take effective collaboration between diverse stakeholders and environmental advocates. It was at this point that Latour offered his key pronouncement: “we need to repoliticize ecology.”
« Nuit Blanche »
Nuit Blanche, or “White Night,” constitutes the annual all-night arts festival in Paris–though similar events are put on across the globe. In Paris, the purpose is to encourage people to discover less visited areas of the city. Art installations took the form of two routes. I chose to begin at the Centre Pompidou, and make my way to the circuit from Gare du Nord to Aubervilliers.
The first artwork I visited was a collaboratively produced installation by the digital and installation artist Djeff and multimedia practitioner Monsieur Moo at the Saint-Merry Church, Présage (Fig. 1). Ever since I first visited Paris, the “Eglise-Saint Merry” has been one of my favorite churches, because contemporary art is frequently incorporated into the church space. This constitutes an extensive practice, I’m told by medievalist friends. But I had never seen anything like these artists’ work. The iconography is biblical. The boat alludes to Noah’s Ark, ideas of survival, the possibility of displacement related to climate change, and the current migrant crisis in Europe. Djeff and Monsieur Moo effectively used the space and boat to evoke the precarity of impending ecological disaster. Vitally, the artists intensified this atmosphere of impending judgement by marshaling the medium of the church’s organ to strike and sustain dissonant chords, capturing an affective dimension of the the contemporary climate predicament. It resonated through the body like solar heat burning the skin. My sense of this is informed by Timothy Morton’s reading of global warming as “hyper object,” “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans,” only available to understanding by approximation and experience. In this way, global warming becomes legible, Morton says, when the sun “burns the skin of the back of my neck, making me itch with physical discomfort and inner anxiety.” 7
From there, I headed on the Metro up to Gare du Nord. Crossing from the station to the Rue de l’Aqueduct, I encountered the installation of the contemporary German artist Julius Popp (Fig. 2).
The artist works mainly on technology, and bit.fall represents a continuing project. In it, the artist marshals water droplets that cascade down a liquid screen. Their fall rate is coordinated according to digital algorithmic formulations that create a scrolling cascade of words, which for the night were connected with issues related to climate change. The location of the work–a bridge near a major rail station in Paris–evokes the French Impressionist group member Gustave Caillebotte’s 1876 painting Le Pont de l’Europe (Fig. 3).
It was in that painting that Caillebotte linked conditions of industrial modernity with social alienation. Steam from a train about to pass below the “Pont de l’Europe” bridge in Paris provides the background. The “Pont de l’Europe,” like the Rue de l’Aqueduct, traverses tracks leading to the major rail network hub in Paris of the time (it was Gare Saint-Lazare, in Caillebotte’s day, it is Gare du Nord, in ours). Because the steam locomotives of Caillebotte’s time are coal driven, Caillebotte’s painting ecologically links with the conditions that Popp’s installation challenges: fossil-fuel powered logistical technologies. And indeed, Popp’s cascading text (Figs. 4-6) challenges precisely such patterns of culture in relation to climate change that emerged when Paris was, as Walter Benjamin contended, “the capital of the nineteenth century.” 8 Consumption is linked to fashion in Caillebotte’s image, embodied in the male subject on the left, and made possible by the logistics of modernity figured in the trace of the train.
It appears as the text “shopping,” or in French “achat” or purchase, in Popp’s artwork. The modern culture of consumption–propagated by the societal construct and imperative of “shopping”–is made possible only through the mass-use of fossil fuels.
The final piece I was able to engage that Saturday night, and certainly the most ecologically significant, was Méta-Vox, a multimedia interactive concert put on by the artistic director Serge de Laubier and vocalist Kristof Hiriart, with scenography produced by Catherine Hospital (Fig. 7).
For the participatory installation, the audience sat in front of microphones that the artists encouraged the artwork’s participants to speak and sing into, as sounds were recorded, and filtered according to the medium of preset computer algorithms that the artists engineered. These algorithms transformed the “grain” of the collective human voice of the audience, and re-played it as nonhuman vocalization, principally in the form of a bird song. After loops were created, the artists returned and played a set that used visualizations enacted by the audience recording (See Video Selection of Méta-Vox 1; Video Selection of Méta-Vox 2). The performance evoked Karlheinz Stockhausen with respect to the alterity of voice. I was fascinated by the work, principally in light of the way it resonated with–and propagated–Bruno Latour’s theorization of nonhuman representation and politics. Namely, Méta-Vox called to my mind Latour’s argument about the need to make visible and legible “the associations of humans and nonhumans through an explicit procedure, in order to decide what collects them and what unifies them in one future common world.” 9 It is precisely this actionable politics of nonhuman representation in which Latour is invested that de Laubier, Hiriart, and Hospitel’s artwork accomplishes. In taking human voice and making it into extra-human song, juxtaposed with an environmentally driven cascade of green images displayed on the screen (evoking the hue of plants, for photosynthesis), the visual-music artwork brings ecology into politics, at a time and place where nothing could be more crucial, and the aesthetic might, in new ways, contribute to the political.
- References to the day’s specific talks reflect my very best attempts at translation and paraphrase. ↩
- For many of the same reasons Caroline Winters describes in her excellent recent DH and method post on the NGSC Blog, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with quantitative humanistic analysis. ↩
-  For a fascinating take on this with respect to the CO2 impact of the academic conference, see Aaron Ottinger, “Toward a Map of the International Conference on Romanticism 2012,” NGSC, November 19, 2012. ↩
- For a strong critique of such thinking, see the environmental philosopher Mick Smith’s Against Ecological Sovereignty: Ethics, Biopolitics, and Saving the Natural World ( Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), which effectively marshals Emmanuel Levinas, Giorgio Agamben, and Jean-Luc Nancy. See especially his response to the question, “how might the ethicopolitical possibilities that emerge from the reciprocal suspension of ecology and politics be realized and sustained?” ↩
- G. Boeuf “Il ne faut pas oublier les interactions qui existent entre le climat, la biodiversité et l’énergie” #COP21 #COP21LibeScPo, Constance Fréte, Twitter Post, October 3, 2015, 12:28 p.m., http://twitter.com/constancefrete. Many thanks to those who live-tweeted the event, making it much easier to follow and translate. ↩
- “Le jour où on saura stocker l’électricité, les énergies renouvelables seront vraiment compétitives” P. Pouyanne (@Total) #COP21LibeScPo, P. Énergétiques, Twitter Post, October 3, 2015, 2:29p.m., http://twitter.com/P_Energetiques. ↩
- See Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 1; 27. ↩
- See Walter Benjamin, “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” Perspectiva, vol. 12 (1969): 163-172. ↩
- Bruno Latour, The Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, reprinted in 2004), 41. ↩