for Dick Howard

Depending on whether it is scientific or political, ecology covers two distinct, though interconnected, approaches. I will begin by concentrating on the difference between their objectives, rather than their interconnectedness. It is important to make sure that the political approach is not presented as the ‘absolutely inevitable’ product of a ‘scientific analysis’, to avoid producing a new version of the sort of scientistic and anti-political dogmatism that, in its ‘diamat’ version, purported to raise political practices and concepts to the level of scientifically proven necessities, thus denying their specifically political character.

As a science, ecology deals with civilization in its interaction with the terrestrial ecosystem: the natural base, the non(re)producible context of human activity. Unlike industrial systems, the natural ecosystem possesses a capacity for self-regeneration and self-reorganization which, by virtue of its great diversity and complexity, enables it to regulate itself and evolve towards ever greater complexity and diversity. This capacity for self-regeneration and self-reorganization is damaged by techniques that tend to rationalize and dominate nature, to make it predictable and calculable. ‘Our technological surges,’ writes Edgar Morin, ‘do not just upset the biological cycles, but disturb primary chemical bonds. Our response is the development of control technologies which treat the effects of these evils while exacerbating their causes.’ footnote1

From this starting-point there are two possible approaches. The first, based on scientific study of the ecosystem, seeks to determine scientifically what techniques and what pollution thresholds are ecologically supportable: in other words, the conditions and limits within which development of the industrial technosphere can be pursued without compromising the self-regenerating capacities of the ecosphere. This approach does not involve a fundamental break with industrialism and its hegemony of instrumental reason. It recognizes the need to limit the pillage of natural resources and to substitute long-term rational management of air, water, soil, forests and oceans; it implies policies for limiting effluents and recycling, and the development of techniques which are not destructive to the natural environment.

Policies for ‘conservation of the natural environment’ are therefore—unlike political ecology—not directed towards pacifying relations with nature or achieving ‘reconciliation’ with it; they are intended to keep it tidy, to maintain and manage it, while bearing in mind the necessity of preserving at least its more fundamental capacities for self-regeneration. From this necessity will be deduced such measures as are dictated by the interests of humanity as a whole, the lines along which states will have to constrain their economic decision-makers and individual consumers.

The recognition of ecological constraints by states will be expressed by means of prohibitions, administrative regulations, taxes, subsidies and penalties. It will thus result in increased ‘hetero-regulation’ of society, whose workings will be made to become more or less ‘ecocompatible’ independently of any volition on the part of the social actors. ‘Regulating media’—such as the administrative authorities and the price structure—will be used to channel consumer behaviour and investors’ decisions towards an objective which the investors and consumers do not have to approve, or even understand. The objective will be attained because the administration will have managed to functionalize the motives and interests of individuals towards a result which remains foreign to them. Fiscal and monetary hetero-regulation (or so its supporters claim) has the advantage that it leads towards the objective of eco-compatibility without any need for change in the mentalities, values, motivations or economic interests of the social actors. Quite the contrary: it is by calling on these motivations and interests, and manipulating them at the same time, that the objective will be achieved. Its pursuit will therefore imply an extension of what Habermas has called the ‘colonization of the life-world’: the utilization of existing individual motivations, by managers of the system, to produce results that do not correspond to any intention on the part of individuals.

In the context of industrialism and market logic, therefore, recognition of ecological constraints results in the extension of techno-bureaucratic power. This is an approach that stems from a pre-modern outlook which typically is anti-political. It abolishes the autonomy of the political in favour of the expertocracy, by appointing the state and its experts to assess the content of the general interest and devise ways of subjecting individuals to it. The universal is separated from the particular, the higher interests of humanity are separated from the individual’s freedom and capacity for autonomous judgement. As Dick Howard has shown, footnote2 the political is defined at the outset by its bipolar structure: it should be, and cannot be anything other than, an endlessly redrafted public mediation between the rights of the individual, rooted in his autonomy, and the interests of the whole society which accommodates and conditions those rights. Anything that tends to abolish the tension between these two poles is a negation both of the political and of modernity; and this is particularly and self-evidently true of expertocracies, in that they deny individuals the capacity for judgement and subject them to an ‘enlightened’ authority claiming to represent the higher interests of a cause beyond their understanding.