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Isabelle Stengers: "The Intrusion of Gaia" (translated by Andrew Goffey)

29 December 2015
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Stengers, Isabelle. “In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism.” United Kingdom: Open Humanities Press, 2015. Cover

Good news! Isabelle Stengers' Au temps des catastrophes. Résister à la barbarie qui vient (Editions La Découverte, Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2009) has been translated into English by Andrew Goffey under the title: In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. As an open access book, licensed under Creative Commons license, it is published by Open Humanities Press in The Critical Climate Change series and available online. Find below the chapter 4 dedicated to the intrusion of Gaia.

The Intrusion of Gaia

It is crucial to emphasize here that naming Gaia and characterizing the looming disasters as an intrusion arises from a pragmatic operation. To name is not to say what is true but to confer on what is named the power to make us feel and think in the mode that the name calls for. In this instance it is a matter of resisting the temptation to reduce what makes for an event, what calls us into question, to a simple “problem.” But it is also to make the difference between the question that is imposed and the response to create exist. Naming Gaia as “the one who intrudes” is also to characterize her as blind to the damage she causes, in the manner of everything that intrudes. That is why the response to create is not a response to Gaia but a response as much to what provoked her intrusion as to its consequences.

In this essay then, Gaia is neither Earth “in the concrete” and nor is it she who is named and invoked when it is a matter of affirming and of making our connection to this Earth felt, of provoking a sense of belonging where separation has been predominant, and of drawing resources for living, struggling, feeling, and thinking from this belonging.[1] It is a matter here of thinking intrusion, not belonging.

But why, one might then object, have recourse to a name that can lend itself to misunderstandings? Why not, one friend asked me, name what intrudes Ouranos or Chronos, those terrible children of the mythological Gaia? The objection must be lis- tened to: if a name is to bring about and not to define – that is, to appropriate – the name can nevertheless not be arbitrary. In this instance I know that choosing the name Gaia is a risk, but it is a risk that I accept, because it is also a matter for me of making all of those who might be scandalized by a blind or indifferent Gaia feel and think. I want to maintain the memory that in the twentieth century this name was first linked with a proposition of scientific origin. That is, it is a matter of making felt the necessity of resisting moving on from the temptation of brutally opposing the sciences against the reputedly “nonscientific” knowledges, the necessity of inventing the ways of their coupling, which will be vital if we must learn how to respond to what has already started.

What I am naming Gaia was in effect baptized thus by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis at the start of the 1970s. They drew their lessons from research that contributed to bringing to light the dense set of relations that scientific disciplines were in the habit of dealing with separately – living things, oceans, the atmosphere, climate, more or less fertile soils. To give a name – Gaia – to this assemblage of relations was to insist on two con- sequences of what could be learned from this new perspective. That on which we depend, and which has so often been defined as the “given,” the globally stable context of our histories and our calculations, is the product of a history of co-evolution, the first artisans and real, continuing authors of which were the innumerable populations of microorganisms. And Gaia, the “living planet” has to be recognized as a “being,” and not assimilated into a sum of processes, in the same sense that we recognize that a 45 rat, for example, is a being: it is not just endowed with a history but with its own regime of activity and sensitivity, resulting from the manner in which the processes that constitute it are coupled with one another in multiple and entangled manners, the variation of one having multiple repercussions that affect the others. To question Gaia then is to question something that holds together in its own particular manner, and the questions that are addressed to any of its constituent processes can bring into play a sometimes unexpected response involving them all.

Lovelock perhaps went a step too far in affirming that this processual coupling ensured a stability of the type that one attributes to a living organism in good health, the repercussions between processes thus having as their effect the diminishing of the consequences of a variation. Gaia thus seemed to be a good, nurturing mother, whose health was to be protected. Today our understanding of the manner in which Gaia holds together is much less reassuring. The question posed by the growing concentration of so-called greenhouse gases is provoking a cascading set of responses that scientists are only just starting to identify.

Gaia then is thus more than ever well named, because if she was honored in the past it was as the fearsome one, as she who was addressed by peasants, who knew that humans depend on something much greater than them, something that tolerates them, but with a tolerance that is not to be abused. She was from well before the cult of maternal love, which pardons everything. A mother perhaps but an irritable one, who should not be offended. And she was also from before the Greeks conferred on their gods a sense of the just and the unjust, before they attrib- uted to them a particular interest in our destinies. It was a matter instead of paying attention, of not offending them, not abusing their tolerance.

Imprudently, a margin of tolerance has been well and truly exceeded: that is what the models are saying more and more precisely, that is what the satellites are observing, and that is what the Inuit people know. And the response that Gaia risks giving might well be without any measure in relation to what we have done, a bit like a shrugging of the shoulder provoked when one is briefly touched by a midge. Gaia is ticklish and that is why she must be named as a being. We are no longer dealing (only) with a wild and threatening nature, nor with a fragile nature to be protected, nor a nature to be mercilessly exploited. The case is new. Gaia, she who intrudes, asks nothing of us, not even a response to the question she imposes. Offended, [2] Gaia is indifferent to the question “who is responsible?” and doesn’t act as a righter of wrongs – it seems clear that the regions of the earth that will be affected first will be the poorest on the planet, to say nothing of all those living beings that have nothing to do with the affair. This doesn’t signify, especially not, the justification of any kind of indifference whatsoever on our part with regard to the threats that hang over the living beings that inhabit the earth with us. It simply isn’t Gaia’s affair.

That Gaia asks nothing of us translates the specificity of what is in the process of coming, what our thinking must succeed in bringing itself to do: it is a matter of thinking successfully, the event of a unilateral intrusion, which imposes a question without being interested in the response. Because Gaia herself is not threatened, unlike the considerable number of living species who will be swept away with unprecedented speed by the change in their milieu that is on the horizon. Her innumerable co-authors, the microorganisms, will effectively continue to participate in her regime of existence, that of a living planet. And it is precisely because she is not threatened that she makes the epic versions of human history, in which Man, standing up on his hind legs and learning to decipher the laws of nature, understands that he is the master of his own fate, free of any transcendence, look rather old. Gaia is the name of an unprecedented or forgotten form of transcendence: a transcendence deprived of the noble qualities that would allow it to be invoked as an arbiter, guarantor, or resource; a ticklish assemblage of forces that are indifferent to our reasons and our projects.

The intrusion of this type of transcendence, which I am calling Gaia, makes a major unknown, which is here to stay, exist at the heart of our lives. This is perhaps what is most difficult to concep- tualize: no future can be foreseen in which she will give back to us the liberty of ignoring her. It is not a matter of a “bad moment that will pass,” followed by any kind of happy ending – in the shoddy sense of a “problem solved.” We are no longer authorized to forget her. We will have to go on answering for what we are undertaking in the face of an implacable being who is deaf to our justifications. A being who has no spokesperson, or rather, whose spokespersons are exposed to fearsome temptations. We know the old ditty, which generally comes from well-fed experts, accustomed to flying, to the effect that “the problem is, there are too many of us,” numbers whose “disappearance” would permit significant energy savings. But if we listen to Lovelock, who has become the prophet of disaster, it would be necessary to reduce the human population to about 500 million people in order to pacify Gaia and live reasonably well in harmony with her. The so- called rational calculations, which result in the conclusion that the only solution is to eradicate the vast majority of humans between now and the end of the century, scarcely dissimulate the delusion of a murderous and obscene abstraction. Gaia does not demand such eradication. She doesn’t demand anything.

To name Gaia – that is to say, to associate an assemblage of material processes that demand neither to be protected nor to be loved, and which cannot be moved by the public manifestation of our remorse, with the intrusion of a form of transcendence into our history – ought not especially to shock most scientists. They themselves are in the habit of giving names to what they recognize has the power to make them think and imagine – and this is the very sense of the transcendence that I associate with Gaia. Those who have set up camp in the position of the guardians of reason and progress will certainly scream about irrationality. They will denounce a panicky regression that would make us forget the “heritage of the Enlightenment,” the grand narrative of human emancipation shaking off the yoke of transcendences. Their role has already been assigned. After having contributed to skepticism with regard to climate change (think of Claude Allègre [3]), they will devote all their energy to reminding an always credulous public opinion that it must not be diverted, that it must believe in the destiny of Man and in his capacity to triumph in the face of every challenge. Concretely, this signifies the duty to believe in science, the brains of humanity, and in technology, in the service of progress. Provoking their yelling is something that neither amuses nor scares me.

The operation of naming is therefore not in the least bit anti-scientific. On the other hand, it may make scientists think, and prevent them from appropriating the question imposed by the intrusion of Gaia. Climate scientists, glaciologists, chemists, and others have done their work and they have also succeeded in making the alarm bells ring despite all the attempts to stifle them, imposing an “inconvenient truth” despite all the accusations that have been leveled against them, of having mixed up science and politics, or of being jealous of the successes of their colleagues, whose work has succeeded in changing the world where theirs has been limited to describing it, or even of presenting as “proven” something that is only hypothetical. They have been able to resist because they knew that time counted, and that it wasn’t them, but that to which they were addressing themselves that in fact mixed up scientific and political questions, or, more precisely, aimed at substituting itself for politics and imposing its imperatives on the entire planet. To name Gaia is finally to help scientists resist a new threat, one which this time would fabricate the worst of confusions between science and politics: that one ask them how to respond, that one trust in them to define what it is appropriate to do.

Moreover, that is what is in the process of happening, but with other types of “scientists.” Nowadays it is economists who have become active, and in a way which guarantees that like many unwanted effects, the climate question will be envisaged from the point of view of strategies that are plausible, that is to say, are likely to make it a new source of profit. Even if this means being resigned – in the name of economic laws (which are harsh, they will affirm, but which are laws, after all) – to a planetary New Orleans. Even if it means that zones on the planet that are defined as profitable must, at all scales – from the neighborhood to the continent – protect themselves by every means necessary from the mass of those who will doubtless be opposed to the famous “we cannot take care of all the woes of the world.” In short, even if the succession of “sorry, but we musts” establishes, completely, and openly deployed, the barbarism that is already in the process of penetrating our world.

Economists and other candidates for the production of global responses based on “science” only exist for me as a power to harm. Their authority only exists to the extent that the world, our world, remains what it is – that is to say, destined for barbarism. Their laws suppose, above all, that we stay in our places, keep the roles assigned to us, that we have the blind self-interest and congenital incapacity to think and cooperate that makes an all azimuths economic war the only conceivable horizon. It would be completely pointless to name Gaia if it was just a matter of combating them. But it is a matter of combating what gives them their authority. Of that against which the cry “another world is possible!” was raised.

This cry really hasn’t lost any of its topicality. Because that against which it was raised – capitalism, the capitalism of Marx, of course, not of American economists – is already busying itself concocting its own responses to the question imposed on us, responses that lead straight to barbarism. This is to say that the struggle assumes an unprecedented urgency but that those who are engaged in this struggle must also face a test that they didn’t really need, which, in the name of that urgency they might be tempted to abstract out. To name Gaia is to name the necessity of resisting this temptation, the necessity of starting out from the acceptance of this testing challenge: we do not have any choice, because she will not wait.

Do not ask me to sketch what other world may be able to come to terms, or compose, with Gaia. The response doesn’t belong to us, that is to those who have both provoked her intrusion and now decipher it through data, models, and simulations. Naming Gaia is naming a question, but emphatically not defining the terms of the answer, as such a definition would give us, us again, always us, the first and last word. Learning to compose will need many names, not a global one, the voices of many peoples, knowledges, and earthly practices. It belongs to a process of multifold creation, the terrible difficulty of which it would be foolish and dangerous to underestimate but which it would be suicidal to think of as impossible. There will be no response other than the barbaric if we do not learn to couple together multiple, divergent struggles and engagements in this process of creation, as hesitant and stammering as it may be.

[1] In Capitalist Sorcery Philippe Pignarre and I affirmed the political sense of such rituals.

[2] Offended but not vindictive, because evoking a vindictive Gaia is not just to attribute to her a memory but also an interpretation of what happens in terms of intentionality and responsibility. For the same reason, to speak of the “revenge” of Gaia, as James Lovelock does today, is to mobilize a type of psychology that doesn’t seem relevant: one takes revenge against someone, whereas the question of offense is one of a matter of post-factum observation. For example, one says “it seems that this gesture offended her, I wonder why?” Correlatively one doesn’t struggle against Gaia. Even speaking of combating global warming is inappropriate. If it is a matter of struggling, it is against what provoked Gaia, not against her response.

[3] French politician and scientist, minister of education under Lionel Jospin, and visible climate change skeptic. –Trans.

Lecture (in French) by Isabelle Stengers at the Palace d'Ath, Belgium (Grandes conférences Repères pour l'avenir, 2009-2010):

I.Stengers: résister à la barbarie qui vient (Ath) by lavolteruz

I.Stengers: résister à la barbarie qui vient... by lavolteruz

I.Stengers: résister à la barbarie qui vient... by lavolteruz

I.Stengers: résister à la barbarie qui vient... by lavolteruz

External links:

Stengers, Isabelle. “In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism.” United Kingdom: Open Humanities Press, 2015.

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