#4 Stepping outside the centre of the world

#4 Stepping outside the centre of the world

Sophie Steengracht, Cloudforest creatures, 2018, line etching and aquatint, 40 x 50 cm

Sophie Steengracht, Cloudforest creatures, 2018, line etching and aquatint, 40 x 50 cm

What if we stop pretending that humans are the center of the universe? And by being the center, being opposed to nature? What if we stop defining culture as the opposite of nature? In his Book Facing Gaia, the philosopher Bruno Latour asks these questions in the light of James Lovelock’s[1] Gaia thesis, which states that all objects in the universe are subjects striving for survival. This implies that all of these subjects are influencing each other constantly. This may sound obvious, but becomes less so if we look at the way most humans view their relationship with the world around them. We have come to view ourselves as separate entities who act with the world as a static background. This idea of humans versus everything else is well anchored in every aspect of modern life. Think of the way we look at science. The “hard sciences” which our society values so much (physics, chemistry, mathematics) are all based on natural laws. This trust in nature reveals the idea of an objective, stable, unchanging nature. A nature without a will, without a subject.

But our environment is changing rapidly. Organisms are reacting to the human influences on the planet by fighting for their existence. Nature is no longer the static background against which we can continue to live our lives as if it will never change. The more we attempt to control it, the more alive it seems to be. And it’s not just a struggle between humans and the planet. Latour argues that this is a clash between all the thinkable actors in the world: microbes vs big data, oxygen vs plants. Everyone is reworking everything, in the hope to stay alive. Some call this state of interaction between humans and the others, and especially the way the actor human reshapes the other actors, the Anthropocene. It's no longer feasible to state the humans versus the planet, because it's no longer clear where the 'actor human' starts and where other actors begin.

This brings new dilemmas. What is hard, solid data, when its objectiveness is measured on the objectiveness of a nature that is much more fluid than we thought it was? What if this ends the dream of limitless progression: the idea that we humans can advance by gaining more objective knowledge? What if data must be seen as highly a subjective, even political actor instead of the objective arbiter we were used to? We then become, says Latour, in a state of such chaos that it could be said we are in a state of war. And in times of war we don’t know what and who to believe, and an objective arbiter that decides which political force to follow is missing.  It’s every force against every force. May the force be with you.

In times of ‘war’ it’s necessary to be very clear about what you stand for, who you fight for and what you believe in. And in the climate debate, that is not a crazy thing to do. It sounds counter intuitive, because we have been trying to cut the subject out of science, figures and data. We are used to thinking that we should be apolitical and rational in debates around climate change. That there is a truth to be pursued that is completely objective. But imagine yourself in a situation that you have to defend your opinion on electric vehicles. Somebody shows you very convincing statistics on the impact on the environment of the production of the batteries used in electric cars. And in these figures, the difference between the environmental impact of a car with a combustion engine are minimal. Mostly proponents of electric vehicles don’t know what to say to this, because they don’t know any other figures themselves. And even if you did and could proceed to have an argument around the correct facts, you would end up in a state of relativism: which figures represent the truth?

But there is another option. Latour thinks that arguing based on facts no longer works in ‘war times’. On the contrary – in this post truth society, beliefs should be your weapon of choice. If you share your values and beliefs behind the electric vehicle, you sound less ‘ignorant' to the so well informed opponent, than you might think: "yes I know electric vehicles are also polluting, but it’s part of a bigger transition I believe we have to make, and I will try everything in my power to speed up this transition, despite the fact that I have no guaranties that it will work…"

Latour’s book is not a handbook for people who want to win an argument, but this was one of the insights it gave me. Latour argues that when losing our trust in an objective truth, we have to be clear about the political assumptions behind our convictions.

The real reason I wanted to read his book is because it could possibly be linked to a design question I asked myself some time ago.  The idea: what if we design places in a way that we try to incorporate all the possible thinkable actors of that place? And by actors I mean the human and nonhuman actors. And by nonhuman actors I mean organisms, technology, culture, you name it. By stretching ‘the concept actor’, we might come to a totally different way of looking at the objects in the world around us. I have to admit that ‘the human’ will still be the moderator in this design process, but he or she would be encouraged to kick themselves out of the center of the universe and take their place right next to all the nonhuman entities of our planet. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every actor has an equal chance of victory, but at least it’s clear that all actors are on the battlefield.

I have been interested in Placemaking, a philosophy and design practice that combines local knowledge, skills and resources to enhance the livelihood of a place. Places could become much more interesting, sustainable, livable, affordable, equitable if we design the places for all the actors, instead of only for humans, let alone just a few of them. What would be the challenges for the designer and which opportunities would it present? Depleted soil could be transformed to food forests with tiny houses and birding hotspots (with ample opportunity for birders to take the perfect picture!). And in all decision-making processes, the questions should be asked: who and what benefits and who and what pays the price? Of course, sacrifices have to be made, but by taking into account all actors such as culture, soils, humans, birds, we might be able to design surprisingly interesting places with more actors to benefit than ever before.

[1] James Lovelock – independent researcher who was originator of the Gaia theory and inventor of the electron capture detector.


Sophie Steengracht, plantstudies, 2018, charcoal and pastel on paper, 235 x 160 cm

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