Whose nature? Pluralism and environmental governance

‘Nature’ is a term that conjures up many different meanings. It may be seen as a resource of divine design replete with possibilities that mankind may tap into, or something to be experienced, preserved, or restored. Are these perspectives conflicting or complementary? On November 11 in 2015, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) hosted the event ‘Philosophers’ Dialogue on Nature in Modern Society, Now and in the Future’ in order to discuss different ways to conceptualize ‘nature’. Four philosophers, Roger Scruton, Wilhelm Schmid, Annemarie Mol, and Bruno Latour, were invited to present their ideas about nature: what are we talking about when we refer to ‘nature’, and for whom are such conceptualizations of nature important?

This inquiry feeds in to PBL’s study of the potential of new coalitions of governments, businesses and citizens to contribute to biodiversity goals, such as the EU’s biodiversity goals for 2050. ‘Nature’ involves a pluralistic landscape of various and often only partially compatible perspectives to which different social groups subscribe. Based on the different perspectives that various social groups have on nature, synergies between these perspectives are explored in order to identify corresponding coalitions of actors. Subsequently, it becomes possible to elaborate on the potential actions of these coalitions by means of which they can realize the futures they desire.

Pietersheim 2011

Roger Scruton – Green Communities

Scruton contested the idea of a self-interested ‘homo economicus’ by arguing any view of human subjects is incomplete without reference to attachment to one’s environment. Scruton invoked the notion of ‘oikophilia’, which means love of one’s family, household, or physical environment, in arguing that the place that people consider theirs is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. People aren’t governed by rational self-interest exclusively: Being contains within it implicit choices, such as taking responsibility and being accountable for one’s actions to others. Scruton provided examples of oikophilia by illustrating how various environmental initiatives emerged in past centuries. Environmental movements aren’t part of recent history, but have existed at least since the end of the 16th century. In the 17th century, acts of Parliament led to reforestation and nature preservation. Works of literature on the environment have become an integral part of cultural and religious thinking of the English, and have contributed to a sense of belonging and the love of the beauty of nature. According to Scruton, we adapt ourselves to the landscape through our sense of beauty, and we adapt the landscape to ourselves. Aesthetic judgment can acts as a shield against economic reasoning.

An underlying thread in Scruton’s talk was the idea that environmental initiatives had nothing to do with the state or NGOs, but emerged from values that British citizens consider to be important. It is our human condition that instigates the values and motivation needed to engage in the appreciation, protection, and maintenance of the environment.

Wilhelm Schmid – Ecological intelligence: a matter of the art of living

A similar appeal to the responsibility of the individual could be found in Wilhelm Schmid’s talk on ‘ecological intelligence’, which Schmid positioned as an ethical concept that could provoke more sustainable ways of living. Despite current interconnected and previously unseen environmental issues, the latter do not automatically imply an obligation, Schmid argued, since people should not be coerced into a different way of living. Rather, people have to make a conscious choice. In order for people to act in a more environmentally conscious manner, a form of prudence in accordance with ecological interrelationships is needed. Such ecological prudence requires care for the self and one’s environment whilst realizing and accepting that others may decide to adopt different, less sustainable ways of life. Ecological prudence aligns with the idea that our lives impact other lives and other forms of life. As a result, our existence needs to be understood as part of a larger whole that involves both ‘local’ and ‘global’ perspectives.

A great deal of Schmid’s argument hinges on individual responsibility. People should reflect on their own habits, which are often contrary to ecologically sustainable ways of living. We need to practice ecologically sustainable habits in order to make them a second nature. Prudent people are ecologically calculating individuals rather than economically calculating. Ecological calculation involves the realization of cycles, not only in the form of recycling but the realization of cycles of life, nature, and natural elements. People need to see themselves as part of such cycles that go beyond the finitude of individual lives. Sadly, our current economic configurations pay insufficient attention to futures, and are therefore not suitable in terms of preserving the foundations on which life depends. Ecologically sustainable ways of living are not characterized by hard-bitten restraint, but by enjoyment, for example by nourishing and cultivating a healthy body. Thus, our existence rather than a mere factual argument becomes an argument for other people to live a more sustainable life. Ecological ways of living are characterized by serenity (‘Gelassenheit’), which is needed in approaching the onslaught of the many cycles and possible ecological disasters with which we are constantly confronted.

For Schmid, a solution can only come in the form of a politics of the individual. International politics has a track record of disappointing outcomes. The ecological art of living is a personal choice first of all. Schmid’s powerful argument for the role of the individual aligns with a more general problem in environmental governance: people want to do whatever helps them or do what is good for them. As said, coercing people into a different way of life will merely push them away.

Mechelse Heide 2011

Annemarie Mol – Natures in tension: conceptual diversity and tinkering care

Mol emphasized that in thinking about nature we shouldn’t get trapped in a single language. Conceptual diversity makes our thinking richer and more versatile, allowing us to better face new problems and adapt to new situations. Western philosophy has largely celebrated coherence and unifying modes of thought and tended to abstract away local particularities. Yet the environmental issues that we need to confront today are beyond coherence, since they imply a pluralistic range of values. One way to illustrate this is the idea of creatures. Are they individual beings, here and now, leading their own life? Or do they also involve processes that go beyond individual beings and hint towards the interdependency of forms of life? Similarly, there are different ways to answer the question whether raising chickens is a sustainable way to feed humans. From the perspective of economics, raising chickens may be cost-effective. From the viewpoint of nutrition science, it is not: the amount of resources needed to raise chickens versus the amount of nutrition created implies that it is not a nutrient-efficient way of producing food. Such different perspectives, or ‘repertoires’, may be in tension when dealing with the same question. This complicates life: we no longer have one single answer, but many (often conflicting) ones.

Flagging contrasts does not imply the impossibility of decision-making, but rather involves an invitation to consider different repertoires when making a decision. Thus, we may end up giving different answers that are adapted to particular sites or contexts – it may make sense to raise chickens in one area, but not in another one.

Mol pointed out that the prominence of economic repertoires is disconcerting. Environmental governance should adopt specificities of particular situations and use tensions between repertoires. This goes beyond the immediate concerns of accountancy, which pays insufficient attention to the origins of the inputs and outputs of a particular economic practice. Geographies matter strongly to ecologies.

Different intellectual repertoires represent different values. Collaboration between the adherents of these repertoires is needed although everyone should develop their own repertoire on their own terms. Mol emphasized the crucial importance of developing a multitude of repertoires and the danger of relying exclusively on the economic repertoires.

Bruno Latour: Europe and the politics of nature

Latour raised a provocative question in the final lecture of the day: how can we get rid of the concept of nature? Nature is commonly seen as a unifying element outside of the human sphere. However, a closer look at the notion of objectivity and its role in the sciences reveals how nature is always staged for a subject. In other words, observing subjects are complicit in how nature is seen. We do not have direct access to some objective nature ‘out there’ that we can see as it ‘really’ is. According to Latour, we have a responsibility to recall this strange idea of nature outside of the human subject.

Today, nature is not a unifying figure but a dividing figure: pluralism is concomitant with ‘nature’ since society contains a multitude of often incommensurable perspectives on nature. Latour referred to Hobbes’ work on state sovereignty and territory and argued that we’re back in the beginning of the 17th century, trying to imagine what could be a new state. There is not a single political arbiter who can settle disputes over (geo)political issues. The existence of a plurality of perspectives on nature does not bode well for the unanimous acceptance of a political arbiter that will settle debates on nature once and for all. According to Latour, a (virtual) world government, Nature, Science, and Economics cannot be heralded as such an arbiter.

Latour extended the work of the notorious Carl Schmitt to the politics of nature. For Schmitt, a pacified world without the distinction between friend and foe is also without the distinction between friend and enemy, and hence a world without politics. Reinvigorating politics can be accomplished by a new political theology in which we ask questions about Theos (which God figure, Society? Market? Nature? Gaia?), Cosmos (which distribution of power among agencies?), Demos (which people?), Logos (which type of knowledge?), and Nomos (which land / territory?). These questions allow us to ask how we may live together in the midst of the new environmental issues with which we are confronted today.

There is a need to redescribe politics in the light of Latour’s observation that current political institutions are running out of steam. For example, Latour argued there is a reality schism in the model of the United Nations (UN), since it implies a global interest without a global state. The UN relies on the (primarily natural) sciences without those sciences having the power to unify the planet. According to Latour, the use of global models in climate science has forced politics to jump too fast to a level of globalization that had no institutional basis. Additionally, the UN works under the principle of ‘one state, one vote’, which is widely unrealistic. More generally, the UN deals with climate independently of commerce, energy, and military questions.

Latour argued the representative UN delegations need to be disaggregated. There is no world state. What is more, nature does not unify politics but divides. More attention should be paid to cross-cutting issues, which could lead to the involvement of transnational organizations, multinationals, NGOs representing other non-national issues, scientific organizations cutting through borders, and matters of concern, such as security, migration, soil, ocean, air, fish, plants, and forests. UN negotiations need to shift from serving the self-interest of individual states to a different territorial attachment.

Mechelse Heide 2011

Political renewal

A unifying problem among the four presentations discussed is that of pluralism. For environmental governance to produce robust policies that do justice to the plurality of perspectives in society, institutional renewal is needed. Politics needs to be reinvented constantly, yet governance requires a robust institutional infrastructure in which policies can be devised and decisions can be made. Latour’s recent work on the ‘mode of politics’ (Latour 2013) can perhaps shed some light on this matter.

For Latour, politics entails a cycle from multitude to political representation that is never-ending and always disappointing: some voices may be amplified and others drowned out in the tumultuous uproar of the agora. In other words, political representation involves the articulation of a position, but once this position is articulated in an attempt to achieve political representation, other positions are foreclosed and excluded. The cycle from multitude to representation may lead to the dissolving of political representation due to the concerns of a multitude that feels its concerns are insufficiently represented: “the ruler inevitably betrays the ruled and the ruled betrays the ruler in turn, through a series of translations or remixes of what one seems to tell the other.” (Harman 2014, 86) As a result, the cycle from multitude to representation will begin again, starting from a new and changed multitude that attempts to construct political representation.

The implication is that taking very specific and fixed political motivations as a starting point in negotiations does not necessarily bode well for the outcome of political deliberation: those who demand their interests are met ‘as is’ are effectively doomed to disappointment, since any compromise is framed as betrayal: “the only way of making the [political] circle advance, of ‘cooking’ or ‘knitting’ politics, of producing (re)groupings, consists in never ever starting with established opinions, wills, identities and interests. It is up to political talk alone to introduce, re-establish, and adjust them.” (Latour 2003, 159 quoted in Harman 2014, 89, original emphasis)

An important issue that emerges from Latour’s work on politics is the role of the public: who are the multitudes that are concerned about a particular issue? How are such multitudes formed and by whom? Latourian politics is issue-driven in the sense that multitudes may be formed on the basis of issues being brought into the political arena. The development of political representation is profoundly vulnerable: the political circle “can at any moment grow larger by multiplying inclusions, or shrink by multiplying exclusions. Everything depends on its renewal, on the courage of those who, all along the chain, agree to behave in such a way that their behavior leads to the next part of the curve.” (Latour 2013, 342, original emphasis) Still, the renewal of the political circle may establish a situation in which “a political culture begins to take shape and gradually makes the maintenance, renewal, and expansion of the Circle less and less painful”, though they might as well “take a turn for the worse” (Ibid. p. 343)

As a closing thought, I would like to conclude by arguing for the importance of institutional renewal and experimental politics. Although this is a daunting prospect in terms of organizing, administrating, and maintaining the flexible political infrastructure that experimental politics entails, I believe environmental challenges can be met by underlining personal responsibility (see the talks of Scruton and Schmid) as well as aiming for pliable and accommodating institutional infrastructures.


Harman, Graham. 2014. Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Political. London: Pluto Press.
Latour, Bruno. 2003. “What if we talked politics a little?” Contemporary Political Theory 2 (2):143-164.
Latour, Bruno. 2013. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.