How I entered the “critical zone” with the philosopher Bruno Latour

Late October 2022, somewhere on the north coast of Brittany. The t-shirt is still suitable for this 5e heat wave phase from June. This heat wave, accompanied by intense and long, huge fires, amazes us with its unprecedented character. But it is this “unknown” that will become our daily life, and certainly sooner than expected.

A group of scientists recently announced that they had “better” constrained the IPCC models for France; resulting in a 50% increase for future temperatures….

As an environmental science teacher and researcher working on the effects of climate change on water resources, I know the mechanisms behind this process and witness the inaction of states. For years, I thought to the point of vertigo: What is my role as an “expert”? What do I have to do ? How can we understand the gap between our knowledge and our actions?

To get out of this dizziness, to find a place in this changing world, I was accompanied by the philosopher Bruno Latour, who died on October 9, 2022, his thought and texts.

Critical Zone Observatory Observer

If there is one object that Bruno Latour has been particularly interested in in recent years, it is “critical zone observatories”. But what is this zone suitable for?

The solid Earth has a radius of more than 7000 km; surrounded by an atmosphere of about 700 km. But if we focus on the moving parts of this whole (most of the clouds, the water above the earth, above and below the earth, and the life closely and actively involved in these movements), the thickness is only a few zones. kilometers are determined.

It’s almost a coat of varnish, not orange peel, not even eggshell. But here, in this little movie, we find the biosphere, all human activity, all the resources we need, and also all the pollutants we produce.

Welcome to the Critical Zone! This concept emphasizes the fragility of our human and biological world and shows how humanity and nature are connected and closely related to each other.

The workshop of Pleine-Fugères (Ille-et-Vilaine): an example of an observatory of a critical zone where human activity has profoundly changed the landscape.
Sylvain Gouraud, Submitted by author (not reused)

It led to the emergence of a special form of research defined by scientists in the 2000s, in which all disciplines (geology, hydrology, ecology, social and humanities) come together to look at the same object together and understand it in all its complexity.

Gathering at observatories that focus on specific areas, researchers are asking new questions that transcend the boundaries of their discipline: where does running water come from and how is this source perceived by local populations? How do laws, standards and decisions governing our activities affect ecosystems and our health?

Bruno Latour carefully observed these observatories. In all these critical areas of study, physical and chemical laws… cannot be separated from the natural world. What we think we control and model cannot be separated from the laws, representations, and social or political interactions of the little-known and uncontrollable world of living things. It is impossible to stay away from ecosystems, issues, and controversies.

This complexity, this world of “composition” that opposes our world of dominance, Bruno Latour explained in detail in his book. We have never been modern.

What place for scientists?

Working in the critical zone has changed the way I think about my work as a scientist – for a long time I thought it was about producing data, maybe sound opinions, but it ended where a politician, a person with “enlightened” choices, began.

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In the critical zone, science is the object of hypotheses, selection of models, orientation of questions that are already political. Whether we like it or not, a water resource scientist like myself is thus entangled in this tangle of bonds.

His research object becomes a “hybrid” object, where scientific data and models are political arguments in themselves. Wanting to deny it and staying out of the political scene is already a political position!

Models, why?

Bruno Latour was closely interested in the concept of “planetary limits” developed by Johan Roskstrom, director of the Stockholm Sustainability Center, and emphasized that our world is not big enough for all of us to live a European-level life in it. A fortiori of North America or the ultra-rich classes of poor countries. Thus, part of the world’s population would have “left” the world, living without restrictions in places where the climate and ecological emergency did not exist.

In this context, it seemed essential to return to the definition of land, in contrast to the nationalist view. To this end, in recent years, he has developed notebooks of grievances with the aim of allowing “natives” to reposition themselves in their territories and define the contours of what is important to them.

It is in this process that my colleagues and I try to consider different actors and try to meet them. It is from all these questions, from this knowledge, that we build scientific tools (in our view, hydrological models). Instead of building complex, precise, but stable tools, we build simpler, more flexible tools that can easily adapt to queries, questions, and imagined scenarios.

Pipes into the basement allow the water contained in it to be analyzed and dated in a laboratory. Science is made from ultra-precise measurements, but also from DIY!
Sylvain Gouraud, Submitted by author (not reused)
The poetic and familiar scene of the critical zone: water circulates there in the form of clouds, rivers, plants and trees, and people walk and mingle with it.
Sylvain Gouraud, Submitted by author (not reused)

For example, we choose to simplify certain physical aspects of the environment so that we can easily modify scenarios of agricultural practices and landscape evolution to simulate the future impact of climate change for a given area. Thus, it is possible to analyze economic or social data resulting from scenarios built with actors.

The model is no longer an expert tool, but a tool for dialogue, a small “parliament of things,” to use Latour’s words. The politics of nature (2004); Here we are talking about “the visibility of hybrids, networks, interactions…” (lives on earth2022).

This parliament becomes a laboratory where we can repeatedly explore sustainable solutions to be implemented.

“Where to land? »

I was an expert who was not politicized for a long time and could show the relevance or necessity of taking certain measures. I have also been an activist for the ecological transition for a long time in parallel with my work as a researcher.

By accepting the different dimensions of the systems – social, hydrological, ecological – and recognizing the different stakeholders, conflicts, constraints, I was able to build a scientific approach to getting to know the area and its inhabitants.

I realized that my work, and my commitment, to use Latour’s final image, is about searching for the world “where to land”. Much of which leads me to campaign for a profound change in the logic of our governance.

This trip also changed my teaching experience. Today, it seems important to me to teach my students to be autonomous players in the passages to be constructed. It is healthy for them to rebel against it, to accept neither the technologies that promise to save us nor the mobilizing powers of the financialized world.

To paraphrase Bruno Latour, “Turning the university upside down” is a question (lives on earth), victims of climate change and environmental crises, towards non-academic knowledge and artistic approaches that we need to move beyond material logics.

In the 1990s, I was unknowingly working in the critical zone. Since then I have entered the critical zone, in contact, in play, in resonance, in mediation… in the critical zone with Bruno Latour.

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