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L’astrofuturisme et au-delà

What are the affects of staying on Earth?

Nikolaj Schultz
Traduction(s) :
Et si on restait sur terre ? [fr]

Résumé

This article was originally written for a presentation at the Aarhus Architecture Festival, at the Aarhus School of Architecture, on 8 October 2021. It has been lightly edited, retaining the oral rhythm of the text. It is currently being developed for a book to be published by La Découverte in 2024, with the working title Le Nouvel exode.

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What are the affects of staying on Earth?Afficher l’image
Crédits : Zofia Jelowicka 2023 - HEAR
  • 1 See Bruno Latour’s Perelman 2021 Lecture “Comment penser la suite de l’aventure des Modernes?” (lat (...)
  • 2 For a distinction between the “global” and the “planetary,” see Chakrabarty (2021). See also Schult (...)

1There are as many ways to start as there are to end, but I am going to begin with a brief anecdote,1 as I believe it offers a perfect introduction to the topic I want to speak about today: the topic of planetary affects.2

  • 3 For a useful introduction to the notion of “Critical Zones,” see, e.g., Gaillardet (2020).

2My friend the late French sociologist Bruno Latour was on television to speak about what geochemists call the “Critical Zone,” understood as the thin layer of the Earth, ranging from the top of the trees to the bottom of the groundwater, where all life has evolved over the last couple of billion years due to interactions between rocks, soil, water, air, and living organisms.3 After Bruno had talked for a few minutes to a not-so-interested crowd and a seemingly bored journalist, a new guest arrived on stage to speak about the probes that had just been sent to Mars. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed, the studio exploded in enthusiasm and glimmering eyes, the journalist bombarding this new guest with questions. My poor friend had to admit it: Mars seemed more exciting than Earth! But how come this fascination for a dead planet, only half the size of the Earth, when you are already on a planet where life has flourished? Even if it’s getting tense down here, why these affects, these feelings, these longings for a small, uninhabitable desert?

3One way to explain this fascination is that the new space colonization is presented as a continuation of the old, modern adventure of progress and emancipation. Now, the modern adventure was always about moving forward in space and time: by gaining control over and tearing itself away from nature, the human would realize its freedom, leave behind the archaic past, and follow the famous arrow of time into a promised future of emancipation. These were the modern principles of civilizational progress, and in a way it thus makes sense if Mars can generate affects and even if it is perhaps aestheticized, because even if we are gazing at an ugly red planet, we seem to be continuing this emancipation from nature, and we are moving forward. In short, we seem to be continuing down the path of modernity.

4Now, the problem is not simply that it was precisely this “march of progress” that led us to lose sight of our earthly conditions of subsistence and slowly sleepwalk beyond planetary limits. What interests me here is rather how these intergalactic hitchhikers are, in fact, not continuing modernist ideals. At first sight they may look like they are, and they might be presented as such, but in two important ways they conflict with this tradition.

5First, the values of modernism were values supposed to be collective: progress, emancipation, development, etc., were supposed to be for all – it was a civilizational project, meant to guide the way for the masses. But when Elon Musk sends a sports car into orbit around the Sun, and when a handful of billionaires follow him out there out there to build (see Schultz 2020), how many of us truly believe that it is a project for a whole civilization? How many of us really think that these plans are for us as well? Well, to me, it rather resembles a project for a few elites “lucky” enough to get a ticket on the rocket. Of course, these people frame their escape strategies as a collective project, but one does not have to be a planetary geologist to realize the inconsistency between taking a dead planet, around half the size of the Earth, and making it habitable, and finding a new home for a civilization of 8 billion people and counting. Hence, the first inconsistency: Modernism was supposed to be a collective horizon, but this certainly looks more like a planetary colonization that – if it ever succeeds, which is doubtful – is by and for the elites.

6Second inconsistency: As we remember, modernism always implicated a temporal movement toward the horizon of the future – collectives were leaving the past behind and progressing into the prosperous days to come. But these quasi-moderns are as lost in time as they are in space, because if you look closely, they are not going forward in time – they are going backward in time, because their destination planet, Mars, actually looks exactly like Earth did before life arrived, evolved, and flourished, a process that took billions of years. Going to Mars is not going toward the future – going to Mars is like heading to the past, a past before life arrived, when Earth was simply dead. Turning to Mars is not progressive and modern – it is exactly as regressive as when neo-nationalists say they want to go back to their famous “land of the dead”!

7Perhaps sensing these inconsistencies between modernism and these Mars plans could eventually help us get rid of the affects for this odd red planet. This is not modernism, neither politically, scientifically, nor architecturally; this is not a collective, emancipatory project of progress. Rather, it is as a regressive, elitist journey toward a planet that offers even less space and fewer conditions of life than the one we already inhabit. Now, I might be sounding a bit unfair to these tech elites, but in fact this “rupture” with modern values has been documented by historians of technology. In the 1990s, things changed in the tech environment: From being a mecca of modern ideals of progress for all, the visions of the tech elites began becoming “less a story of collective flourishing than of personal survival” (Rushkoff 2018).

8There is no doubt that ecological mutations have intensified these tendencies. Realizing a new sort of Earth is shaking under our feet, the tech elites have decided to take off from all earthly limits, simultaneously cutting off all bonds of solidarity. Aware of the ecological srmutations causing the planet’s habitability to shrink and that there is not enough room for us all, they have left behind civilizational ideals of progress and justice for all, the principle of building a common habitable world, leaving us behind on a climate-destroyed planet (see Latour 2018). This sounds less conspiracist when we remember what journalists and ethnographers have shown us for years, namely that Mars is only one of their exit strategies. Should terraforming other planets not work out, the same elites have already prepared alternatives, and marked other escape coordinates on their maps, and bought catastrophe-luxury bunkers and escape property, in far-away places around the world not expected to be hit hard by climate change (see, e.g., Cousin & Schultz 2023; O’Connell 2018; Osnos 2017).

  • 4 On such territorial inequalities, see Chancel (2020).

9And in fact, it does not matter much if you colonize other planets or if you buy up climate-secured bunkers on Earth. Sociologically, the logic is the same. These are not prolongations of any civilizational projects. Rather, they must be seen as part of new sort of planetary conflict, or, better, as what I have previously called the geo-social class struggles for habitable territory at a moment where the soil is disappearing under the feet of all, but to different degrees (see, e.g., Schultz 2020). And it is a conflict where some have chosen to give up on the idea of composing a common habitable world and have made certain to remain well positioned in times of ecological catastrophes, far away from the coming flood. This would be my alternative analysis of how to understand these intergalactic plans: not as a civilizational horizon designed to drag the multitudes with them, but as the exact opposite, as an earthly escapism, an abandonment of ideals and principles of progress, justice, and solidarity for all, leaving behind the territorially deprived geo-social classes.4

10Of course, this will never be the official description of the project; the tech elites will continue to frame it as another chapter in the history of modernism. And, in doing so, I am pretty sure the space adventurers are putting their faith in the “young generation” to share this dream, since the “youth,” historically, were supposed to be the vanguard of modernity. If their old parents did not understand that we had to “move on” and “go forward,” materially or morally, the youth were there to guide the progressive way onward. In the same way, I do not doubt that the escapists today are counting on the youth to support their visions of escaping earth, and that they will try to recruit as many as possible from this generation to further this ideology.

  • 5 Here, one can speak of an affinity between today’s youth, and the many local populations around the (...)

11But my intuition and my hope would be different. Not only do I believe the young generation of today are smart enough to realize that this space exodus is a caricature of modernism, only for the few. I furthermore think the young generation have had enough of any sort of modernist nonsense about “progressing further” – exactly because this generation today are living in the ecological ruins of progress,5 and because they were betrayed by those who simply continued down this path and closed their ears to any alarm bells ringing. No, the youth will not devote their attention to Mars; they will probably rather lead the way in landing on Earth – precisely because the young have realized that “progressive” in the old sense of the term today means “regressing” either toward the death of Planet Earth or toward a dead planet far away. If not a “death drive,” then certainly a drive toward a dead planet.

  • 6 We borrow the distinction between the “territory you live on” and the “territory you live off” from (...)

12They thus seem to be a key division of what Bruno Latour and I call the “ecological class” (Latour & Schultz 2022), understood as a social class that, rather than being defined by its struggle for the means of production, instead struggles against the very logic of production itself. A class that seeks to overcome the modern disconnection between the territory we live on and the territory we live off and create a politics that seeks to superimpose the two.6 A vanguard, for sure, but a vanguard in constructing a realistic coincidence between its people and its earthly, material conditions of subsistence – not in continuing a poor version of modernism by flying to Mars. And if I am right about that, then the conclusion is also that these people who want to leave are not our saviors, but enemies in a new sort of class struggle centered around the Earth’s habitability conditions – precisely because these multi-planetary elites are putting time, effort, and money into directing focus and affects away from the Earth.

13There are as many ways to end as there are to start, but since I especially hope to address readers who represent the youth, I want to end with another anecdote, even if a less academic one. Because I cannot help but think that this bizarre scheme of the rich going to Mars in fact sounds like a situation that many of us, and especially younger students, remember having been in before.

14So, you are at a party – and let us be honest, the party is not going great. It is getting late, you are close to running out of food and drinks, the music is a bit inconsistent, and the dancing is out of step. We all know what happens next: A few “chosen ones” decide that it is time to move on and go to another party. These party elites (often those who drank all the drinks, by the way) are out of here. To continue the project we all embarked on – having fun – they are convinced that the solution is to go somewhere else. “We know a place; we know a party!” Sure, it might be a bit of a hassle to get there, it is a bit far away, and even if they always pretend at the beginning that everybody is invited, it is rare that everyone can get in. Yet they still hype it up: “Come on, what are you waiting for? You seriously want to stay here? Fair enough – but we’re leaving!”

  • 7 Or tweet, for that matter…

15Perhaps there is often a small part of many of us that wants to join them. But the thing is, the day after when you call these people – or if you ever tried following them, and I did – the plan did not really unfold according to expectations. The idea was good, but if they are being honest about it, they usually seem to kind of regret having left. Often, they got lost on their way, floating around lonely somewhere out there; often, they did not even get into the party, and if they did, it was often more dead than the one they left behind. Alas, it makes no sense following them – but neither is the point to try to convince them to stay. Perhaps, the question is rather: Do we even want them to stay? Are we even going to miss them? Again, those who want to leave are rarely those interested or invested in having fun together. On the contrary, they are typically the ones who took up a lot of space, ate all the food, drank all the drinks, and put their own music on so loud that the floor began shaking, and so that in the end no one could dance or speak together.7

16Maybe the answer is simply not to take too much notice of these people, and their plans to leave. Because, in fact, what really threatens a fragile party for the rest of us is not so much a few people disappearing into nowhere, as it is their ability to divert attention and affects away from where we are, and toward the idea of taking off to some imaginary place. Yes, in the end, maybe this should be our plan: Let us not give any attention to them, just let them go! “You’re leaving? Alright, that’s fine, you go ahead, ciao, enjoy the ride and greet those you meet on your way; but we’re staying.” Who knows? Perhaps we’ll be better off without you, anyway.

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Bibliographie

AÏT-TOUATI FRÉDÉRIQUE & BRUNO LATOUR, 2022.
Trilogie Terrestre, Paris, Éditions B42.

CHAKRABARTY DIPESH, 2021.
The Climate of History in a Planetary Age, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

CHANCEL LUCAS, 2020.
Unsustainable Inequalities: Social Justice and the Environment, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

CHARBONNIER PIERRE, 2022.
Affluence and Freedom: An Environmental History of Political Ideas, trans. Andrew Brown, Cambridge, Polity Press.

COUSIN BRUNO & NIKOLAJ SCHULTZ, 2023.
“A Bunker of One’s Own: The Super-Rich and the Mansions for the End of the World” (forthcoming, manuscript submitted).

GAILLARDET JÉRÔME, 2020.
“The Critical Zone, a Buffer Zone, the Human Habitat”, in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (eds), Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, pp. 122-129.

KRØIJER STINE, MARIE KOLLING & ATREYEE SEN, 2020.
“Ruins and Rhythms of Development and Life after Progress”, Ethnos no. 86/5, pp. 877-896.

LATOUR BRUNO, 2018.
Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, trans. Catherine Porter, Cambridge, Polity Press.

LATOUR BRUNO, 2021.
“La lutte des classes sera géosociale”, Socialter, September 29. https://www.socialter.fr/article/bruno-latour-la-lutte-des-classes-sera-geosociale

LATOUR BRUNO & NIKOLAJ SCHULTZ, 2022.
On the Emergence of an Ecological Class: A Memo, Cambridge, Polity Press.

O’CONNELL MARK, 2018.
“Why Silicon Valley Billionaires Are Prepping for the Apocalypse in New Zealand”, The Guardian, 15 February. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/feb/15/why-silicon-valley-billionaires-are-prepping-for-the-apocalypse-in-new-zealand

OSNOS EVAN, 2017.
“Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich”, The New Yorker, January 22. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/doomsday-prep-for-the-super-rich

RUSHKOFF DOUGLAS, 2018.
“Survival of the Richest”, Medium, July 5. https://onezero.medium.com/survival-of-the-richest-9ef6cddd0cc1

SCHULTZ NIKOLAJ, 2020.
“New Climate, New Class Struggles”, in Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel (eds), Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, pp.  308-311.

SCHULTZ NIKOLAJ, 2022.
Land Sickness, Cambridge, Polity Press.

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Notes

1 See Bruno Latour’s Perelman 2021 Lecture “Comment penser la suite de l’aventure des Modernes?” (later published as Latour 2021), which not only starts with this same anecdote, but also explores many of the themes of this short text more in depth. Both Latour’s lecture and this text draw on arguments developed collectively during a writing session for Bruno Latour and Frédérique Aït-Touati’s theater show Viral, which premiered at the Théâtre Nanterre Amandiers in April 2021 (see also Aït-Touati & Latour 2022).

2 For a distinction between the “global” and the “planetary,” see Chakrabarty (2021). See also Schultz (2023) for another investigation into the affects and sensations of the Anthropocene.

3 For a useful introduction to the notion of “Critical Zones,” see, e.g., Gaillardet (2020).

4 On such territorial inequalities, see Chancel (2020).

5 Here, one can speak of an affinity between today’s youth, and the many local populations around the world who have also seen their life territory disappear under the promise of progress (see e.g., Krøijer, Kolling & Sen 2020).

6 We borrow the distinction between the “territory you live on” and the “territory you live off” from Charbonnier (2022).

7 Or tweet, for that matter…

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Nikolaj Schultz, « What are the affects of staying on Earth? »Terrain [En ligne], 79 | 2023, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2023, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/26416 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/terrain.26416

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Nikolaj Schultz

Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen

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