Today's date:
  Fall 2004

Neo-Modern Ecology

Alain Touraine is one of Europe's foremost social theorists. He is presently director of the Institute for Applied Sociology at the Center for the Study of Man in Paris. His most recent book is The Return of the Actor. In the following comments, which appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of NPQ, Touraine cautions against an ecological consciousness which discards the achievements of modernity.

Paris--The West is undergoing a cultural mutation. I am convinced a new cultural pattern is being established that rejects the utilitarian reason of industrial ideology in favor of a "new naturalism."

As we question "progress" and discover the absence of a transcendent meaning in "history," we rediscover nature. More precisely, we rediscover the duality of man and nature we knew at the time of Christ--a duality in the sense that man can be himself in a very personal way and, at the same time, a part of nature in a very impersonal way. We are now passing from a monistic industrial culture in which man assumed the guise of nature's master to a vision where man and nature are different, yet complementary.

This new cultural pattern is not the post-industrial society defined by Daniel Bell--a kind of hyper-industrialized society continuous with the past. The cultural mutation I detect implies a rupture of contemporary man's image of himself and his relationship with nature.

Our industrial culture was neither naturalist nor subjectivist, but objectivist. Industrialism's core concept was a belief in the "objective forces" of history leading inevitably, through the progress of science and technology, to Utopia. As Karl Marx, the key philosopher of industrialism, stated more than a century ago, "The problem is to humanize nature, by transforming it with science and industry, and naturalize man" by defining his condition, like that of unconscious animals, as the evolutionary struggle with the environment.

The experience of the 20th century has shattered this transcendental certitude of evolutionary progress: Auschwitz and the Gulag, ozone depletion and the "greenhouse" effect have all destroyed faith in the inevitability of a better future.

The Error of Renaturalization | As this worldview of an objective destiny disintegrates, we are for the first time unsure about climbing to the next stage.

Indeed, post-modernists say there is no place for us to climb, no more steps. "We are at the top," they say, "let us look back to the past." Post-modernism proclaims the absence of belief in a future made by man.

The ecological movement accepts much of this post-modern ethos. In fin de siecle fashion, there is a tendency to withdraw from the world of achievement into irrationality. Ecology correctly teaches us that nature is not an object to be dominated, but an eco-system in which we have to find our place. But saying that alone doesn't really help us; it merely takes us back to pre-Christian, Pantheistic naturalism. Certainly, the human pride and spirit of domination implicit in the Enlightenment should be dropped, but what I call subjectivity--man's capacity to be the author of his actions--must not be surrendered to the despotism of nature.

If we speak in natural terms of nature, we must also speak in human terms of man. I am very wary of a Pantheistic renaturalization--the purely ecological reconstruction of our culture--because I am modern or, if you prefer, neo-modern. Neo-modern naturalism is not opposed to man's capacity to create culture--his capacity to transform himself and nature through conscious initiative. Neo-modern naturalism does not delineate a natural order in which man must simply find his niche, but rather an order in which man seeks an equilibrium between the environment and his cultural initiative.

In rejecting the god of Progress, the challenge of neo-modernity will be to leave intact the essence of the modern West: rationality, science and the subjectivity that emerged during the Reformation. In this neo-modern epoch, "reason" must be checked by the concept of human rights, while technological-scientific power must be checked by ecological rights.

The notion of human rights is not the defense of a nation or a class, but of the individual's right to create himself--whether we are talking about personality in the face of mass culture or Mandela in the face of the racist state. Ecological rights propose a defense against the destruction of our life basis.

If we reject subjectivity in the name of the scientific reason of genetic engineering, we will court Dr. Strangelove; if we reject reason in the name of salvation from ozone depletion, I fear we will court a Green fundamentalism, an eco-theocracy of the Ayatollah Khomeini variety. To remain modern, we need reason, science and the individual as well as a new ecological ethos.

A Morphology of Change | The establishment of the neo-modern cultural pattern is not preordained; it is a matter of struggle between conflicting actors. Values are transformed by power into a system of knowledge, ethics and investments. The question today is: What is the main form of power and who are the main social actors in opposition to that power? The outcome of this struggle will shape the new cultural pattern.

The transformation of industrial culture has been underway for some time. The glimmerings of cultural change were first seen in the student and countercultural revolts of the 1960s, when marginal actors expressed their disenchantment with industrial culture. In the wake of those revolts, misgivings set in about the logic of the entire system--the Club of Rome proclaimed the era of limits and ecological concerns touched the mainstream.

The second stage of this transformation set in as prime actors of the industrial culture, such as the labor unions, began to disappear from center stage as the main opposition force. As had happened in earlier times, when the conflict between citizen and prince became institutionalized in constitutions and parliaments, the social rights of workers were institutionalized in the social-welfare state and mainstream political parties. Their struggle became hollow, bureaucratic and ritualized.

Then, in the West during the 1970s, a sense of emptiness and malaise set in. Without the familiar actors, it was difficult to find meaning in that which had lost its unity. A period of complete doubt and cynicism arose. We didn't know where we were headed. There was no orientation. The seeds of post-modernism had been sown.

With an empty image of the future, reaction at first set in. There was a search for roots, a nostalgia for the past. Representing varying degrees of reaction, Ronald Reagan, the Moral Majority and Jean-Marie Le Pen came forward. And, in a much more serious way, the very universalism of Reason from the industrial period was rejected in favor of pure difference: I am homosexual, I am Chicano, I am woman, I am black. Then, finally, came the narcissism of the "yuppie" who so lacked even a reminiscence of personality that his individuality was defined entirely according to the conventions of status consumption.

At this same moment in the West, during the 1970s and 1980s, technological revolution was taking place--from computers to bio-engineering to satellite broadcasting. In purely material terms this marked the beginning of reconstruction.

Today we are just passing to the other side of the emptiness. We are beyond the crisis of our incapacity to act and are entering the first stages of cultural reconstruction. The first actors which appear clearly in the early stage of reconstruction are the most powerful--the communication elites of the mass media who are the producers of language, symbols and images. In the Information Age, those with the means to define society's image of itself have the central power.

The last element to appear in this transformation is the new central oppositional forces that play a role similar to the labor movement's during the dominance of industrial culture.

I believe the new oppositional forces are subjectivism and the ecological movement: The "I" versus mass culture, the individual who defines himself in his own terms; and the ecological groups which define the limits to the transformation of nature by science and technology.

Society Does Have a Center | This view of cultural reconstruction argues, against post-modernism, that society does have a center and that center is conscious man, the subject and actor, capable of constructing cultural models.

In this new culture, humankind no longer assumes the role of master of the cosmos but instead becomes the creator of the Self. From Goethe to Salman Rushdie, this is the very idea of the novel in the West. To stress both subject and individual consciousness provides a modern and entirely secular principle of unity in social life. The essential fact of neo-modern culture is that the subject can no longer be defined by the meaning of history. Rather, societies now have the capacity to choose their organization, their values and their processes of change without legitimating those choices by making them conform to either natural or historical laws.

At this critical stage of cultural reconstruction, the main conflicts revolve around the invention of language and images that redefine man's relationship to nature.

Points of Conflict | As the arena for the definition of symbols, which is the arena of power, the mass media is the shaper of public opinion. In this sense, the mass media is now the main political institution. At this stage of early reconstruction, the role of the media and intellectuals is paramount: It is far more their moment than it is the politicians'.

The situation is similar to 18th-century Europe, when the important actors were writers and philosophers because they were transforming culture and social relations by giving society a new image of itself. They were discovering civil society for the first time.

For the most part, the period after World War II was the time for the "growth managers"--the planners, businessmen and politicians. Intellectuals played a very limited role during this time.

Now, however, the task is to reinvent; to understand the new society in the making, define what is at stake, what is important to discuss and what is not.

An indication of the image-rupture our society is going through is that the issues crying out for definition are the deepest questions known to man. They arise in the hospital and the laboratory, the nexus between life and death in industrial society. And there is deep passion associated with them. Should there be in vitro fertilization? Is abortion murder? How should an AIDS patient be cared for? Should there be euthanasia for cancer patients and the elderly? In short, what does it mean to live and to die? Who decides what it means?

Other questions have also arisen that are leading us closer to a species consciousness: Is our prosperity killing not only our children, but any future children? Who decides what our relationship with nature should be?

The political arrival of Green parties across Europe, especially in Germany but now in France, are indicative, with all their problems, of how the margins move into the mainstream as the mutation of culture proceeds.

No Guarantee of Transition | History is littered with peoples, cultures and nations that were unable to reach the next stage of existence. Although Europe invented modernity, it was not obvious we were gifted for it. After all, in the 11th and even the 14th century, the Arab world and China were far ahead of our civilization. Yet they fell. They were unable to climb the next step to a scientific, rational society.

Will the West make it into the new time--the future without progress? Will we pass the test of civilization, as former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland asks, by readjusting man's relationship to nature? Can we become ecological, yet remain modern?

As initiators of culture and producers of the societies in which we live, the destiny of modern man is our conscious choice.