Τετάρτη, 9 Νοεμβρίου 2011


Interview with Cornelius Castoradis


QUESTION: What, for you, is ecology?

C.C.: It is the understanding of the basic fact that
social life cannot fail to take into account in a pivotal way
the environment in which social life unfolds. Curiously, this
understanding seems to have existed to a greater extent
formerly, in savage or traditional societies. A generation
ago, in Greece, there still were villages that recycled almost
everything. In France, maintenance of waterways, forests,
and so on has been an ongoing concern for centuries.
Without any "scientific knowledge," people had a "naive"
but firm awareness of their vital dependence upon the
environment (see also {Akira Kurosawa's} film Dersu
Uzala). That changed radically with capitalism and modern
technocracy,1 which are based on nonstop and rapid growth
of production and consumption and which entail some
already obvious catastrophic effects upon the Earth's
ecosphere. If scientific discussions bore you, you need only
look at the beaches or gaze at the air in big cities. So, one
can no longer conceive of a politics worthy of the name that
would lack a major concern for ecology.

Q.: Can ecology be scientific?

C.C.: Ecology is essentially political; it is not
"scientific." Science is incapable, as science, of setting its
own limits or its goals [finalités]. If science were asked the
most efficient or the most economic means of exterminating
the Earth's population, it can (it should, even!) provide you
with a scientific answer. Qua science, it has strictly nothing
to say about whether this project is "good" or "bad." One
can, one should, certainly, mobilize the resources of
scientific research to explore the impact that such and such
an action within the sphere of production might have upon
the environment, or, sometimes, the means of preventing
some undesirable side effect. In the last analysis, however,
the response can only be political.

To say, as was said by the signers of the "Heidelberg
Appeal" (which, for my part, I would call, rather, the
Nuremberg Appeal), that science, and science alone, can
resolve all problems is dismaying. Coming from so many
Nobel Prize winners, it expresses a basic illiteracy, a failure
to reflect on their own activity, and total historical amnesia.2
Statements like this are being made when, but a few
years ago, the main inventors and builders of nuclear bombs
were making public declarations of contrition, beating their
chests, declaring their guilt, and so on. I can cite J. Robert
Oppenheimer and Andrei Sakharov, to mention only them.
It is precisely the development of technoscience and
the fact that the scientists have never had, and will never
have, anything to say about its use or even its capitalist
orientation that has created the environmental problem and
the present gravity of this problem. And what we notice
today is the enormous margin of uncertainty contained in the
data and in the evolutionary prospects for the Earth's
environment. This margin, obviously, lies on both sides.
My personal opinion is that the darkest prospects are the
most likely ones.

The real question, however, doesn't lie here. It is the
total disappearance of prudence, of phron.sis. Given that
no one can say with certainty whether the greenhouse effect
will or will not lead to a rise in the sea level, nor how many
years it will take for the ozone hole to spread over the entire
atmosphere, the only attitude to adopt is that of the diligens
pater familias, the conscientious or dutiful father of the
family who says to himself, "Since the stakes are enormous,
and even if the probabilities are very uncertain, I shall
proceed with the greatest caution [prudence], and not as if
it were all a trivial matter."

Now, what we are witnessing at present, for example
during the Rio Carnival (labeled a Summit), is total
irresponsibility. This total irresponsibility may be seen in
the determination of President George Herbert Walker Bush
and of the liberals {in the Continental sense of conservative
"free-market" advocates}, who invoke precisely the flip side
of the uncertainty argument (since nothing has been
"proven," let's go along as before . . . ). It may be seen in
the monstrous alliance between right-wing American
Protestants and the Catholic Church to oppose all birthcontrol
assistance in the countries of the Third World, when
the connection between the demographic explosion and
environmental problems is manifest. At the same time—the
height of hypocrisy—some claim to be concerned about the
living standard of these populations. In order to improve
this standard of living there, however, one would have to
accelerate the destructive production and consumption of
nonrenewable resources.

Q.: During the Rio Summit, two conventions, which
some consider historic, were nonetheless adopted: the
convention on climatic change and the one on biodiversity.
Are they part of this "Carnival"?

C.C.: Yes, for they propose no concrete measures
and are accompanied by no sanctions. They are the tribute
vice pays to virtue.

A word about biodiversity. One must nevertheless
remind the signers of the Nuremberg Appeal that no one
knows at present how many living species are to be found
on the Earth. Estimates range from ten to thirty million, but
even the figure of a hundred million has been advanced.
Now, of these species, we know only a modest portion.
What is known with near certainty, however, is the
number of living species we are rendering extinct each year,
in particular through the destruction of the tropical forests.
Now, E. O. Wilson estimates that, in the next thirty years,
we will have exterminated nearly twenty percent of existing
species—or, using the lowest total estimate, 70,000 species
on average per year, two hundred species per day!
Independent of any other consideration, the destruction of a
single species can lead to the collapse of the equilibrium,
therefore the destruction, of an entire ecotope.3

Q.: Reading some of your articles, one gets the
impression that ecology is only the tip of an iceberg that
conceals a reappraisal not only of science but also of the
political system and of the economic system. Are you a

C.C.: Revolution does not mean torrents of blood,
the taking of the Winter Palace, and so on. Revolution
means a radical transformation of society's institutions. In
this sense, I certainly am a revolutionary.

But for there to be revolution in this sense, profound
changes must take place in the psychosocial organization of
Western man, in his attitude toward life, in short, in his
imaginary. The idea that the sole goal of life is to produce
and to consume more—an idea that is both absurd and
degrading—must be abandoned; the capitalist imaginary of
pseudorational pseudomastery, of unlimited expansion, must
be abandoned. That is something only men and women can
do. A single individual, or one organization, can, at best,
only prepare, criticize, incite, sketch out possible

Q.: What parallel would you draw between the
decline of Marxism and the boom in political ecology?

C.C.: The connection is obviously complex. First,
one must see that Marx participates fully in the capitalist
imaginary: for him, as for the dominant ideology of his age,
everything depends on increasing the productive forces.
When production reaches a sufficiently elevated level, one
will be able to speak of a truly free society, a truly equal
one, and so on and so forth. You do not find in Marx any
critique of capitalist technique, either as production
technique or as the type and nature of the products

For him, capitalist technique and its products are an
integral part of the process of human development. Neither
does he criticize the organization of the work process in the
factory. He criticizes, certainly, a few "excessive" features,
but as such this organization seems to him to be a
realization of rationality without the addition of quotation
marks. The main thrust of his criticisms bears on the usage
that is made of this technique and of this organization: they
solely benefit capital, instead of profiting humanity as a
whole. He does not see that there is an internal critique to
be made of the technique and organization of capitalist

This "forgetfulness" on Marx's part is strange, for,
during the same age, one finds this type of reflection present
among many authors. Let us recall, to take a well-known
example, Victor Hugo's Les misérables. When, in order to
save Marius, Jean Valjean carries him through the sewers
of Paris, Hugo indulges in one of his beloved digressions.
Basing himself no doubt upon the calculations of the great
chemists of the age, probably Justus Liebig, he says that
Paris casts into the sea each year, via its sewers, the
equivalent of 500 million gold francs. And he contrasts this
with the behavior of Chinese peasants who manure the land
with their own excrement. That is why, he practically says,
China's earth is today as fertile as on the first day of
creation. He knows that traditional economies were
recycling economies, whereas the economy today is an
economy of wastefulness.

Marx neglects all that, or makes it into something
peripheral. And this was to remain, until the end, the
Marxist movement's attitude.

Starting by the end of the 1950s, several factors were
to come together in order to change this situation. First,
after the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist
Party, the Hungarian Revolution the same year (1956), then
Poland, Prague, and so on, the Marxist ideology lost its
attraction. Then began the critique of capitalist technique.
I mention in passing that in one of my texts from 1957, "On
the Content of Socialism,"4 I developed a radical critique of
Marx as having totally left aside the critique of capitalist
technology, in particular at the point of production, and as
having completely shared, in this regard, the outlook of his

At the same time, people were beginning to discover
the havoc capitalism had wreaked upon the environment.
One of the first books to have exerted a great influence was
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring,5 which described the havoc
insecticides inflicted upon the environment: insecticides
destroy plant parasites but also, at the same time,
insects—therefore, the birds that feed upon them. This is a
clear example of a circular ecological balance and of its
total destruction via destruction of a single one of its

An ecological awareness then began to form. It
developed all the more rapidly as young people, discontent
with the social regime in the rich countries, were no longer
able to contain their criticisms within traditional Marxist
channels that were becoming practically ridiculous.
Criticisms predicated upon ever growing poverty no longer
corresponded to anything real; one could no longer accuse
capitalism of starving the workers when working-class
families each had one, then sometimes two cars. At the
same time, there was a fusion of properly ecological themes
with antinuclear ones.

Q.: Is ecology then the new fin de siècle ideology?
C.C.: No, I would not say that. And in any case,
ecology is not to be made into an ideology in the traditional
sense of the term.

But the need to take the environment and the balance
between humanity and the planet's resources into account is
just so obvious for any genuine and serious politics. The
frenetic rush of autonomized technoscience and the huge
demographic explosion that will continue to be felt for at
least a half century imposes this upon us.

The effort to take these things into account has to be
integrated into a political project, one that of necessity goes
beyond "ecology" alone. And if there is no new movement,
no reawakening of the democratic project, "ecology" can
very well become integrated into a neofascist ideology.
Faced with a worldwide ecological catastrophe, for
example, one can very readily see authoritarian regimes
imposing draconian restrictions on a panic-stricken and
apathetic population.
It is indispensable to insert the ecological component
into a radical democratic political project. And it is just as
imperative that the reappraisal of present-day society's
values and orientations, which is implied by such a project,
be indissociable from the critique of the imaginary of
"development" on which we live.6

Q.: Are the French ecological movements the
bearers of such a project?

C.C.: I think that among les Verts {the Greens} as
well as among the members of Génération Écologie, the
political component is inadequate and insufficient.7 People
there are not reflecting at all upon the anthropological
structures of contemporary society, upon the political and
institutional structures, upon what a true democracy would
be, the questions that its instauration and its operation
would raise, and so forth.

These movements deal pretty much exclusively with
questions of the environment, and they are hardly concerned
at all about social and political questions. It is
understandable that they want to be "neither Left nor Right."
But this kind of point of honor of not taking a position on
the burning political questions of the day is quite liable to
criticism. It tends to make these movements into forms of

And when there is a raising of consciousness about
the political dimension, it still seems to me to be inadequate.
That was the case in Germany, where the Greens had
instaurated a rule of rotation/revocability for their deputies.
Rotation and revocability are key ideas in my political
reflections. Separated from the rest, however, they no
longer retain any meaning. That is what happened in
Germany, where, inserted into the parliamentary system,
they lost all meaning. For, the very spirit of a parliamentary
system is to elect "representatives" for five years in order to
get rid of the political questions, to leave these questions to
"representatives" so as not to have to bother with them, that
is to say, quite the contrary of the democratic project.

Q.: Does this properly political component of a
project of radical change also include North-South

C.C.: Of course, It's a nightmare to see well-fed
people watching the Somalis dying of hunger, then return to
their soccer game. But it is also, from the basest realistic
standpoint, a terribly short-term attitude.

People shut their eyes and let these people go on
being famished. But in the long run, they will not let
themselves remain famished. Clandestine immigration
increases as demographic pressures rise, and what is certain
is that we have not seen anything yet.

Chicanos cross the Mexican-American border
practically without any obstacle, and soon it will be not only
Mexicans. Today, in the case of Europe, they pass, among
other places, across the Strait of Gibraltar. And these are
not Moroccans; they are people coming from all corners of
Africa, even Ethiopia or the Ivory Coast, who endure
unimaginable sufferings in order to get to Tangier and to be
able to pay the smugglers. But tomorrow, it will no longer
be Gibraltar. There are perhaps 40,000 kilometers of
Mediterranean coastline, what Winston Churchill called
"the soft underbelly of Europe." Already, escapees from
Iraq are crossing through Turkey and clandestinely entering
Greece. Then, there is the whole Eastern border of the
Twelve. Is one going to set up a new Berlin Wall 3,000 to
4,000 kilometers long in order to prevent starving
Easterners from entering the rich half of Europe?

We know that a terrible economic and social
imbalance exists between the rich West and the rest of the
world. This imbalance is not diminishing; it is growing.
The sole thing the "civilized" West exports in the way of
culture into these countries is coup d'État techniques,
weapons, and televisions displaying consumer models that
are unattainable for these poor populations. This imbalance
will not be able to go on, unless Europe becomes a fortress
ruled by a police State.

Q.: What do you think of Luc Ferry's book,8 which
explains that les Verts are the carriers of an overall world
view that challenges man's relations with nature?

C.C.: Luc Ferry's book picks the wrong enemy and
ultimately becomes a diversionary operation. At the
moment when the house is on fire, when the planet is in
danger, Ferry picks an easy target in the person of certain
marginal ideologues who are neither representative nor truly
menacing, and he says not a word, or hardly one, about the
true problems. At the same time, he opposes to a
"naturalist" ideology an entirely superficial "humanist" or
"anthropocentric" ideology. Man is anchored in something
other than himself; the fact that he is not a "natural" being
does not mean that he is suspended in midair. There is no
point in going on and on about the human being's finitude
when it comes to the philosophy of knowledge and
forgetting this finitude when it comes to practical

Q.: Is there any founding philosopher of ecology?

C.C.: I don't see any philosopher who could be
designated as the founder of ecology. There certainly is,
among the English, German, and French Romantics, a "love
of nature." But ecology is not "the love of nature." It's the
necessity of the self-limitation (that is to say, the true
freedom) of the human being in relation to the planet upon
which, by chance, he exists, and which he is in the process
of destroying. On the other hand, one can certainly find in
several philosophies this arrogance, this hubris, as the
Greeks said, presumptuous excess, which enthrones man in
the place of "master and possessor of nature"—an assertion
that is actually quite ridiculous. We are not even masters of
what we will do, individually, tomorrow or in a few weeks.
But hubris always summons nemesis, punishment, and that
is what is in danger of happening to us.

Q.: Would a rediscovery of ancient philosophy's
sense of balance and harmony be beneficial?

C.C.: A rediscovery of philosophy as a whole would
be beneficial, for we are going through one of the least
philosophical periods, not to say antiphilosophical periods,
in the history of humanity. The ancient Greek attitude,
however, was not an attitude based on balance and
harmony. It starts from the recognition of the invisible
limits on our action, of our essential mortality, and of the
need for self-limitation.

Q.: Might one consider the rise of a concern for the
environment as one characteristic of a return of the
religious, under the form of a faith in nature?

C.C.: First of all, I do not think that, despite what
people are saying, there would be a return of the religious in
the Western countries. Next, ecology, correctly conceived
(and from this point of view, this is the near general case),
does not make of nature a divinity, any more than of man,

The only relationship I can see is very indirect. It
has to do with what has made religion have such a hold over
almost all societies. We live in the first society since the
beginning of the history of humanity where religion no
longer occupies the center of social life. Why this enormous

place of religion? Because it reminded man that he is not
master of the world, that there was something other than
him, which it "personified" in one manner or another:
religion called it taboo, totem, the gods of Olympus—or
MoiraJehovah, and so on. Religion presented the Abyss
and at the same time it masked it in giving it a face: it's God,
God is love, and so on. And it thereby also gave meaning to
human life and death. Certainly, it projected onto divine
powers, or onto the monotheistic God, some essentially
anthropomorphic and anthropocentric attributes, and it is
precisely in this that it "gave meaning" to all that is. The
Abyss became, in a way, familiar, homogeneous with us.
At the same time, however, it reminded man of his
limitation; it reminded him that Being is unfathomable and
unmasterable. Now, an ecology that is integrated into a
political project of autonomy has to indicate this limitation
of man as well as remind him that Being has no meaning,
that it is we who create meaning at our risk and peril
(including under the form of religions . . . ).9 There is,
therefore, in a sense, proximity, but in another sense,
irreducible opposition.

Q.: More than the defense of nature, you wish then
for the defense of man?

C.C.: The defense of man against himself, that's the
question. The principal danger for man is man himself. No
natural catastrophe equals the catastrophes, the massacres,
the holocausts created by man against man.
Today, man is still, or more than ever, man's enemy,
not only because he continues as much as ever to give
himself over to massacres of his fellow kind, but also
because he is sawing off the branch on which he is sitting:
the environment. It is awareness of this fact that one ought
to try to reawaken in an age where religion, for very good
reasons, no longer can play this role. It is a matter of
reminding men not only of their individual limitation but
also of their social limitation. It is not only that each is
subject to the law, and that one day everyone is going to die;
it is that all of us together cannot do just anything; we ought
to self-limit ourselves. Autonomy—true freedom—is the
self-limitation necessary not only in the rules of intrasocial
conduct but also in the rules we adopt in our conduct toward
the environment.

Q.: Are you optimistic about the reawakening of this
awareness of man's limits?

C.C.: There is, in humans, a creative power, a
potential to alter what is, which by nature and by definition
is indeterminable and unpredictable. But it is not, as such,
positive or negative, and to speak of optimism or pessimism
at this level is just frivolous. Man, qua creative power, is
man when he builds the Parthenon or the Notre-Dame
Cathedral in Paris, as well as when he sets up Auschwitz or
the Gulag. The discussion about the value of what he
creates begins afterward (and it is obviously the most
important one). At present, there is this agonizing
interrogation concerning contemporary society's slide into a
more and more empty sort of repetition; then, assuming that
this repetition might give way to a resurgence of historical
creation, an interrogation concerning the nature and value
of this creation. We can neither ignore or hush up these
interrogations nor respond to them in advance. That's


1 if the use of this word is a slip of the tongue on the speaker's part or,
perhaps, a mistranscription of a first instance of the term technoscience
(see below) on the publisher's part. The word technocracy becomes even
more problematic when we read, below, "that the scientists have never
had, and will never have, anything to say about [technoscience's] use or
even its capitalist orientation." —T/E

2 Calling for a "scientific ecology," as opposed to "irrational
preconceptions," the Heidelberg Appeal was "publicly released at the
1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. By the end of the 1992 summit,
425 scientists and other intellectual leaders had signed the appeal. . . .
Today, more than 4,000 signatories, including 72 Nobel Prize winners,
from 106 countries have signed it," according to the Scientific and
E n v i r o n m e n t a l P o l i c y P r o j e c t

3 Castoriadis quotes E. O. Wilson at greater length in "Dead End?"
(1988), on p. 254 of PPA. —T/E

4 See "On the Content of Socialism, II," in PSW 2; excerpted version in
CR. —T/E

5 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962). —T/E

6 See "Reflections on ‘Rationality' and ‘Development'" (1977), now in

7 Les Verts (the Greens) were founded in 1984 by Antoine Waechter as the
successor to several previous political-ecology formations dating prior to
René Dumont's 1974 French presidential candidacy. Génération
Écologie is the political formation, founded in 1990, of Brice Lalonde,
May '68 student Sorbonne leader, creator in 1971 of Les Amis de la Terre
(Friends of the Earth), Dumont's 1974 presidential campaign director
who himself ran as a French presidential candidate in 1981 on an ecology
ticket, and then Minister of the Environment in 1988 under Socialist
French President François Mitterrand. In 1992, a year before the present
interview was conducted, Génération Écologie elected 108 candidates in
regional elections where the rival Verts also scored victories. Talks for
a fusion of the two groups foundered, and Lalonde's group eventually
supported successful neo-Gaullist presidential candidate Jacques Chirac
in both 1995 and 2002. Breaking with Waechter's "neither Left nor
Right" position (see next paragraph of the present interview), les Verts
participated in the "plural Left" government of Socialist Prime Minister
Lionel Jospin after Chirac's 1997 decision to call snap legislative
elections resulted in the loss of his legislative majority. Waechter now
heads a third political-ecology party, the Mouvement écologiste
indépendant, billing itself as "100 percent ecologist." Most recent reports
signal a possible rappochement with Les Verts. Let it be noted that these
are not the only political-ecology parties vying for votes in French
elections; eight established political-ecology groups and numerous other
such formations were among the large number of political organizations
that, altogether, ran over 8,000 candidates in the 2002 legislative
elections for 555 National Assembly seats. In a continued electoral
alliance with the defeated Socialists, Les Verts were able to retain only
three seats that year. —T/E

8 Luc Ferry, The New Ecological Order (1992), trans. Carol Volk
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). —T/E

9 On these points, see "Institution of Society and Religion" (1982), now in

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