Latour, B. (C. Porter, translator). 2004. Politics of nature: How to bring the sciences into democracy. Harvard University Press, MA. 236 pp, glossary, end notes, bibliography.

Enter the odd and often challenging world of political philosophy via the metaphors of sociology, where even the use of language and the essence of meaning is the subject of almost constant construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction and where little is as it was or seems. In that world, sociologist Bruno Latour engages in an analysis of the Western construction of natural ‘reality’ and finds it not very ‘real’ nor supportive of a valid and sustainable political ecology. 

Latour justifiably spends considerable time on an analysis of those foundations of political ecology that are based on misconceptions of the relationship between aboriginal and folk cultures and nonhuman nature. Latour is not the only one who has critiqued the myth of the ecologically ‘noble aboriginal’ that lies at the heart of many Western ‘green’ paradigms. He is, however, firm in his rejection of the validity of what he refers to as an “intolerable ethnocentrism” not supported by cultural anthropology but, rather, constructed out of whole cloth. Latour calls on us to abandon the concepts of a beneficent nature common to a bourgeois deep ecology, concepts that have constructed a bicameral world view in the West of ‘bad’ human nature and ‘good’ nonhuman nature and to perceive, instead, of the politicization of all life into a unified collective.

What role does science play in the creation of the new, universal and inclusive collective? Well, the Science that was going to introduce a reliable rationality and bring us the ‘victory of peace’ just didn’t make it. Latour maintains that Western Science (note the capitol ‘S’) “defined a single common world without giving us the means, interpreters, histories, networks, forums, agoras, parliaments, or instruments we would have needed to compose it progressively.” Although limited and distorted in its worldview of non-western orientation to ‘other’ nature, political ecology has allowed us to begin a passage from one Naturepolitik to another. In this transformation relativism, absolutism, and the inanimism of nature will give way to a ‘true’ commonsense, supported by the natural and social sciences, allowing humanity to “come back home to inhabit the common dwelling without claiming to be radically different for the others.” The rejection of failed paradigms and the integration of the sciences will aid in the creation of political (in the broadest terms) collectives allowing an integrated and democratic representation life on Earth. In summary, Latour says that “The world is young, the sciences are recent, history has barely begun, and as for ecology, it is barely in its infancy: Why should we have finished exploring the institutions of public life?” And, in that alone Latour offers a small, perilous hope.

Tom Baugh

Science Fellow

Science Policy Initiative