The Rhetoric of Climate ‘Awareness’
**NB: This article was originally published by Le Monde on 28/04/2021.
Despite passing decades, ‘environmental awareness’ is still presented as recent. Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of Total, said on 9 February that the past year had been one of ‘growing awareness of the fragility of the planet’, a statement he had already made in 2015. It’s a trick of the trade: a new awareness in order to exculpate one’s past actions. And it regurgitates a popular cliché: the same newspapers that are celebrating 2020 as the ‘year of awareness’ already attributed this epithet to 2018 (heat wave), 2015 (Paris COP) and 2011 (Fukushima). As far back as 1970, the US Congress declared that the coming decade would be one of ‘awareness’. This trope has been used after every disaster for almost two centuries.
In opinion polls, what is striking is stability. According to the Gallup Institute, 65% of Americans think the environment should take precedence over the economy; in 1990, the figure was 69%. In Europe, 64% said that environmental protection was a ‘very important’ issue in 2007, and 53% in 2019. The underlying assumption of ‘awareness’ being a prior state of unconsciousness, its repetition borders on the absurd. The success of this expression is based on deliberate obtuseness: the climate crisis is blamed on a gap that needs to be filled and not an economic order that needs to be reformed. For a very long time, the conservationist movement has been explaining the need to inculcate an ‘ecological conscience’ in people. This idea was most clearly developed by the forester Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), a founding figure of American environmentalism. For him, the environmental crisis was above all a matter of ethics: farmers were degrading the soil because of a lack of ‘ecological awareness’ or ‘land ethics’, and not from economic logic.
The nature of this ‘awareness’ changes over time, but not the idea that it comes from outside. We see it in the figure of the explorer who awakens awareness, perpetuated from Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814) to Nicolas Hulot. And in the theme of the Earth seen from space: the first photos became icons of awareness, brandished on Earth Day in 1970. By going to the Moon, astronauts supposedly discovered the Earth. Ten years later, the chemist James Lovelock staged a sublime reversal: by studying the possibility of life on Mars, he claimed to have discovered Gaia, the living Earth capable of self-regulation. Awareness swelled into a cosmological revolution. In 1987, the American writer Frank White coined the expression ‘overview effect’: the vision of the Earth from space was such a shock that it would turn every astronaut (often former fighter pilots with an apocalyptic carbon footprint) into a perfect environmentalist.
That these discourses recycle old ideas – The Dream of Scipio written by Cicero, the ‘living Earth’ theory in European cosmology since Kepler, the self-regulation of the globe studied since the 19th century – is of little importance. What matters is that the sense of novelty is maintained. Updates therefore regularly occur (e.g. after Gaia, the Anthropocene), giving the theme a certain freshness and re-launching a cycle of thunderous and gratifying assertions.
This ‘phasism’ has a clear rhetorical purpose: the era has not yet found its philosophy. For many intellectuals, a ‘contemporary exception’ has replaced the European exception; ethnocentrism has given way to chronocentrism. Each era is unique, so it is only natural that each one should conceive its uniqueness. The problem is that awareness has been proclaimed for too long to be of any use for this purpose. It has become an antiphon: at best an incantation, at worst an absolution in the service of polluters.
Translated by David Fernbach