THE CITY OF PARIS, the host of the upcoming Conference of Parties (COP21) whose objective is to slow down global warming, is quite a good illustration of the theme of the meeting. It is a wonderful, witty, elegant city that can prove its modernity by hiring out community bikes (vélib’) and even electric citycars (autolib’). Still, like all big cities, Paris is entirely enveloped in a permanent curtain of pollution and noise that the drivers of ecological vehicles are not strong enough to disperse. The image of a nice electric city-car fumbling about in a cloud of pollution is also a good image of the role of technology in global warming, which is — so it seems to me —– an unprecedented technological fact.
Of course, global warming was first discovered and studied as a natural phenomenon, which consists in changes of the global climate system because of the increase of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This has led to an increase in global temperature, which, in turn, is responsible for the melting of glaciers and for rising sea levels, flooding and even the future submersion of certain areas (Kiribati, Bangladesh, Louisiana wetlands), causing changes in many ecosystems and the extinction of countless species. Besides, the temperature rise also triggers extreme weather phenomena, soil impoverishment, and so on. Even social changes — like increasing poverty, which instigates new migrations and still more violence at the frontiers of the rich areas of the world (EU, USA) — can be examined as a consequence of natural phenomena.
Global warming is a natural reaction to human technological and industrial activity, and seeing that it would not happen without this activity, it can also be analyzed as a technological fact. Because technology studies belong to human sciences, rather than to the natural sciences, they help to analyze the role of human beings in more detail than simply as a geological or chemical factor among others. Moreover, the examination of global warming as a technological fact provides a healthy challenge to technology studies as well, which are normally more at home among entirely human-made machines and virtual realities. Indeed, global warming appears as a unique technological fact that depicts, in an unprecedented way, the essence of technology as techno-nature.
But why precisely “techno-nature”? This term evokes the present situation, in which human activity has become like a natural force. On the one hand, truly wild and unspoiled nature does not exist anymore: all regions of “nature” are marked by human activity (think of modern agriculture, of plastic floating in the oceans, of industrial fallouts on polar glaciers, of chemical additives in our own bodies). On the other hand, this does not mean that the human control of nature has increased. In the middle of the 20th century, techno-industrial activity appeared as our domination over nature through technologies were perceived as extensions of human intelligence and will. Today one realizes that this activity is not as conscious and controlled as it was thought; rather, it has in many respects gotten out of hand, and produced a reality of its own. Technology is not only mixed with nature: it has become not only our “second nature” but, quite like nature, it is the situation in which we find ourselves and in which, ignoring the whole picture, we try to orient ourselves. Our technological reality has become a domain in which we are but that we do not really know.
This is why understanding global warming as a technological fact allows us to interpret technology in a wholly new manner. Different from the Enlightenment view, contemporary technology cannot be understood primarily as a tool, or as an instrument, that is to say, as an extension of human intentions. It should rather be regarded as a technological world or as the fundamental articulation of a historical situation. Bernard Stiegler considers technique as such to be a fundamental structure of a world in terms of a pharmakon: on the one hand, it enables human thought and action but, on the other hand, it induces thoughtlessness and irresponsibility.
Global warming makes it obvious that technology and nature are inextricably mixed. But the same could also be said of technology in general, especially of information and biotechnologies that are often depicted as an intimate part of our (not yet “posthuman”) “nature.” Contemporary technology consists in multiple networks, or maybe rhizomes, of diverse technologies that grow where they can and interact where they have to, mixing and mingling like vegetation in a jungle. Yet, the whole of technological reality is not a single organization and does not have an overall plan. There is no superior instance that understands and controls the totality. (I suspect that even economy is not such an instance anymore, if even stocks can now be exchanged by mindless algorithms rather than by human minds). Becoming less unitary, technology also appears less totalitarian and alienating, and we generally welcome its help in organizing our lives through close biological and social mediations.
Thick like a jungle, opaque like our own flesh, techno-nature is ontologically (like) phusis, the ancient Greek word for “nature.” Quoting Heraclitus, German philosopher Martin Heidegger said of phusis that it “loves” us and “hides” from us; analogically one can say that contemporary techno-nature “loves us” when it gives itself as the ground of our knowledge and action, but also that it “hides” from us, because we cannot see the ground of this ground. The why and the how of our own techno-nature withdraw from us. We therefore need to give up the belief in the separate domains of technology and nature, and understand them in terms of mutual co-constitution. As French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes in Equivalence of Catastrophes, techno-nature consists in a countless multiplicity of natural, technological, scientific, social, and other singularities, that are equivalent in their power of constituting the world and that are nonetheless incomparable. Everything can act on everything, but without having been built and planned to work as a system. There’s no totality, no providence, just events that invent futures and leave histories.
Now, if the ground of techno-nature is a depth out of which anything can emerge, what about its surface that should support knowledge and action? It is good to invent solutions that can make life better, but the entire techno-nature is not a problem that could be solved. The little city-car in Paris is a good invention that makes life better and works against the climatic catastrophe but not even joint efforts of all city-cars of Paris can dissipate the smog over the city. A similar fate weighs on the contemporary projects of “geoengineering,” like capturing CO2 or the projection of protective particles into the atmosphere: their feasibility and utility are uncertain, while it is certain that they are costly and energy-consuming processes that encourage the use of fossil fuels. Such inventions may be handy on a small scale, but they are not enough to avert global warming. Even in electric city-cars and in CO2-geoengineering, the old dream of using and controlling nature through technology lives on and continues to shape the horizon of our epoch.