Matters of concern

In this article, Stephen Muecke, drawing on the work of philosopher Bruno Latour, explains the shift from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern” as an important step in taking action to counter ecological crises.

As a first approximation, we suggested that the Environmental Humanities can do what the sciences can’t do, what they leave to one side.

If we assume that the work of the sciences is to generate reliable data (and that’s a bit of an assumption), then the work of the Environmental Humanities is to investigate the relation of facts to values. We take the view that no fact is born without a set of values attached, and that the separation of facts from values is an artificial separation.

Nature is a work in progress. And so too are living things, like humans, who have evolved on Earth from single-celled organisms to what we are now and to the fantastic creatures we might become in billions of years when the sun, the source of all our energy, finally begins to cool.

As we will explore further in Week 2, there was something quite artificial in the way that modern Europeans separated nature off from human society and made it the domain of science. In this domain, objects could be stabilised, as science ruled over the laws of nature.

Nature was over there to be exploited. Technology multiplied the effects of energy, in the form of extracted carbon, to build new ways of living on Earth, mainly in vast cities. We thought our distance from nature meant it would not react to our industrial activities — that exploitation would come for free, so to speak. But now we see nature reacting in all sorts of relatively unpredictable ways.

The passage from knowing the facts about nature to efficient extraction of energy comes with greater costs than we thought. One cost is the imperative to change the concepts and the stories we tell as we rebuild our relationship with our planetary home.

In the mid-twentieth century, scientists’ excitement over their capacity to split the atom came with an attitude of disinterestedness, even as nuclear bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki: we just deal with the technical side of things — others can deal with the moral consequences. Since then the story has changed; more people, perhaps most, accept that facts and values are always entangled. If we accept that entanglement, then the new story we tell about nature is not about its pure scientific facts, as if they are “just there”, but that facts come into being for reasons like curiosity, need, concern and necessity: human emotions and needs! It is the normal state of affairs for facts and values to be entangled, and we can’t necessarily prioritise the one over the other.

“Matters of fact” are also “matters of concern” [1]. What one can do is rank matters of concern in order of importance. Some sort of collective, like a parliament, has the job of doing just that: is it more important to build speed bumps throughout the city (because we are concerned about road safety), or to make the penalties for drink driving harsher? Will a concern for an endangered species override the desire to lease the native forests for logging? The ranking of such problems, which might involve incorporating the “point of view” of endangered species in the discussion, is not just a problem for sciences and facts: humanities expertise needs to be on the team as well.

References

  1. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 225-48.

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Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

UNSW Sydney

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