French philosopher of science Bruno Latour coined the phrase “parliament of things” in the early 1990s. He imagined the social democratic order gradually embracing the need to represent in its political deliberations the interests of the entire nonhuman world—animals and plants, rivers and oceans, mountains and deserts, in fact, the entire universe outside the human sphere.

After all, it is that world upon which we humans depend for our very existence. And, that nonhuman realm was showing signs of change even then that could threaten the continuity of human culture in the form of climate change, soil erosion, toxic pollution, species loss and myriad other challenges to the stability of the environment in which humans were enmeshed.

Fast forward 30 years and Latour explains in a 2020 lecture why the parliament of things as he originally conceived it is no longer possible. There is no longer a political space where humans can “agree to disagree,” that is, where they can deliberate to find common ground and a consensus.

Political life pretty much across the globe has split into warring parties: 1) Humans on this planet in a time called modern and 2) terrestrial beings (including the nonhuman ones) who live in a time called the Anthropocene and who live in a place called the “critical zone.” The critical zone refers to the relatively thin layer of air, water and land surface and subsurface that maintains life, including human life on Earth.

The way these two groups perceive the world around them creates a situation in which each group essentially lives on a different planet. The first group called simply “human” believes that nonhuman entities have no importance in the definition of humans. The second more inclusive group called “terrestrial” accepts a definition of human which says, “I’m human because I defer, I submit, I bow to the nonhuman who make my existence possible.”

Latour says it is not a question of us giving rights to the natural world that would allow it to participate in our political decisions. The natural world is now crashing down on our political and social processes. We humans are in no position to “grant” rights to nature—though that idea somehow seemed reasonable in the 1990s.

Today, the nonhuman world is actually fighting back. Weather disasters mount. Flooding and drought increases. Newly discovered toxic pollution from such human-made toxins as PFAS—a group of substances dubbed “forever chemicals”—seeps into water sources everywhere. Limits on supplies of fossils fuels drive prices skyward. And, of course, a novel virus continues to wreak havoc on all of global society and its complex systems.

We are paying for our inaction.

And yet strangely, as Latour observes, “The more you actually see consequences, the less there is agreement about the collective order.” Evidence does not matter, only group affiliation.

Latour discusses the Embassy of the North Sea project as an attempt to reverse our thinking about the natural world within which we are embedded. Instead of us owning it, the founders of the project suggest that the North Sea owns itself. It’s an idea that comes from the emancipation of slaves, that is, that we humans each own ourselves and so no one else can own us (and we are not allowed to sell ourselves or our dependants into slavery).

If the North Sea and by extension the entire nonhuman world owns itself, we must ask permission to use its resources. We are dependent on it, not it on us. That implies a careful and reciprocal relationship with the natural world around us. For each favor it grants to us, we must determine how to sustain the stability of the system from which we have received the favor.

This seems almost aboriginal in its viewpoint. Latour admits that he is casting the forces of nature almost as deities—not in the “Christian” sense, but rather as forces which have agency and power over all of us. This view implies a relinking of culture to the soil, the sea and the air and the plants and animals that inhabit them. That such attempts to do so in the past have been spawned by political reactionaries does not argue against such an approach. “Don’t leave [the soil] to the reactionaries,” Latour pleads.

He argues that the recognition of dependency on the soil is the opposite of identity based on soil. He cites the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, a process which has uncovered all the dependencies the UK had on the EU and its soil. The campaign for withdrawal played in part upon the identity of British inhabitants with the soil of Great Britain.

One of Latour’s audience members articulated the point this way: “What do you need rather than what do you want to be?”

Accepting that the natural world “owns itself” redefines who we are as humans. We become more akin to Latour’s “terrestrial beings” who must align ourselves with a biosphere that has its own intentions and that cannot be thwarted in the long run.

The escapist fantasies of the super-rich such as going to Mars offer an opening for communications with those in the lower classes who will never share in any actual escape from the consequences of blowback from the natural world. These people want a way to find security on this planet. Can the political order offer that security in a way the harmonizes society with its environment?

Latour fears that it may be too late. But this is what the nonhuman world is now demanding.

P.S. The entire lecture and the questions and discussion which follow are well worth listening to.

Image: Peaceable Kingdom (circa 1834), painting by Edward Hicks. Via Wikimedia Commons