Télémaque Masson-Récipon: The Planet Is Fine

By Télémaque Masson-Récipon


     “We’re so self-important, so self-important. Everybody’s gonna save something now: “Save the trees! Save the bees! Save the whales! Save those snails!” and the greatest arrogance of all: “Save the planet!” What?! Are these fucking people kidding me?! Save the planet?! We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet! We haven’t learned how to care for one another! and we’re gonna save the fucking planet?! (…)

     Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet… nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine… the people are fucked! (…) Compared to the people, THE PLANET IS DOING GREAT: Been here four and a half billion years! Do you ever think about the arithmetic? The planet has been here four and a half billion years, we’ve been here what? 100,000? Maybe 200,000? And we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over 200 years. 200 years versus four and a half billion and we have the conceit to think that somehow, we’re a threat? That somehow, we’re going to put in jeopardy this beautiful little blue-green ball that’s just a-floatin’ around the sun? The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us: been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drifts, solar flares, sunspots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages, and we think some plastic bags and aluminum cans are going to make a difference?

     The planet isn’t going anywhere… we are! We’re going away! Pack your shit folks! We’re going away, and we won’t leave much of a trace either, thank God for that… maybe a little styrofoam… maybe… little styrofoam. (…)

     The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone (…) and if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: The Earth plus Plastic. The Earth doesn’t share our prejudice towards plastic. Plastic came out of the Earth! The Earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the Earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place: it wanted plastic for itself, didn’t know how to make it, needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old philosophical question: “Why are we here?” PLASTIC!!! ASSHOLES!!!”

     — George Carlin, Jammin in New York (1992)

     “The exit from capitalism has already begun: it will either be made of catastrophes or of civilizational progress.”

     — André Gorz (2007)

We, Civilizations, know now that we are mortal,” Paul Valery wrote in the wake of the first world war[1] … Yet it once again seems fair to ask: do we really, though? Are we really only struggling with the gap between knowing something and actually doing anything about it? There seems to be an awful lot more talks about ridiculous plans for the terraforming of Mars than about the fact we are at present collectively engaged in the process of Venus-forming the Earth.[2] As the world climate conference gathers in Egypt, a country whose leaders seem bent on competing with those of Saudi Arabia to see who will be first to turn Shelley’s Ozymandias vision into reality, we may have reasons enough to doubt the assertion of the author of cemetery by the sea.[3]

Valéry wrote that poem in Sète, on France’s Mediterranean shores — where the Utopia movement, who welcomes us today in their volunteer-run library and community organizing center, held last month its yearly three days long “summer university,” jointly with the Convivialist Movement.[4] The latter is a network of intellectuals founded by the great contemporary French sociologist Alain Caillé, a few decades after he had already founded the Graeber-acclaimed MAUSS movement.[5] It is named after Ivan Illich’s brilliant little essay, Conviviality, in which the author of “deschooling society” and medical nemesis introduced the notion of a “counter-productivity threshold”: that point when the adoption of a tool becomes so widespread it ends up making that very tool a hinderance to the things it was originally meant to facilitate. He thus famously takes the example of San Francisco, where virtually nothing can be reached without making use of a car, and demonstrates that between the time spent taking care of their cars and earning money to pay for them, the average person living there ends up taking longer to get to places than they would have living in a carless society.[6]

The Utopia movement, meanwhile, was originally created by a small group of young socialists from the south of France, heavily influenced by the writings of André Gorz and Dominique Méda. They created a reflection group at the left of the party, which became an inter-left parties’ think tank and publishing house, with organized members in each of the main political parties of the Left in France. It quickly turned out, however, that the majority of its members were not part of any traditional political party, and it thus became the popular education movement it is today, officially independent of all political parties. It has not given up however on its intent to invite Left leaning people to work together beyond party lines, and in that has foreshadowed the emergence of the NUPES (New Ecologic and Social Popular Union), the current alliance of Left parties forged for the last French parliamentary elections.

André Gorz, Political Ecology, and Degrowth

We are extremely fortunate to welcome today Françoise Gollain, who studied with Alain Caillé long before she became the world’s foremost specialist of the work of André Gorz—with whom she collaborated and exchanged regularly for the last ten years of his life. And we are even more privileged by the gift she made us of the first full English translation of her very personal homage to him, entitled simply “André, my teacher”—a text that works amazingly well when read immediately after the short testimony of Alain Lipietz, “André Gorz and our youth,” to be contrasted with it.[7]

André Gorz, whom you’ll hear much about at Utopia 4/13, was born an Austrian Jew to a Catholic mother with Nazi sympathies. Sent to Switzerland as a teenager during World War II, he almost entirely forgot his mother tongue, and chose the French language. One can easily understand from this the immense intellectual affinity he felt with the existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre: with the idea that existence precedes essence, and that we are what we do, what we chose to be by doing it. Sartre gave him a laudatory preface to his first novel, The Traitor, a deeply personal auto-analysis written in the third person and published in 1957 to acclaim. He then became a mud-cracking journalist for the newly created newspaper of Le Nouvel Observateur, reporting specifically on environmental catastrophes and social-environmental struggles from his existentialist Marxist perspective, which also imbued the books of political analysis and commentaries he began to publish on a regular basis: starting with his 1964 Stratégies Ouvrières et Néocapitalisme (published in English as A Strategy for Labor in 1967)—in which he famously introduced the notion of  “non-reformist reforms” or “revolutionary reforms”[8]—all the way to l’Immateriel (2003)[9], through a series of other important ones such as Les Adieux au Prolétariat (1980)[10] and Métamorphoses du travail, quête du sens: Critique de la raison économique (1988).[11]

As Françoise explains exceedingly well, despite being a central intellectual reference of the second Left and intellectual father figure of political ecology, Gorz was also always, deep down, un étranger, a foreigner (much like Camus’ character, except for the racist murder), deeply self-critical, and always prone to taking a step back. This made his relation to institutions, academia, and representative politics very special, as one of at once great intimacy and yet deeply marked by something of an unbridgeable gap. What Françoise, in a passage reminiscent of Chris Marker’s remark on the politeness of the first person (as it says that “I have only my self to offer”) describes as:

his conflicting drives towards integration in the world on the one hand and refusal of the world on the other—a dialectic at work throughout his life—as well as his efforts to construct a place for himself, even if it was to remain a marginal one. Showing explicitly and openly the inadequacy of the intellectual, or at least of some of them, André made me accept the idea that I could be one.

This combination of great intimacy and fundamental separation, with which Françoise entirely identifies as her experience of coming from a poor family and having become an intellectual, we find it described with great accuracy, but from the other side, by Alain Lipietz, the career academic and career politician.

But what makes this special relationship all the more interesting to understand and useful to get a feel of, is the way in which it embodies perfectly the essence of “Political Ecology” as a political movement. For we could argue that Political Ecology is at once a movement and a moment in the history of thought, in which humanity, coming to term with the existence of threats to its very existence, begins to organize in order to face them. Yet here what interest us it the political movement, and in particular its European expression. Here in Europe at least, Political Ecology as a movement was arguably born from the acceptance by some “classical anarchist” (i.e. libertarian-socialist) of the necessity to make compromises with the liberal, representative-democratic system (of the bourgeoisie) in order to provide answers to the urgencies of the rise of multiple extinction-level kinds of existential threats (from nuclear apocalypse to environmental transformation making earth unfit for human life).

In that context, the peculiar relation of Gorz to institutions of academia and representative politics embodies extremely well that of the Political Ecology movement in general to these forms of institutions. Gorz, in other words, inhabited precisely that space, which is also that of the questions raised by the very notion of “non reformist” / “revolutionary” reforms, as well as by that of “Degrowth.” It should not be surprising, therefore, to find that Gorz also coined that latter term, in a conference he organized in 1972 for Le Nouvel Observateur and to which he invited Herbert Marcuse (thus beginning an intimate friendship that lasted until the death of the latter, as recently examined by Clara Ruault and Christophe Fourel).[12] Unused for a number of years, degrowth was chosen in 2004 to become the “punch word” title of the newspaper of the main anti-advertising and anti-consumerist movement in France, then becoming a polarizing slogan for a vast and diverse movement united in its recognition of Gorz as an intellectual father figure.

It is the various shades of the concrete utopian side of this movement which we are going to explore at Utopia 4/13, through the contribution of Alex from Longo Maï; Camille from the ZAD; and Frederic Bosquet from TERA.

Longo Maï, the ZADists, and TERA

The Longo Maï cooperatives began the exact same year that Gorz organized the conference during which he coined the term “Degrowth.”

The notion of ZAD is born from the detournement of an administrative acronym, that of “Zone d’Aménagement Différé” (zone of deferred construction), which referred to an area near the city of Nantes on France’s Atlantic Coast that was administratively set aside for the construction of a new airport in the 1950s. However, the combination of local resistance and of the economic crisis of the 1970s put that costly project to rest, and the zone ended up in a sort of administrative limbo. When the project was relaunched, the opposition to it was rekindled as well, and the zone which had become a sort of natural preserve was renamed by the opponents of the airport project “Zone à Défendre” (Zone to be defended). This notion was then taken up and applied to all the resistances to other “Grands Projets Inutiles Imposés”, or GPII (literally Great Useless Imposed Projects)

Finally, TERA is a more recent project of setting up a cooperative eco village near Bordeaux (also on the Atlantic coast of France, but a bit more to the south).


[1]    Valery civilisations < http://www.historyguide.org/europe/valery.html >

[2]    Venus forming “Hawkins < https://www.livescience.com/59693-could-earth-turn-into-venus.html#:~:text=Earth%20could%20turn%20into%20a,where%20global%20warming%20becomes%20irreversible. >. See Also < https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/22807575/venus-hot-hellscape-climate-change-earth >, and note also that if a very strong case can be made that, in the words of Frank White, who conducted interview with a great many astronauts : “War and space exploration are alternative uses of the assertive, exploratory energies that are so characteristic of human beings. They may also be mutually exclusive because if one occurs on a massive scale, the other probably will not.” (see: generally the space option: an alternative to war < https://thespaceoption.com/the_space_option_an_alternative_to_war/ > ; and The moral equivalent of war: a new metaphor for space resource utilization < https://www.thespacereview.com/article/4345/1#:~:text=In%20his%20book%20Pentagon%20of,of%20destruction%20in%20the%20future > ), settling on the desolated rock with no atmosphere and much lower gravity than earth that is Mars, of all places, is quite clearly an absurd and unsustainable goal. Much more could be learned about earth by going to Venus instead, where we could set up a city in the clouds using zepplin like baloons filled with regular earth air (see generally : Welcome to Cloud City : Why future generations may prefer floating above Venus to colonizing Mars < https://mashable.com/feature/venus-mars-space-exploration > ; and < https://www.space.com/venus-death-of-a-planet-documentary-series-magellan.html > … bearing in mind that, as George Carlin put it : “men are from earth. women are from earth. Deal with it.” < https://parade.com/1080754/jessicasager/george-carlin-quotes/ >).”

[3]    See adam something’s video on Egypt’s new capital < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUK0K5mdQ_s > ; and Paul Valery’s cemetery by the sea < https://newcriterion.com/issues/2020/4/the-cemetery-by-the-sea >

[4]    Ref programme UE site convivialistes < https://convivialisme.org/2022/09/15/utopia-2022/ >

[5]    Graeber maussketeers < https://inthesetimes.com/issue/24/19/graeber2419.html >

[6]    Ivan Illich, La Convivialité

[7]    Cf. André my teacher < https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/utopia1313/francoise-gollain-andre-my-teacher/ > ; and Alain Lipietz, André Gorz and our youth < http://lipietz.net/IMG/pdf/AndreGorz_en.pdf >

[8]    See the excellent piece about the concept’s origins and its contemporary reappropriation by the abolitionnist movement, published by the Engler Brothers in Jacobin < http://thisisanuprising.org/2021/10/07/andre-gorz-and-the-path-between-reform-and-revolution/ >

[9]    L’immatériel, Galilée, 2003, eng. trans. The Immaterial, xxx, 2010

[10]  Les Adieux au Prolétariat, Galilée, 1980, eng. trans. Farewell to the working class, xxx, 1994

[11]  Métamorphoses du Travail: Critique de la raison économique, Galilée, 1988, eng. trans. A critique of Economic reason, xxx, 1989

[12]  See generally Ecologie & révolution: Pacifier l’Existence (André Gorz Herbert Marcuse, un dialogue critique) < https://www.lespetitsmatins.fr/collections/essais/283–ecologie-et-revolution-pacifier-l-existence.html >