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  • Photo du rédacteurJacques Robin

Two Crucial Factors

Jacques Robin

September 2002

We are changing eras. Despite false interpretations, or perhaps smoke-screens, there is truly a momentous transformation which, at the beginning of this 21st century, encompasses various seats of human interest : demographics, ecology, technology, science, the economy, society, politics, spirituality, and religion.

A new blueprint for reading the world cannot be structured without being explicit about crucial factors:

- The radical transformation of our relationship with Nature which surrounds us: here we are constrained, under threat of the disintegration and disappearance of Nature, to carry out our development in co-evolution with the Biosphere;

- The consideration of hitherto unpublished requirements of the information transformation, set in motion in the middle of the 20th century. This transformation remains splendidly ignored in its foundation and in its profound significance. Politicial leaders, though they make the most of the technologies to which this great mutation has given rise (computer science, robotics, digital communications such as that of the Internet, biotechnology and biological transformation of species), try to apply this orientation to the economic and social structures of the energy age. However, entering into the information age would, while allowing Homo Sapiens to master the ever more powerful means of energy at his disposal, provide a new approach to the question that Man has always asked (himself: what is the purpose of my existence on this Earth?

We will endeavour in this text to tie in these two imperatives for a plan of society which in the coming decades would lead to a world other than the one we inhabit today.

1° We are living through a new stage in our relationship with Nature Little more than a century has passed since humans suspected the existence of the Biosphere which surrounds our planet Earth, and that it had determined Earth's emergence, then allowed for its liveability for humans and their societies. Until today, we have acted as if 'Nature' had been 'given' for us to use as we saw fit. However, Haeckel, as early as 1866, had shown that life on Earth was linked to 'interactions among living beings, their natural environment and the terrestrial atmosphere'. This knowledge of the ecosystems had clearly identified our position in evolution: 'we, human beings, we are both in and of Nature'. A magnificent breakthrough in scientific ecology would occur in the following decades. Then during the 1960s, scientific ecology benefited from then-recent knowledge related to sciences of the Earth and the Universe. A Biospherical science was created, this name denoting 'the complete ecological system which makes the Earth a living planet of the solar system'.

o Parallel to these fundamental ideas, he clearly had to admit that the uncontrolled demographic increase of humans and the unchecked exploitation of matter in all its forms, particularly in developed, productivist societies, imperilled the natural order of the Biosphere, the same order that is required for life on the planet. It is an incontestable fact: since the rise of the industrial societies of the 18th and 19th centuries, the chemical composition of the planet has been undergoing a brutal and heretofore unparalleled evolution. The measurements taken, be they in the air bubbles trapped in glaciers (for ancient climates) or be they more directly taken from an extended worldwide network (for recent climates), show that the carbon dioxide content, whose level throughout the last 400,000 years had fluctuated between 180 ppm (parts per million) and 280 ppm, has swiftly surpassed 360 ppm (Hervé le Teurt) (1). New compounds have shown their faces, such as CFCs (chloro-fluoro carbons) and nitrous oxides. At the current pace, the next century will see a doubling of the CO2 content in the atmosphere. Without doubt, numerous parameters can influence this evolution; yet it is the modern-day characteristics of economic and demographic development that are at the forefront. The increase in these (aforementioned) gases amplifies a natural phenomenon, referred to as the greenhouse effect, which causes an imbalance in the natural greenhouse effect, whose purpose is to maintain a heat level near the ground sufficient to render the planet liveable for 'the inhabitant'. A minimal change of 5 to 6 degrees in the temperature on Earth (300 degrees Kelvin) separates us from the Ice Age! Digital modelling shows a current and continuing increase of 1 to 3 degrees in the last decade, resulting in wet regions becoming wetter and arid areas becoming drier. If we do not change our ways, a reversal of this trend will become impossible. o In this way climate, water, air, food and waste become urgent human affairs. This data was made known by scientists to political and economic leaders at the recent symposiums in Kyoto, The Hague and Shanghai. The most inadmissible response was from those representing the Americans, the biggest polluters on the planet (5% of total population with 25% of emissions): 'the standard of living of the citizens of the United States is not negotiable'. Climate. In the coming years, a growing drought along the Equator, the thawing of snows and large-scale flooding in the most temperate countries must be expected. In the year 2000, there were already 200 million 'ecological refugees' on Earth. Water. Potable water is indispensable for life. Its waste and irresponsible use have raised considerable problems, and its nitrate contents are polluting ground water in numerous regions. The scarcity of water could well become a major source of conflict. Air. Air pollution is increasing. The unlimited use of toxic chemical products --to say nothing of asbestos, solvents and oil-- directly affects human health: in cities, infant bronchitis and advanced childhood asthma are increasing at breathtaking speed. It is highly probable that diseases for which there is no known cause arise from this sort of pollution, which is already killing 16,000 people in France per year, more than automobile accidents or suicides. Food safety. Industrialised food production is beset by disorderly transport conditions which mix and carry viruses and bacteria from one end of the Earth to the other. In force-feeding herbivore cattle with animal waste of all sorts, our breeding industry has just released deadly afflictions. Waste. Amongst the accumulations of all manner of waste, every one of them dangerous for daily life, nuclear waste presents for future generations dramatic threats far beyond the major risk inherent in the exploitation of nuclear energy itself (Chernobyl).

o Here we face an indisputable imperative: we must re-evaluate production and consumption methods linked to the capitalist market economy as well as all types of waste in developed countries. We must oppose systematic productivity and quantitative growth, the development model of rich countries. It is a matter of life and death in the long run. In numerous fields (transportation, urbanism, rurality, etc.) the machinery of the 'market society' urgently demand re-examining, according to the conditions required for a co-evolution with the Biosphere. 'Political ecology' attempts, with a certain success, to convey these basic ideas to create a new perspective for the 21st century.

o The 'responsibility principle' articulated by Hans Jonas (2) is becoming a categorical imperative: 'Act in such a way that the consequences of your action are compatible with the permanence of an authentic human life on earth'. We are far from that. Certainly we are giving increasing emphasis to the 'principle of precaution', yet without seeking to bring to light the reasons, most often of an economic order, which push us to make commitments without precaution. o In a more general manner, we must develop new relationships between Culture and Nature. These relationships can no longer be reduced to the single consideration of the behaviour of humans in their exclusively biological and ecological function, under cover of an autonomous culture, thereby exempting economics from a reckoning with the Biosphere and from its responsibility towards Nature. Interactions should be established with all the entities of Nature, in order to give rise to what could be called, in accommodating the expression of Félix Guattari (3), a human and natural ecosophy. Ethical finalities are no longer simply relationships between humans among themselves and with other living beings, but with the Biosphere as a whole. This responsibility is to be taken not only by individuals and groups, but also by the whole of humanity.

o One of the tasks of our Authority will consist of listing the increasingly specific advances of scientific ecology and of drawing consequences therefrom for human activity, taking into account the progressively better known conditions that are required by the Biosphere for its own evolution. We must search for forms of a Worldwide Environmental Organisation that will be indispensable for 'sustainable development'. This will therefore involve having a vision of a 'State based on the rule of Environmental Law on a world scale'.

2° The splendidly ignored information transformation In the second half of the 20th century, unprecedented information on the characteristics of matter was discovered: this challenged human relations. To find a comparable precedent in the course of the 'development' of the human species, it would be necessary to go back ten or fifteen thousand years to the beginning of the neolithic age. At this time, the wandering hunter-gatherer-fishermen of the 'Paleolithic Homo Sapiens' effectively crossed a critical threshold: they mastered the power to enlarge their margin of autonomy by their own cultural and technical means. By dint of observing and experimenting, they proved themselves capable of using the effects of solar energy, of stockpiling food to permit their settling, of using fire for their defence and in the home, and of making 'tools' necessary for their survival and for the exploration of their ecological niche. They 'opened' agriculture, stock-breeding and arts and crafts. For several centuries, human societies thus entered into what we can call the energy age: from this period until today we can interpret the relationship of the human species to the 'matter' which surrounds them by the results of the use of more and more powerful means of energy. As a direct result, humans have transformed matter increasingly well to suit their needs. From the solar photon received on the surface of the Earth and from simple muscular energy, humans have come to master the energies of wind and water, of fossil fuels, of electricity and oil/petroleum, and nuclear energy. This with the hope for the near future of taming energies taken directly from the solar photon itself. These human societies were first structured to fit sedentary lifestyles with an agricultural dominance. They protected themselves from actions of war. Typical anthropological data is shown: battles of power for survival, the domination of one sex, but also first surges of knowledge, culture and poetry. As for the exchanges of 'goods and services' between individuals, groups and societies, they would be carried out for many centuries by 'bartering' and 'gifting'. Then the idea of local and regional 'public markets' came into practice, particularly in Europe. From the 14th and 15th centuries, European and Mediterranean countries started building a 'trading economy'. In practice, the social activities of this era, the earth, work, and currency became accessories to the service of this trading economy (4). It was in Europe, too, where the development of specialised scientific techniques would permit the appearance of societies with industrial dominance. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the bursting forth of innovations allowed for two 'industrial revolutions', that of the weaving trade and of the steam engine, and that of electricity and the combustion engine. The importance given to the concentration of 'capital' (land-owning, then mechanical and monetary) formed the basis of a 'capitalist market economy': the earth, human labour and money definitively acquired the status of 'merchandise'. The leaders of society expected that the creation of these riches (goods and services) would serve social stability; in reality, we have gradually realised that these material riches lead to the exacerbation of competition and competitiveness, among individuals and societies, and that these material riches are distributed across the planet in an increasingly unequal way. It is within the framework of this general evolution that, during the second half of the 20th century, a characteristic of matter previously unknown to humans (though forseen by some) but ever-existing was discovered. In the 1940s, during research on military signals and 'organised sounds', a physical magnitude became evident, tenable and measureable: it rendered successive positions ('occurrences') of matter in space and time. Just as joules, electrovolts, and radioactivity represent measurements in the field of energy, this physical magnitude measures this new characteristic linked to matter. It is measured in bits (5). Wiener and Shannon theorise on this dimension in referring to it as 'information'. This physical magnitude can be stored and 'computed', that is, utilised to classify messages and data, then to transmit it with only a minute expenditure of energy. Dispensing with any uncertainties, this fundamental notion, as we see in the long term, will facilitate the answering of the questions that humans have always asked: what? how? where? Certain thinkers immediately understand the revolutionary import of this discovery of matter (both inanimate and living). KE Boulding (6), then president of the Academy of Science in New York, wrote back in 1952: 'information is the third fundamental dimension, after mass and energy'. Unfortunately, the use of the word 'information' creates great confusion. The main point is not retained: it is a question of a physical magnitude devoid of meaning. We confine our standard use to conversation: 'to inform, to make inquiries'. We give it a connotation, along with the term 'communication' and the decidedly major processes of 'language' and 'writing' which played an essential role in the process of primates becoming Homo Sapiens. We bring 'information-measureable physical magnitude devoid of meaning' closer to historical developments such as those of writing and printing. The confusion spreads all the more so that technologies born of the 'information concept' give rise to massive progress in the field of inter-human communications itself. 'Information of physical magnitude' holds a capacity of great significance: it permits the structuring of 'automatic pilot programmes'. Introduced with algorithms fixed into 'machines', it leads to 'truly mutant technologies': computer science with its increasingly high performance computers, robotics with its robots capable of self-motivation and self-repairing within their environment, digital telecommunications which leads today to the Internet, biotechnologies lead on to the procreation of a living being (GMO and human cloning), to mention only the most decisive of the information technology frontrunners. These information technologies fascinate scientists and technicians, but also political, economic and social leaders. There is talk of a 'third industrial revolution'. Some of the most incisive researchers such as 'Manuel Castells' have sniffed out a new 'information age' but they refer to 'computer science and the networks' as if they were born spontaneously on the heels of the preceding technological advances. It is undoubtedly essential and urgent to identify the major specificics of these technologies born of the information concept. If it is in fact true that without cutting down on energy use we will enter the information age, still we must understand the specificics and their essential offshoots. They are many:

- For the first time, humans are dealing with matter and the objects they make through the intermediary of codes, memories and signals, associated with language; handling matter takes place less and less through material means, and more and more through immaterial means.

- The rules of 'the exchange' of goods and services among humans are transformed: in the energy age the sharing of goods took place through the dividing a good into many pieces; in the information age, each person keeps the entirety of the information.

- Information technologies are reproduceable at low prices; this introduces into the new world the quasi-free reproduceability of numerous goods and services (be it a word processing job or a quantity of seeds, it is a matter of information transmission, which is duplicated at low energy costs).

- These technologies that are to be spread are deployed in networks. The nature of these networks transforms structural relationships of production, relationships of power and relationships between users: from now on, the invention of cultural codes depends on the technological capacity of individuals, groups and societies and on their mastering of these technologies.

- These new technologies overturn the notions of space and time, such as they were conceived in the energy age: - 'space' covered in the past by humans is replaced by a space of permanent flux that is difficult to assess; - 'time' falls back at the same time on instantaneity (such as in the financial markets, for example) and on uncertain discontinuity (for example in hypertext).

- However, one of the most specific fundamental ideas of information technology consists of their coupling with the automation of machines previously developed in industrial energy societies (as well in sectors of mechanics, textiles, chemistry, etc.). The advance of information technology when it is injected into these processes produces a wide range of goods (objects and services) with still less human labour and time. Hence the urgengy for new modes of goods distribution. There is a resulting upheaval in the transformation of traditional social and economic mechanisms.

- Several other characteristics of 'information technology' should be highlighted: - its capacity to combine with technologies of the energy age is stupefying;

- its natural tendency towards miniaturisation paves the way for the 'nanotechnologies' of tomorrow (7);

- its interactions and its effects are inseparable from 'fundamental' science (that made to 'understand'); all of which leads to orientations increasingly nuanced with 'technoscience' (made to manipulate): if the latter is under market dependence, it will tend to manage fundamental research in the direction of the marketisation of the world. As these unpublished specificics have been and are almost always hidden even today, the bursting of this information technology has produced a veritable earthquake within human society since the end of the 20th century. Wrongly dubbed the 'third industrial revolution', and clinging to the capitalist market economy at its peak, it is the sort of change that would shake the economic and cultural system now in place.

1/ Firstly (and most simply) information technology facilitates and accelerates the global circulation of monetary elements; it then establishes the supremacy and autonomy of financial and speculative markets in the framework of the 'capitalist market society' in existence for several centuries;

2/ in general economics, the exclusive use of GDP, the single quantitative measure recognised for unofficial 'Growth' of goods and services, leads to the exacerbation of competition among individuals, businesses and Nation-States. This situation inexorably brings with it the division of people and of societies and of losers and winners; the material and cultural inequalities are thrown in our faces with breathtaking speed;

3/ it gradually leads to haggling over previously 'preserved' sectors like education, health and culture: information technology renders banal, standardises and controls 'the experience lived by each person', all while making a business of private life;

4/ in this way, the globalisation that would be permitted by demand and by information technology becomes a savage globalisation. Beyond regulation by the capitalist market economy, even with the predominance of 'service access' relative to possessions owned (8), this type of globalisation entails the most insane behaviour: we note the consequences of this in the brutal increase of competition, violence, war, drugs, and the installation of mafias that control more and more domains, beyond multinational companies and Nation-States themselves.

5/ The entirety of the difficulty lies in making a majority of citizens aware that the economy of the market inexorably leads to a society of the market, uncontrollable by simple socio-liberal adjustments. The information transformation requires, in order to close social, cultural, technological, local and global gaps, calling on economic logic that is at the same time complementary and contradictory: that of the market, but also that of public services, that of the social and interdependent economy, that of 'sufficient income for everyone'. 'Productive' work with goods and services (under the sole condition that it be compatible with the viability of the Biosphere) should hereafter find its place only among other human activities, in encouraging the increase of relational activities going from the 'production of self' to the production of social links; perhaps, as envisaged by Roger Sue (9), heading towards a veritable emerging of 'associationism'.

oThus at the very moment when the utilisation of the technological effects of the information transformation is liable to permit a reconciliation with Nature without weighing on the well-being of our descendants, when the potential of freed time can stretch the time of the thoughtful conscience and permit a quest renewed by our autonomy, with the search for a new quality of life, for a new art of living and dying, for a real 'production of self' to find a meaning in our actions, it is the inverse bad life, vile grub, wasted time, stolen space, money made king, power and immediate pleasure placed at the pinnacle to which we are headed through a misunderstanding of the emerging of this new information age. The widely ignored offshoots of the information transformation thus drive us into a brick wall, instead of driving us to build another possible world, with the blossoming of each person, and the appropriation of the meaning of our lives and in that itself the quest, like the ever renewing sea, and of a 'cosmic reference'. One of the major tasks of our Authority will be to make the meaning of the transformation in progress clearly understood in order to tackle the problems of another type of globalisation and the route to worldwide civil governance. It will be necessary to boldly challenge the capitalist market economy and to build a plural economy (with the market, not of the market), to facilitate the use of qualitative socio-economic indicators and of multiple (plural) currencies, giving new meaning to riches both material and spiritual at the same time. We will need to define the provisional measures necessary to bind the continuing fracture in North-South relations. This transformation leads to the installation, in a central position, of culture and knowledge, and to the institution of a true civilisational policy. A new solidarity must be ensrhined under the aegis of the UN. Our Authority will also endeavour to forge ideas of a common patrimony for humanity (for the air, the water, the genome and Knowledge in general), of world governance in a shared democracy, of a reformation of thought in order to better comprehend complexity and to clear paths for change.

(1) Hervé Le Teurt, Laboratoire de météorologie dynamique (CNRS École Normale Supérieure École Polytechnique, Université 2 Paris VI). Conference at the'Université de tous les Savoirs, 23 July 2000.

(2) Hans Jonas, Le principe responsabilité : une éthique pour la civilisation technologique , written in 1979, translated into French, Ed du Cerf, 1991.

(3) Guattari Félix, Les trois écologies, Ed La Découverte, 1989. See also Transversales n°2 Vers une écosophie : 'Une écosophie, c'est-a-dire une perspective incluant les dimensions éthiques et articulant entre elles l'ensemble des écologies scientifiques, environnementales, sociales et mentales. Ainsi cette écosophie est peut-etre appelée a se substituer aux vieilles idéologies qui sectorisaient de façon abusive le social, le privé et le civil, et qui étaient incapables d'établir les jonctions entre la politique, l'éthique et l'esthétique'.

(4) Polanyi Karl, La grande transformation, Ed Gallimard, 1983.

(5) The bit, a contraction of binary digit, is in no way a unit of orientation. It measures nothing in the absence of signals. It is an elementary unit of information capable of taking two distinct values : these are in general 0 and 1, linked through the exceptional development of the computer in a binary system.

(6) K.E. Boulding, The Organisational Revolution, New York, Happer and Row, 1953.

(7) The nanotechnologies : everything which is smaller in size than a millionth of a millimetre, and which is at the same time capable of undergoing some action ; and if possible by a single molecule which one desires to fulfil a function such as a calculation or a complex movement. They may also serve as nanocomposers, leading to the construction of a mesomachine (in other words a machine of very small size but which is not a machine all in 1). They clearly also touch upon quantum engineering.

(8) Rifkin Jeremy, L'ere de l'acces, Éd La Découverte, 2000. (9) Renouer le lien social - liberté, égalité, association - Ed Odile Jacob 2001.


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