Atelier d’écologie politique francilien: An interview by Burnout

Une interview par le magazine Burnout de André Estevez-Torres, membre de l’écopolien.

A l’été 2019, pendant qu’elle était doctorante à l’Université de Chicago, Clara del Junco a réalisé un séjour de recherche au Laboratoire Jean Perrin. Elle a notamment été témoin de l’engouement de certains scientifiques pour les questions écologiques. Elle-même préoccupée par les questions écologiques en lien avec la pratique scientifique, elle décide de lancer un hors-série avec sa collègue Mathilde Gerbelli-Gauthier un an et démie plus tard. Cet hors-série s’intitule: Burnout: a zine about academia, travel, and climate change et il est disponible ici. L’interview ci-dessous est tiré de cet hors-série.

Atelier d’écologie politique francilien: An interview with André Estevez-Torres

The Île-de-France political ecology workshop (Atelier d’écologie politique francilien) brings together members of higher education and research institutions in all disciplines, who wish to participate in building a scientific community centered around questions of ecology and climate change in the Paris area.

The workshop’s goal is to weave together knowledge from scattered traditions and to reflect on how to share it with society at large. We wish to work beyond academia on ways to radically change the current socio-economic structures.

Our initiatives include a public-facing seminar, publication of political ecology texts, and calling upon academics to reflect on the position of researchers in the current environmental context.

In short, the workshop’s aims include but are not limited to: building long-lasting bridges between various disciplines in order to tackle the complexity of the problem, changing our research practices, and establishing a dialogue with the public.

André Estevez-Torres is a senior researcher of chemistry and physics at Sorbonne University and CNRS and a member of the Île-de-France political ecology workshop.

Can you define political ecology?

I think that there are two definitions. One corresponds to the academic discipline that takes as a working hypothesis that we cannot understand environmental change (for example the degradation of agricultural land, or forest) just from a biophysical point of view, but that we also need politics and relations of power to understand environmental transformations. The second one refers to an ideology, in the same way that  marxism or capitalism are ideologies, that mainly says that the environmental impact of our society needs to be treated politically. This ideology challenges the notion of progress–which marxism or capitalism do not do–and basically says that human political issues will be greatly influenced by the environmental impact of our civilizations.

How was this group born? What movements or schools of thought do you see as the historical basis or inspiration?

Since the fall of 2018, there has been an increasing awareness in many countries about the dramatic climatic and environmental challenges that we face. Greta Thunberg was an icon of this movement in the western world. In France, a key moment was the resignation of Nicolas Hulot – a national icon, we could say- as ministry of Ecology, and the ‘gilets jaunes’ demonstrations, that crystallized the great difficulty to make a synthesis between ecological and social urgencies. In France, this awareness spread to the academic world, principally with the creation of two groups through the publication of two manifests in the spring of 2019. One of these groups is Labos1point5 -referring to the 1.5C report-, that seeks to put research objectives in agreement with the constraints of the Paris agreement. The second one, is the Atelier d’écologie politique de Toulouse (Atecopol), who has a more political, and we could say, more radical approach, of challenging research and social practices in the light of the dramatic climatic and environmental challenges, and was founded around Jean-Michel Hupé, a former neuroscientist. Our Atelier d’écologie politique francilien (Ecopolien), was born a little later, in the fall of 2019, in the greater Paris area, as an offspring of the Toulouse group. Both groups seek to bring together academics of all disciplines that want to act in reaction to this challenge. On one hand, to think from an ‘indisciplinary’ approach about this challenge and, on the other, to convey to the general public a political ecology view of this problem. As far as I know, the Toulouse group is quite influenced by the degrowth movement, in particular through the Barcelona school, of which one of the current representatives is Giorgios Kallis. We are also influenced by Philippe Descola, a French environmental anthropologist. In any case, many of us are just discovering this ‘field’ and we are reading and discovering the main schools of thought, such as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, for instance. Currently, many other cities of France are setting up their ‘Ateliers d’ecologie politique’, we call them the ‘Ecopols’.

Do you receive any funding for the Atelier’s efforts? 

Yes, both in Toulouse and in the Paris region it was important to get a bit of institutional funding, principally because it provides a professional legitimacy to our work. We have been funded by regional bodies that were, as far as I know, very interested in our approach. 

Do you feel generally supported in this work by your institution and/or has it been challenging to do it alongside your other academic work?

The French system still provides a great deal of academic freedom, principally due to the early-career tenured positions (that are, unfortunately, disappearing to embrace the american system of fierce competition). For this reason, it is relatively easy for tenured scholars to make an academic shift like this one without worrying too much about what the institutions -that are slow- think about it. However, we will need more and more institutional support if we want these kinds of movements to not stay purely marginal. I would say that our institutions have been reasonably supportive, or at least not reluctant.

You talk in the manifesto about the pressure to maintain a “neutral” discourse in academia about climate change related research. What does that mean and do you have a specific example of how this has played out for you or other members of the atelier?

Yes, academic neutrality about environmental issues is a rising subject of debate in France, with a number of Op-Eds being published in national newspapers. To me, this neutrality means that, in the public debate, scientists should restrict themselves to conveying and explaining the scientific facts, without taking a political stance. I am totally against this point of view. I think, of course, that scientists should be very careful about reducing biases to a minimum when they perform their research. However, I also think that they should actively contribute to the political life of the ‘polis’,  in particular concerning the daunting environmental challenge. I don’t have a specific example, but from a political ecology perspective we can say that there is no neutrality, in particular technological neutrality. The technologies that our society develops and the research topics that we undertake are all but neutral, and they are very much influenced by the dominant neoliberal ideology.

An idea that features prominently in the manifesto is the interaction with the general public and cooperation with popular movements. What has this looked like in practice or how do you envision it looking?

We organized in February our first conference/debate with the general public. The theme was ‘Faced with ecological disaster, does current political action measure up to scientific findings?’. Our wish is to bring specialists from both the social and natural sciences to these debates, as we share the principle, already exposed by Wallerstein, that to understand the great challenges of our time we need to overcome disciplinary barriers. We try our best to hold these conferences outside campuses, so that we reach a non-academic public. In addition, we also plan to make these conferences in the greater Paris area, and not only in the city center of Paris. However, the covid-19 outbreak has changed all our conference plans!

Concerning popular movements, I know that the Toulouse workgroup has important interactions with Alternatiba, an ecological alter-globalization movement. At Ecopolien, we have contacts with Sciences citoyennes, an association that promotes the interactions between research and citizens. In addition, we have worked with University unions and other movements during the recent strike against the new neoliberal Research Act planned by the government. We organized a debate session on the theme: ‘what role for the University in the current social and environmental crises?’ that was a great success, in particular among undergraduate students.

Why is it important to you that this group is specifically centered around a geographic location (île de France), as opposed to being a delocalized community (as many academic communities are)?

It is quite important. In the political ecology movement there is the intuition that solutions, at least some of them, need to be local. At Ecopolien, we want to know each other, to discuss frequently, to understand, act and influence our local communities -movements, neighborhoods, campuses, cities-. I think that, in order to do this properly, we need to know our local environment well. This is why, to me, this geographic location is important. However, we also have quite a lot of interactions at the national level. In particular among different local groups of the Ecopols, but also with colleagues of Labos1point5 -several of us, including myself, are active in both Labos1point5 and Ecopols groups. We are of course happy to talk and interact with international groups -maybe yours- but now our energy is focused at the local level.

In the manifesto you argue that interdisciplinarity is necessary to understand the complex scientific, social, and political problem of climate change. Do you see other advantages or possibilities of an interdisciplinary framework?

I think interdisciplinarity is key. The problems that we face are very, very complex. We simply cannot understand them from the point of view of a single discipline. But true interdisciplinarity is very hard to practice. I have practiced it to some extent in my research in biophysics, at the interface between physics, chemistry and biology. But what we are talking about concerning the ecological disaster has nothing to do with that, we are talking about mixing history with geology, biology and economics. 

The challenges of interdisciplinarity are at least three-fold. Firstly, most scholars have been bred in a disciplinary context, so that it is very hard for us to even think of interdisciplinarity (or even of my favorite word, indisciplinarity). Take for instance, teaching. My experience is that when we teach interdisciplinarity at undergraduate level, it is challenging to be rigorous, because the notion of rigor is probably different in different disciplines. With my rather monodisciplinary education, I would advocate for rigorous monodisciplinarity at the undergraduate level and multidisciplinarity at the graduate level. But I am probably wrong and we will have to invent a new way of teaching beyond disciplines. Teaching the Anthropocene could be a good way to build this multi- or indisciplinary approach. The second challenge of interdisciplinarity is to overcome the shock of cultures and vocabularies. At Ecopolien, we are trying to overcome that and I am very interested in observing what comes out of it. The third challenge of interdisciplinarity is institutional. Scientific institutions, at least in France and in Europe, are profoundly monodisciplinary. I am evaluated for doing physics or chemistry, but if I start doing history combined with geography, with a sort of physical approach, I will probably have problems with the institutions that publish and evaluate this work.

A final advantage of interdisciplinarity is that it is fun. It is very pleasant to discuss the terrible ecological problems that we are facing with my colleagues of Ecopolien.

What actions do you encourage readers of this zine to take? 

I would encourage them to take any sort of collective action related to the dramatic environmental and social challenges that our societies face. If they are in academia, they could question their research topics and practices taking into account that we live in a finite world, where many limits have been overcome. The same applies concerning their lifestyle and work if they work outside academia. These questions are too hard for an individual to face, that’s why we generally don’t face them. But talking out loud about them with other people is already of great relief, and hopefully will bring some solutions.

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