Pierre Madelin (1986) is a French essayist and author. His publications include After Capitalism [Après le capitalisme] (2017), Should we put an end to civilisation? [Faut-il en finir avec la civilisation ?] (2020) and The ecofascist temptation: Ecology and the extreme right [La tentation écofasciste : Ecologie et extrême droite] (2023).

Hello Pierre Madelin. Who are you and what is the place of political ecology in your work?

“Initially, I am a translator. I have translated many fairly important texts on the philosophy of ecology which come from the Anglo-Saxon world, from different currents: environmental ethics, deep ecology, ecofeminism. My entry into ecology was rather through philosophy. Little by little, I became more and more interested in political ecology. And then from a certain moment, I began not only to translate, but to write. I became an author, an essayist, and I wrote five books, four of which are essays on political ecology or the philosophy of ecology for one of them. The question of political ecology has been very present in my writing work, even in my latest book which focuses on the links between ecology and the extreme right.”

How do you think about ecology and geopolitics?

“First of all, I would like to point out that I am not at all a specialist in these issues in the academic sense of the term. I think about it as an environmentalist and internationalist gripped by the shock of international news, particularly the invasion of Ukraine. Until recently, in fact until February 22, I had been a little beside the point of international politics. Not completely, of course, but it was not at the heart of my questions. I didn’t make the connection between geopolitical and ecological issues. I took it as two sectors of political thought, a little separated from each other. And then, generally speaking, I come from a rather libertarian tradition of thought in which, for all kinds of reasons, we perhaps have a little difficulty in appropriating questions linked to defence and international relations. We may have the feeling that as international relations primarily involve relations between states, this does not really concern us because they fall within a sphere which is not that of emancipation, or that they are deployed on such a complex scale that it cannot really be understood, much less transformed.

I nevertheless ended up telling myself that it was not satisfactory to stop there, on the one hand because it is a form of intellectual laziness and on the other hand because  international politics does not only comprise states, but also societies that mobilise, rise up and face repression. The trigger at this level was the invasion of Ukraine. I had no hesitation, no doubt that support for Ukraine was necessary by all means, including the delivery of heavy weapons. It was immediately very clear to me.

But as an anti-capitalist and degrowth ecologist, I immediately found myself in a somewhat paradoxical situation where, to summarise it in a somewhat pictorial and funny way if I may say so, I woke up in the morning saying to myself ‘Oh my, global warming is terrible, we absolutely must degrow the economy as quickly as possible!’ and then I fell asleep at night saying to myself ‘Oh my, the Ukrainians who are being bombarded by Russian supersonic Kinzhal missiles and Iranian Shahed drones, we must give them fighter planes and long-range missiles!’ But shrinking the economy and producing fighter planes are not exactly the same political project…

Pierre Madelin
Pierre Madelin

So I found myself in a kind of inner and intellectual tension. As an anti-capitalist ecologist, I am convinced that we must support all initiatives and all movements, such as the Earth Uprisings [Les soulèvements de la terre] in France, which work to ’disarm’ the projects and infrastructures that are underway to transform our planet at high speed into an unliveable furnace: road bypasses and all land artificialisation projects, mega-basins, factory farms, fossil and cement industries, etc. Do everything to curb the deadly dynamic of capitalism and its devastating effects on the climate and the environment. But as an anti-fascist internationalist, I think we need to support Ukraine, which means, first and foremost, giving it the means to defend itself in the war of national liberation it is waging against Russian fascism. This is something which only states can do, states whose authoritarian developments and repressive practices we are fighting, by the way. Now giving Ukraine the means to defend itself means not only providing it with heavy weapons, but also ensuring the constant supply of ammunition for its army, one of the sinews of war if I believe the military experts. And since stocks are under pressure and the war will unfortunately last, this means that we must also support an industrial recovery plan in one of the dirtiest sectors there is, armaments.

“ We are caught between the Charybdis of the ecological crisis and the Scylla of the Russian threat ”

In short, the paradox is the following: we are caught between the Charybdis of the ecological crisis, which forces us to degrow, and the Scylla of the Russian threat (to which we should add that of other authoritarian regimes and ultranationalists), which it is only possible to confront by providing the means of defence, which are themselves dependent on a logic of growth and power, the very one which destroys living conditions on Earth.”

You talk about ’degrowth’. Do you make a distinction between ’degrowth’ and ’post-growth’?

“I have never looked too deeply into the lexical debates between a-growth, post-growth, degrowth… I spontaneously adopted the term degrowth, but it doesn't bother me  to talk about post-growth. My vision of what I call degrowth is not particularly original. It is that of most of the authors who work on this subject today, whether classic authors like Serge Latouche, or more recent figures like Timothée Parrique and Giorgos Kallis. It is the idea of ​​the incompatibility between capitalist development and any productivist policy on the one hand and the preservation of the conditions of life on Earth on the other. As a degrowther, I can, for example, sometimes feel at odds with certain environmentalist currents who bet everything on the development of renewable energies or on an ecological transition inside capitalism which would produce a regulated capitalism, but would still remain capitalism. I personally have the impression that at the same level of consumption and production, even within a logic of sufficiency, complete decarbonisation would not be enough in the long term to make the ecological footprint of our societies sustainable, particularly our impact on ecosystems or biodiversity. Degrowth, for me, therefore means reducing the flow of matter and energy on a global scale. And I don't see how that would be possible within the framework of a capitalist economy.”

Let's return to this dilemma that you describe between an intellectual corpus which concludes with the necessity of degrowing the economy and the invasion of Ukraine which requires us to invest in armaments. This is the key question: could states which pursue degrowth policies still defend themselves against states which do not?

“Before outlining solutions – even if I don't have any in the strict sense – I would like to delve into history to show how the dynamic of growth is intrinsically linked to that of power.

In general, when we are an anti-capitalist ecologist today and when we wonder about the strategies to put in place to emerge from the ecological crisis, we will highlight several things. We will highlight, as I did myself in the previous response, capitalism, both in the materiality of its logic of capital accumulation and in the imaginations, the productivist and consumerist subjectivities that it produces. We are therefore going to highlight the need to get out of this.

A second thing that we will often put forward, in a little more intellectual, more academic circles, is the need to change paradigm, to change social imaginations or, to use a term which has been quite present in political ecology debates in recent years in the wake of the work of Philippe Descola, to change ontology, and to leave aside the great modern division between nature and culture to create new ways of understanding our relationship, as human beings, to the living world.

“ There has historically been a complicity between the dynamics of growth and the dynamics of power ”

But ultimately we will focus very little on the question of states and power relations between states, except to say that there is complicity between states and capitalism, always implying or tacitly accepting the idea that states are subservient to the logic of capital accumulation, certainly as actors in their own right, but nevertheless, mainly subject to the logic of capital accumulation. Now, even if this is partly true, I think that when we look at history, we see that this is not necessarily always the case. We could also say that, in a certain way, modern states have exploited and subjugated the logic of capital accumulation to achieve their own ends, which are those of power. From this point of view, there has historically been a structural and functional complicity between the dynamics of growth and the dynamics of power, without it being possible to say which, capital or the state, was in a truly dominant position.

To put it another way, if the state is an ecocidal power, it is not only because it is instrumentalised by capital and subject to its interests, which could give the impression that the destructiveness of the state is linked to the specific historical circumstances which are ours, therefore that the problem lies with the capitalist state and that a state freed from the tutelage of capital could do the trick. Nothing is less true, because just as there is at the heart of capitalism a compulsion for growth, there is at the heart of the state-form a compulsion for power, the desire to accumulate technological and military power in order to remain competitive in interstate rivalry.

The history of Japan in the 19th century is very interesting from this point of view. Japan had a long-standing isolationist policy in relation to the rest of the world, taking advantage of its island location. One day, in the second half of the 19th century, American warships placed themselves within range of Japanese ports and threatened Japan by telling them: ‘Listen, if you do not open your island to trade we will impose a blockade, we are going to bomb your ports and we are going to destroy you.’ And then the Japanese came out of their isolationism because they obviously did not have the means to resist at all. They were forced to engage in trade. And in the following decades, a process of catch-up modernisation and forced industrialisation was launched. In this case, the development of capitalism is partly linked to the desire of a humiliated empire to restore its power in order to be competitive in the rivalry with the other powers of the world.

I'm telling this story because it seems to me symptomatic of what was, in my opinion, one of the motives of the process of capitalist and industrial modernisation for states which wanted to remain competitive in their rivalry with other states or empires. In the Japanese case, this emerges in a blatant and caricatured manner. And in a way, I think that what once was one  of the motives for the process of modernisation remains so today. Giving up on modernisation would be to make themselves vulnerable, to expose themselves either to direct military aggression or to vassalisation by other states or geopolitical blocs that maintain the course of modernisation.

“ It is probably because they are historically at the top of the value chains of capitalism that NATO countries still have military superiority ”

Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine proves this line of reasoning, this cold reflex. The fact that Ukraine was able to resist the Russian invasion was initially down to itself, to the unity of its state and the mobilisation of its population. But secondly, the fact that the country was able to resist and regain ground is also thanks to the weapons it received. It quickly turned out that the weapons of the NATO countries, which were not necessarily always the latest weapons, were far superior in precision and quality to the arms of Russia. And when we look at the countries that make up NATO, we see that for the most part these are the countries that have long been at the top of the value chains of global capitalism, and that are also historically the highest polluters and emitters of greenhouse gases. We can still, I think, establish a fairly strong correlation here: it is probably because they are historically at the top of the value chains of capitalism that they still have this technological refinement and this military superiority.

Should we conclude that in the end, the ideas of post-growth and sufficiency fade out in this inevitable rivalry between states?

“This is the question I have been asking myself for two years now and which I have difficulty answering. To be honest, it’s quite tragic. It is true that nationalism and geopolitical rivalries have never been completely absent, but their exacerbation today in the context of a deepening ecological crisis is the worst possible news. Because already in a context of relative cooperation between the powers in the 1990s – 2000s, it was not possible to do much for ecology. So in this context of nationalism and exacerbated warmongering which unfortunately seems to be our reality for the years to come, I don't really know what this has in store for us and what the solutions would be... Saying to ourselves: 'Ah, well, too bad, then we're going to continue the status quo of growth-power because otherwise we will be eaten by others' is not a solution because it means that we destroy the habitability conditions of our planet. We may not be destroyed by others but we will create a world so unliveable that we end up self-destructing. This is not a solution. What to do? I don’t have a definitive answer with which to convince myself.  But I tried to identify different answers that were given to this question and I can try to map them quickly.

A first option is what we could ironically call the miracle option. All of a sudden, almost as if by magic, all countries or the majority of countries in the world, especially under the revolutionary pressure of their civil societies, suddenly become pacifist, anti-capitalist and cooperative with each other and stop fearing each other. Renouncing their technological-military power, they can therefore initiate the necessary degrowth policies without fearing that these will end up weakening them and exposing them to unfriendly neighbours. This miracle option obviously, as its name indicates, remains very, very implausible which, I think, forces us to put it aside.

The second option would be that we could – the defenders of green capitalism seem convinced that this is possible – somehow decouple growth from its environmental impact, and that it would therefore be possible to maintain the same degree of power as previously while preserving living conditions on Earth. Personally, as I explained at the start of this interview, I do not believe that we can decouple growth from its environmental impact.

The third option would be to decouple the power of growth from fossil capital, which is not exactly the same thing. In France, this option is defended, in a certain way, by Raphaël Glucksmann. In the book he published this year, The Great Confrontation [La grande confrontation], which is essentially devoted to the corruption of European elites by the Russian regime, there are reflections at the end that I found interesting because he tackles this question head-on, relying in particular on an article by Pierre Charbonnier on the ecology of war. He is betting that in fact, the advent of a European Green Deal and the exit from fossil fuels will allow us to kill two birds with one stone. This decarbonisation would in fact imply an energy decoupling from Russia, therefore a gain in strategic autonomy and, ultimately, a gain in power. It thus articulates a project of Europe as a power with a logic of decarbonisation and an exit from fossil capitalism.

I find this position interesting because it has the merit of articulating two major issues but at the same time, for the reasons that I explained at the beginning, it does not completely satisfy me as an environmentalist. Even if we completely decarbonise European economies, if we just replace fossil fuels with renewable energies while maintaining equal levels of consumption and production, we still going to hit the ecological wall. Given all the materials that have to be extracted for it, renewable energies also have a colossal impact, on biodiversity for example, or through processes of extractivism.

A fourth option that I identified is the position that seems to be that of the Biden administration in terms of foreign policy, at least if I believe the researcher Florian Louis, namely ‘the articulation of a cosmopolitics of cooperation and a geopolitics of rivalries’, an expression that I find quite fine.

“ We must try to juggle between the logic of cooperation on certain subjects and the logic of rivalry on other subjects ”

It is basically the idea that we will continue to live in a world where there are geostrategic, geopolitical rivalries, with hostilities between states, and that we will not be able to achieve a situation of absolute cooperation. We must therefore assume in some way the persistence of these rivalries and assume their insurmountable character, if I may say so. At the same time, we live in a world where things like health, biodiversity, climate don’t allow us the luxury of being in relationships of pure rivalry with other powers. We must therefore try to juggle between the logic of cooperation on certain subjects and the logic of rivalry on other subjects. We are in a sort of double realism. On the one hand, the realism of the observation of the ecological crisis and global warming which forces us to cooperate, and on the other hand the realism of the persistence of hostility in international relations which forces us to cover our backs, and therefore to maintain ambitious defence policies.

On paper, I find this vision of things interesting because there is neither denial of the seriousness of the ecological or health situation on the one hand, nor denial of the persistence of hostilities and geostrategic rivalries on the other. But here again, I still remain quite reserved because I do not clearly understand how, in fact, the cosmopolitics of cooperation could not end up being swallowed up by the geopolitics of rivalries and how the geopolitics of rivalries could play out without being backed by policies of power and growth. Here, I cannot clearly see how it could be compatible with the preservation of the conditions of life on Earth.

In the end, I don't really have a solution and we could say that all of this can be compared to wishful thinking... We could also say that the solution is to do everything possible to accentuate the cooperative dimensions of international relations to the detriment of their aspects of rivalry, in particular by mobilising massively on a global scale and by promoting internationalism from below. Unfortunately, this has not really been the trajectory we have taken for years…

In any case, these are major subjects for reflection which can only really be tackled head-on if we do it collectively. I think that no individual, no thinker, can really answer all these questions alone.”

We can say that you are experiencing a fairly strong form of cognitive dissonance at the moment…

[laughing] "In a way, yes. I must say that this creates some tension with many environmentalist friends who, in my opinion, are in complete denial of the reality of international relations and military questions, which in fact constrain what can be done for ecology. And I see clearly that many, when I talk to them about it, admit that I am right but end up sweeping the subject under the carpet to return to the comfortable status quo of their normative fictions, particularly pacifist ones, which sometimes come close to wishful thinking.”

This interview is also available in French.

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