Love Your Scapegoats
If Frankenstein is to serve as a parable for “political ecology” then Mary Shelley’s plot must be reworked. In the revised version Dr Frankenstein is no more than an inquisitive but anxious assistant to the true creator of the monster, his chemistry teacher at the university in Ingolstadt, Professor Waldman. As the professor “infuses the spark of being” into the gigantic human figure, the assistant flees “in breathless horror and disgust”. Traumatised by what he has helped create the young man has a nervous breakdown (as in the novel), which puts him out of action for a long time.
Meanwhile, Professor Waldmann has not fled from the beast but glories in his marvellous creation and revels in the power he now has over others. The monster is sent out on a destructive rampage. More monsters are cloned and soon Waldman has at his fingertips the means to transform and control the world.
So let us not condemn too harshly the young Frankenstein for recoiling from what he helped create. Let us not dismiss his self-flagellation as weakness. After all, having recovered from his breakdown, did he not devote his life to setting things right? Does not the greater sin lie with Waldman, whose inventions sow destruction and whose lust for power proves impervious to the anguished protests of Frankenstein and the small group of fellow students he has gathered around him?
Should we not instead turn our critical gaze to those who once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Frankenstein but then decided to stop shouting and instead whisper in Waldman’s ear, appealing to his better nature, without ever understanding that the professor’s heart can never be purged of the desire to dominate all? Is not the endeavour to love the monster and to smuggle a code of ethics into Professor Waldman’s laboratory no more than a weary capitulation to his nefarious project?
Why excoriate those whom Bruno Latour himself describes as “a tiny portion of electoral strap-hangers”? The deep greens may be midgets up against giants, but midgets alive to the danger, who understand that the threat lies not in the monster but in those it was created to serve—the masters who soon spread out from Ingolstadt to Zurich, London, New York and Shanghai. From their precarious vantage point, the midgets alone see that it is Waldman who must be retired so that the monster may have a more benevolent master.
Despite the Arcadian fantasies of a few, environmentalism knows that the enemy is not Frankenfoods but Monsanto, not oil but Exxon. It knows that the masters of technology are themselves products of a dispensation in which knowledge and human creativity have been mobilised for the purpose of subduing Nature and storing up power in the form of money. Morally, it is the masters of technology who have fled from their creation. It is they who are the escapists.
In his thought-provoking piece, Bruno is right to remind us that we must take responsibility for our creations. Yet to do so we must first admit what we have done, and then we are obliged to try to make amends where we have erred. Frankenstein did both, his only mistake was to set out to kill the monster instead of taming it and turning it to the good. The Scriptures are gentle on those who attempt to do the virtuous thing, even if they do it in a misguided way. But what of the true villain, Professor Waldman, who not only refuses to stop the carnage but will not even admit there is any harm for which he must take responsibility? The Scriptures judge most harshly those who attempt to hide their sins.
Bruno divides environmentalists from post-environmentalists along a modernist axis of purification, with separatists at one end and engagers at the other. Yet there is a second axis of modernism, the axis of power, with those who glory in human mastery over Nature at one end and those who fear it at the other. If the deep greens are naïve in thinking they can solve the problem of power by escaping from it, the pale greens are blind for failing to acknowledge it. So let us recognise a third group the radical greens (surely the largest), engagers who see the dangers of power, but also its possibilities, who want a system that makes only benign hybrids. But to tame the monster they must do battle with Waldman.
So in a world where Nature has been cowed and beaten, what does it mean to turn our anger on those who, however naively, lament the loss, call for repentance and aspire to walk with invisible footprints? The deep greens have been made our scapegoats, the outsiders whom we load up with our sins, whom we mock, ridicule and curse. We single them out as trouble-makers because they point to the destructiveness of unconstrained desire. We blame them for the destabilisation the social order, when their only crime is to alert us to it. So, bearing our guilt, we cast them out. Conveniently, some of our scapegoats have already wandered into the wilderness, even if the wilderness in question is one of France’s rural ecosystems with post offices and subsidised cows. Yet sacrificing scapegoats can only ever give the appearance of preserving the social order. The gods of Nature have been disturbed from their slumber and rumble ominously all around. To save ourselves we must learn to love our scapegoats.
In his compelling “post-modern” world of hybrids, where subjects and objects are separated only in the positivist imagination, Bruno exhorts us to reject Frankenstein’s path and take responsibility for our creations. Why? Because God takes responsibility for His creations: “The real goal must be to have the same type of patience and commitment to our creations as God the Creator, Himself.” What an obligation he imposes on us—to emulate God! If God is so involved in His creation, he challenges us, how can we show so little forbearance by abandoning ours?
But who says God the Creator retains patience and commitment to His creation? On what basis can such a claim be made, so soon after the most monstrous century since humans walked out of Africa? Is not a more reasonable conjecture that God has indeed given up the ghost and fled in horror, disgusted that we failed the great test He set for us, to use the gift of free will wisely?
In these circumstances there is only one basis for believing in God’s continued commitment to His creation—Christian hope, the abiding faith that no matter how egregious our blunders and sins God always sticks with us. Bruno may “abound in hope by the power of the holy spirit” [Romans 15:13], although his secular sympathisers are more likely to substitute technological optimism for Christian hope.
What kind of god does Bruno invoke as our model? It is a god who can tolerate mixed states; a god of loving solidarity with the messiness of creation; a god who always remains invested in the material world as well as the spiritual. It is a god who refuses to be banished to a far-off realm by modernist philosophy, scientific argument or Puritanism. This likeable god is quite a Catholic one, but also rather conservative, perhaps too indulgent of the mess his creatures have made, of their unintended consequences.
Bruno quite rightly points out that unintended consequences unsettle the modernist narrative of emancipation from Nature. Taking the divine cue, his answer is to embrace the unplanned. But “only a god can save us” does not mean “God will save us”. If you believe God will never abandon us, the danger is that the principle of precaution becomes the principle of recklessness. What do we do when the unintended begins to kill us, or wipes out a species? Being more relaxed about unintended consequences will not resurrect the dead. Carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere, disrupting the climate for millennia. It is the prerogative of each generation to believe that God will step in to save it; it is quite another thing to send to future generations the message: “Don’t worry God will save you from the consequences of our carelessness”.
So what are we to do? Between the recklessness of too much mastery and the naivety of not enough, lies a middle path of prudent engagement. We can reject the modernist urge to purify and embrace our entanglements, but we can also distinguish between good hybrids and bad ones. If we moderns “think like vegetarians and live like carnivores”, as Peter Sloterdijk has it, we need to think and live as discerning omnivores. But before we are capable of finding that path we must call for a Pause. Above all we must resist the rush to solutions, for in the current dispensation there is only one kind of solution, the technological one, the monstrous one. Monsters cannot control monsters; only their creators can. The answer is neither to flee from the laboratory nor to pin a code of ethics on its wall; the answer is to replace Professor Waldman with a more worldly-wise Dr Frankenstein, who will know how to create monsters we can love.
 With thanks to Rev. Professor James Haire and Rev. Scott Cowdell for stimulating discussions.