‘Milieu’, Robustness, Conviviality, Counter Environment, Optimization, Complexity

Seminar by Olivier Rey, November 18, 2016


The Limits to Growth report was published in 1972. It resulted from a study conducted by the Club of Rome – a think tank made up of scientists, economists, senior officials and industrialists. It warned that, if unimpeded, the development model embraced since the European Industrial Revolution would exceed the finite natural resources on which it depends, destroy Nature, thereby precipitating humanity into chaos. This was not a new observation, however, the report was presented in conjunction with computer simulations and adopted the form and style required by international institutions.


Services: an extension of the realm of growth

One of the recommendations made by the Club of Rome was to progressively move from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy, amongst which figured prominently education, health and communication. However, during the last forty years the service economy has developed at a considerable speed, to the point that it makes up for the larger portion of the economy in the so-called ‘developed countries’. Yet, due to the existing solidarity between the different “machines” (mechanical, electronic, administrative, managerial, organizational) the extension of the service economy has not constituted a break in our development model. Indeed, the extension of services does not substitute itself to material consumption, it rather intensifies the latter by making us used to deriving satisfaction from what is provided to us, rather than from our own activities. This explains why the manufacturing sector, relatively to the services sector, now accounts for a smaller share of the global economy, while still experiencing significant volume growth.  Moreover, most services indirectly imply substantial energy consumption – the economy of the “immaterial” actually requires a considerable amount of “material”. The growth of services may turn out to be as harmful to human cultures as is the growth of manufacturing to Nature. Indeed, it deprives human beings and communities of their know-hows and, thus, autonomy. It strengthens the grip of the Gestell, the “device”, by re-enforcing the belief that living without the latter is impossible. As Ivan Illich wrote in 1971:

“Verbs which were previously used to describe personal activities like learning, finding housing, caring for oneself, now remind us of services, which are more or less successfully provided. When considering how problems associated with housing, medical care etc. may be fixed, the thought that human beings can construct their own housing and take care of themselves does not cross our mind. It’s all about services, and teenagers, rather than learning to take care of their grandparents, learn to protest in front of nursing homes to demand more available beds (1).”         

This is no exageration: in the summer of 2003 a substantial number of elders died in France due to the heat wave. The government, rather than their families’ or neighbors’ negligence, was taken to be at fault. It appears that liberty is now taken to be expressed by citizens’ delegation of various responsibilities – from the simplest duties to the exercise of rationality – to diverse organizations, so that the autonomy they claim becomes meaningless.

«“Having become channeled goods, human beings have lost faith in their own political power, which stems from their ability to walk and talk. They believe political activity to be about demanding more of those services that amalgamate humans and commodities. They do not demand more liberty for autonomous citizens but rather better services for submissive consumers. They do not fight for their freedom of movement and expression but rather for their right to be transported and informed (2). »


Meadows, forty years later

According to Denis Meadows – one of the main drafters of The Limits to Growth report – if actions that would have modified the development trajectory in the 1970s had been taken, the chock could have been prevented. However, as this has not been done, Meadows believes that the chock can no longer be averted.

Indeed, we are at the point where the actions taken towards sustainability, recycling etc., can only somewhat push back the timing of the chock. We could even argue that these measures have a pernicious effect in that they provide the system with a moral argument to prevent calling itself into question. (According to some ads, buying a Bluetec range rover is protecting the environment). Philippe Bihouix perfectly demonstrated that the idea that an “energy transition” – meaning compensating the depletion of oil with renewable energies – will enable individuals to maintain their lifestyles is nothing but a pipe dream. It would, first of all, be very difficult to find the suitable amount of metals necessary to harness the desired quantities of renewables. Indeed, in order to be in possession of such an amount of metal (whose larger deposits have already been exhausted) we would have to use extraordinary quantities of energy – in other words, overcoming the energy shortage requires a substantial amount of energy. As summarized by Bihouix, we would need more energy to extract less clustered metals and more metals to extract less accessible energy. Thus, he argues “The peak oil will happen in conjunction with or be followed by a ‘peak everything’”.  There remains only the irrational belief in a « technological leap » that would enable us to free ourselves from reality and its constraints. In Bihouix’s words: “Just like James Dean driving his car in Rebel Without a Cause, our industrial and economic systems would like us to accelerate in the hope that wings will be invented before we reach the edge of the cliff. However, these wings (technical innovations) will not have the necessary bearing capacity to avoid the crash”. This concords with what Meadows thought. He positioned himself in favor of ceasing to commit ourselves to everlasting growth as well as to the optimization of manufacturing processes so as to increase their profitability. He believed that we urgently had to focus on increasing the robustness – or resilience, to use a fashionable term – of our lifestyles.

This observation is, once more, accurate: we will not be able to avoid the collapses. As regards his position towards growth and robustness, one can only agree. Yet, considering the current dynamic’s strength, following his recommendation is difficult, not to say impossible at the required scale. We are faced with an aporia: in order for us to take the necessary measures to prevent the collapse from turning into a disaster, the system should already have been overturned.


Crisis or lack of crisis?

What, then, should be done? We would like it to be an answer to that question. As the big corporations that manipulate and transform the world fail from convincing us or collapse, emerges the idea that organizing a collective rescue should be possible. But isn’t that what the project which brought about the crisis was obsessed with: transforming every little idea in a program and action plan, believing in the illusion that everything can be ‘piloted’? Believing that there is an answer may be argued to be pushing hubris to its limit, believing that we are Atlas, carrying the world on our shoulders. Problem solving is not relevant to our situation. We have been caught up in a movement, which is now too gigantic to be controlled.

Hamm (anguished). – But, what’s going on, what’s going on?

Clov. – Something is running its course (5).

This is why, by the end if his life, Illich had chosen to side with powerlessness:

In the western world tradition, I have chosen, because of my roots, the politics of powerlessness. I attest of my powerlessness because I think […] that there is nothing else left for us to do, and also because, at this moment, I could demonstrate that there is nothing we can do. Today, politics focuses our attention on intermediary goals and hides from us what we can say NO to. Like we have to say no, for example, to the illusion that we genuinely have the power to act in certain situations (6)”.

It is easy to make this sound like defeatism. But it is choosing to forget the “at this moment”. A moment which spans over the last decades. We have been hearing about the crisis for the last forty years. I, personally, have first heard about the crisis when I was ten. To the point where, for people of my generation (I was born in 1964) ‘crisis’ is a used up word. A long time ago, ‘crisis’ was used to refer to the transition period during a sickness, it was this intense and limited moment during which was made clear how things were going to turn out. What sense is there in using the word ‘crisis’ to describe a situation which has become chronic? Some will object that, during the last forty years, the world has known some periods of thriving health: the euphoria of easy money in the 80s, of new technologies in the 90s, of finance in the 2000s. However, these successive upturns are similar to the remission periods experienced by the seriously sick, which puts color back on their cheeks, for just a moment, before the disease catches up to them and wrenches them.

We are not suffering from the crisis but rather from the lack of crisis: we are in situation that is such that our ability to decide is practically absent. Why is that so?


The “insularisation” of the human being

One determining factor has already been discussed: the process that started with the industrial revolution, and which has only gotten stronger since, is now of such a magnitude that it has completely gotten out of hand. As it developed, this process destroyed and gutted all the institutions that could have been able to canalize it.

The difficulties we are facing are not only material but also intellectual. Our thought structure still “insularises” the human being within the world. Human beings are thought about in abstraction from the environments in which they evolve. From this stems the ambiguous aspect of environmental politics that does, indeed, seek to substitute protection to exploitation, but that, at the same time, perpetuates the very way of thinking which brought about destruction. By believing that we are the environment’s saviors and portraying ourselves as such we perpetuate a relationship based on exteriority and superiority.

The term “planet” is an evidence that this relationship has been preserved, including in the Laudato si’ encyclical. The latter broke with the purely instrumental conception of technique, which dominated within the Church during the last century (the debate centering on the good and bad ways in which technique could be used). Indeed, the encyclopedia acknowledged that “sciences and technology are not neutral”. Yet, the text often endorses, through the expressions that are used, the scientific, technic, technocratic pigdinization of language, which makes the latter unfit for us to express our experiences, thereby impoverishing them. Let me remind us that plânes, planetos in Greek, is an adjective used to mean “wandering”, “drifter”; the plânetes asteres are the wandering stars – it has the same meaning in Latin. As a result, only after the advent of the Copernic System was the earth conceived of as a planet. Using the word ‘planet’ to refer to the earth is similar to using homo sapiens – developed by modern biology – to speak of human beings. To those who would argue that ‘earth’ and ‘planet’ have the same meaning, I only have to refer you to Saint François d’Assise’s canticle, whose first words have given its name to the encyclical. He praises “Sister Mother Earth”. If one were to replace ‘earth’ by ‘planet’ these words would lose their meaning. We cannot say “Sister Mother Planet”. We live on the earth, not on a planet. The planet is the earth but seen from a distance, the earth from an astronaut’s point of view. It reinforces the idea that the earth is an entity that can be manipulated.

Near the end of his life Husserl wrote a small text, L’Arche originaire terre ne se meut pas, published posthumously. In this text, Husserl was not arguing in favor of abandoning the Copernic System but for a return to Ptolémée’s geocentric system. He also sought to highlight the existing confusion between two meanings of the word ‘earth’: on the one hand, the earth as the environment in which we live and, on the other hand, the earth as an object studied by astronomy. It is only because we live and grow on the earth that we are eventually able to consider the ground beneath our feet as the surface area of a star, able, as such, to move around in space. It’s a mistake to believe that the planet is the truth of the earth, because the earth is a completely different thing to us than a planet.


Inhabiting a ‘milieu’

To us, the earth is not our environment but our ‘milieu’. The word ‘milieu’ is equivocal, but that is precisely why it is, in this instance, interesting. ‘Milieu’ was first used to refer to the middle ground between two extremities, i.e. the center. Therefore, speaking of a living being’s environment as his/her/its ‘milieu’ is using a term which was primarily used to refer to the being included in the world. In a way, it is subordinating the ‘milieu’ to this being.  But the living being in question is also subordinated to the ‘milieu’ in which it evolves – this being is, in a way, the ‘milieu’ of its ‘milieu’. In other words: a reciprocal link unites the being and its ‘milieu’ – the ‘milieu exists for a being and a being exists only within a ‘milieu’. This said, I am doing nothing but summarizing Augustin Berque’s perspective. Indeed, Berque prefers mesology, which is the study of the ‘milieu’, to ecology, which is the study of the environment. In his texts Berque bases himself on the work of the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll, which insisted that a distinction be made between Umgebung (similar to environment, ideally conceived as independent from the person which studies it) and Umwelt (similar to ‘milieu’). The tendency we have of forgetting the ‘milieu’ to the benefit of the environment is the consequence of a particular stance humans have taken throughout European modernity. In the Encyploedia, Diderot clearly asserts the latter claim: “Man is the unique concept from which one must start and to which one must refer everything back”. He adds: “Ignoring the existence and happiness of my fellow-men, what is the rest of nature to me?” It is in the name of this statement, and the broader belief it exemplifies, that exactions have been permitted, and even recommended. However, how has nobody realized that it was impossible for human beings to be happy in a devastated world?

We are becoming more and more aware of the damages we have inflicted upon our ‘milieu’. But our awareness is not sufficient to heal the disease. At the beginning of the 17th century, Galilée argued that in order to go from Ptolémée’s system and Aristotelian science to Copernic’s system and modern science (science nouvelle) – aimed at deciphering a universe written in mathematical language – the human brain had to be completely ‘redesigned’. Four decades have passed and the human brain should probably be ‘redesigned’ once more. From the perspective of the environment, the aim is management. The limits are imposed from outside and are perceived as restrictions. They may be inevitable but are, nonetheless, regrettable. From the perspective of the ‘milieu’, the aim is living a common life. Limits are not perceived as restrictions but are the result of a life lead in harmony with others and the ‘milieu’. There is one thing on which I must insist: the scarcity of natural resources is not the only, nor the most important reason justifying that we abandon our development model. Indeed, before it had devastating consequences on our natural environment this model prevented us from living an authentically human life.

In Illich’s words:

Beyond a certain point mechanical forces corrupt the social ‘milieu’. The threshold of social disintegration due to enormous quantities of energy is not dependent upon the threshold after which energy transformation creates physical destruction”. This is why “even if we discovered clean and abundant energy sources, massive energy consumption would still have the same effect on the social body as a physically harmless, but psychologically enslaving drug (7)”.

”Surefficient” tools have the capacity of destroying the existing equilibrium between human beings and nature and destroying the environment. Yet, tools may be “surefficient” in another way: they can distort the balance between what people need to do themselves and what they can depend on the industry for. […] The right to act is substituted by the right to have. The agent by the user (8)”.

In the first instance (agent) the subject evolves in a ‘milieu’, in the second (user) he evolves in an environment.

To accurately describe what is happening to us it is better to use the term “planetarisation” rather than globalization.


A ‘milieu’ is inhabited by a community

There are a few conditions for the ‘milieu’ to be inhabited by a community. Jared Diamond – a professor of geography at UCLA, which knows a lot about anthropology, evolutionary biology and ecology – studied, in his book, Collapse, how former societies dealt with crisis in their relationship with their ‘milieu’, how they overcame these crisis or succumbed to the latter (the subheading of the book is quite explicit in this regard: How Societies Choose to Fail or Suceed). According to Diamond, some conditions have to be met in order for the members of a specific society to acknowledge that it is in their interest to save the remaining resources of their ‘milieu’ instead of extracting the latter, thereby destroying their ‘milieu’:

Consumers make up a homogeneous group; they have learned to trust each other and communicate; they plan to have a common future and pass on the resource in question to the younger generations; they are able, or are allowed, to organize and discipline themselves; the limits of the resource and its consumers are well-defined (9).”

These conditions are precisely those that planetarization destroys. Michel Serres was in awe in front of a picture of the Earth taken from space:

Thanks to the work of astronauts, the new, beautiful and almost direct sight of our planet in its integrity is an authentic revolution in the mind and perception of human beings from all cultures and languages. For the first time in history, we can conceive of a universal solidarity, similar to that which exists between the crew members of a ship (10)”.

In fact, being able to see the earth from space completes the uprooting (both spatial and historic) process. It does not generate a feeling of belonging, quite the opposite, it does not make us experience the earth as soil, archi-foyer, history, but it shows the earth as a planet among others, a planet on which we were born simply by accident. It feeds in the dream of fleeing from this cramped star, the idea that, maybe, the time has come to get on with our lives somewhere else than on this used-up ball, from which humanity has self-expelled itself by making it uninhabitable. Anyhow, it does not make sense to imagine that the same solidarity unites billions of people as it does crewmembers of a ship – this is the perfect example of a vain and misleading comparison as it ignores the differences of scale. The prospect of danger which might bring together a small group of people has the opposite effect on masses, people that will help each other getting out of a house on fire will trample each other to escape from a fire in a great hall. Common danger does not favor mutual assistance but induces individual or group selfishness. Solidarity between all human beings can and should exist, but it is dependent on the existence of communities.

The upcoming disturbances

Today, how we feel about the catastrophe is ambiguous. Horror is intermingled with a form of anticipation and relief. We know that the trajectory we currently are on will lead us straight to disaster but we have shown ourselves to be unable to change it. All that is left for us to do is to follow the movement, with less and less conviction, and wait for the catastrophe that we have come to perceive as the only thing that will compel us to change.

The main risk we are facing is that the collapse of our current systems will cause panic – keeping in mind the associated dangers (especially political). Our misfortune does not lie in the end of a deformed and absurd world, but in the scale of the changes that will take place in a very short amount of time. As Apollon reminds us in the Iliade, human beings are extraordinarily resistant. Yet, overcoming what lays ahead will not be easy.

Going from the current state of affairs to a convivial method of production will threaten a lot of people in their ability to survive. […] The transition to a convivial society will go hand in hand with intense suffering: famine for some, panic for others (11)”.

We have to prepare ourselves to try and anticipate the shock and prevent the use of extreme solutions in moments of distress. This entails material preparation – but the possibilities are limited. It also entails moral preparation – in order to apprehend the collapse in a relatively calm manner: because life on earth is not compatible with the preservation of our current life circumstances and because amidst the disruptions and the associated suffering, we are offered an opportunity, the opportunity of regaining a grip on things – not in a survivalist but rather in a “vivalist” way.


Olivier Rey is a researcher at the CNRS, at the Institut d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences et des techniques (IHPST, Paris). He taught mathematics at the Ecole polytechnique and still teaches philosophy at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. He is the author of numerous essays including Une question de taille (Stock, 2014), and Quand le monde s’est fait nombre (Stock, 2016).

(1) Ivan Illich, Une société sans école (1971), in Œuvres complètes, 2 vol., Fayard, t. 1, 2004, p. 362.

(2) Ivan Illich, Énergie et Équité (1974), in Œuvres complètes, op. cit., t. 1, p. 399.

(3) L’Âge des low tech. Vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable, Le Seuil, coll. Anthropocène, 2014, p. 67.

(4) Ibid., p. 112.

(5) Samuel Beckett, Fin de partie, Minuit, 1957, p. 28.

(6) Entretiens avec Ivan Illich (par David Cayley) (1992), trad. Paule Noyart, Montréal, Bellarmin, 1996, p. 272-273.