Bergthaller's essay originally appeared in the collection, Ecological Thought in Germany. It is reprinted here, with permissions from Lexington Books, as part of an ebr gathering on Natural Media (December 2019).
Niklas Luhmann made no significant contribution to environmentalist thought. He was one of the most radically ecological thinkers of the 20th century. If these two statements seem contradictory, this is largely because environmentalism has successfully positioned itself as the only adequate expression of ecological thinking. One of the most fruitful aspects of Luhmann’s theory of social systems for the environmental humanities, I hope to show in the following, is that it allows one to question environmentalist common sense, to disarticulate our conceptions of ecology and environment from each other, and to formulate a perspective which takes ecological concerns seriously while at the same time enabling one to understand the peculiar mixture of successes and failures, as well as the processes of institutional and conceptual fraying, which have characterized the trajectory of environmental movements since their meteoric rise in the 1960s and 1970s. From such a perspective, I will argue, social systems theory appears neither as an ally nor as an enemy of environmentalism; it cannot hope to contribute to its success, nor can it bring about its failure. What it can do, however, is help environmentalists to transform “hysterical misery into common unhappiness” (Freud 1955: 308).
It is safe to assume that this is not how German environmentalists initially viewed Luhmann’s work. His best-known statement of his views on ecological problems can be found in the volume Ecological Communication, which was originally published in 1986, almost simultaneously with fellow sociologist Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society, in the year of the Chernobyl accident, and at the very height of Germany’s environmental movement. Risk Society was widely lauded as having correctly read the signs of the times; it became a popular bestseller and a central point of reference in environmentalist discourse over subsequent decades – a development surely aided by the fact that his account was broadly sympathetic to environmentalists’ view of themselves as vanguards of a new era (which he labelled “reflexive modernity”). By contrast, Ecological Communication argued that the environmental movement was running afoul of basic structural principles of modern society, that its tendency to communicate its concerns in terms of fear and moral outrage was at best ineffective, and that the goals it had set for itself were therefore unlikely to be attained. Luhmann did not help his case by presenting it with an air of cool detachment punctuated by mordant irony. Unsurprisingly, his message proved to be unpopular. Ecological Communication never reached beyond a small audience of specialists.
Yet it is important not to mistake Luhmann’s rejection of environmentalism’s self-descriptions for a dismissal of its ecological concerns. If anything, the opposite may be closer to the truth. After all, Luhmann cultivated a pose of Olympian aloofness with respect to the vagaries of public debate and generally avoided addressing fashionable topics. Ecological Communication was based on an invited lecture he delivered to the Rhenish-Westfallian Academy of Science in 1985, where he had been asked to address the topical question whether “modern society” could “adjust itself” to ecological dangers (Luhmann 1989: xvii). Although he answered this question in the negative, the very fact that he chose to expand his remarks on that occasion into an entire monograph (which remains one of the most concise expositions of his theory) is a clear indication that he regarded it to be of more than passing interest – an impression that can only be confirmed by his subsequent writings, where he frequently reiterated the view that, while “ecological problems have always accompanied the evolution of society,” they “have dramatically intensified over the past century” (Luhmann 2012a: 73).
The ecological crisis has long ceased to be a fashionable topic. Obviously, this does not mean that it has disappeared from the news – on the contrary, there continues to be a steady drumbeat of reports about the dire state of the biosphere. However, we have by now become thoroughly inured to the mismatch between the alarming nature of many of these reports and the ways in which society reacts to them. They are usually accompanied by appeals to politicians, companies, and individual consumers to assume responsibility, to take immediate action, to radically change course, and so on. More often than not, these appeals are followed by assurances that everyone is doing what they can. It never takes very long before all this fades back into the white noise of mass media communication, while politicians, companies, and consumers each go their own merry way – plunging environmentalists more deeply into despair, but also feeding the conviction that more needs to be done to persuade society of the gravity of the dangers it faces. At the same time, however, it is becoming less and less convincing to locate the roots of the problem in a lack of environmental consciousness. After all, in most technologically advanced countries, the majority of the population is perfectly aware of ecological problems. Rather than a larger megaphone, a more trenchant critique, a new ethics, or yet another blueprint for ecological reform, it seems that what may be needed most is an explanation why society is so strangely intransigent to attempts to steer it in the direction of greater ecological sustainability.
Many of the recent developments in the field of ecocriticism can be understood against the background of this realization that environmentalist thought as it developed during the second half of the 20th century has reached a point of exhaustion. Timothy Morton’s notion of a “dark” ecology which would dispense with Romantic conceptions of Nature (Morton 2016), Bruno Latour’s political ecology, and the various versions of new materialist theory (Coole and Frost 2010) promise a fundamental overhaul of the very categories by which we understand the relationship of human beings to the biosphere. All of these approaches argue that the solution to the ecological problems of contemporary society should be sought in a new ontology, which they venture to supply. This ontology must be “flat,” i.e., it must do away with all hierarchies of being, and most importantly, it must dismantle anthropocentrism, understood as the idea that human beings occupy a privileged position in the cosmos (Levi-Bryant 2011: 245-247). Rather than aiming to protect a nature that is somewhere “out there,” distinct from the social world humans inhabit, we need to understand that we can never be separate or truly alienated from nature. The materiality of the human body insures that we are radically open to and interlaced with other forms of life and other kinds of matter. This “intimacy,” as Morton likes to call it, entails an ethical and political responsibility for our ecological others.
Such proposals do represent a sharp departure from the conceptual vocabulary that earlier forms of environmentalist thought had employed in discussing ecological problems. And yet, they generally shy away from the most radical implications of their own premises, and always eventually retrench to recognizably humanist appeals to the better angels of our nature. Humans are not singular, we are told – and yet, they are singularly responsible for the ecological crisis. The ecological embeddedness of human beings puts their self-sovereignty radically into question – and yet, it is presumed that they are able to refashion society in accordance with ecological insights. However new the new ontologies may be, the problems they are supposed to remedy are framed in strikingly familiar terms. Latour, for example, describes modernity as founded on an ontological dualism which prevented those in its grasp from recognizing their real ecological dependencies. In fact, then, the ontology of the moderns is not really a bona fide ontology at all, but just another form of false consciousness – and Latour never offers much of an explanation why they cling so tenaciously to this perverse delusion.
These shortcomings can be summed up by saying that new materialist theories, just like earlier versions of environmentalist thought, fail to conceptualize society in ecological terms. With regard to biological organisms, we take it as a matter of course that they are unable to control their own evolutionary development. The genetic makeup of a species changes in response to changes in its environment. In the process, it changes the environment of other biological species in its surroundings, who will likewise change in response. The coevolution of biological species is thus a process in which “everything is connected to everything else,” as Barry Commoner’s famous “first law of ecology” has it (Commoner 1971: 16) – but by the same token, it is also a process which is beyond control. Ecological evolution consists in a tangled web of causal connections so complex that no single species would be able to steer it in any particular direction – if only because other species in the ecological system would react to such attempts with changes of their own. In the version of systems ecology Commoner helped to popularize, the feedback loops which link species to each other were assumed to ensure the equilibrium of the system as a whole (for that reason, Commoner’s second law of ecology stipulates that “Nature knows best”; Commoner 1971: 20). Of course, the view that ecological systems naturally tend towards stable conditions is one that few scientists in the field would today accept without much qualification (although it continues to dominate popular notions about ecology; Kricher 2009). For the purposes of this essay, however, the important point is that ecological evolution is a process which advances “blindly,” as it were, without a discernible purpose or goal, and which is so complex that the future ramifications of any given change are practically impossible to calculate in advance.
On this basis, environmentalists argued that humans should avoid meddling with ecological systems whenever possible. However, as Luhmann points out, they did not bother apply this insight to the one system which appeared to be causing all of our ecological problems: even while “respect for ‘natural balances’ increased [...], one’s own society was exposed to an incisive critique that was replete with demands for intervention, as if it was not a system at all” (Luhmann 1989: 5; italics in the original). As the context of this passage makes clear, Luhmann saw his own theory as providing a remedy for this inconsistency. Indeed, social systems theory drew very heavily on developments in cybernetics and general systems theory which had also driven the contemporaneous rise of systems ecology. Luhmann had studied briefly with Talcott Parsons during the early 1960s, and his project of a general theory of society can be seen as an attempt to rework Talcott’s structural functionalism on this new theoretical foundation, by conceiving of society as a self-organizing, evolving system.
A crucial building block in this effort is the concept of autopoiesis as it was developed by the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela during the 1970s (Maturana and Varela 1980). Maturana and Varela had originally coined the term to designate the dynamic process of self-generation characteristic of living organisms. Autopoietic systems persist by recursively processing their own components – a cell, for example, uses the instructions encoded in its own genome to synthesize proteins which maintain the cell membrane and eventually serve to produce further copies of the genome, which is used to synthesize proteins, and so forth. Such systems can therefore be described as operationally closed: even though they must rely on an ambient flow of molecules and energy, their structure is entirely a product of their own operations. Luhmann argued that society should be conceived along similar lines: just like a biological organism uses its own elements in order produce the elements of which it consists, society can be understood as a network of communications which reproduces itself by generating further communication. And just like the reproduction of a cell depends on conditions which it cannot control with its own operations (e.g. the surrounding temperature or the presence of particular chemical elements), so the autopoiesis of communication depends on a host of environmental factors which lie outside of its control, but which in either case cannot directly determine the evolutionary trajectory of the system (except in cases where they destroy it).
In this theoretical context, the term “environment” assumes a much more specific meaning than that in which it is commonly employed in the environmental humanities. From a systems theoretical viewpoint, an environment must always be thought of as correlative to a system – only where there is a system that is able to distinguish itself from its surroundings does it make sense to speak of an environment, to begin with. Indeed, what makes the system a system is only this: that it can distinguish between self and non-self, that it can observe and, through its own operations, reproduce the distinction between itself and its environment. However, as long as the system persists as a system, it cannot cross the boundary by which it is thus constituted – it can mark the difference only “from the inside,” as it were (in the form of what Luhmann, following the British mathematician George Spencer Brown, refers to as a “re-entry”; Luhmann 2012a: 105-108). The problem is one that literary critics will be familiar with from poststructuralist accounts of linguistic reference: the meaning of an utterance cannot be anchored to a stable referent in the object world, but rather emerges from the endless play of linguistic différance. Similarly, Luhmann argues that communication proceeds by processing the difference between itself and that about which it communicates. Communication must refer to a world (because pure self-reference is as impossible as pure hetero-reference), but the world to which it refers can never be anything other than a product of communication. It is in this particular sense that Luhmann designates social systems theory as a form of radical constructivism (Luhmann 2002, 46-50).
It must be emphasized that this does not imply that society is somehow autarchic or independent of ecological conditions, or that nothing exists outside of communication. It does mean, however, that communication can only deal with the world on its own terms – that is to say, with more communication, and therefore selectively. Only because of this self-limitation is the system able to persist as a system, at all; only by operationally closing itself off from the world as a totality does it become able to open itself selectively to those aspects of the world which are relevant to it. The system itself determines which elements of the surrounding world it will be determined by. The environment of a system thus never coincides with the world as it is “in and of itself”– very much as in Jakob von Uexküll’s biological theory of animal “Umwelten,” the term denotes only that part of the world which a particular system can perceive and react to. An external observer may be able to see that there are also other things which the system cannot see – including, perhaps, processes that may be of vital importance for its ability to survive – but insofar as the system is constitutively blind to them, they do not form a part of its environment (in von Uexküll’s terminology, one may say that they instead belong to its “Umgebung,” or surroundings; Sprenger 2014: 17).
From the foregoing, it should be clear that the peculiar relationship obtaining between a system and its environment cannot really be understood in terms of simple causes and effects. Using a concept from Talcott Parsons, Luhmann initially described it as a process of “interpenetration.” Following his reception of Maturana and Varela’s theory of autopoiesis in the 1980s, this term was supplemented by the concept of structural coupling. In Ecological Communication, he describes the relationship with the metaphor of resonance: just like ambient sound waves can induce an object to change its state without directly “touching” it, a system can perturb another system to which it is structurally coupled, even though the two systems always remain strictly distinct from each other. Importantly, it is the internal organization of the system which determines whether and how it can be perturbed in this fashion: “A differentiated system can be made to resonate only on the basis of its own frequencies” (Luhmann 1989: 16). To make a wine glass shatter, the singer has to hit the exact frequency at which the glass swings of its own accord; the same note would have no significant effect on a brick. Similarly, autopoietic systems always have a limited “bandwidth” – they can only respond to a limited spectrum of events. The greater the internal complexity of a system, the more sensitive it becomes to its surroundings, and the more complex is its environment (contrast, for example, von Uexküll’s famous example of the tick, which registers only rough degrees of light and darkness, the presence of butyric acid, and temperature, with the wealth of stimuli more complex organisms such as parakeets or dogs are able to process).
With regard to communication about ecological problems, it is crucial to keep in mind that ecological processes do not really form a part of the environment of society in the above sense, at all. They can only affect communication indirectly, because the relevant environment of communication consists first and foremost of what Luhmann calls “psychic systems” – that is to say, of mental processes, which are likewise organized autopoietically, and which are also structurally coupled to organic bodies. As Hans-Georg Moeller writes, social systems theory thus replaces the traditional mind-body dualism which has dominated Western philosophy since Plato with a “systemic triadism”: instead of two substances, we are dealing with three different types of processes – physiological bodies, consciousnesses, and communication (i.e., society; Moeller 2012: 56). These systems form environments for each other and can therefore be understood as participating in an encompassing process of ecological co-evolution. But, once again, this also means that none of these systems is in a position to steer or control the others: what happens with my physical body (including my brain) affects, but does not causally determine what happens in my mind (and vice versa), just as what happens in my thoughts affects, but cannot causally determine what happens in communication (and again, vice versa). Each of these three autopoietic systems possesses an evolutionary dynamic of its own.
This picture is further complicated by the structural specificities of modern society. Just as a biological organism is constituted not as a single, fully integrated system, but rather consists of several interdependent processes (for example in the neuronal, the hormonal, or the immune system), so society is internally differentiated into subsystems. These subsystems have taken a variety of forms during different historical periods – in many ancient societies, for example, the most important social subdivision was the family. Through their membership in a particular household, human beings were automatically assigned a position within a particular social stratum, which in turn regulated their access to social and material resources. Following a well-established sociological tradition, Luhmann argues that the most distinctive characteristic of modern society is its differentiation into function systems which assume universal and exclusive competency for a particular domain of social reality and elaborate their own criteria of rationality. Each of these function systems is constituted as an autopoietic system in its own right and constructs its intrasocietal environment in terms of a distinctive binary code (e.g. government/opposition in politics, truth/falsehood in science, payment/non-payment in the economy, to name only some of the most obvious cases).
One important corollary of this form of social differentiation is the breakdown of traditional ontology. A functionally differentiated society effectively “multiplies its own reality (Luhmann 1996: 191), as each function system construes the world in its own terms (and has a tendency to mistake that construal for the world itself). In contrast to earlier proponents of functional differentiation, Luhmann dispenses with the notion that the function systems could be integrated by some overarching principle, and he gives up the notion that any of them could enjoy primacy over, regulate, or control the others. As a result, a generally binding consensus about “what is and what counts as valid” is no longer possible: “what functions as a consensus is a makeshift solution which is recognizable as such.” It remains distinct from the realities which the various function systems synthesize for their specific purposes, but which “can no longer be added up to a comprehensive view of a world in the sense of a congregatio corporum or a universitas rerum” – added up, that is to say, to a world in the properly ontological sense (Luhmann 1980: 33; my translation).
Compared to earlier forms of social organization, functional differentiation allows society to attain a higher level of internal complexity and thus increases its ability to register and process environmental complexity. The price for this, however, is an “abandonment of redundancy” which exposes society to new kinds of risks: unlike in earlier forms of social differentiation, in which the basic units often combined several social functions within themselves, the function systems can no longer mutually “step in for another even in a supportive or supplementary capacity. In the event of a government crisis, science cannot help out with truths. Politics has no capacity of its own to devise the success of the economy, however much it might depend on this success politically and however much it acts as if it could. The economy can involve science in conditioning money payments, but however much money it deploys, it cannot produce truths.” (Luhmann 2012b: 99). This lack of redundancy makes modern society inherently more irritable and therefore less stable. Just as the complexity of a biological organism tells us nothing about how well-adapted it is to its environment, so the greater complexity of modern society is not as such a mark of evolutionary fitness. In contrast to the modernization theories which played an important role sociology in the decades after World War II, Luhmann also does not believe that “the achievements of the various function systems would mutually support and confirm one another” (Luhmann 2012a: 343). More often, one finds that the function systems resonate with each other in unpredictable and often problematic ways; a single social event can have dramatically different effects in the different function systems: “Payments of money to a politician that play no role in the economic process [...] can become a political scandal. Theoretically insignificant scientific discoveries can have agonizing medical results. Legal decisions that hardly have any effect on other decisions in the legal system itself can form roadblocks for entire political spheres” (Luhmann 1989: 117-118).
At this point, it should already be clear why Luhmann was so profoundly skeptical with regard to the projects for an ecological reform of society. Ecological processes cannot “enter” into communication in any direct fashion – they can only affect the biological bodies which constitute the environment of psychic systems, which in turn constitute the environment of communication. If my body becomes ill because of toxic substances in its ecological environment, my consciousness will register this in the form of pain, or of a failure of bodily functions. In response, I may seek to make these symptoms a topic of communication – but whether and how this topic resonates, which further communications it will instigate and what social effects it will have, is entirely beyond my control. It is determined neither by the ecological environment, nor by my body or my consciousness, but only by the network of communications that is society. For the most part, however, our awareness of ecological problems has very little to do with how they affect our bodies. Rather, we are aware of them as a topic of communication: we read about global warming in the news, perhaps (less likely) in a novel, or (even more unlikely) in a scientific article; we see images of oil spills on television or in an art gallery. Even if our own body became sick from cancer, we would never think of connecting this fact with, for example, the presence of plasticizers in the ecological environment, if we had not learned from the mass media that such substances have been linked to an in increase in the statistical incidence of cancer. Our consciousness reacts to such communication with thoughts and emotions – perhaps with grief, awe, bafflement, or despair – but these mental events must remain without consequence unless they fasten themselves again to communication and, in the process of doing so, avail themselves of the various semantic templates (e.g. words, images, money, laws, or votes) which society furnishes for that purpose. The urgency we attribute to the ecological crisis is, in this sense, entirely a product of communication. That is the reason why it is so frustratingly easy to compartmentalize it – to feel deeply moved by it when we take a walk in the forest or watch a nature documentary, say, but rather but less so when we go to the supermarket and have to buy groceries on a limited budget.
The capacity of modern society to react to changes in its ecological environment is largely circumscribed by the respective capacities of the function systems to resonate with their relevant environments. In Ecological Communication, Luhmann predicted that the function systems would be able to respond to ecological problems only in terms of their own communicative codes, in accordance with their system-specific rationalities – and that these responses would not be sufficient to obviate its cumulative effects on the ecological environment. With thirty years’ hindsight, his assessment appears remarkably prescient: the legal system has evolved environmental legislation; the political system has seen the emergence political platforms for ecological reform; the economic system has found ways of translating ecological costs into the languages of prices – and of making consumers pay for “green” products. The education system has integrated ecological issues into its curricula, while science has produced ecologically oriented subdisciplines (among them, as a late-comer, ecocriticism). These changes have often had significant positive effects, but it is abundantly clear that they do not add up to anything even remotely like the ecological revolution which the environmental movement during its heyday was hoping to foment.
If one accepts the systems theoretical account of modernity, it should also be clear why attempts to rekindle that old flame are bound to fail – even and especially when they pin their hopes on a newly refurbished ontology. According to Luhmann, the problem of the original environmental movement was precisely that it failed to reckon with functional differentiation (which had already put paid to the old Aristotelian ontology). In presuming to speak for the whole of society and its ecological environment, environmentalists were arrogating for themselves an impossible observer position which simply is no longer available in modern society – or, more precisely, an observer position from which one could not communicate without lapsing into disabling paradoxes: “It contradicts every principle of social differentiation to re-establish the totality of the system within the system. The whole cannot be a part of the whole at the same time. Any attempt of this kind would merely create a difference in the system: the difference of that part which represents the totality of the system within the system vis-a-vis all the other parts” (Luhmann 1989: 121). Where environmentalists liked to think of themselves as representatives of the more-than-human world, their opponents and critics often saw only little more than a bunch of self-righteous white urbanites. More importantly, however, there simply exists no institutions which would be able to remake society in accordance with ecological criteria. Modern society has neither top nor center, and no position to which such demands could be meaningfully addressed. Social processes, like the processes of ecological co-evolution on which they depend, are beyond control.
As long as one clings to the exorbitant hopes and fears on which environmentalist thinking has thrived, such arguments can only sound cynical or dangerously defeatist. But that would be missing the point. Social systems theory does not seek to make any prescriptions about what people should or should not do – and its purpose is certainly not to discourage environmental activists from engaging in environmental activism (which would, in any case, be no less futile than trying to convince the average American conservative of the need for a global tax on carbon emissions). It is, in the first instance, simply an attempt to arrive at a theoretically consistent and heuristically productive description of the reality of modern society – an extraordinarily ambitious work of sociological theory, written for an academic audience, in adherence to the conventions of academic writing. At the same time, however, it is also a self-critique of critical reasoning – that is to say, of the long tradition of philosophical thinking (running from Plato’s philosopher king all the way to Jürgen Habermas’ “noncoercive discourse”) which sought to improve society by subjecting it to rational criticism, purging it of false beliefs, and bringing it in line with fundamental realities that too many people, for whatever reasons, have failed to recognize.
That environmentalism belongs into this tradition is signaled already by its heavy investment in the notion of ecological crisis. As Reinhard Koselleck has shown, the idea of crisis has its roots in Hippocratic medicine, where it denoted the moment at which the doctor must intervene in order to restore the health of a patient. Only during the modern period did it emerge as one of the most durable and productive semantic forms by which society observes itself, one that is inextricably linked to the concept of critique. The idea of crisis necessarily entails time pressure, uncertainty, and the compulsion to act (Koselleck 1986: 66). To describe one’s present as a moment of crisis is to conceive of it as a time of transition in which one must take decisions and pick sides. To have a critical attitude to society means nothing other than to be aware of crisis – and to identify the means by which a decisive change for the better could be brought about. To maintain such an attitude, one must set oneself apart from the object of critique – one must view it “from a critical distance.” For the critically minded, the only alternative to critique is affirmation, or the mindless acceptance of the status quo. In Luhmann’s view, this theoretical attitude is played out: “The distinction between affirmative and critical fails to connect with what is empirically observable [...] because it excludes the possibility that what has realized itself as society gives rise to the worst fears, but cannot be rejected. This is the case if one considers the evolutionary improbability of self-supporting structures, the extreme autonomy and mutual interdependence of the function systems, the dramatic ecological problems, the narrowness of the temporal frames that are possible for politics and the economy, and much else” (Luhmann 1990: 233; my translation).My argument here draws on an unpublished conference paper by Elena Esposito, titled “Krisis and Critique” and delivered at the conference Contemporary Perspectives on Systems Theory, University of Macao, September 16-17, 2016
Given that “the ecological crisis” has now persisted for well over half a century and shows no signs of abating, we may finally become able to accept the view that holding a critical attitude to society may in a sense be no more or less meaningful than holding a critical attitude towards ecological evolution – and that rather than producing new iterations of environmentalist critique, we may wish to examine the commitments entailed by concepts we often use unthinkingly, as if they referred to a world that was indifferent to how we communicate about it. I would like to think that the recent tendency to speak of ecological problems in terms of our having entered a new geological epoch named the “Anthropocene” points in this general direction: while this was partly born of the impulse to once more up the ante and recapture the urgency of an earlier phase of environmentalism, it has in fact had something rather like the opposite effect, short-circuiting and confounding ingrained rhetorical reflexes. The notion of a geological epoch is almost by definition incompatible with the concept of crisis. And with regard to many of the sociogenic processes that are now reshaping the biosphere, and which are addressed under the heading of the Anthropocene, it makes indeed very little sense to frame them in such terms (especially if “ecological crisis” is used in the singular). There is no longer any realistic prospect of “critical interventions” (whether they would take the form of collective political actions or of individual consumer choices) which could, for example, reverse climate change and return the planet to ecological conditions as they prevailed in earlier times. The best that can be hoped for is that society will somehow be able to mitigate the ecological degradation climate change is expected to bring, and to buffer itself against its negative consequences. Rather than referring to these problems as symptoms of a crisis, it may be more useful to repurpose a different concept from classical antiquity and understand them in terms of an ecological climacteric – that is to say, as signs of a permanent, irreversible change in the conditions of life (West 1971).
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