Triennale Milano

Philosopher Emanuele Coccia reflects on the concept of ecology and home

August 25 2020
On June 11 took place the second symposium of Towards the XXIII International Exhibition of Triennale Milano, entitled The Earth seen from the Moon. The symposium was part of a three-appointment series that address some key issues of our present. Diario 2022 unfolds the path towards the XXIII International Exhibition of Triennale Milano through the voices of the protagonists of contemporary culture, here philosopher Emanuele Coccia reflects on the concept of ecology and home.
Carl Linnaeus, Hortus Cliffortianus, frontispiece, 1738
Like in a fairy tale, a virus tiny creature -a virus- has invaded all the cities of the world. It's hard to even give it the attribute of "living". A virus is one of the most ambiguous beings on the face of the earth: it inhabits the threshold between "chemical" life, which distinguishes matter, and biological life, which characterizes the living. It’s not possible to clearly determine to which sphere it belongs. Within its own body, the clear distinction between life and death is nullified. This aggregate of freely floating genetic material has invaded the squares of our villages and metropolises.
Just like in a fairy tale, cities have disappeared. To defend themselves against an invisible but powerful enemy, they have exiled themselves, declared themselves banished and outlaws and now lie at our feet like in an archaeological museum or a diorama. To defend the lives of their members, cities have committed suicide.
Watercolour illustration by Georg Ehret of Carl Linnaeus's classification system for plants, from Systema Naturae (1736)
Sars-Cov-2, this tiny fairy-tale creature (or rather SF creature) has not killed hundreds of thousands of lives, but has also caused the suicide of political life as we have known and practiced it for centuries. It has forced humanity to start a strange experiment in global monasticism: we are all anchorites who have retreated into their private space.
We are left with our homes: it doesn't matter whether they are small or large or apartments or real houses. Everything has become home. Which is not necessarily good news. Our houses do not protect us. They can kill us. You can die from excess of home.
Home has been our obsession for centuries. We live there, we spend a lot of time there. And above all, we see home and households everywhere, we pretend that all nonhuman creatures have a relationship to space equivalent to what we call home or household.
One of the results and evidence of this obsession with home is ecology. Ecology is not the science that seeks to study the mutual relationship of all living beings with each other, and of these with their environment, but also and above all the ideological projection of this domestic obsession on non-human beings. Already because of its name - 'ecology' literally means 'science of the household' - all ecology is dominated by this metaphor.
Now, where does this obsession come from? There's nothing natural about it. Why should the relationship that living beings have with each other resemble our domestic sociality? Why don’t we use, for example, the metaphor of the city? Or a town square? Or of friendship? When we try to imagine how all living people relate to each other, we invariably imagine them as members of an immense household, as big as the whole planet. Do we need Ibsen and Tolstoy to teach us again that houses are not particularly happy places?
Carl Linnaeus (1707 - 1778)
Why have we been so cruel to our non-human friends to the point of thinking of them as characters in a planetary tragedy in which everyone is confined for life in their own home? The answer to this question is a bit long and I will try to summarize it. The responsible guy is Linnaeus, the Swedish biologist to whom we owe the biological classification system of living beings. In 1749, one of his students, Isaac Biberg, published the first great treatise on ecology and entitled it, translated in contemporary terms, means roughly "On natural household, on the domestic order of nature". Why has nature been interpreted as an enormous domestic order? At the time, most biologists did not believe in the transformation or evolution of species. In such a context, the only way to understand whether there is a relationship between an Arizona buffalo and an Australian fly was to take the point of view of the one who had imagined, designed and created both: God.
Being responsible for the existence of both, he must have conceived and established a relationship between these two species, as well as between all living species. In the Christian universe, God relates to the world not as a simple governor or political leader relates to his people, but rather as a father relates to his family and home: he has power over the world only because he created it. On the other hand, the world does not relate to God as a subject relates to the ruler but rather as a son to his father. All life on earth, therefore, is one household and one family of the one Father-God. For this reason, Biberg and Linnaeus called this science "economics of nature". It was then Haeckel, a 19th century German biologist, who suggested to switch from economics to ecology to distinguish this discipline from capitalistic economics.
The image of the household proved useful because it immediately expressed the evidence and the need for a reciprocal relationship between all living people: all are part of an enormous house and an immense family. However, it is also problematic. First of all, this image is the heart of all patriarchy. Ecology does not realize this, but it continues to be in essence a patriarchal mythology, regardless of all the efforts made by eco-feminists. In antiquity as today, the house is a space in which a series of objects and individuals respect an order, a disposition that aims at the production of a utility and that is subject to the power of an individual. To say that life on the planet is a great house means that it respects that order and that each element that composes it produces a form of utility by virtue of that order. From this point of view ecology shares the same origin, the same vocabulary and the same conceptual structure with the capitalistic economy. Ecology will never save us from neoliberalism.
Carl Linnaeus, Isaac Isaacson Biberg, Oeconomia Naturae, 1749
To think in an ecological way means to believe that there is an order to defend, that there are limits in nature that are not exceeded and that these limits are limits defined by patrimonial and patriarchal relationship with other species. There are other people's homes -the ecosystems- that we must respect just as we are called to respect the homes of others. Private property. It's like conceiving the world as an immense Schrebergarten, an endless extension of small gardens, where every species is cultivating its own space, lost in an eternal quarantine that doesn't know an outside, a city, a space other than 'home'.
It is difficult to associate this form of life with an idea of happiness. We have experienced it in these days. At the end of the day, to think that the earth is an enormous house also means literally believing that all living creatures, except for human beings, are under house arrest. We do not recognize the right of other living beings to leave home, to live outside it and to have a political, social, non-domestic life. Animals, plants, fungi, bacteria virus stay always at home and can only stay at home. Their natural state is a lifelong quarantine.
After all, the reaction to the crisis caused by Sars-Cov-2 was a radicalisation of ecological thinking: now even human beings must respect their own ecosystem. Stay at home. Be ecological. Do not have politics. Do not have social life. If people, thanks to cities, once arrogated to themselves the right to travel anywhere and live freely, now all living beings, no one excluded, must exist like monks. Ecology is actually that, the idea that, all of us - human and non-human - are monks of Gaia.
Watercolour illustration by Georg Ehret of Carl Linnaeus's classification system for plants, from Systema Naturae (1736)
This unprecedented situation is perhaps an opportunity. Sars-Cov-2 allows us to free ourselves definitively from the nostalgia and idealism of homes. The house is, by definition, a strange theatre that allows us to cultivate the illusion that in order to live we do not need any other form of life: it is enough to bring together women and men through stones and metal to become eternal. The house and its expansion, the city is above all a form of (human) monoculture that rejects outside itself everything that does not resemble it, in what we still call the forest. The name forest (from the Latin foris, i.e. outside) -which we insist on thinking of as the natural home of natural beings- is just the expression of this 'forclusion': it is the place where the excluded, the exiled from the cities -that is from our homes, are gathered. The word forest, should be translated, literally with 'refugee camp'. So every time we think of the forest as a natural place, as a home for trees, animals, bacteria, viruses, we say that non-humans must live in exile, in refugee camps.
Please. Let's stop confining all the living to their homes. Let’s them live. Let’s them move around like we like to do. Let's get rid of walls and houses. We no longer have a choice. It is time to free ourselves, forever, from the imprisonment of houses. It is time to break the planetary quarantine we call ecology. No one stays home on this planet any longer.