Michel Serres: Let’s become “renters” of the earth

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During a recent visit to the Stanford University Press, Deputy Director Alan Harvey handed me Malfeasance, a slim $16 paperback by French thinker Michel Serres. In it, Michel suggests that we stop trying to “own” the world and become “renters” – that we establish a “natural contract with nature.”

I’ve blown Michel Serres’s horn before, and on this book before, too.  He’s an extremely prominent French intellectual – ubiquitous, really, with a regular radio spot.  An immortel of the Académie Française.

So here’s a bit more.

In Malfeasance, he distinguishes between “hard” polution, which includes “solid residues, liquids, and gases, emitted throughout the atmosphere by big industrial companies or gigantic garbage dumps, the shameful signatures of big cities,”  and “soft” pollution, that is, “tsunamis of writing, signs, images, and logos flooding rural, civic, public ad natural spaces as well as landscapes with their advertising.”

It’s the latter that seems to concern him most – the pollution of the mind.

He’s been called a stylist, and you can see why (and thanks to Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon for the translation).  An excerpt:

“Pollution grows with the production and consumption of goods, and therefore with the number of rich people with profusely overflowing garbage cans (hard) and overwhelming loudspeakers (soft). The parallel growth of property, money, and waste show their commonality; money and waste define one as an owner. The Anglo-Saxon term dumping refers to a commercial practice where the shipment of low-priced goods to foreign markets accurately recalls a public dump. A competitor will accuse his rival of throwing heaps of garbage on the market, in other words of appropriating the latter.  He says exactly what I want to say.

Avoiding pollution – both kinds – at Stanford (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Global statistics show that owners who have acquired or rapidly increased their wealth pollute more than the poor, and the rich pollute more than the destitute, the dominating more than the dominated – in other words, those who own rather than those who have nothing. Refusing sometimes to sign draft agreements concerning the environment, plutocrats are suspicious even of ecological questions, accusing those who ask of plotting against expansion of their activities. To be sure, this touches on questions from the hard sciences, physics, and thermodynamics, or softer ones such as economics. But I repeat: these questions concern them less than the defense of or attack on appropriation that has been decided or desired from the start.

“What is more, the rich readily discharge waste – another case of dumping – where the very poorest live.  In this respect, the beltway surrounding Paris can serve as a revealing example.  Driving north toward the working-class neighborhoods, you will be dazzled to the point of nausea by aggressive images, billboards, and giant lights. If you go toward the residential western part, everything quiets down, greenery appears, and there is no more advertising.  The inhabitants of posh neighborhoods, the owners of brand marks, and the CEOs of media companies do not care to live in such abominations; in this respect, they are like those managers of TV channels who forbid their children to watch their own station’s programs. It is OK to besmirch others, but not one’s own residence or offspring.

The more wealth a man or a collectivity amasses, the more noise they make, soft but also hard; the louder the noise and the racket, the further their visual and acoustic productions or execrements will spread, the more hard power they have. Their images, smells, and voices reach far. The hard engedners the soft, which engenders the hard. The global invasion has begun.”


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One Response to “Michel Serres: Let’s become “renters” of the earth”

  1. Huntington Beach Dentist Says:

    Soft pollution…
    I agree that the billboards along the freeway on my commuting route are eyesores. There should more strict regulations on what kind messages can be placed on those billboards.

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