When a celebrated French philosopher from the centre left assails the “despotic” politics of environmental fear he should expect a dressing down from his climate change-conscious comrades.
But Pascal Bruckner has incited such fury with a diatribe against green prophesiers of imminent planetary ruin, the reaction has surprised even this veteran of the trans-Atlantic culture wars.
“The planet is sick. Man is guilty of having destroyed it. He must pay,” is how Bruckner caustically portrays the received wisdom on environmental “sin” and damnation in his latest book Le fanatisme de l’Apocalypse (The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse).
“Consider .?.?. the famous carbon footprint that we all leave behind us,” he writes in his introduction. “What is it, after all, if not the gaseous equivalent of original sin, of the stain that we inflict on our Mother Gaia by the simple fact of being present and breathing?”
Subtitled Sauver la Terre, punir l’Homme (Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings) the book rails against a peculiar Western malady. Yes, concerns about the environment are legitimate, Bruckner asserts, but catastrophisme is transforming us all into children “put in a panic in order to be better controlled”.
It is a feistier-than-usual polemic for Bruckner, a leading member of France’s “new philosophers” who emerged from the 1970s left with searing critiques of Marxism. Later this year, it will be published in English as Fanaticism of the Apocalypse by Polity, Cambridge, translated by Steven Rendall.
As the Jesuit-educated philosopher sees it, extreme climate change alarmism, with its warning bells chiming “The end of the world is nigh, repent ye”, represents a worrying new doctrine of ideological purity that even has totalitarian overtones.
Worst of all, Bruckner argues, these “political commissars of carbon” have “betrayed the best of causes” and turned the discourse of ecological terror into the “dominant ideology of Western society”.
Dividing his argument into three sections, provocatively titled “The Seduction of Disaster”; “The Anti-progress Progressives”; and “The Great Ascetic Regression”, Bruckner scorns the peddlers of the “propaganda of fear”.
It is a muscular thesis delivered in typical elegant Bruckner style, citing philosophers, playwrights, novelists, political theorists and green activists from Martin Heidegger to Goethe, Moliere, Gustave Flaubert, Hannah Arendt, and France’s Yves Cocher.
However since the book appeared in French late last year, Bruckner has been pilloried in certain quarters as a reactionary turncoat aiding the worst climate change deniers. He has seen some publications that traditionally laud his work decry Fanaticism of the Apocalypse as hedonistic, deluded and dangerous.
“Le Monde devoted four pages to say to what extent my book was bad, false and full of lies, which is rather curious,” Bruckner says, with a slight edge to his voice, as we are ushered into an upper room in his local cafe, Le Progres, in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris. When his last book, The Paradox of Love, a reflection on the vicissitudes of the modern God of “Amour”, was released in 2009, it was critically acclaimed and became a bestseller.
“But I took a risk,” he explains of his latest controversial work. “It was [written in] a fit of anger. I went against today’s dominant ideas. There is widespread ‘greenwashing’ including in our thinking. The dominant passion of our time is fear.”
One blistering assessment, in Liberation newspaper, was headed “The Fanaticism of Denial”. The article accused Bruckner of being a pleasure-addled baby boomer stuck in pre-global warming nostalgia for the insouciant Trente Glorieuses, the 30 years of postwar French prosperity before the 1970s petrol shock.
The philosopher insists he cannot be classified as a climate change negationist – in fact the opposite, because he decries the virulent strain of denial among US Tea Party radicals and even mainstream Republicans.
“I do not attack ecology per se,” Bruckner says of his book. “I attack that degraded religion which emerges from it and turns into a culture of fear, hatred of progress and well-being.