The book "Critical Zones - The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth" is now out (soon in the US as well)

Posted: July 29, 2020


This book aims at changing the conversation over the many controversies and conflicts triggered by the ecological mutation, by literally, shifting the ground on which it takes place. Like many people, we were worried about the lack of reaction of people who remained indifferent to the global crisis, when we realized that groups of scientists in Earth science, who had coined the word “critical zones” to develop their research project, had in fact, little by little, modified the very definition of the land on which politics take place. After having built, through the gathering of many instruments, what they called “critical zones observatories” in various parts of the planet, they had given a much more complex view of the material world, a view that did not fit in the previous version of “nature” entertained during the periods of modernization: a view simultaneously narrower, deeper, and infinitely more populated with many more entities. Hence the idea of asking artists, historians, philosophers, activists, to collaborate with those scientists in order to describe how those critical zones could help sketching a new earthly politics.
This book is the result of such collaboration. It is inspired by the two-year preparation of an exhibition in ZKM Karlsruhe titled “Critical Zones -Observatories for Earthly Politics” which takes place from May 2020 to February 2021 (with several virtual avatars due to the pandemic). This exhibition is the fourth “thought-exhibition” (“GedankenAustellung”) that we have done together. Each time, we tried to solve through shows conceived as scale models for presenting a key existential question that could not be solved in any other way. Just like scientists develop “thought experiments” when their ideas precede the state of technology or the sensibility of instruments available at the time. Each time, a catalog is added to develop, summarize, debrief and sum up the results of those experiments.
This book assembles many of the scientists, students, artists, philosophers and historians who have contributed to the exhibition and to the many workshops which were held over those two years. Especially important is the presence of many young researchers, some had participated in the “critical zones workshop” held by one of us at the HfG for six weeks. As to the scientists in the book, they all had been acquainted with the topic by many meetings and field works pursued during the same period. To the point that many chapters represent the most up to date presentation of several key discoveries in Earth science. But this is also true of the philosophers’ contributions that are all trying to explain in which way a change of cosmology is modifying all the definitions of politics and also, indeed, what is expected from humans now that they have been shifted to this new ground. Hence the title of the book “Critical Zones – the Science and Politics of Landing on Earth”.
Catalogs of exhibitions are sometimes frustrating because they don’t quite replace the experience of being in the physical space. This time we have decided to imagine a standalone book which could be, through its original lay out, a demonstration of its own topic. In doing this, we were very much inspired by the resurgence of interest in Alexander von Humboldt and his expansive definition of how to describe the planet through literature, paintings, mythology, travelogue so as to complement the data he was so fond of.
This is why throughout we have added to the two columns original essays commissioned for the book, many three columns landscape spread, each of them capturing a site and a situation of the critical zones. This is our way to provide the same feel as Humboldt with his “tableaux de la nature”. It is this choice of lay out which allows the arts to be just as present in this book as the earth sciences and many original versions of political philosophy. Such a Humboldtian lay out would have been impossible to carry out without the specific genius of Donato Ricci and the amazing publication team of ZKM directed by Jen Lutz.
While we were gathering during those two years the material for this book, some ideas had appeared somewhat farfetched: especially the claim that it was about time inhabitants of industrialized countries land on earth, instead of behaving as if they would for ever go “somewhere else” in a world of plenty that the ecological mutation had for many years transformed into a utopia, a “place of nowhere”. If there is a benefit to the tragedy of the Covid 19, it’s to have made cruelly present to all the necessity of finally “landing” somewhere, that is, of taking seriously the very shape of the critical zones that we inhabit together with myriads of virus, bacteria, plants, organisms and other living forms.
Today, such a shift appears now almost common sense. With this landing, the adjective “critical” itself gets a new meaning: instead of trying to be distant from the situations that requires judgment, it is trying to gain a new proximity with the situations that we have to live in. The logic of critical proximity is what this book is about. We are immensely proud of offering it to the public.
Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel (June 2020)