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.
“Why must we renounce all the joys of life under the pretext of global warming?”
While Bruckner fights off multiple critical assaults, he is still held in high regard by French critics and the reading public for his multidisciplinary dissertations on the dilemmas of modern Western life.
He is well known in the English-speaking world for his philosophical explorations of notions of happiness: Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to be Happy, and The Utopia of Love (an English translation of his 2010 essay Has Marriage for Love Failed?) is expected to be published soon.
His award-winning novel Bitter Moon was translated into 20 languages and turned into an acclaimed film by Roman Polanski, with Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas.
The author’s special “passion” is, he says, Western guilt. Tears of the White Man, published in 1983, explored culpability regarding our colonial past, and in The Tyranny of Guilt, published in 2006, Bruckner examined the burdens of contemporary “penitence” about Western power and influence.
But as Bruckner judges it, a panic is now gripping Western elites, as they rapidly lose power amid the rise of countries like China, India and Brazil.
“Since we no longer dominate the world, we live in a permanent terror film and every day they [ecologists] explain to us that it is a miracle that we are still alive.
“The absurdity of this propaganda of fear – which recalls that of [former US president] George W. Bush regarding terrorism – is that we have never lived so long.
“We are living in a post-technological Middle Ages. Our mentality is that of the medieval peasant serf who sees maleficent forces in nature.
“Everything is dangerous. Simply to live has become an impossible task.
“We are afraid of everything – of mobile phones, of food, of dummies, of nappies, of antennas. We are living in a society which has a horror of risk and therefore is afraid of its own shadow.”
Intelligent responses to environmental degradation are therefore required rather than radical “belt-tightening” and “privation” in the form of a retreat from nuclear power and even domestic heating.
“There is this famous notion defended by the ecologists of ‘negawatts’: the best energy is that which we don’t expend,” the philosopher almost sneers.
“Yes, we need to make some savings. But wealth reproduces itself and life cannot simply be a subtraction. It is like saying ‘the best life is the life we don’t lead’. This is a kind of neo-Malthusianism.”
The love affair between Bruckner and the French intelligentsia stretches back to his electrifying arrival on the Paris ideological scene in the mid-1970s.
Alongside Bernard-Henri Levy, Andre Glucksmann and Alain Finkielkraut, he was a member of the nouveaux philosophes, a bunch of dashing, idealistic young thinkers who urged a break with the Maoist and Marxist left.
In a nation that reveres philosophers sometimes as much as its film stars, the prolific and eloquent Bruckner soon became a bona fide celebrity.
He even played himself on film this year, taking a cheeky cameo role alongside Finkielkraut in the romantic comedy L’Amour dure trois ans (Love Lasts Three Years).
During last year’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, he flattered the French with his notorious evisceration of puritanical Americans.
Laughingly categorising himself an “old new philosophe” (he is 63) Bruckner is a self-described optimist who believes in progress, enterprise and the market. This makes him a rare breed of intellectual in gloomy France, and sometimes gets him into difficulties with his home-town audience.
“I think I touched .?.?. a faith and a belief in the goodness of nature, in the noxiousness of progress and in the just case of ecologists,” he says of the outrage generated by Le fanatisme de l’Apocalypse.
“I put into question a certain number of dogmas and they do not forgive me.
“But they [political ecologists] are crazy. They propose nothing and are opposed to everything – the car, the TGV [French high-speed train], the atom, i.e. nuclear power, petrol, coal, natural gas. At the end there is nothing left!”
Bruckner enthusiastically describes himself as a “left-leaning liberal” with a proud attachment to the “Anglo-Saxon” outlook.
Until now, such affiliations rarely posed problems for his compatriots.
“The problem with people on the left is that as soon as you start to reflect a little on the impasses of the left, you are labelled a reactionary,” he says.
He speaks warmly of his annual trips to teach in American and occasionally British universities, confessing he has always appreciated “this sort of confidence in man which we have lost in France”.
“In France there is a scepticism with regards to progress in general that we do not find in either the US or England,” he says. “So I am a mix of the two [French and Anglo-Saxon].”
Still, Bruckner detects suspicion about the merits of industrial progress not only in France but across the Western world, wherever extremist environmental politics has taken hold of public debate and even language.
The credo consists of saying to developing countries “stay poor because we became rich, we did evil to the planet and therefore everyone must impoverish themselves”.
“This discourse is a smokescreen to hide the anxiety of Westerners who have lost their supremacy in the world,” Bruckner retorts.
“Ecology is a means for us to say to these emerging countries ‘stay in the mud, remain broke, and moreover do not try to equal us because the industrial adventure is a failure’. In this sense the discourse is perfectly scandalous.”