“A society that is afraid of death is deadly”

“A society that is afraid of death is deadly”

Is there a link between the concrete that we pour without remorse on the world and that of which we make our vaults? ? Between our fear of dying and our devouring » of the biosphere ? In his last essay, Earth, bodies, death, published by Éditions Dehors, Pierre Madelin dissects the relationship of Westerners to their finitude. The author and translator describes in chiselled language how our refusal of death has led us to perceive the Earth not as a foyer » which we must take care of, but as a exile » negligible. Maintenance.

Reporterre — In your book, you establish a link between the West’s relationship to death, made up of a mixture of fear and denial, and its propensity to destroy nature. Why ?

Pierre Madelin — A very good friend of mine died a few years ago. At the same time, I was reading and translating the Australian philosopher Val Plumwood, who dealt a lot with the question of death in her last texts. It was then that I became interested in death, and how I could relate it to ecology, which has been at the heart of my thoughts for a long time.

In parallel, by taking an interest in transhumanism, I observed that there was, among certain billionaires, both an ambition to abolish death, and at the same time to go and colonize Mars. I told myself that these two dreams were not separate. It is not a question of two madnesses walking side by side without being articulated. These two denials, of death and of the Earth, have a common origin. It was my initial intuition.

The denial of death crosses Western history, from before Christianity to transhumanism. © Nnoman Cadoret / Reporterre

How have these depictions of death affected how we interact with the Earth? ?

They have led us to devalue the Earth. Initially, death avoidance strategies were situated at a purely religious and metaphysical level, without necessarily engaging in practical actions to transform our environment.

It is from modernity that this desire to escape death became secularized, and took the form of technical and scientific strategies. We see it particularly in these two great founders of philosophical modernity, René Descartes and Francis Bacon. We find in the latter the idea that the progress of science and technology should allow us to make ourselves immortal, as we were before our original sin.

In Plato, in Christianity, or in the Gnostic currents, the fear of death leads to the devaluation of our earthly stay. » © Benoît Gallot/Curator of Père-Lachaise

And then, there is the neuro-transhumanist current, of a rather Platonic heritage. The immortality to which its followers aspire is no longer that of the body, but that of the mind, conceived as a simple computing power that can be downloaded onto a hard disk. This digital body replaces, in a way, the spiritual body and the old fantasies of disembodiment.

All of this represents a market, albeit a niche one. At the Alcor Cryogenics Center in Arizona, you can be cryogenically frozen for $200,000, in the hope that medicine will one day thaw and bring bodies back to life. Those with less money can have only their heads preserved, in the hope that the brain essence will one day survive in a digital medium.

These devices, like others intended to prevent the degeneration of the flesh – for example pesticides – are very polluting. Do we sow death by trying to avoid it ?

Absolutely. The anthropologist Louis-Vincent Thomas said it himself: any necrophobic society is a deadly society. This is true today. We have a phobia of death, which is completely erased from public space. And at the same time, we are bringing death on a large scale, through the loss of biodiversity.

To deny death, one necessarily denies life. There is a dialectical relationship between the two. Scientists talk about necromass » to designate the layer of the soil where the corpses of animals and plants accumulate, which nourish the vitality of the soil. In the functioning of ecosystems, without death, there is no life. A golf course, for example, is a biological desert. Nothing decomposes there, nothing lives there. Without decay, there can be no renewal.

We have to accept that we live in a “broken” world. » © Nnoman Cadoret / Reporterre

We have to accept that we live in a world broken », where death creates fractures, cracks that no ecological wisdom can, in my opinion, entirely console. Ecological wisdom must necessarily integrate a tragic dimension. You have to re-enchant death by re-inscribing it in cycles, and at the same time accept that a part of yourself dies and leaves sequels that cannot be resorbed.

It’s a difficult balance to find. But it is only by accepting our anthropological finitude that we can accept our ecological finitude. As long as we continue to fantasize unlimitedness in our condition as human beings, that we imagine transcending death, we will continue to aspire to unlimitedness in our relationship to nature. It is this fantasy of limitlessness that leads us to disaster.

© Nnoman Cadoret / Reporterre
Earth, bodies, deathby Pierre Madelin, published by Dehors, August 2022, 208 p., €18.

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