An excerpt from Rightful Place of Science: Frankenstein.

I thought I’d share the Afterword I wrote for our forthcoming edited volume in honor of the Bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This book is part of the The Rightful Place of Science series, published by ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes. Today we put the final touches on the edits before it goes to press, and as I reread this, I thought it might be worth sharing right now. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein on a dare to write the scariest story she could imagine. Ten scholars and authors revisited her story, and wrote about how to think about Dr. Frankenstein’s story two hundred years later. We found many different themes and threads to pull on, but a common theme emerged: it turns out the scariest monsters are the ones we create when we turn away from the things we don’t want to face.

Afterword: Volcanoes, Monsters, and Political Ecology

The story of Victor Frankenstein and his creature was born during an unnatural winter in June. The Year Without a Summer was part of a larger climatic event, “the Little Ice Age” that began around 1300 CE and continued into the 19th century. Thanks to the eruption of Mount Tambora, temperatures dipped even further to wreak havoc on human societies.[1] The famines, riots, and diseases that came in the wake of this series of natural events may seem all too familiar as we face down hurricanes and flooding on one of the U.S. coasts, and drought and wildfires on the other. This geologic age has been dubbed the Anthropocene because the natural disasters we face are shaped by the collective actions of humans. If these new global threats are the creature we have created together, then we are tasked with the same rigorous ethical thinking we’ve asked of Victor Frankenstein in these chapters.

In our introduction, we quoted Bruno Latour, who stressed the urgency of loving our monsters. In the same essay, Latour challenges us to look for these monsters in our relationship to nature.

Let Dr. Frankenstein’s sin serve as a parable for political ecology. At a time when science, technology, and demography make clear that we can never separate ourselves from the nonhuman world—that we, our technologies, and nature can no more be disentangled than we can remember the distinction between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster—this is the moment chosen by millions of well-meaning souls to flagellate themselves for their earlier aspiration to dominion, to repent for their past hubris, to look for ways of diminishing the numbers of their fellow humans, and to swear to make their footprints invisible?[2]

Latour’s idea of political ecology here is a break from more traditional ideas of political ecology, which call for a politics that cares for nature by leaving it alone. Instead, he suggests, we must embrace the idea that science, technology, nature, and culture are “so confused and mixed up as to be impossible to untangle.” When we embrace this idea, our politics does not protect the pure, natural world from us, but considers this mangle of human and nonhuman, natural and unnatural when making decisions about how to live and move through the world. By stretching the Frankenstein metaphor to include a creation that extends so far beyond a single, corporeal creature, Latour pushes us to consider responsibility and creativity not as individual traits, but as part of the fabric of our culture—to consider our communal responsibility for our shared creative endeavors. He continues:

The goal of political ecology must not be to stop innovating, inventing, creating, and intervening. The real goal must be to have the same type of patience and commitment to our creations as God the Creator, Himself. And the comparison is not blasphemous: we have taken the whole of Creation on our shoulders and have become coextensive with the Earth.[3]

Political ecology may be an important way for western culture to embrace coexistence and respect for nature precisely because part of our heritage is built on carelessness and ambition. Frankenstein is one of our enduring myths because we know Victor Frankenstein. We know a thousand Victor Frankensteins. Other cultures operate from their own sets of narratives, beliefs, and practices. Many indigenous cultures have developed a close, interdependent relationship with the natural world. What Latour calls political ecology is already an established part of many other worldviews. As we invest deeply in Frankenstein’s story as a metaphor for our relationships with science and technology or with each other, we should be mindful that some cultures have no need for a mythology that teaches them about the peril they face when they fail to think before they leap or to care for what they create. Not all cultures need a narrative like Shelley’s to help them make sense of their role in the world, but it seems we do.

We are in danger, though, of failing to hear the story Mary Shelley is telling us. It would be a mistake to abandon our creations or fail to care for them. But it would also be a mistake to abandon innovation. The creature was not inexorably destined for murder and mayhem. He was abandoned to it. If loving our monsters means opening ourselves to political ecology, then the onset of the Anthropocene means we have a lot more work to do.

[1] Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001).

[2] Bruno Latour, “Love Your Monsters: Why We Must Care for Our Technologies As We Do Our Children,” The Breakthrough Journal (Winter 2012).

[3] Latour.

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