What we at r3.0 are reading (4)

6 min readJul 13, 2023

Interrogating Modernity

By Bill Baue

Modernity is a lot like air: we can’t see it or touch it, but we kinda just know it’s there. Or do we?

I’ve been reading three books all interrogating the question of modernity. While this may seem an esoteric focus, I hope to explain in this review how modernity — and its fatal flaws — should be of foremost interest to all of us.

Let’s start with American ecologist Paul Shepard’s 1973 classic, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1), which argues that modernity begins with the transition from the millions of years of human evolution in hunter-gatherer mode, to the very recent (~10k years ago) advent of agriculture (2), which initiated the separation of humans from our environment, and from one another. Shepard states succinctly:

“Though we may picture ourselves as very unlike old world peasants, it is in the agrarian mind that modern life begins.”

Much more complex is the argument from French philosopher Bruno Latour in the 1991 book We Have Never Been Modern (3) that, well, modernity has never really existed. He explains:

“The adjective ‘modern’ designates a new regime, an acceleration, a rupture, a revolution in time. When the word ‘modern’, ‘modernization’, or ‘modernity’ appears, we are defining, by contrast, an archaic and stable past. Furthermore, the word is always being thrown into the middle of a fight, in a quarrel where there are winners and losers, Ancients and Moderns. ‘Modern’ is thus doubly asymmetrical: it designates a break in the regular passage of time, and it designates a combat in which there are victors and vanquished.” [emphasis added]

Latour leads us through a complex (I found myself always walking a tightrope between comprehension and confusion!) argument centering on the debate between natural philosopher Robert Boyle and political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (of Leviathan fame) over the air pump experiment that helped establish the empirical basis of the experimental method (or scientific method). I would do injustice to Latour by walking you through the argument, so I’ll cut right to the chase:

“Boyle is not simply creating a scientific discourse while Hobbes is doing the same thing for politics; Boyle is creating a political discourse from which politics is to be excluded, while Hobbes is imagining a scientific politics from which experimental science has to be excluded. In other words, they are inventing our modern world, a world in which the representation of things through the intermediary of the laboratory is forever dissociated from the representation of citizens through the intermediary of the social contract.”

In other words, Latour demonstrates how modernism is, in essence, a paradox that pretends to — but never actually can — resolve itself. Latour thus proves that modernity is a fiction invented to prop itself up:

“No one has ever been modern. Modernity has never begun. There has never been a modern world.”

However, Latour proving that modernity doesn’t actually exist doesn’t necessarily get us anywhere, because the illusion of modernity continues to exert a stranglehold on the collective consciousness, creating very tangible real world outcomes. Nobody illustrates this better than Latinx academic activist Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti (who will speak in this year’s r3.0 Conference) in her provocative 2021 book Hospicing Modernity (4). Let me jump right to the heart of the matter:

“In my academic writing — which is a rather restrictive mode of communication — I have often referred to modernity as modernity/coloniality. This term functions as a reminder that the benefits we associate with modernity are created and maintained by historical, systemic, and ongoing processes that are inherently violent and unsustainable. In other words, this term underscores the fact that modernity cannot exist without expropriation, extraction, exploitation, militarization, dispossession, destitution, genocides, and ecocides (5). This is substantiated by economic, political, and historical data, but, like climate crisis data, this data is deemed ‘too hard to deal with,’ and largely ignored or reframed as something else. For example, in many stories of modernity these effects are considered the collateral damage of modernity rather than the necessary preconditions for modernity to exist.” [emphasis added]

This key paragraph introduces two vital concepts:

  • First, the necessary interlinkage of modernity with coloniality, thus intertwining any claims of modernity’s “benefits” as inherently conjoined with the destructive nature of coloniality; and
  • Second, the clear identification of modernity as inherently violent and unsustainable.

Indeed, Prof Andreotti underscores these concepts continually throughout the book: she repeats the term “violence and unsustainability” 26 times, and the related term “violent and unsustainable” an additional 6 times. Her relentlessness makes it impossible to escape the destructive reality of modernity/coloniality (a term that she repeats 12 times in the first part of the book to establish it, before letting go of the term in the latter part of the book.)

Just to drive this point home, Prof Andreotti further links this violence to the

“denial of the limits of the planet and the unsustainability of modernity/coloniality (the fact that the finite earth-metabolism cannot sustain exponential growth, consumption, extraction, exploitation, and expropriation indefinitely)…” [emphasis added]

She picks back up on this thread (familiar to those who follow our work at r3.0 on carrying capacity thresholds) as a launching pad to pivot to a unique perspective that makes the book particularly interesting.

“Many would like to see modernity replaced by a different system. Some of those believe modernity is stuck in self-infantilizing behavior; some see it recklessly crossing several tipping points leading to its decline; others see it as approaching or already past its expiration date. Some believe a genuinely new system is only possible if we are able to learn the lessons that modernity has to offer in its decline.

This book resonates with the latter position. Its intention is not to provide a synthesis of stories already told, but to offer different stories that can help us take a step back. This allows us to develop the dispositions to be taught by modernity itself — with honesty about its flaws and gifts — without trying to defend it, fix it, or prematurely replace it. In this sense, modernity is not a corrupt project of the West that needs to be defeated and replaced with a more righteous and virtuous non-Western alternative, but rather something that is now (unevenly) part of all of us, conditioning the way we experience reality.” [emphasis added]

Prof Andreotti’s “we’re all implicated” approach sets the foundation for the most profound aspect of her book: her disinvitation to read it. She repeatedly urges readers to put the book down, and to continue reading only at their own discretion, knowing full well that they will encounter profoundly unsettling perspectives about the reality they currently inhabit. In this sense, she invites a consensual interrogation of modernity/coloniality as a launching pad for imagining possible futures to emerge for the compost of modernism’s death.

I won’t spoil the experiential unfolding of the book, other than to say that the book is filled with invitations to engage with its ideas — or more precisely, to engage with yourself engaging with its ideas. Its exercises do not come with preconceived outcomes — they are literally invitations to explore our own relationships with modernity/coloniality, in full knowledge of its violence and unsustainability, as we navigate to our own conclusions and determinations about what to do as a result of these explorations.

In this sense, Prof Andreotti transforms the fatal constrictions of modernity/coloniality into a self-liberating force, transmuting its violence and unsustainability into generative alternatives.


  1. Thanks to my r3.0 colleague Jennifer Dhyana Nucci for suggesting this book.
  2. It is not a coincidence that some also identify the transition to agriculturalism as the advent of the Anthropocene.
  3. Thanks to r3.0 Advocation Partner Antony Upward for bringing this book to my attention.
  4. Thanks to Ben Roberts for recommending this book.
  5. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same source cited in footnote 2 identifies 1610 as the more definitive advent of the Anthropocene, as the European genocide of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas left a mark in the geological record visible as a declining carbon spike due to the rapid disappearance of agriculture.




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