(Goncourt 2023 prize selection) Gaspard Kœnig: “The earthworm will save the Earth!  »

(Goncourt 2023 prize selection) Gaspard Kœnig: “The earthworm will save the Earth! »

Philosopher, writer, politician, you return to the novel with “Humus”. The story of two AgroParisTech students (2) passionate about earthworms. Do you want to put your hands in the ground?

I wanted to write a coming-of-age novel about today’s society, with 20-year-olds with ecological ideals, crossed by existential questions, living their love stories. At the same time, while cultivating my vegetable garden in Normandy, I realized the incredible diversity of earthworms of all shapes, all colors, red, pink or brown. I started reading on this subject and noticed that these animals remain very underestimated in the scientific literature… even though there are thousands of works on the stars. But humus is at the base of life. The very term humanity comes from humus.

What exactly is humus?

A layer of black earth twenty centimeters to one meter thick composed of micro-organisms, bacteria, yeasts, minerals, fungi and other as yet unknown elements. A complex life develops there, thanks to the incessant work of earthworms which swallow organic matter, reject nutrients and dig tunnels: each square meter of earth contains five meters of galleries allowing nutrients to come up from the bottom and draining rainwater. Earthworms ensure the life of the soil, playing the role of plowman theorized by Darwin. They constitute the primary terrestrial biomass, between one and three tonnes per hectare. However, deep plowing and pesticides have decimated them; the soil is compact, devitalized. Like in the fields of Arthur’s grandfather, one of my two heroes. There is no more life. 75% of submerged land is already degraded, according to Ipbes (3), and this could rise to 95% by 2050.

Arthur wants to regenerate his grandfather’s land with earthworms. His friend Kevin is launching a vermicomposting start-up. Does saving the Earth mean saving earthworms?

It’s a hypothesis! I admit that the earthworm seems less charismatic than the polar bear, but there is an ecological emergency. If we manage to lower our carbon emissions but our land is dead, what good will it do? For this fiction, I documented myself in the manner of Émile Zola, as a writer-journalist. I checked the figures, visited a vermicomposting company near Rouen (Seine-Maritime). This company experienced a rat invasion… I took up this unfortunate adventure in my novel, with Kevin’s company. The craziest ideas often come from reality.

Where does this sensitivity for ecology come from?

My parents, natives of Picardy, living in Paris, were activists. They collaborated on several newspapers including The wild. My mother also wrote Garden notebooks (Ed. Grasset). I was immersed in the thoughts of Élisée Reclus, this 19th century environmentalist precursor, and trained with liberal thinkers like Tocqueville or John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher and economist who already spoke of degrowth.

The scenarios and the characters ring very true, in the world of high schools and start-ups as well as in the countryside…

I know both environments very well. My fiction takes place in Norman Switzerland, near Clécy, where I live half the time. I studied at Normale Sup, led a think tank, met ministers, deputies, experts… As in the novel, I belonged to the Young Leaders of the French-American Foundation, which promotes meetings of promising young graduates from both sides of the Atlantic.

You are not being kind to this microcosm of trendy investors! Did you want to take a photo of capitalism in our time?

As Balzac showed the dealings of bankers in the back rooms of 19th century resto-bars, I wanted to bring to light the functioning of start-ups, with their groups of investors, project managers, asset managers, specialists marketing, public relations… these people who speak the same language, have the same codes. This specific failing of contemporary capitalism is based on a mythology. To lure investors, you have to tell them a good story. Seduced, they finance and bet on hundreds of companies. All it takes is for one to work, for the valuation to take place and they sell it for more…

You’re not doing the neo-rurals any favors either…

I didn’t want a binary scenario. I am very critical of the elite, because they deserve it. But also with the neo-rurals, among whom we can find the same communities and pettiness. Even if I also have some great successes. And I do not cast opprobrium on those farmers of the 1960s and 1970s who were told that they had to feed the planet. They had no choice. Many, like Jobard in my novel, change. He loves and knows his land and has started to reduce his inputs. Léa, the village naturopath, successor to the witches of yesteryear, tries to reconcile this gruff old peasant with Arthur the idealist; she almost succeeds.

In your novel “Humus”, you portray yourself with ambitious young graduates. A period that you deny?

I do not deny this old “me”. But I have changed. I live half my time in the countryside, I no longer fly, I have gradually changed my behavior. The interest with the novel is that we can explore the craziest hypotheses… Kevin and Arthur follow their ideals to the limit! Arthur becomes radicalized, Kevin lets himself be carried away by the system where Philippine, his partner, evolves into an expert.

Philippine, Kevin’s damned soul…

I took inspiration for this character from Elizabeth Holmes, a celebrity who wanted to revolutionize medical exams. His start-up raised a billion euros, it made the front page of Forbes, the American business magazine. But she is now in prison for fraud. In my novel, Philippine takes care of fundraising all the way to Silicon Valley: how far will she go? I leave the field open. Nothing is ever perfectly virtuous and their start-up will perhaps work one day… The book does not judge. And if Arthur and Kevin fail in their ideals, they succeed in their more modest achievements.

Are you extending your ecological fight into the political arena?

Yes. I have just co-authored an article in The world to call for a ban on glyphosate. Europe must decide on the renewal of its authorization… It’s a catastrophe. Although studies of its impact on humans remain unclear, it seems clear that glyphosate disrupts the behavior of earthworms and hinders their reproduction. We must ban this poison, replace it with sustainable methods: agroforestry, organic, permaculture, soil regeneration…

What do you think the solution would be?

A real agricultural policy that would serve the transition to sustainable agriculture, mobilize the population and assume the high costs. We must rethink old models, increase the workforce: this is a very good political project which concerns all territorial planning. I am a thinker of freedom, and promote decentralization and local autonomy. We must hear the warning cries, otherwise radicalization will get worse. Everyone must participate in their ecosystem and make it a pleasure, not a constraint. I speak out against sad ecology. Compost is not a punishment, it is life!

(1) We close on November 6 and do not yet have the names of the winners of the Goncourt and Renaudot.
(2) AgroParisTech is a large school under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty.
(3) Scientific and political platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The biography of Gaspard Kœnig

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