Ecological and economic aberrations are widely discussed, and often denounced, in the public arena. They concern global phenomena as well as practices or projects. With regard to the first category, that of global phenomena, the word “aberration” has recently been mentioned in connection with the excessive exploitation of the planet’s resources. The level of renewable resources in one year of human consumption would have been exceeded for the current year on 29 July 2019 (the “Earth overshoot day”). This fact (hypothetical, but credible) led Brune Poirson, the French Secretary of State to the Minister of Ecological and Solidarity Transition, to state in a tweet that we must “put an end to this aberration due to an inadequate economic system.” Many practices that only the satisfaction of private interests seems to justify have also been described as “aberrant.” This category includes the global waste recycling circuit, specifically the “ecological aberration of waste transported over tens of thousands of kilometres” (1). As for the third category, that of projects, it also includes many cases considered aberrant: – EuropaCity (“Europacity is an aberration,” says a member of the French “Collectif pour le Triangle de Gonesse,” who adds: “This project has all the defects of today’s urban planning”) (2); – the transalpine rail link Lyon-Turin, which is, for Yannick Jadot, from the French Europe Ecologie Les Verts party, an “ecological aberration” and “an economic aberration that will never be profitable” (3); – the future of the Perpignan-Rungis rail freight line (which had been announced for closure in spring 2019, but which should resume in early November) on which, according to LCI, “the unions regretted a ‘frantic rail freight break-up’ and political leaders raised the ecological aberration […] – because eliminating this line would amount, according to the various rail representatives, to putting 25,000 trucks on the roads of France each year” (4). Those who use the word “aberration” claim (or, sometimes, play at claiming) to present a decisive argument in favour of their cause. The word seems to have a force of conviction equivalent, mutatis mutandis, to that of truth or reason. When a person says, “That’s absurd!,” they believe (or suggest) that their exclamation cannot be contradicted with valid arguments.    

An aberrant action is irrational,

but any irrational action is not aberrant

  It must be said that the word “aberration” means, in a figurative sense, “deviation from common sense, from reason” (5). An aberrant state is close to the expression “Against all reason:”

“In a completely unreasonable way, contrary to logic, to common sense” (6).

An aberrant action is irrational. But is irrationality enough to characterise aberration? Consider the case of a person who, before acting, does not consider all the relevant facts or reasons available, or does not give them the weight that an impartial observer or any reasonable person in their position would give them. Depending on the content of his or her deliberations and the importance of the consequences of his or her action, this person could be described, among other things, as negligent, careless, dizzy, inconsistent, stupid, extravagant – or aberrant.  

An “intentional wandering”

To distinguish aberration from other terms exhibiting irrationality, it is important to emphasise the intentional nature of the concept. “Aberration” comes, like the word “error,” from the Latin word errare (which gave “error”), which means “to move about without a fixed course, aim, or goal” (7). However, notes the 1787-1788 Dictionnaire critique de la langue française about the link between “erreur” (error) and “aberration:”

“Aberration has the active sense, Error, passive sense: the first is said of the action of wandering, the second of the effect of this action” (8).

This suggestive remark sheds light on the philosophical definition of aberration, including philosopher Christian Godin’s:

“A misguided mind that can range from simple error (emphatic and polemical use) to absurdity. Behaviour is considered aberrant if it contravenes common sense and contradicts the agent’s evident interest.” (9)


Three interpretations of aberrations:

error, blindness, intentional harm to oneself and others

Three interpretations of aberrations – in particular ecological-economic aberrations – can thus be distinguished: 1) First of all, there are aberrations that come close to errors, due typically, to negligence, recklessness or nonchalance, that is, to states of mind and ways of being that indicate a lack of care specific to the person or group that deliberates and acts. 2) Then there are the aberrations that manifest a form of blindness to reality, but a solid blindness because it is anchored in a frame of reference that leads to thinking and judging in a certain way. This interpretation is illustrated by this statement by Ivan Illich:

“The pretence of a society to provide ever better housing is the same kind of aberration we have met in the pretence of doctors to provide better health and of engineers to provide higher speeds. The setting of abstract impossible goals turns the means by which these are to be achieved into ends.” (10)

3) The third interpretation refers to actions that lead the persons concerned to harm themselves and others – or, equally, to harm everyone, including themselves (11). When they have a potential effect on the well-being of a large number of people, aberrant actions (or even simple statements of aberrant intentions) lead to a lack of understanding, anger, and scandal. This is the case of deforestation in the Amazon, which has been considered a major cause of the fires that have affected the region since mid-August 2019, and which is not due to error (in the sense of interpretation 1) or blindness (in the sense of interpretation 2) (12).  

The point of view of an impartial observer

Let’s end with a small test to distinguish the three types of aberrations. In the first case (the error case), an impartial observer might tell the person or group causing an aberrant action:

“Think about it again; you haven’t considered all the relevant facts.”

In the second case (the blindness case), the impartial observer might tell them:

“Open your eyes, stop living in illusion.”

In the third case (the harming oneself and others case), he could ask them:

“Why are you looking for your own destruction?”

  Alain Anquetil (1) “Indésirables en Asie, des déchets plastique occidentaux en mal de débouchés,” La Croix, 3 June 2019. See also “Treated like trash: south-east Asia vows to return mountains of rubbish from west,” The Guardian, 28 May 2019. (2) “Val-d’Oise : à Gonesse, les anti-Europacity ne désarment pas,” Le Parisien, 13 July 2019. (3) “Lyon-Turin : ‘C’est une aberration écologique’ selon Yannick Jadot d’Europe-Ecologie-les-Verts,” France Bleu, 24 April 2019. (4) “Ligne de fret ferroviaire Perpignan-Rungis : les questions que pose le possible arrêt du ‘train des primeurs’, ” LCI, 12 July 2019. See also: “Rail freight service between Perpignan and Rungis continued,”, 6 July 2019. (5) Source : Dictionnaire historique de la langue française Le Robert. (6) Source (in French): CNRTL. (7) Source: Merriam-Webster. (8) Source (in French): The ARTFL Project. (9) C. Godin, Dictionnaire de philosophie, Paris, Fayard / Editions du Temps, 2004. (10) I. Illich, Tools for conviviality, New York, Harper & Row, 1973. (11) Of course, we could also distinguish a fourth interpretation: one that concerns persons harming themselves and no one else – a case not as widespread as one might think. (12) See “In Bolsonaro’s burning Brazilian Amazon, all our futures are being consumed,” The Guardian, 23 August 2019. [cite]  

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