“Trump’s originality is to link, in a single gesture, first the headlong rush toward maximum profit while abandoning the rest of the world to its fate (billionaires are called upon to represent “ordinary people”!), and second, the headlong rush backward of an entire people toward the return of national and ethnic categories (“Make America Great Again” behind a wall!)”
Bruno Latour, Down to Earth, p. 35
Across Europe, public sentiment grows increasing worried about climate policy, seen both in the EU parliamentary elections in May and the wave of support for Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. The major exception is France, where fewer citizens felt concerned about climate change in March 2019 than in September 2018 and the Yellow Vest protestors reject paying higher prices for fossil fuels. What do these two contemporaneous movements have in common?
Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity Press, 2018) is a good a place to start. Latour, a prolific French philosopher and sociologist of science, places climate change in the context of recent history. Going beyond simply castigating “globalization,” he pinpoints three phenomena that have defined the last four decades and culminated in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump: “deregulation, a term that has given the word ‘globalization’ an increasingly pejorative cast”; “an increasingly vertiginous explosion of inequalities”; and “the beginning of a systematic effort to deny the existence of climate change” (p. 1).
Pursuing either the Global or the Local is misguided and opens a divide that makes us more susceptible to climate change denial. Latour argues that we should instead strive towards a different attractor, which he calls the Terrestrial. This requires “carry[ing] out two complementary movements that the ordeal of modernization has made contradictory: attaching oneself to a particular patch of soil on the one hand, having access to the global world on the other” (p. 12).
Denying climate, feeling good
This 106-page philosophical tract takes time to think through and absorb, but readers will find the journey enjoyable and relatively manageable. Down to Earth will force out of conventional thinking and disciplinary constraints those who care about energy and climate. How we will get to Latour’s Terrestrial remains unclear, and he readily admits he is no political scientist (p. 2). Yet he deserves credit for reframing the conversation for today’s political environment, even if his solution remains philosophical.
Prior to the start of the popular environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, most environmental writings were either John Muir-like celebrations of nature’s beauty or panegyrics about human cooptation of nature. Environmental historians have since demonstrated that humans and nature have been shaping one another for a long time. Nature is not, in other words, a passive smorgasbord of resources from which we simply enrich ourselves.
Latour’s views and the current environmental movement are, therefore, nothing new, yet we are in a new moment. With the decades-long ascent of deregulation and inequality, denying climate change becomes a necessary conjoiner that reconciles people’s discomfort. Latour’s originality lies in illuminating this connection. “Ordinary people already had a general tendency to be skeptical; now they have been incited, thanks to billions of dollars invested in disinformation, to be skeptical about one massive fact – the mutation of the climate…given what their leaders have already tried to make them swallow, it is understandable that they are suspicious of everything and don’t want to listen any more” (p. 24-5).
It is becoming clear that to engage people on climate change, the media needs to discuss solutions. Latour’s solutions for reaching the Terrestrial are complicated. He argues that we need “to acquire as much cold-blooded knowledge as possible about the heated activity of an Earth finally grasped from up close” (p. 74), and, more interestingly, “try to single out the sciences that bear upon what some researchers call the Critical Zone(s)…a minuscule zone a few kilometers thick between the atmosphere and bedrock. A biofilm, a varnish, a skin, a few infinitely folder layers” (p. 78). What he means by Critical Zones is somewhat vague, and he promises to explicate them further in the future (p. 99).
A major problem remains, however: under what authority can we become terrestrial? As Latour acknowledges, politics “has always been oriented toward objects, stakes, situations, material entities, bodies, landscapes, places.” (p. 52-3). Our object-oriented politics remain a challenge in how we will practically achieve what we know in our minds is necessary. “It requires too much care, too much attention, too much time, too much diplomacy.” But getting out of the Global and Local continuum is a start. “Even today it is the Global that shines, that liberates, that arouses enthusiasm, that makes it possible to remain so unaware, that emancipates, that gives the impression of eternal youth. Only it does not exist. It is the Local that reassures, that calms, that offers an identity. But it does not exist either.” (p. 91-2).
Coming back Down to Earth will be the natural result of gravity, in both meanings of the word. But it also requires us to work to consciously jettison the “either…or” of globalization and localization.
A European story
Down to Earth’s audience is the West, a limitation that has obvious weaknesses. Yet, by being forthright, his Eurocentricity becomes an asset in his closing essay that describes where he wants to come down to earth. “The Earth that Europe had wanted to grasp as a Globe is offering itself anew as the Terrestrial, offering Europe a second chance that it in no way deserved. This is quite fitting for the region of the world that has the greatest responsibility in the history of the ecological upheaval” (p. 106).
Latour’s sense of historical perspective is keen and incisive. Indeed, the Old Continent has a moral responsibility to be the intellectual and spiritual leader in the climate crisis. Its rapacity of nature created global empires and its present-day iterations. Yet Latour’s argument is so classically secular that non-Europeans are unlikely to heed it. People in developing countries know that climate change is happening, but they do not have the means to address it; they are struggling simply to lift themselves out of poverty. Words emanating from a European capital and a European mindset might not resonate where it counts.
Trumpism and its discontents
This Monday, Trump stood in the White House and touted his Administration’s efforts on the environment. It would be comical – and top ten content for The Onion – if it weren’t so ridiculously cynical. Latour nailed it, when he argues that Trump and other elites know very well there is a climate problem. He puts their thinking in the first person: “Yes, we shall have to pay dearly for this [climate] upheaval, but the others are going to pay for what is broken, certainly not we ourselves; and secondly, as for this less and less debatable truth about the New Climactic Regime, we are going to deny its very existence!” (p. 18).
Latour’s focus on Trump, however, obfuscates his own argument that climate change denial has existed since the early 2000s. Trump’s announcement withdrawing the United States from the Paris Accord “was a declaration of war authorizing the occupation of all the other countries, if not with troops, at with CO2, which America retains the right to emit” (p. 84). But President George W. Bush pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 in similar fashion. His focus on Trump also obfuscates the problem of China – he fails to even mention the country that, as the world’s largest carbon emitter by far, is occupying our future. Does Trump’s combative approach to China, then, have any benefits for climate? By blaming Trump and framing the question on Western terms, Latour gives China a pass.
I look forward to Latour developing his thoughts further in the future. Down to Earth made me think differently about climate change and sharpened the connections between climate change denial, deregulation, and inequality. Birds of a feather have flocked together for too long, and we are all living in their dirty nest.