by Eric Kerr
Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth explores the way in which global political action today embodies multiple contradictions in our relationship to land. More precisely, our relationship to that part of the Earth that comprises the crust and the atmosphere, where we spend most of our time and on which we spend most of our energy. Wrapped up in this relationship are ideologies of nationalism, the politics of climate change, and the exploits and exploitations of capitalism.
On the one hand, blood-and-soil nationalists are sowing seeds across Europe and North America, defending “their” patches of earth and mending walls to protect what Latour calls a “made-over Local” (30). The Rassemblement National (fomerly, Front National) in France, the Lega Nord in Italy, Brexit in Britain, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the Trumpist “MAGA” movement in the US, among others, aestheticize a land from the past that never existed, a pastoral landscape “definitely left behind by modernization” (30) and frequently accompanied by a rejection of the theory of anthropogenic global warming. Environmentalism seeks a custodial relationship to the land. Green parties across Europe argue for a return to a sustainable relationship with the planet and its life. However, according to Latour, the Greens have been stuck in a debate that pits the earth against economics, and usually the earth gives way (46).
Latour sets up a number of “attractor poles” (pôle attracteur) to describe the vectors along which different political actors may be placed, a metaphor which calls to mind both the magnetic poles of the Earth and the French idea of a pole of attraction, a place that is particularly appealing to visitors, migrants. The first two attractors describe a line from the local to the global, with the sense of inevitable progress pushing us towards modernization. While globalization has cultivated the idea that we are moving towards a “flat” Earth, increasingly integrated and unified through international markets and the movement of capital, businesses, and people, Latour observes that rather than expanding and broadening our horizons, including myriad traditions and perspectives, this has instead meant the imposition of one, increasingly infertile, perspective. Today, Latour says, the promises of globalization, progress, and modernization, and the possibility of undoing it all, seem impossible.
“People find themselves in the situation of passengers on a plane that has taken off for the Global, to whom the pilot has announced that he has had to turn around because one can no longer land at that airport, and who then hear with terror… that the emergency landing strip, the Local, is also inaccessible. It is understandable that these passengers would press against the plane’s windows to try to see where they are going to be able to attempt a crash landing.” (32)
A third attractor emerges through the clouds. This comes in many instantiations and Latour’s favoured example is the US pulling out of the Paris climate change accord in 2017. Instead of opposing globalization or ethnic nationalism, Trump’s followers embraced both and behaved as if they could somehow be conflated. For Latour, this is a kind of denial of reality, a denial of the ground upon which one stands.
The focus of much of Down to Earth is on those who have, in various ways, abandoned the project of belonging to the earth. At one end of the scale, we have those denizens who seem to have created their own reality, unmoored from the common ground we once thought we shared, who are radically skeptical of the very idea of expertise and who favour conspiracies over cock-ups. Although they are not in Latour’s sights in this book, at the other end of this scale, we have the super-wealthy building gated communities, seasteading, digging huge apocalypse-proof bunkers into New Zealand turf, or even hatching plans to fly off the planet to Mars. Alongside this is the project of epistemic corruption undertaken by, chiefly, the fossil fuel industry to muddy scientific consensuses and fertilize the natural inclination towards skepticism of the person-on-the-street (Gardiner 2011). Latour’s focus seems to be on the ideological commitments of ordinary people although it’s worth noting that billionaires live as unmoored from reality as the figure of the internet-dwelling climate troll.
It’s no coincidence that localists are often committed to climate change denial. Our whole political ecosystem, Latour claims, is being reoriented around climate politics. We can flesh out Latour’s thought by considering the shared commitments of climate change scepticism. Scepticism, after all, assumes that we all occupy the same reality (climate change sceptics call into question knowledge of the same climate as the rest of us). The kind of scepticism adopted by Latour’s third pole looks less like someone urging caution and rigour about the climate and more like someone indicating that they do not belong to Earth and so their actions have no impact on it. This “epistemic dissonance” (Gelfert 2014) has given rise to a new kind of politics, that Latour intriguingly calls “post-politics”. The term seems to be a deliberate move away from talk of post-truth, which Latour considers to have been given a light touch by journalists who avoid talking about the root causes of ordinary people’s disdain for claims to truth. Unfortunately, Latour doesn’t spend a lot of time on what he means by post-politics – what he calls a “politics with no object” (38) – save through a multitude of examples from recent history.
Climate change scepticism, at one level, is a disavowal of responsibility. Even when it admits climate change (but not its anthropogenic origins) or admits human causes but not the solutions on the table, it always leaves unanswered the question: well what should we do then? This is also, then, a story of taking responsibility for what one creates or, refusing to or, perhaps worse, taking action that only feels like taking responsibility. In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, a myth that Latour has often returned to, smith-god Hephaestus is forced to reckon with the consequences of his craftsmanship bestowed upon him by Prometheus:
Hephaestus: I hate my craft, I hate the skill of my own hands.
In the Anthropocene, the metaphor is twofold. Latour charts how we are the authors of our own destruction: Sky-rocketing inequality, populist politics, and mass migration all have their roots in the Earth’s reactions to globalization which itself began in old West industrialization. Reactionaries are becoming aware of how climate change is the axis around which the rest of politics gyrates. The far-right gunman who killed twenty-one people in El Paso was motivated by a Malthusian concern for population control in the face of ecological collapse. The Christchurch shooter described himself as an “eco-fascist”. Marine Le Pen, and other ethnic nationalists, frame their arguments, intermittently, in environmentalist terms. This is not to say that we should take such claims simply at face value. They are symptomatic of the expanding influence of the climate on politics. At the same time, climate sceptics have stolen the tools of STS, its tools for doubting the authority of expertise in particular, to seed confusion and epistemic corruption.
I think this is a neat explanation for why denialists are so committed to their denial (as are many who explicitly commit to the idea of climate change but, like Hephaestus, don’t really want to go as far as to do much about it). Since climate change is a reaction not just to a scientific theory but to an entire political reality of migration, nationalism, economic and physical protectionism, globalization, and much more besides, it’s not surprising that quibbling about its scientific veracity is not conclusive. Indeed, awareness polarizes people further.
So what happens when we come back down to earth or, as put by the original French title (“Où atterrir: comment s’orienter en politique”) of Latour’s book: Where to land? We can start by recognizing that, at both poles, populists and progressives share a premise: that the traditional order is being torn apart by globalization, by liberal “obscurantist elites” (19), in ways that flatten the earth but also take us away from it and are, ultimately, destroying it. They do not see a way out in the options presented by those with the power to take action. Isabelle Stengers describes this as a kind of pharmakon, both remedy and poison (Stengers 2015). Remedies to climate change are presented as objections, dangerous, and used to silence mention of alternatives to the status quo rather than offering a genuine counterargument. Problems are framed in terms of individual responsibility – recycling, plastic straws, ethical consumption, wildfires ignited by unextinguished cigarette butts – rather than effects of the things themselves. Talking of scepticism she writes: “The necessity of paying attention where there are doubts, what one would require of a ‘good father’, what one teaches children, is defined here as the enemy of Progress.” (ibid p. 63)
Latour wrestles with what “attachment to land, maintenance of tradition, and attention to the earth,” means at a time when what we usually think of as global and local politics seem so strangely so incommensurably estranged and, at the same time, deeply connected. He argues that everything has to be “mapped out anew, at new costs.” (33) While Isabelle Stenger’s recent climate manifesto calls for “experts, diplomats, and victims, to testify to the relationship between themselves” (Stengers 2015: 15) Latour places that testimony in the ground: experts and victims must both find a relationship to the land that we share.
Latour’s reply to Prometheus has always been grounded. In a keynote lecture for the Networks of Design meeting of the Design History Society in 2008, Latour opposed the hubristic, heroic “dream of action” embodied by Prometheus to the cautious, less committed detail-work of design. Latour recommended a “precautionary Prometheus” to the attendant designers and historians of design, thereby channeling the EU’s commitment to the precautionary principle. Latour asks: “Will Prometheus ever be cautious enough to redesign the planet?” (Latour 2008: 11)
It’s consequently not surprising that Latour wants to land in Europe. Latour imagines the bureaucracy of the EU as reaching “the complexity of an ecosystem” (100). This is clearest seen in the UK’s attempt to leave, being so entangled in that system that the “idea of sovereignty delineated by impermeable borders” (101) becomes a nonsense. As in his lecture, Latour again returns to German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. He quotes him, seemingly approvingly, saying that Europe is the “club of nations that had definitively given up empire” (101) and credits Europe with inventing “the Globe” – through the techniques of cartography – being a home for ecological and linguistic variety but also with a “particular responsibility,” (102), despite its history. This final section is presented more as a declaration than something argued for; a statement of what Latour believes and is willing to defend. He ends: “Now, if you wish, it’s your turn to present yourself.” (106)
Here is my very brief reply: When Latour notes that climate denialists claim that their actions cannot affect the world (34) – aren’t they correct? The idea that individual, aggregated choices may affect the massive tide of climate change is fanciful, like trying to empty the ocean with a collection of, individually built and operated, buckets. Does it matter if they believe in climate change or not? They have no power to do anything meaningful anyway. And even when one does attempt to convince the other, few take the opportunity and most dig in their heels even deeper. Perhaps to get out of this ditch, we could look to other forms of belonging to the land. Listen to those closest to the effects of climate change: indigenous people, climate refugees, and those living in island nations, for example. Broaden out our conception of what can belong.
New forms of legal personhood indicate an emerging response that mirrors the legal personhood that catalysed capitalism. In New Zealand, the Te Uruwera forest, the Whanganui river, and Mount Taranaki have been given legal status as living entities. Incidentally, I find it curious, although I’m not quite sure what to make of it, that both these radical new forms of legal personhood and the elite survival bunkers are located on the same islands. Citing the Whanganui Act, an Indian court recently granted legal personhood to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers as did Columbia for the Atrato river. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to make the rights of nature (“Pachamama” or “Mother Nature”) part of the constitution. The Eerie Bill of Rights granted, albeit symbolically, legal personhood to the eponymous lake. These moves have often been supported and pushed by indigenous people in their respective nations. Perhaps this is a way of expanding our horizons of who, and what, belongs to the earth.
Bruno Latour: Down to Earth. Politics in the New Climatic Regime
Translated by Catherine Porter.
London: Polity Press 2018.
140 pp., paperback, US$14.95
Eric Kerr is a Research Fellow at Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and also teaches at Tembusu College, Singapore.
Gardiner, Stephen M. 2011. A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. Oxford University Press.
Gelfert, Axel. 2013. “Climate Scepticism, Epistemic Dissonance, and the Ethics of Uncertainty.” Philosophy and Public Issues 3 (1): 167-208
Latour, Bruno. 2008. “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (With Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk).” In Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society edited by Fiona Hackne, Jonathn Glynne and Viv Minto, 2-10. e-books, Universal Publishers.
Stengers, Isabelle. 2015. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Translated by Andrew Goffey. Open Humanities Press.