121. Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime
I first heard about philosopher of science Bruno Latour at the Walking’s New Movements conference in Plymouth, England, where I gave a paper at the beginning of November. I thought I might read his book Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime eventually, but a friend raves about this book and tells me that it is directly connected to my project. So here I go.
Down to Earth is a book-length essay. It begins by explicitly addressing Trump’s election in order to bring together three phenomena whose connections have been missed. The first is the claim, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that history had ended. The second is the history that was happening, despite denials: a history defined by “an increasingly vertiginous explosion of inequalities” (1). Those two phenomena “coincided with a third that is less often stressed: the beginning of a systematic effort to deny the existence of climate change” (1). “This essay proposes to take these three phenomena as symptoms of a single historical situation: it is as though a significant segment of the ruling classes (known today rather too loosely as ‘the elites’) had concluded that the earth no longer had enough room for them and for everyone else,” Latour writes. “Consequently, they decided that it was pointless to act as though history were going to continue to move toward a common horizon, toward a world in which all humans could prosper equally. From the 1980s on, the ruling classes stopped purporting to lead and began instead to shelter themselves from the world” (1-2). “The absence of a common world we can share is driving us crazy,” Latour continues (2).
Latour’s hypothesis is simple:
we can understand nothing about the politics of the last 50 years if we do not put the question of climate change and its denial front and centre. Without the idea that we have entered into a New Climatic Regime, we cannot understand the explosion of inequalities, the scope of deregulation, the critique of globalization, or, most importantly, the panicky desire to return to the old protections of the nation-state—a desire that is identified, quite inaccurately, with the “rise of populism.” (2)
“To resist this loss of a common orientation,” Latour continues, “we shall have to land somewhere. So, we shall have to learn how to get our bearings, how to orient ourselves. And to do this we need something like a map of the positions imposed by the new landscape within which not only the affects of public life but also its stakes are being redefined” (2). The word “affects” is interesting, and Latour repeats it in the following paragraph when he suggests that his reflections “explore the possibility that certain political affects might be channeled toward new objectives” (2). Is Latour influenced by affect theory, another thing I learned about at Walking’s New Movements?
For Latour, the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord makes a statement that the U.S. no longer belongs to the same planet as everyone else. In other words, “no longer is there an ideal of a world common to what used to be called ‘the West’” (3). Brexit was the first historic event leading in this direction: it is a decision “to stop playing the game of globalization” (3)—or at least to play that game in a different way, one that does not require the free movement of immigrants from Europe. Trump’s election is a second historic event:
The country that had violently imposed its own quite particular form of globalization on the world, the country that had defined itself by immigration while eliminating its first inhabitants, that very country has entrusted its fate to someone who promises to isolate it inside a fortress, to stop letting in refugees, to stop going to the aid of any cause that is not on its own soil, even as it continues to intervene everywhere in the world with its customary careless blundering. (4)
Both of these events confirm “the end of one concept of globalization” (3). Latour suggests that the third historic event is “the resumption, extension, and amplification of migrations,” caused by war, the failure of economic development, and climate change” (4). These three phenomena “are simply different aspects of one and the same metamorphosis: the very notion of soil is changing. The soil of globalization’s dreams is beginning to slip away” (4). And, he continues, “each of us is beginning to feel the ground slip away beneath our feet. We are discovering, more or less obscurely, that we are all in migration toward territories yet to be rediscovered and reoccupied” (5). This discovery is related to Latour’s fourth historic event: the Paris Climate Accord. This agreement is important because “all the signatory countries, even as they were applauding the success of improbable agreement, realized with alarm that, if they all went ahead according to the terms of their respective modernization plans, there would be no planet compatible with their hopes for development. They would need several planets; they have only one” (5). If the planet is destroyed, then “there is no longer an assured ‘homeland,’ as it were, for anyone” (5).
For that reason, each of us “faces the following question: Do we continue to nourish dreams of escaping, or do we start seeking a territory that we and our children can inhabit?” (5). That is our choice: “Either we deny the existence of the problem, or else we look for a place to land. From now on, this is what divides us all, much more than our positions on the right or the left side of the political spectrum” (5). “In other words,” Latour continues, “the migratory crisis has been generalized” (6). In addition to migrants leaving their countries to find new places to live, “we must from now on add the migrants from inside who, while remaining in place, are experiencing the drama of seeing themselves left behind by their own countries” (6). Both groups share a common ordeal: “finding oneself deprived of land” (6). “This ordeal accounts for the relative indifference to the urgency of the situation, and it explains why we are all climate quietists when we hope, while doing nothing about it, that ‘everything will be all right in the end,’” Latour writes. “It is hard not to wonder what effect the news we hear every day about the state of the planet has on our mental state. How can we not feel inwardly undone by the anxiety of not knowing how to respond?” (6). That’s a good question: the news over Christmas—especially of the fires in Australia—has reduced me to tears.
For Latour, “this unease, at once personal and collective,” gives Trump’s election “its full importance” (6). The United States had two options: to acknowledge the reality of climate change and the extent of its responsibility in causing it, thereby becoming “realistic” and leading “the ‘free world’ away from the abyss, or it could plunge further in denial” (6-7). “Those who conceal themselves behind Trump have decided to keep America floating in dreamland a few years longer, so as to postpone coming down to earth, while leading the rest of the world into the abyss—perhaps for good,” he states (7).
“The question of landing somewhere did not occur earlier to the peoples who had decided to ‘modernize’ the planet” (7)—the European colonizers of every other continent. “It arose—ever so painfully—only for those who for four centuries had been subjected to the impact of the ‘great discoveries,’ of empires, modernization, development, and finally globalization,” Latour writes. “They knew perfectly well what it meant to find oneself deprived of land. . . . They had no choice but to become experts on the question of how to survive conquest, extermination, land grabs” (7). The novelty of the current situation, for “the modernizing peoples,” “is that this territorial question is now addressed to them as well as to the others” (7). This new situation “adds an unexpected meaning to the term ‘postcolonial,’ as though there were a family resemblance between two feelings of loss” (7). “In other words, the sense of vertigo, almost of panic, that traverses all contemporary politics arises owing to the fact that the ground is giving way beneath everyone’s feet at once, as if we all felt attacked everywhere, in our habits and in our possessions,” Latour continues (8).
Here Latour arrives at a question that is central to his argument. “Have you noticed that the emotions involved are not the same when you’re asked to defend nature—you yawn, you’re bored—as when you’re asked to defend your territory—now you’re wide awake, suddenly mobilized?” he asks (8). What accounts for that difference? “If nature has become territory,” he writes,
it makes little sense to talk about an “ecological crisis,” “environmental problems,” or a “biosphere” to be rediscovered, spared, or protected. The challenge is much more vital, more existential than that—and also much more comprehensible, because it is much more direct. When the rug is pulled out from under your feet, you understand at once that you are going to have to be concerned with the floor. (8)
The uneasiness this situation causes for everyone, both colonizers and colonized alike, “gnaws at everyone equally” (8). “What is certain is that all find themselves facing a universal lack of shareable space and inhabitable land,” Latour contends (9). And this feeling of panic comes from “the same deep feeling of justice felt by those who found themselves deprived of their land at the time of the conquests, then during colonization, and finally during the era of ‘development’: a power from elsewhere comes to deprive you of your land and you have no purchase on that power” (9). “If this is globalization, then we understand retrospectively why the colonized have always been right to defend themselves,” he continues (9). This feeling, this realization, is the new human universality, “the only one available to us,” and it “consists in feeling that the ground is in the process of giving away” (9). This new universality “is our only way out: discovering in common what land is inhabitable and with whom to share it” (9). “The alternative is to act as though nothing were happening and to protect ourselves behind a wall while we prolong the waking dream of the ‘American way of life,’” Latour writes (9).
“Migrations, explosions of inequality, and New Climatic Regime: these are one and the same threat,” Latour argues. “Most of our fellow citizens underestimate or deny what is happening to the earth, but they understand perfectly well that the question of migrants puts their dreams of a secure identity in danger” (9-10). The populist desire to put up borders against immigration cannot address the climate emergency, however, which “has been sweeping across all our borders for a long time, exposing us to all the winds, and no walls we can build will keep these invaders out” (10). To defend ourselves, we need to identify these formless migrations—“climate, erosion, pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction” (10)—for what they are. “The most basic right of all is to feel safe and protected, especially at a moment when the old protections are disappearing,” Latour suggests. “This is the meaning of the history that remains to be discovered: how can we reweave edges, envelopes, protections; how can we find new footing while simultaneously taking into account the end of globalization, the scope of migration, and also the limits placed on the sovereignty of nation-states that are henceforth confronted by climate change?” (11). And, above all, “how can we reassure those who see salvation only in the recollection of a national or ethnic identity, always freshly invented? And, in addition, how can we organize a collective life around the extraordinary challenge of accompanying millions of foreigners in their search for lasting ground?” (11). The “political question” is how to reassure and shelter everyone who is “obliged to take to the road, even while turning them away from the false protection of identities and rigid borders,” but to reassure them, “we would have to be able to succeed in carrying 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” (11-12). “Up to now, it is true, such an operation has been considered impossible,” Latour acknowledges: “between the two, it is said, one has to choose. It is this apparent contradiction that current history may be bringing to an end” (12).
Next, Latour asks what it means to talk about “the ravages of globalization” (12). Globalization, he argues, consists “in two opposing phenomena that have been systematically confused” (12). “Shifting from a local to a global viewpoint ought to mean multiplying viewpoints, registering a greater number of varieties, taking into account a larger number of beings, cultures, phenomena, organisms, and people,” he writes:
Yet it seems as though what is meant by globalization today is the exact opposite of such an increase. The term is used to mean that a single vision, entirely provincial, proposed by a few individuals, representing a very small number of interests, limited to a few measuring instruments, to a few standards and protocols, has been imposed on everyone and spread everywhere. (13)
For that reason, it’s not a surprise “that we don’t know whether to embrace globalization or, on the contrary, struggle against it” (13). The battle to multiply viewpoints in order “to complicate all ‘provincial’ or ‘closed’ views with new variants,” Latour argues, “is a fight that deserves to be fought” (13). But if it means the opposite, “a matter of decreasing the number of alternatives regarding the existence and the course of the world,” it needs to be resisted “with all our might” (13). Latour suggests that it’s necessary to “distinguish between globalization-plus and globalization-minus” (13).
Complicating “any project of landing someplace is that this definition of the inevitable globalization will lead, in a backlash, to the invention of the ‘reactionary’” (13). “The advocates of globalization-minus” have accused those “who resist its deployment” of being archaic and backward and defensive (13). “It is to stir up this backward-looking people that globalizers have subjected them to the great lever of modernization,” Latour writes. “For two centuries, the arrow of time has made it possible to locate on one side those who are moving forward—the modernizers, the progressives—and on the other those who remain behind” (14). Any resistance to globalization was thereby deemed illegitimate and irrational (14). “Advocacy of this type of modernization defines, by contrast, the taste for the local, the attachment to the land, the maintenance of traditions, the attention to the earth” as archaic and “‘obscurantist’” (14). “The call to globalization is so ambiguous that its pliancy contaminates what can be expected from the local,” Latour continues. “This is why, since the beginning of modernization, any attachment to any soil at all has been read as a sign of backwardness” (14).
However, just as there are two ways to look at globalization, there are “at least two ways, equally contrasting, to define the attachment to the local” (14). The elites who have profited from globalization “have so much trouble understanding what upsets those who want to be held, protected, assured, reassured by their province, their tradition, their soil, or their identity,” and tend to label such resistance as “populist” (15). But “[t]o reject modernization is also to resist courageously by refusing to trade one’s own province for another . . . that is even narrower and above all infinitely remote, thus much more indifferent to local interests” (15). Such resistance is normal and just, Latour suggests, because it is a way to continue to register “more differences more viewpoints, and above all not to begin by reducing their number” (15). So, in the same way that there is a globalization-plus and a globalization-minus, Latour suggests that it’s necessary to distinguish “the local-minus from the local-plus” (15). “In the end, what counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalization, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world,” he writes (15-16).
The point is that the modernization project has become impossible, “because there is no Earth capable of containing its ideal of progress, emancipation, and development. As a result, all forms of belonging are undergoing metamorphosis—belonging to the globe, to the world, to the provinces, to particular plots of ground, to the world market, to lands or to traditions” (16). “We must face up to what is literally a problem of dimension, scale, and lodging: the planet is much too narrow and limited for the globe of globalization,” Latour writes, while at the same time “it is too big, infinitely too large, too active, too complex, to remain within the narrow and limited borders of any locality whatsoever. We are all overwhelmed twice over: by what is too big, and by what is too small” (16). “And thus no one has the answer to the question ‘how can one find inhabitable land?’” Latour states. “We don’t know where to go, or how to live, or with whom to cohabit. What must we do to find a place? How are we to orient ourselves?” (16).
“Something must happened, some truly extraordinary event, for the ideal of globalization to have changed valence so quickly,” Latour writes (17). How did this happen? Latour suggests that an “avant-garde” of “activists, scientists, artists, economists, intellectuals, political parties” has “grasped the increasingly endangered status of the formerly more or less stable relations that the Earth maintained with humans,” beginning in the 1980s (17). The question of the limits to development was obvious, but the modernizers ignored it. Nevertheless, that question continued to resonate, and “we find that under the ground of private property, of land grabs, of the exploitation of territories, another ground, another earth, another soil has begun to stir, to quake, to be moved” (17). At this point, “the hypothesis of political fiction comes in,” Latour suggests:
Suppose that other elites, perhaps less enlightened, but with significant means and important interests, and above all with extreme attentiveness to the security of their immense fortunes and to the durability of their well-being, each and every one of them, heard this thread, this warning.
We have to assume that these elites understood perfectly well that the warning was accurate, but did not conclude from the evidence, which had become more and more indisputable over the years, that they were going to have to pay, and pay dearly, for the Earth’s turning back on itself. They would have been enlightened enough to register the warning, but not enlightened enough to share the results with the public. (17-18)
Rather than taking on their burden, however, those elites decided that others would have to pay, and that they would deny the existence of what Latour calls “the New Climatic Regime” (18). “These two decisions would make it possible to connect three phenomena,” Latour continues: deregulation and the dismantling of the welfare state since the 1980s; climate change denial; and the “dizzying extension of inequalities” over the last 40 years (18). “If the hypothesis is correct, all this is part of a single phenomenon”:
the elites have been so thoroughly convinced that there would be no future life for everyone that they have decided to get rid of all the burdens of solidarity as fast as possible—hence deregulation; they have decided that a sort of gilded fortress would have to be built for those (a small percentage) who would be able to make it through—hence the explosion of inequalities; and they have decided that, to conceal the crass selfishness of such a flight out of the shared world, they would have to reject absolutely the threat at the origin of this headlong flight—hence the denial of climate change. (18-19)
This description, or explanation, seems to fit the evidence: the extreme nihilism of the wealthy elites who support liars and climate-change deniers in return for tax cuts. For Latour, the wealthy have decided to reserve the Titanic’s lifeboats for themselves, and to let the rest of us drown.
Latour calls the wealthy “the obscurantist elites” and suggests that they “understood that, if they wanted to survive in comfort, they had to stop pretending, even in their dreams, to share the earth with the rest of the world” (19). This hypothesis explains, for Latour, “how globalization-plus has become globalization-minus” (19). Until the 1990s, he contends, it was possible to “associate the horizon of modernization with the notions of progress, emancipation, wealth, comfort, even luxury, and above all rationality” (19)—a claim that runs aground on the exploitation of people outside of the West, but never mind—but after that point, “the rage to deregulate, the explosion of inequalities, the abandonment of solidarities have gradually associated that horizon with the notion of an arbitrary decision out of nowhere in favor of the sole profit of the few. The best of worlds has become the worst” (19-20). The reaction to this betrayal by the elites is rage. “[O]ne can imagine that those left behind also understood very quickly that if globalization were tossed aside, then they too would need gated communities,” Latour writes. “The reactions on one side led to reactions on the other—both sides reacting to another much more radical reaction, that of the Earth, which had stopped absorbing blows and was striking back with increasing violence” (20). The origin of these overlapping reactions “must be sought in the Earth’s reaction to our enterprises,” he continues. “We are the ones who started it—we of the old West, and more specifically Europe. There are no two ways about it: we have to learn to live with the consequences of what we have unleashed” (20). The growth of inequalities, the “wave of populism,” and the “migration crisis,” he states, cannot be understood unless we grasp “that these are three different responses, basically comprehensible if not effective, to the powerful reaction of the earth to what globalization has done to it” (20-21). We have all, in different ways, decided to flee from this problem: into “the gilded exile of the 1%,” into the fantasy of “secure borders,” or, for “the most wretched of all,” exile (21). No wonder globalization—as globalization-minus, that is—has lost its “power of attraction” (21).
Latour admits that his hypothesis about the obscurantist elites “appears implausible”: “too much like a psychoanalytic interpretation, too much like a conspiracy theory” (21). “It is not impossible to document it, however, if we make the reasonable assumption that people are fairly quick to suspect what some are seeking to hide from them, and are prepared to act accordingly,” he writes (21-22). The effects his hypothesis explains are obvious, particularly “the epistemological delirium” that has taken hold since Trump’s election. Denial means lying, and lying means remembering one’s previous lies, and this is “draining,” Latour argues (22). Lying eventually drives liars crazy: they, and those who believe their lies, “become attached to ‘alternative facts’ to the point of forgetting all forms of rationality” (22). But it’s important to remember that the people who seem to have abandoned rationality (not the elites, but the people themselves) have been betrayed “by those who have given up the idea of actually pursuing the modernization of the planet with everyone, because they knew, before everyone else, that such modernization was impossible—precisely for want of a planet vast enough for their dreams of growth for all,” Latour writes (22-23). “Before accusing ‘the people’ of no longer believing in anything, one ought to measure the effect of that overwhelming betrayal on people’s level of trust,” he continues. “Trust has been abandoned along the wayside” (23). “Facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media,” Latour contends. The effect of the betrayal by the obscurantist elites has been the erosion of all of those things.
“But the epistemological disaster is just as great among those who are in charge of carrying out this extraordinary betrayal,” Latour states, suggesting that the chaos of the Trump White House as evidence. “How can one respect the best-established facts, when one has to deny the enormity of the threat and wage, without acknowledging it, a full-scale war against all the others?” he asks (23). Lying, “denegation,” “poisons those who practice it as well as those who are presumed to be duped by it,” he suggests (23). The difference is that the obscurantist elites have committed an unforgivable crime: “their obsessional denial of climate change” (24). “Because of this denial, ordinary people have had to cope within a fog of disinformation, without anyone ever telling them that the project of modernizing the planet was over and done with, and that a regime change was inevitable,” he writes (24). “[I]f there were to be any hope of dealing with this fact in time, ordinary people would have had to push politicians to act before it was too late,” he continues. “At a point when the public could have found an emergency exit, the climate skeptics stood in their way and denied them access” (24).
The denial of climate change “organizes all politics at the present time,” Latour argues (24). People know their leaders are lying, and as a result “they are suspicious of everything and don’t want to listen any more” (24-25). Meanwhile, the “rational thinkers” continue to believe that “facts stand up all by themselves, without a shared world, without institutions, without a public life”; they are “just as caught up as the others in the tangles of disinformation,” because they themselves “live in an alternative world, a world in which climate mutation occurs, while it does not in the world of their opponents” (25). “It is not a matter of learning how to repair cognitive deficiencies, but rather of how to live in the same world, share the same culture, face up to the same stakes, perceive a landscape that can be explored in concert,” Latour continues. “Here we find the habitual vice of epistemology, which consists in attributing to intellectual deficits something that is quite simply a deficit in shared practice” (25).
“[T]he key to the current situation,” Latour writes, “has to be sought in the form of the world” (25). That’s the problem: “there are now several worlds, several territories, and they are mutually incompatible” (26). The movement into modernization was a movement away from the local and towards the Global; in fact, the Local was abandoned. “Once these two poles have been identified, we can trace a pioneering frontier of modernization,” he continues. “This is the line drawn by the injunction to modernize, an injunction that prepared us for every sacrifice: for leaving our native province, abandoning our traditions, breaking with our habits, if we wanted to ‘get ahead,’ to participate in the general movement of development, and, finally, to profit from the world” (27). People were torn between two opposing injunctions: to move “forward toward the ideal of progress,” or “backward toward the old certainties,” but “this hesitation, this tug-of-war, ultimately suited them pretty well” (27). They could determine where they were on the vector that runs between the Global and the Local. “There were of course protestors, but they were located on the other side of the modernization front,” Latour continues. “They were the (neo-)natives, the antiquated, the vanquished, the colonized, the subaltern, the excluded. . . . one could treat them unassailably as reactionaries, or at least as anti-moderns, as dregs, rejects” (27). “It was brutal, perhaps, but at last the world had a direction. The arrow of time was going somewhere,” Latour states (27).
The vector from Local to Global was also where the Left/Right distinction was projected (27). On economic matters, the Right usually wanted to go further toward the Global, whereas on moral or sexual issues, the Left usually wanted to go in that direction. “[P]eople ended up finding common ground in spite of everything, for the good reason that all these positions continued to be situated along the same vector,” Latour writes. “Which made it possible to identify them the way one reads the temperature of a patient by following the gradations of a thermometer” (28). “Depending on the topics under dispute, the import of the positions could vary, but there was always a single direction that derived from the tension between the two poles of attraction, the Global and the Local” (28-29). However, “[w]hat happens to this system of coordinates if globalization-plus becomes globalization-minus?” Latour asks. “If what has been the pole of attraction drawing us with the force of self-evidence, pulling the whole world in its direction, becomes a counterforce that pushes us away, leaving us with the confused feeling that only a few will profit from it? Inevitably, the Local, too, in a counterreaction, will become attractive again” (30). But it is no longer the same Local; it is now the Local-minus (30). Neither is plausible; neither is livable (30). “Nevertheless, this second pole attracts as powerfully as the first, especially when things are going badly and the ideal of the Globe seems to be more and more remote,” Latour writes (31). In fact, “[t]he two poles of attraction have finally pulled so far apart that we no longer have the luxury of hesitating, as before, between the two. This is what the commentators call the brutalization of political discourse” (31). “Instead of tension, there is henceforth a yawning gap” (32).
It is as if, “everywhere at once, a third pole of attraction has come in to turn aside, pump out, absorb all the objects of conflict, making any orientation along the old flight line impossible, Latour suggests (32). And this is where we are now: “Too disoriented to array the positions along the axis that went from the old to the new, from the Local to the Global, but still incapable of naming this third attractor, fixing its position, or even simply describing it” (32-33). “Everything has to be mapped out anew, at new costs,” he continues. “What is more, this is an urgent task that must be carried out before the sleepwalkers, in their blind headlong rush forward, have crushed what we care about” (33).
It’s possible that the American decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord was caused by this “third attractor” (33). But for Latour, “[i]t is as though Trump had managed to identify a fourth attractor,” which Latour names “the Out-of-This-World,” “the horizon of people who no longer belong to the realities of an earth that would react to their actions. For the first time, climate change denial defines the orientation of the public life of a nation” (34-35). “It is unfair to the Fascists to compare the phenomenon of which Trump is the symptom to the movements of the 1930s,” he continues, since the Fascists existed along the old Local/Global vector, whereas “in the current innovation,” “the State is in disgrace, the individual is king, and the urgent governmental priority is to gain time by loosening all constraints, before the population at large notices that there is no world corresponding to the America depicted” (35). Latour contends that “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” to “the headlong rush backward of an entire people toward the return of national and ethnic categories” (35). Trump’s supporters behave as though these two movements—towards the Global, on the one hand, and towards the Local, on the other—“could be conflated. Such a fusion is obviously possible only if the very existence of the conflict between modernization, on the one hand, and the condition of being terrestrial, on the other, is denied” (35-36).
This denial demonstrates for Latour “the constitutive role of skepticism about climate science, which is otherwise incomprehensible” (36). “We can well understand why denial prevails: the total lack of realism of the combination—Wall Street pulling millions of members of the so-called middle classes toward a return to protection of the past!—is unmistakable,” Latour writes. “For the time being, the project depends entirely on the requirement of maintaining utter indifference to the New Climatic Regime while dissolving all forms of solidarity, both external (among nations) and internal (among classes)” (36). “For the first time, a large-scale movement no longer claims to address geopolitical realities seriously, but purports to put itself explicitly outside of all worldly constraints,” he continues. “What counts above all for the elites behind this movement is no longer having to share with the others a world that they know will never again be a common world” (36). Why wouldn’t this denial of reality coalesce around a failed businessman “who became famous by way of reality television, another form of unreality and escapism” (36)? “This movement defines the first government totally oriented toward the ecological question—but backwards, negatively, through rejection!” (37). The elites who support Trump have, for the past 40 years, understood that climate change would leave “no room for them and for the nine billion left behind”; they intend to make their money and say they will be dead before the disaster arrives (37). Trump is therefore playing the role of Bernie Madoff for the entire country (37).
What needs to be understood, Latour continues, is that the United States “had the most to lose from a return to reality. Its material infrastructures are the most difficult to reorient quickly, its responsibilities in the current climatic situation are the most crushing,” even though “it possesses all the scientific, technological, and organizational capabilities that could have led the ‘free world’ to take the turn toward the third attractor” (38). Trumpian politics is “a politics with no object, since it rejects the world that it claims to inhabit” (38). Faced with the obstacle of climate change, the United States has “simply refused to proceed—at least for the time being” (38). Given this situation, we can either wake up or “the whole business will end in a fiery deluge” (38). “Contrary to Marx’s dictum,” he writes, “history does not go simply from tragedy to farce, it can repeat itself one more time in a tragic farce” (38).
“It seems ridiculous to advance the claim that we have no more precise indications about the third attractor than the one offered by those in flight from it,” Latour writes (38-39). Yet that is the situation we face: “The terrifying impression that politics has been emptied of its substance, that it is not engaged with anything at all, that it no longer has any meaning for direction, that it has become literally powerless as well as senseless, has no cause other than this gradual revelation: neither the Global nor the Local has any lasting material existence” (39). The Global/Local vector now “resembles a freeway without any beginning or end,” and “we now find ourselves, in a 90º shift, suspended between the old vector and a new one, pushed ahead by two temporal arrows that are no longer going in the same direction” (39). For Latour, “[t]he main concern is to establish what makes up that third term. In what way can it become more attractive than the other two—and why does it appear so repellent to so many?” (39). What is that attractor called? Latour decides to name this “new political actor” “the Terrestrial” (40). “The massive event that we need to sum up and absorb in fact concerns the power to act of this Terrestrial, which is no longer the milieu or the background of human action,” he continues. “People generally talk about geopolitics as if the prefix ‘geo’ merely designated the framework in which political action occurs. Yet what is changing is that, henceforth, ‘geo’ designates an agent that participates fully in public life” (40-41). “The current disorientation derives entirely from the emergence of an actor that reacts and will continue to react to human actions and that bars the modernizers from knowing where they are, in what epoch, and especially what role they need to play from now,” he states (41).
It’s no longer possible to distinguish between physical and human geography, Latour suggests:
As long as the earth seemed stable, we could speak of space and locate ourselves within that space and on a portion of territory that we claimed to occupy. But how are we to act if the territory itself begins to participate in history, to fight back, in short, to concern itself with us—how do we occupy a land if it is this land itself that is occupying us? The expression “I belong to a territory” has changed meaning: it now designates the agency that possesses the possessor! (40-41)
“If the Terrestrial is no longer the framework for human action, it is because it participates in that action,” Latour continues. “Space has become an agitated history in which we are participants among others, reacting to other reactions. It seems that we are landing in the thick of geohistory” (42). The new attractor, the Terrestrial, “is at once known to everyone and completely foreign”; it is not “a res nullius, ready to be appropriated” (42). “On the contrary,” Latour writes,
the Moderns find themselves migrating toward an earth, a land, a country, a turf, whatever one wants to call it, that is already occupied, that has been populated from time immemorial and that has more recently undergone repopulation by the multitude of those who have felt, well ahead of the others, the extent to which it was necessary to flee posthaste from the injunction to modernize. In this world, all modern minds encounter a kind of exile. They are going to have to learn to cohabit with those whom they used to deem archaic, traditionalists, reactionaries, or simply “locals.” (42-43)
This space is new for everyone, Latour states, “since, according to the reports of climate specialists, there is quite simply no precedent for the current situation. Here it is, that ‘wicked universality,’ that universal lack of earth” (43).
Our civilization was founded on the relatively stable climate of the Holocene, but in the Anthropocene, “we are no longer dealing with small fluctuations in the climate, but rather with an upheaval that is mobilizing the earth system itself” (43). Humans are no longer the central figures in their drama: “Today, the decor, the wings, the background, the whole building have come on stage and are competing with the actors for the principal role. This changes all the scripts, suggests other endings” (43). The only certainty “is that we can no longer tell ourselves the same old stories. Suspense prevails on all fronts” (44). “We understand nothing about the vacuity of contemporary politics if we do not appreciate the stunning extent to which the situation is unprecedented,” Latour writes. “At least it is easy to understand the reaction of those who have decided to flee. How can anyone agree to turn voluntarily toward the third attractor when one was headed tranquilly toward the horizon of universal modernization?” (44).
“If there is any subject that deserves lucid attention, it is that of the condition of ecology in the modern world,” Latour continues. “This territory, so ancient and so tragically new, this Terrestrial on which one would need to land, has already been crisscrossed in all directions and in all senses by what can be called the ‘ecological movements’” (45). For the Moderns, “time’s arrow pulled everything toward globalization,” but for political ecology—Green parties in Europe and elsewhere—the Local was the destination (45). “Ecology has . . . succeeded in running politics through its mill by introducing objects that had not previously belonged to the usual preoccupations of public life,” Latour writes:
It has successfully rescued politics from an overly restrictive definition of the social world. In this sense, political ecology has fully succeeded in changing what is at stake in the public sphere.
To modernize or to ecologize: this has become the crucial choice. Everyone agrees about this. And yet, ecology has failed. Everyone agrees about this too. (46)
Part of the problem is that ecologists have tried to avoid taking a position on the Right/Left political spectrum, although they have not been able “to get out of the trap set by the Moderns’ temporal arrow” (46). The only ways out of the Right/Left division are to “take a position in the middle between the two extremes by settling in along the traditional vector,” or to “redefine the vector by attaching oneself to the third attractor, which makes it necessary to redistribute the range of Left/Right positions according to another viewpoint” (47). Getting beyond the Left/Right division “is a matter of tilting the front line while modifying the content of the disputed objects that are at the origin of the Right/Left distinction—or rather of the various Rights and Lefts, so numerous today and so intermingled that not much remains, when these labels are used, of the ordering power allowed by this classic system of coordinates” (48). What is needed, it seems, is another vector.
Latour calls the Right/Left division a “mental hemicycle that sets up like a row of toy soldiers first the far left, then the left, the center, the right, and finally the far right” (48-49). “[H]owever rudimentary and contingent it may be, this gradation organizes every poll, every political proclamation, and every categorization; it is operative in every election as well as in every historical narrative, and it governs even our most visceral reactions,” Latour writes. “It is hard to see, at least for the moment, how to get along without such affect-laden terms. Public action must be oriented toward a recognizable goal” (49). Latour’s hypothesis—“that the needle has turned 90º and is now oriented toward the powerful attractor whose originality strikes us today,” an attractor that “has none of the same properties as the two others between which politics has been situated since the dawn of the so-called modern era”—suggests that:
[t]he rift introduced by the Terrestrial attractor makes it necessary to open the packaging and re-examine, piece by piece, what was expected of each component—which we are gradually going to learn to call “movement,” “advance,” or even “progression”—and what goes clearly in the other direction—which we shall have the right henceforth to call in fact “regression,” “abandonment,” “betrayal,” or “reaction.” (50)
“This move will perhaps complicate the political game,” Latour continues, “but it will also open up unforeseen margins for maneuvering” (50).
Two angles will “allow us to identify the delicate negotiations that will have to be undertaken in order to redirect the interests of those who continue to flee toward the Global and those who continue to take refuge in the Local, in order to interest them in feeling the weight of this new attractor,” the Terrestrial (51). This negotiation will lead to a definition of the new politics. “Allies have to be sought among people who, according to the old gradation, were clearly ‘reactionaries,’” Latour writes. “And, of course, alliances will have to be forged with people who, again according to the old reference points, were clearly ‘progressives’ and perhaps ‘liberals’ or even ‘neoliberals’” (51). How could such a miracle take place? “For a simple reason that is bound up with the very notion of orientation,” Latour answers. “Despite the appearances, what counts in politics are not attitudes, but the form and weight of the world to which these attitudes have the function of reacting” (52):
Politics has always been oriented toward objects, stakes, situations, material entities, bodies, landscapes, places. What are called the values to be defended are always responses to the challenges of a territory that it must be possible to describe. This is in effect the decisive discovery of political ecology: it is an object-oriented politics. Change the territories and you will also change the attitudes. (52)
For Latour, “[t]he only reassuring element in the current situation is that another vector is gradually gaining in realism,” which he identifies as “[t]he Modern/Terrestrial vector,” which “could become a credible, perceptible, palpable alternative to the Left/Right dichotomy that remains so acute” (52).
The antagonists in this political realignment would be those who continue to direct their attention towards the Local, the Global, and the Out-of-This World. “But these adversaries are also the only potential allies,” Latour contends. “Thus, they are the ones that will have to be persuaded and converted” (52-53). That would mean figuring out” how to address those who rightly feel abandoned by the historical betrayal fo the ruling classes and are clamoring for the security of a protected space” (53). Their energies would have to be shifted from the Local to the Terrestrial (53). Belonging to a particular place has only become “‘reactionary’ . . . by contrast with the headlong flight imposed by modernization. If we stop fleeing, what does the desire for attachment look like?” (53). But that recognition would have to take place without confusing belonging to the land with “what the Local has added to it: ethnic homogeneity, a focus on patrimony, historicism, nostalgia, inauthentic authenticity” (53). “On the contrary,” Latour continues, “there is nothing more innovative, nothing more present, subtle, technical, and artificial (in the positive sense fo the word), nothing less rustic and rural, nothing more creative, nothing more contemporary than to negotiate landing on some ground” (53). The distinction to be made between the Local and the Terrestrial is that “the Local is designed to differentiate itself by closing itself off,” while “the Terrestrial is designed to differentiate itself by opening itself up” (54).
It is here that “the other branch of negotiation comes in, the one addressed to those who are rushing full speed toward the Global” (54). Those who are “rushing toward globalization-minus will have to be shown how much that globalization differs from access to the Globe and the world,” Latour continues. “For the Terrestrial is bound to the earth and to land, but it is also a way of worlding, in that it aligns with no borders, transcends all identities” (54). According to Latour,
This is the sense in which it solves the problem of place we noted earlier: there is no Earth corresponding to the infinite horizon of the Global, but at the same time the Local is much too narrow, too shrunken, to accommodate the multiplicity of beings belonging to the terrestrial world. This is why the zoom lens that purported to align the Local and the Global as successive sightings along a single trajectory has never made any sense. (54)
In any case, the necessary alliances will never be achieved “as long as we continue to speak of political attitudes, affects, passions, and positions while the real world toward which those attitudes, affects, passions, and positions are directed has completely changed,” Latour continues. “In other words, we have fallen behind on revamping our political affects. This is why we need to restart the process and put the new magnetic mass in front of the traditional compass: to discover the direction it will indicate and see how our attitudes, affects, passions, and positions will turn out to be redistributed” (54-55). This process will be difficult. “The time lost in continuing to pace up and down along the old Right/Left vector has delayed the necessary mobilizations and negotiations,” Latour admits (55). “What is important is to be able to get out of the impasse by imagining a set of new alliances,” he continues—to shift the terms from Left or Right to Terrestrial or Modern (55-56). This shift has to happen “before the militants of the extreme Modern have totally devastated the stage” (56).
Political ecology has never been able “to mobilize on a scale adequate to the stakes,” Latour argues (56). “Having failed to figure out how to join forces effectively, socialism and ecology, each of which sought to alter the course of history, have only managed to slow it down,” he continues (56-57). The problem, according to Latour, is that they were defining their choices too narrowly, “when what was really at stake was a different and much more decisive choice having to do with two directions of politics: one that defines social questions in a restrictive manner, and another that defines the stakes of survival without introducing a priori differences between humans and non-humans” (57). “The choice to be made is between a narrow definition of the social ties making up a society”—by that I think Latour means the Local-minus—“and a wider definition of associations that make up what have been called collectives”—which I think refers to the Local-plus (57). “The question then becomes the following: why did the social movements not grasp the ecological stakes at the outset as if they were their own, which would have allowed them to avoid obsolescence and to lend their strength to a still-weak ecology? Or to turn the question around, why did political ecology fail to take up the baton from the social question and forge ahead?” Latour asks (57).
The revolts of socialism, ecology, and even feminism have not merged; instead, they have submitted, “in almost total impotence,” to what has been called the “Great Acceleration” of the past 70 years, which has led to “the triumph os globalization-minus, the sterilization of socialism,” and then the election of Donald Trump (58). “During all these events, we have been stuck with a scarcely attenuated opposition between ‘social’ conflicts and ‘ecological’ conflicts—as if we were dealing with two distinct entities between which, like Buridan’s legendary ass, we have to continue to hesitate while dying of hunger and thirst,” Latour states. “But nature is no more a sack of grain than society is a bucket of water. If there is no choice to be made, it is for the excellent reason that there are not naked humans on one side and nonhuman objects on the other” (58). Ecology, Latour states, is really “a call for a change of direction: ‘Toward the Terrestrial!’” (58).
What explains “this interruption in relaying a collective struggle”? Latour asks (58). Since the nineteenth century, politics has been organized around social classes, and “[d]espite all the efforts to attenuate class oppositions and even to claim that they no longer made any sense, politics was nevertheless organized around them” (59). “If these definitions have begun to spin their wheels in a vacuum, it is because the analysis in terms of social classes and the materialism underlying that analysis were clearly defined by the attractor called Global, above, in opposition with the Local,” Latour writes:
The great phenomena of industrialization, urbanization, and occupation of colonized territories defined a horizon—sinister or radiant, it hardly matters—that gave meaning and direction to progress. And for a good reason: that progress was pulling out of poverty, if not out of exploitation, hundreds of millions of human beings whose contrivances were supposed to lead toward an emancipation that seemed inevitable. (59-60)
Of course, at the same time, those phenomena were condemning hundreds of millions of others to poverty and exploitation; a nodding acquaintance with the work of Frantz Fanon, among others, would tell Latour that progress had two sides. Both the Left and the Right, he continues, were focused on modernization, on “which side would reach the Global world first,” and whether reform or revolution was necessary (60). “But they never took the time to explain to peoples undergoing modernization what precisely described world progress would end up putting them in,” he writes (60). Indeed, progress became “a mere horizon, a simple regulating idea, a sort of increasingly vague utopia, as the gradually evolving Earth would fail to give it substance” (60). The conclusion of the Paris Climate Accord “made it official . . . that there was no longer an Earth corresponding to the horizon of the Global” (60). The limitations of the Earth were ignored by twentieth-century political movements, a failing Latour finds hard to understand when those movements considered themselves to be materialist. What was their material? They paid little attention to it (60-61). “The question thus becomes how to define class struggles much more realistically by taking into account this new materiality, the new materialism imposed by the orientation toward the Terrestrial,” he writes (61).
Class struggles, Latour continues, “depend on a geo-logic” (62). The prefix “geo-” “obliges us to reopen the social question while intensifying it through the new geopolitics” (63). “The difficulty is that to find principles that will allow us to define these new classes”—the new classes of “geo-social loci”—“and trace the lines of conflict between their divergent interests, we shall have to learn to distrust definitions of matter, the systems of production and even the reference points in space and time that had served to define ecological struggles as well as social classes,” he writes. “In fact, one of the oddities of the modern period is that we have had a definition of matter that is hardly material, hardly terrestrial at all. The Moderns take pride in a realism that they have never been able to put to work” (63). How can people who are capable of allowing the temperature of the planet to rise by 3.5º, or allow a sixth extinction to take place, be called materialists (63-64)? Obviously, they can’t.
The reason socialism and ecology have not been able to amalgamate has to do with “the role that both groups have attributed to ‘nature,’” Latour writes:
A certain conception of “nature” has allowed the Moderns to occupy the Earth in such a way that it forbids others to occupy their own territories differently. For, in order to mold a politics, you need agents who bring together their interests and their capacities for action. But you cannot make alliances between political actors and objects that are external to society and deprived of the power to act. (64)
Nature, as it is typically understood, is such an object:
If we swallow the usual epistemology whole, we shall find ourselves again prisoners of a conception of “nature” that is impossible to politicize since it has been invented precisely to limit human action thanks to an appeal to the laws of objective nature that cannot be questioned. Freedom on one side, strict necessity on the other: this makes it possible to have it both ways. Every time we want to count on the power to act of other actors, we’re going to encounter the same objections: “Don’t even think about it, these are mere objects, they cannot react,” the way Descartes said of animals that they cannot suffer. (65)
However, he continues,
if we claim to be opposing “scientific rationality” by inventing a more intimate, more subjective, more rooted, more global—more “ecological,” as it were—way of capturing our ties to “nature,” we lose on both fronts: we will be left with the idea of “nature” borrowed from tradition while being deprived of the contribution of positive knowledge. (65)
“We need to be able to count on the full power of the sciences, but without the ideology of “nature” that has been attached to that power,” Latour writes. “We have to be materialist and rational, but we have to shift these qualities onto the right grounds” (65).
“The difficulty is that the Terrestrial is not at all the Globe,” Latour continues. “One cannot be materialist and rational in the same way in these two sites” (65-66). Indeed, “it is clear that one cannot praise rationality without recognizing to what extent it has been abused by the quest for the Global” (66): he notes the failure of modernization to take into account the reaction of the planet to human activity, the failure of economic theories premised on inexhaustible resources, the failure of our civilization to avoid making “a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving an inhabited world to their children” (66). No wonder “rationality” has become a frightening word. “To restore a positive meaning to the words ‘realistic,’ ‘objective,’ ‘efficient,’ or ‘rational,’ we have to turn them away from the Global, where they have so clearly failed, and toward the Terrestrial,” he writes (66). The Globe, he notes, “grasps all things from far away, as if they were external to the social world and completely indifferent to human concerns,” whereas the Terrestrial “grasps the same structures from up close, as internal to the collectivities and sensitive to human actions, to which they react swiftly” (66-67). “The idea—the revolutionary idea—of grasping the earth as one planet among others . . . can be traced to the birth of the modern sciences,” he continues, including cartography and physics (67). Unfortunately, this idea “is also very easy to distort,” and “some thinkers go on to conclude that it is necessary to occupy, virtually, the vantage point of the universe to understand what is happening on this planet” (67). “Such a conclusion is in no way obligatory,” Latour contends. “No matter how far out they send their thoughts, researchers always have their feet firmly anchored in clay” (68).
Looking at the Earth from the outside “has the disadvantage of limiting to just a few movements . . . the whole gamut of movements grasped by the positive sciences,” Latour writes. “Yet on the Earth seen from the inside, there are many other forms of movements that have become harder and harder to take into account. Little by little, it has become more cumbersome to gain objective knowledge about a whole range of transformations: genesis, birth, growth, life, death, decay, metamorphoses” (68). “The detour by way of the outside introduced into the notion of ‘nature’ a confusion from which we have still not been extricated,” Latour suggests. “[N]ow, the word ‘natural’ is increasingly reserved for what makes it possible to follow a single type of movement viewed from the outside. This is also the meaning that the word has taken on in the expression ‘the natural sciences’” (68-69). Many scientists have decided to distance themselves from a range of phenomena, “to discern in all these easily accessible movements only those that one could have seen from Sirius,” and “[a]ll other movements have become subject to suspicion. Considered from the inside, on the Earth, they could not be scientific; they could not be really naturalized” (69). “If the planet has ended up moving away from the Terrestrial,” Latour continues,
it is because everything has happened as though nature seen from the universe had begun to replace, bit by bit—to cover over, to chase away—nature seen from the Earth, the nature that grasped, that could have grasped, that should have continued to include, all the phenomena of genesis.
The grandiose Galilean invention has come to take up all the space by making people forget that seeing the earth from Sirius is only a tiny part—even if the infinite universe is involved—of what we have the right to know positively. (70)
“The inevitable consequence,” for Latour, is that “we have begun to see less and less of what is happening on Earth” (70).
“Such a bifurcation between the real—external, objective, and knowable—and the inside—unreal, subjective, and unknowable—would have intimidated no one, or would have been taken for a simple exaggeration on the part of savants not very well acquainted with the realities here below,” Latour writes, “had it not been superimposed on the notorious vector of modernization” (70-71). “It is on this point that the two meanings, positive and negative, of the word ‘Global’ turn out to diverse entirely,” he continues:
The subjective side begins to be associated with the archaic and the outdated; the objective side with the modern and the progressive. Seeing things from the inside comes to have no value other than being traditional, intimate, archaic. Seeing things from the outside, on the contrary, becomes the only way to grasp the reality that counts, and, above all, the only way to orient oneself toward the future. (71)
This “brutal division” made “the illusion of the Global as the horizon of modernity” consistent (71). “From this point on it was necessary, even if one stayed in place, to shift one’s position virtually, bag and baggage, away from subjective and sensitive positions toward exclusively objective positions, finally freed of all sensitivity—or rather of sentimentality,” Latour states. “This is where, by contrast with the Global, the necessarily reactive, reflexive, nostalgic figure of the Local comes in” (71). The only way “to gain access to nature as an infinite universe” was to lose “one’s sensitivity to nature as process”: “To progress in modernity was to tear oneself away from the primordial soil and set out for the Great Outside, to become if not natural, at least naturalist” (71).
“Either one speaks of ‘nature,’ but then one is far away; or else one is close by, but one expresses only feelings,” Latour writes:
Such is the result of the confusion between the planetary vision and the Terrestrial. It is about the planetary vision that one can say, considering things “from above,” that it has always varied and that it will outlast humans, making it possible to take the New Climatic Regime as an unimportant oscillation. The Terrestrial, for its part, does not allow this kind of detachment. (72)
The term “nature” also explains the failure of political ecology:
When the so-called “ecological” parties try to interest people in what is happening “to nature,” a nature that they claim to be “protecting,” if by the term “nature” is meant the nature-universe seen from nowhere that is supposed to stretch from the cells of our bodies to the most distant galaxies, the answer will be simply: “That’s too far away; it’s too vague; it doesn’t concern us; we couldn’t care less.” (73)
Those responses make sense, according to Latour:
No progress will be made toward a “politics of nature” as long as the same term is used to designate, for example, research into terrestrial magnetism, the classification of the 3,500 exoplanets that have been spotted to date, the detection of gravitational waves, the role of earthworms in soil aeration, the reaction of shepherds in the Pyrenees to the reintroduction of bears, or the reaction of bacterial in our intestines to our latest gastronomic overindulgence. That nature is a real catch-all. (73)
For Latour, “nature” is the reason “the slow pace of mobilizations in favor of nature-as-universe” (73). It is not a political idea: objects cannot mobilize us in geo-social conflicts. “In order to begin to describe objectively, rationally, effectively, in order to paint the terrestrial situation with some degree of realism, we need all the sciences, but positioned differently,” Latour writes. “In other words, to be knowledgeable in scientific terms. . . . [i]t is essential to acquire as much cold-blooded knowledge as possible about the heated activity of an Earth finally grasped from up close” (73-74).
But everything depends on what one means by “heated activity” (74). It’s easy, from the perspective of “the nature-universe,” to think of “the earth’s agency” as “a subjective illusion, like a simple projection of feelings onto an indifferent ‘nature’” (74). Thus nature became an externality in economics: whereas humans were agents in systems of economic production, anything deemed “natural” could not be an agent or an actor (74). “It was vaguely felt that everything else depended on them and that they were inevitably going to react, but—here’s the hitch—because nature-as-universe had so fully obscured nature-as-process, those who were seizing control of these resources, sometimes fearfully, were left devoid of words, concepts, and directions” (74-75). Any attitude, myth, or ritual that was not touched “by any notion of ‘resource’ or ‘production’” was taken as “mere vestiges of old forms of subjectivity, of archaic cultures irreversibly outstripped by the modernization front” (75). “It is only today that these practices have become precious models for learning how to survive in the future,” he writes (75).
“The relation to the sciences can change,” but only if the natural sciences “that focus on nature-as-process” are “carefully distinguished from those that focus on the universe” (75). “Whereas the latter start with the planet taken as a body among bodies, for the former the Earth appears wholly singular,” Latour writes, suggesting that a world “composed of agents” could be called “Lovelockian,” after James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia thesis (75). According to Latour, Lovelock’s point is that “it is necessary to consider, on Earth, living beings as agents participating fully in the processes of generating the chemical, and even in part the geological, conditions of the planet” (75). “If the composition of the air we breathe depends on living beings, the atmosphere is no longer the environment in which living beings are located and in which they involve,” Latour continues. Instead, that atmosphere “is, in part, a result of their actions. In other words, there are not organisms on one side and an environment on the other, but a coproduction of both. Agencies are redistributed” (76). Thinking of “the natural sciences as encompassing all the activities necessary to our existence” would make possible “political orientations” (76-77). Latour summarizes the conflict he is trying to describe:
there are those who continue to look at things from the vantage point of Sirius and simply do not see that the earth system reacts to human action, or do not believe it possible; they still hope that the Earth will mysteriously be beamed to Sirius and become one planet among others. Basically, they do not believe that there is life on Earth capable of suffering and reacting. And there are those who seek, while keeping a firm grip on the sciences, to understand what is meant by distributing action, animation, the power to act, all along the causal chains in which they find themselves entangled. (77)
“The former are climate skeptics,” Latour writes; “the latter consent to face up to an enigma concerning the number and nature of the agents at work” (77). Latour might be giving climate skeptics too much credit here: the ones I see on Facebook simply refuse to believe the evidence, preferring to believe fairy tales sponsored by oil companies instead.
We need science—science “extended to encompass all processes of genesis, in order to avoid imposing a priori restrictions on the agency of the beings with which we shall have to work”—“[y]et the empirical sciences must also be subjected to certain limits” (78). “In particular, it is important to try to single out the sciences that bear upon what some researchers call the Critical Zone(s),” Latour writes (78). “Seen from space, everything that has to do with knowledge of the third attractor, the Terrestrial, is in fact limited in a surprising way to a minuscule zone a few kilometers thick between the atmosphere and bedrock,” he continues. “A biofilm, a varnish, a skin, a few infinitely folded layers” (78). Everything that concerns us “resides in the minuscule Critical Zone. This is the point of departure and also the point of return for all the sciences that matter to us” (78). “This is why we need to circumscribe, among the fields of positive knowledge, those that have to do with the Critical Zone, so that we will not have to weigh ourselves down with the entire universe every time we talk about territorial conflicts,” he writes (78). The “sciences of nature-as-process that bear upon the Critical Zone” involve confronting “conflicts for each of the agents that populate the zone and that have neither the privilege nor the possibility of remaining uninterested” (79). Everyone has an interpretation of what happens within the Critical Zone. It is not a classroom: “the relationship between researchers and the public is anything but purely pedagogical” (79).
“If we still had any doubts on this point, the pseudo-controversy over the climate suffices to dispel them,” Latour continues, noting that no corporation has spent anything to disprove the detection of the Higgs boson, “[b]ut denying the climatic mutation is another matter entirely: financing floods in. Ignorance on the part of the public is such a precious commodity that it justifies immense investments” (79-80). “In other words, the sciences of nature-as-process cannot have the same somewhat lofty and disinterested epistemology as that of the sciences of nature-as-universe,” he writes. “The philosophy that protected the latter will be of no help to the former. With no hope of escaping the controversies, the sciences of nature-as-process would do better to organize themselves in order to resist all those that do take an interest—a great interest—in them” (80). The point—the political point—“is that the Earth’s reaction to human action looks like an aberration in the eyes of those who believe in a terrestrial world made up of Galilean objects, and it appears self-evident to those who see it as a concatenation of Lovelockian agents” (80). Therefore, the Terrestrial has less to do with “nature”—“in the sense of nature-as-universe”—as people used to imagine (80):
It is through the Terrestrial that we must henceforth understand the conjoined action of the agents known through the sciences of the Critical Zone, which are struggling for legitimacy and autonomy against countless other concerned parties that have contradictory interests, and all of which possess other bodies of positive knowledge. The Terrestrial is literally drawing another world, as different from “nature” as from what used to be called the “human world” or “society.” The three are all political entities, but they do not lead to the same occupation of the soil, to the same “land-grabbing.” (80)
Discovering this new world “requires different psychological equipment” as well (81). “Innovating by breaking all limits and all codes is not the same as innovating by profiting from these limits,” Latour notes. “Celebrating the forward march of progress cannot have the same meaning when one is heading toward the Global as it does when one is heading toward ‘decisive advances’ in taking the Earth’s reactions to our actions into account” (81).
“The period opening up before us is indeed a new epoch of ‘great discoveries,’ but these resemble neither the wholesale conquest of a New World emptied of its inhabitants, as before, nor the headlong flight into a form of hyper-neo-modernity,” Latour writes; “instead, they require digging deep down into the Earth with its thousand folds” (81). That Earth “is insinuating itself as a third party in all our actions,” he continues. “In both cases it is a matter—to hold onto one of the mainsprings of the modern tradition—of moving beyond, but buy violating different taboos, by passing through different Pillars of Hercules” (81-82).
For Latour, “[r]edirecting attention from ‘nature’ toward the Terrestrial might put an end to the disconnect that has frozen political positions since the appearance of the climate threat and has imperiled the linking of the so-called social struggles with those we call ecological” (82). “The new articulation between the two struggles correlates with a shift from an analysis focused on a system of production to an analysis focused on a system of engendering”: the difference between these analyses is in their principles (freedom for the first, and dependency for the second); in the role they give to humanity (central for the first, distributed for the second); and, finally, in the movements for which they take responsibility (mechanism for the first, genesis for the second) (82). The system of production was based on a materialist conception of nature and of the role of the sciences, and “it assigned a different function to politics and was rooted in a division between human actors and their resources” (82). “At bottom, there was the idea that human freedom would be deployed in a natural setting, where it would be possible to indicate the precise limits of each property,” Latour writes (82). In contrast,
[t]he system of engendering brings into confrontation agents, actors, animate beings that all have distinct capacities for reacting. It does not proceed from the same conception of materiality as the system of production, it does not have the same epistemology, and it does not lead to the same form of politics. It is not interested in producing goods, for humans, on the basis of resources, but in engendering terrestrials—not just humans, but all terrestrials. It is based on the idea of cultivating attachments, operations that are all the more difficult because animate beings are not limited by frontiers and are constantly overlapping, embedding themselves within one another. (82-83)
“If these two systems enter into conflict, it is because another authority has appeared, making it necessary to raise all the old questions again, no longer starting from the project of emancipation alone, but starting from the newly discovered value of dependency,” Latour suggests (83). Dependency limits, complicates, and then reconsiders “the project of emancipation, in order finally to amplify it” (83). This “new form of obligation” is emphasized “in the assertion that there is no planet (one should say Critical Zone) that can shelter the utopia of modernization or of globalization-minus” (83). “How can we deny that we find ourselves facing another power that imposes barriers different from the old so-called ‘natural limits’?” Latour asks (83).
This is the conflict of authority that the obscurantist elites identified “when they decided no longer to share the planet with the rest of the nine billion good folks whose fate—at least so they claimed—had always been their chief concern” (83). The same conflict, or contradiction, broke out at the end of the negotiations for the Paris Climate Accord: “What power then secured the signature of those 175 states, if not a form of sovereignty to which they consented to bow down and that propelled them to reach agreement?” Latour asks. “If it is not a power that dominates the heads of state, and to which they grant a still-vague form of legitimacy, what should it be called?” (84). It is the same contradiction summed up by the term Anthropocene, which “is indeed the symptom of a repoliticization of all the planetary questions” (84). And this conflict was clarified when the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord: Trump’s statement “was a declaration of war authorizing the occupation of all the other countries, if not with troops, at least with CO2, which American retains the right to emit” (84). “Acknowledging that contradictions drive political history, we can see that what fuels the contradiction between the system of production and the system of engendering is dependence on this new form of authority, which is at once very old and freshly minted,” Latour writes (85).
“Another difference between the two types of systems is the role attributed to humanity, a direct consequence of this emerging principle of authority,” Latour continues. “People have been fighting for a century to determine whether questions about nature would make it necessary to exit from anthropocentrism or whether, on the contrary, humans should remain at the center—as if one had to choose between a more or less deep ecology and another more or less ‘humanistic’ version” (85). The question, though, according to Latour, “has always been about the form and the composition of this human” (85). “What the New Climatic Regime calls into question is not the central place of the human,” he writes; “it is its composition, its presence, its figuration, in a word, its destiny. Now if you modify these things, you also change the definition of human interests” (85). The Moderns found it impossible “to situate the human in a precise landscape. The term human referred either to a natural being like all the others (in the classical sense of nature-as-universe) or else to the being par excellence capable of extricating itself from nature (again conceived in the old way), thanks to its soul, its culture, or its intelligence” (85-86). No one has “ever managed to stabilize this oscillation by giving humanity a stable shape” (86). If that is changing now, “it is because the climate crisis has driven both sides off the rails: the notion of nature on the one hand, that of the human on the other” (86). The choice for or against anthropocentrism is implausible now because, Latour suggests, of “the assumption that there is a center, or rather two, man and nature, between which one has to choose. And even more bizarre is the idea that this circle has such well-defined boundaries that they would leave everything else outside. As if there were an outside!” (86). But climate change tells us that there is no circle: no inside, no outside. Instead of talking about humans, Latour suggests, we need to talk about terrestrials, the Earthbound, which “does not lead to the same politics as saying ‘We are humans in nature’” (86). We cannot continue to separate ourselves from the rest of the occupants of the Critical Zone.
The third difference between a system of production and a system of engendering “has to do with the possibility of multiplying the actors without at the same time naturalizing behaviors” (86-87). “To become materialists is no longer to reduce the world to objects, but to extend the list of movements that must be taken into account, precisely the movements of genesis that the view from Sirius did not allow us to follow closely,” Latour argues. “Terrestrials in fact have the very delicate problem of discovering how many other beings they need in order to subsist” (87). (It’s a long list and many of the beings on that list are endangered because of our activities.) Making that list would allow us to “sketch out their dwelling places”—Latour prefers that term to “territory” (87). “To track the terrestrials”—and, remember, these aren’t just humans—“is to add conflicts of interpretation regarding what a given actor is, wants, desires, or can do, to conflicts about what other actors are, want, desire, or can do—and this applies to workers as well as to birds in the sky, to Wall Street executives as well as to bacteria in the soil, to forests as well as to animals” (87). It’s not a question of living in harmony with these other creatures, Latour insists; it’s a question of “learning to be dependent on them” (87). “The list of actors simply grows longer,” he states; “the actors’ interests are encroaching on one another; all our powers of investigation are needed if we are to begin to find our place among these other actors” (87).
“In a system of engendering, all the agents, all the animated beings, raise questions about descendants and forebears: in short, the question of how to recognize and insert oneself within lineages that will manage to last,” Latour writes (87-88). This operation is counter-intuitive for the Moderns, who always felt it necessary to choose “between the old and the new,” with the past defined as “what was simply surpassed, outdated” (88). “The perversity of the modernization front was that, by ridiculing the notion of tradition as archaic, it precluded any form of transmission, inheritance, or revival, and thus of transformation—in short, of engendering,” he continues. “And this is true for the education of human offspring as well as for landscapes, animals, governments, or divinities” (88). (Divinities?) In the system of production, humans alone have the ability to revolt; in a system of engendering, “many other protesters can make themselves heard—before the catastrophe” (88). In a system of engendering, “not only points of view but also points of life proliferate” (88). Therefore, “[b]y shifting from a system of production to a system of engendering, we are going to be able to multiply the sources of revolt against injustice and, consequently, to increase considerably the gamut of potential allies in the struggles to come for the Terrestrial” (88). I find myself wondering, though, whether humans would accept those other sources of revolt—or whether they would just ignore them.
But Latour has anticipated my question. If it were only a philosophical decision, he states, the shift from a system of production to a system of engendering would have no strength: “Before the New Climatic Regime, it seemed . . . to be implausible, convoluted, apocalyptic” (88). But now, we will benefit “from help offered by unleashed agents that oblige us to revisit the definition of what it means to be a human, a territory, a politics, a civilization” (88-89). Our current situation is a contradiction between a system of production and a system of engendering: “It is not simply a matter of economics but rather of civilization itself” (89). Still, though, will farmers or politicians or bureaucrats listen to the bees dying because of neonicotinoids? Or will they continue to close their ears and endanger the food plants we rely upon? Neonicotinoids boost, temporarily, the GDP; short-term thinking triumphs over the long view. What Latour is saying makes sense, but how can we get out from under the tyranny of GDP, of economics, of growth?
“What has been the object from the beginning of this essay can now be named: the Terrestrial is not yet an institution, but it is an actor whose role is clearly different from the political role attributed to ‘nature’ by the Moderns,” Latour writes. “The new conflicts do not replace the old ones; they sharpen them, deploy them differently, and above all they finally make them identifiable. Fighting to join one or another utopia, the Global or the Local, does not have the same clarifying effects as fighting to land on Earth!” (89). Latour also suggests that the word “ecology” should be retired in favour of the word “political,” since “[t]here are only questions of dwelling places inhabited with or defended against other terrestrials that share the same stakes” (90).
We are in a war, but it is “a conflict between modern humans who believe they are alone in the Holocene, in flight toward the Global or in exodus toward the Local, and the terrestrials who know they are in the Anthropocene and who seek to cohabit with other terrestrials under the authority of a power that as yet lacks any political institution” (90). And that way, “at once civic and oral, divides each of us from within” (90). So my questions about GDP and neonicotinoids are determined by the war against Modernists, against those “who believe they are alone in the Holocene.”
Or is that all my questions amount to? “The Achilles’ heel of any text that purports to channel political affects toward new stakes is that the reader can justifiably ask, at the end: ‘All that is well and good. The hypothesis may be attractive, though it still waits to be proved, but what are we to do with it, practically speaking, and what does it change for me?’” (90). What should we then do? “The goal of this essay is certainly not to disappoint, but one cannot ask it to go faster than the history that is under way: the Terrestrial is known by all . . . and, at the same time, the New Climatic Regime has no institutional embodiment,” Latour writes. “It is in this in-between position, in this phony war, that we find ourselves, at once mobilized toward the front and demobilized toward the rear” (91). The situation is even more uncertain, because “the Terrestrial is at once empty and populated” (91). And “the third attractor doesn’t look very attractive. It requires too much care, too much attention, too much time, too much diplomacy” (91). The Global still seems shinier; it arouses more enthusiasm regarding our emancipation (91). “Only it does not exist,” Latour contends. “It is the Local that reassures, that calms, that offers an identity. But it does not exist either” (91-92). Still, Latour believes that the questions he began the essay with can now be answered: “How can the feeling of being protected be provided without an immediate return to identity and the defense of borders?” (92). The answer is: “By two complementary movements that modernization has made contradictory: attaching oneself to the soil on the one hand, becoming attached to the world on the other” (92). “The attractor designated as Terrestrial . . . brings together the opposing figures of the soil and the world,” he continues. “A soil that has nothing to do with the Local and a world that resembles neither globalization-minus nor a planetary vision” (92).
“From the soil,” Latour continues, the Terrestrial “inherits materiality, heterogeneity, thickness, dust, humus, the succession of layers, strata, the attentive care that it requires. Everything that cannot be seen from Sirius. Just the opposite of a plot of ground that a development or real estate project has just grabbed. The ground, the soil, in this sense, cannot be appropriated” (92). We belong to the Terrestrial; it belongs to no one. The Terrestrial also inherits from globalization-plus “the recording of forms of existence that forbid us to limit ourselves to a single location, preclude keeping ourselves inside whatever boundaries there may be” (92). “The soil allows us to attach ourselves,” he continues; “the world allows detachment. Attachment allows us to get away from the illusion of a Great Outside; detachment allows us to escape the illusion of borders. Such is the balancing act to be refined” (93).
“What brings us closer to the solution, fortunately, is one of the properties of this new agent of history proper to the New Climatic Regime”:
It makes no sense to force the beings animating the struggling territories that constitute the Terrestrial back inside national, regional, ethnic, or identitary boundaries; nor does it make sense to try to withdraw from these territorial struggles so as to “move to the global level” and grasp the Earth “as a whole.” The subversion of scales and of temporal and spatial frontiers defines the Terrestrial. This power acts everywhere at once, but it is not unifying. It is political, yes; but it is not statist. It is, literally, atmospheric. (93)
The Terrestrial reorganizes politics in a practical way: “Each of the beings that participate in the composition of a dwelling place has its own way of identifying what is local and what is global, and of defining its entanglements with others” (93). Different things are spatialized differently: CO2, aquifers, and antibiotics are not spatialized the same way as transit systems, bird flu, or terrorism (93). We need to understand this point.
Still, “[t]he Global and the Local alike afford us an inadequate purchase on the Terrestrial, which explains the current hopelessness: what can be done about problems at once so large and so small?” (94). Well, first, “generate alternative descriptions” by thinking about “the stuff that makes us the Earth for us” (94). “Any politics that failed to propose redescribing the dwelling places that have become invisible would be dishonest,” he states. “We cannot allow ourselves to skip the stage of description. No political lie is more brazen than proposing a program” (94). We must investigate, from the bottom up, our dwelling places, defining dwelling place as “that on which a terrestrial depends for its survival, while asking what other terrestrials also depend on it?” (95). That territory will not likely “coincide with a classic legal, spatial, administrative, or geographic entity,” Latour suggests. “On the contrary, the configurations will traverse all scales of space and time” (95). This inventorying is difficult, particularly in a system of engendering, “because the agents, the animate beings, the actors that compose it all have their own trajectories and interests” (95). When we ask questions about the beings we depend on, that depend on us, that live with us, “we notice our own ignorance”: “Every time one begins such an investigation, one is surprised by the abstract nature of the responses. And yet questions about engendering turn up everywhere, along with those of gender, race, education, food, jobs, technological innovations, religion, or leisure” (96). In asking those questions, we discover the causes and effects of our own subjections, which have been hidden from us by globalization-minus (96).
“The question is whether the emergence and description of the Terrestrial attractor can give meaning and direction to political action—forestalling the catastrophe of a headlong flight toward the Local along with the undoing of what has been called the world order,” Latour writes. “For there to be a world order, there first needs to be a world made more or less shareable by this attempt to take stock” (98). Still, in 2018, as Latour is writing, “those who are somewhat sensitive to the situation” are asking themselves, “with unconcealed anguish,” whether “it will be possible to avert another August 1914, another suicide—this time worldwide and no longer just European—of nations, under which such a deep depression has been dug that they will all plunge headlong into it—with enthusiasm and delight” (99). And this time, the Americans won’t help (99).
Latour ends by taking stock of himself: who he is, his attachments, particularly his attachment to Europe, a place whose history of imperialism has delivered it from any sense of innocence, “from the idea that one could either make a new and different history by breaking with the past, or escape from history once and for all” (102). (The unspoken comparison is clearly to the United States.) He wonders how Europe can get out of globalization-minus (104), what knits it together (104-05), what it shall do now that the protection of the United States has been withdrawn (105). Latour is offering this exploration as an example of the kind of inventory he is proposing, and when he concludes, he writes: “Now, it’s your turn to present yourself, to tell us a little about where you would like to land and with whom you agree to share a dwelling place” (106). Surprisingly, that’s what my current project seeks to do.
What I take from Latour’s book—after this first, quick reading—is what he appears to be doing with affect theory and object-oriented ontology (two things I need to learn more about). I like the notion of the Terrestrial as a way of tying humans to their surroundings; it’s obvious—to me if not to others—that we depend on those surroundings, and that we (along with most of the creatures with which we share the Critical Zone) will die if we carry on the way we are going. We’re not separate from what we’ve been calling “nature”; we’re entangled in it, and we need it to survive. Still, I’m not sure how the notion of taking an inventory of our dwelling place will do much. Perhaps I’ve missed something important, but I still feel powerless. Perhaps I would feel differently if I tried to take an inventory of my dwelling place? It’s possible. I guess I’ll have to find out. But while I think Latour’s analysis makes a lot of sense, I’m not sure it necessarily opens a pathway to action, as he expects it to do.
Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, translated by Catherine Porter, Polity, 2018.