Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Reading :: Down to Earth

Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime
By Bruno Latour

Latour published two books in English in 2018, both focused on the question of climate. This one is the thinner, and I think it’s also more oriented to casual readers. It aims to answer the question: How did we get to this point, at which ecological degradation is increasingly obvious, yet steadfastly denied? Latour argues -- and here I consult the summary on the back of the book -- that powerful people have concluded that our ecology is really threatened and that they can survive only by abandoning the dream of a common future with others. Exploding inequalities, massive deregulation, and globalization are the result. As an antidote, Latour argues that we must reposition politics to lead us not toward the global or the national, but toward the Earth.

Latour connects these three phenomena -- deregulation, increasing inequity, and climate change denial -- and argues that “the elites have been so thoroughly convinced that there will 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 guilded fortress is 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” (pp.18-19). He acknowledges that this looks “too much like a conspiracy theory” (p.21), yet can be documented.

In any case, he argues that “the issue of climate-change denial organizes all politics at the present time” (p.24) and adds that “It is not a matter of learning how to repair cognitive deficiencies, but rather of how to live in the same world … 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” (p.25). 

To sketch out this controversy, he uses a simplified diagram similar to those he’s used elsewhere, arguing that we are dealing with “attractors”: the local opposed to the global, and at right angles to that axis, the out-of-this-world attractor of Trumpism (rejecting the world, returning to an imagined past) opposed to the terrestrial (i.e., “down to Earth”). Each attractor makes it appear as if time is flowing in its direction. 

Latour sees Europe as having started the trend of ecological degradation and, more generally, the orientation toward the global (p.102), yet it also has the ability to lead de-globalization -- since the US obviously won’t.

What to make of all this? Many commentators have argued that Latour oscillates between two irreconcilable positions: crude Machiavellianism, in which a few powerful interests pull the strings, and radical symmetry, in which every actant in the network has agency. I’ve largely dismissed this claim of irreconcilability, arguing that for Latour, a more sophisticated Machiavellianism applies for every actor. But here, Latour seems to be confirming his critics. Our poor reaction to climate change is due to a conspiracy of the elites (crude Machiavellianism) -- and at the same time our reckoning is coming because the terrestrial is also an actor (radical symmetry). This is a great story, since it allows us to place the blame on a few people we don’t much like anyway, rather than acknowledging our own roles -- our “shared practice” -- in practices that are leading to our mutual detriment. It’s much easier to revile than to repent!

But ultimately, I was underwhelmed by this analysis. It’s too neat, too simple, and too dependent on the abstract actors that Latour used in We Have Never been Modern. I don’t see it moving the ball on climate change discourse or even the analysis of it. For that reason, unless you’re a Latour completist, I think you could skip this book and instead read Facing Gaia, the more scholarly one that he put out at the same time -- the book that I will review next.