Getting Real about Climate Politics

Bruno Latour tells it like it is. Originally famous for subjecting scientific methodologies to anthropological/post-modern critique, in 2004 he warned that critique had been weaponized to promote faux controversies and outlined a plan to confront systematic denial. In Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (2017), the rewrite of his 2013 Gifford Lectures, Latour upends and reconstitutes political, legal, theological and scientific frameworks, binding them to the unprecedented ecological mutation some call the Anthropocene.

Arguably, Facing Gaia is the most important work of the new century. Reattaching the various scientific and humanistic discourses to “matters of concern,” it obviates the cynical quibbling of those feigning skepticism regarding “the facts” of anthropogenic climate change. In the New Climatic Regime earthbound creatures no longer claim independence from or superiority over the mobilized systems of the material world. Reoriented statesmen, scientists, citizens, activists and artists all give voice to the previously unrepresented: “the political order now includes everything that previously belonged to nature.”   

Latour’s 2018 Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, which will be considered here, condenses the insights of Facing Gaia (and other works) in explicitly geopolitical terms. A crisply written little tome composed on the occasions of Trump’s election and subsequent withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, it articulates a still underappreciated reality: “climate change denial organizes all politics at the present time;” “the climate question is at the heart of all geopolitical issues.”

If socially constructed truth couldn’t previously bear the weight of a capital “T,” the “epistemological delirium” of the American brand of systematic denial is now a matter of life and death, war and peace:

And this is what was finally clarified, the day Trump…triumphantly announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Accord. His statement was a declaration of war authorizing the occupation of all other countries, if not with troops, at least with CO2, which America retains the right to emit.

Try telling the other signatories of the agreement that they are not literally invaded by the United States, which is influencing the composition of their atmosphere even though they are thousands of kilometers away! Here is a new expression of a right to domination in the name of a new version of Lebensraum.

A right to domination in the name of a new version of Lebensraum!  Latour is not messing around. In Down to Earth he compares previous incarnations of fascism. He sees a fundamental difference: German and Italian fascists pursued “an identifiable goal.” Trumpism is evil of a different order. As social practice is prior to epistemology, “Trumpian politics” is not post-truth, but “post-politics – that is, literally, a politics with no object, since it rejects the world that it claims to inhabit.”

The American brand of denial, which Trump incarnates, is not a matter of faulty cognition or inadequate persuasion; it is a mode of being and social organization: “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.” “For the first time, a large-scale movement no longer claims to address geopolitical realities seriously, but purports to put itself outside of all worldly constraints, literally offshore, like a tax haven.”

For those of us still disoriented by the scale of the GOP’s corruption and incompetence, reckoning with sociology of climate denial is of practical import. We ask: why no carbon taxes in America? Why are so few GOP swayed by the gravitas of George Schulz or the moral fervor of Bob Ingliss? Latour lays it on the line: denialism is the alpha and omega of Trumpism as a “political innovation.” It is the raison d’ etre of the movement he represents, the source of his appeal: both to “ordinary people” and the cynical segment of the superrich, whose interests he represents.

To orient us in the New Climatic Regime, Latour offers a hypothesis in the form of a “political fiction,” a fiction we might dismiss as conspiracy theory if there weren’t extensive corroboration documented in scholarly works (Oreskes, Pestre), and appearing in the Trump regime on a daily basis. From a prosecutorial standpoint, we might say that it is the “theory of the case.”

It goes like this: while most people underestimate the unprecedented nature of the crisis, there is nothing accidental about their confusion. Some thirty years ago systematic denial came online with other phenomena Latour insists are related: deregulation, the dismantling of the welfare state and “an increasingly vertiginous explosion of inequalities.” While one segment of the ruling class kept faith with the project of modernizing the world (something possible until the 1990s, “provided one profited from it”), another, shrewder, segment took warnings regarding the limits of growth quite seriously. “These people – whom we can call the obscurantist elites from now on – 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.” It is not that anyone failed to convince them:  

[They] have taken the threat seriously; they have concluded that their dominance was threatened and have decided to dismantle the ideology of a planet shared by all;  they have understood that such an abandonment could under no circumstances be made public, and consequently that the scientific knowledge that underlay their whole movement would have to be obliterated under conditions of the greatest secrecy – all this in the course of the last 30 or 40 years.

If we want to understand why we cannot have nice things – binding treatises, carbon taxes, responsible regulatory policy, non-ideologues running agencies – we need to understand how the “obscurantist elites” protect the immense fortunes of the superrich. According to Latour’s narrative, institutions and policies that give any support to “the ideology of a planet shared by all” are a threat. Deregulation and dismantling work to dissolve “all forms of solidarity, both external (among nations) and internal (among classes).” Thinking with Latour we see that even apart from its efficiency, an equitably distributed carbon tax itself symbolizes politics in the service of solidarity, democratic sovereignty. Same with the more expansive project of a Green New Deal: it would give new life to “the ideology of a planet shared by all.”   

It is not difficult to understand how Trump (and most of the media) serves the interests of the “obscurantist elites.” Through subterfuge, distraction and disinformation, the aim is to ensure “utter indifference” to the “relations between human beings and the material conditions of their lives,” i.e. climate change broadly understood. But ignorance is only bliss for so long. Woe to the MAGA who have pinned their hopes on “the false protections of identities and rigid borders,” as if walls can protect against disruptions respecting neither sovereign border nor ethnic allegiance.

To be sure, “ordinary people” must not have too many illusions about what comes next in the adventure. Those for whom Trump is working are precisely those tiny elites who had grasped starting in the early 1980s that there would be no room for them and for the nine billion left behind. “Let’s deregulate: let’s rush to pump out bigtime everything that still remains to pump. Drill baby, drill! We’re going to win in the end, by betting on this nutcase, we’ll get 30 or 40 years of respite for us and our children. After that, the deluge can come; we’ll all be dead by then anyway.”

According to Latour, “it is quite useless” to chastise ordinary folk duped by the obscurantist lackeys of the superrich. “The people,” he reminds us, have also been betrayed by those of us who have promised an “infinite horizon of modernization for all.” Insofar as we “rational sorts” ourselves fail to reckon with the New Climatic Regime, we “are just as caught up as the other in the tangles of disinformation.” We mock those who “believe in alternative facts,” while ourselves living “in an alternative world.”  We live, quite literally, in a fantasy where modernization goes on infinitum, where one can “quietly hope that everything will work out,” if only we can correct the cognitive errors of the masses who are bombarded with massive disinformation campaigns. Failing to understand that social practice is prior to epistemology, we “rational sorts” imagine it is possible to defend “the facts” without actually confronting the “opponents,” the obscurantists for whom climate change isn’t even real.

Latour’s socio-political/anthropological analysis of denialforces us all (both within and outside the US) to face reality. Responsibility itself is prima facie impossible for a regime whose organizing principle is denial (and, of course, maximization of profit for Wall Street– drill baby drill). If totalitarian regimes at least have the possibility of coherent action, this is not of feature of “the current innovation: the state is in disgrace, the individual is king, and the urgent governmental priority is…loosening all constraints.” Giving voice to the world’s despair, Down to Earth offers the view from Europe “in mid-2018.” Those “sensitive to the situation are wondering with unconcealed anguish whether it will be possible to avert another August 1914, another suicide – this time worldwide…and this time no one will be able to count on the belated support of the United States.”

As political analysis Down to Earth reads like a brief (Latour incidentally has the ear of some in the French Ministry of Defense). While Trump is denial incarnate, Latour is not specifically fixated on the “Madoff” of geopolitics, “merely a symbol, one among others.” Nor is Latour naïve regarding the promises made in Paris. Trump’s withdrawal clarified the already dystopic plight of a planet for decades steeped in denial.  Latour reminds us that from the moment of signing, even those “applauding” realized “with alarm” the impossibility of the promised development agenda: “they would need several planets; they have only one.” Before Brexit, and before Trump, the Paris Accord itself announced, “that there was no longer any Earth corresponding to the horizon of the Global.”

Latour is rather a realist and a materialist, in the strictest senses of the terms. He warns that the luxury of outmoded abstractions has past. Given the “wicked universality” of climate change, “geopolitical strategists…belonging to the ‘realist school’ will have to modify…their battle plans.” Economists still oriented by the horizon of expanding prosperity – be they liberals or socialists – will have to reckon with the fact that “their definition of the material world” has been “abstract,” “ideal…that they never had a firm grasp on this new reality.”

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. How can one qualify as materialists people who are capable of inadvertently letting the temperature of their planet rise by 3.5 degrees C on average, or who inflict on their fellow citizens the role of agents of the sixth extinction without anyone even noticing?

Latour tells it like it is; there is nothing materialist or rational about a worldview unable to check apocalyptic destruction. If socially constructed truth couldn’t previously bear a capital T, it’s time now for some Realpolitik. For good reason scientists around the world are calling on Latour’s help.  It’s time to identify enemies and draw up battle plans. Task #1: delineate the theater of operations. We’re not saving “nature” in the abstract. Hundreds of millions of dollars aren’t being spent to sow disinformation in astronomy or deep geology. Things are very different in the “Critical Zone.”  In every scientific field located in the “thin biofilm” “a few kilometers thick between the atmosphere and bedrock” scientists find themselves confronting “competing bodies of knowledge that they never have the power to disqualify a priori.”

If we feel for scientists unequipped to successfully refute obscurantist lackeys of the cynical elite, we certainly must not have illusions regarding Trump’s latest threat to deny Federal funding to universities that fail to protect “free speech.”  It’s the same with the latest White House effort to debunk scientific consensus in the name of national security.  Everyday more confirmation of the underappreciated reality: “climate change denial organizes all politics at the present time;” “the climate question is at the heart of all geopolitical issues.” If ever there was a time for scientists to bind together and disqualify “competing bodies of knowledge” a priori, it is now.

To really confront denial, our own as well as that of the obscurantist elites, we are going to have to get dirty. To come Down to Earth we’re going to have root ourselves in the mud, in the “humus, and yes, the compost.” We are going to have to become terrestrial.  No longer conceiving ourselves abstractly,as “humans in nature,” we must give up the myriad modernist illusions that trick us into believing that we are somehow distant, separate and independent from the other species. This includes a reorientation beyond “the Anthropocene.” In the New Climatic Regime, we recognize non-human sources of agency; “to become materialists is to longer reduce the world to objects, but to extend the list of movements that must be taken into account.”

To his credit, Latour gets a lot of mileage out of the concept of the Terrestrial. On the one hand, simply an articulation of the state of the art: in current scientific discourse autarchic metaphors have given way to recognition of symbiosis, interdependence, mutual shaping. On the other hand, the Terrestrial is a call for a new mode of being, a new civilizational order grounded in opposition to all forms of climate denial.

Giving birth to a materialist politics rooted in the soil of the New Climatic Regime, to institutions that represent “everything that that previously belonged to nature,” all our fellow terrestrials, is not such a simple task. There is work for the humanities, for artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, designers, etc. Latour’s several interdisciplinary, multimedia ventures are already showing the way. 

Philosophically speaking, the Terrestrial inverts the wild consumerist disinhibition birthed at the end of the Cold War. If Fukiyama told us that the end of history permits endless liberation, the Terrestrial reframes “the project of emancipation” in terms of dependency. “As if, through a new dialectical pirouette, one were inverting the Hegelian project once again. As if the Spirit had never finished being reincarnated.”  Marxist disruption meets Franciscan mysticism. Fitting that Latour, a practicing Catholic,  is the 2013 recipient of the prestigious Holbein prize, for “his ambitious analysis and reinterpretation of modernity.”

For those of us immediately concerned with crafting responsible policy, be it an equitably distributed carbon tax or the Green New Deal – terrestrial reorientation is imperative. Fortunately, taking the time to define the territory we actually inhabit, to itemize every being upon which we are dependent and whom we wish to protect, as well as every being upon which they are dependent, is highly illuminating. As Latour remarks regarding the demands of the Gilets Jaunes, “the questions posed…would become 100 % ecological if they started to describe their conditions of existence.” 

The Gilets Jaunes, whom Latour sees as “internal migrants left by their own country,” are correct to link questions of inequality and ecology (the gas tax), though, as with the Brexiters, many grievances come into a different focus when one begins to think concretely about the conditions of one’s own existence. The French state for its part, is still largely entrenched in the old climactic regime, is unable as yet to respond to the “wicked universality” that is shifting the ground beneath all of our feet.

Political exemplars pointing toward a future politics of the Terrestrial include the water protectors resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline, the French Zadists, who proclaim, “We are not defending nature, we are nature defending itself.” And to be clear: defending the myriad forms of interdependent life in a specific territory does not connote a return to “blood and soil” ethnicity; it does not preclude welcoming migrants.  Recognizing that the soil of globalization has changed for everyone, is the ground of Terrestrial politics, the new, materialist “ideology of a planet shared by all.”

Latour concludes Down to Earth with an impassioned exhortation for Europe to embrace and model a politics of the Terrestrial. Articulating a post-colonial ethos pierced with recognition that the colonizer now also experiences devastation and expropriation, he sees the possibility of alliances transcending the right-left opposition of national identity-modernist emancipation. The European project, a bureaucratic fiction, a legal invention, offers an alternative to “the once again widespread idea that the nation state alone can protect peoples by ensuring their safety.” Europe, Latour explains, materializes countless overlapping interests; “by the intricacy of its regulations, which are attaining the complexity of an ecosystem,” it shows the way to encompass and transcend local/national interests.

For those of us interested in responsible policy, be it an equitably distributed carbon tax or the Green New Deal, Latour’s politics of the Terrestrial encourages democracy as much as efficiency. We should all be involved in identifying the conditions supporting our own lives and all of those we are willing to defend and protect. Advocates for a carbon tax, Latour wisely explains, must work to ensure that the public is clear about “various entanglements” and “interest groups” attached to any policy. Best policy surely would be to have a clear understanding of the point of taxation and how the costs and benefits work down the interlinked chain of dependent relations.

Encouraging us trust that something like a “redescription of a dwelling place is possible,” that undertaking the labor of outlining “political geography” is indeed meaningful, Latour recalls a key point in the history of the French Revolution: the ledger of complaints that were composed between January and May 1789. Certainly it was a different time: it was then much simpler to identify “the privileged individuals with whom one came into daily contact.” But for anyone interested in responsible policy, policy that avoids the terror of politics “as a totalizing question,” it is pertinent to take inspiration from the past:

In a few short months, at the request of a king with his back to the wall, in a situation of financial disaster and climatic tension, all the villages in France, all the cities, all the corporations, not to mention the three estates, managed to describe fairly precisely their living environments, regulation after regulation, plot of ground after plot of ground, privilege after privilege, tax after tax.

Is it time for a revolution? Is it time to get terrestrial?