A review of Bruno Latour's 'Down to Earth'
By Leonard Frank
It seems that one of the essential tasks of political writing these days is to interpret the disintegration of political party systems, a phenomenon which has been occurring for nearly two decades across the globe. This shift – most often associated with the rise of so-called populist parties and figureheads – shakes up the remains of a surprisingly stable political coordinate system generally ordered by a left and right vector. It is gradual and slow-paced in some places, and comes with a bang in others. It is to Bruno Latour’s merit to have interpreted this era-defining transformation as a phenomenon of environmental and climate politics.
Latour analyses this transformation using a set of three phenomena: a globalisation based on deregulation, the global rise of inequalities, and the denial of climate change. They are, Latour argues, essentially related, and an expression of a political agenda epitomised by the Trump administration’s spectacular turn away from the Paris agreement. This decision marked a departure not only from multilateralism, but from the so-called West’s foundational ideal of a world that is shared by all. It is a politics that denies our common dependence on a surprisingly fragile planet.
While Latour uses Donald Trump as an allegory for the transformation he describes, he does not see the US president as a phenomenon in isolation. Latour argues that the characteristic political figures of our time, with the 45th U.S. president and his entourage as archetypes, have ceased to believe in a single planet populated by a single humanity. Correspondingly, the democratic minimum standard that entitles everyone to the right to live, speak, and prosper in a warming world has been increasingly challenged, even before the recent escalation of European quarrels about asylum policy shone the limelight on human rights.
According to Latour, this refusal to believe in a world shared by all humans marks the turn towards a new politics that isn’t bound to the limits of this earth anymore. The promoters of Brexit, fortress Europe and the opponents of the Paris Agreement all say: ‘Your world may be threatened by climate change and market-driven globalisation, but ours is not’. This new political orientation is, in Latour’s words, the extra-terrestrial: it promises a world that simply cannot exist on this planet, one where the profits of modernity keep accumulating, while their social and environmental costs have no place.
Of course, it is easier to proclaim the end of an old order than to start a new one, but Latour's book is as much an analysis as it is a manifesto: he suggests a new political coordinate system along which to order and make a new, green politics. This politics would be geared towards the Anthropocene, taking into account climate change and humanity’s relationship with our material conditions of life. For him, this new climate regime can only be grounded in a politics founded upon the fundamental understanding: that all known life is bound to the thin, amazingly fragile space between Earth’s crust and its outer atmosphere. Recognising the common dependency on this critical zone could, according to Latour, anchor politics in a common orientation towards a new ideal of the terrestrial: grounding politics in the necessary ecological conditions for the existence of human societies.
This political attractor builds upon green political movements of the past decades, although they have arguably failed in their objectives. Indeed, even though green politics has successfully made environmental destruction an issue of broad political concern, its appeal to the objectivity of science is often inimical to stimulating political debate because it silences dissent through reference to scientific authority. By bringing green politics down to earth, Latour’s approach seeks to make a difference. In his new order, the terrestrial ideal unites local and global struggles against threats to their protagonists’ social and environmental conditions of life: functioning ecosystems, peaceful societies, welfare states and a stable climate.
But no one has yet founded the ‘Terrestrial Party’ – and I doubt that anyone will any time soon. This is because our current political systems are still largely ordered by the axes that Latour thinks are being revolutionised. The abandonment of the ideal of a shared humanity is not a radically new practice: it is merely a frontstage reappearance of age-old, exclusionist tendencies. From the colonial crusades of the past to the potpourri of nationality, race, economic status and sexual identifiers used by current populists and neo-fascists, the boundary-drawing exercise between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving has long been an integral part of the discourse of the Western traditional right. It is in this tradition that the extra-terrestrials stand, and which the political left has tried to counter with an agenda of inclusion, extending civic rights and socio-economic opportunities to those who didn’t enjoy them before. Latour recognises the arbitrariness of all acts of boundary-drawing. His analysis posits that the political coordinate system can be actively remapped, and allegiances shifted to new political attractors. He argues to replace the old system of left and right with a new continuum of possible political stances pitted against each other: the terrestrial and the extra-terrestrial.
And yet, concepts of the political ‘left’ and ‘right’, although contingent and problematic as political categories, cannot simply be discarded. They have immense practical utility in helping us map abstract values to political valencies: for instance, green politics has almost exclusively coalesced with the left. Even though the language of sustainability has proliferated into most political camps, movements that aim to establish an economic and political order that does not endanger the ecological basis of human societies generally situate themselves on the left. However, the left is not succeeding uniformly – social democrats in particular are held back by their symbiosis with labour unions, who are still bound to fossil-fired industrialism. The coalitions that green politics relies on are hence conflictual, even internally.
In my view, Latour’s new political cartography seems premature, but his approach is helpful in building green politics beyond their current electoral base. A reframing of politics around ecology could help build political coalitions that surpass the left-right partisan divide of the 20th century just a little. Such coalitions would recognize the synchronous challenges that humanity faces: that we all share a surprisingly small, vulnerable planet and its very fragile, hospitable zone; in Latour’s words, they would organise around the attractor of the terrestrial. For the political left, the understanding that a healthy planet is the condition for all sorts of emancipation can become a renewed project of inclusion, a politics where neither people nor our planet becomes the dump for unwanted by-products of our consumerist lifestyles. Here, Latour can help us, through his account of what could bind together political coalitions across geographical boundaries.
Make no mistake, such initiatives already exist. From neighbourhood community centres to regional peasant movements, from liveable city initiatives to the rapidly spreading school strikes for climate, these ‘terrestrials’ already defend what they see as the world they need for everyone’s survival. What they need is the political clout to influence existing political systems and the parties that dominate them. The surge of populism globally will not end until an alternative political strategy is devised: one that matches the right’s success by conveying to voters a sense of inclusive entitlement, and one that isn’t divisive, but that builds upon the age-old goal of not letting anyone’s chances be determined by where and to whom they were born. However, such a politics has not fully materialized yet. Latour’s book is a good read for those who aim to build it.
Illustration by Thea Stevens
Leonard Frank holds an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance from the University of Oxford, and currently reads for an MA in Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin. He researches political systems in the transition towards sustainability.