In Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, Bruno Latour provides a challenging but potentially hopeful take on why climate denial continues to be a political force. For him, this denial is not merely a product of scientific illiteracy. Neither is it reducible to a conflict between economic and environmental interests. Instead, Latour argues, we as a global community have been unable to make headway on climate because we have divided into camps with two different understandings of the world. In one world, people recognize a finite earth that reacts to human activity. In the other, people imagine an infinite world that is indifferent to human actions. This ignorance of the earth’s reactions is not because people are uneducated, but because they have been systematically distanced from material realities and trained to distrust scientific facts. To counter such division, Latour concludes, it will not be enough to educate people by exposing them to data and arguments. Instead, to address climate change, we must work our way back into material relationship with the earth. We will have to rethink the categories we use to imagine our realities, including politics, nature, the global, and the local.
Latour’s hypothesis begins with what he admits sounds like a conspiracy theory. Climate change, he argues, has been at the center of our politics in recent decades; a privileged few knew of this threat early on and systematically denied the risks. As evidence, Latour points to examples like old Exxon Mobile reports, suggesting that industry insiders knew of climate threats long before the general public. The decision to keep extracting and developing despite these limits seems illogical, unless it is understood as a last-ditch effort of the privileged (who Latour calls “the obscurantist elites”) to secure a future for themselves at the expense of the general public. “The elites have been so thoroughly convinced that there would be no future life for everyone,” Latour argues, “that they have decided to get rid of all the burdens of solidarity as fast as possible” (18). Thus, while continuing to present global development as a beneficial democratic project, the privileged actually began to protect their own interests at the expense of the rest of the world. Climate denial attempted “to conceal the crass selfishness of such a flight out of the shared world” (19).
Conspiratorial as these claims may sound, Latour argues we can see the fruit of this past deception in the present. The push to build “a sort of gilded fortress” for a few led to the escalating deregulation, inequality, and refugee migration of the 21st century (18). We can also see the impacts of long-term denial in the erosion of public faith in media, scientific study, and facts. Finally, the centrality of climate denial also explains recent nationalist backlashes against globalization. While Latour’s points offer a complicated origin story for the xenophobia and racism that have been resurgent in recent years, his goal is not to excuse these forces. Instead, he wants to figure out creative ways to break out of this distrust and denial. He identifies two foundational misunderstandings that must be fixed. First, he identifies a breakdown in the networks connecting facts and the public. And second, he identifies a disconnection between the material realities of our planet and the way cultural narratives have imagined possible futures.
To fully grasp Latour’s first point, it is helpful to be familiar with his earlier works. Much of Latour’s work has looked at the processes that create scientific research. Facts don’t appear; we create them through networks of laboratories and bureaucracy, and we create them in collaboration with the material stuff of the world. The stability of facts relies on public trust in the institutions and processes that create them. If the public loses faith in these processes, why would they trust the facts themselves? Such faith has been seriously shaken by the climate change cover-ups. Without legitimizing climate denial, Latour insists that dismissing such denial as stupidity misses the point. Climate denial was a deliberate obfuscation that destabilized public trust in facts. Furthermore, climate denial fed on an appealing and widespread fantasy: that there was some way to escape the limits of the world and the consequences of human damage to the earth. To truly address climate change, we will need to rethink our worlds, recognizing that there are no such escapes.
But it is hard to move beyond this otherworldly escapism, as it is central to many political narratives. For example, much present political debate involves a false dilemma between the Global and the Local – terms Latour capitalizes to reinforce their status as abstractions. Imagine the Global and the Local as two points on a line. For much of Western modernity, progress has been imagined as movement from the Local to the Global. Challenges to that model – whether in the form of ecological skepticism about development or nationalist retreats against progress – merely flip the poles, seeing the Local as good and the Global as bad. In either case, both the Local and the Global offer escapist fantasies.
I can better understand the Local-Global trajectory when I think about it in relationship to the history of environmentalism. When environmental writers in the 19thand 20thcenturies challenged progress-based narratives, many of them did so by reclaiming the value of the local. However, as more recent critics have pointed out, a myopic focus on the local prevents us from recognizing the ways that local places participate in global systems. A locally focused environmentalism is not equipped to deal with multi-layered issues like environmental justice or world-spanning problems like climate change. Simply flipping the poles back and forth, arguing over whether a global or local approach is better, never gives us sufficient tools to deal with environmental issues – which, after all, span the range from localized ecosystems to planet-wide climatic and geological systems.
According to Latour, the Global and Local poles don’t help because they are both impossible utopias, divorced from material reality. There is no pure, past Local to which we can retreat and escape from the damages of climate change. Attempting such escape can lead to narrow-mindedness, selfishness, racism, xenophobia, and isolation. But there is also no democratic, universal Global where all people can achieve equal, unlimited development and wealth. The earth simply cannot sustain the kind of development that idealized visions of cosmopolitan globalization have promised. As Latour argues, “the planet is much too narrow and limited for the globe of globalization; 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” (16).
Instead of being stuck between the Global and the Local, Latour challenges us to think in more dimensions. Imagine a line perpendicular to the Local-Global axis. At the top of this y-axis, place the term “Out-of-this-World” and at the bottom the term “Terrestrial.” The “Out-of-this-World” is the term Latour uses to describe the escapism at the root of both globalization’s limitless development and localism’s isolation. The Out-of-this-World imagines a world freed of limits, where wealth can emerge forever and the earth never reacts to human actions. This is the vision that Latour claims drove Trump’s election and Brexit, as well as climate denial generally: “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, literally offshore, like a tax haven” (36). The US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, then, is a fantasy: “‘We Americans don’t belong to the same earth as you. Yours may be threatened; ours won’t be!’” (3). The dream of the Out-of-this-World is that someone else, some other world, will face consequences, but one’s own world can be made safe, whether through literal walls or simple positive thinking. And that is why Latour sees climate denial as the force driving current political tensions. Climate denial fuels both optimistic assessments of global development and reactionary retreats into xenophobia and nationalist boundaries. While we fight a false battle between Global and Local worldviews, we fail to address the real battle: between those who live in a material world and those who have fallen prey to these Out-of-this-World dreams.
While both Global and Local worldviews can lead to Out-of-this-World thinking (what Latour calls “global-minus” and “local-minus” ideas), they can also point to an antithesis: the Terrestrial. The Terrestrial takes the intimacy of knowledge, connection, and belonging valued by local-plus thinking as well as the love of diversity and plurality offered by global-plus thought. Instead of taking ourselves out of this world, the Terrestrial attends to the complex worlds around us – worlds made out of distinct societies, environments, and entities tangled together. A Terrestrial vision thus recognizes that humans aren’t the only participants in whatever future world we create. We must instead recognize terrestrials, a term similar to what Latour has called actants in the past; beings that have some coherent identity and can influence events can be counted as terrestrials, from vegetables to insurance networks, from clean air to housing markets.
In the Terrestrial model, I reconnect to a material earth by noting all the terrestrials – social, cultural, human, and material – I rely upon and interact with in order to survive. “It is a matter of … pursuing an exhaustive search for everything that makes subsistence possible,” Latour contends. “As a terrestrial, what do you care most about? With whom can you live? Who depends on you for subsistence? Against whom are you going to have to fight? How can the importance of all these agents be ranked” (96). The result is a vision that is both local and global but above all is irreducibly connected and material. It is a rich model of democracy that includes many forms of being, a model for which Latour has advocated in much of his work. With the intensification of climate change, it is no longer possible to imagine the earth as a passive ground for political decision making, and thus we have two choices: escape into Out-of-this-World denial or recognize our material interconnection and the need for a more flexible, adaptive model of decision making.
Taking Latour Down to Earth
Latour’s thought is always challenging to summarize; it is ambitious and philosophical, yet deeply concerned with real world issues. It examines concepts that are embedded in our usual ways of thinking and asks us to reorient these patterns, redefining foundational ideas like nature, modernity, progress, and human identity. As an individual who loves philosophy and theory, I find these inversions exhilarating. But in the past weeks of reading and rereading this book, I found myself asking how these ideas might be worked out on the ground. Given the urgency of climate change and the stubborn endurance of climate denial, can such abstract philosophical reorientations prove helpful? Latour himself concludes with some practical illustrations of how his ideas could be put into practice. And ultimately, I think his ideas can help us in a couple of ways.
First, I think Latour’s book is a powerful argument for building new coalitions. To deal with the urgent threat of climate change, he argues, it will not be enough to hunker down in the political bunkers we have been developing. But instead of advocating for some kind of weak compromise between urban, working-class, or rural voting blocs, for example, Latour asks all of us, regardless of political affiliation, to join in a new project of taking stock. By mapping out the terrestrials – the networks, beings, people, and systems – that we rely on within various communities, we might be able to break out of entrenched battles between the global and the local, or between environments and economies. We could start to weigh our priorities in more flexible ways. This fresh and collaborative approach might help divided communities find more points of commonality than they originally imagined. This approach is also flexible enough to work on multiple scales. We are all connected locally and globally, embedded in networks that span both these dimensions. Recognizing this complex reality should challenge our political truisms and help us escape cliché stories about progress or history.
Maybe most people don’t need to wrestle with Latour’s conceptual categories, mapping out diagrams of the Out-of-this-World and the Terrestrial. But Down to Earth provides a thoughtful framework that the philosophically inclined can adapt into their teaching, their political discussions, and their decision-making processes. Even if we don’t use Latour’s conceptual categories, many of us could benefit from trying to make decisions in a material, connected, and multi-dimensional way. In my experience as a college professor and camp educator, I’ve seen movements in this direction. I’ve helped campers learn that they are part of watersheds, ecosystems, and food distribution networks; I’ve helped college students think through their dependence upon complex institutions that combine history, material resources, and personal relationships. We can all work to make decisions that thoughtfully consider our many limits and dependencies, both as individuals and as community members, and we could ask how we might encourage others to take better stock of their worlds, recognizing the many material terrestrials upon which we all depend.