books climate change globalisation

Book review: Down to Earth, by Bruno Latour

When I rebranded the blog a couple of years ago, I thought long and hard about different names and settled eventually on Earthbound. For me it reflects the fact that we are grounded where are and have to learn to live as if we mean to stay. It also hints at the earth as a destination. As if modern life, with its infinite growth and its plastic, were a fantasy detour and we needed to come back to earth.

The French philosopher Bruno Latour has also used the idea of being earthbound, and so I have been meaning to make time for this book: Down to Earth – Politics in the New Climatic Regime. The train journey to Scotland recently gave me a decent chunk of reading time, and with long delays because of fallen trees, I finished it in one sitting.

It’s a short but complicated book, written with the “deliberate bluntness” that Latour often uses. It’s actually summed up in twenty sentences in the table of contents, and then the rest of the book is written as a single argument.

Latour suggests that the last thirty years or so have been marked by rising inequality, deregulation, and climate denial – and that these are all connected. In the decades before that, there was a broad consensus that the world was globalising, that more and more people were being brought into a global economy that would eventually raise standards of life across the board. That has now changed, because it has become clear that the planet cannot support nine billion people living a Western consumer lifestyle.

Once that became obvious, global elites gave up on the idea of a universal common prosperity, and pursued a more self-interested approach. That culminates, says Latour, in the election of Donald Trump and his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. In pulling out of global efforts to address climate change, America was essentially saying that it refused to compromise its over-consumption, and that “others will pay for what is broken.”

In order to legitimise this display of selfish greed, Trump denied that there was any crisis anyway. Latour argues that this is how climate denial has functioned more generally, providing moral cover for fossil-fuelled elites to buy themselves more time at the expense of everybody else.

Deep down though, these elites understand that climate change has pulled the rug out from underneath the globalisation project. Not all the world will be able to develop in the industrial Western way after all, “for want of a planet vast enough for their dreams of growth for all.” The book then unpicks the manifold consequences of this, how it unsettles both left and right, and disrupts our sense of ourselves and our place in history. He also ties it into the ‘migration crisis’, showing how climate change challenges traditional border-based identities.

What we do about this is a trickier question, and Latour acknowledges that he doesn’t have any specific solutions. “One cannot ask it to go faster than the history that is underway” he says of his own essay, but he does imagine a new destination for political hopes.

Previous political debates set localism against the progress of globalisation. Populist projects such as Trump or Brexit offer a fantasy alternative that he describes as “out of this world” because it promises the best of everything in ways that can’t possibly be delivered. But the future lies with a fourth ‘attractor’, which he calls the ‘terrestrial’. It’s not about nature, which has certain philosophical connotations, nor traditional green or ecological understandings. It’s about inhabiting the earth after modernisation, a coming down to earth and finding ways to belong that respect both the local and the global.

Down to Earth is not an easy read necessarily, and it doesn’t resolve into practical solutions. But it is full of insights and imaginative thought experiments around globalisation, politics, and our future on a warming planet. I’ll be mulling it over for a while.

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