Material World

Material World

Bruno Latour’s flirtations with the paranoid style of climate politics are a summation of ideas long in the making—ideas that those attempting to preserve a planet shared by all will have to take into account, but will also have to reach beyond.

Environmentalist protesters outside of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, Washington, in 1999 (Daniel Sheehan/Liaison Agency/Newsmakers)

What if the global ruling class was intentionally destroying the climate? Think about it: educated in the world’s most expensive institutions, they must understand what climate change means. They might understand its implications so well, in fact, that they have set out to make sure they are protected from it at the expense of everyone else. Having lost faith in the long-promised world of prosperity, and recognizing that the planet cannot support all of us, elites have deregulated the economy and dismantled the welfare state while lavishly funding the denial of climate change. And wasn’t it for these elites that Trump withdrew from the Paris accords, however much he gestured to the citizens of Pittsburgh?

This is the opening argument of Bruno Latour’s new book Down to Earth, which for those familiar with his work may come as a surprise. Latour, one of the most cited and celebrated academics in the world, is known not for his radical politics but for his theories of how scientific knowledge is made—theories sometimes charged with undermining faith in science itself. So you might expect him to investigate the nuts and bolts of climate science or perhaps to defend himself against the accusation that he has opened Pandora’s box and let post-truth out. (He has, in fact, written about both of these things.) But Latour is not interested in talking about climate science any longer. Of course we know climate change is happening, of course we know it is bad. Instead he is interested in how these facts are received, why they are accepted—or not—and, ultimately, in how we should face them.

Latour acknowledges that elite accelerationism is a “political fiction” but thinks it a useful story to tell nevertheless. He argues that “we can understand nothing about the politics of the last 50 years if we do not put the question of climate change and its denial front and center.” Globalization, inequality, and climate denial have combined into a potent new politics that lies at the heart of Trumpism. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in June 2017 represented the refusal to live on the same earth as everyone else by a country that simply has too much to lose from facing the climate facts. On this account, anxiety about post-truth politics misses the point: Trump is acting perfectly rationally from the standpoint of the American way of life. In any case, after decades of betrayal from institutions that once commanded authority, it’s not surprising that voters are now skeptical about what they’re told to believe. (For that matter, many of those who say they believe in climate change are not acting like it.) In fact, it is the ruling class, not ostensibly uneducated Trump supporters, who ...

Duggan | University of California Press Gardels