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 cannot be reasoned with; as Latour puts it, “it does no good to say to them, ‘the facts are there, dear CEOs, whether you like it or not!’”

So what has happened to Bruno Latour? It would be easy to say that the Great Recession of 2008 and the populist upheavals since have dragged him left, as they have so many others. But his flirtations with the paranoid style of climate politics are actually 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.

Inklings of Latour’s most recent arguments were already present in his 1991 landmark We Have Never Been Modern, a short but dense tour of Western philosophy and its shortcomings that remains one of his most cited works. The book begins with a meditation on 1989, a year that Latour saw not as the end of history but the beginning of a new era. The capitalist West seemed to have finally won the Cold War, but that same year saw the convening of global conferences on the environment, which appeared to be in trouble. For Latour, the fall of socialism occurring simultaneously with the hint of capitalism’s own demise left the world radically unmoored. Where had it all gone wrong?

Latour’s answer began with the birth of what he argued was a distinctively modern way of reasoning. Modernity, Latour argued, had tried to draw a strict line between thinking, acting human subjects and the nonhuman objects they manipulated at will. Moderns thought they were liberating humanity from nature, but they had never really succeeded. At every turn, they simply produced new “hybrids”—odd mixtures of social and natural forces. These inventions had not simply served us, doing our bidding as they were supposed to; instead they had introduced new complications into our politics. The hole in the ozone layer, an object of much concern in the 1980s, was one such entity: it traced a network “from my refrigerator to the Antarctic by way of chemistry, law, the State, the economy, and satellites.” Climate change, which hopelessly scrambled human and natural entities, was another.

In retrospect, Latour’s pinpointing of 1989 as a crucial year appears prescient: more carbon has been emitted in the thirty years since than in all prior human history. And Latour has long worried about climate change denial in particular. In 2004, he saw Republican strategist Frank Luntz argue for focusing on the “lack of scientific certainty” even as the science of climate change became more and more definitive, and wondered “what has become of critique”? “Do you see why I am worried?” Latour asked. “I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show ‘the lack of scientific certainty’ inherent in the construction of facts. . . . But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument—or did I?”

Academics trained in critique had aimed to undo false consciousness, explode common sense, show that the reality in which people held so much faith was little more than ideology. Now, the same weapons were being used to cast doubt on the existence of climate change. It was not that academic theories had caused the rise of climate skepticism—but the fact that the tools were indistinguishable surely called for some kind of reassessment. Critique could dismantle truth, but it did not seem capable of constructing anything durable in its place. His own project, Latour argued, had not been to undermine facts at all, but to put them on more solid ground. “The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them,” he wrote. “The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles.”

Since then, Latour has written predominantly (though not exclusively; he is astonishingly prolific, writing four books in the last six years, along with dozens of articles and lectures) about climate change, nature, the Anthropocene, and the Earth—a set of topics that he prefers to discuss in terms of what he calls “Gaia.” Gaia names a hypothesis advanced by the chemist James Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis; in simplest terms, it suggests that the Earth functions as a living organism that maintains its own homeostasis. The Gaia theory is immensely controversial among scientists, and its label doesn’t help. Named for the Greek earth goddess, Gaia suggests an insight arrived at by a stoned hippie communing with Mother Earth rather than a data-driven analysis. Nor does Lovelock’s prose convey scientific objectivity: he frequently suggests that Gaia is a semi-conscious being actively manipulating “her” own conditions in order to achieve the right balance—turning up the oxygen here, turning down the temperature there.

Against Lovelock’s many critics, Latour has become his greatest defender. Gaia, after all, is a theory entirely in line with what he has long argued: that agency is not confined to humans alone. “The Earth’s behavior is inexplicable without the addition of the work accomplished by living organisms,” Latour observes. “The Earth ought to be like Mars, a dead star. It is not.” Why not? Because the actions of millions of organisms, from amoebas to woolly mammoths to sequoias to humans, have shaped the very geology and atmosphere so significantly as to make the Earth a qualitatively different kind of planet than Mars or Venus.

On this planet, what we humans do matters immensely—but not simply because we mold the world as we choose, exerting our will upon matter and seeing our dreams made manifest. Rather, what we do affects what everything else does. We are constantly manipulating our environment, but so too are the earthworms in the soil, the plankton in the sea. Without them we would not only not have, say, trees and dolphins—we would not have an atmosphere or oceans at all.

Gaia, that is, muddles our very notion of what the environment is. The air is not just a medium that surrounds us—it is literally made by living beings, ourselves included. From this view, seeing the Earth as a collection of “natural resources,” as inert matter, is absurd. All the world is reactions: chemical, biological, geophysical. It is preposterous to think you could take millions of tons of long-buried dead matter, burn it, and leave the rest of the world as it is. What have we undergone in the past few decades but the realization that we share the world with a set of previously ignored actors—the untold carbon molecules invisibly and gradually accumulating without so much as a peep?

If the Earth is reacting to what we do all the time, Latour argues, we must figure out how to react to it in turn rather than fruitlessly attempting to control it. We must figure out how to conduct our collective lives in a way that represents all these agents. This, he thinks, means reimagining what we expect from politics. The future long envisioned by modernists has been cut short by the prospect of looming apocalypse, and we no longer know what kind of future we should want.

Much of Down to Earth is an attempt to think through the elements that a new earthly politics requires. Latour maps left and right and the distinction often made between economic and cultural issues onto an orientation between Global and Local. The right pushes for economic globalization while affirming parochial values; the left pushes for economic protection while advocating cosmopolitanism. But neither is viable any longer. The vision of the economy pushed by globalization’s boosters is simply not compatible with the actual earth we live on. It would take too many planets for everyone to live as global capitalism promises. The Local, meanwhile, is too narrow, focused on provincial concerns rather than looking at the vast complexity of the Earth. The old projects of either advancing globalization or retreating from it are thus equally fantastical. Yet Trumpism is particularly extreme in its insistence that both are possible: that the “headlong rush toward maximum profit” is fully compatible with the “headlong rush backward of an entire people toward the return of national and ethnic categories.”

Here Latour joins the chorus of people trying to figure out what to make of the combination of ferocious capitalist advance and protectionist retreat that make up Trumpist politics. Latour’s rough analysis of the local-global poles is not particularly illuminating, but what he is really after is the addition of a new dimension: what he calls a “third attractor.” By this Latour means the planet Earth in all its material reality, though he rejects the terms Earth, Nature, Land, and World—too planetary, too expansive, too ambiguous, and too prosaic—in favor of “the Terrestrial.” The Terrestrial, Latour argues, is not simply the backdrop for “geopolitics,” as the globe has become, but—classic Latour—“an agent that participates fully in public life.” As the seas rise and fires burn, the land is “occupying us.” Nature is no longer a distant ecosystem that we can choose to care about or not, but terrestrial: what is now threatened is the very ground beneath our feet. (The ground under people’s feet has long been threatened in many parts of the globe, Latour acknowledges; the book is intentionally Eurocentric in pointing out that the chickens are coming home to roost.)

To face the Terrestrial we must rework our politics. Latour disdains the traditional poles of left and right: “You have never been a leftist? That doesn’t matter, neither have I, but, like you, I am radically Terrestrial!” Well, okay. Yet if Latour can’t quite bring himself to identify with the left, he now wants to help socialists and ecologists resolve their differences.

As Latour sees it, the “social question” that has animated traditional left politics has prioritized class antagonism in relation to ostensibly material issues, but the world of the Terrestrial has increasingly fallen out of the picture. Environmentalists, by contrast, have long claimed that focusing politics around the Earth disrupts familiar ideological categories—claiming “neither left nor right, but in front”; not red but green; and so on.

To some extent, they’ve succeeded in their task of centering the Earth. The environmental movement has politicized seemingly mundane objects, pushing us to analyze our meals, vacations, even children through an ecological lens, if only to defend our choices. But it has never managed to galvanize people and build power in the way that traditional political forces have. To the contrary, environmental politics seemed to leave most people cold. Making things “green” seems to suck the life out of them.

When greens focus on explicitly environmental issues, they are countered with huffy moralizing from “traditional parties” that humans must be prioritized. When, on the other hand, they attempt to speak of social issues, as they have increasingly sought to do, they are told: stick to your own turf. (Think of the liberal response to the Green New Deal: what do healthcare and jobs have to do with climate change?) But why should we have to pick either the social question or the climate crisis? According to Latour, we don’t. “We don’t have to choose between workers’ wages and the fate of some little birds,” he admonishes, “but between two types of worlds in which there are both workers’ salaries and little birds, but associated differently in the two contexts.”

It’s true that the mainstream of the environmental movement chose third-way politics rather than throwing in with workers against a common enemy. But Latour’s intervention on this front is not as novel as he imagines. After all, who today doesn’t want to live in a world where workers’ salaries and little birds coexist happily? Teamsters and turtles joined up against the WTO two decades ago; “green jobs” have long been the watchword of the environmental movement. But simply insisting that social and ecological politics don’t have to be at odds is only the first step, and by far the easiest one. Figuring out how exactly they should be associated has been considerably harder; harder still has been getting to this other world where we don’t have to choose. Today’s climate activists will not defeat the corporations who tell us it’s either jobs or a habitable planet by lecturing them on the bifurcations of modernity.

Latour’s explicitly political turn raises a question: can Latourean materialism be reconciled with the historical variety? Latour has not made it easy: he needles Marxists constantly, has argued that capitalism does not exist, and smirks at the greats of the critical theory tradition. Even his style—playful, teasing, sometimes to the point of trolling—is about as far from a dour analysis of the value-form as can be imagined. Where Marxists find social relations in what seem to be things, Latour finds things in what seem to be only social relations: Latour seems to embrace fetishism rather than unmask it. To many he is not just irritating but dangerous—a force for mystification, a jester excusing away human responsibility with blathering about ontology.

Latour has always responded that he is, if not the true Marxist—a title in which he has no interest—the true materialist. (Latour often makes his critics furious, but he seems unflappable; he delights in his haters.) “[T]heir definition of the material world was so abstract, so ideal, not to say idealistic, that they have never had a firm grip on this new reality,” Latour argues—and he has a point. (Feminists like Shulamith Firestone similarly argued that Marxism had not gone far enough in its material analysis, failing to consider how bodies shaped the division of labor.) Marx himself was supremely aware of the world as a material entity: it is startling at times to read his descriptions of not just “bodies” but brains and sinews, not just “earth” but geology and soil science, the way he uses chemistry—butyric acid, propyl formate—to explain the concept of congealed labor. (I’ve long thought Marxists could do worse than Latour for a gateway drug.) But twentieth-century Marxists often left a more earthy materialism behind in favor of analyses of the balance of (human) forces, cultural musings, and ideological critiques. In a world of discourse, Latour reminded you the world was made of actual stuff. Perhaps this seems too obvious to even mention to anyone other than an academic—the kind of idea that could only become trendy at the height of the linguistic turn. And yet every day we take so much of it for granted.

At some point, though, the thrill of realizing you live in a material world wears off. Though we are living in an age whose politics validates Latour’s analysis, the era of his theoretical dominance has passed. In light of the 2008 financial crisis and its long aftermath, Latour can seem a bit frivolous. Microbes? In this economy?

Being more material than thou simply can’t explain it all. Marxists have typically followed not science but capitalism in action, and capitalism cannot survive without abstracting away from the materially real world. For example, capitalism does not care much for territory. Giovanni Arrighi rewrote Marx’s famous M-C-M1 (money is exchanged for commodities in order to get more money) as M-T-M1: territory is only an intermediate link between capital and more capital. Capital grabs land when it needs to, and abandons it just as quickly.

But while focusing on the things that are of concern to capitalism is often analytically useful, it has also left Marxists ill-equipped in some ways to compose a world beyond it. It is hard to deny that much twentieth-century socialism accepted capitalist modernity as its orienting force; harder still to imagine the future without its idea of progress.

So what exactly are Latour’s politics? He usually describes himself as a liberal, and his language—of “public things,” “Dingpolitiks,” “bicameral collectives”—suggests an understanding of politics as parliamentary. Facing Gaia (published in France in 2015) ends by describing a simulation of an alternative process for international climate negotiations where “Land,” “Ocean,” and “Endangered Species” are represented alongside China, the Maldives, and France. Next to his sweeping rhetoric about an entirely new politics, it seems rather tame.

But Latour has long been fascinated by Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist and one of liberalism’s most scathing critics. He likes to invoke Schmitt’s fundamental question: who is your friend, and who is your enemy? And like Schmitt, Latour believes that politics goes all the way down—that there is no foundation of truth or right on which to ultimately rest one’s appeals. “We would like science to be free of war and politics,” Latour wrote way back in 1993. “At least, we would like to make decisions other than through compromise, drift, and uncertainty. We would like to feel that somewhere, in addition to the chaotic confusion of power relations, there are rational relations.” But this, he insists, is wishful thinking.

In fact, who Latour often sounds like is Chantal Mouffe, another thinker who has sought to revive Schmitt for a post-Marxist left. Since the 1980s, Mouffe has sought to describe a political subject that can replace the Marxist proletariat, suggesting that left collectives must be radically democratic and “anti-essentialist,” forged out of disparate social concerns rather than a taken-for-granted universalism (“workers of the world, unite!”). Latour, in turn, imagines collectives so non-essentialist that they can include nonhumans, and pays a surprising amount of attention to the process by which they might be composed. What Latour has in recent years called “compositionism” aims to rebuild a common world that has been almost demolished. It is a project that “takes up the task of searching for universality but without believing that this universality is already there, waiting to be unveiled and discovered.”

What he offers, then, is not a program (“no political lie is more brazen than proposing a program”) but a method. Radical humility is called for, he argues: no one has faced climate change before; no society has ever existed alongside 9 billion other people who share a planet and a world. We must start not from a position of certainty but by describing the world differently: by describing where we live, with who, and what we need to live there. By looking at the world anew, perhaps we can begin to see it in common.

Latour has always liked description as method. As an epistemology, the approach is proudly naïve and radically democratic. Why would intellectuals think they know more about a factory or a laboratory than the people who work there? Why not take what they say at face value, if not that alone? It’s also not a bad way of doing politics in a populist moment. So Latour wants to start simply by asking questions. “What do you want? What are you capable of? With whom are you prepared to cohabit? Who can threaten you?” Who, and what, do you need to survive—and who, and what, needs you? Who is your friend, and who is your enemy?

The obvious problem is that we may not like the answers. The combination of Schmitt and the call to come down to the earth is particularly worrisome at a time when the right is rising much more quickly than the left and emboldened white supremacy is advancing in Europe and beyond. To his credit, Latour is entirely conscious that political claims grounded in attachments to land have a dark history. Yet coming “down to earth,” he insists, is not an affirmation of Lebensraum. To the contrary, the migration crisis gripping Europe reveals very clearly the dilemma of land—of space, of territory, of who can live where.

Latour is adamant that Europeans are in no position to keep refugees out. At the same time “we have to figure out how to address those who rightly feel abandoned by the historical betrayal of the ruling classes and are clamoring for the security of a protected space.” Those left behind by globalization are themselves migrants of a sort: they have had the ground pulled out from under them. Everyone wants to feel safe at a time of upheaval, and this desire is perfectly legitimate. Can these different people all in search of security find common cause? “A European is anyone who wants to be one,” he insists. “I would like to be proud of it, this Europe, with all its wrinkles and seams; I would like to be able to call it my homeland—their refuge.” It is an admirable sentiment, and one necessary for our moment—but that does not resolve the problem that many others do not appear to share it.

When the gilets jaunes protests against rising gas prices erupted last November, Latour saw another example of how inseparable social questions were from environmental ones. Their demands were general—calls to “change the system,” as if the state had any idea what to change or how. But Latour thought the challenge posed by the gilets jaunes “would become 100% ecological if they began to describe their living conditions.” They would start to speak not in terms of vague demands for “social justice” but about the specifics of their lives: their houses, cars, farms. Marxists had long insisted that solidarity must be forged from material conditions. Now the task was to articulate materially grounded solidarities from an ecological point of view.

In an attempt to manage the crisis, President Emmanuel Macron set up a series of town halls to hold a “great debate” about France and what the protesters wanted. Latour was delighted: this was precisely the kind of taking stock he had called for, the kind of grand descriptive project he had in mind. The willingness to listen represented, Latour argued, an admission that the state genuinely had no idea what to do. (To others it represented a savvy stalling tactic.) As in the famous cahiers, the notebooks of grievances compiled at the advent of the Revolution two centuries prior, French from around the country now had the chance to detail their lives, their needs, their friends and enemies in exquisite detail.

But who were their friends and enemies? Even within groups of those self-identified as gilets jaunes it is not clear: they are reacting to the material constraints that have been imposed on their lives, but they explain that reaction in different ways, have different visions of the future. No wonder the residents of the banlieues, mostly French of color, watched warily. When had rural white France ever cared about their struggles?

What do they have in common, and can they compose a shared purpose against the elites wrecking the planet with impunity? Can we? Everything depends on the answer. Everything that really matters to us in the entire universe happens in a tiny layer of earth and atmosphere that scientists call the Critical Zone, as thin in relative terms as the skin of an apple. It is terrible to think that something so delicate, so wondrous, so sublime could depend on something as venal and pathetic as our increasingly chaotic politics. No wonder we’d rather solve the problem by increasing our understanding of nature’s mysteries.

But wishful thinking will get us nowhere. We are already in a war—and the real climate deniers, the scheming elites, are winning. We will not defeat climate denial by appealing to the higher authority of science or nature. It will take a fight, and wan triangulating will not do. Those concerned about the climate will have to pick a side. On all of this Latour is right. But to win it will take more than description.

For someone who thinks power goes all the way down, Latour is curiously unsophisticated about its dynamics. He dislikes it when people name abstractions like capitalism or the rich or even Macron as their enemies—be more specific, come down to earth!—but these are perfectly good understandings of who and what actually shapes the modern world. Naming such enemies is also essential for assembling a coalition powerful enough to defeat a terrifyingly strong global elite. The process by which a yellow vest might come to see refugees as friends, or workers to see capital rather than little birds as enemies, will take things that Latour eschews—analyses of capitalism, the debunking of ideological biases, even political programs. It’s bracing to see him flirting with class war. If only he had better advice on how to win it.

Alyssa Battistoni is a PhD candidate in political theory at Yale University and an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, n+1, and Jacobin, where she is on the editorial board.