Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime
by Bruno Latour (Polity Press, £12.99 pb)
It was not so long ago that the path of history was clear. It was a story of progress towards more liberal, secular, democracies. Europe and the US where the modern world had been invented and from where it was exported to (imposed on?) the rest of the world was the model.
Now ‘progress’ has stalled. Responses to climate change fall far short of what is required if disaster is to be avoided. Immigrants, ‘the modernised’ of the what was once called ‘the third world’, seeking to escape the costs of globalisation to share its benefits, surge towards the lands of the modernisers, threatening the stability of their societies and dislocating their politics.
Britain Brexits. Donald Trump, with considerable support, gives up the US’ aspiration to be a world leader. He promises to make “America great again” behind a wall and tariffs, all-the-while invading our atmosphere with his unrestricted CO2 emissions.
It is tempting to suppose that the problem is the success of the ‘bad guys’ and the ineptitude of the ‘good guys’. If only the enlightened would get their act together and mobilise.
Certainly, the bad guys are disconcertingly successful in promoting climate denial and blocking solutions. Certainly, this is a huge problem, now that they have the support of the US President. Certainly the European Union is shaky. But are the failures of the good guys the problem and their trying harder the solution?
A map underpins our politics. It guides us in identifying issues, finding friends, recognising enemies. It marks out the terrain on which interests conflict, compromises are sought, policies are formulated and implemented.
The problem, Bruno Latour argues, is the map.
Prof. Latour is is one of the world’s leading academics. The author of many books, he is now Vice-President for Research at Institut d’ Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po). He brings his work in sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy “down to earth” in a clear and lively manner to argue the need for a new way of imagining politics.
As Latour observes the trajectory of modernisation traces a path from the local to the global. We followed it when we joined the EEC and its development into the European Union. As elsewhere the path was, and is, contested, by both left and right. The local was, and remains, a counter-attraction to the global. Our identity as Irish seems safer there, our freedom to control our destiny more secure.
The move towards the global comes at the cost of collusion with military adventures and capitalist depredations. The price is too high. And so the debates proceed. Latour surveys western politics and finds the arguments in these terms dysfunctional. They hold no prospect of addressing our plight.
The ‘nations’ to which left and right populists retreat are a mirage. They provide neither the security nor the recovery of control that they promise. The global conceived simply as a ‘global economy’ offers little security and less justice. We must reorientate our politics.
It is impossible not to see the chasm between our politics and the problems with which we contend.
What is the alternative? How can we combine the human need for rootedness and the necessary global perspective? How can we escape the economisation of everything that devalues everything? How can we recognise ourselves as participants in nature rather than observers? Exploiters? Manipulators?
Latour observes that people “dissatisfied with the ideal of modernity are turning back to the protection of national or even ethnic borders”. This is why, he says, that it is urgent to shift sideways and to define politics as what leads toward the Earth and not toward the global or the national.
“Belonging to a territory is the phenomenon most in need of rethinking and careful redescription; learning new ways to inhabit the Earth is our biggest challenge.”
Bringing us down to earth is the task of politics today. Latour sketches these possible answers with clarity and wit.