Why are so many zones of the world descending into chaos and confusion? There is no single reason, of course, but the French scholar of modernity, Bruno Latour, has a compelling overarching theory. In his new book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity), Latour argues that climate change, by calling into question the once-universal dream of “development” and globalization, is leaving a huge void in our consciousness.
This has resulted in an “epistemological delirium.” As the ordering principle of “the modern” dissolves into thin air, we don’t know which way is up or how to proceed. Hence the title of the original French version of the book, Où atterir? Comment s’orienter en politique – “Where to land? How to orient yourself in politics?”
Humanity no longer has a shared framework of “becoming modern,” says Latour. It is hard for everyone to believe that globalized markets, “development,” and consumerism will yield a steady march toward civilization and progress. Corporations have proven themselves to be consummate externalizers of cost and risk. And climate change among other eco-crises suggests that relentless economic growth is simply preposterous — and grossly mal-distributed in any case.
Hence our profound disorientation. It’s hard to deal with the slow-motion collapse of a once-universal story of human aspiration.
The rich nations, or at least the US, remain mostly in denial about climate change, if only because acknowledging the truth would upend so much. The remaining nation-states of the world, meanwhile, have no clear path in a fractured, divided world for constructing a shared vision.
Without the unifying normative framework of “development” and its claims of infinite growth and progress, how can we figure out a new consensus narrative for humanity, one that acknowledges the existential reality that we live on the same, finite planet? How can we find a way to share and co-manage our only habitable space?
Donald Trump arguably triggered our deep epistemological confusion when he withdrew the US Government from the Paris Climate Accord, Latour argues. By declaring that the US will continue on the same path as it has for decades, with no changes in American lifestyles or reductions in carbon emissions, he was in effect declaring war on the rest of the world.
Or as Latour puts it, “We Americans don’t belong to the same earth as you. Yours may be threatened; ours won’t be!” Trump’s move officially ratified a mindset that President Bush I expressed so bluntly in 1992: “Our way of life is not negotiable!”
Down to Earth is a powerful look at how climate change is changing the tectonic plates of politics, economics, and culture. As the claims of modernity and globalized capitalism fall apart, revealed as ecologically and economically catastrophic, it has opened up an empty space that we don’t know how to fill. Latour brilliantly dissects why our epistemological delirium is happening, how it is transforming politics, and what a new paradigm might look like.
The coming shift is not simply a story of external institutions and nation-states; it’s mostly about our inner conceptualizations about the world and aspirations. For centuries, the Global, or modernization, has stood for scientific, economic, and moral progress. It later erected “the Local” to serve as a useful foil, a way of life that the Global helps us escape.
Modernization has meant progress, profit, development, innovation, and civilization — an escape from the Local, which situates our identities with secure geographic boundaries, ethnicity, and tradition. Modernity has positioned itself as “leaving our native province, abandoning our traditions, breaking with our habits, if we wanted to ‘get ahead,’ to participate in the general movement of development, and, finally, to profit from the world,” writes Latour.
The Local has served as a cautionary counterpoint — an impoverished realm of “the antiquated, the vanquished, the colonized,…