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Review: Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime

Some of us are old enough to remember the bomb shelter panic of the 1950’s. If you build a bomb shelter in your back yard and a warning signal comes that you need to hurry into the space, what do you do if your neighbors try to force themselves inside with you? Your shelter has only enough provisions for you and your family. Do you shoot your neighbors who try to get into the shelter that you have spent a small fortune building, presumably on your own property? What’s the moral quandary here?

I remember the bomb shelter craze and the way people panicked simply talking about it. I also knew then, and certainly now, that some people made a small fortune convincing suckers that they needed to have shelters built for them with no thought for the future, should the worst scenario happen. What happens after thirty days and you run out of food and water? Do you leave the shelter and get exposed to radiation like everyone else? Do you think there‘s going to be a grocery store around the corner where you can restock your shelter? But, of course, you were not supposed to ask these questions. Just shell out enough money for some con artist to dig a hole in your back yard and convince you that you could live for a month or two longer than everyone else, assuming doomsday had already arrived.

Those times were mad, insane, but no more than today in our reverse assumption, denial, that global warming is nothing to worry about. Ergo, do nothing about it. Actually, the answer is with Trump’s economics. He has said that he doesn’t need to worry about bankrupting our economy, since he won’t be around to suffer the consequences. That selfish perspective is at the core of Bruno Latour’s book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. The French philosopher (in a rather rough translation into English) argues that the loudest deniers of climate change don’t believe what they are saying. What they are trying to do is reserve the world’s resources for themselves and build elaborate enclaves where they can live while all the rest of us die from climate change. Since he’s a philosopher, his argument is often dense but it’s supported by what many of us have already read in other places: some of the richest people in the world have built these hide-a-ways in remote areas of New Zealand, where they believe climate change will be felt last. But aren’t these people the same as the dupes in the 50’s who thought bomb shelters would keep them alive a little longer than their neighbors? What do you do a couple of years after everyone else has died off?

Here’s the way Latour begins his argument about elite irresponsibility: “it is as though a significant segment of the ruling classes (known today rather too loosely as ‘the elites’) had concluded that the earth no longer had room enough for them and for everyone else. Consequently, they decided that it was pointless to act as though history were going to continue to move toward a common horizon, toward a world in which all humans could prosper equally. From the 1980s on, the ruling classes stopped purporting to lead and began instead to shelter themselves from the world. We are experiencing all the consequences of this flight, of which Donald Trump is merely a symbol, one among others. The absence of a common world we can share is driving us crazy.”

Both Brexit and Donald Trump are examples of this retreat, no longer having any regard for other peoples (immigrants especially). “[T]he ground is giving away beneath everyone’s feet at once, as if we all felt attacked everywhere in our habits and in our possessions.” This has already begun to happen in certain parts of Africa and Latin America, where the climate has changed so dramatically that it can no longer provide a livelihood for people who have lived off the land for centuries. Logically, these people try to move north to Europe and the United States where our lands can still sustain us. Thus, both those who flee the areas already impacted and those who feel the influx of the new arrivals understand deep down in their souls that something has happened. Think, also, of the people on those islands around the world that are only a few feet above the water level, let alone people who pumped money into beach-front property for second homes. “What is certain is that all find themselves facing a universal lack of sharable space and inhabitable land.”

To return to Latour again to his central thesis: “the elites have been so thoroughly convinced that there would be no future life for everyone that they have decided to get rid of all the burdens of solidarity as fast as possible—hence deregulation; they have decided that a sort of gilded fortress would have to be built for those (a small percentage) who would be able to make it through—hence the explosion of inequalities; and they have decided that, to conceal the crass selfishness of such a flight out of the shared world, they would have to reject absolutely the threat at the origin of this headlong flight—hence the denial of climate change.” Latour provides the example of Exxon-Mobil, withholding information for decades about the dangers of climate change; the same he says about the elite on the Titanic, understanding the certainty of the ship’s sinking and asking the orchestra to continue playing so they could “reserve the lifeboats for themselves.” Isn’t this what conservatives have been doing for decades as they’ve been robbing the country blind?

Latour is as hard on Donald Trump as anyone I’ve seen. “Trump’s originality is to link, in a single gesture, first the headlong rush toward maximum profit while abandoning the rest of the world to its fate (billionaires are called upon to represent ‘ordinary people’!) and second, the headlong rush backward of an entire people toward the return of national and ethnic categories (‘Make America Great Again’ behind a wall!).” Or—to nail our current situation to the wall (as only a Frenchman can)—“Accountants are quite familiar with entrepreneurs who defraud investors: the innovation of Trumpism is to have the greatest nation in the world take that step. Trump as the country’s Madoff?”

How do we get out of this mess? I’m not so certain that we do. Latour identifies the European Union as a necessary example as a way to avoid the world’s fragmentation but that was before Brexit. We’ve got to return to the Earth, he argues, but “not toward the global or the national,” back toward community and sharing, realizing that we are all in this together. Not bloody likely.

Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime
Bruno Latour
Polity, 128 pp., $14.95.
Translated by Catherine Porter.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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