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?