Bruno Latour and our Shared Common Future

Are the rich showing the rest of the world what they want for us?

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Billionaire Richard Branson says he went to space so the rest of us can be “the next generation of [billionaire] dreamers.” Can that really be his reason?


Being rapacious doesn't make you a capitalist. It makes you a sociopath.”
—Nick Hanauer

As a response to my admittedly dark, recent piece, "An Independence Day Reflection: How the Rich Plan to Rule a Burning World," the thread below popped up in the Twitter comments.

How dark was my piece? The subtitle reads, “If the wealthy ever planned to save our species from the coming catastrophe, they'd be doing so now and we'd be watching them do it.”

I'm of course drawing a conclusion about a future we've not arrived at, but still, provocative as it is, the question is both real and important. Do the rich (or as the writer Masaccio always calls them, "the filthy rich") think that their own survival depends on abandoning the rest of us? Because it certainly looks like the rich either a) have no plan to deal with the certain-by-now climate crisis, or b) their plans do not include us.

I know that's a provocative thought, but it's also a real possibility, perhaps the most real possibility in the whole "what do to about climate" discussion. If the rich do abandon the rest of us, it's going to be a very different world than the one where we all join together, however late.

Bruno Latour and Our So-Called ‘Common Future’

The evidence for abandonment, sadly, is compelling. Today I want to call attention to the work of French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour. Latour is on the faculty of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, one of the grandes écoles of the French university system, and is quite well known and respected for a long list of works in his profession.

In 2018 he published a climate-related book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime.

The original French title is Où atterrir?, meaning where to land, where to touch down. Notice that it's posed as a question, and also that the question is addressed both to the rich and also to the world in general, making it in effect two different questions, each with a different context.

From the author's description:

The present ecological mutation has organized the whole political landscape for the last thirty years. This could explain the deadly cocktail of exploding inequalities, massive deregulation, and conversion of the dream of globalization into a nightmare for most people.

What holds these three phenomena together is the conviction, shared by some powerful people, that the ecological threat is real and that the only way for them to survive is to abandon any pretense at sharing a common future with the rest of the world. Hence their flight offshore and their massive investment in climate change denial.

The Left has been extremely slow to turn its attention to this new situation. It is still organized along an axis that goes from investment in local values to the hope of globalization—and just at the time when, everywhere, people dissatisfied with the ideal of modernity are turning back to the protection of national or even ethnic borders.

This is why 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.

There's a lot to think about in just those four paragraphs.

First, whether this explains the "deadly cocktail" or not, it's absolutely true that "the present ecological mutation has organized the whole political landscape." Not "will reorganize" — "has reorganized."

The world, in its non-response, or pretended partial response, has already engaged with the climate crisis, and has been doing so for more than a decade, since the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 (which Barack Obama, John Kerry and the Chinese, working together, sabotaged) or the Kyoto Conference in 1997.

Sabotaging the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference was an overt political act. The public’s non-response to that sabotage — or the media’s non-reporting of it — was an overt social act. Both are evidence of an already-reorganized political landscape.

Second, note that Latour is taking as a fact that "some powerful people [are convinced] the ecological threat is real and that the only way for them to survive is to abandon any pretense at sharing a common future with the rest of the world." One hopes the book provides evidence for this conclusion. (I'll be reading it as soon as I can obtain a copy.)

Third, it's observably true that "The Left ... is still organized along an axis that goes from investment in local values to the hope of globalization." How is a global solution to climate change — via global investment in renewable energy sources that allows us to preserve "modern life" — not also an investment in the hope (which we call the "promise") of globalization?

Two things are happening here, according to Latour. First, "some" (Latour’s word) of the super-rich are convinced that their future depends on abandoning us. They may or may not also believe this, but that aside, is the statement actually true? In the long run, it's certainly false. When the last of us go, they go with us. In the short run, though, could a generation or so of the wealthy pull it off, survive in comfort while the world burns out? Even that's not certain.

At the same time, "the rest of the world" (Latour’s language) believes in, not just the opposite — that salvation lies in helping each other ("globalization") — but also in a particular vision of globalization, one that preserves "modern life" as we know it, a world built on electronic control of machines, which is built on a world of machines powered by electricity, which in just a century has replaced a world built on machines powered by steam, water and wind.

Can we preserve such a life, electronics controlling electricity driving machines? Can we preserve a world where our refrigerators are run by smart phones and control boards, where electronics govern our cars, trains and tractors, and electric power is distributed via a national energy grid?

It wouldn't take much of a collapse to reduce us back to a purely mechanical world, or worse, a beast-of-burden world in which slaves are among the beasts. You could do that to a city in a month if you cut off its electricity, food, water and transportation. A modern and massively severe climate emergency — or a simultaneous series of them — could easily do that in a day.

Ask yourself: Where would the world's cities be if they could not be rescued from the outside? How quickly then would global "modern life" devolve, and what would it devolve to after all the dying had occurred?

Finally, Latour asserts that if the species is to survive, our politics has to be reimagined — shifted "sideways" as he puts it — from consideration of our own global or national needs to consideration of the needs of the earth (exactly the point made here, by the way, and discussed here).

That sounds counterintuitive. How can not thinking of ourselves first, not considering first our needs as a species, be our best route to preserving our future?

The answer, as Latour indicates, is this: Look where considering the global and national first has brought us. Look where preserving "us" first — the modern us; the nation-state us; the rapacious manufacturing-state us — has brought our world.

Preserving "us" means preserving an economy that preserves the saddle the rich have placed on our backs. It means preserving the belief that living "well" means accumulating increasingly expensive and complex things to bring a happiness that never satisfies, a fruit that's always out of reach.

Tantalus, a Greek king whose punishment in hell was being made to stand, hungry and thirsty, in water beneath a low-hanging fruit tree. When he reached for the fruit, the branches eluding his grasp. When he stooped to drink, the water sank before it could touch his lips.

Yet as Latour notes, that life is exactly what's responsible for converting "the dream of globalization into a nightmare." For Latour, preserving that "us" is synonymous with preserving that nightmare.

Is Latour Right?

Is Bruno Latour right in this assessment? In my view, almost certainly. But feel free to decide for yourself:

Is modern life itself the reason we'll almost certainly lose it?

Is preserving the high place of wealth the reason that all of the wealth in the world — considered in a "property value" sense — will eventually go to zero after the crisis? (If you doubt this, ask yourself what the value of Florida real estate will be if the worst weather crisis in the world hits that state. If there are no buyers left because all of them have fled, who will the sellers sell to? What will the sellers do then? Flee as well?)

And lastly, do at least some of the very very wealthy think that abandoning the world of us Littles is the only way to preserve the world of the Bigs? Is it possible that billionaire Richard Branson really went to what he calls "space" so we who have no money can still have dreams?

Or is it even more likely he did it, first, to one-up fellow billionaire Elon Musk, and second, to advance the project of escape from a planet he thinks is broken beyond repair?

Are the Rich Too Dumb to Know What Everyone Knows?

Are the rich too dumb to know what everyone else has already figured out? Certainly some of them are. And it's true that some are just playing with their money, setting it on public fire to prove they can.

But I'll bet at least some of them think they're building Noah's Ark.

They're certainly not spending their money on health care for all...

...or anything else the public actually needs.

This is the world they want for the rest of us. And they're showing us every day that they truly want it.