Book review on the New Climatic Regime - "Facing Gaia" by Bruno Latour (2015)
In the book Facing Gaia – Eight lectures on the New Climatic Regime, Bruno Latour provides areworking of the Gifford lectures delivered in 2013 at Edinburgh University. The anthropologist and philosopher Bruno Latour turns to the historic idea of Gaia, initially developed by the English scientist James Lovelock, to denounce the Anthropocene (i.e. a new epoch in the Earth’s geological history, in which human beings have for the first time become the primary agents of change on a planetary scale) and enounce what is a “New Climatic Regime”. According to Latour, Gaia is “an entity composed of multiple, reciprocally linked but ungoverned self-advancing processes” and therefore not a “figure of unification” in line with how geologists describe the Earth System. Rather than viewing the solar system as a single, planetary‐level complex system, with a multitude of interacting biotic and abiotic components, evolving for over 4.54 billion years, Latour’s intention is to use the model of Gaia to bring back humanity down to earth, by underlying the complexity of the environmental system. In this series of lectures on the concept of “natural religion”, Latour argues that the complex figure of Gaia offers a way to disentangle the political, scientific, theological and ethical aspects of what he sees as an obsolete notion of Nature. In doing so, he lays the groundwork for further collaboration not only among scientists, theologians and artists, but also lawyers, economists and sociologists to adjust to the “New Climatic Regime”.
The Anthropocene is an informal term initially used by Crutzen (2000) to signal the impact of collective human activity on biological, physical and chemical processes of the Earth system (Zalasiewicz and al. 2011). For a long time, the Anthropocene was not seriously considered by scientists as a potential addition to the geological time scale, partly due to the brief duration of human civilization from a geological perspective. However, it has recently received a more prominent position, reflecting a widespread realization that some types of anthropogenic changes may now be compared with those of the “great forces of Nature” (Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill, 2007). From a stratigraphic perspective (i.e. in order to be grounded in the Geological Time Scale, one of the cornerstones of geology and Earth System Science), the Anthropocene demarks a geochronological boundary, reflecting a change in the Earth system so that the physical and chemical nature of the deposits and their fossil contents are recognizably different above and below the boundary (Zalasiewicz, 2015). There is indeed an overwhelming amount of stratigraphic evidence that the Earth System is now structurally and functionally outside the Holocene norm (an unusually stable epoch of 11,700 years). Such evidence includes novel materials like elemental aluminum, concrete, plastics, and geochemicals; carbonaceous particles from fossil fuel combustion; widespread human‐driven changes to sediment deposits; artificial radionuclides; marked rises in greenhouse gas concentrations in ice cores; and trans‐global alteration of biological species assemblages (Steffen and al. 2016).
In this regard, Latour underlines the change in humanity's relationship with the world in a "New Climate Regime". What is indeed paradoxical about the Anthropocene is that whoever studies it feels shrunk to the scale of an atom, so much so that the very word Anthropocene (the “age of man”) gives humanity a force so gigantic that it competes with the telluric forces to transform the Earth with a speed unparalleled in the past. The image of the atlas is interesting in this respect: in Greek mythology, Atlas represents a giant capable of holding the Earth on his shoulders without being crushed. However, when the first atlas was published in the 16th century, the balance of power was reversed: man dominates and controls the Earth. Today, the relationship is reversed again. The result of the Anthropocene is to be crushed by the one that no one can carry on his shoulders (read the excellent afterword of the Atlas of the Anthropocene (François Gemenne and Aleksandar Rankovic) by B. Latour).
GEMENNE F. and RANKOVIC A. Atlas de l’Anthropocene, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 2019
Latour's argument is that while the scientific debate tends to focus more and more each year on the human origin of the major transformations of the planet, this in no way closes the debate on the world in which humanity wishes to live - moving from a scientific debate to an anthropological debate. We are therefore no longer dealing with a natural phenomenon in which humanity would find itself without force and without recourse, but with social decisions that can be opposed. This is the meaning of what Latour calls the "New Climate Regime": in the old climate regime, modernized or modernizing industrial countries increasingly detached themselves from the material conditions of their existence.
According to Latour, what has until now remained quietly in the background - the landscape that has been the setting for human conflict - is "joining the fight". While man may have shuddered at the acceleration of history, the question now is how to deal with the "Great Acceleration" (Steffen et al. 2015). By a complete reversal of the trope of Western philosophy, nature takes on the role of active subject. Terms from human history - tipping points, boundaries, acceleration, crisis, revolution - are now attributed to natural history, and words such as inertia, hysteresis and dependence on the path are used to speak of the history of humans, as if they had taken on the aspect of a passive and immutable nature to explain why humans do nothing in the face of the threat. The “New Climate Regime” is based on the melting of this distance between the background (i.e. such as in a photograph or a movie, nature is in the background) and the foreground (i.e. on the contrary, nature is now at the forefront).
Steffen W., Rockström J. and al., “Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet”, Science, 347, 2015.
The planetary boundary concept, introduced in 2009, aims to define the environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate: this approach has proved influential in global sustainability policy development. Of the original nine proposed boundaries, Steffen, Rockström and al. have identified three (including climate change) that might push the Earth system into a new state if crossed and that also have a pervasive influence on the remaining boundaries.
The “New Climate Regime” is indeed the result of this discrepancy. According to the author, despite the source of fear, anguish and even despair that the increasingly detailed description of the Earth's transformations represents, the “New Climate Regime” makes humanity realize the time in human and geological history in which mankind currently finds itself. In other words, the moment in time, Anthropocene, and the place where it lives, the Earth, reacts to the actions of humanity. This is why Gaia is an “injunction to rematerialize our belonging to the world” – which Latour depicts as “reterrestrializing” our existence (Latour reflects here on the basis of Carl Schmitt’s most important later work, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, on the “reterritorialization” of the earth in the postmodern era).
Latour therefore represents the earth as a place where “geological history” (géohistoire, in French) has dangerously accelerated due to the consequences of human action. In that regard, he challenges the bifurcation of Nature/Culture and underlines that humanity’s passivity to climate change has its source in the way we conceive the relationship between man and nature. Following the Renaissance, men of the seventeenth century would have decided to proclaim other sources of absolute truth than religion – i.e. the Science of Galileo and Descartes, the Leviathan of Hobbes and Louis XIV. Today, we can observe the emergence and primacy of the “Market”, new gods of an era that imagines itself free of superstitions by merely creating new ones. Believing himself to be free of religious opium and turned towards matter, the Modern man has in fact invented new deities. As a result, obsessed by these ideals based on the exploitation of resources, he has been unable to understand the importance of the Earth and to defend it.
Bruno Latour therefore questions the future of the nation-state in the Anthropocene era, by raising this issue of how to preserve the "monopoly of legitimate violence" when it comes to the geohistorical violence of the climate. This is why he writes that the "Earthbound", disciples of Gaia, must fight the "Humans" locked in their beliefs in market mechanisms, the intangibility of nation-states and the epistemological view of Science. Behind this warmongering lies the concern to "make us sensitive to mortality and finitude". By admitting that humanity is not "alone in control", it must recognize that it should share power with forests, water, land and animals. According to Latour, Nature and Culture are two faces of the same concept in which the “New Climatic Regime” represents a renewed form of natural law, in line with philosopher Michel Serres’ “natural contract” theory. It is a “redistribution of agency” that ignores existing disparities in agency and hierarchy of power. However, he also underlines that there is no objective to substantially deflate human agency at a time when the evidence from climate science details its effects.
Masterfully brought by Latour’s work in this book, Gaïa will probably become one of the leading figures of the 21st century; hopefully helping humanity to avoid the worst by taking charge of responding to climate change and environmental challenges as well as by mobilizing climate science alongside social and political sciences.
For further reading (accessible to non-scientists) on the Anthropocene and Geohistory
COOPER A. and al. “Humans Are the Most Significant Global Geomorphological Driving Force of the 21st Century”, The Anthropocene Review, 5 (3), 2018
CRUTZEN Paul J. “Geology of Mankind”, Nature, 415 (6867), 2002
CRUTZEN Paul J. and STOERMER Eugene F. “The Anthropocene”, Global Change Newsletter, 41, 2000
GEMENNE F. and RANKOVIC A. Atlas de l’Anthropocene, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 2019
KOCH A. and al. “Earth System Impacts of the European Arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492”, Quaternary Science Reviews, 207, 2019
ZALASIEWICZ Jan and al. “Stratigraphy of the Anthropocene”, Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society A Mathematical Physical and Engineering Sciences, March 2011
ZALASIEWICZ Jan and WILLIAMS M. Climate change through Earth's history, Climate Change: Observed Impacts on Planet Earth, 2016
And Latour’s excerpt of the Gifford Lectures (2013), in English