In this extended reworking of his Gifford Lectures, noted anthropologist and pioneer of the field of science and technology studies Bruno Latour turns his attention to the pressing matter of climate catastrophe. Seeking a way of radically shaking culture out of sleep walking into ecocide, and aware that the increasingly fragile state of the ecology and environmental state of the world exposes the myth of liberal humanistic progress, Latour turns to the historic idea of Gaia, first developed by the maverick English scientist James Lovelock. Gaia, in this schema, is not some benign entity – a mythological Earth mother, beloved of hippies and others of the counter-culture but rather some much more serious. In Latour’s phrase, Gaia is an entity composed of multiple, reciprocally linked, but ungoverned self-advancing processes. In this way of seeing things, we cannot understand ecology on a planetary level as we are so bound up within the processes of Gaia that we cannot think outside of them. Using the model of Gaia, Latour is trying to bring humanity back down to earth, to force a confrontation with what has been done, and with what will happen.
In the opening lecture Latour blurs the well-established nature/culture dualism, in order to place us as ‘the Earthbound’, yet thanks to Latour’s commitment to Actor Network Theory, there seem to be a few problems with this well-intentioned project. Latour’s ANT posits that everything in the natural and social world acts and exists within networks of relationships, which means that in his words, the earth-bound mass of humanity and the earth itself in the figure of Gaia can neither be dominated or dominate one another. Whilst a laudable attempt to both locate us within the problem, as escape the interminable knots of ‘climate debate’ which have paralysed any attempts to seriously tackle the new climatic regime, this seems to run into the problem of agency and responsibility. Whilst bringing us back to Earth, and insisting upon the contingency of our existence is a worthy goal, the danger of placing us so deeply within the endless loops and networks of human and non-human actors is that we lose the ability to think about the very human actions which have so destabilised the planet. Whilst the book is an engaging attempt to think differently, there is no mention of key factors such as global capitalism, the fossil fuel industry, political economy, and perhaps most glaringly, no mention of ideology. The shift into a new climatic regime is something which has been manufactured, and to downplay human agency seems something of a mistake. Whilst in other work Latour and some other ANT writers have begun to tackle the notion of responsibility and agency, Latour’s series of lectures have begun to outline new modes of thought, but it remains questionable whether this can overcome and confront the political and ideological forces which have committed so much to maintaining the thanatos of climate annihilation.