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Creating a Home through the Green New Deal

A review of Bruno Latour's Down to Earth

A bike sits along a narrow path at sunrise

The author references Arundhati Roy's statement that "another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." (Photo: public domain)

Near where I live, in Pacifica California, there is a big piece of land right at the ocean that was once slated to be the site of a giant freeway interchange. That plan was stopped by local people who saw no need for increased freeway capacity.

When I moved to town 14 years ago it was covered in dirt bike trails, almost inaccessible to walkers, and overgrown with invasive weeds. A few years after that, the land was acquired by the federal government and replanted with native plant species, and developed with trails. It is now a thriving home for countless bugs and butterflies which rely on the native plant species to survive, and it is becoming a better home for the endangered San Francisco Garter Snake, one of the most beautiful snakes in the world. From the blufftops of Morey Point you can see lines of Brown Pelicans, those iconic birds which were taken to the brink of extinction by DDT, and brought back by regulation that was inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The park is also a place of refuge for a racially and economically diverse group of people who come from far and wide to walk, get a break from the city, exercise, and enjoy spectacular views of the ocean. The park’s open spaces are free, and open, and belong to everyone. The park uses federal tax money to hire a very diverse set of employees, and to help paid interns on their paths to meaningful careers.

One of my favorite things in life is watching a devastated landscape be turned back into something thriving, beautiful, and socially sustainable. It helps heal me from the sense of hopelessness I often feel in the face of the climate crisis. I take heart in Arundhati Roy’s statement that “another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.“ And I hear that other world breathing in the ideas put forward in Green New Deal.

And yet, political work aimed at achieving the Green New Deal takes place in a broken political system which is embedded in a devastated public sphere, where people are, for a variety of reasons, deeply cynical and mistrusting, where a sense of fear and hatred permeates much political discourse. On the Republican side is the one third of the US population who are living in fear of being replaced by a racialized others, and who have come unmoored from traditional discourses based on fact. On the Democratic side is a liberal consensus which is wedded to growth, progress, and a rationalist worldview which sees nature as something to be used for production. Achieving a Green New Deal requires a realignment of politics toward a set of goals that will offer all of us a sense of home and belonging, which will develop a sense of trust in shared institutions, and which will position people in the US as members of a global community, fighting for well-lived lives for everyone in all parts of the Earth that is our home.

In his book, Down To Earth, French Philosopher Bruno Latour helps us understand the nature of the political conjuncture we face and offers a map toward a political realignment that will make it possible to achieve a sustainable world. Latour puts the climate crisis, the global migration crisis, and the transnational growth of right-wing nationalism, all into one clear framework. He argues for a reorientation of our politics toward the Terrestrial, which he posits as a politics that addresses the three interrelated crises.

We can understand nothing about the politics of the last 50 years if we do not put the question of climate change and its denial; front and center. ... Migrations, explosions of inequality, and New Climatic Regime: these are one and the same threat. Most of our fellow citizens underestimate or deny what is happening to the earth, but they understand perfectly well that the question of migrants put their dreams of a secure identity in danger.

He sees the political question of our time as how to “reassure and shelter all those persons who are obliged to take to the road, even while turning them away from the false protection of identities and rigid borders.” By this he means people who have lost a sense of place and belonging, and the security of a sense of home, as well as those who are literally on the road. Latour is a philosopher of science and he is interested in the ways that facts come to be constituted by social practices. He isn't a postmodern relativist who argues that all knowledge is illusion. Rather he is a considered pragmatist who asks what are the conditions under which we can create forms of knowledge that work for us. He argues that were are living in a time of epistemological crisis, whereby whole segments of our populations have given up on the idea of truth grounded in facts. But rather that tearing his hair out about how stupid people are, he digs into why this is happening. “Facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media.”

Latour argues that dominant conceptions of the global and the modern have contributed to this epistemological crisis:

Before accusing ordinary people of attaching no value to the facts of which so-called rational people want to convince them, let us recall that, if they have lost all common sense, it is because they have been masterfully betrayed. To restore a positive meaning to the words “realistic,” objective,” “efficient,” or “rational,” we have to turn them away from the Global, where they have so clearly failed, and toward the Terrestrial.

For Latour, the Terrestrial is our home, it is the place where we are wrapped up in a variety of crucial life and death relationships, such as the health of the atmosphere. He calls these crucial relationships “Critical Zones.” Latour hopes that a focus on the Terrestrial will help us see the deep linkages between social and ecological struggles, which will lead to an increased political commitment to restoring the matrix in which human beings live our lives. He argues that for the past few hundred years, much political thinking has been oriented along an axis which organized political views in terms of their more and less positive views of progress, modernity, and an instrumental relationship with nature. Along this axis people can be more interested in the local or the global, but nowhere along that axis do the limits imposed by nature become central to our political discourses. He contrasts that older set of political views with a new one he is arguing for. He contrasts “modern humans who believe they are alone in the Holocene, in flight toward the Global or in exodus toward the Local, “with the terrestrials who know they are in the Anthropocene and who seek to cohabit with other terrestrials under the authority of a power [for example the atmosphere] that as yet lacks any political institution.” The opposite pole along that axis are those who refuse to believe that here are limits imposed by nature. This view, the view of Trump et. al. he calls “Out of This World.”

At the end of the book Latour writes as a European aware of Europe’s responsibility, over the past few centuries, for the devastation of the homes of billions of people in the Global South. He calls on Europeans to take responsibility for their locale, as an “experiment in what it means to inhabit an earth after modernisation, with those who modernization has definitely displaced.” He then calls on all of us to take seriously the healing of the terrestrial zones we inhabit. These local and networked, healing practices can lead us all to find a sense of refuge in the places where we currently inhabit the world, can build community and sustainable relationships with the rest of the natural world.

What I like about Latour’s analysis is its demand that we reorient politics to answer the question of how do we all live well together in the matrix of crucial natural processes on which we depend. His view is that this alternative needs to be made as attractive as the fantasy of going back to a sense of the local homogeneous community, buttressed by infinite exploitation of resources and border walls, and the equally fantastical illusion of capitalist growth and progress that doesn’t take nature, poverty, our need for a sense of place, or our interrelatedness seriously.

One of the virtues and the Green New Deal is that it promises a good life for everyone. We don't need to choose between the social struggle for equality and racial justice on the one hand, and being an environmentalist who spends more than others to avoid guilty purchases on the other. Instead, it asks us to invest heavily in building communities that are socially and economically sustainable. It doesn't ask anyone to sacrifice, except for those who profit off of our shared destruction. And if it is built through a dialogical public process, that shows we can work together to solve problems, it can help to rebuild our common public, which can help to resolve the epistemic crisis that helps support the politics of “Out of this World.”

At this point, the Green New Deal, it is a simple fourteen page statement of principles laid out by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. People all around the country are beginning to fill in the details with specific proposals, and funding mechanisms for them. In the twelve years scientists say we have to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, it is possible to achieve its goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, while simultaneously strengthening our communities, eliminating poverty, and having more joyous lives.

If we are to build support for the Green New Deal, we need to show the ways that it leads to stronger more settled communities; that it leads to us all having enough to live satisfying and comfortable lives; and that living within natural limits is better than ignoring those limits. This emerging politics needs to show that the believers in a growth oriented progress without ecological limits are just as delusional as those who fantasize about a return to an old ethnically homogeneous home. And it needs to take seriously the needs of people who have been wronged for centuries by the illusion of modern progress, which has helped support the drives for capitalism and racism.

Imagine well paying jobs for people from marginalized communities designing and building new green infrastructure to create a sustainable matrix for us all.

Imagine a country that supports sustainable farming, so rural communities would have lively farms in them, and people laboring on those farms who wouldn’t be poisoned by toxic pesticides.

Imagine an economy that was measured by how healthy it was for people and nature, using the Genuine Progress Indicator, rather than by how much was produced for sale (GDP), and so did not incentivize people to work ever longer hours producing unnecessary and disposable products.

Imagine cities with public transportation so good we all preferred it to driving.

Imagine quality health care that everyone receives as a right, so that people were not tied to bad jobs, ar thrown into bankruptcy by medical bills.

Imagine affordable housing being built near shops and transportation, so people didn't need cars, didn’t need to travel far to work, or to do the things needed to sustain their lives.

Imagine regulations that require appliance manufacturers to take responsibility for the trash they are creating and the energy used by their products, so that they began to design machines that would last for decades, as they used to in the recent past?

Imagine enough investment in education that everyone could pursue the work of their dreams without going into debt, and people from all income groups could be prepared to work to build this better world.

Imagine living without a sense of guilt that every time we buy something we are destroying the world, but not buying means someone loses their job.

The technologies and know-how to achieve all of these things, within ten years, are already with us. With progressive taxation, the funding mechanisms are available and will not cause any human suffering. What is needed to get there is the political will, buttressed by the belief that it is possible, and the understanding that it is desirable.

One of the things that limits our full and enthusiastic pursuit of the policies needed to achieve these goals is a sense of guilt so many people have of about the wasteful lives we all live. In a society that is organized around the pursuit of profit and short term gain, we as consumers and individuals face unsustainable choices every day. And most of us feel badly about those choices and about ourselves as we make them. This guilt and hopelessness in the face of the climate crisis, turn many people away from looking the climate crisis squarely in the face.

In a society that says we need to have more and bigger to be social successes, it is hard to see a path to happiness that is sustainable. One of the things needed in transforming to a sustainable society are ways to connect with each other and our communities that give us a sense of meaning and purpose and social success that is delinked from consumerism. The good news is that the work we do to build a sustainable society can also be the work needed to reweave our social fabric in ways that create the homes, sense of community, and sense of purpose and success in life that so many people are looking for.

About 100 miles South of where I live is Pinnacles National Park. It is a set of dramatic jagged red-rock peaks. Flying over the peaks are California Condors, one of the largest bird species in the world, brought back from the brink of extinction, like the Brown Pelican. The trail along the top of those peaks is so jagged that a set of steps and railings were built during the time of the New Deal to make them passable. The park also includes a small reservoir that is surrounded by the beautiful stonework that is the hallmark of New Deal landscaping.

Whenever I come across those beautiful stone walls in public spaces, which were built during the New Deal, I think of the legacy left by that investment in our shared future. It gives me that sought after feeling that another world is on her way. People have come together before to build a common future, and we can do it again.

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Cynthia Kaufman

Cynthia Kaufman

Cynthia Kaufman is the author of Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope and Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change. She is the Director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action at De Anza College. She blogs at cynthiakaufman.wordpress.com.

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