Latour: rethinking ecological crisis from the ground down

by Mike Sunda

Special To The Japan Times

The earth underneath Tokyo is trembling. This time, however, the activity is not seismic; it is not one of the many tremors that intermittently punctuate daily life in this city. It is, rather, a constant trembling: a condition of the global ecological crisis in which we now find ourselves.

It is not as concrete as an earthquake, but nor should it be written off as metaphor — it is a universal symptom of what French philosopher Bruno Latour refers to as the “new climatic regime.” And for Latour, visiting Japan to deliver a series of lectures and workshops for the Tokyo University of the Arts Graduate School of Global Arts, the Tokyo soil proves to be fertile ground for discussing this crisis.

“I just visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum, and I was very struck by the close description of the soil, of the geology of Tokyo, and of the layers of sediment,” Latour says. “It’s a very visual and traumatic vision of what happens to the earth in Tokyo, so I’m a bit obsessed with that right now.”

At 69 years old this year, Latour has spent much of his career traversing across disciplines. In his most well-known book, an anthropology of science titled “We Have Never Been Modern,” published in 1991, Latour debunked Western modernity’s practice of “purification”: the segregation of the world into isolated domains such as society, religion and science. Rather, our lived “modern” experience exists in a hybrid middle ground of frozen embryos, psychotropic drugs and data banks, where even science cannot escape the myriad stakeholders of politics, economics and religion.

This text, along with Latour’s work on actor-network theory, has paved the way for fields such as object-oriented ontology and speculative realism, instigating a shift away from the privileging of human existence over nonhuman objects that has inspired philosophers, scientists and artists alike. Latour embraces genre hybridity in his own writing, too — his 1991 work “Aramis, or the Love of Technology” was written partially from the perspective of the eponymous figure: an automated train system developed in Paris in the 1980s.

When he won the 2013 Holberg Prize, the committee stated that “the impact of Latour’s work is evident internationally and far beyond studies of the history of science, art history, history, philosophy, anthropology, geography, theology, literature and law.”

Needless to say, when Latour talks about soil, the implications run deep.

“There is a lot about the earth here in Japan — the sensitivity towards it, at least — that is an interesting lesson to others, who believe they are on a solid, where nothing can happen,” he says. “Now this sense of impermanence is shared by people everywhere, who must learn to live in the ruins of capitalism, so this experience, which was an exotic — or slightly archaic — peculiarity of Japanese thought, takes a very different turn with the global ecological crisis.”

In the title for one of his Tokyo lectures, Latour refers to this global ecological crisis as a “new climatic regime,” although elsewhere, it has become more commonly known as the Anthropocene: a proposed epoch that, as the etymology of its title suggests, points to the significant global impact that human activities have had on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems as the definitive characteristic of our current era.

Few dispute that this is the case, as there are traces of human impact everywhere: in the global spread of radionuclides from surface A-bomb explosions; in the wide dispersal of industrial pollutants and plastic, aluminium and other new human-made materials; in the approximately 120 parts per million increase in atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels from the burning of hydrocarbons since the mid-20th century, and in the oil spills across coasts worldwide.

The only debate is in regards to the start-date of the epoch. Some suggest an “early Anthropocene” thousands of years ago, others argue for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Jan Zalasiewicz, a stratigrapher (study of rock strata), and others have pointed to the world’s first nuclear bomb explosion, on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, New Mexico, and the worldwide fallout identifiable in the chemostratigraphic record ever since — a boundary level that many geologists agree on.

Latour is keen to emphasize the scientific, stratigraphic value of the Anthropocene as a concept — “this is not a matter of sentiment, but of sediment,” as he has previously written — but the philosophical implications are as equally vast.

“The second, very interesting version of the Anthropocene, is the one of (Australian academic) Clive Hamilton and others: the changes of the Earth’s system, which simultaneously attribute to humans an enormous geological role, and withdraw any capacity to act, because the Earth itself is already moving in another state,” Latour explains. “That is news that is very difficult to absorb, because what do you do with this double bind? You are given responsibility and then it’s withdrawn: It means that the idea of modernity now, clearly, in the mind of everybody, has finished, evaporated. There is no physical Earth that can hold the modernizing dream of 8 billion people.”

“I have a good friend who is studying Fukushima and the people who try to go back there,” Latour says. “How do you live in the ruins? In that sense, Fukushima, too — if I can say that … it seems horrible — is showing us the future. We will have to go back to live in the ruins of a technical system which is gone. And, unfortunately, that is a figurative and metaphorical situation for all of us, in some sense.”

It is this situation — this wrestling with the double bind of responsibility and powerlessness in the face of ecological catastrophe — that has proven almost impossible to visualize. Hollywood, with its myriad spectacles of world-ending disasters, would sooner show us complete species extinction. As Marxist critic Fredric Jameson has written, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

Latour, however, is more grounded in his appraisal of the situation.

“We will disappear, but in thousands or millions of years,” he says. “The Anthropocene is really a question about what is the trace left by (human) activity, and measuring the origin of this trace — chemically, atomically, (through) the use of sand, the use of water. The trace is of our collective actions on Earth. It’s dramatic enough, I don’t think it has to be any more ‘Hollywood’ — it’s so dramatic that it needs no dramatization.”

For more information on Bruno Latour, visit