The multiscalar and interdependent character of the issues at stake is the starting point for Bruno Latour’s 2018 essay Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Latour begins by conveying his overall assessment in bold strokes. “Migrations, explosions of inequality, and the new Climatic Regime: these are one and the same threat” (9). He argues that political reactions to the twin phenomenon of political refuge and labor migration on the one hand, and our struggle to effectively address global warming on the other, are connected logically despite being unevenly embraced individually (9–10). Latour maintains that radical environmental change and migrations are epistemologically linked through specific notions of place, namely “territory” and “soil”. They are also linked through people’s experiences of loss by way of actual displacement, social exclusion, or degradation: deprivation might be the right word (6–12). And sometimes the environment in flux takes on migratory aspects: ongoing environmental problems play out over spaces that hardly ever coincide with politically defined territories. Whatever constituents and their governments do to protect their territories from outside events, a specific class of “migrations” trespasses borders no matter how sophisticated or militarized: “Climate, soil erosion, environmental pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction” (10).
We are well aware of the dilemma that Latour describes. Both the processes of migrations and radical environmental change are forcing us to stretch our political imagination. We care about our world at the intimate scale linked to the territories we inhabit. We are easily mobilized on their behalf, not only to defend them (the politics of “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, readily spring to mind for the most diverse causes), but also in using and coproducing them, mapping and delimiting them, monitoring them, knowing their particularities, or registering their deterioration. In contrast, it is extremely problematic for us to think and act as earth dwellers and find ways of developing affinities not with territories but with the terrestrial. We therefore find it difficult, Latour argues, to establish inclusive notions of interdependency that counteract the current state of globalization, with dominant political economies based on the massive consumption of natural resources and a cheap migratory labor force, while yielding extreme income differentials and nurturing visions of quasi extraterritorial refuge for the extraordinary rich (18, 36).Footnote 2 As a political way forward, Latour proposes to redirect our efforts and conceive our socio-natural world not so much as a production system where nature represents resources; but rather as a (multispecies) system of agents that together engender or enable the specific layer of the earth that was called biosphere in the twentieth century and is now being reconfigured by some earth, soil, and social scientists as “critical zone” (74–82). To initiate such reorientation, Latour points to the much-studied Cahiers de Doléances, lists of grievances compiled by and among the French in 1789. Social historians of the French Revolution argue that the very act of writing down the grievances helped bring about new political notions and eventually ended the Ancien Régime. Similarly, stocktaking projects that account for individual and community interdependencies could create the political climate for meaningful, ultimately revolutionary political change today (96–97). I have one question though: an absolutist king had demanded to hear people’s grievances in the late eighteenth century. Nowadays, and for quite some time now, people have been facing the issue of who would coordinate such massive, if decentralized, endeavors; many smaller reassessment projects are already underway without having gathered the desired political momentum.
US historian Sam White studied community interdependencies within the imperial endeavors of settlement expeditions. His book A Cold Welcome focuses on small communities and their reliance on the colonial backup infrastructures in place for coping with everyday life. White describes the earliest British, Spanish, and French colonies that settled in North America following the first voyage of Columbus in 1492 and before the pilgrim ship the Mayflower landed in 1620, the event which heralded the Anglo-centered history of the United States (5). From the outset, these migrations were environmentally driven. The prospect of mineral wealth and an ideal Mediterranean climate for agriculture (29, 57) were major incentives for British project planners and investors to fund colonial voyages and settlement. New furnaces were even erected in Dartmouth, a port in South West England, ready to treat ores that never arrived (95–96).
The settler populations (in French and Spanish Florida, New Mexico, on Roanoke Island, in Virginia and Maine) ranged from several dozens to hundreds and were often severely decimated due to illnesses, malnutrition, hunger, cold, and drought. White details these local variations because each expedition and colony faced its own difficulties (252). At the same time, he scales up the temporal dimension of analysis by using recent methodological and empirical advances in climate history and the new academic interest in geohistorical concepts, to better assess the environmental components of his accounts. Patiently, he unfolds how tree rings, pollen, or other proxy data reveal where drought occurred, or that a specific year or decade was unusually cold. In this way he gains an additional framework for interpreting the interactions between migrations and radical environmental change he had found in archival and printed sources (93). If we are interested in the history of modern societies as co-extensive and interacting with earth history, such exercises of creative commensuration (Westermann 2020) will continue to be important.
The colonists migrating from Europe moved away from their changing, ever more unaccommodating weather conditions to supposedly milder climes. In North America, however, long-held assumptions about the equation of latitudes and their climates did not match the reality. Classical meteorology claimed there were concentric climate bands: an icy zone at the poles and a dry, hot zone in the tropics, with temperate zones in between. “It was only natural for educated Europeans to assume that today’s eastern United States would grow the crops of Italy or Israel” (11). They were rapidly proven wrong. The climate the Spanish encountered in New Mexico (also called Northern New Spain) with its exceptionally dry summers and cold winters resembled in no way the “Andalusia” they had expected. The settlers rhymed: “Ocho meses de invierno y cuatro meses de infierno” (175). Yet the newcomers could not grasp the other half of the truth, namely that they were facing years of radical climatic anomalies. Hence, they could not rely on any clues or terms of reference to understand what was the rule and what was exceptional about the new environment’s seasonal weather. White’s overall argument is that an environment subject to climate change, in other words in exceptional flux, rendered any attempts at adaptation nearly impossible. The inconsistency and unpredictability made true disasters out of what otherwise would have been sheer difficulties or failures (156). One major conclusion White draws is that the Spanish became so disillusioned with their efforts to settle in Northeastern America, that they lost interest in keeping out their British or French rivals (251).
For White, the climate of the “Little Ice Age” (White 2014) helps to explain the complexity of why early colonialism got deadlier and more violent among the colonialists and towards Native Americans, despite the fact, as White underlines, that racism had not yet been cemented culturally (19–23). Strangely, the colonialists were oblivious to gaining indigenous knowledge about the startling and for them overwhelming weather conditions (217, 254). Due to the adverse climate patterns, some communities of native Americans started to migrate westward or reorganized their community life in a more hierarchical manner, decisions the Europeans failed to explore and interpret as measures of climate change mitigation.