Who are the Earthbound people?
The short answer is they are imaginary. The Earthbound people, or the people of Gaia (they are more or less interchangeably) are theoretical ideas proposed by French sociologist and science studies scholar Bruno Latour as part of his 2013 Gifford Lectures, “Facing Gaia: Six Lectures on the Political Theology of Nature” (details here). In essence, the Earthbound people are a way to help us think about a new political community that could emerge which is rooted in a new of humans embedded in nature, rather than outside or separate from it. These people understand nature with a small (n), rather than the old view of humans separate from Nature with a (N). Similarly, they understand science with a small (s) as a process of knowledge, history and power intertwined with politics, rather than the old view of Science (S) that viewed Science as an abstract and objective process of collecting neutral Facts and Truths that could be discovered via observation and experimentation (i.e., the scientific method).
These Earthbound people, or people of Gaia, are contrasted by Latour with the old notion of the Human as anthropos, by which he means not only those who continue to defend an outdated view of Science and Nature, and who either benefit or profit from keeping the business as usual system of politics and economics in place, but also those who still refuse to acknowledge that the Earth is now responding to human actions (via climate change and other biophysical feedback processes). Latour develops this idea of the Earthbound vs Humans further through the German legal theories Carl Schmitt, and suggests the Earthbound people must define a new set of friends and enemies, a process which will lead to open conflicts and a new form of politics that give rise to this Earthbound people.
But what makes the designation of the enemy even more urgent is that there is of course no sense in speaking, as I have just done, of the ‘human race’ as being a party in a conflict of just two. The front line divides not only every one of our souls, but it also divides all the collectives with respect to every single one of the cosmopolitical issues we face. The anthropos of the Anthropocene is nothing but the dangerous fiction of a universalized agent able to act as one single people. Such a supposition would imply that the State to be built is already there. The Human, capital H, as the giant Atlas-like agent of history, as in so many 19th century myths, is precisely what the Anthropocene has broken down and totally dispersed. The Anthropocene does not only put an end to anthropocentrism but also to any premature unification of the human race. (115)
Unfortunately Latour covers so much ground in his lectures that it is difficult to provide a short and succinct restatement of his whole argument here, as well as the various lines of evidence and example he deploys to make his larger case. However, I hope this provides at least a minimal starting point for those interested in this idea. For those who are more serious about working with this idea, we have provided a few excerpts from his lectures to help encourage deeper analysis. The most sustained treatment of these ideas can be found in his opening lecture, and in his fifth lecture “War of Humans and Earthbound.”
Traces in Latour
There are various places where Latour mentions this idea of the Earthbound people, or the people of Gaia. The following are just a few places with important references to this idea from his lectures. Page references () correspond to the pdf version available here (PDF).
Let us start this potential work of assembly with an imaginary collective whose members would proudly present themselves to others by saying ‘we pertain to the people of Gaia.’ That others are shocked at the introduction of a ‘goddess’ into what should remain ‘a strictly naturalist description,’ can no longer embarrass us. With our translation tables in hand, there is no longer any difficulty in granting a proper name to the entity under which such a people is happy to be summoned. (83)
What are the other virtues we could grant the people of Gaia? (I hope you understand that I am drawing here the picture of a completely imaginary collective, one that would be able to equip itself to survive in the Anthropocene by taking seriously what it means to be post-natural as well as post-epistemological.) Another great quality of such a people is that they may escape from the bifocal vision that we have recognized in the first two lectures. What was so strange about the ‘people of Nature’ is that their residence was totally implausible; they seemed to hover in outer space without having a body, or even a mouth; at times completely fused with the things objectively known; at other times a totally detached spectator contemplating Nature from the view from nowhere —‘la vue de Sirius.’ But scientists cannot survive in such a vacuum, no more than astronauts without a spacesuit. (85)
In the geostorical situation we have entered with the Anthropocene, we might even have to say that Humans are now at war not with Nature, but with, with whom? I am at loss to find a name. Science fiction often uses the name ‘Earthlings,’ but that was the whole of the human race viewed from another planet and in a ‘close encounter of the third kind’ with little green men. No, we might need label that divides former humans; that pits them against one another instead of lumping all of them into one vague ‘anthropic’ shapeless mass. ‘Gaians’? ‘Terrestrials’? I have chosen Earthbound — ‘bound’ as if bound by a spell, as well as ‘bound’ in the sense of heading somewhere, thereby designating the joint attempt to reach the Earth while being unable to escape from it, a moving testimony to the frenetic immobility of those who live on Gaia. I know that it’s terribly dangerous to state the matter this starkly, but we might have to say that at the epoch of the Anthropocene the Humans and the Earthbound should be at war. (117)
The Earthbound, on the other hand, are bound to a specific nomos of the Earth and delineated by lines of space and highly peculiar land appropriations…What would have sounded scandalous in the mid 20th century takes a rather different tone at the time of the Antropocene. It is in that sense that the Earthbound may appear sensitive and responsible, not because they possess any supernatural qualities, but because they belong to a territory and because the delineation of their people is made explicit by the state of exception in which they accept being placed by those they dare calling their enemies. Of course the territory does not resemble the nicely coloured geographical maps of our classrooms. It is not made of nation states — the only actors that Schmitt was ready to consider — but of interlocking, conflicting, entangled, contradictory networks that no harmony, no system, no ‘third party,’ no overall Providence may unify in advance. Ecological conflicts do not bear on the nationalistic Lebensraum of the past but they do deal with ‘space’ and ‘life.’ The territory of an agent is the series of other agents that are necessary for it to survive on the long run, its Umwelt, its protective envelope. (119)
If Humans and Earthbound are in conflict, it might also be the case of ‘their’ conflicting scientists. The naturalist scientist — those who proudly say they are ‘from Nature,’ is an unhappy impossible figure, forced simultaneously to disappear as a body into his or her Knowledge, or to have a soul, a voice and a place, but then to run the risk of losing his or her authority. When attacked, they whirl endlessly from the Nature-centric view of a knowledge from nowhere to a laboratory centric view that seems no longer able to reach closure and certainty. Their only solution is to damn the irrationality and the ‘relativism’ of their fellow Humans and to wait eagerly for the coming back of the days of yesterday when ‘everyone’ was, at least potentially, a member of their fold.
By contrast, Earthbound scientists are fully incarnated creatures. They are a people. They have enemies. They belong to the soil drawn through their instruments. Their knowledge extends as far as their ability to expand, to finance, to survey, to maintain the sensors that render visible the consequences of their actions. They have no qualms confessing the tragic existential drama in which they are engaged. They dare saying how afraid they are, and in their view such a fright increases rather than diminishes the quality of their science. They appear clearly as a new form of non-national power having a stake in geopolitical conflicts. If their territory knows no national boundary, it’s not because they have access to the universal, but because they keep bringing in new agents to be part and parcel of the subsistence of other agents. Their authority is fully political since they represent agents that have no other voice and who intervene in the life of many others. They are allowed to have interests and to disclose them to the full. They don’t hesitate to draw the shape of the world, the nomos, the cosmos in which they prefer to live and with what sorts of other agencies they are ready to ally themselves. For them to have allies is not shameful. They no longer try to be the third party lording over all disputes. They are a party, and they sometimes win, sometimes lose. They are of this world. (120)
Humans of the modernist breed might have ignored the questions by defining themselves as those who were always escaping from the bonds of the past, always attempting to pass beyond the impassable columns of Hercules. ‘Plus ultra’ has always been their proud motto. By contrast Earthbound have to explore the question of their limits. Not because they are forbidden by some outside power to do so, but because their maxim is ‘Plus intra.’ They cannot rely on any older versions of what used to be a soil, a land, a plot, or, as we say in French, a terroir. Not because they fear being reactionary and moving backward (moving backward is what they stopped doing when they stopped believing they were modern!), but because there is no way to squeeze their ways of life, their technics, their values, their vast number, their cities, inside the narrow confines of what it meant to belong to a land. Paradoxically, in order to determine their limits, Earthbound should break away from the limits of what they used to think of as space: the narrow countryside they were so eager to leave, as well as the utopia of indefinite space they were so eager to reach. Geostory requires a change in the very definition of having, holding or occupying a space, of what it is to be appropriated by a land. Earthbound cannot diminish their ‘footprint’ but might change its shape by letting Gaia’s foot be imprinted in the dust of their former soil — and as Christians do on Ash Day they should sprinkle some of it on their front as well: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.’ (132)
Such is the Mobius strip in which we are now entangled. Such is the experiment in which, unwittingly, the anthropos of the Anthropocene has been placed: the Earthbound learn their limits by feeling the violent reactions of what they do to modify their ways of life more and more desperately. But this time, experiments are not safely confined inside the laboratory where scientists are used to learning slowly from their mistakes. The Earth is the laboratory inside which experimenters are imprisoned with no time to scale things up, step by step. (134)
Of course, Gaia does not possess — does not possess yet — the legal quality of the res publica, of the State, of the great artificial Leviathan of Hobbes’ invention. And yet it’s clear that the Earthbound are tied to Gaia in a very different way than Nature used to tie Humans to Her. On one hand, Gaia is much less personified than Nature, but, on the other, it does not claim to be outside or undisputable and does not pretend to be indifferent to politics. Whereas Nature could lord over Humans as a religious power to which a paradoxical Cult had to be rendered, Gaia commands, orders, binds as a secular not as a religious power. The translatio imperii does not go from God or from Nature to Gaia, it comes from the more humble tradition of the body politic to the Earth by which this assembled body accepts solemnly to be definitely bounded. Even though so far there is no cult, not even a civic one for such a self-imposed tracing of ‘planetary boundaries,’ it is fascinating to imagine through what sort of public ceremonies such self-imposed limits would be be sworn and enforced. The rituals to be imagined might not fill the churches, but they will shake the scientific disciplines quite a lot and extract from ethnography a rich lore of practices. (136)