The great climate silence: we are on the edge of the abyss but we ignore it

21 02 2018

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Clive Hamilton, Charles Sturt University

After 200,000 years of modern humans on a 4.5 billion-year-old Earth, we have arrived at new point in history: the Anthropocene. The change has come upon us with disorienting speed. It is the kind of shift that typically takes two or three or four generations to sink in.

Our best scientists tell us insistently that a calamity is unfolding, that the life-support systems of the Earth are being damaged in ways that threaten our survival. Yet in the face of these facts we carry on as usual.

Most citizens ignore or downplay the warnings; many of our intellectuals indulge in wishful thinking; and some influential voices declare that nothing at all is happening, that the scientists are deceiving us. Yet the evidence tells us that so powerful have humans become that we have entered this new and dangerous geological epoch, which is defined by the fact that the human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system.

This bizarre situation, in which we have become potent enough to change the course of the Earth yet seem unable to regulate ourselves, contradicts every modern belief about the kind of creature the human being is. So for some it is absurd to suggest that humankind could break out of the boundaries of history and inscribe itself as a geological force in deep time. Humans are too puny to change the climate, they insist, so it is outlandish to suggest we could change the geological time scale. Others assign the Earth and its evolution to the divine realm, so that it is not merely impertinence to suggest that humans can overrule the almighty, but blasphemy.

Many intellectuals in the social sciences and humanities do not concede that Earth scientists have anything to say that could impinge on their understanding of the world, because the “world” consists only of humans engaging with humans, with nature no more than a passive backdrop to draw on as we please.

The “humans-only” orientation of the social sciences and humanities is reinforced by our total absorption in representations of reality derived from media, encouraging us to view the ecological crisis as a spectacle that takes place outside the bubble of our existence.
It is true that grasping the scale of what is happening requires not only breaking the bubble but also making the cognitive leap to “Earth system thinking” – that is, conceiving of the Earth as a single, complex, dynamic system. It is one thing to accept that human influence has spread across the landscape, the oceans and the atmosphere, but quite another to make the jump to understanding that human activities are disrupting the functioning of the Earth as a complex, dynamic, ever-evolving totality comprised of myriad interlocking processes.

But consider this astounding fact: with knowledge of the cycles that govern Earth’s rotation, including its tilt and wobble, paleo-climatologists are able to predict with reasonable certainty that the next ice age is due in 50,000 years’ time. Yet because carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for millennia, global warming from human activity in the 20th and 21st centuries is expected to suppress that ice age and quite possibly the following one, expected in 130,000 years.

If human activity occurring over a century or two can irreversibly transform the global climate for tens of thousands of years, we are prompted to rethink history and social analysis as a purely intra-human affair.

How should we understand the disquieting fact that a mass of scientific evidence about the Anthropocene, an unfolding event of colossal proportions, has been insufficient to induce a reasoned and fitting response?

For many, the accumulation of facts about ecological disruption seems to have a narcotising effect, all too apparent in popular attitudes to the crisis of the Earth system, and especially among opinion-makers and political leaders. A few have opened themselves to the full meaning of the Anthropocene, crossing a threshold by way of a gradual but ever-more disturbing process of evidence assimilation or, in some cases, after a realisation that breaks over them suddenly and with great force in response to an event or piece of information in itself quite small.

Beyond the science, the few alert to the plight of the Earth sense that something unfathomably great is taking place, conscious that we face a struggle between ruin and the possibility of some kind of salvation.

So today the greatest tragedy is the absence of a sense of the tragedy. The indifference of most to the Earth system’s disturbance may be attributed to a failure of reason or psychological weaknesses; but these seem inadequate to explain why we find ourselves on the edge of the abyss.

How can we understand the miserable failure of contemporary thinking to come to grips with what now confronts us? A few years after the second atomic bomb was dropped, Kazuo Ishiguro wrote a novel about the people of Nagasaki, a novel in which the bomb is never mentioned yet whose shadow falls over everyone. The Anthropocene’s shadow too falls over all of us.

Yet the bookshops are regularly replenished with tomes about world futures from our leading intellectuals of left and right in which the ecological crisis is barely mentioned. They write about the rise of China, clashing civilizations and machines that take over the world, composed and put forward as if climate scientists do not exist. They prognosticate about a future from which the dominant facts have been expunged, futurologists trapped in an obsolete past. It is the great silence.

I heard of a dinner party during which one of Europe’s most eminent psychoanalysts held forth ardently on every topic but fell mute when climate change was raised. He had nothing to say. For most of the intelligentsia, it is as if the projections of Earth scientists are so preposterous they can safely be ignored.

Perhaps the intellectual surrender is so complete because the forces we hoped would make the world a more civilised place – personal freedoms, democracy, material advance, technological power – are in truth paving the way to its destruction. The powers we most trusted have betrayed us; that which we believed would save us now threatens to devour us.

For some, the tension is resolved by rejecting the evidence, which is to say, by discarding the Enlightenment. For others, the response is to denigrate calls to heed the danger as a loss of faith in humanity, as if anguish for the Earth were a romantic illusion or superstitious regression.

Yet the Earth scientists continue to haunt us, following us around like wailing apparitions while we hurry on with our lives, turning around occasionally with irritation to hold up the crucifix of Progress. 

The Conversation(This is an edited extract from Clive Hamilton’s Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the Anthropocene, published last week. The extract was first published in the Guardian. )

Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE), Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.




23 responses

21 02 2018

“turning around occasionally with irritation to hold up the crucifix of Progress”
What a very apt simile.
Climate warming has become a blood sucking, parasitical industry whose real agenda is to expand, grow and protect the job and wages of its members.
Their main tactic is to keep everyone as alarmed as possible about global warming.

21 02 2018

None so blind as those who ……fail to do their own proper detailed research and probably only look at Fox News and Breitbart.
He’s gotta be a moron in chief supporter.
Or, maybe, a supporter of One Nation?

21 02 2018

Letter to Climate Change Deniers

I became aware of the greenhouse effect about 50 years ago. Even Margaret Thatcher, a chemist, reluctantly acknowledged the problem. I have been following the flow information, and misinformation, on it ever since. Understandably most people just don’t want to know.

Exxon and EPA backed AstroTurfing conspiracy theories are not the best sources. I suggest you take a proper look at genuine evidence from reliable and easily understood sources:…/science/science-behind-climate-change
Wikipedia may be a good place to start.

22 02 2018

Thanks Phil for providing all these links. I shall use them to help spread the word and to, hopefully, convince the skeptics and the ‘undecided’.

21 02 2018

Great article by Professor Clive Hamilton. Thanks for posting Mike.

21 02 2018
21 02 2018
Respect Silence

The few “serious” responses to the climate crisis are continuing the farce of endless economic growth more than anything. They just damage nature in new ways to grab subsidies while CO2 keeps rising. Industrial wind turbines are literally the biggest example as they radically transform landscapes and ocean views.

The ancient psychological value of natural aesthetics has been abandoned by the wind industry and its duped supporters in environmental groups. The industry grubs for money by trying to outdo others in a sheer size competition, and pseudo-greens think they’re helping the planet but barely consider the absurdity of this new industrial sprawl.

Business as usual is just getting re-branded and I see little hope of sanity without major attitude-shifts or a true miracle.

22 02 2018

Are we SURE this time? Not like global cooling, African bees, acid rain, AIDS, bird flu, worldwide food shortages, running out of IP addresses…

22 02 2018

Do a basic search outside your bubble.

22 02 2018

This is me outside my doom bubble of the last 12 years, Phil. The same bubble that should be very very surprised (and humbled by) the fact that there is no oil crisis in 2018 (wait, wait, don’t tell me – “yet”). The same one that neglected to take into account the oceans in its climate modelling until recently.

I’ve set my beliefs, conversations, career, investments and life based on this stuff, and have just recently started to stray outside the bubble to see if I could find a reason for its poor track record on predictions which have cost, not prepared, me and my family.

22 02 2018
Respect Silence

I’ll take on this simpleminded post to save others the effort:

Global cooling was never a widely-adopted theory, but dumb cherry-pickers will forever dwell on it from a few magazine articles circa 1974.

African (killer) bees is a red herring issue, but smart people talk about the very real decline in bee populations due to pesticides and other toxins.

Acid rain persists in various regions (e.g. China) and sure wasn’t reduced by glib fools who also deny the seriousness of the ozone hole and global warming.

AIDS has probably been overstated, with dubious behavioral causes mixed in with old diseases, e.g. Africa. But AIDS isn’t really about global overshoot, so it’s another red herring.

Bird flu is representative of various viruses that could jump between species as the world gets more crowded and travel spreads them. Just because it’s not making headlines right now doesn’t render it trivial. Get an adult attention span.

What makes you think world hunger has been solved? Agriculture is propped up by finite fossil fuels and starvation is rampant as the population keeps growing. Other species keep getting purged to enable human overcrowding and genocides are often linked to scarcity.

As for IP addresses, there are future limits to those, even with IPv6, but it’s a poor analogy to physical resources that can’t be crunched down in databases. The computer age has perpetuated the myth of no limits in a virtual vs. real world.

22 02 2018

“Do a basic search outside your bubble.”
“simpleminded post”
“Get an adult attention span.”

Insults and ad hominems are not required by truth. Nor do they work for persuasion.

The funny thing about the insults is that you guys don’t know me. You can’t see my bookshelf, and you don’t know how many times I’ve argued our side. Yes, our side.

I’m sharing fatigue at the countless wrong predictions of doom that I’ve lived through, and shaped my life by.

Respect’s post was otherwise reasonable. I wonder if you’re really qualified to analyze all of these disparate topics, though? This, I think, is the problem with the doom camp. That we think we know.

“What makes you think world hunger has been solved?”

Don’t strawman me, bro. I said “worldwide food shortages” [haven’t happened].

Exhibit A:

22 02 2018
Respect Silence

— “Insults and ad hominems are not required by truth. Nor do they work for persuasion.”

Your mode of thinking is well known to people who been through these debates before. We understand that the Earth is actually finite and are tired of simple-minded time snapshots claiming this or that problem was already “solved” when it’s really a case delayed reckoning. Smokers use similar rationalizations for why they’re still alive in a given year. “It ain’t killed me yet so it can’t kill me later!”

That mindset applies to overpopulation deniers, peak oil deniers, global warming deniers, and most anthropocentric feel-gooders. They keep ignoring a fundamental concept of finite resources: You can’t predict the future from the past since any past result was based on a time when the resource was more plentiful! For example, there are about 90 MILLION fewer barrels of oil in existence each day (burned forever) yet cornucopians are operating on some vague notion that abiotic oil is real, or that tight oil is just as abundant as conventional crude. See Arthur Berman’s analyses on shale fracking hype. See also:

— “The funny thing about the insults is that you guys don’t know me. You can’t see my bookshelf, and you don’t know how many times I’ve argued our side. Yes, our side.”

You gave enough info to make it clear that you don’t understand Earth’s physical limits and are trying to sort events into discrete dates while ignoring ongoing depletion that has no certain fix down the road.

— “I’m sharing fatigue at the countless wrong predictions of doom that I’ve lived through, and shaped my life by.”

Again, you don’t grasp the significance of finite resource depletion and assume technology can fix everything in the future just because it’s been able to kick the can down the road so far (mainly via fossil fuels). Your general thesis is that if A hasn’t happened by year B, and someone said it would, their whole logical foundation is false. That mindset compelled Julian (“infinite substitution”) Simon to bet Paul Ehrlich about commodity prices in a specific year, which missed the whole point of chronic depletion. A bet format is a lousy way to judge finite resource drawdown but that’s exactly how cornucopians try to play it off.

Likewise, global warming deniers keep pointing to temperatures at discreet locations and times while ignoring the mounting evidence for planet-wide warming. I think many of them know they’re BSing and don’t care, like Trump.

— “Don’t strawman me, bro. I said “worldwide food shortages” [haven’t happened].”

That’s convenient semantics but you were implying hunger was somehow conquered, even through the population may reach 11 billion this century. The only reason we’ve been able to make food keep up with human bloat is fossil fuels, which made the “green revolution” possible, but can’t last. Water shortages are also becoming worse, regardless of AGW. The global population is growing by two Californias per year and it’s ridiculous to think things are under control. It takes people laboring and wrecking nature 24/7 just to keep this house of cards standing.

Another big facet of the population mess is that other species are being wiped out as people grab more and more of the Earth’s NPP (net primary production), but people who trivialize overpopulation tend to have minimal respect for other species.

23 02 2018
Respect Silence

Correction: “who been” = who’ve been (ain’t no trailer rube)

23 02 2018
Dennis Mitchell

gbell12, I share your experience of seeing many predictions fail. Your question is are we sure. Rather than lump you in with the evil deniers, who know the truth, or the multitudes who have been duped, let me answer with another question. What if we are right? What if, as I feel, it is not 2 degrees we are looking at but likely above 6 degree. You can kiss your solar panels goodby. You have heard about the strange weather, seen the pictures of melting glaciers, who are you going to trust, science or corporations?

23 02 2018
Respect Silence

I think you’re being far too reasonable with that poster. They strung together a weak list of things they claim haven’t panned out, but most were false or out of context. Note how brief it was, and not by accident. The old line about overpopulation being a hoax “cuz we kin fit ’em all in Texas!” would fit right in that list.

They followed up by complaining about ad-hominen attacks but offered no further details to prove their original points, just a glib reference to “no oil crisis in 2018” (it’s still physically scarcer every second). There’s no real intellect behind the tactic of rattling off talking points and walking away.

Many have pointed out that monetary costs are probably the only way to wake up the people who need to be woken. It worked in 2008 with the big oil price spike, but conservation predictably waned as prices fell, and financial schemes are as bad as ever with Trump in charge. This species falls back into greed, denial and corruption at every opportunity.

23 02 2018

You’re oddly toggling between reasonable discourse and unfounded attack mode. Weird.

‘The old line about overpopulation being a hoax “cuz we kin fit ’em all in Texas!” would fit right in that list.’

Not said or claimed or intimated, so again, a straw man.

Funny, I did that maths once as part of debunking someone claiming that, and it’s true – with plenty of space. As of today, 91.5 sqm. per person. But that comparison is ignorant of the concept ecological footprint. Stupid, really.

“but offered no further details to prove their original points”

Untrue. I included the chart showing ever growing calories per capita.

“(it’s still physically scarcer every second).”

You’re completely missing my point and misstating my position. I’m not arguing facts like finiteness of resources, the folly of exponential growth, or any of that. I’m calling into question the poor track record of predictions based on these things we all “know”.

“There’s no real intellect behind the tactic of rattling off talking points and walking away.”

More ad hominem (no hyphen). And who’s walked? I was hoping to open a discussion and I did. Much appreciated.

“Many have pointed out that monetary costs are probably the only way to wake up the people who need to be woken.”

So frustrating. God forbid we do the right thing with planning, or to leave things for future generations, or to save beautiful creatures or places. And how much damage will be done before the (heavily manipulated) economic signals kick in?

“This species falls back into greed, denial and corruption at every opportunity.”

Ah, there’s the ideology. You forget the wonder of this species as you type words into a magical global machine, likely 1000s of kilometers from the other readers, with a full belly and likely none of the diseases that vexed humanity for eons.

Now before you attempt to insult my intellect again, note how I’m fairly representing both sides, failing to respond to personal attacks with personal attacks, and even holding conflicting ideas simultaneously in my tiny tiny brain.

If more of us were able to do this, would the movement be closer to actually saving our collective bacon after these 45 years?

23 02 2018

What if we are right indeed. The precautionary principle. Only prudent thing to do is act on it. Unless, acting on it caused more harm than good, and I think, with some mitigations, that’s a possibility.

I trust science. But I also recognize there are deep-seated problems with science today – human biases and corporate corruption along with the “reproducibility crisis”.

So of course I’m not rejecting science, but I am sick of the science-less fluff pieces like this post, which have been written for much of human history.

“Indeed it is certain, it is clear to see, that the earth itself is more cultivated and developed than in early times … The most charming farms obliterate empty spaces, ploughed fields vanquish forests, sandy places are planted with crops, stones are fixed, swamps are drained, and there are great cities where formerly hardly a hut … everywhere there is a dwelling, everywhere a multitude, everywhere a government, everywhere there is life. The greatest evidence of the large number of people: we are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate to us and our needs straiten us and complaints are everywhere while already nature does not sustain us. Truly, pestilence and hunger and war and flood must be considered as a remedy for nations, like a pruning back of the human race becoming excessive in numbers.” Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus, written about A.D. 200

But, how bad do the predictive abilities / timing have to be before we start doubting a particular expert or our fundamental understanding in a particular area?

For the record, what brought this on was the book The Rational Optimist, which I resisted reading because I feared it was full of anger-inducing economists’ arguments. Or “sustainable growth”. I knew those arguments. And I knew the real energy and resource situation.

It had a touch of poor arguments, but it wasn’t based on them. The author isn’t an economist. The book challenged me, and I recommend it to readers of DTM. Don’t judge it by my comments here – I’m not trying to represent the book’s points.

Now for my pedigree – I have an engineering degree. I had a chance to confront John “who cares about some dumb little brown bird?” Howard personally. I worked for a solar company. I limited my family size. I spend a lot of time planting trees. I often spend my free time doing energy calculations for people to show how little chance renewables have of helping us out.

I guess the takeaway I’m hoping for from you all is this: If insults, data, experts, and logic aren’t spreading the message far or fast enough, and doubt/uncertainty can be sown in peoples’ minds so easily, should we be looking at better methods of persuasion?

27 02 2018
Respect Silence

For some reason this site wouldn’t let me reply to the post above this one, so I’ll cover it all in this reply.

You’re owed an apology in the context of what you wrote AFTER your initial short post, which resembled something Julian Simon would scribble hastily. See Herman Daly’s classic Simon take-down:

I don’t think you’re as cornucopian as it seemed, but you’re still posting general themes that show you don’t quite understand what scarcity means, and favor the “technology can do anything” mindset that afflicts so many people.

I stand by my statement, that when dealing with FINITE resources, it’s illogical and dangerous to ever assume the past can predict the future. The folly of people who think fracking “prevented” Peak Oil (as if there’s no more depletion to come) is a good example. Another example is people who think global warming is “over” just because certain things Al Gore predicted haven’t occurred yet (though they tend to exaggerate his points). And those who bash Paul Ehrlich for his dire hunger predictions in the 60s are ignoring that overpopulation is relentless and human hunger is just one facet of it, but hunger itself has not been solved, just mitigated to some degree with a lot of labor and finite oil. A species living in balance with nature would never need to go to such lengths.

If one is going to claim that this or that will never happen (or will turn out well) just because it didn’t turn out as badly as someone predicted for a specific time-frame, they’ve missed the whole point about depletion and irreplaceable resources. Such people treat physical facts as open-ended questions and reject logic when spurious events distract from it. See: (image link)

I’ll go on record as predicting that we’ll have major economic trauma associated with oil depletion before 2025, maybe 2030 at the latest, and it will catch most people off guard. I observed how Americans reacted to the 2008 oil shock and learned almost nothing from it except “drill, baby, drill!” and it became a cornerstone of Trump’s attacks on the EPA (a mindless response to scarcity). Oil is critical to the depletion theme because it makes so many things possible and gets taken for granted by so many.

2 03 2018

I apologize for my thoughtless and glib response. You’ve done the research and arrived at a slightly different balance of probabilities.

Signed, Kurt Rejoinder

26 02 2018

Oddly, just came upon an interesting interview covering the exact topics I attempted to bring up here in the comments:

View at

He’s just a journalist, but he’s been widely published, and his treatment of the problem of predictions and limits to growth seems very even and well reasoned.

And a non-ideological book I’m reading that addresses it too:

28 02 2018
Respect Silence

I agree that C.C. Mann is one of the more reasonable ones, and he hasn’t drunk the industrial wind power kool-aid, my biggest disappointment with mainstream environmentalism.

Then again, he’s more optimistic than he ought to be, given the track record of human inaction and apathy on environmental issues, magnified by population growth. During the past minute, at least 4 acres of open land in America were lost to some form of man-made development (source USDA).

2 03 2018

This is an edited extract from Clive Hamilton’s Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the Anthropocene, published last week.

Damn. And there I was gearing up to congratulate you on your penmanship!

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