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.


The Myth of Human Progress

5 06 2016

After reading this excellent article, you will know why I admire Chris Hedges so much……

Posted on Jan 13, 2013 on the Truthdig website





By Chris Hedges

chrishedgesClive Hamilton in his “Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change” describes a dark relief that comes from accepting that “catastrophic climate change is virtually certain.” This obliteration of “false hopes,” he says, requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means that those we love, including our children, are almost certainly doomed to insecurity, misery and suffering within a few decades, if not a few years, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth—intellectually and emotionally—and continue to resist the forces that are destroying us.

The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury—as well as unrivaled military and economic power—for the industrial elites are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward, as the draft report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee illustrates.

Complex civilizations have a bad habit of destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Charles L. Redman in “Human Impact on Ancient Environments” and Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress” have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet will go with us. There will, with this final collapse, be no new lands left to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate. The long struggle between the human species and the Earth will conclude with the remnants of the human species learning a painful lesson about unrestrained greed and self-worship.

“There is a pattern in the past of civilization after civilization wearing out its welcome from nature, overexploiting its environment, overexpanding, overpopulating,” Wright said when I reached him by phone at his home in British Columbia, Canada. “They tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the Romans, the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what I called in ‘A Short History of Progress’ the ‘progress trap.’ We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature. We have failed to control human numbers. They have tripled in my lifetime. And the problem is made much worse by the widening gap between rich and poor, the upward concentration of wealth, which ensures there can never be enough to go around. The number of people in dire poverty today—about 2 billion—is greater than the world’s entire population in the early 1900s. That’s not progress.”

“If we continue to refuse to deal with things in an orderly and rational way, we will head into some sort of major catastrophe, sooner or later,” he said. “If we are lucky it will be big enough to wake us up worldwide but not big enough to wipe us out. That is the best we can hope for. We must transcend our evolutionary history. We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit. We are not good long-term thinkers. We would much rather gorge ourselves on dead mammoths by driving a herd over a cliff than figure out how to conserve the herd so it can feed us and our children forever. That is the transition our civilization has to make. And we’re not doing that.”

Wright, who in his dystopian novel “A Scientific Romance” paints a picture of a future world devastated by human stupidity, cites “entrenched political and economic interests” and a failure of the human imagination as the two biggest impediments to radical change. And all of us who use fossil fuels, who sustain ourselves through the formal economy, he says, are at fault.

Modern capitalist societies, Wright argues in his book “What Is America?: A Short History of the New World Order,” derive from European invaders’ plundering of the indigenous cultures in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries, coupled with the use of African slaves as a workforce to replace the natives. The numbers of those natives fell by more than 90 percent because of smallpox and other plagues they hadn’t had before. The Spaniards did not conquer any of the major societies until smallpox had crippled them; in fact the Aztecs beat them the first time around. If Europe had not been able to seize the gold of the Aztec and Inca civilizations, if it had not been able to occupy the land and adopt highly productive New World crops for use on European farms, the growth of industrial society in Europe would have been much slower. Karl Marx and Adam Smith both pointed to the influx of wealth from the Americas as having made possible the Industrial Revolution and the start of modern capitalism. It was the rape of the Americas, Wright points out, that triggered the orgy of European expansion. The Industrial Revolution also equipped the Europeans with technologically advanced weapons systems, making further subjugation, plundering and expansion possible.

“The experience of a relatively easy 500 years of expansion and colonization, the constant taking over of new lands, led to the modern capitalist myth that you can expand forever,” Wright said. “It is an absurd myth. We live on this planet. We can’t leave it and go somewhere else. We have to bring our economies and demands on nature within natural limits, but we have had a 500-year run where Europeans, Euro-Americans and other colonists have overrun the world and taken it over. This 500-year run made it not only seem easy but normal. We believe things will always get bigger and better. We have to understand that this long period of expansion and prosperity was an anomaly. It has rarely happened in history and will never happen again. We have to readjust our entire civilization to live in a finite world. But we are not doing it, because we are carrying far too much baggage, too many mythical versions of deliberately distorted history and a deeply ingrained feeling that what being modern is all about is having more. This is what anthropologists call an ideological pathology, a self-destructive belief that causes societies to crash and burn. These societies go on doing things that are really stupid because they can’t change their way of thinking. And that is where we are.”

And as the collapse becomes palpable, if human history is any guide, we like past societies in distress will retreat into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist belief in a god or gods who will come back to earth and save us.

“Societies in collapse often fall prey to the belief that if certain rituals are performed all the bad stuff will go away,” Wright said. “There are many examples of that throughout history. In the past these crisis cults took hold among people who had been colonized, attacked and slaughtered by outsiders, who had lost control of their lives. They see in these rituals the ability to bring back the past world, which they look at as a kind of paradise. They seek to return to the way things were. Crisis cults spread rapidly among Native American societies in the 19th century, when the buffalo and the Indians were being slaughtered by repeating rifles and finally machine guns. People came to believe, as happened in the Ghost Dance, that if they did the right things the modern world that was intolerable—the barbed wire, the railways, the white man, the machine gun—would disappear.”

“We all have the same, basic psychological hard wiring,” Wright said. “It makes us quite bad at long-range planning and leads us to cling to irrational delusions when faced with a serious threat. Look at the extreme right’s belief that if government got out of the way, the lost paradise of the 1950s would return. Look at the way we are letting oil and gas exploration rip when we know that expanding the carbon economy is suicidal for our children and grandchildren. The results can already be felt. When it gets to the point where large parts of the Earth experience crop failure at the same time then we will have mass starvation and a breakdown in order. That is what lies ahead if we do not deal with climate change.”

“If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea,” Wright said.


The lies of happiness: living with affluenza but without fulfilment

23 06 2015

Clive Hamilton

This article is the first in a new series, On Happiness, examining what it means and how it might be achieved in the 21st century.

In a short story, Grief, Anton Chekhov tells of a wood-turner named Grigory Petrov, a drunkard and bully who for 40 years regularly beat his wife. One night he arrives home drunk and brandishing his fists. This time, instead of shrinking from him, his wife gazes at him sternly, “as saints do from their icons”, wrote Chekhov.

It was her first and last act of defiance.

Now driving a sled through a blizzard, Petrov is taking his dying wife to the doctor. He curses and whips the horse. He is seized by grief for a life wasted, and wonders how he will live without this woman who has sustained him for so long.

I may have been a drunkard and ne’er-do-well, he mutters to himself, but that was never the true man, and now my wife is dying on me, she will never know my better nature. I beat her, it’s true, but never out of spite. Am I not rushing her to the doctor because I feel sorry for her?

In Chekhov’s story, Petrov engages in grotesque rationalisations. His dignity will not allow him to face the truth of the sort of man he is. He engages in a litany of self-deceptions, even though the truth threatens to overwhelm him.

The myriad ways humans lie to themselves is a recurring theme of literature. Because we all engage in self-deception, we recognise ourselves in the characters. We are forever composing stories about ourselves and our world so as to smooth a path through life.

Benign fictions and the loss of freedom

The psychologist Shelley Taylor calls them “benign fictions”: the lies we deploy to defend our happiness. For a long time I have believed that if we deceive ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses, creating a veil that distorts our vision of the world so as to render it more agreeable, we may actually be sacrificing the opportunity to find a more authentic self from which to live.

But is that chasing a phantom? Does it really matter if we find contentment by deploying benign fictions?

The philosophers have always told us that happiness should be discounted if it floats on a mirage of lies. But maybe the thinkers are deceiving themselves, rationalising away their melancholy and inflating the value of their solemnity.

Perhaps. Yet there is another reason to question happiness built on self-deception. It opens us up to manipulation.

When we are not truthful with ourselves, we are driven by forces of which we are unconscious, but our real motives and desires can be discerned by others – advertisers, for instance. They can smell weaknesses to be exploited.

So, I am willing to argue, those whose happiness rests on fabrications risk surrendering their freedom. Happiness at the price of freedom is not worth it, unless the limits to one’s freedom are freely chosen after careful reflection.

But is the truth always to be preferred?

The Trade Practices Act outlaws deceptive and misleading conduct by companies making claims about their products. But what if we want to believe the lies? The essence of branding is that by identifying ourselves deeply with a brand – an Apple computer, Diesel clothing, a Volvo car – we take on the image associated with it.

We accept these commercially provided identities because our societies no longer offer other means of creating a sense of self that satisfies. And we are bored.

Increasingly, our attention is seen as a scarce commodity. As always, anything that is scarce has a value, and some are willing to pay for it.

There is even a new branch of economics called “attention economics”. When others thrust information upon us it can be regarded as a form of pollution. We sometimes try to stop this pollution harming us with devices like spam blockers, television mute buttons, “Do not call” registers and “No junk mail” stickers.

However, I think many of us watch television and listen to iPods to avoid paying attention to aspects of our lives that are uncomfortable. And we want our attention to be captured because we have developed a strong aversion to boredom.

It seems to me that the flight from boredom means our society as a whole is suffering from a form of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Movies and television programs have shorter scenes and more action to keep us “glued to the set”. Yet in order to transcend boredom it is necessary to get beneath the superficial self that is entertained by television and a thousand other distractions.

Is a more authentic life possible?

It is one thing to recognise that money and the consumer life are in some way shallow; it is quite another to find out what a more “authentic” life would be. Sometimes I doubt whether there can be such a thing in our secular societies. Are we destined to live out selves wholly given to us by the social conditions in which we find ourselves?

Still, there must be some identity more authentic than those constructed for us by the clever manipulators who make brands and produce popular culture. At a minimum, we must fight hard against those influences, for if we do not we will end up as mere cyphers.

Creating the illusion of independence is the most potent tool of the contemporary advertisers’ trade, but the irony is generally lost because most people are too busy congratulating themselves on “being their own person”. The essential ideology of modern consumerism is that we can all live freely and independently.

This is an idea that emerged from the marriage of modern consumerism and the ideology of the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. We now hear it expressed in inane phrases such as “be true to yourself” and “you are responsible for your own happiness”. So instead of pledging allegiance to God, nowadays a Girl Guide promises to be “true to myself”, a vapid pledge that nevertheless resonates with the inherent nihilism of individualised societies.

In Australia over the past 13 or 14 years we have engaged in a national conversation about happiness and how to get it. This was in large part stimulated by the work of my former colleagues and I at the Australia Institute, building on the work of Richard Eckersley.

When parents spend more time in traffic than playing with their children, is it worth it?

From the early 2000s we asked whether national wellbeing was rising along with rates of economic growth. We found that the answer was “no”. We built the Genuine Progress Indicator as a substitute for GDP.

We showed how advertisers were persuading us to go into debt and how they were increasingly targeting children. We pointed to an epidemic of overwork and estimated that one-third of Sydney fathers spend more time in their cars commuting than at home playing with their children. We measured the value of stuff that we buy and then throw out unused (billions of dollars worth).

We discovered a deep vein of discontent, with oppressive levels of debt, marriages under stress, overwork leading to illness and depression, children being neglected and a pervasive anomie. And then we uncovered the reaction against it all by describing the remarkably large numbers who had decided to downshift – that is, to voluntarily reduce their incomes and consumption in order to take back some control over their lives.

For a time we had some success, but then something happened. The 2008 global financial crisis brought to a sudden end the zeitgeist and the happiness debate that was part of it. The crash was the direct result of excessive consumption, unsustainable debt and the industries that made them possible; in other words, everything we had criticised.

I always saw the happiness debate we triggered as no more than a prelude to the real task of opening people to an examination of some deeper sense of meaning in their lives, and to precipitate reflection on the moral basis and behavioural structure of our society.

Yet here we are, in the embryonic stages of the next consumer boom, with no collective lessons learned from the last one.

This article is based on an essay in the collection On Happiness: New Ideas for the Twenty-First Century (UWA Publishing, June 2015).

The Conversation

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

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

Forget ‘saving the Earth’ – it’s an angry beast that we’ve awoken

28 05 2014

The Conversation


Clive Hamilton

Clive Hamilton

Article by Clive Hamilton, Vice Chancellor’s Chair, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University

Originally published here.

Extreme fire is part of life in places like San Diego, USA, pictured earlier this month. But local fire captain Richard Cordova says it’s “very odd for the month of May to have these types of fires”. Michael Nelson/EPA

Environmentalism is undergoing a radical transformation. New science has shown how long-held notions about trying to “save the planet” and preserve the life we have today no longer apply.

Instead, a growing chorus of senior scientists refer to the Earth with metaphors such as “the wakened giant” and “the ornery beast”, a planet that is “fighting back” and seeking “revenge”, and a new era of “angry summers” and “death spirals”.

Whether you consider yourself to be an environmentalist or not, the warnings from Earth system science have far-reaching implications for us all.

Nature fights back

In its early days, the science of ecology showed how easily complex ecosystems could be degraded and species obliterated. In 1962, by observing the damage to humans and nature caused by factories and industrial agriculture, Rachel Carson in Silent Spring presented nature as highly vulnerable to destruction by the power of synthetic chemicals.

The early view of nature as fragile, that is, easily disrupted and unable to repair itself, has been tempered somewhat by evidence that many ecosystems are more resilient and can adapt to new circumstances.

But whether fragile or robust, the Earth has been understood as unresponsive, neutral and essentially benign.

This understanding has various expressions, including “Mother Earth” as nurturing, feminine and easily damaged entity. The notion of living harmoniously with nature took hold, inspired by images of pre-industrial peoples living close to the natural world.

Underlying these conceptions is a view that, while humans can cause a great deal of damage, nature is passive and always our victim.

Yet now we see that the planet has been disturbed from its resting state, jolted out of the providential era of climatic stability characteristic of the last 10,000 years, and is now on a new and largely uncontrollable path that is creating conditions dangerous for human life.

Seeing the bigger picture

The rise of Earth system science – which has brought together many different fields of science so that we can better understand how the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land and other systems work together – has changed the way we see the world.

Now, the Earth is understood as a dynamic system with strong feedback effects, which can suddenly shift it to a new state when critical points are crossed.

So profound has been the influence of humans that scientists have proposed that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene or the Age of Humans, 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”.

NASA explains the basics of Earth systems science.


As Earth scientist James Syvitski writes:

At some point, we graduated from adapting to our environment to making it adapt to us … But now we regularly decelerate and accelerate natural processes, focus energy in extraordinary ways and alter, destroy or create ecosystems.

That means we must no longer see the Earth as the submissive repository for supplying our resources or taking our wastes, nor as the docile victim of our rapacity or carelessness.

This newer understanding of the Earth has been vividly expressed by palaeoclimatologist Wally Broecker:

The palaeoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth’s climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges.

When the Earth is understood this way, the task of environmentalism can no longer be to “save” or preserve the planet, for the planet we wanted to save has already become something else. Our task now is to do what we can to pacify, or at least not aggravate further, something vastly more powerful than we are.

If we have wakened the slumbering beast by poking and prodding it, the prudent course is firstly to stop. But we cannot put it back to sleep.

There is no return to the peaceful conditions of the Holocene, at least not for thousands of years; but to provoke it further, as we still are, is foolishness on an epic scale.

Respect, not love

Yes, the Earth still demands our respect, but it is a respect founded on trepidation rather than love. If we are inclined to think of the planet as Gaia, we would do better to regard it not as the all-loving, all-nurturing Mother Earth of the romantics, but more like the half-crazed, bloodthirsty and vindictive goddess of the original Greek tales.

Some like French philosopher Michel Serres have argued we must negotiate a new contract with nature. Under the terms of this natural contract humanity would reject mastery “in favour of admiring attention, reciprocity, contemplation, and respect”. The contract would grant nature rights and make reparations.

Twenty years ago, that kind of thinking seemed to make sense. But today we must ask whether the Earth, roused from its slumber, is in any mood to sign a contract with us.

Earth system science now teaches us that the planet to which we might have hoped to graciously offer a peace deal – the receptive, predictable object of our exploitation and neglect – existed only in our imaginations.

The Earth does not want our love. Instead of talking restitution, would we perhaps be wiser to be preparing for retribution?

This article is based on a speech at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Requiem for a Species

20 01 2014

Dave Pollard

Dave Pollard

Another top post from Dave Pollard whom I still read even when travelling……..  sometimes I think reading people like Dave is the only way I stay sane.

Originally posted here……

I‘ve added professor Clive Hamilton’s new book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change to my “Save the World Reading List” (retroactively). It’s the natural next step after the 15 essential readings and really sums up where we (our species and our planet) are now.

Clive starts out by saying what climate scientists know but are afraid to say:

Over the last five years, almost every advance in climate science has painted a more disturbing picture of the future. The reluctant conclusion of the most eminent climate scientists is that the world is now on the path to a very unpleasant future and it is too late to stop it. Behind the facade of scientific detachment, the climate scientists themselves now evince a mood of barely suppressed panic. No one is willing to say publicly what the climate science is telling us: that we can no longer prevent global warming that will this century bring about a radically transformed world that is much more hostile to the survival and flourishing of life. This is no longer an expectation of what might happen if we do not act soon; this will happen, even if the most optimistic assessment of how the world might respond to the climate disruption is validated.

In the first four chapters, he reviews the science of climate change (including the methane release and other positive feedback loops that auto-accelerate greenhouse gases), explains why we have passed the tipping point, why we (and our politicians) want growth to continue forever, how our consumerist culture has evolved, why we’re prone to believe greenwashing, the psychology of denial, and the inevitability of the emergence of dangerous, corporatist-funded “junk science”.

Chapter 5 describes the civilized human’s disconnection from nature that has allowed all of this to happen. Clive explains the malleability of our mental constructs of reality, self, and belonging and how they (we) have changed our worldview. (The chapter includes a fascinating and succinct statement of the Gaia Hypothesis written by Plato in the 4th century BCE!)

In Chapter 6, he deconstructs the discredited ‘fixes’ to global warming: carbon capture, the switch to renewables, substituting nuclear energy, and the use of climate engineering (geoengineering). I think he underestimates the perils of nuclear energy (not only the massive cost of reactors and how they would bankrupt our already-overstretched economy, but the challenge to post-civilization societies of preventing, for the next million years, the last century’s human-made radioactive wastes from causing even greater devastation for millennia to come). But otherwise this examination of proposed fixes is a good update to George Monbiot’s Heat. Chapter 6 includes an interesting and terrifying review of the politics of geoengineering, focused on the deranged proposals of right-wing darlings Edward Teller and Lowell Wood, that leads to the horrific conclusion that, because it’s so inexpensive and tempting to desperate, arrogant people, unilateral geoengineering efforts are not only likely, but probably inevitable.

In Chapter 7, Clive explains what we can expect, based on the latest projections, when runaway climate change hits us full-bore over the next few decades:

  • the uncontrollable burning of most of the world’s remaining tropical, subtropical and temperate forests due to latent heat
  • the prevalence of desertification, disappearance of glacial melt, massive water shortages and endemic high rates of heat-related deaths in the world’s temperate zones (including the Western US and Canada; worst in Southern Europe, the Middle East, much Southeast Asia and most of Mexico and Central America)
  • an ice-free world, with a commensurate rise, sooner or later, of 50-70m in sea levels
  • unprecedented and chronic floods, storms and monsoons
  • the death of almost all ocean life
  • large-scale collapse of human infrastructure not designed for such extreme and frequent weather events
  • massive numbers of climate change refugees, migrating (mostly north) thousands of miles in search of lands that are still habitable and arable

He dismisses human plans for resilience and adaptation in the face of such catastrophic (and specifically unpredictable) events, and says instead we must prepare for “a process of continuous transformation” of the way we live — societies and cultures in a constants state of rapid flux. He confesses:

It was only in September 2008, after reading a number of new books, reports and scientific papers, that I finally allowed myself to make the shift and admit that we simply are not going to act with anything like the urgency required… The climate crisis for the human species is now an existential one. On one level I felt relief: relief at finally admitting what my rational brain had been telling me; relief at no longer having to spend energy on false hopes; and relief at being able to let go of some anger at the politicians, business executives and climate sceptics who are largely responsible for delaying action against global warming until it became too late…

We [now] have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change. The Earth’s climate [will now] enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings [will] still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point. One thing seems certain: there will be far fewer of us.

The final chapter on “what to do” focuses largely on learning to accept and deal with grief and loss. Clive explains:

For those who confront the facts and emotional meaning of climate change, the [death we mourn] is the loss of the future. [Our grief] is often marked by shock and disbelief, followed by… anger, anxiety, longing, depression, and emptiness [which we suppress through] numbness, pretence that the loss has not occurred, aggression directed at those seen as responsible, and self-blame… [Denial and avoidance are] defences against the feelings of despair that the climate science rationally entails…

Healthy grieving requires a gradual ‘withdrawal of emotional investment in the hopes, dreams and expectations of the future’ on which our life has been constructed. [But] after detaching from the old future [it is our nature to] construct and attach to a new future. Yet we cannot build a new conception of the future until we allow the old one to die, and Joanna Macy reminds us that we need to have the courage to allow ourselves to [first] descend into hopelessness.

conception of art after the collapse of civilization culture by afterculture

This is the reason, I think, why I am now driven to write upbeat imaginative stories set several millennia in the future, once the crisis has passed. It is easier and perhaps healthier to see the coming collapse not as the end of something, but as a period of disequilibrium, a challenge, that we must endure in order that our descendants can live in a much better society than the one we live in today. It’s an attitude of willingness for self-sacrifice that many of our ancestors shared.

Clive goes on to explain how the loss of our future brings about a loss of meaning, and so we have to create a new story about ourselves and our purpose.

He suggests that we will reach the point at which, as much as we respect the law, we will have a moral obligation to ignore it, to mitigate or at least briefly delay the onset of runaway climate change through illegal actions. As I have written lately, I think that is a matter both of personal conscience and personal worldview: I have come to appreciate, through my study of complex systems, that such actions, useful as they may be in achieving short-term benefits for those we care about, will ultimately have no long-term effect, and they entail considerable personal risk as our surveillance society anticipates and ramps up efforts to suppress such actions ruthlessly. But I also appreciate and admire those willing to fight the system despite those personal risks and its ultimate futility.

I come back to the four safer actions we can take now to prepare, I think, for the convulsive period ahead:

  • Live an exemplary, joyful, present life: Be a model of living in the present, joyously, every day, living a life that’s aware, generous, responsible, sustainable and full of learning, wonder and love. Rather than dwell on the future or the past or what could have been done or is going to happen, focus on making the world better for yourself and those immediately around you now. Perform what Adam Gopnik calls “a thousand small sanities“. Seek to exemplify what Richard Holloway calls “an attitude of contemplative gratitude“.
  • Re-learn essential skills and knowledge that will make you and your community more self-sufficient and resilient when centralized global systems — governments, big corporations, trade, industrial agriculture, energy etc. — fall apart. Learn to make clothes, or to grow your own food organically, or how to mentor a student to learn how to learn, or how to facilitate a group to work more effectively together. And learn more about yourself as well — how to make yourself well, what triggers you or frightens you (and why), what you do really well, and what you really care about.
  • Discover your neighbours and connect with them, and learn how to build and live in community, where sharing is more important than owning. Learn how to care about, and even love, people you really don’t like very much. When hierarchies collapse, what we’ll be left with is community. Get to know yours.
  • Work with others to help them, and you, to heal from the damage this culture has already done to us, physically and emotionally, and to cope with the fear, the guilt and the grief we all start to feel when we realize what we have done to this planet, with the best of intentions, and what we’re going to face as a consequence.

IPCC report will make no difference in culture of denial

28 09 2013

A guest post by Clive Hamilton, Vice Chancellor’s Chair, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University

This week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report will be compendious, cautious, thorough and as authoritative as a scientific report can be. But it will not make much difference.

Clive Hamilton

In the world we used to live in, the one in which the ideal of scientific knowledge held true, the report would give a further boost to an already valiant world effort to shift rapidly away from fossil fuels. It would give hope that we could head off the catastrophes of a hot planet.

But we no longer live in that world (otherwise known as the Enlightenment), the one in which we thought of ourselves as rational creatures who gather evidence, evaluate it, then act to protect our interests.

While the IPCC must continue to tell those who are listening what the science is saying, it ought to be obvious to any careful observer that the debate over climate change is not about the science.

Of course the deniers, who are out in force attempting to spike the IPCC report before it appears, must pretend that it is about the science, because to admit that they are on an ideological crusade would undermine their own position. Yet it is the weapon they hide that is most powerful.

Those who believe that more scientific facts will win the day cleave to the “information deficit” model of classical science. This says people act irrationally because their knowledge is deficient. Yet facts are no match against deeply held values, the values embedded in personal identity.

The debate has not been about the science since the early to mid-2000s. Then, climate denial moved beyond the industry funded lobbying campaign it had been in the 1990s and became entrenched in the new right-wing populist movement. This was represented by the Tea Party in the United States, and has subsequently been taken up by elements of the Liberal Party in Australia.

In the 1990s a citizen’s views on global warming were influenced mostly by attentiveness to the science. Now one can make a good guess at an American’s opinion on global warming by identifying their views on abortion, same-sex marriage and gun-control. That global warming has been made a battleground in the wider culture war is most apparent from the political and social views of those who reject climate science outright.

In the United States, among those who dismiss climate science, 76% describe themselves as “conservative” and only 3% as “liberal” (with the rest “moderate”). They overwhelmingly oppose redistributive policies, poverty reduction programs and business regulation. They prefer to watch Fox News and listen to liberal-loathing shock jock Rush Limbaugh.

Like those whose opinions they value, climate deniers are mostly white, male and conservative — those who feel their cultural identity most threatened by the implications of climate change.

A similar division has opened up in Australia, with more conservative voters deciding they must reject climate science in order to oppose the kinds of values they see environmentalism representing. Right-wing demagogues like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones have taken up the denialist cause as a means of prosecuting their war against progressive trends in Australian society.

The same is true here in Britain where the culture warriors of the conservative press have all felt it necessary to sacrifice their faith in science in pursuit a larger ideological struggle. Even the BBC repeatedly undermines public confidence in the IPCC by “balancing” the vast authority of climate science against the cranky views of a handful of unqualified “sceptics”.

Once the debate shifted from the realm of science to the realm of culture, facts were defeated. If the science challenges the values, the values will win. The braying donkeys of the Murdoch press understand this better than those of us who naively insist on the facts.

In fact it has been shown that, once people have made up their minds, providing evidence that contradicts their beliefs can actually entrench them further, a phenomenon we see at work with the upsurge of climate denial each time the IPCC publishes a report.

We are often preoccupied with visceral fears that are grossly exaggerated, and have to use our cognitive faculties to talk ourselves out of baseless anxieties. It’s the method of cognitive behavioural therapy.

In the case of climate change it is the other way around; we must persuade ourselves to be fearful using abstract information.

At present it seems easier to mobilise people by invoking fears of higher petrol and electricity prices due to carbon abatement policies than it is to persuade people to fear the vastly greater harms expected from climate disruption. We must use our cognitive faculties to take the evidence very seriously and talk ourselves into responding to something we cannot yet see. But isn’t that the essence of the Enlightenment?

So what will make a difference? When will science begin to count again? Perhaps we have evolved to respond only to immediate visible threats to our own safety, and so we are simply not programmed to react to abstract threats some way off into the future.

If so, the grim truth is that the world will give up its childish tendency to block its ears against the scientists’ unpleasant warnings only when we see large numbers of white-shrouded American bodies, the victims of climatic disasters.