CLIVE HAMILTON Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the Anthropocene. Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen
In Defiant Earth, Clive Hamilton invokes Mother Nature as the opposite of passive and fragile.
If Earth is our mother, it’s clear we’ve been very naughty children, taking advantage of her goodwill for far too long. Now it’s as though she is shooing us all off her cosy bed. She’s threatening to stop looking after us; she might even kill us. If she’s holding out her arms to us, Hamilton says, ‘it is not to embrace but to crush us’.
This book is not, as one would assume from the subtitle, an inventory of what might happen to us if the Earth System (sometimes known as Gaia) goes out of whack due to our own depredations. Rather, it makes the case for a new philosophical stance as we face the possibility that the Holocene epoch – the relatively benign climatic conditions that emerged about 11 500 years ago after the last ice age – could be coming to an end. In its place, the international union of geologists that makes such decisions is considering a proposal to declare a new epoch, the Anthropocene. The name roughly translates as ‘the age of humans’. It is not a badge of honour. The changes being wrought to Earth’s processes by the release of greenhouse gases since the industrial revolution are creating climatic conditions that could be inimical to human civilisation.
Hamilton’s new book brings some important ideas out of the academy to give them an airing for a more general audience, summarising radically different trains of thought with care and clarity. We may be descending into the circles of hell – humanity’s plunge into the Anthropocene may not have a happy ending – but at least we have an erudite and patient guide holding up a small light as we pick our way through the territory.
The book begins with the fact that the International Commission on Stratigraphy is now considering whether to confer official status on the Anthropocene. That human fingerprints can now be found on the changes to the conditions that that have underpinned life since the last ice age is a rupture on two levels. First, it’s a rupture in the material world ‘out there’ and secondly, it’s a rupture in our collective sense of self. We’re faced with a situation almost inconceivable only three decades ago:
Yet now we must face up to the fact that this situation, an irreversible and dangerous shift in the Earth’s trajectory, is our future and the ideas that we have inherited from the era before the break must all be open to question.
As an ethicist – he is Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Canberra – Hamilton concedes that there are few useful guidelines within traditional ethical frameworks. Framing the problem as an ethical one risks normalising an event without parallel, of ‘rendering prosaic a transition that is in fact Earth-shattering’.
If ethics cannot deal with the magnitude of the problem, then perhaps a more thoroughgoing philosophical revolution can. Hamilton calls for a new orientation towards Earth, ‘one in which we understand deeply our extraordinary power and unique responsibility’. He calls this ‘the New Anthropocentrism’.
Much of Hamilton’s book is an exploration of what this means. To tease it out, he contrasts it to positions held in the two main camps relevant to the philosophy of the Anthropocene.
In one camp you have the eco-modernisers, whose faith in technology and human progress is barely flickering in the face of the dire predictions coming out of the earth sciences. For these, the market can be depended upon to find solutions to any problems we may encounter on the way to ever-expanding affluence and personal happiness. If the atmosphere starts playing up, it’s nothing a spot of geoengineering – space reflectors, anyone? – can’t fix. At its most extreme, the eco-modernist fantasy is a seat in the space pod that takes a select few away from a dying Earth to start all over again in an unsullied corner of the universe.
Hamilton gives the eco-modernisers the short shrift they deserve. He notes that geoengineering is now getting support from the same conservative think tanks that once promoted climate-science denial, because it leaves the prevailing politico-economic system – and their own profits – unscathed.
No, the answer to failed progress is not more progress of the same kind; it must be something different, something more humble than that. More chastened.
And so we come to the motley assemblage of philosophers at the other end of the spectrum. In place of triumphant humanity, these philosophers – eco-feminists, deep greens, post-humanists, new materialists – share a pointed desire to topple Man from his pedestal. One of the exemplars of this train of thought is Donna Haraway, whose star is rising in the environmental humanities subjects now being taught in Australian universities.
In her book Staying With the Trouble she takes issue with the word Anthropocene itself, arguing that to speak of ‘human’ responsibility for climate change elides the fact that it is not humans that created it but particular humans acting within a very particular, rapacious, socio-economic system.
For Haraway, ‘it matters what thoughts we think with’ and for her, a world-view that puts humanity at the centre serves as a prop for that rapacious system. The earth is teeming with non-human critters. Like them, we are creatures of the Earth; like them, we have been awkwardly cobbled together by evolution in a process that is ongoing. We need a sensibility that sees the true agency of Nature: it is not the Other, inert and passive; like human beings, it changes and effects change. Man is not the Greatest Story Ever Told. He’s just one story in a teeming myriad of Earth stories.
Hamilton is particularly irritated by Haraway. For him, the blunt truth of the Anthropocene is that ‘in the book of life, Man is the greatest story ever told’. Haraway’s ‘ontological flattening’ of human beings with the rest of creation is a sleight of hand. The fact that Man is fiddling with the levers of the planet itself – unintentionally, so far, but perhaps intentionally in future – is proof enough of that.
For Hamilton, any philosophical system that attempts to decentre humanity represents a failure to truly own up to the terrible power we hold in our hands. Eco-modernism will not do because it promises more of what got us into the mess in the first place, but eco-centrism will not do either, because that is shirking our human responsibility to use our power effectively.
So what does it look like on the ground, this owning up to our own terrible power? What might a follower of the New (humble) Anthropocentrism do differently to a compost-dwelling inhabitant of the Cthulucene?
Hamilton admits that, like everyone else, he doesn’t really know: ‘It’s too hard, too uncertain, too new.’ But one thing is certain: the path to the future must be a collective one. We must thrash out our ideas; we must engage; we must make the attempt. In this willingness to ‘stay with the trouble’ Hamilton arguably has something important in common with the eco-centrists who bother him.
Clive Hamilton Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the Anthropocene Allen & Unwin 2017 PB 200pp $29.99
Tracy Sorensen is journalist and author of the forthcoming novel The Lucky Galah. She is currently a PhD candidate exploring climate change communication in the School of Communication and Creative Industries at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst.
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