Blog article

Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, by Clive Hamilton

Chris Robertson, March 2018

This is a fascinating, deep and powerful book written by an author who has been pondering the fate of our planet for over two decades. His brilliant and challenging earlier book, Requiem for a Species, confronted how climate scepticism had grown in the politics of American right and the terrifying dangers of allowing the current obsession with growth and consumerism to remain untrammelled. With the increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists that earlier predictions had been too conservative, his bleak challenges now seem all the more apposite.

His new book is still a challenge but of a different order, still political but less geopolitics and more polis of geology. His first two chapters set out the nature of the Anthropocene and with great lucidity clarify what it is and what is not. A major point is that the advent of the Anthropocene marks a rupture in human and planetary history. This is a rupture, from which there is no remedial action, as the impact of carbon effluence of human technology will last for thousands of years. The intersection of human and geological processes, two previously very separate vectors, throws humans onto a planetary plane of action and responsibility. It is only through the advent of an integrative meta-science of the whole planet understood as a unified complex system that we have a new appreciation of the Earth as what Hamilton calls ‘a new Object’. The Earth’s ecosystems will not simply rebalance themselves as in the Holocene but requires a huge leap in human participation in cooperating with the planet.

While humans must confront their species entitlement and take responsibility for the suffering of other species, he claims there is an ‘unbridgeable gulf between humans and the rest of creation’. (40) Considering the vast scale of human achievement (writing, cities, agriculture, medicine, mathematics & space travel), the ‘rudimentary tools, “language” and cultural products of the animal kingdom pale into insignificance’. (40)

Such claims are characteristic of a dualistic polemic that enters the narrative, presumably to counteract the deep ecologists, whom he calls posthumanists, relativizing human specialness and dominion. He argues with passion that the future of the entire planet, including many life forms, is now contingent on human power and denying this is perverse. While humans are set apart as the dominant creature, they could never master ‘such a fractious and uncontainable beast’ as the earth. (43). This latter description of the earth has moved from a scientific perspective of the ‘Earth System’ to the sort of language that projects instinctual forces onto others. Latour?

Hamilton does attempt to qualify these claims for a new anthropocentrism by making the distinction between the scientific fact that humans are the dominant animal and the normative claim that we should be masters of the earth. This confusion he claims is at the root of rejecting the scientific fact because it denies the normative claim. The problem with the entrenched (old) ‘form of anthropocentrism is a kind of disavowal, revelling in an anthropos with no higher meaning, no responsibility… without the adult understanding of obligation’ (44). The new anthropocentrism emphasises the unique responsibility humans have to protect the Earth and avoid dangerous disruption of the Earth System.

One obvious problem with the abstraction of humanity is to whom he refers. The technological powers that make humanity so dominant belong with the industrialised north. Hamilton argues that the carbon emissions of China and India will soon surpass that of the north and that anyway the Anthropocene ‘is a is a rupture in the history of Earth as a whole, then it is also a rupture in the history of humans as a whole’. (34). These leaves open the question of how different cultures perceive this rupture and whether they are willing to recognise their part in creating it. There have been several explorations of cultures inability to change in the face of extinction including that of Jared Diamond’s Collapse but possible Jonathon Lear’s Radical Hope is the most pertinent in offering a paradigm shift in cultural values. Such a cultural transformation might enable us to recognise that the very things that modern industrial cultures value such as speed, efficiency and progress that are major factors in catalysing the instability and upheaves of our Holocene.

Hamilton’s new anthropocentrism would be humble rather than arrogant and later in the book he amplifies this drawing on the ‘Irenaeon theodicy’. ‘So humankind was born into the world in an underdeveloped intellectual and moral state with a mission to achieve maturity by learning to live on and transform the Earth conscientiously. Maturity could only become possible once we had our freedom, once the world had come of age, for whatever path we take must be freely chosen.’ (124)

What seems to be missing is any account of what the path to this maturity might look like. He both emphasises taking responsibility for human powers as a critical factor but doubts that humans have any ethical resources to draw on, thus making appeals to responsibility without substance. The radical nature of the rupture of the Anthropocene means that humans have no certainties to lean on.

Sally Weintrobe suggests in the New Imagination

One strand of the New Imagination is very new historically because only now, with scientific and technological advances and satellite pictures, can we more fully appreciate Earth in her otherness, her majesty and also as fragile and with limits. We now can see that she comprises complex interconnecting dynamic systems that support life. All this enables us to love her more fully and in a more mature way, and be very concerned when we see her damaged. The New Imagination helps us face our true dependency on and indebtedness to the earth.

Such concern and remorse for damaging our Earth are fundamental to learning from our terrible ‘mistakes’ and revising those habits of thought that are based on a Cartesian dualism that denies agency to other beings while claiming it as a human prerogative. Hamilton initially draws on the work of Philip Desola in Beyond Nature and Culture to systemize different ways of seeing the world and types of agency for instance Western Naturalism, Amazonian animism and Australian totemism. While acknowledging that ‘certain Indigenous ontologies hold something that ought to be recovered in the new Anthropocene’ (106) the mess is not their responsibility.

Hamilton rejects any drawing on indigenous wisdom as a romantic return to pre-modern thought. While it may be true that any attempt to regress back to such times will be unsustainable, the wisdom of those who already knew how to live fully and within limits might be just what we need to manage such uncertainties. We can be inspired by their sophisticated cosmologies and how they manage a sustainable lifestyle, both practically as well as psychologically and spiritually.

He claims that indigenous people want the power of modern technology and don’t see their ideas as any solution. This is another problematic claim as it depends on which indigenous people you ask! Certainly many indigenous leaders have critiqued the life style of moderns as greedy, disrespectful, destructive and hubristic. They recognise our narcissism and our lostness in forever dreaming of merchandise. The rituals they offer are their own soft technology that have been developed over centuries to offer release from the dominance of the ego and its controlling demands for a safe predictable world. These processes might be just what an uncertain future requires to enable it to allow the counter-cultural qualities of vulnerability, reparation, humility and attunement. It is just such qualities that catalyse and support kinship with others (including other species) that will be necessary to survive the Anthropocene rupture of cultural continuity.

The realisation of our insecurity, our planetary precariousness, is clearly incongruous with our modern, narcissistic distemper. Latour

There is much more that could be said about such a brilliant book that confronts us with both the reality of the Anthropocene and the requirement to take responsibility for our actions not just as individuals or groups but as a species. From my perspective it is the psychological that is sadly missing from this powerful story and lucidity needs to be tempered with soft tech of relational skills.

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