Monday, May 8, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“DEFIANT EARTH – The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene” by Clive Hamilton (Allen and Unwin, $NZ 32:99)

            Defiant Earth is a polemic. Experience tells me that polemics come in two varieties. First, there are the polemics that argue passionately for something. Then there are the polemics that spend most of their time demolishing other people’s arguments.

            Clive Hamilton, says the blurb, is Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University in Australia. As a seasoned controversialist, he has written three previous books about the dangers of unfettered humam freedom (The Freedom Paradox), the potential sefl-destructiveness of the human species (Requiem for a Species) and the folly of worshipping economic growth as an end in itself (Growth Fetish).

            In Defiant Earth he defends the concept of the Anthropocene and argues that human beings must take on the responsibility for dealing with it or coping with it. But how we are to do this is left vague. Most of Hamilton’s polemic is taken up with countering arguments against the concept of the Anthropocene, and demolishing the logic and philosophic premises of their proponents. In other words, this is a “clearing-away-the-rubbish” polemic. It is not a polemic that details a spcific plan of action.

So what is the Anthropocene?

Says Hamilton:

“…the Anthropocene concept would not have been possible without the emergence of Earth System science in the 1980s and 1990s as a way of understanding the novel role of humankind in the Earth System…” (Chapter 1 p.17)

The term refers to the unique, lasting and specifically human impact on the natural structures and systems of the Earth. It was first devised in 2000 by the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen. He proposed that  “Anthropocene” be added to the official  Geological Time Scale, coming after the Holocene (the last 10,000-or-so years of more-or-less stable climate). The term, as Hamilton makes clear, does not refer to a superficial human impact on the Earth’s surface alone, but on the whole Earth System. With carbon emissions, and the residue of nuclear explosions now imprinted in the geological record, the Earth’s oceans are more acidic and anthropogenic global warming is underway. Hamilton’s purpose in this book is to take issue with those who do not realise the totality of this human distortion of nature, or who put their trust in arguments that will have no real impact on the situation.

In his introduction, he makes clear his scepticism of social sciences, which now have a tendency to talk about human perceptions rather than dealing with objective physical realities:

The ‘humans only’ orientation of the social sciences and humanities is reinforced in ‘mediatized’ societies where total absorption in representations of reality derived from various forms of media encourages us to view the ecological crisis as a spectacle that takes place outsdie the bubble of our existence.” (Introduction p.viii)

He also sets himself up as an opponent of Enlightenment thinking and what has traditionally been regarded as humanism:

“…the forces we hoped would make the world a more civilized place – personal freedoms, democracy, material advance, technological progress – are in truth paving the way to destruction.” (Introduction p.xi)

Hamilton’s first major axiom is that human beings do indeed have to be seen as unique, and it is only when our uniqueness is recognised that we can accept our responsibility for doing something about the global damage our species has done. We are now part of the fabric of the Earth and its functioning, and human history can no longer be separated from natural history. We are part of the nature we have defiled, and its reaction to us is as an equal. We are no longer the Cartesian subject with nature as the object. Our conceptions of free will break down in the face of the necessity imposed on us by nature. To some people, this concept is daunting or heretical:

 “An understanding of an independent human history became the foundation of all modern social sciences, so the convergence – or better the collision – of human and Earth histories in the Anthropocene kindles the suspicion that all social sciences and their philosophical foundations have been built on an understanding of the historical process that is no longer defensible.” (Chapter 1 p.8)

Hamilton is making it absolutely clear that the sort of anthropocentrism he is advocating in not the sort that makes us “masters” of nature, or assumes that other species are simply there for our use and exploitation. He notes the repeated attempts among many more sentimental ecologists to see human beings as simply one species among others, as when we are told that we share 98.8 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees. But, he remarks:

Although these attempts to cut humans down to size are well motivated, aimed as they often have been at countering the unending violence committed  against other creatures by humans inured to the suffering of others or possessed by a sense of species entitlement, there is always something desperate about arguments that equate human beings with chimps, dolphins and dogs when on any measure the unbridgeable gulf between humans and the rest of creation is blindingly obvious.” (Chapter 2 p.40)

What human beings have uniquely is intentionality and conscious responsibility for the physical condition of the Earth which we have helped to create:

The philosophical anthropocentrism I develop diverges from the anthropo-supremacism that brought us the ecological crisis; yet it also runs contrary to virtually all philosophical understandings of modern environmentalism and post-humanism.” (Chapter 2 p.49)


“…against all ethics from Kant onwards, morality is not to be found in the realm of freedom but is rooted in the realm of necessity because our duty to care for the Earth must precede all others. It belongs to us alone. We look across the unbridgeable gulf that separates us from all other beings; it is a gulf of responsibility. We have it; they don’t.” (Chapter 2 pp.52-53)

Hamilton’s next axiom is that the onset of the Anthropocene cannot be reduced to arguments about the responsibilty of one set of humanity, as opposed to another, for the permanent damage that has been done to the Earth System. Much green thought fetishises primitve societies (rainforest-dwellers etc.), as if their way of living will somehow provide a model for avoiding ecological crisis – but this ignores the fact that such people constitute at most about 0.5% per cent of humanity, and their cultures are not transportable. The Marxist argument fingers economic globalism, consumerism, Western capitalism and money-making corporations as responsible for the crisis. [See on this blog my review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything for an articulate, very informative, version of this argument.] Hamilton in no way absolves these things of blame. But he points out that Western-style indistrialisation and consumerism have been embraced enthusiastically by the “South”, as much as by the “North”, even in countries that are offically not part of the capitalist world. Globalism has not led to universal brotherhood but to universal consumerism.

China is now the world’s leading carbon-emitting country by a long way, and the average Chinese person is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the average European. Emissions from the South will soon exceed those from the North and it is likely that in a couple of decades the total historical emissions of the South will exceed those of the North.” (Chapter 3 p.80)

While “grand narratives” are anathema to historians and social scientists, Hamilton believes it is legitimate to see a “grand narrative” in the shared human responsibility for the Anthropocene.

Hamilton next attacks the “post-humanism” of many postmodernists. Cultural studies set out to cut Eurocentrism down to size. Feminism set out to cut men down to size. Queer theory set out to cut heteromormativity down to size. Now posthumanism sets out to cut humanity down to size by saying that we are merely one species among others, and that we are no more important than other species in bringing about change to our environment. Says Hamilton:

“… anti-anthopocentrism has the pervese effect of denying our responsibility for the damage we have caused…. If the Anthropocene brings a message, it is that’s its time to accept the obvious: humans stand out from nature as a whole. When Homo sapiens appeared there was within it some latent property that, when manifested, caused humans to separate from nature, while always remaining dependent on it. This natural-unnatural creature, the networked super-agent who straddles the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom, can exert enormous influence on nature, even if it cannot control it.” (Chapter 3 pp.98-99)

Next is Hamilton’s axiom that nature cannot heal itself of the damage the human species has done. In putting forward this argument, Hamilton is at odds with the Nietzschean proposition (taken up by popularisers like Will Self) that humanity is, after all, just a blip on the scale of geological time; and that were humanity to disappear, nature would simply resume its course, gradually cleanse the air of pollution and settle back into its regular rhythms. But such arguments (a.) ignore the indelible damage that humanity has already done; and (b.) are irresponsible, in that they not only belittle human uniqueness, but they assume that ultimately no human action need be taken.

As I read it, the book’s most essential message is found when Hamilton writes:

Earth and humans are still in the process of creation and our pre-eminent task is to achieve a reconciliation with the Earth at a time when we have an advanced understanding of its workings and, for good or ill, the power to change its course.” (Chapter 4 p. 124).


The struggle to learn how to live collectively on the Earth and within its limits is the way, the opportunity for humankind to find its place in the cosmos.” (Chapter 4 p. 125)

Hamilton’s last axoim is that human freedom is now constrained by the necessity of our equal partner, the nature with which we still strive. The Enlightenment myth was that freedom and reason, released from superstition, would enable us to reshape the world according to our needs. But the onset of the Anthropocene makes our rational and free choices more limited. We are not free masters of the universe. It is at this point that Hamilton takes aim at so-called “eco-engineering”, which is the belief that all our ecological and environmental problems may be solved by the application of new and improved technology. In response to suggestion that global warming could be “fixed” by treating chemically the Earth’s atmosphere, he notes the real tendency of such thought:

Rather than slashing the asset value of some of the globe’s biggest corporations, asking consumers to change their habits, or imposing unpopular taxes on petrol and coal, this form of solar geoengineering carries the implicit promise that it will protect the prevailing politico-economic system, which is why certain conservative American think tanks that for years have attacked climate science as fraudulent have endorsed geoengineering as a promising response to global warming.”  (Chapter 5, p.14)

Such thought is no way out of the crisis, and more than are daydreams about sending lucky people off in spacecraft to other worlds once the Earth no longer tolerates our species.

As a philosophical examination of the environmental crisis,  Defiant Earth is a stimulating read. But, as I said at the beginning of this notice, Hamilton provides no blueprint for our terrestrial salvation. He does establish the uniqueness of human beings, and the importance of human responsibility in the face of the Anthropocene. But the future morality he offers is simply an acceptance of “care" rather than “neglect” when it come to the fate of the Earth. For a plan of action, look elsewhere.

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