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Issue 263
November/December 2010
Apostles of Beauty

Reviews

A Bleak Analysis
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Cover: Golden Ghosts by Grayson Perry. Image courtesy: Victoria Miro Gallery

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A Bleak Analysis

Predicting gloom and doom based solely on scientific ‘facts’ is missing the point, says Mike Hulme. Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change by Clive Hamilton. Earthscan, 2010. ISBN: 9781849710817.

Clive Hamilton, an Australian intellectual and former Green Party candidate, issues an impassioned call to face up to future ‘realities’: the world is on course for at least four degrees of global warming, and probably more; all efforts at mitigation are failing, and will fail; remediation by engineering the skies is more dangerous than the illness it is seeking to cure; and adaptation to rampant climate change will only be possible for the rich. It is time, he says, to expose the delusion that climate can be tamed; we must accept our fate.

This is a message of unrelenting pessimism and despair. Indeed, Hamilton calls upon his readers to do exactly this: to despair. “Despair is the natural human response to the new reality we face and to resist it is to deny the truth.” This is indeed the voice of a fundamentalist eco-prophet, mimicking the hell-fire evangelical Protestant preachers of earlier eras.

Not surprisingly, there’s something about this book that unsettles me. I agree with much of Hamilton’s critique of modernity, which he argues lies at the root of his unfolding and unstoppable climate catastrophe, but I find that I react against his belief that runaway climate change will be the catalysing catastrophe that brings final collapse and chaos to the world. Even less do I find myself wanting to follow him into the slough of despondency to grieve in sackcloth and ashes for a lost and condemned humanity.

And it is this paradox that troubles me. How can I explain the similarity (I think) of our underlying instinctive critique of modernity and the dehumanising effects of unbridled consumption and yet on the other hand the difference in our psychological moods; in particular, in our interpretation of the significance of the scientific claims about the future performance of the climate system?

This is not the first time I have encountered such disjunction in my public engagement with climate change. Some other academic colleagues with whom I have debated and argued these matters have echoed Hamilton’s position (although perhaps not with the same brutal edge). And some reviewers and commentators have criticised my own recent book-length treatment of climate change – Why We Disagree about Climate Change – for being too complacent and seeming to promote passivity. “‘How I learned to love climate change’,” they mocked.

So how do I explain this difference in perspective?

I do not doubt that human activities are now a substantial agent of change for the world’s climates, and I seem to share much of Hamilton’s diagnosis of the underlying ills of the social world. Yet why do we disagree so profoundly about our prognosis of what climate change signifies?

I think there are two axes along which Hamilton and I must be differently positioned: our attitudes to the veracity of scientific claims about future climate risks, and our attitudes to the resilience and never-ceasing creativity of humanity. I certainly believe Hamilton has too unquestioning a faith in the infallibility – ‘truthfulness’ – of science’s predictive claims about future climate risks. These claims need to be separated into two different types: possible changes in physical climates due to ongoing human activities, and possible ecological and social impacts of these possible physical changes. Yet embedded in both types of claim are deep and irreducible uncertainties.

Which brings me to the second axis along which I think Hamilton and I disagree: our view of the innovative and creative potential of collective humanity. I am not here waving a magic wand and saying that we can or will innovate our way out of all the dangers the future may hold. But equally let us not denigrate ourselves. The potential creative power of humanity is now greater than it has ever been, not just in terms of the number of human brains at work, but also in how well trained they are. There are vastly more scientists, engineers, technologists and entrepreneurs alive today than there have cumulatively been in human history, and the number is growing. The pace of innovation in fields such as synthetic biology, materials science and digital communications suggests the possibility of many new and surprising technologies which make material prophecy a bold if not foolhardy profession.

Not all these inventions will be benign, of course, and of themselves they will not address the consumption fetish and spiritual malaise both Hamilton and I agree about. I share his call – who wouldn’t? – for resourcefulness and selflessness to replace self-pity and instant gratification: “values of moderation, humility and respect, even reverence for the natural world”. These are values I recognise in Christianity and in many other world religions. But I do not think it is right or effective to use an apocalyptic vision of climate change as the foundational argument for a cultural and spiritual revolution.

I believe, then, that Hamilton is placing too much weight on the foresight of science to provide his desired revolution, rather than calling for it more honestly and directly through political, psychological or spiritual engagement. (This is an argument I develop in my own book: don’t use science to fight battles which are political and spiritual, especially blurry scientific claims which are easily hijacked and appropriated by one’s opponents.)

In the end I find Hamilton’s proposed response to his picture of approaching catastrophe – Despair, Accept, Act – unconvincing. He calls on us to deliberately and consciously give up hope for the future, and embark on the cycle of grieving and reorientation. This is a big ask for an individual, let alone an entire species.

Hamilton admits he found his concluding chapter difficult to write and maybe this is why his positive vision seems rather threadbare. It seems to amount to a call for the radicalisation of democracy and civil (even violent?) disobedience against the interests of the oil and coal barons. We need “the mobilisation of a mass movement to build a countervailing power to the elites and corporations that have captured government”.

The analysis Hamilton offers also has similarities with The Dark Mountain Project, which I have seen described as “a new cultural movement for an age of global disruption”. Dark Mountain founders Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine have been criticised (by George Monbiot among others) for giving up too soon on humanity. It is nevertheless rare to find such a gloomy, pessimistic reading of the future of humanity as is offered by Hamilton, and I am not convinced this bleak cultural analysis would be shared in some of the non-Western cultures which still see an optimistic purpose to development.

I think Hamilton is right about many of the blind and dehumanising pathways along which our modernist project is leading us. But I don’t think you can reach this conclusion from the pages of IPCC reports and climate science journals in the way this author seems to be suggesting. Claiming that this is what the scientific climate forecasts really tell us is missing the point, although I fear that Hamilton would think I, too, am ‘resisting the truth’.

Mike Hulme is Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia and the author of Why We Disagree about Climate Change. www.mikehulme.org

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