In order to face the climate catastrophe, we must abandon our optimistic belief in progress, says philosopher Clive Hamilton
“You’ll recognize me by my black felt hat.” There’s no better clue for recognizing the Australian among a crowd of Berliners. Clive Hamilton has exchanged the record-breaking dryness of the Australian winter for a devilishly hot European summer. There is no escape from climate change. And anyway, the Australian philosopher is the last person who would look for an escape. In his three books on the subject (Requiem for a Species, Earthmasters and Defiant Earth) he writes that the Anthropocene man should abandon optimism and mourn his lost future, for that is the only honest way of confronting the truth. But here, on a busy square called Hackescher Markt – a popular tourist spot with plenty of restaurants, shops and galleries – doom and gloom are nowhere to be seen. We sit in a café.
Agata Kasprolewicz: Are you worried that people aren’t worried?
Clive Hamilton: The greatest fear is that people aren’t afraid, because once you open yourself up to what the climate scientists are saying, then fear about the future is the natural response. There’s a kind of interesting phenomenon, which in itself is quite disturbing. I’ve heard quite a number of older people saying: “Well, I hear what the climate scientists are saying and I believe them, but hey, I’m not going to be around, so I don’t really care.” And I think is that just a way of protecting themselves from the meaning of the scientific truth? Or do they really not care about the state of the world after they die? Actually, I heard one person saying this in the most assertive, almost celebratory way, and it was an evangelical preacher in the United States, naturally, who said that he didn’t care about global warming because he was going to heaven; that God would save him. Whatever happened after he’s gone, he didn’t care about it. In some of the more obscure corners of American evangelism, the global warming science has been caught up in this whole notion of the rapture, the end of the Earth brought about by Satan or whatever, with those who are deserving being saved and taken to heaven.
The religious people have their heaven, then. What’s left for the scientists?
Well, there’s a big problem or a kind of unspoken issue in the climate science community, and that is the psychological impact on the individual climate scientists having to cope every day with the meaning of the knowledge that they have and that they’re continuing to add to, because they can see the reality of a catastrophe unfolding. There are climate scientists in Australia and I’m sure elsewhere, who are actively making preparations for their own futures and the futures of their children, by moving to a place that the climate models show will be best prepared for life in a hot world. For me, the real impact came in 2008 when I was reading a couple of scientific papers by Kevin Anderson, a British climate scientist who did calculations about what was possible – for example, what kind of emissions reductions would be necessary in order to limit warming to two degrees. He showed that under the most plausible assumptions of the failure of strong action to cut emissions, the world was headed to an increase of four degrees, and a four-degree world is really catastrophic. It’s a completely different climatic system. Bear in mind that during the last ice age, average global temperatures were five degrees cooler than they are now. Going the other way, having the Earth four degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels, will bring about similar dramatic changes in the climate.
I remember exactly where I was when I read that note. I looked out the window and I said to myself: Oh, fuck. We’re screwed. I had to get up and go for a walk around the campus to calm down. That threw me into a deep depression combined with fear. There was only one thing for me to do, and that was to write a book. I’m lucky because I’m in a position where I can manage my fears and anxieties by writing about the issue – in other words, by alerting other people to it. Even if they ignore it, at least I’ve done something. Writing as a way of coping. Recently a farmer in Australia wrote to me and was deeply disturbed, deeply worried. He’d read my book and he said he envied me because I can write about it. All he has left is fear.
Has writing became a sort of a therapy for you?
Yes, I could kind of write the fear out of my system. It’s like when you’re feeling really unwell and you don’t know what it is, but you are worried about it, so you go to the doctor and the doctor says: “Oh, you’ve got ‘x’.” You get such a wave of relief because it’s finally been named. Naming the beast is a very powerful way of confronting the truth.
In order to name your own beast, you began asking philosophical questions. Not often do we read about climate change from such a perspective. Why did you choose this way?
We have to confront this astonishing fact that human beings as a species have become so powerful with our technology and our use of fossil fuels that we have actually changed the geological evolution of the Earth as a whole. We are a geological force. I think the arrival of the Anthropocene will be as big an event in human history – or possibly even bigger – than humans settling down and becoming agricultural creatures, or the arrival of the Enlightenment. And so I started to think: well, what does that actually mean? What does it mean for humans to become this kind of creature? What are we now?
Let’s try answering it now. Just look out of the window of the café we’re in. The street noise, the shops, the galleries, the restaurants – aren’t we witnessing the symbol of post-war optimism? The colourful, multicultural Berlin has arisen from the ashes of the material and moral downfall. Everything that happened here since the war has been a triumph of life over death. It’s interesting that for most geologists, the 1950s are also the beginning of the Anthropocene, the era in which humankind has become a destructive force for our planet. Has the time of unwavering belief in man’s capabilities also been the beginning of a disaster? What does it tell us about the modern world, if our optimism gave rise to such destruction?
It’s true that that in these seven post-war decades, we’ve been witnessing a period of extraordinary economic progress across the planet for a very large proportion of the human population. Progress is a very modern idea. It emerged in the 18th century. Initially, it was very much focused on science, technology, intellectual capacity. And it’s only in the 1970s that progress began to be thought of almost solely in economic terms. This economic explosion, the “great acceleration”, as the climate scientists and Earth system scientists call it, also coincided with our becoming a geological force. At precisely the same time and for exactly the same reasons that affluence was becoming commonplace, we were transforming the future of planet Earth for tens of thousands of years.
Does it mean that humanity’s progress has a sort of a self-destructing mechanism built into it?
A lot of environmentalist and environmental philosophers argue that point, but I don’t believe so. What I do believe is that the notion of progress inherently disregards the consequences. I don’t think it’s intrinsically destructive, but you set up a system and the people who are part of it don’t care about the destruction, about which we’ve known for a very long time. The modern environmental movement came out of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring. As for climate change, we’ve known since the 1980s – the world’s best scientists were sending warnings even back then. So we can’t claim that we didn’t know what was going to happen. We, humans, have chosen to not face up to what the scientists were and are saying, because it creates too much cognitive dissonance. It’s easier to carry on as if the scientists were not there.
Isn’t it a paradox that in a high-tech world, where science constantly surrounds us, we reject science?
We deny science that’s uncomfortable.
And we accept science that’s useful?
We saw with the appalling case of Exxon, whose own scientists in the 1970s wrote papers developing the basic propositions of global warming science. Exxon knew. And then they started to realize: Hey, this is going to radically devalue the assets on which our wealth is built. So they decided to suppress the truth in order to protect their wealth. I would say that this was a great crime that hasn’t been punished. I hope that history will punish those people by remembering what they did.
Historically it was the Church that used to be the enemy of science. And now it’s big businesses?
Today, most churches have an extremely progressive view on climate science. The Catholic Church in particular, under Pope Francis, has taken quite a radical stance, as well as major Protestant churches, although there are many evangelical churches in the United States who are bound up in right-wing politics and culture wars against environmentalism. But yes, now we see it’s not the churches that are threatened by climate science. It’s the Exxons and the coal industry. In a way more interestingly, there are also powerful right-wing ideologues and their funders, like the Koch brothers in the United States. I actually think that currently the cultural resistance to climate science is a lot more powerful than the business resistance. Climate change was drawn into the culture wars by right-wing cultural ideologues and activists in the United States. I became really worried when I saw that happen. Good science, good activism and good politics can defeat Exxon. But defeating the cultural warriors and that broad surge of right-wing politics – that is going to be exceptionally difficult.
You say that in order to really face the spectre of climate catastrophe, we must abandon all our assumptions about modernity. What does that mean?
Well, if we think about modernity, there are a couple of features of it that have been blown away by the arrival of the Anthropocene. One is the idea of endless progress. We won’t have endless progress anymore. The world will start going backwards in terms of our ability to control the environment. We’ll be devoting more and more of our resources to protecting ourselves from the impacts of a transformed world.
So the notion of the future will change. Constant struggle instead of eternal progress.
In modern times, the future has been profoundly shaped by the notion of progress. While we always expect certain interruptions and backward steps, the future is imagined as an improved version of the present. We expect technology to constantly improve our lives, to make them better in some way, easier and richer. But that notion of the future as a kind of ever-improving version of the present has to be discarded. And the sooner we discard it, the better, because we need to prepare.
Are we to let go of optimism? Doesn’t such a philosophical proposal seem dangerous to you?
When optimism becomes a lie, we have to transcend it. And if optimism is clinging to the belief that we will get through this somehow, that one way or another we will conquer this climate change and the world will go back to where it was – this is a profoundly misleading and dangerous view.
So the Anthropocene means the end of humanism understood as an optimistic ideology that has put man’s happiness and dignity above all else and has viewed man as nature’s master, as a magnificent creature of endless capabilities?
The idea that human beings, those enlightened, powerful creatures, are building a new world has become a poisoned and indeed a dangerous idea. When people say that we must be optimistic, I ask: optimistic about what?
Maybe for humans? If as a species we have enough agency to became a geological force, maybe we are capable of saving our planet? Maybe we should be optimistic about science, which is, after all, man-made?
Well, humans are really the most extraordinary creatures. This is why I depart from many of my environmental, philosophical friends who increasingly attempt to characterize humans as just another creature. There is a small industry devoted to demonstrating that apes can do everything that humans can do – language and tools, the whole box – which I think is a ridiculous thing. It’s crazy because human beings are the most astonishing creature that ever walked the Earth. When you look at the amazing scientific and cultural social achievements, it’s really astonishing. But there’s no doubt that we’re screwed. The question is whether we are totally screwed or just screwed. I hope it’s the latter. In this way, I’m an optimist.
Oh, your optimism is almost overwhelming.
I have no patience for this kind of Californian view: Hey, man, let’s look for the best and everything will be all right. It won’t be. So let’s face up to it and ask: What’s the best we can hope for? What do we have to do in order to try and get the best outcome from this situation?
You write that in order to honestly face the truth, we must first come through the grieving process.
I have. And I know a lot of people who have grieved and are still grieving, because our future died. We’ll have to give it up. It died. Climate scientists have told us that we can’t have it anymore. It’s gone and there’s going to be a different future, a much harsher one, a future in which many people and many creatures die. And so we grieve for the loss of our dreams of the future.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Introduction translated by Jan Dzierzgowski
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