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Review of books

May 2010
spiked review of books
Bring on the locusts!

Tim Black

Bring on the locusts!

Clive Hamilton’s depressing new book makes explicit the Biblical idea that underpins environmentalism: that human beings shall be punished by floods and fire for their hubris.

‘Cheer up, kiddo, it might never happen.’

This is not a sentiment with which Clive Hamilton is likely to have much truck. And that’s not just because Hamilton, as a fiftysomething professor of public ethics at the Australian National University, would resent being called kiddo. It’s because he can see it is already too late. It has happened. For Hamilton, you see, the world in which we have lived too comfortably, too complacently, unduly secure in our mastery of nature and unjustifiably confident in our ability to overcome that which discomforts us… well, this world will soon be no more. Its condition is terminal. While it might look okay on its subtly warming surface, all that we – as grasping, clawing moderns – have created, from our dirty, growth-obsessed economies to our dirty, consumption-obsessed lifestyles; all of this will see us off. Inexorably and Finally.

Hamilton’s postcard from the apocalypse, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, begins, predictably enough, with The Science. But, as opposed to environmentalists of a more hopeful bent, his particular set of climate forecasts is not designed to show us why we must change our ways; it’s designed to show us why our ways already mean it is too late to change. To his pessimism of the intellect he adds an enormous dose of pessimism of the will. Which would be entertaining if he didn’t take himself so seriously.

So, just to show why worst-case climate change is virtually unavoidable, he looks at what he calls the optimistic scenario. Let’s say that by 2020, deforestation will have stopped, emissions of greenhouse gases will have been halved, and global CO2 emissions will just have peaked before they begin falling by three per cent a year for a few decades. Unfortunately, such a good-case scenario would still see greenhouse emissions rise to 650ppm by 2020, a rise which would sail past the tipping points, setting in motion immeasurably complex feedback processes, and leading to at least a four-degree Celsius warming by 2100. Or as Hamilton enthusiastically puts it: ‘The Earth’s climate would enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually re-establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings would still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point.’ And, he chirrups triumphantly, he hasn’t even taken into account the effect of aerosols! Ha, screw you, optimism!

Though he starts out stat-heavy, Hamilton’s not really interested in The Science itself. His main focus is why humanity, given all that he asserts we know of our End-of-Cold-Days future, has singularly failed to do very much to avert it. In fact, as Hamilton informs us, since 2001, global greenhouse gas emissions have actually been rising by three per cent each year. What follows, then, takes the form of a jeremiad against modern society, against what he sees as our Enlightenment-inspired delusions. ‘Humanity’s determination to transform the planet for its own material benefit is now backfiring on us in the most spectacular way’, he writes, ‘so that the climate crisis for the human species is now an existential one’.

Yet the strange thing about Requiem for a Species, despite being titillated by the idea of future hardship for millions of people, is that it actually believes itself to be a radical book. In other words, armed with forecasts of catastrophic climate change, Hamilton is able morally to denounce modern society. Climate change is almost little more than a prop here, a means for him to take the side of the Earth against its hubristic wannabe Lords. His criticism of growth fetishism is typical of this strategy. Westerners, he argues, have for too long invested ‘supernatural powers in material goods, and are convinced that acquisition of a sufficient number of them will bring about paradise on Earth’. But, as climate change will show, this obsession with economic growth, this myopic focus on the production and consumption of more and more stuff, is wrong. It will expose our ‘hubris’, to use the word which is never too far from an environmentalist’s lips; it will make a mockery of our view of ‘the Earth’s resources as infinite and [our belief] that humans have a right to exploit them without restraint for [our] own benefit.’ For it is this attitude, says Hamilton, that ‘lies at the heart of the climate crisis’.

But this often anti-capitalist posing is no friend of the people. Rather, what emerges from the misanthropic wreckage of Requiem for a Species is a distaste for the aspirations not just of CEOs or their cohorts in the political class, but of ordinary people, too. And no wonder. Because we are what really sticks in Hamilton’s craw. It just doesn’t add up for Hamilton: why do the vast majority of the world’s population not act on the moral lesson? Why do we continue to live in a state of ‘casual denial’? Why ‘for most US citizens [does] concern about climate change… not run deep?’. After all, ‘the strageies routinely used by the public to avoid or downplay the scientific warnings have been a [...] powerful factor in the reluctance of governments to do what is needed’.

Hamilton is titillated by the idea of future hardship for millions of people

Hamilton is incredulous. A firm judgement – of our lifestyles, our outlook, our ideas – is writ large in climate change, yet we either don’t see it, or we’re too mesmerised by the size of our plasma TVs to care. In fact, Hamilton goes further when discussing the strains of ‘denialism’ dragging us headlong into our scorched future. According to the Inquisitorial Hamilton, those who do not accept The Science and act accordingly are psychologically maladjusted: they are ‘bulverisers’, they are ‘cognitively dissonant’. What he can’t grasp - and this drives him to see insanity everywhere - is why anyone might disagree with him (in this context, he namechecks spiked editor Brendan O’Neill and sociologist Frank Furedi). Here are The Facts, he is saying, and you either accept them or you are mad.

Yet lots of people do disagree with Hamilton; lots of people do not want to sign up to his impoverished view of the future. But this is not because they are mentally deranged; it’s because they don’t agree with Hamilton’s vision of society, his dream of the not-so-good life - in short, his moral and political vision. 

But Hamilton is not having any of it. There is no room for a moral and political contest; it is too late for that. For the Gaia-like Hamilton, humanity is simply deluded. That is, ‘despite our pretensions to rationality, scientific facts are fighting against more powerful forces’. Chief among these ‘powerful forces’ is our desire to consume. We do this, he argues, no longer simply as a way of satisfying our needs but in order to express ourselves, to assert our status. We have ended up seeking selfhood in Selfridges and solace in Sainsbury’s. It doesn’t matter that advertising and branding promises so much, yet the products deliver so little. This dissatisfaction simply encourages us to buy more and more stuff. This ‘consumer self’, this willing dupe, is why, despite The Science, we keep fuelling the economy’s ecologically indifferent growth. With a note of pity, Hamilton remarks: ‘Ordinary people may at times question the wisdom of relentless growth and conclude that it cannot go on forever, yet they are soon bounced out of their subversive reverie by the inducements to go shopping. The system has created the type of people who are perfectly suited to what it needs: unending expansion.’

What’s worse for Hamilton, is that this most sinister of modern social types – the shopper – has also appeared in that most populous, and potentially most polluting of countries, China. Not even the disciplined, production-oriented outlook of the Chinese Communist Party could ‘counter the lure of consumption among deprived people’. And not even that clause gave Hamilton pause for thought. No, for him, our desire to consume, to acquire things we want, luxury or not, is irrational and blinding.

Given our collective reluctance to face up to truth, our ‘casual denialism’ as Hamilton calls it, there has to be something to sustain his all-encompassing pessimism. And luckily for manically depressed readers, he finds it: ‘The only good news is provided by the global recession, which may provide a couple of years of breathing space.’ Sadly, he feels that is all it will be: breathing space. Once the economies pick up, we’ll carry on shopping and carry on denying all the way into the flooded, scorched future.

And no doubt Hamilton thinks it will serve us right, too, bloody upstarts that we are. For he longs for a time when people knew their place. Which, given his aversion to post-Enlightenment society and culture, makes sense. Vive le anciens!

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change, by Clive Hamilton, is published by Earthscan. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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