Theater of Cruelty

Gentle climate revival

Rather than perpetrating shame over the damage we have done to the environment, we must awaken to a mature environmental awareness. 


Clive Hamilton is a professor of public ethics in Canberra and also a clear profile as a public intellectual in Australia and internationally. Historically, there is a close connection between the role of philosopher and public speaking; in the famous script What is enlightenment? Kant talks about using his public sense as thinking freed from self-interest – and on everyone's behalf. Public education not only involves informing, but above all, challenging people to take responsibility. Hamilton tries this in his latest book, which deals with the fate of man in the anthropocene – our new geological epoch, where man acts as a geophysical force.

For the most committed is anthropocene already a tired concept, ravaged by critical analyzes and a little faded over and over again, having been stirred up by the more sensationalists of the cultural workers. To most, however, the word sounds unfamiliar and foreign – or it has not got the right fateful sound. It seems Hamilton's goal is to sharpen the debate over the anthropocene until it becomes a rethink of one overwhelming thought: What does it mean that the further fate of the Earth has become dependent on man?

Canceled ice age. The first thing that is needed is an understanding of the basics: It is not about the simple fact that man influences nature or makes lasting interventions in flora, fauna and landscape. If we stretch and relativize the term anthropocene and making it a sign of human visible presence, we lose the shocking main message. When the geologists Crutzen and Stoermer made the term famous a few years ago, it was by showing that the geological history of the Earth is already influenced by man through the overproduction of CO2 and methane that create changes in the atmosphere. The changes are large enough to be read in the geological climate curves spanning tens of thousands, yes, hundreds of thousands of years. It is here, and only here, the point lies.

We have thought our planet into a new and unknown development, which among other things can result in a new and extremely unstable period, such as the one that prevailed 13 years ago, before the Holocene – the era in which the agricultural society grew. Such a climate, where extreme temperature changes can occur in a few years, simply does not provide a basis for a global civilization of our type.

We could perhaps talk about a form of cosmic crime and a similar astronomical responsibility.

Imaginary solutions. The scale of human influence becomes particularly clear when in recent years it has become known that two coming ice ages which, given the Earth's climatic rhythm, should be on their way in 56 and 000 years respectively will probably not be any of – due to the last hundred emissions of greenhouse gases over the years. In a much shorter perspective, it may be a matter of a complete melting of the polar ice, with an increase in sea level of up to 137 meters.

Since the scenarios are so wild and the perspectives so enormous, it is easy to experience the whole situation with a science fiction approach. This can be useful for imagining a distant future, but becomes a problem when science also understands itself in the light of science fiction – and launches technological solutions that become a kind of comforting daydream. Some fantasize about ensuring human survival by leaving the planet and establishing colonies elsewhere. As early as 1958, Hannah Arendt warned against this type of alienating flight from Earth, which is and will be the home of humans. Those who resort to the second solution, influencing climate systems using technology, make the opposite mistake when they end up seeing our earthly home as a property that we can freely reconstruct.

Moral absolutes. The questions related to a so-called geoengineering has Clive Hamilton covered thoroughly in his previous book Earthmasters – Playing God with the Climate (2013). If the engineers' proposals are speculative, the policy is very real: Governments and oil companies, think tanks and inventors are already competing for the most effective proposals, from solar panels and simulated volcanic eruptions to fertilizing the sea and ice pumps in the Arctic. The realpolitik interests behind an "eco-modernist" techno-fix are obvious: we can move on with the same form of society while suppressing the symptoms.

With this, the climate problem appears neither as moral nor fateful, but rather as a technical challenge that awaits a solution that will soon be available. With uncompromising clarity, Hamilton says "no" to what he sees as a technological escape from reality – and the reasons are philosophical, technical, political and moral.

Utopian and apathetic. We cannot escape responsibility by making the problem technical, but the collective moral responsibility is also difficult to place at all, since the trampling is so enormous. Kantian concepts about moral injustice becomes a little too lever when we are to denote the wrong by destabilizing the only known planet with life in the universe. We could perhaps talk about a form of cosmic crime and a similar astronomical responsibility. Nevertheless, the situation is not hopeless: the necessary changes of civilization are both known and within reach – they include the demolition of livestock, afforestation, protection of ecosystems and conversion to green energy sources. The rest is a matter of political will.

The climate crisis contains no alluring utopia of the kind we have dreamed of since the Enlightenment, in the form of growth, progress and perfection.

In a hurry. Clive Hamilton argues convincingly that the anthropocene holds the seeds for a worthy total narrative. Rather than perish with shame over the damage we have done to the environment, we must wake up to a mature environmental awareness. Realistically, Hamilton estimates that the basic insight behind the anthropocene paradigm is of the type that usually takes several generations to say.

Since we do not have that much time, it makes sense to repeat, sharpen and reinforce the message in the concept anthropocene, so that it can gain a place in the center of culture's self-understanding. The climate crisis contains no alluring utopia of the kind we have dreamed of since the Enlightenment, in the form of growth, progress and perfection. A climatic awakening and an ability for mature self-help still resonate with Kant's Enlightenment proverb Saper hears! – "Dare to know!"

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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