What has happened in the last few decades is that the Earth itself has undergone a really profound rupture in its functioning. As we go into this new geological epic, the Anthropocene, we’re not talking about a continuation of trends of environmental damage that we all know about. We’re talking about something radically different. It’s no longer the passive, stable, clement, natural world that we have become accustomed to over 10,000 years. It is now a fractious, chaotic, unpredictable, uncontrollable entity – which is defiant.
It’s a challenge not only to conventional ways of understanding the natural world as a repository of resources; it’s also a profound challenge to traditional environmentalists. Traditional environmentalists’ understanding of the Earth, to see it as a passive victim of human rape and pillage, is simply no longer true. We’re dealing now with an angry beast on the rampage, one that is, in a way, fighting back.
I think it will actually take most people a long, long time to get this, because it does fundamentally challenge how we understand the natural world. It is so profound that I think it is on a par with the arrival of modernity, or even of civilisation itself.
Rather than just destroying an ecosystem, wiping out a species, or transforming a landscape, we’ve disturbed the functioning of the Earth’s system as a whole, so much so that we have brought about a new geological epoch, from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. We’re looking at something entirely new and different, and a lot more frightening.
Both the power of humans and the power of the Earth are now operating at a higher level than ever before. Humans are now so powerful, with our technologies and the sheer scale of our activities, that we can change the geological course of the Earth as a whole. And yet, the Earth system has become more energetic, as the climate scientists say. There are more wildfires, more storms, more heatwaves, more droughts. So there’s a kind of power struggle going on.
You have to make heroic assumptions about human capacities, and the nature of the Earth system, to believe that we can use our technologies to bring this raging beast under our control. This paradox actually is, in a way, the deepest thought in the book. It took me years of thinking and working on it before I finally twigged to that.
There is a real danger that people say ‘Yes, I hear what you’re saying, but what must we do?’ Leaping to what should we do is a way of not dwelling on what we’ve really done. I want us to dwell on what we have done. This book is about stopping to think. There’s no going back to the Holocene. We can’t turn back the geological clock. We are going into an unknown and dangerous world.
So how do we deal with that, emotionally, on a day-to-day basis? We all have to. It’s hard, but there are a couple of things we shouldn’t do, and one is pretend it’s not happening. It’s kind of an understandable response – we feel powerless, helpless, and think all we can do is get on with our lives and put it out of our minds. But we, as responsible creatures, have to face up to it, because there are things we can do. We can, for example, demand that our governments act, that they actually put their foot on the accelerator to decarbonise the economy.
The other thing we ought to try to avoid is becoming trapped in the slough of despair, which is a real danger. I know people who have been there, and it’s horrible to watch. What causes me great anguish is to see young people getting caught up in that.
While it’s natural to despair when we confront the facts, humans are capable of moving beyond that and begin to act. Not denying what’s happening, but facing up to it, accommodating it, and then moving on in a way that attempts to make the best of the situation. Humans are good at that. Where we’ll end up in 20, 30, 40 or even a hundred years time, we don’t know. Those of us who are honest to the facts know that it’s not going to be a glorious utopia, but let’s hope one way or another that most of us will muddle through.
1953 Born in Canberra, Australia
1994 Founds think-tank The Australia Institute
2003 Publishes Growth Fetish
2005 Publishes Affluenza
2008 Becomes Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Canberra
2009 Made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to public debate and policy development
2010 Publishes Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change
This was published in the September 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.