Clive Hamilton: author and public intellectual on climate change

Clive Hamilton: author and public intellectual on climate change Sam Cooper
11 Sep
2017
Clive Hamilton is an Australian author and Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra. His latest book is ‘Defiant Earth’, an analysis of the Anthropocene

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.

 

CV

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

Defiant Earth is on sale now. For more information about Clive Hamilton, visit clivehamilton.com

This was published in the September 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PEOPLE...

Development

A global boom in battery usage over the coming century…

I’m a Geographer

Prafulla Samantra led a 12-year legal battle against the Indian government’s…

Explorers

A selection of in-depth workshops at the RGS-IBG's Explore 2017…

Explorers

Earlier this year, a group of packrafters set out on…

Development

China’s central government is to shut down factories and punish local…

Explorers

While travelling across the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh,…

Explorers

New evidence suggests the historic Antarctic expeditionary may have been…

I’m a Geographer

Regina ‘Gina’ Lopez, an environmental activist, former Environmental Secretary to…

Development

As the global supply of water comes under increased strain,…

I’m a Geographer

Bonita Norris is an adventurer, public speaker and television presenter, who…

Explorers

Ten women, ten days, two very different matriarchal groups. When…

I’m a Geographer

Clive Hamilton is an Australian author and Professor of Public Ethics…

Development

Cambodia has stopped selling its sand overseas, a move that…

Explorers

Charles Stevens explores the landscape, history and peoples of the…

I’m a Geographer

Rodrigue Katembo risked his life to expose the corruption behind illegal…

Cultures

Of the approximately 7,000 languages thought to be alive, the…

Cultures

After years of debate, the German alphabet has got a…

I’m a Geographer

Kerstin Forsberg is the director of Planeta Océano, a marine…

Explorers

Conrad Humphreys was recently part of the team that re-created…

Cultures

Traditional crafts and cultural tourism are visible symbols of the…