Requiem for a Species

2010•04•12 Clive Hamilton Australian National University

Sometimes facing up to the truth is just too hard. When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them. Around the world, only a few have truly faced up to the facts about global warming.

Apart from the climate “deniers”, most people do not disbelieve what the climate scientists have been saying about the calamities expected to befall us. But accepting intellectually is not the same as accepting emotionally the possibility that the world as we know it is heading for a horrible end. It’s the same with our own deaths; we all “accept” that we will die, but it is only when death is imminent that we confront the true meaning of our mortality.

Over the last five years, almost every advance in climate science has painted a more disturbing picture of the future. The reluctant conclusion of the most eminent climate scientists is that the world is now on a path to a very unpleasant future and it is too late to stop it.

Behind the facade of scientific detachment, the climate scientists themselves now evince a mood of barely suppressed panic. No one is willing to say publicly what the climate science is telling us: that we can no longer prevent global warming that will, in this century, bring about a radically transformed world that is much more hostile to the survival and flourishing of life.

Requiem for a Species is a book about the frailties of the human species, the perversity of our institutions and the psychological dispositions that have set us on a self-destructive path.

This is no longer an expectation of what might happen if we do not act soon; this will happen, even with the most optimistic assessment of how the world might respond.

The Copenhagen conference in December 2009 was the last hope for humanity to pull back from the abyss. But a binding commitment from the major polluting nations to shift their economies immediately onto a path of rapid emission cuts proved too hard. In light of the fierce urgency to act, there was a sense at the Copenhagen conference that we were witnessing not so much the making of history, but the ending of it.

Some climate scientists feel guilty that they did not ring the alarm bells earlier, so that we could have acted in time. But it’s not their fault. As I argue in Requiem for a Species, despite our pretensions to rationality, scientific facts are fighting against more powerful forces.

Apart from institutional factors that have prevented early action — the power of industry, the rise of money politics and bureaucratic inertia — we have never really believed the dire warnings of the scientists. Unreasoning optimism is one of humankind’s greatest virtues and most dangerous foibles.

Primo Levi quotes an old German adage that encapsulates our psychological resistance to the scientific warnings: “Things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist.”

In the past, environmental warnings have often taken on an apocalyptic tone, and it is to be expected that the public greets them with a certain weariness. Yet climate change is unique among environmental threats because its risks have been systematically understated by both campaigners and, until very recently, most scientists.

Environmental campaigners, naturally optimistic people, have been slow to accept the full implications of the science and worry about immobilising the public with too much fear. With the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions now exceeding the worst-case scenarios of a few years ago and the expectation that we will soon pass tipping points that will trigger irreversible changes to the climate, it is now apparent that the Cassandras — the global warming pessimists — are proving to be right and the Pollyannas — the optimists — wrong.

In the Greek myth, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but when she failed to return his love, Apollo issued a curse so that her prophecies would not be believed. I think the climate scientists, who for two decades have been sending warnings about global warming and its impacts, must sometimes feel like Cassandras cursed by Apollo, and never more so than now.

Unreasoning optimism is one of humankind’s greatest virtues and most dangerous foibles.

There have been any number of books and reports over the years explaining just how ominous the future looks and how little time we have left to act. Requiem for a Species is about why we have ignored those warnings. It is a book about the frailties of the human species, the perversity of our institutions and the psychological dispositions that have set us on a self-destructive path.

It is about our strange obsessions, our penchant for avoiding the facts, and, especially, our hubris. It is the story of a battle within us between the forces that should have caused us to protect the Earth — our capacity to reason and our connection to Nature — and those that in the end have won out — our greed, materialism and alienation from Nature. And it is about the twenty-first century consequences of these failures.

For some years I could see intellectually that the gap between the actions demanded by the science and what our political institutions could deliver was large and probably unbridgeable, yet emotionally I could not accept what this really meant for the future of the world. It was only in September 2008, after reading a number of new books, reports and scientific papers, that I finally allowed myself to make the shift and to admit that we simply are not going to act with anything like the urgency required.

Humanity’s determination to transform the planet for its own material benefit is now backfiring on us in the most spectacular way, so that the climate crisis is for the human species now an existential one.

On one level, I felt relief: relief at finally admitting what my rational brain had been telling me; relief at no longer having to spend energy on false hopes; and relief at being able to let go of some anger at the politicians, business executives and climate “sceptics” who are largely responsible for delaying action against global warming until it became too late.

Accepting the reality of climate change does not mean we should do nothing. Cutting global emissions quickly and deeply can at least delay some of the worst effects of warming. But sooner or later we must face up to the truth and try to understand why we have allowed the situation that now confronts us. Apart from the need to understand how we arrived at this point, the main justification for the book is that by setting out what we face we can better prepare ourselves for it.

Undoubtedly I will be accused of doom-mongering. Prophecies of doom have always been of two types. Some, like those of doomsday cults, have been built on a belief in a “truth” revealed by a supernatural force or the delusions of a charismatic leader. Sooner or later the facts assert themselves and the prophecy is proven wrong.

Humanity’s determination to transform the planet for its own material benefit is now backfiring on us in the most spectacular way, so that the climate crisis is for the human species now an existential one.

The second type is based on the possibility of a real disaster but one whose probability is exaggerated. Survivalist communities sprang up during the Cold War because those who joined were convinced that nuclear war would break out, leading to the end of civilisation. There was indeed a chance of that happening, but most people believed it was lower than expected by survivalists and the latter were legitimately accused of doom-mongering.

Until recently, catastrophic global warming fell into the latter category, and anyone predicting the end of modern civilisation was arguably guilty of exaggerating the known risks because the prevailing warming projections indicated there was a good chance that early action could prevent dangerous climate change.

But in the last few years, scientists’ predictions about climate change have become much more certain and much more alarming, with bigger and irreversible changes now expected sooner. After a decade of little real action, even with a very optimistic assessment of the likelihood of the world taking the necessary action and in the absence of so-called unknown unknowns, catastrophic climate change is now virtually certain.

Climate Pollyannas adopt the same tactic as doom-mongers, but in reverse: instead of taking a very small risk of disaster and exaggerating it, they take a very high risk of disaster and minimise it.

In these circumstances, refusing to accept that we face a very unpleasant future becomes perverse. Denial requires a wilful misreading of the science, a romantic view of the ability of political institutions to respond, or faith in divine intervention. Climate Pollyannas adopt the same tactic as doom-mongers, but in reverse: instead of taking a very small risk of disaster and exaggerating it, they take a very high risk of disaster and minimise it.

Of course the most immediate reason for ‘our’ failure to act on global warming has been the sustained and often ruthless exercise of political power by the corporations that stand to lose from a shift to low-carbon energy systems. The story of the influence of the carbon lobby has been told by a number of authors and journalists. We can all see what has been happening.

What is more perplexing is why we have allowed these people to stop our governments acting on global warming. We could have surrounded the parliaments, occupied the coal-fired power plants and shut down the CBDs demanding that our representatives pass strong laws to protect our children’s future. But we didn’t.

Why?

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Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change, was published in the United Kingdom and North America by Earthscan on 16 April 2010, and was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin in March 2010.

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Requiem for a Species by Clive Hamilton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Author

Clive Hamilton

Charles Sturt Professor of Public Ethics Australian National University

Clive Hamilton is Charles Sturt Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics based at the Australian National University. He has held visiting academic positions at Yale University, the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. Professor Hamilton has published on a wide range of subjects but is best known for his books, a number of which have been best-sellers. His last book, titled Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change, was published by Earthscan and Allen & Unwin in 2010. His new book, Earthmasters: The dawn of the age of climate engineering, was published by Yale University Press and Allen & Unwin in February 2013.

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  • christopherdoll

    Why?
    because along with optimism, rationalism (of some form) is another double edged sword for us. So after the requiem, the epitaph of humanity will read:

    We were very good at rationalising our own selfishness

    We often talk ourselves out of a tough decision because we can rationalise it somehow. Collectively, that is what has happened and there was always someone worse to blame.

  • BrendanBarrett

    I think that even those who accept the truth about climate change struggle with the next step of actually doing something concrete about it (and writing articles and books doesn’t count). Yes, we are happy to make cosmetic changes to our lives. The real challenge is to move beyond that. It is to do something radically different with your life. That kind of change does not happen on mass. Or does it?

  • AlanZulch

    I think it’s like the frogs in a pot of hot water…we’re so inundated with information and distractions and carefully-sown seeds-of-doubt that we’re paralyzed, and thus default into hoping “they” will take care of it.

    Which I’m confident they won’t. Which leaves it up to each one of us to bring our head, heart and hands into sync…which is so mighty hard to do when we’re so embedded in the status quo.

    The inertia we have behind our civilizational ship is so great, and the soul-deadening forces to maintain it like a somnambulistic drug are so powerful…(I just spent a few days in a hotel where my daughters helped re-acquaint me with the utter vacuousness of American television programming).

    I continue to be an optimist though…not for the viability of our culture but for the potential of our species to ultimately gain awareness from our mistakes, though perhaps it will only be an ‘ark of awareness’ in a sea of suffering. The evolution of consciousness is a powerful force in nature…makes me really wonder how all of this will unfold.

    • http://www.ourworld.unu.edu/ Carol S

      Brilliantly put, as usual, Alan! I totally agree that though we are
      far from perfect and the current era is making that painfully
      evident, we are also still evolving. The trick now is to find ways to
      speed up the ark-filling while also awakening those who are under the
      spell. A big job for sure, but we must try to believe it possible!

  • popovskiv

    I stopped driving 10 years ago. I separate garbage, re-use a lot of paper both in office and home, always double check switching off every electricity appliance before leaving. I stopped using drier and just hung the washed clothes in the cupboard. I try to fly less and use video lectures when asked to go abroad. I don’t have much time to join green campaigns and appeals, but I will appreciate if you, guys, tell me what else I can do in my individual life to help the planet. Thanks

  • http://robouden.myopenid.com/ rob oudendijk

    One way would be to eat more consciously. Meaning, look at the energy use, where the food comes from and where the rest products go. Meat is very in efficient way to produce food. And water toilets are a real hasard/waste compared to composing toilets that use not water at all can even be installed at the UNU.

  • marknotaras

    It’s a good question by ‘poposkiv’ and probably one that many people ask. ‘rob oudendijk’ is right in the eating consciously is one option – I would say it is the best, easiest and more rewarding way to reduce your impact. Everyone wins when we eat seasonally, organically, locally, sustainably and when food is prepared in a fair way. I try to tick as many of these boxes as possible when I eat, without turning my life upside down. It really does not take much effort and you will feel better both in the stomach and the mind.

    Meat, especially red meat like beef, is the most destructive force. But the reasons to avoid it aren’t only to do with rainforests disappearing, greenhouse gas emissions from methane or the fact that the animals live in cages filled with their own faeces. The meat eaten today is not the meat you were eating when you were a child – it’s increasingly from cows that eat corn and take drugs which they are not to designed to consume. This all ends up in your stomach.
    When you see the picture of a cow in the field, remember you are being fooled. The old adage about needing meat to have protein and iron etc, does not apply.

    So, your options? Legumes such as chick peas, mung beans and limer beans, fermented foods like tofu, nuts, greasy little fish (sustainable of course) and lots of mushrooms and GOOD eggs. The other thing is to avoid fast food – there are reasons why it is cheap.

    For anyone who has not watched it, I recommend watching the movie “Fast Food Nation”:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zc_z623Wsro

    • http://www.ourworld.unu.edu/ Carol S

      Thanks Mark for responding to Poposkiv, to whom I also meant to respond because I in the past have asked the same question and understand the feeling! That is why I’d just like to chime in and suggest that, in addition to changing your own lifestyle, you might consider making it a habit to raise awareness of these issues in your own family, circle of friends, community, and so on. Seen a good movie that made you think? Suggest it to others. And I’m not talking preaching or scolding people whom you know may not share your views. Rather simply chatting with people (eg., by asking them about their eating/traveling habits and/or concerns) can start a conversation that ends up having an impact.

      Cheers.
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