Friday, August 24, 2012



Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton's Requiem for a Species is both deeply sobering and salutary, in the sense that it awakens us not only to the climate war we have shrunk from engaging, but its likely result if we do not. As the climate data gets more and more alarming while the international political response remains gridlocked, he states what many of us deeply sensed at the time, that Copenhagen December 2009 was the “last hope for humanity to pull back from the abyss.”

“Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change.” Hamilton answers the book's subtitle in a series of no-nonsense chapters: growth fetishism, addiction to consumer life, denial in a myriad of forms, and the “new foundation” (Descartes) upon which the others are built, disconnection from Nature. Each of these chapters is compelling, but I found the one on denial particularly enlightening. I have blogged about one of the cornerstones of recent Republican policy, climate denialism, trying to understand the curious phenomenon ("Why Educated Republicans Are in Denial about Climate Change” - see April 25).  Hamilton's searching analysis takes us into its historical roots with the fall of the Berlin Wall, closely followed by the breakup of the Soviet Union (1989-91), to reveal how quickly the conservative right seized upon a new enemy, environmentalism: “America did not fight and win the wars of the twentieth century to make the world safe for green vegetables” (Richard Darman, the elder Bush's OMB director).

My post argues in terms of Nietzsche's will to power (conservatives embrace it and liberals don't), but Hamilton's analysis is more telling. The twin ideas of progress and mastery of nature “define modernity itself” for conservatives, and progress is identified for them with unfettered growth. He goes into detail tracing the conservative think-tanks, initially founded by nuclear war hawk-scientists, and how they have systematically and effectively worked to undercut the liberal critique of human overreach. And if there is collateral damage, it can easily be managed by geo-engineering, whose origins lie with those same military-scientific heroes of the right.

Hamilton outlines where we are headed in a chapter entitled “The Four-Degree World.” It is the briefest in the book, for he relies on Mark Lynas's brilliantly documented Six Degrees. I am reading that as well, and am in the midst of the terrifying long chapter “Three Degrees.” In Requiem, all that Hamilton needs to do is point to what is now the consensus view of climate scientists of where we are headed – 4 degrees Celsius warming - which he gets from attending a pre-Copenhagen global conference in Oxford of climate scientists with which he frames the chapter. As opposed to public statements, these sober and shaken researchers shared among themselves their deepest fears based on the dawning truth that global civilization was not coping with a situation that the scientists were finding was much, much worse than the two-degree world they had initially assessed.

“Relinquishing our rosy view of how the future will unfold is a task more difficult that it may appear because the vision of a stable and sympathetic future undergirds our sense of self and our place in the world.” (210) “Awakening to the prospect of climate disruption compels us to abandon” our comfortable beliefs. Thus begins a powerful final chapter in which Hamilton argues that we must “despair, accept, act.” Earlier, he acknowledged the adaptive quality of unrealistic illusions about the future; they keep hope alive, producing action (Shelley Taylor, Positive Illusions). But he seizes upon Taylor's key distinction, “Illusions respond and adapt as reality forces itself upon us, while delusions are held despite the evidence of the outside world...evidence that large -scale climate change is unavoidable has now become so strong that healthy illusion is becoming unhealthy delusion” (131-32).

Many of us have had exposure to Joanna Macy's despair and empowerment work. Hamilton enlists her approach in conclusion, founded upon the necessity of admitting despair when honest hope has been exceeded by planetary events. As those of us who have trained with Joanna know, allowing despair, we can work through it to a more realistic ground for action. Denying negative emotion slowly shrivels the amplitude of positive emotion as well. We may continue to act, but with less and less belief in our own actions. Our energy dries up, for it is fueled by the internal lie of false hope. 

Reading Hamilton, Lynas, and Joanna Macy's latest book, Active Hope (co-authored by psychologist Chris Johnstone), I have been forced to admit that, though I had worked through Joanna's circle of gratitude, despair, and re-imagining more than once, I was stuck once again in denial and powerlessness. The bad news has helped me bottom out once again, and my acceptance has deepened and ripened into renewed action. That action is directed at helping others get on with the process while remaining alert to opportunities for effective public demonstrations, including civil disobedience as I am led.

Despair, accept...Act! After accepting the immensely challenged state of affairs -read Lynas on the projected death of the Amazon in a three-degree world for a snapshot (Six Degrees, 137-42) - we have one final chance. Like Bill McKibben in his masterful piece in the Rolling Stone, Hamilton calls us to mobilize a mass movement “to build a countervailing power to the elite and corporations that have captured government,” thus holding the catastrophe to something within the reach of our imaginations. Though it is tempting to think of a benevolent dictator who might achieve results more rapidly, we really “must democratise survivability” through a new radicalism that “aims to shift the ground of politics itself.” To the ramparts, planetary citizens!

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