Book Review: Requiem for a Species

Clive Hamilton, author of a number of popular books including Affluenza, has tackled climate change in his latest offering, Requiem for a Species. It’s a confronting book, pulling no punches while dissecting the reasons why we’re (almost) certainly not going to avoid dangerous global warming in the coming century. The majority of the work is highly engaging, with some more dense sections dealing with our intellectual relationship with the environment. The subjects Hamilton tackles invite considerable self-reflection, without resorting to suggestions for self-improvement or implying guilt. Ultimately, Requiem paints a bleak picture, attempting to end on a positive note by calling for a radicalisation of democracy to wrest power back from governments and rich interests to protect the majority.

Requiem for a Species kicks off with a summary of the emissions reductions required to achieve effective mitigation, contrasted against actual emissions trajectories. The picture isn’t pretty and Hamilton calls for the reader to accept, both intellectually and emotionally, that we are committed to a path which will see some level of dangerous climate change. Personally, I hadn’t faced that conclusion and its implications directly: the sheer level of uncertainty, in terms of both the environment and the huge spectrum of changes which will occur in society, is hard to comprehend. Even teaching into a climate change adaptation course for the past couple of years hadn’t made me consider the way that my own life might play out in such a scenario. It’s powerful food for thought.

I couldn't drive past such a perfect scene without taking a picture...

The remainder of the novel examines why such a situation could eventuate. The obsession with growth and GDP, consumerism and the human ability to deny reality fall squarely within Hamilton’s sights. As a sympathetic reader, it was easy to be caught up in Hamilton’s barely-suppressed frustration at the systems which have inexorably led to the current situation. However, it isn’t possible or productive to lay blame for any of these broad social phenomena. Instead, an understanding of the drivers of such phenomena and the implications, especially in terms of the development pathways of different countries, is presented. Once again, I found myself critically evaluating my own behaviour and values in relation to consumerism and growth, a testament to the relevance of Requiem‘s content to daily life.

A weak point in the book, for me, is the relatively short chapter on our disconnection with nature. While a number of interesting points are raised, it jumps through a number of sophisticated ideas and several centuries of thought without much time for reflection. Attention then turns to the future, assessing our prospects for mitigation and the action necessary to preserve some form of livable planet for a substantial human population. Hamilton’s dismantling of the ‘clean coal’ myth is particularly strong,

The task of formulating some kind of plan which could successfully lead to a comfortable life for a majority of people on the planet, or at least avoid making the lives of the majority worse, is a daunting one. Hamilton’s idea, as I mentioned is a ‘radicalisation’ of democracy which seeks to claim (reclaim?) the actual power of a voting system, that is, delivering government actions which reflect the views of the majority. This solution is, likely, the only one which may limit our damage to the environment and keep the divide between haves and have-nots from growing cavernous.

The feasibility of the solution is less encouraging. It requires widespread interest in, and concern about, climate change, coupled with a willingness of a democratically significant to vote for hard action. In the current Australian social landscape, that seems to be a fantasy. The 2007 election appeared to mandate action, but the action, when proposed, was clunky and would be environmentally ineffective. Schemes which, even in the design phase, fail to achieve what they’re designed for (a CPRS with a 5% target) rightfully attract criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.

In a recent article entitled Money’s Hunger, George Monbiot explained well the balance environmentalists should seek:

“… unless environmentalists also seek to sustain the achievements of industrial civilisation – health, education, sanitation, nutrition – the field will be left to those who rightly wish to preserve them, but don’t give a stuff about the impacts.We can accept these benefits while rejecting perpetual growth. We can embrace engineering, while rejecting many of the uses to which it is put. We can defend healthcare, while attacking useless consumption. This approach is boring, unromantic, uncertain of success, but a lot less ugly than the alternatives.”

Environmental fundamentalism and rejection of civilisation will never win mass support, because there are so many benefits to the modern life we enjoy. On the flipside, the status quo is going to lead to negative outcomes for all but those rich and powerful enough to isolate themselves from environmental and social damage wrought by climate change. The starting point is the acceptance of the scale of the problem we are facing, and the willingness to exercise our most powerful tool – our vote – accordingly.

That’s why I’m going to Imperial to study Science Communication. It’s why I write blogs like this. I hope it’s why you’ve read to the end of this post!

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Categories: environmentalism, Problems, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Requiem for a Species

  1. Thanks for this – we’ll put your review up on our website. The link to the book including Clive Hamilton’s blogs and articles related to Requiem for a Species is http://www.earthscan.co.uk/requiem

    And just to clarify, it’s not a novel, but non-fiction, and draws on research from the IPCC, economics, consumerism, renewable energy, bio-engineering etc. Thanks, Gudrun

    • Thanks Gudrun. I’ve updated the post to include the link & tweaked out the use of the word ‘novel’.

  2. Glad you are studying Science Communication; it needs to be pitched at the 95 IQ level to ensure it is understandable to the majority. And yet the time has come to say the Oil and Coal industries must stop dead in their tracks. Hansen has revised his estimate for a sustainable World, and it is +1.5 Celcius degrees above the present world average! Oil and coal profit-takers will kill us … if we don’t stop them first. ???How??? Inventors of non-Greenhouse Gas solutions to power production and transport need government support a protection: not the #@%$& they get from Fossil Fuel interests in the ‘business as usual’ model at present.

    • Thanks Robin, it’s a daunting time indeed for those of us concerned about the future. The only organisations which are really large enough to take significant action are governments, so social pressure is paramount, but extremely hard to muster.

      I think that any investment in renewables is good, and should be pushed for as hard as possible. I’d rather see such investment at as large a scale as possible than the ETS Labour tried to put through.

  3. Anonymous

    I really appreciate balanced and informative reviews such as this. Thank you for your thorough work.

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