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.
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!