Book review: Defiant Earth by Clive Hamilton

by Alison McCulloch / 09 July, 2017

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

A professor argues that if we are going to survive, we need to start exercising our power responsibly.

Anthropocene literature isn’t easy to read. It’s hard enough coping with daily reports of species extinction, glacier melt estimates and the ever-rising atmospheric carbon count without subjecting yourself to bleak book-length treatments.

Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Australia’s Charles Sturt University, is a frequent contributor to this grim and growing genre, having also written Requiem for a Species and Earthmasters. In Defiant Earth, his latest attempt to wake us up, Hamilton’s focus is less on the terrifying science of climate change than on the terrifying species responsible – us – and the urgent need to face up to what we have become: a “geological power” that has caused “a rupture in the functioning of the Earth System as a whole, so much so that the Earth has now entered a new geological epoch”. There’s no going back to the friendly Holocene, and if we’re going to survive, we have to recognise our power and start exercising it responsibly.

In making his case, Hamilton explains why the old ways of looking at ourselves, and some of the newer ones, won’t work: the “ecomodernist” faith that we can geoengineer our way out of this mess is based on bad science and an even worse attitude; the idea of taking a more humble “humans-are-just-another-creature” approach has been overtaken by events; North-South and local-global divisions are dissolving, because even “if not every human is responsible for bringing on the Anthropocene, every human is destined to live in it”; and as this “defiant Earth” responds with more floods, famines, fires and pestilence, the old theological distinctions between natural and moral evil have gone the way of the dodo. (What will those “acts of God” in insurance policies even mean any more?)

Hamilton isn’t comforted, either, by the thought that although we may extinguish ourselves (and, of course, countless other living things), the Earth itself will endure. Curiously – to me, anyway – he believes that without us, “the planet would not live on, not in any meaningful sense”, because “it is we who give the Earth its meaning”.

This is a deeply philosophical treatise that tries to get us to think about unthinkable things. It’s not easy, but surely it’s the least we can do.

DEFIANT EARTH: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, by Clive Hamilton (Allen & Unwin, $32.99)

This article was first published in the June 3, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Get the Listener delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now


Latest

Your smartphone can double as a laptop - if you keep things simple
92759 2018-06-23 00:00:00Z Tech

Your smartphone can double as a laptop - if you ke…

by Peter Griffin

Imagine it - no need to lug your laptop around, just find a screen, plug in your phone and a portable keyboard and get to work.

Read more
Great non-kauri walks you can still do around Auckland
92721 2018-06-22 09:10:23Z Auckland Issues

Great non-kauri walks you can still do around Auck…

by Catherine Smith

There are still a heap of fantastic walks you can enjoy in and around Auckland City - despite the closure of tracks to contain kauri dieback.

Read more
You're eating microplastics in ways you don't even realise
92717 2018-06-22 08:40:24Z Environment

You're eating microplastics in ways you don't even…

by Christina Thiele and Malcolm David Hudson

We know microplastics are entering the foodchain through marine life, but the other sources that aren't from the ocean may be more worrying.

Read more
There have been great movies about Alzheimer's. The Leisure Seeker isn't one
92672 2018-06-22 00:00:00Z Movies

There have been great movies about Alzheimer's. Th…

by Peter Calder

Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren hit the road in a creaky comedy.

Read more
Tami Neilson is taking aim at sexism in the music industry
92659 2018-06-22 00:00:00Z Music

Tami Neilson is taking aim at sexism in the music …

by James Belfield

Tami Neilson’s new album Sassafrass! shows her at her most political, but there’s still room for family business.

Read more
Now that US war games are over, should you visit the Korean DMZ?
92663 2018-06-22 00:00:00Z Travel

Now that US war games are over, should you visit t…

by Brett Atkinson

Less than 100m across the planet’s most dangerous border, a North Korean soldier is playing peekaboo with a group of curious travellers.

Read more
Is the middle class squeezed or spoilt?
92685 2018-06-21 13:07:39Z Economy

Is the middle class squeezed or spoilt?

by Bonnie Sumner

If your household brings in $100,000 and you still struggle to make ends meet, is it your own fault or an indictment on today’s cost of living?

Read more
Climate change needs multi-party support in New Zealand – but is this it?
92652 2018-06-21 10:14:56Z Environment

Climate change needs multi-party support in New Ze…

by The Listener

The reality is that all parties in New Zealand need to reassess their core positions on some issues for any real action on climate change to be made.

Read more