Book review: Defiant Earth by Clive Hamilton

by Alison McCulloch / 09 July, 2017

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.

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