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Ben Mabbett

Is it possible that a world swarming with humanity, warmed by our fumes, and depleted by our carelessness could in any way be good?

Last year, some 30 people, including the ethicist Clive Hamilton and the journalist Andrew Revkin, attended a seminar in Washington, D.C., on the Anthropocene — a term denoting a new geologic epoch, dominated by human influence. Hamilton noticed that some of the participants seemed optimistic, even excited, about the advent of the Anthropocene. “I was astonished and irritated that some people who were scientifically literate were imposing this barrier of wishful thinking between the science and future outcomes for humanity,” he said. Hamilton had just written a book, Requiem for a Species, arguing that people squirm away from the bleak reality of climate change.

Months later, Revkin sent this video of a talk he’d given to the people who had attended that seminar. It was entitled “Seeking a Good Anthropocene,” and Hamilton — seeing this idea that he objected so strongly reprised — decided to write a rebuttal (actually two).

This debate has been brewing for years, and each side tends to caricature the other’s position. Suggest there’s a reason for hope and you are called a delusional techno-utopian; if you say there’s an imperative for humility, you are framed as an anti-technological doomer.

I wanted to get past these distracting strawmen and zero in on the crux of the disagreement, so (after some technological fumbling) I made a Skype link between Andy Revkin (New York), Clive Hamilton (Canberra, Australia), and myself (Berkeley), and started asking questions. (This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

NJ Clive, my sense of the science comes from trying to write the introduction to my book. I was planning on saying, “We think the world is getting better, we see all these shiny new gadgets, but in reality people are worse off.” But then when I tried to assemble the evidence to support that, I couldn’t. On just about every measure, things are getting better — except the environment, which really is getting worse.

CH Well, as the impacts of global warming unfold over the next decades, the transformed climate will be the dominant factor that will influence and underpin everything. I reached that view by doing nothing more than reading the science as written by very clear-eyed people like Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, the way Jim Hansen sets it out. The only reasonable conclusion is that the world is in for a very bad time indeed.

NJ So, Andy, Clive wrote: “I think those who argue for the ‘good Anthropocene’ are unscientific and live in a fantasy world of their own construction.” Do you want to defend yourself here?

AR I’ll start off by agreeing that the projections are grim. I’ve never said that this is a good moment in the history of the planet. What I’ve been trying to say, sometimes perhaps not specifically enough, is that it’s possible to have a good trajectory in a turbulent time. You do the best you can, but you have to be realistic about what’s possible given what we know about our species. How do you create a creditable path forward, given our habits and the disparities on the planet? A third of us have had our fossil-fuel party and a third have not even begun. The primacy of energy access in most of the places in the world trumps long-term concerns about what we are going to do about greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

CH We are at one on that. But I think probably the difference, Andy, is that, I think you said in your view things can be good, where I said things can be better than they are otherwise going to be. But I cannot see how, in a world warmed by four degrees, anything can be described as good. So the question is, are we headed for four degrees or not. You have a kind of “oh shit” moment at some point. And you realize the way one used to think about how we could get out of this, how we could somehow muddle through, really won’t do any more.

AR When you have endpoints that you don’t know how to reach, chanting numbers like [four degrees, or] two degrees, or 350, or 80 by 2050, is less useful than saying, what are the traits in societies and individuals that I can work on that give us the best chance of bending curves in directions that are “good”? And also giving us culture and the individual capacity to take advantage of these shifts in knowledge that are going to be occurring. No one had any idea we were going to have a natural gas revolution and, for better or worse, here it is, reshaping global energy policies. So what do you do when you know the things you don’t know are going to matter most in coming years? Things could end up worse than we thought, but they could also be better than a lot of scientists think. You need agility, you need the ability to learn and adjust. And those are traits that can be maximized.

NJ It seems to me that perhaps the real difference of opinion here is about how to talk about this: Do we point to the positive, or point to the negative? Is it more effective to show people what’s possible, or show people what’s horrible?

AR The core of the climate-centric environmental movement has been very reluctant to acknowledge the need for diversity, and I don’t mean ethnic diversity. The environmental movement is mostly white and middle class, but I’m talking about diversity of views and goals. As I mentioned in my lecture, you’ve got George Monbiot in England, and Bill McKibben in the United States, both championing climate action, and when Fukushima happened, each one had the opposite reaction. Bill said it was a sign of the brittleness of this technology and George said it shows it could stand up to the worst possible damage without a total meltdown. Are you going to have endless fights over who is right when both have the goal of decarbonization? How do we incorporate diversity?

CH The problem is that diversity can be exploited. I think when you have a bunch of environmentalists saying “we are optimistic, we think humans can solve this with technology, we are working with businesses to help come up with the solutions,” it detracts from the urgency. That whole approach fails to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

NJ Can you say why? Because it favors fossil fuel corporations that want to stop the development of other forms of energy? Is that what you mean?

CH It ignores the fundamental problem here, and that is the exercise of political power to stop governments from imposing policies that will facilitate the transition to the low-carbon future. It’s always been the case that people who want to protect their economic interests will align themselves with people who can somehow be characterized as environmentalists. It’s a classic political approach of those who have a commercial interest in the status quo.

NJ So, Andy, is the primary problem here entrenched power?

AR Well this gets back to one of the big questions: Is this a problem of big companies, or a problem of our attachment to cheap fossil energy? That ends up not being a scientific argument so much as a moral argument. If you make it a moral argument, and you go to the parts of the world where people have no energy options except dung to cook their food, that’s immoral, too. Ban Ki-moon has made the case beautifully for sustainable energy for all. It’s just as much a moral imperative for people to have access to energy as it is for us to cut concentrations of greenhouse gases.

CH I don’t accept this idea that we consumers in the West are irrevocably attached to cheap energy. You only need to look at the highly variable patterns of energy consumption between Western countries. It’s easy for us in the U.S. and Australia to forget that some countries in Europe have less than half — a third — of our emissions per person. And with strong public support, I’m thinking of Germany here, for policies that cut emissions. I think Western consumers can quite easily be weaned off high-polluting energy sources. The more that is done, the easier it is to free up the carbon budget for poor people who desperately need access to energy.

AR Yes, we have to convey those stories — showing that you don’t have to have high emissions to have high quality of life — to other communities that, like the United States, are still stuck on high emissions trajectories. I’m always looking around for ways that I could make a difference. Getting the right information to the right people at the right time is one way to do that. But, again, maybe that gets away from the need to state the climate crisis as the main concern.

NJ I’ll just say, as someone who grew up intensely aware of environmental degradation, I was first someone who really believed we needed to get society to come to grips with the horribleness of what was going on in order to force radical transformation. As the years went by, that started to seem less … that just wasn’t going to happen. We weren’t going to upend capitalism or consumerism. So I became much more interested in an incremental approach. What do you thing about that, Clive?

CH We have to ask where that incremental approach is likely to lead. I guess this is my essential message: Carry on as we are, even with quite good outcomes from the incremental approach, and we’re screwed. My argument in Requiem for a Species is that we can either face up to this, or we don’t. We can choose not to think about it, we can tell stories to ourselves about how it must just be exaggerated, or we can imagine that some technology will come along and everything will be OK. Or we can look at it with open eyes, and allow it to blast away all our utopian imaginings, and say, well, we are in really deep trouble, and it’s extremely unlikely that we are going to get out of it unscathed. So what do we do in that situation? And what does it mean for how we act? Does it mean we go for the muddle-through approach even though we know the consequences are likely to be catastrophic? Or do we fundamentally try to rethink and change strategies?

NJ What does rethinking and reassessing strategies look like? Because for me, as a young man growing up with this, you know, it was like this barrage of awfulness, and then … paralysis. Because the only credible first step would be radical cultural revolution. And I didn’t exactly know how to key that off.

CH I don’t have an answer to that, Nate, except to say the first thing we must do is face up to the facts. Not to lie to ourselves or other people about the situation. Look, many of us are left in this limbo state. It’s very tempting to say, well, it won’t really be that bad, and just kind of hope that we’ll get by. What sticks in my craw is when that kind of thinking is used by powerful interests that are stopping real action on climate change as a way of diverting attention from their own responsibility. So that’s my reason for criticizing elements of the environment movement such as the Breakthrough Institute who have allowed themselves to become — wittingly or otherwise — the patsies of big corporations.

AR We are — what I see as — kind of this wave poised to hit a beach. There are paths that take us through that without a crash. For example the Antarctic disintegration — there’s an inevitability, over many centuries, of many feet of sea-level rise just from Antarctica, setting aside Greenland. I wrote about this, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, they do these population analyses that show many trajectories. Some are soft-landing trajectories around the year 2300 with 3 billion prosperous people on our planet, not through mass death, but just demographic transitions. I guarantee you that world would be able to deal with the rise in sea levels better than a world of 10 or 12 billion struggling people. So there are paths that can be perceived as — if not good — at least far better than alternatives. And, in a world wedded to woe is me and shame on you, it’s really important to convey alternatives. And not shy away from it just because it would be convenient for some company that likes things the way things are.

NJ Just to sum up, clearly we have giant cultural issues to work out. I don’t see a revolution coming with humans ascending to a higher ethical state anytime soon, though I would certainly welcome and work for it. But it seems like in the meantime it doesn’t hurt to be working on incremental, pragmatic measures, with the full awareness that it is primarily a political fight, with entrenched interests working against us. At least that gives us the option, if there are less bad alternatives out there, of making our way toward them.

CH Well, look, I’d agree with that. I contribute to incremental approaches in all sorts of ways, including incremental campaigning approaches when I can help out or contribute to environmental groups. Mind you, I’ve got much more time for those engaged in civil disobedience who are really trying to take on the system.

But the danger with “it doesn’t hurt to work on incremental approaches” is that it might hurt — it can serve as an excuse for people in a position to take far-reaching action to do very little. We see a classic case in Australia right now: We have a conservative government that is really a government of climate deniers. So [Prime Minister] Tony Abbott abolishes the carbon price, and wants to abolish the renewable energy target, two policies that are having a significant impact on Australia’s energy economy, and he’s introducing what he calls a direct action program, which is really fiddling around with soil carbon, planting some trees, and paying people to do some energy efficiency. These incremental approaches are a substitute for policies that were starting to make a difference. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the incremental approach, given that the radical change some of us would prefer isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future, except insofar as it undermines more substantial action.

NJ And there are cases, as you’ve just demonstrated, where it’s a one-for-one, either/or option.

AR No, it’s not either/or. I’ve written about this repeatedly, the impact of domestic climate policy in Australia, considering the exports of coal to China, is ridiculous, and the same is true of any fossil fuel exporter. I think there’s maybe too much of a sense that Australia did something significant with its domestic policies. Same thing with a lot of industry moving out of Europe — so the cap was tightened, but a lot of manufacturing moved to Asia.

CH Sure. In Australia nobody other than environmental groups wants to talk about coal exports.

AR And by the way, I’m not saying that social pressure on companies and governments isn’t important. I would love to see diversity in the sense that — there’s a lot of value for me in terms of the divestment campaign, I don’t think it will be meaningful in the long run in terms of carbon, given how markets work, but I think it’s a vital moral discussion about, literally, what’s our endowment. So I’m all for it. There’s a role for everyone in this, trying to shape a good path in a turbulent time.

NJ Clive, would you prefer “a good path” to “a good Anthropocene?”

AR I would prefer it. If I retitled this, it would be that.

CH I would prefer “a better Anthropocene than it would otherwise be.”

NJ That’s much more clumsy, come now!

CH It’s clumsy, but it’s true. As Betsy Kolbert said, it’s wrong to put “good” and “Anthropocene” together. I think it’s misleading and covers over something very serious. Transforming it into something we can embrace is very dangerous. It’s a question of a bad or less bad Anthropocene. There are many paths leading into the Anthropocene, but it’s hard to imagine any of them leading to a bold utopia.

NJ I’d like to wrap this up, but I’ll give you each a last chance in case you had anything you wanted to say that you haven’t.

AR Over the last three years — in having this shift in my focus from goals that are numbers to goals that are qualities — there’s this resonant metaphor I used in my talk: I have two boys, one 16, one 23, and when they were little I could have watched them sleeping in their beds and thought, “I’d really like them to be doctors making $400,000 a year.” More recently I think I would look at them and think what are the traits I would want to have in these two kids to maximize their chances of thriving and being productive and collaborative and generous … This shift from “I want to make this kid’s life good,” to “I want this kid to have good qualities,” requires letting go. And it’s really scary.

And with society, and where we are at as a species right now, with a crystalizing but still murky view of our impacts on the planet, I have to let go of the sense that this is a controllable thing. But I do have the power to teach students, to work in my community in ways that can get us the trajectories. And I think you can have optimism in that sense, but it requires letting go. And it doesn’t mean there’s no grief, either. When I wrote my piece about the disappearance of the baiji, the river dolphin in the Yangtze, it was wrenching.

NJ It’s optimism for the process as opposed to the endpoints.

AR Yeah, and also, we don’t know the endpoints — we don’t know what our grandchildren will want.

CH I’m sympathetic to your comments there, Andy. I think there’s a grieving process that anyone who looks at the state of the earth and where we are headed has to go through, because — as you’ve indicated — grieving is a process of letting go of that which is dead. What has died is our conception of the future, that has been around or been emerging since the industrial revolution: The idea that, whatever happens, we are moving into a brighter future where everything will be improving and getting better. And we are now facing a situation where that is a dangerous delusion. So, in that circumstance, what do we do?

I think what Andy is saying, from a personal point of view, is valid, perhaps the only valid way of responding. It’s going to be a world of trials and difficulties. But people do flourish in those situations — they suffer, but they also flourish. Maybe it’s a psychological balm we apply, but nevertheless it’s not a bad way of thinking about the future and how those we love will survive and grow in it.

AR The first step, I do think, is for humans to start to integrate that we are at a time in our history as a species when the world is more than ever what we choose to make of it.