Friday 20 June 2014

Clive Hamilton on the 'new environmentalists' and the 'good Anthropocene'; the rough edges of political aesthetics

An important article by Clive Hamilton on the 'new environmentalists' and the so-called 'good Anthropocene':
[...] almost as soon as the idea of the Anthropocene took hold, people began revising its meaning and distorting its implications. A new breed of ecopragmatists welcomed the new epoch as an opportunity. They gathered around the Breakthrough Institute, a “neogreen” think tank founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, the authors of a controversial 2004 paper, “The Death of Environmentalism.” They do not deny global warming; instead they skate over the top of it, insisting that whatever limits and tipping points the Earth system might throw up, human technology and ingenuity will transcend them. 
As carbon dioxide concentrations pass 400 ppm for the first time in a million years, and scientists warn of a United States baking in furnace-like summers by the 2070s, Shellenberger and Nordhaus write that by the end of the century “nearly all of us will be prosperous enough to live healthy, free, and creative lives.” The answer, they say, is not to change course but to more tightly “embrace human power, technology, and the larger process of modernization.” 
The argument absolves us all of the need to change our ways, which is music to the ears of political conservatives. The Anthropocene is system-compatible.
In the words of the most vocal eco-pragmatist, the environmental scientist Erle Ellis, “We will be proud of the planet we create.” Ellis speaks of “the good Anthropocene,” a golden era in which we relinquish nostalgic attachments to a nature untouched by humans and embrace the new epoch as “ripe with human-directed opportunity.”
By the final quoted paragraph in particular I am reminded of Nigel Clark's thesis in Inhuman Nature (and other writings) where he holds constructivism (particularly of the Latourian variety) as being effectively complicit with the over-statement of human agency in the face of overwhelmingly inhuman forces. I don't agree with parts of his analysis; however, the above clearly demonstrates his wider and more important point: that we must reckon with our finitude -- and fast.

In another article on the same themes posted only a few days ago Hamilton writes:
In the end, grasping at delusions like “the good Anthropocene” is a failure of courage, courage to face the facts. The power of positive thinking can’t turn malignant tumours into benign growths, and it can’t turn planetary overreach into endless lifestyle improvements. Declaring oneself to be an optimist is often used as a means of gaining the moral upper hand: “Things may look bad but, O ye of little faith, be bold and cheerful like me.”
There is a point at which optimism starts to become pathological; I think this the point where it is taken to be an end in itself. In a society with a fully-developed pathology one can win an argument simply by being optimistic; one can, with a snide chuckle, merely brush off inconvenient questions simply because they are uncomfortable. One's cognitive comfort (and that of the well-heeled choir to which one preaches) comes first and prevails over and above all dissuasive shrieks and cries. Those who suffer must not only suffer but also do so quietly.

I must say that excessive optimism is not a condition not something that we Brits are overburdened with in general.

However, that does not mean that we are not similarly insensitive. Most of us would sooner starve half the world than give up our cars or our South African asparagus (though we would never admit this, least of all to ourselves).

I don't suppose that any of the 'eco-pragmatists' would agree with a word of what I am polemically attributing to them; however, this really does seem to be the unavoidable conclusion of their line of thinking -- how else will they sustain their fantasy if not by exporting disconfirmatory externalities into the bodies and atmospheres of others?

The incapacity to cognise discomforting information as anything other than a falsehood (false because it is discomforting) leads inexorably to chronic insensitivity.

If we're not afraid then we really haven't been paying attention.

Political aesthetics must have rough edges.