I stumbled on this debate on Twitter yesterday in a response by Clive Hamilton to a TED talk by Andy Revkin on ‘Charting Paths to a “Good” Anthropocene’. Andy’s talk stresses the potential for a more optimistic future by pointing to a number of cognitive and emotional strategies with which we can better adapt to the worsening climate crisis. Clive’s critique argues that this type of thinking is part of an emerging form of ‘ecopragmatism’ which promotes a hopelessly unrealistic vision of human capacity to adapt to the climate change pathways we will experience this century (this argument is further developed in an article that has just come out in Scientific American). Andy has responded, arguing that he doesn’t believe he and Clive are so far apart in terms of recognizing the very real dangers of the climate crisis and that he hopes those who have ‘bridled’ at his vision for a ‘good Anthropocene aren’t hoping for a bad one’!
Responses on Twitter vary from those in the more ‘denialist’ camp who have trumpeted about how 4 degrees can’t be too bad and all that warming will be great for relieving heating costs (!), through to those who Clive has critiqued, arguing the criticism is misplaced and they were not suggesting climate change will be necessarily ‘good’. There has also been a healthy number praising Clive’s response (I especially liked Elizabeth Kolbert’s tweet that ‘good’ and ‘Anthropocene’ are two words that should not be used in sequence!).
The debate is well worth watching as it raises the more general issue of how to frame our climate future. The ‘ecopragmatist’ line appears similar to ecological modernist arguments that place faith in economic development and technological innovation in ‘solving’ environmental problems. However, climate change has brought to the fore an environmental issue which cuts to the heart of our economic system. As Daniel Nyberg and I have argued in a recent article:
…the current destruction of the environment is not so much an unfortunate by-product of industrialisation, but rather an essential feature of our dependence upon continued economic growth and the expansion of consumption.
The limited policy responses we have seen to date in relation to climate change, such as introducing cap and trade measures and promoting capitalist innovation in ‘green tech’ and ‘corporate environmentalism’ provide one political myth for narrating this future. However, how realistic is such a vision and does it close us off from the more radical changes we actually need to undertake (e.g. leaving 80 per cent of fossil fuel reserves in the ground)?
Some argue that if we outline the truly dire nature of our predicament, we will simply turn people off, and that a more positive message is better in building motivation for change. However, there is little sign the mainstream media or politicians have grasped the existential nature of the threat we now face. Moreover, unlike many other challenges of the past, the laws of physics, chemistry and biology are not responsive to these appeals. They respond to our actions, and unfortunately our actions are rooted in ever escalating greenhouse gas emissions driven by global capitalism and hyperconsumption.
The true danger of the ‘ecopragmatist’ line then is that it seriously underestimates the systemic nature of the climate crisis and in its more extreme forms promotes a vision of ‘business as almost usual’ – new technologies, new markets, new opportunities to cash in on the climate crisis (on this latter point McKenzie Funk’s new book Windfall is a marvelous eye-opener).
As climate scientist Kevin Anderson has pointed out, to actually limit global warming to the politically contrived 2 degree level by 2050, its going to require a far more dramatic path of decarbonisation than most ecopragmatists would envisage. Is it better to be honest about this given it threatens a lot of the economic assumptions we hold dear, or ‘sugar-coat’ the bitter pill?