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Book Review: Requiem for a Species by Clive Hamilton

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You don’t have to worry as a reviewer about “giving away the ending” in Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species; the author’s done that himself in the title. What he’s seeking to do here is not so much cover the science of climate change, but rather to try to understand why the human race has been so oblivious to the danger, even when it is staring it in the face.

Here’s how he sets out the problem: “If the scientists are right, global emissions must reach a peak within five to ten years then decline rapidly until the world’s energy systems are all but decarbonised. Are the institutions of government in the major nations of the world capable of recognising and responding to the urgency of the problem in time? Are the international institutions that must agree on a global plan sufficiently responsive to agree to, implement and enforce the necessary measures?”

It’s obvious what Hamilton thinks the answer is, in part he says because we are all trapped in the “growth machine”, “which we thought we had built to enhance our own ends, which has taken on a life of its own, and resists fiercely the slow awakening to its perils of the humans it is supposed to serve. The growth machine has, over time, created the types of people who are perfectly suited to its own perpetuation, – docile, seduced by its promises and unable to think beyond the boundaries it sets…. Our political leaders tend to be those who have internalised the goals of the system most faithfully and are therefore most immune to arguments and evidence that might challenge it.” Certainly that sums up Britain’s current Tory-Lib Dem government!

The machine’s “religion”, or romantic belief, is that economics can be studied, and the world understood as a mathematical equation, value-free and entirely detached from the perspective of the thinker. Hamilton says: “The only preferences that [Richard] Tol regards as legitimate are those expressed by consumers in a supermarket and never those expressed by citizens at the ballot box. This is perhaps the ultimate conceit of mainstream economics, the equation of market behaviour with democracy itself.”

Yet the curious thing is that Hamilton finds evidence that huge majorities, even in America, when asked the right questions understand that we’ve gone horribly wrong. He quotes of 2004 poll that found 93% thought fellow citizens were too focused on work and making money, 88% that society is too materialistic, with too much focus on shopping, and 90% thought people were spending beyond their means and getting into debt. It’s worth highlighting the fact that until the 1980s, the era when a lot of things went wrong, working hours were on a steady historic longterm decline, and regarded as the “surest sign of social progress”.

One thing that, possibly rightly, depresses Hamilton, however, is the training of children and young people as consumers. He’s collected some stunning statistics – in America in 1983 companies spent $100m advertising to children, by the end of the boom that figure was $17bn. And then there’s China – Hamilton notes how after Tianamen Square political ambitions were bought off with a consumer boom, and has found a wonderful study of children asked to draw pictures of their families. Televisions and fridges were highly prominent in the picture, but what is more “these goods were given their own faces and legs, suggesting that, perhaps, in the absence of siblings, significant things vied with significant persons in establishing the single child’s sense of self or family”.

We should say an extra thanks to Hamilton really, because for the purposes of this book he’s gone looking for some wonderfully mad (but quite respectable!) rightwing, neoliberal approaches to climate change – just so we know what we are up against. One is that of Yale University economist William Nordhaus, who’s calculated the cost of climate change, versus the cost of action of ameliorate it, and now he has “the formula”. According to it, Hamilton explains, the natural world is treated like capital, which we can preserve or choose to spend, with the return the only question. Nordhaus has worked out we need to precisely reach 2.6 degrees of warming by the end of the century, spending 42 trillion on abatement, and thus saving $3 trillion compared to doing nothing. Anything more makes no economic sense, Nordhaus says, even though his models sees an eventual 5.3 degree warming. He regards the Earth as though it were a super-high tech thermostat, able to be twiddled to precisely the right level. As for an answer, I like Hamilton’s quote of Wallace Broecker: “If you’re living with an angry beast, you shouldn’t poke it with a sharp stick.”

But it’s the broader view that really helps to explain the politics, and Hamilton does a good job of setting out the history of the link in America, noting that in 1997 there was little difference between Democrats and Republicans on global warming, yet now there’s a “wide gulf”. “Rejection of global warming had for some Americans become a means of consolidating and signalling their cultural identity”.

He also explores a particularly British form of climate scepticism arising from the far left, specifically through the Revolutionary Community Party, associated with Living Marxism and now Spiked online journal, and the television programme The Great Global Warming Swindle. One of its stars is Frank Furedi, who “cleaves to the first principle of modernism, that it is the duty of humans to control the Earth”.

Hamilton is also concerned with psychology, at least of humans en masse. He looks at a Norwegian study of environmentally aware, concerned individuals, who are quick to blame “Amerika” and its failure to sign the Kyoto protocol for the problems, but when reminded about their nation’s oil exports, stress that it is not politically important on the world stage. He calls this “blame-shifting”.

The strong social pressure to focus on hope is, Hamilton argues, another major problem in trying to get a realistic approach to climate change. “Healthy illusion is becoming unhealthy delusion.”

This is a book that’s full of interesting angles that I’ve not encountered before: I should have known, but didn’t, that before the second half of the 17th century the predominant philosophy of nature was Hermeticism, which understood the world organically, as though it were a living organism. (So Lovelock wasn’t quite so original after all!) The new science tried to split out the purely physical from the spiritual, so set itself against such views, with Descartes in the lead.

So the body of Requiem sets out how we got here, and just how resistant to change “here” is, but it is not all doom and gloom. Hamilton does offer some suggestions on how we might make critical advances towards the political will to reduce climate change.

One message is key: “If the objective is to motivate people to act on climate change we should not be reinforcing their independent self-concept but seeking to remind them of and activate their cooperative, pro-social side.” He points out that messages that trigger awareness of the threat of global warming are liable to be counterproductive: in reminding people of their own mortality, they are encouraged to orient towards self-enhancing materialistic values. (p. 158) And he points out many that have had traumatic or near-death experiences frequently are transformed and see their former lives as selfish and unduly materialistic.

Hamilton suggests that the process of grasping the fact that dramatic – 4-degree or more – climate change is now inevitable is akin to grieving: the world as we know it, and the security of what we thought we had, are dying. “Those who say we should not despair but always remain hopeful in the face of climate science are perhaps afraid we will detach ourselves from the future completely, and then sink into apathy or go on a binge… Humans are not built that way. … Yet we cannot build a new conception of the future until we allow the old one to die.”

The book ends with a call for action, radical action, belying the pessimism of the title. Hamilton says: “Climate change represents a failure of modern politics…. Governments around the world have not represented the interests of the people but have allowed themselves to be held in thrall of a powerful group of energy companies and the ideology of growth fetishism … When just laws are used to protect unjust behaviour our obligation to uphold the laws is diminished… the time has come to ask whether our obligations to our fellow humans and the wider natural world entitle us to break the laws that protect those who continue to pollute the atmosphere in a way that threatens our survival.”

So, in the end, this is an educated, informing and highly readable call to action, not a counsel of despair.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
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