Books – Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene

Author: Clive Hamilton
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2017

Clive Hamilton is one of Australia’s leading public philosophers and ethicists. Over the last few years his primary focus has been on climate change and so he’s written books like Earthmasters, Requiem for a Species, and Scorcher (the sub-title of which reads The Dirty Politics of Climate Change). His most recent published work carries on his interest in the dawning of the Anthropocene epoch and humanity’s learning to deal with the species we have become. It does so under the title of Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. The text is unrelenting in its logic and leaves me wondering what politicians so sensitive to research polls and the desire to balance internal party power struggles, might make of such serious speech.

Hamilton is under no illusions. We are in trouble. Now is not the time to be blind to the changes already set in motion within the Earth system: we are leaving behind the Holocene and entering into a new epoch for which there is no precedent. That earlier epoch was a time of relatively stable climate conditions that enabled human progress and the nurture of culture and civilisations. That time is going: the Anthropocene refers to a new age which bears the mark of human impact in such a way that humanity has become a “force of nature” just as much as volcanism, glaciation, and earthquakes.

How are we to live in this future without precedents? There are those who assume that the Anthropocene should be welcomed and interestingly endow a geologic era with a moral quality calling it the “good Anthropocene”. Through various forms of geo-engineering and invention we can manage this changing climate and a planetary Earth system which is responding defiantly to humanity’s impact. There are others who contend that human pride must take a fall and we must settle for being just another subject in an interweaving creation. We are no longer that special.

Hamilton rejects these options. Now is the time, he argues, for a new understanding of what it means to be human. Despite humanity’s failures it has achieved much and cannot be readily decentred from the future plight of the Earth. It becomes incumbent upon us to both recognise the power that we have imposed on the Earth and upon whose systems we depend and our responsibility for the mess we have made.

Defiant Earth is a word of warning. It demonstrates how much climate change is a matter for philosophy and ethics as it is for diverse sciences. It’s the kind of book worth reading in order to put the “dirty politics” of climate change into a salutary perspective.


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