ALLAN PATIENCE. The seduction of pessimism.

Apr 17, 2017

It seems that the end is nigh of much of what we know and love about our planet as climate change intensifies across the globe. Climate change science is painting a depressingly pessimistic picture of the future. Is there no hope? 

In a review article in The London Review of Books (“The Capitalocene,” 2 March 2017), Benjamin Kunkel provides a devastating picture of mounting disasters wrought by global warming and climate change. He writes:

Universal carbon pollution, known by the mild term ‘climate change’, is already distempering the seasons with bounding extremes of heat and cold, and magnifying storms and droughts; increasingly, it will spoil harvests, spread tropical diseases, and drown coastlines. (Less well known is the threat of more frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.) Excess carbon dioxide in the air, partly absorbed by the waters below, turns the oceans more acid, corroding coral reefs as well as the shells of clams, oysters and other calcifying organisms. Ocean acidification, a chief cause of the Great Permian Extinction some 250 million years ago, may come to factor in the ‘mass extinction event’ – a planetary culling of life-forms with few rivals in the earth’s history – currently taking place.   

This is grim news, the more so given the criminal negligence of this country’s government as it refuses, ostrich-like, to believe in, and act on, climate change. We are being plunged into a catastrophe whose early impacts are already hitting us, with far worse consequences on the way.

If the quickening of climate change is not addressed now it will bequeath to our grandchildren a devastated environment in which food and water shortages will catapult the world into savage conflicts. And those conflicts have the potential to bring on an early global endgame – especially when (not if) nuclear weapons are deployed.

Kunkel uses the books he reviews to comment on the crisis now looming over the world. He notes that the world is entering a new geological age: the Anthropocene – an era in which human activity is massively and destructively impacting on the normal patterns of global weather and the physical environment.

All the expert scientific evidence about climate change points to the fact that the Anthropocene threatens to be a new Armageddon exploding over our vulnerable world. Without urgently needed international cooperation we face planet-wide destruction on a massive scale. Kunkel is pessimistic about this kind of cooperation eventuating. He writes:

The literature of the Anthropocene so far fails to identify any historical process that might combine with moral exhortation to produce a borderless social movement in which human beings throughout the world effect their ecological solidarity as a political force.

The utter bleakness of climate change science is having a negative impact on the way creative intellectuals (latter-day prophets) think and move and have their being – and dither – in the world. There is much handwringing and shoulder shrugging going on but no forward thinking, no effective policy planning. The delays in thinking outside the orthodox policy circle are becoming legion, playing straight into the hands of the fossil fuel companies, their bankers and their short-sighted, self-regarding political cronies.

On the left, a deep sense of defeat has set in, described by Enzo Traverso as “so heavy that many of us preferred to escape rather than face it […] What remains […] is a mountain of ruins and we do not know how to start to rebuild, or if it is even worth doing” (Left-Wing Melancholia). On the right there is no one making any sense about climate change. In the face of the horror of it all too many good people are simply giving up.

It’s time to challenge this intellectual torpor. Yes, the science that has identified the Anthropocene is alarming. Already massive irreversible damage has been done. Options for the future are rapidly closing. Consider, for example, the extinction of numerous plant and animal species, the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, the increasing frequency and intensity of bushfires, longer and more frequent droughts, ever more flooding, more ferocious cyclones …

If only we could start a huge movement across the entire country against a major signal issue – for example, the gargantuan Adani-Carmichael coal mining project in Queensland – to educate and mobilize the country on the issue of climate change. If only we could find outstanding candidates to stand as independents at the next election against those dinosaur politicians opposing any action on climate change.

Could it be that the very science we are talking about is at least a partial cause of the intellectual inertia in countering the Anthropocene? This is in no way to give any ground whatsoever – not a centimetre – to that bizarre lot who make up the primitive brotherhood of climate change science deniers.

However, an intelligent questioning of science focusing on how we understand human knowledge more broadly is in order. Just how do we know what we think we know?

It is no exaggeration to say that in many parts of the world today science is seen as the ultimate truth. The extreme version of this doctrine (we can call it positivist fundamentalism) says that anything that is not scientifically testable is pre-scientific superstition, prejudice or ignorance.

The fact is that modern science has its limitations; its knowledge claims are strictly confined to the empirical world. This is not to deny that many of its achievements have been fabulous – in medicine, in increased food production, engineering, information technology, robotics, and a host of other areas.

However, if we allow the bad news that climate change science provides about the Anthropocene to rob us of our agency – our freedom to act well – by plunging us into despairing passivity, we dishonour that science. And to do that is to give it an ontological status that it does not claim for itself. We have to use its bad news about the Anthropocene to find new ways of countering its destructiveness while creatively inventing strategies for turning it into good news – to find real solutions to disasters that the Anthropocene will otherwise rain down on our heads.

Just as the dismal science of economics must not be allowed to make us feel helpless in the face of the madness of neoliberalism, so the gloomy science of climate change must not seduce us into pessimism and passivity about the earth’s future. If we give in to pessimism we become unwitting collaborators with the deniers of climate change science and their commercial and political cronies.

Dr Allan Patience is a principal fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences in the University of Melbourne.

Share and Enjoy !


Receive articles straight to your Inbox

How often?

Thank you for subscribing!