ALLAN PATIENCE. The seduction of pessimism.

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.


Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science in the University of Melbourne where he lectures on Australian foreign policy.

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5 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE. The seduction of pessimism.

  1. Mary Tehan says:

    Prophets like Thomas Berry, Tony McMichael, Mary-Evelyn Tucker etc have put forward others ways to address this coming Armaggedon … For starters, let’s call it the Ecozoic Age (Thomas Berry) and start to use the language of hope … Yes, In the midst of ruin. The language of A new birthing of a greening, verdant future would do far more to motivate people than the politics of fear and scarcity. As an ecological-feminist who has just written a 12,000 word research essay on death, dignity, and euthanasia for my MA (theol) … Also with an MPH and Grad Cert in Pub Pol. … I find people are much more curious about life and it’s possibilities than death-dealing outcomes all the time. Let’s start with the language …

  2. michael lacey says:

    Good article Allan!
    We are at this stage wasted so much time in reducing the effects we are going to have to adapt to the changes as well as leave a small footprint!
    Unfortunately the poor countries do not have that ability as when you have lived in a global neoliberal environment for so long, stripped of any infrastructure to defend, they will face the brunt of these changes.
    We are in for a ride no matter what we do it is how we manage that ride that will determine our future globally!

  3. Allen Patience – The Seduction of Pessimism – Menadue 17 Apr 17
    I’m about half way through ‘Farewell to Ice – A Report from the Arctic’ by Prof Peter Wadhams. As with most of his work in print and on YouTube, it’s highly credible. But this is the scariest book of all the 150 others on climate change and related subjects in the library I seem to have accumulate since 2005. This is because Wadhams’ modelling shows a high and ever growing risk of a mega methane release in the Arctic, that if occurring would see humanity cross the COP21 agreed 2ºC boundary as early as 2035.
    But far scarier, in my view, is the criminal behavior of the disinformation spreading fossil fuel industry and our venal politicians who seem to feed at their trough and pretend climate change is not happening.
    As with Trump, they use their democratically given power to suppress effective action on eliminating the emissions that are progressively killing the planet. I suspect they excuse themselves by deciding that nothing can be done to slow down and stop the emissions, without of course knowing for sure whether this is true or not. If so, how dare they do so on our behalf without disclosure and agreement?
    So, what to do that is within an Australian citizen’s capacity to achieve?
    Given both the Govt and Labor are complicit in approving the Carmichael mine, there seems little point in giving either party a majority at the next election, as nothing will change.
    The best alternative is for 20-30 electorates in Australia to deprive either party from achieving a majority at the next election by following the example of Indi, the Victorian electorate which got together a small team of volunteers, researched the voters to find out what they wanted, sought and found an intelligent, hardworking and respected community member to represent them in Canberra as an Independent – Cathy McGowan, MP. She has so far won two elections against Sophie Mirabella.
    What else can we do? Gain the support of local councils to help their communities take climate emissions reduction into their own hands. There are already a few, who are already doing this, such as Northern NSW Byron Bay’s ‘Zero Emissions Byron’ project. Apart from achieving its object, such projects can provide enough educative information to help enlighten local deniers as well as empowering the local community to take highly effective action on reducing emissions.

  4. eric says:

    So what does this article say? I agree, someone must do something. What? A matter of weeks till Adani goes ahead if we can’t stop it. Years till Trump is replaced. They are talking of 8 years – it just takes a bomb here, a little war there. Then hit a feedback loop and it’s all over. We may have hit a few already (permafrost, arctic, Greenland). Maybe we are just pessimistic given Australian and US politics and uninformed tea party stubbornness. I’m not so sure. Sorry but I’m one of those despairers you despair of. Pessimism making me part of the problem not the solution, despite my letters and demos. I know you have to stay positive or you are certain to fail. So, someone must do something! Who and what? There’s already a movement against Adani (aycc, 350.Org, getup) and there are the greens, but who really notices. Hard to share ideas with denialist media and talk shows. Not sure your letter helped much. As for science limited to the empirical world. Yes, so it is. What else is there? At least what else that we can know in common?

  5. Tony Kevin says:

    Tony Kevin says:

    I read Allan Patience’s good new article The Seduction of Pessimism, and then I went back to an excellent earlier one here by Bob Douglas, Are Humans Headed to Early Extinction? Bob is an kold valued colleague. I will try to come on 4 May to the ANUEF discussion. I traversed some of this ground in my book Crunch Time nine years ago. Now we have our two major political parties supporting the Adani coal mine . It really is so bad now, there are two parallel universes in Australia. The ‘hard’ world of politics and economics still functions as if climate change did not exist. The ‘soft’ scientific, medical and public opinion world knows it does. How does the latter break through the iron complacency and unstated but real denialism of the former ? This is really the agenda for 4 May. If Canberra’s immensely impressive scientific community cannot break through to Turnbull and Shortsn to agree to cancel Adani, what hope is there for our species?

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