In the book, you talk about climate change as representing the return of the grand narrative, the idea that until now we’ve all been able to create our own little stories, our own little worlds to some extent, but we’re about to be drawn back into the one story. There’s a sense of a third act twist in which humans discover exactly how powerful we are and how much we’ve affected the environment, just in time to see the environment exact its revenge upon us.
In a way this is the fundamental insight and paradox of the future. On the one hand human beings are extraordinarily powerful with our technology, our sheer size, our numbers and our capacity to have an impact on the Earth’s system by exploiting resources. So powerful in fact that we have brought about a new geological epoch. But on the other hand the Earth system itself, roused from its slumber, is on a kind of rampage. One that is less and less predictable and less and less controllable. Humans are more powerful, the Earth is more powerful and there’s this great power struggle going on. A struggle we can’t win. We don’t have the intellectual resources. We don’t have the sense of self. But what it does tell us, at least as I argue in the book, is that humankind has become a unified entity for the first time. There is this new grand narrative, one governed by this new relationship of human beings to the Earth, or the Earth system.
Certainly a positive aspect that does arise in your book is this unprecedented cooperation between nations. It is truly a global story that could bring about a truly global community.
It is a global story that brings together humanity for the first time. But whether that results in more cooperation among peoples in order to face this common threat or whether it collapses into warring nations as we fight over diminishing resources is, in a way, the big unknown and the big opportunity and the big terror, of that, we face over the next twenty, thirty, forty years.
I guess that comes down to rethinking what it means to be human. How do you personally view human nature?
I think humans are contradictory. I think we’re capable of wonderful inventiveness and extraordinary levels of cooperation and humanity. But of course we’re also capable of enormous destructiveness and evil. And we see both of these at operation at all times. In some societies at some times one manifestation dominates, at other times a different characteristic of human beings dominates. And who knows how it will evolve over the next decade? History is a very unpredictable thing. Part of the problem is that we have this great temptation when thinking about the future to simply extrapolate on prevailing trends.
History repeatedly disrupts that kind of thinking and brings on some event, some rupture that can’t be predicted and yet can bring about in a very short time very radical change. For good and ill. And I suspect that we’re heading into a historical period which will be chaotic. And therefore unpredictable. And in a way it can be a source of optimism.
I mean Christians have this idea of Christian hope which relies on essentially the intervention of a benevolent divine entity who loves human kind and will save us from ourselves. I’m not a Christian so I don’t believe in Christian hope but I do believe in historical ruptures which can bring about new worlds which are far more amenable to a hopeful way of thinking.
There’s that great phrase for historians isn’t there? “Nobody knew then what lay around the corner!”
Another thing I found interesting in your book, was the suggestion that many of our ways of thinking about climate change—some of which would be identified as being positive ways of thinking—are kind of hubristic. In this Anthropocene, we as a species are marvelling at the impact we have on the world. Rather than seeing the Anthropocene as an epoch of damage, we feel we’ve been handed the keys to control nature. Do you think it’s naïve to think we might find a scientific solution to the problems we’ve created?
I think there’s an enormous risk of hubris, a kind of Promethean faith in the powers of humans to tame and control the Earth system. And yet there are those, those who call themselves “eco-modernists”, who say the Anthropocene represents a great opportunity for humankind to use our technological power to take control of the Earth and shape it to suit our interests. I think this is the worst time to bring up that kind of thinking. I mean it was more defensible twenty or thirty years ago, but now that the Earth system itself has been destabilised, disrupted and is now going into a period of great instability that will last tens of thousands of years, to believe that we can ramp up our level of technological control of the natural world I think is not just hubris but madness.
In saying that I’m not being anti-technological. Quite clearly in order to bring about decarbonisation of our economies we’re going to rely heavily on technological change. Technological change which is now underway with the extraordinary flowering of renewable energy technologies. But to think that we could, for example, use geo-engineering or some kind of biological engineering to solve the situation I think is very dangerous thinking.
We spoke before about the return of the grand narrative. Something else you talk about in your book is the idea that some people are excited by the idea of the Anthropocene. It’s like it’s a source of much needed drama. I know you’ve written in the past about “affluenza”, about the shallowness of modern consumer life. Do you feel that for some people this coming drama might be seen as something that gives life meaning again?
Very interesting question. I mean I put that comment in because I do get this sense when I talk to or listen to some of the more Promethean scientists talking about geo-engineering or indeed space travel, I think “you know, they’re loving this.” A lot of the warnings and dangers that the climate scientists and other kind of scientists tell us about, they’re in a way transcending them and turning the negative into a positive. Yeah, I find this disturbing, that people should approach the Anthropocene with a degree of excitement because it provides new opportunities for Promethean man to use technology to take control.
But this idea of needing meaning. Our modern lives have become so sheltered or obsessed with trivia that perhaps we need something that’s actually important, something “world changing” that will involve us all.
Yes, you’re quite right. There is another kind of angle to this which I don’t think we’ve seen emerge much yet, but it may well. And that is that mental illness declines sharply during war, wartime.
Is that right?
Yes. I mean it’s quite a well established phenomenon. In the Second World War for example. I mean you have to be careful saying this because for people caught up in appalling events, of course, it doesn’t do anything for their mental health. It’s deeply traumatising and destroys them. Psychologically. But if you look at home societies in England, United States, Australia for example, being engaged in a serious conflict, in a war, does result in a kind of focus for life in a way that results in a decline in measured levels of mental illness. Who knows? Perhaps if humankind is engaged in a war, if you like, a battle against a chaotic and perilous climate system, maybe for many people it will give them a renewed sense of direction. I must say that I’m really drawing a long bow here. But, you know, it’s a way in which communities come together in the face of natural disasters. Still you would not say “well, let’s have more natural disasters”.
I think we see an enormous amount of lack of purpose amongst the millennial generation. In a way that wasn’t the case when I was young for reasons I don’t really understand. I think there is a great lack of meaning. And I think a lot of it has to do with with affluenza. For most people, not all people of course, but for most people in a country like Australia the notion of having to struggle to obtain and sustain a standard level of living has disappeared. When people’s daily lives are often occupied to a degree about deciding where you can get the best cup of coffee—and, you know, I put my hand up for that—then, you know, life is lacking some deeper purpose.
At the beginning we talked about you being depressed in the mid-2000s as you faced up to the truth about climate change. I experienced something similar last year with first Brexit and then the election of Donald Trump. I had this real sense the world was ending. Nuclear war was imminent. And this year that horror has somehow gone away, even though things haven’t got any better. Do you think there’s a danger that we might acclimatise to this new state of environmental trauma?
I think what you just described and what happened to me and many other people comes about because it’s a natural process. You go into this kind of depression or despair because everything seems so bleak, and it is. But it’s in our nature, it’s in our psychological composition to then emerge from that. I mean it’s bad news if you don’t. If you stay there. You need to go and talk to someone about it. But you know we are kind of naturally hopeful creatures. And we emerge from it and we think, It’s still as bad as I knew it was, but somehow you start to see a way of coping and dealing with it.
I think we’ll always be going through that. There’ll be more shocks that will affect us. But then we’ll come through it and try to work out how to live in the new situation. Humans are very good at doing that. Fortunately. It’s one of our, endearing characteristics I think.
We’ve spoken quite a bit about obviously dark things—fear, hopelessness—do you think there are reasons to be hopeful? Is there any light at the end of this particular tunnel do you think?
People often ask me if we should be hopeful. I say, hopeful for what? A lot of people are kind of bamboozled by this because hopefulness seems to be a general approach that everything will turn out all right in the end. If you think about the impacts of climate change on the Earth’s system, well things will not turn out to be all right in the end. We have brought about a permanent change in the way the Earth system functions. One that will get worse. This is not disputable.