I'm reading
Clive Hamilton is an advocate for climate change
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Clive Hamilton is an advocate for climate change
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Clive Hamilton is an advocate for climate change
Pass it on
Pass it on
"I’m hopeful that wisdom and compassion will prevail. But I don’t believe that we can return the Earth to the way it was, and imagine that we can live in utopias to come."
Conversations
5 July 2017

Clive Hamilton is an advocate for climate change

Interview by Myke Bartlett
Photography by Amanda Thorson

Myke Bartlett on Clive Hamilton

Talking to Clive Hamilton isn’t an easy experience. For one thing, he is a fierce listener, ready to catch you out for a lazy turn of phrase, generalisation, or, in my case, a tendency to journalistic sensationalism. Chatting before a public talk, I rather cheekily asked him why he was a fan of internet censorship. Quite rightly, he accused me of gross simplification and misrepresentation.

The truth, of course, is far more complex than a snappy headline or pull quote was ever going to capture. Clive had campaigned some years earlier for a web filter to prevent children gaining access to internet pornography. The media seized on this as him supporting Stalinist-style censorship, even while Clive criticised attempts by then-government to implement its own secret blocklist of controversial webpages.

Of course, it wasn’t internet censorship we were there to talk about. Clive’s new book Defiant Earth discusses the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch where human activity has radically transformed the global environment. In short, it’s the era we now find ourselves in, one that is likely to be as dangerous as it is unpredictable. This is a world in which climate change isn’t a possible future, but a fact of life. What is most bracing about the book is that it doesn’t provide the simple answers the reader might crave. There is no band aid solution or silver bullet.

Instead, Clive encourages us to face up to the truth of anthropogenic climate change. Rather than talking about a cure, we should be talking about mitigation and adaptation. He writes not from the perspective of a climate scientist, but from that of an intellectual—Clive is, of course, Professor of Public Ethics at Canberra’s Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.

Clive paints a portrait of a humanity that, in attempting to raise itself above nature, has unleashed devastating forces that now threaten its own existence. In doing so, he raises big questions about our duty to our species and our planet. These are questions without an easy answer, but right now it is, perhaps, daring to ask them that is most important.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

How does a Professor of Public Ethics become a climate change campaigner?

Well I’d prefer to say I’m more of a climate change advocate…

Advocate’s a better word, isn’t it?

Although I suppose some of my writing has a campaigning element to it. I think I wrote my first paper on climate change policy in 1995, which was analysing and advocating for a carbon tax to be introduced to Australia. And that was in the very first years of the Australia Institute, the think tank that I founded and then ran for 14 years.

As soon as I began hearing about climate change in the early mid-90s it was apparent to me that this was a massive issue that was of profound importance to Australia and the world. An issue that was going to be with us for a very long time. And so my work and that of the institute focused quite heavily on climate change. It was one of the two or three main scenes of the institute’s work over the subsequent years. And of course I’ve become more and more alarmed about the implications of climate change as the scientists have rung the alarm bells ever more loudly. This led eventually to the book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Chang published in 2010, which was a kind of breakthrough book in a way. I think I was the first person to write a book saying, “We really have to confront the full horror of what the climate scientists are telling us. The fact that it really is too late to prevent an enormous amount of climate change happening on planet Earth.” And that, you know, in effect we’re screwed.

It’s not a particularly positive message to take away, and certainly this book is a very confronting book in that sense. How do you deal with that sense of doom and gloom? Does this stuff keep you up at night?

Without doubt. I read a particular scientific paper in 2008 which laid out the problem of climate change in terms of the emissions that had been put out into the atmosphere already and the extra emissions that would be put into the atmosphere over the next couple of decades. Even under the most optimistic set of assumptions, it was apparent that we were on a path to warm the Earth by three or four degrees and that that represented something catastrophic.

When I read that, everything came crashing in on me. I remember the very place I was at, the hour I was at, reading the article and the emotional wallop that it packed. It really transformed my whole understanding, in the sense that it made me face up to the truth, the plain and simple truth of what the climate scientists have been trying to tell us. It sent me into a depression that lasted at least twelve months. Twelve months in which I wrote Requiem for a Species.

It really is a kind of grieving process that one has to go through when one recognises that what the climate scientists are telling us is that the kind of future that we all implicitly imagine, the way we think and conceptualise the future, our own futures and that of the world, that that is just swept away by the fact that the material, physical world our next generations will grow up in will be an increasingly dangerous and hostile world to human flourishing.

When you face up to that it really requires a profound emotional reorientation.

And when that book came out, there were very, very few people who were at the point of actually truly facing up to it. I’ve subsequently learnt that some of them, after reading my book, went into a long depressive phase.

Which is natural. I mean you’re kind of not human if you don’t go through that. But many people, including a lot of environmentalists, simply weren’t willing to hear it because they were still operating on this kind of optimistic viewpoint that they can save the world. To give up on that vision is a very difficult thing to do. In fact some people lectured me, saying, Clive, you really mustn’t say these things because we must give people hope. And so I’d say to them, “Well so you’re saying we should lie to people?”

There is a concern there, though. If we paint too bleak a picture, people might just give up and there’ll be no attempt to tackle it. It almost becomes too much to think about.

I think the fact that it is almost too much to think about generally garners the reaction of denying it, evading it or not thinking about it. But when people are open to the full truth it is possible that they go into a despairing episode, and the question is how do they come out of that? There are three ways. One is that they don’t come out of it. And I know a few people like that. And it’s horrible to watch because they alienate people all around them. The second way is to engage in a kind of reversal to say, “Well, if that’s truth then we’re just going to party as if there were no tomorrow because there isn’t a tomorrow.” And the third, which I think is the far more common reaction, is to experience the despair of it but not be trapped in it. To come out of it with a more mature judgement about what it involves. Not to give up but to say, “Well the world is screwed, but we’re not yet totally screwed”.

Campaigning action can prevent the worst from happening.

And that’s what we’re obliged to do. If you look at organisations like Greenpeace, which are now fully apprised of what is happening and where we’re headed, they continue to campaign, they continue to be committed. In a way they’re even more committed because they realise just how high the stakes are.

So it’s important to identify degrees of being screwed? We’re, what, semi-screwed?

Oh, I think we’re screwed!

Oh right [laughs].

But yeah, of course, what does that mean? I mean one way of thinking about it is, yeah, like a quantitative sense. You know. Are we headed for two, three, four or five degrees of warming? I think very few people now believe we can limit warming to two degrees. I think after the Paris Accord at the end of 2015 there was a wave of optimism in which I was swept up too! Where we thought, You know maybe it’s just possible. And I think for many of us that prospect has faded. I mean two degrees is not our saviour at all. Two degrees is bad, let’s be truthful.

Look what’s happening in the world already at one degree and two degrees is going to be a lot worse. Three degrees, which seems to be where we’re probably headed, is going to be very bad indeed. And how bad is bad? Well, we just have to look at the best estimates made by the best climate scientists in the world to say, “Well, what kind of transformations in the Earth’s ecosystems, in oceans acidification, sea level rise, and so on are associated with a world that’s three degrees warmer?” And, you know, they’re big and bad and scary. But maybe we can limit it to that rather than four or five degrees, which is…I just don’t even want to think about. Then that’s a way of trying to draw a distinction between being very screwed and totally screwed.

It seems a few years ago we were headed in the right direction. The Paris Accord is a good example of that. We had a government that was committed to making some inroads to tackling climate change. We now have a US President who’s talking openly about pulling out of the Paris Accord. We have a government here that’s committed to coal. Do you see any room for optimism?

Well certainly there are positive signs, there’s no doubt about it. Two big positives happening are in China. Curiously enough, despite the nature of China as a one party state obsessed with industrial development, the Chinese government takes its greenhouse gas emissions very seriously indeed. There’s this bizarre inversion of the debate that was happening five or 10 years ago where the Americans were saying, “Well we’re not going to do much about our emissions until China does.” Now we have China doing a lot and the Americans saying, “Well we’re not going to do anything”. It seems very likely that China’s emissions have reached their peak and will now decline. Possibly reasonably rapidly. Given that China is now by far the largest emitter in the world, that’s a very positive sign indeed.

But the other positive sign is to say, “What is enabling China to do that?” And that is the really quite astonishing advances in renewable energy technologies and battery technology. What that means is that to a very significant degree the business world is leading governments, certainly governments in the United States and Australia. There’s a very strong sense now that governments are following industry rather than the other way around. I mean if you look at what’s happening in Australia we’ve seen the Abbott and then the Turnbull Governments basically dragging the chain, undoing progressive measures and doing something that every sensible person thought would be impossible—that is endorsing the building of a new wave of coal fired power plants. It’s not just irresponsible, it’s almost as if the troglodytes of the Turnbull government are turning on nature and giving it two fingers and saying “Do your worst”.

And yet even despite that we’ve seen dramatic changes, particularly within the electricity industry where there is now a great deal of momentum in renewable energy.

Even the coal-fired power plants are saying to the Federal Government, “Look, it does not make any sense to build more coal fired power stations”.

And that is an extraordinary thing since that same industry five years ago was fighting furiously against renewable energy. But they’ve now thrown in the towel and they can see that they have to remake their futures as energy supply companies.

The Adani mine that you’re referring to there is a great example of what’s going on at the moment. It’s getting a lot of coverage, but it’s very hard to explain logically why anyone would consider this to be a good idea. This week we’ve seen the Turnbull government decide that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation should recognise coal as the future. Why are they pushing this so hard when even, as you say, the coal companies are against it?

The Adani coal mine on the Galilee Basin is arguably the worst policy decision any government has ever made in Australia. I mean it’s so irrational and so contrary to global trends and so morally despicable. You run out of words to describe how bad it is. And in that vein I think the fundamental drive at the deep psychological level behind the desire to open up this vast new valley full of coal is this sentiment: “fuck the greenies”.

Right [laughs].

At the deepest level, that is what it’s about. “Fuck the greenies, we’ll show them.” Because what we’re seeing with the climate change debate, and we saw this emerge with the Tea Party from 2009 in the United States, very prominently there, and it was imported into Australia. Climate change became a symbol of the culture war.

And there are conservatives within the government and of course elsewhere who once were fighting a battle to the death against the Reds. And when the Reds collapsed in the early 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union, they turned their psychological energy on the Greens. I’ve actually tracked this in some of the writings that I’ve done in the past. You see it most explicitly in the writings of people like George Pell and Maurice Newman, the kind of chief ideologues of climate science denial. And Tony Abbott. The Greens are very much a kind of demon in their imagination rather than the actual Greens. It’s against the Greens that they define themselves as political beings. And therefore to defeat the Greens is their raison d’etre of political and personal activity.

So it’s purely reactionary. Anything that the Greens support, such as climate change action, has to be evil and therefore must be fought, regardless of the cost?

Yes. What they’re effectively doing there is defining climate science as ideology. Because the formation of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and its remit to facilitate the growth of the energy industries of the twenty-first century, which is happening all over the world, was built on the best science and aimed at decarbonising the Australian economy. This shift to allow it to support so-called “clean coal” is itself so full of ideology because, first of all, clean coal is an oxymoron. Carbon capturing stories is a pipe dream. Governments around the world have poured billions of dollars into it. And Treasury estimated three or four years ago that the earliest that carbon capture and storage technology could make a significant difference to Australia’s electricity emissions would be in 2042.

So are they serious? Are they serious in saying we imagine we’ll have a whole bunch of coal-fired power plants in Australia in 2042 and therefore, for many decades after that? I mean c’mon! Look what’s happened to renewable energy in the last ten years. Imagine what’s going to happen in the next ten years or twenty years. If it works, carbon capture and storage can only work with massive pubic subsidies in a way that renewable energy does not require. It’s kind of a fantasy land. It’s kind of forcing an old technology into a new energy world. I mean it’s so absurd, it’s beyond adjectives.

 

It’s bizarre. And it comes back to the question of why is climate change is seen as being so political. How can it be a political act, or apparently an ideological act, to accept the science and think that we should take action on it?

This is the great tragedy of the whole big climate debate. A tragedy that was created very deliberately by the fossil fuel industries in the 1990s and early 2000s by casting doubt on climate science as a way of protecting the future of the coal and oil industries. And that campaign morphed in the early mid-2000s into a culture war. It stopped being an industry campaign and climate science denial became a marker of one’s cultural belonging to a particular kind of group. The kind of person that doesn’t accept that climate change crap. In the United States that kind of person was almost identical to the kind of person who insists on having their guns and opposes abortion. It became a very powerful cultural marker. In order to sustain that cultural political position it became necessary to attempt to trash climate science.

So we have this situation where science has become collateral damage in a larger cultural war.

I think every thinking person thought this could not happen. Given the Enlightenment has been around for four or five hundred years, the scientific revolution has been around for 300 years, how could we possibly go back to a rejection of what it is that, in a way, defines the West? Yet this is what has happened to a very substantial degree, particularly in the Anglophone countries. Other Western countries are kind of mystified about what the Anglos are up to. But in the Anglophone countries we’ve seen a profound winding back of the Enlightenment itself.

It certainly feels this way, more so than last year I think. In 2007, you edited a book about how governments have been attempting to effectively politicise everything. To stifle debate for political reasons. That book argued that doing so presented a grave threat to democracy. Do you feel that the recent events have proved you right?

Oh yes, certainly. In our book “Silencing Dissent” Sarah Maddison and I included a series of chapters, looking at various institutions like universities, the wider research community, NGOs, the media, the public service, and the way in which each of those institutions—which had enjoyed within our democratic system a large degree of independence from the political process and direct political interference—had become increasingly targeted by politicians and political machines for manipulation and control. When we look back over more recent years since 2007 when that was published under the Howard Government, we can see that the trends have intensified. If we consider universities, for example, we see a much greater level of political interference through control of funding, through direction of research grants and so on. If we look at the public service, the way in which the public service has become more and more like an American Washington system rather than the traditional Westminster system in which public servants provide free and independent advice, we can see that the political system itself has become oddly enough much more intensely politicised. I think we’ve seen a narrowing of political perspectives and a spread of fear amongst those constituencies about expressing strong independent dissenting views. I think we’ve seen a sharp decline in dissenting opinion in Australia. There’s still some of course. But many more people feel as though they will suffer if they express dissenting opinions. So yes, I think we’ve certainly seen an increasing corrosion of some of the powerful institutions of a broadly democratic society.

There’s a sense that people’s positions have hardened. You were saying when you first wrote about this, that it was an eye-opener for you. In Defiant Earth you talk about how your views shift with new information, but perhaps many of us struggle to do that. Why do you think you were open to these ideas when you were first presented with them in the mid-90s?

Good question. So there are two kind of transition points. One was in the mid-90s when I just became more aware of the climate science. I began reading it, I began talking to some people who knew the science well. An awareness dawned on me of the enormous scale and global consequences of what scientists were saying. It just drew me in because it was so important. And then in 2008, as I mentioned, I had this kind of epiphany. The earlier one was a kind of intellectual realisation, whereas this was much more a kind of emotional one that kind of hit me in the solar plexus. Like, wow. This is just so profound and shocking for what it means for the world and for human kind. It had that impact because I’m a human being open to what the scientists are saying. And I think most people, when they get to the position where they can honestly and without ideology look at what is being said, then they react in the same way. And a lot of people now do. There was quite a lot of resistance to what I was saying in Requiem for a Species when it came out in 2010, but I don’t find that now at all. A lot of people have grasped that. And they’re as deeply disturbed about it as I am.

One of the things that I found interesting about this book, where you’re talking about the Anthropocene, is the suggestion that it obviously involves a radical rethinking of what it means to be human, our relationship with the environment. But you also suggest that established orthodoxies and philosophies, even progressive ones, are hindering our understanding of what the Anthropocene actually means. For example, feminist theories that dismiss science as an attempt by men to impose a masculine order on reality.

Yes. I see that as an indulgence.

Why?

When you’ve spent years as I have battling against climate science deniers, people who reject climate science, you realise just how important it is to defend science, to defend good solid science. That is the science performed by the world’s best scientists, published in refereed journals, tested, re-tested. And whereby the evidence piles up and piles up. And to start talking about science as a kind of masculine preoccupation, for example, is just ridiculous. Come on. I mean what is important in the world? Playing post-modern games? Or saving the world from catastrophe?

I’ve become increasingly intolerant of people who use their positions to play games like that. But that’s a kind of smaller issue. I think there’s a broader issue about our understandings of the world, including that of progressive forces. People on the left as well as those on the right. And that is when we look at all of our political philosophies, and particularly how they are turned into ambitions for the future of the world, whatever they may be, those political philosophies and the kind of utopian ideals that they give rise to are all rooted very firmly in the Holocene. That is in the kind of world, the kind of Earth that predated the Anthropocene. Bearing in mind that the Anthropocene emerged in decades after the Second World War but was only recognised in the last, you know, ten or fifteen years.

The Holocene was a remarkable period in the geological time scale, a ten thousand year period of really unusual—certainly unprecedented in the history of human kind on the Earth—climatic stability and of temperate climate across most parts of the world. And this ability and clemency is what permitted civilisation to flourish. Increasingly with the arrival of modernity and industrialisation and so on, we were able to shield ourselves more or less from the effects of the weather. In a way that’s what modern industrial society is about. Shielding ourselves from the effects of the weather, making our worlds kind of self-contained more or less.

But what we now see with the transitioning into the Anthropocene is the climate is becoming something against which we will struggle to protect ourselves. We can no longer take the Earth for granted. The Earth system, Gaia, in Lovelockian terms, is going to intrude into our lives more and more.

We previously lived in a world where we were making our lives on the back of a slumbering beast. But now the beast has been awakened by our own activities. And is beginning to rampage around in a way that’s very dangerous for human and other life.

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.

Okay.

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!”

Yes indeed.

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.

The question is what do we hope for? 

I guess the answer is that what we should hope that the wisdom and compassion which is part of humankind come to dominate so that we deal with this new situation in a way that protects humans and the Earth and the other creatures of the Earth as best we can. Because the alternative to that is very dark indeed. It’s a world of chaos and destruction and war. I’m hopeful that wisdom and compassion will prevail. But I don’t believe that we can return the Earth to the way it was, and imagine that we can live in utopias to come.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett was born in Perth, and spent his first twenty years trying to escape. A trained journalist, Bartlett writes on politics, movies, pop culture and rock music for Australia’s best known cultural publications. His debut young adult novel Fire in the Sea won the 2011 Text Prize. Read more at mykebartlett.com

Photography by Amanda Thorson

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.