A Good Anthropocene?

A fascinating debate has emerged between Andy Revkin and Clive Hamilton about our path into the future.

Hamilton says “I think those who argue for the “good Anthropocene” are unscientific and live in a fantasy world of their own construction.”

Revkin often drives me crazy but I expect I will come down firmly on his side on this one.


UPDATE:

Well, I watched Revkin’s whole hour, and he is a bit self-congratulatory for my taste. He offers homilies as opposed to strategies.

But as far as he goes, it all seems reasonable. The main thing I could object to is his downplaying of “numbers”, but he somewhat makes up for it in his plea for discipline, which of course will bring numbers right back into it.

I wish he would stop talking up Kahan, and I wish he’d stop thinking he is a musician worthy of public note. But these are quibbles.

I totally agree with his “reveal” pitch, which the badly filmed video, ignoring his images, ironically buried.

But nobody seems to be addressing the actual content of the talk. There is some irritation about the generally optimistic feeling of it, and indeed as a public address it is light on consequences, but this is intended for us sustainability obsessives, not for the public, and as such I fail to see the concern.

No the argument is whether it is permissible to juxtapose the words “good” and “anthropocene”. But “good” is such a vague word that objecting to it seems to me a very weak posture. Indeed, in his Dot Earth piece he mentions that he is using ‘good’ in an ethical sense, not in a sense of outcomes. He says

I was invited to give the opening talk, which I called “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene” — with quotation marks around the adjective “good” to stress that values determine choices:

Not only do I entirely agree that we can have an ethically ‘good’ future, I also believe that we can have an actually ‘good’ future in terms of dignity, sustainability and joy. Some say it is automatic, and we should just eschew meddling with the corporate economy which will inevitably deliver left to its devices. I don’t believe that for a minute. A good outcome will require a lot of work and a fair amount of courage. But if I thought it was out of reach, I’d go all doomer and hide in a cave.

What motivates me to keep going is the following by Bruce Sterling:

Our capacities are tremendous. Eventually, it is within our technical ability to create factories that clean the air as they work, cars that give off drinkable water, industry that creates parks instead of dumps, or even monitoring systems that allow nature to thrive in our cities, neighborhoods, lawns and homes. An industry that is not just “sustainable,” but enhances the world. The natural world should be better for our efforts and our ingenuity. It’s not too much to ask.

You and I will never live to see a future world with those advanced characteristics. The people who will be living in it will pretty much take it for granted, anyway. But that is a worthy vision for today’s technologists: because that is wise governance for a digitally conquered world. That is is not tyranny. That is legitimacy.

Without vision, the people perish. So we need our shimmering, prizes, goals to motivate ourselves, but the life is never in the prize. The living part, the fun part, is all in the wrangling. Those dark cliffs looming ahead — that is the height of your achievement.

We need to leap into another way of life. The technical impetus is here. We are changing, but to what end? The question we must face is: what do we want? We should want to abandon that which has no future. We should blow right through mere sustainability. We should desire a world of enhancement. That is what should come next. We should want to expand the options of those who will follow us. We don’t need more dead clutter to entomb in landfills. We need more options.

It needs to happen. It must happen. It is going to happen.

That’s the Planet3.0 Manifesto, in case you missed it.

Is that Polyannish? I don’t think so. Is it true? Well, maybe not the part about hydrogen cars, but basically yes. Our capacities are immense.

The future is not yet written. We must mourn our losses, but it is far too soon to be giving up.

Those dark cliffs looming ahead? That is the height of your achievement.

Comments:

  1. I find it difficult to dispute what Clive Hamilton says, though. Is it right to spin the positives in search of more effective communication?

    Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

    • We need to mourn, but we also need to move on, I think. It is wrong to act as if our conditions were good news, yet it is also wrong to oppose making the best of it.

      • The most useful thing is to build visible cooperation, so that people have a purpose even when (or if) conditions worsen. People can do well under almost any degree of hardship if they believe in what they are doing. And if they are part of a group effort. Fake thinking isn't going to help. Not to be alarmist in outlook, but neither rose-colored.

      • I also think that simplifying the message to: 2°C is possible if you want it, but you have to work for it -- otherwise, we're in for 4°C or more -- is better than running one of the many fog machines that seem to be around these days. And I come from 20 yrs of television advertising. A clear message, even a challenge, is best.

      • Having read the linked piece by Clive Hamilton, I can't see that he's opposed to making the best of the situation. I think a fair paraphrase of his point of view is that pretending the best, even given the most strenuous efforts at mitigation imaginable, is going to be okay, even good, is counter-productive.

      • No offence, but I see Hamilton's criticism as directed more toward delusional denial that there's a really, really big problem facing humanity - one that's in fact going to result in a mind-boggling amount of death and suffering unless Herculean efforts are undertaken ASAP. Revkin's position seems to me to be rather like someone carrying on about how great the future lemonade is going to be whilst a five ton lemon is rolling down the hill toward all of us.

      • Revkin's talk was addressed to an audience surrounded by lemons.

        One of the biggest mistakes in modern communication is to presume your pitch to one group is invisible to other groups. But one can go overboard, beleiving evry pitch is aimed at the bropadest imaginable audience.

        I read Revkin as addressing people who are already engaged, not those in full-throated denial.

  2. Of course there is a technical solution. It will take hundreds of billions of dollars for many decades. So far nobody powerful seems to have taken this up.

  3. Well, I watched Revkin's whole hour, and he is a bit self-congratulatory for my taste. He offers homilies as opposed to strategies.

    But as far as he goes, it all seems reasonable. The main thing I could object to is his downplaying of "numbers", but he somewhat makes up for it in his plea for discipline, which of course will bring numbers right back into it.

    I wish he would stop talking up Kahan, and I wish he'd stop thinking he is a musician worthy of public note. But these are quibbles.

    I totally agree with his "reveal" pitch, which the badly filmed video, ignoring his images, ironically buried.

    But nobody seems to be addressing the actual content of the talk. There is some irritation about the generally optimistic feeling of it, and indeed as a public address it is light on consequences, but this is intended for us sustainability obsessives, not for the public, and as such I fail to see the concern.

    No the argument is whether it is permissible to juxtapose the words "good" and "anthropocene". But "good" is such a vague word that objecting to it seems to me a very weak posture. Indeed, in his Dot Earth piece he mentions that he is using 'good' in an ethical sense, not in a sense of outcomes.

    I was invited to give the opening talk, which I called “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene” — with quotation marks around the adjective “good” to stress that values determine choices:

    Not only do I entirely agree that we can have an ethically 'good' future, I also believe that we can have an actually 'good' future in terms of dignity, sustainability and joy. Some say it is automatic, and we should just eschew meddling with the corporate economy which will inevitably deliver left to its devices. I don't believe that for a minute. A good outcome will require a lot of work and a fair amount of courage. But if I thought it was out of reach, I'd go all doomer and hide in a cave.

    What motivates me to keep going is the Planet 3.0 manifesto, basically lifted from a talk by Bruce Sterling:

    Our capacities are tremendous. Eventually, it is within our technical ability to create factories that clean the air as they work, cars that give off drinkable water, industry that creates parks instead of dumps, or even monitoring systems that allow nature to thrive in our cities, neighborhoods, lawns and homes. An industry that is not just “sustainable,” but enhances the world. The natural world should be better for our efforts and our ingenuity. It’s not too much to ask.

    You and I will never live to see a future world with those advanced characteristics. The people who will be living in it will pretty much take it for granted, anyway. But that is a worthy vision for today’s technologists: because that is wise governance for a digitally conquered world. That is is not tyranny. That is legitimacy.

    Without vision, the people perish. So we need our shimmering, prizes, goals to motivate ourselves, but the life is never in the prize. The living part, the fun part, is all in the wrangling. Those dark cliffs looming ahead — that is the height of your achievement.

    We need to leap into another way of life. The technical impetus is here. We are changing, but to what end? The question we must face is: what do we want? We should want to abandon that which has no future. We should blow right through mere sustainability. We should desire a world of enhancement. That is what should come next. We should want to expand the options of those who will follow us. We don’t need more dead clutter to entomb in landfills. We need more options.

    It needs to happen. It must happen. It is going to happen.

    Is that Polyannish? I don't think so. Is it true? Well, maybe not the part about hydrogen cars, but basically yes. Our capacities are immense. The future is not yet written. We must mourn our losses, but it is far too soon to be giving up.

  4. Just to add to the conversation, here's thoughts from McKinsey:
    http://youtu.be/RAmviTtuN7k

    Flickering lights, time-lapse, and waving hands. And yet there are underlying points. At least on the mega-corporate level, this subject is well known. (McKinsey published a great piece by Kim Stanley Robinson a few years ago, "Time to Stop the Multigenerational Ponzi Scheme," which unfortunately they've taken down, but at least shows they are thinking. I think I saw that piece on Only In It For the Gold, actually.)

    Hopefully the seers at the mega-corporations aren't all trapped in this syndrome:
    http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/living-denial

  5. Joe Romm's critique is compelling enough to make me rethink my position on Revkin's talk.Anyway worth reading.

    I agree with Joe that it's naive to think that we can get by without policy. But without individual commitment and individual creativity there is no answer either. It's kind of an all-of-the-above strategy.

  6. Dot Earth links back quoting extensively from my extensive quotation of my favorite thing Bruce Sterling has ever said.

    Monbiot gets it without a noodge from me or @bruces :

    None of this is to suggest that we should not discuss the threats or pretend that the crises faced by this magnificent planet are not happening. Or that we should cease to employ rigorous research and statistics. What it means is that we should embed both the awareness of these threats and their scientific description in a different framework: one that emphasises the joy and awe to be found in the marvels at risk; one that proposes a better world, rather than (if we work really hard for it), just a slightly-less-shitty-one-than-there-would-otherwise-have-been.

  7. I submit that Revkin loses the benefit of the doubt with this:

    “I trust those bridling at vision of a “good” #Anthropocene aren’t hoping for bad one. http://nyti.ms/1qdcd0F @CliveCHamilton @ElizKolbert.”

    • Sorry, Andy, he took the words out of my mouth. That was exactly my reaction. What bothers you about it?

      • I'm not clear which Andy you are apologising to here. Not Andy Revkin, presumably?

        I found that sentence unnecessarily confrontational - I'm certainly bridling at the implications of it and less likely to give the rest of his argument the benefit of the doubt as a result. It always strikes me as interesting that the delicacies of communication only seem to apply in one direction.

      • I thought probably so.

        I'm surprised Michael doesn't see the problem in Andy Revkin's phrasing. There's a reasonable point to make but that's not the way to make it and does he think there are many who haven't already dealt with these questions numerous times themselves already? You can hardly go for more than a day or two communicating with 'sceptics' without having it raised in some form or other.

      • I thought there was enough original content in Revkin's talk that it should be seen as a contribution.

        I certainly don't agree with all of it or like all of it. But I don't listen to people just because I agree with everything they say.

        I found the reactions to it disturbing because they were so shallow and off point, and "what, did you want a bad anthropocene?" was exactly the thought that crossed my mind. So I can't fault Revkin for thinking it.

        Should he have said it? Well, why not - he was the injured party and a little bit of snark is called for.

      • I'm not clear that Andy Revkin was the injured party - not that I've followed it closely enough to know. The phrase 'Good Anthropocene' is clearly, and presumably deliberately, provocative. It would also surely be wrong to ignore the context of previous things Revkin has had to say. Given this I think it justifiable to be a bit pissed off about the phrase, even if the details of his speech suggest a more nuanced interpretation.

  8. Pingback: Another Week in the Ecological Crisis, June 22, 2014 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  9. It might help to reformulate the device:

    "I trust those who see this as a bracing challenge aren't gleefully looking forward to the resettlement of Bangladesh's population."

    Nothing disparaging implied, right? Certainly not said.

  10. submitted to Revkin's thread, where comments were snagged for a long time:

    I'm not an optimist. I do not predict a good outcome. Nor am I a pessimist. I do not predict a bad outcome. I think the whole question is wrong-headed in the extreme.

    The whole point of calling our time the anthropocene is to emphasize that we control our destiny. Good, or bad? It's our decision and our responsibility.

    I believe a tolerably good outcome is possible, if and only if we work together toward it. It's not a question of predicting. It's a question of deciding.

    Though some losses are already behind us and many more are inevitable, there is still much we can celebrate and build upon. We must stop treating the natural world as something to exploit, and start realizing that it is our home. If we do that, we can thrive. The other choices look dire. Why not choose to do our best?

    • MT, have you come across the word 'apocaloptimist'?

      http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/01/seven-good-reasons-to-be-an-apocaloptimist

      New to me. No doubt some would say that Revkin is an apocaloptimist - or even that you are. Not being an optimist (or a pessimist) is probably not enough to not be an apocaloptimist in some quarters.

      Other possible rubbish^Wcreative coinages:

      * apocaloptometrist = someone who tries to correct faulty worldviews that fail to see the coming apocalypse, usually by invoking science and prescribing doom-coloured lenses. (I'd have put Andrew Simms here, but I haven't read his new book.)

      * apocalopportunist = someone who jumps on the climate change bandwagon to further an existing cause (veganism, newt-fancying, anti-Americanism, post-colonial-guilt-driven oikophobic neo-colonial white-saviour-industrial-complexism... whatever).

      * catastrophilatelist = an obsessive collector of tokens of the coming apocalypse.

      * eschatonanist (or armageddonanist) = doomwanker (see catastrophilatelist).

      * apocalyptopharmacopolist = one who peddles drugs/cures for the apocalypse or for anxiety about the apocalypse.

      * cataclysmaoist = ... dunno. (State-funded anti-state 'back to nature' autarkist a la Transition Towns?)

      * apocalypstickonapigian = apocaloptimist or its opposite, whatever that might be, depending on context.

      * armageddontiredofthisalready(ist).

      • Those are wonderful! Thank you. But philately one does bring up a truly nasty thought. (Perhaps I should hold my keystrokes; why bring it up.) Catastrocastrato? Silence of the soprano mutes? Oh god, please let me stop.

        But honestly, I'm just hanging on like grim death to the simple truth that giving up is just lazy. We have a commitment to life, because that's all there is, and that's all about it.

      • It's no surprise that Andy Revkin mentions your generous interpretation of his talk, but I think his choice of elevating Curt Stager's comment is more revealing. Stager starts by misrepresenting Clive Hamilton's response. Hamilton certainly sees the future as being bad, but is closer to your position than Stager's, I believe, when he says

        It is the possibility of preventing bad turning into very bad that motivates many of us to work harder than ever.

        Stager also repeats the same, to my mind quite offensive, comment that afeman objected to above, about people appearing to hope for the worst. But most disturbing in my view is the implication in Stager's comment that some potential benefits from warming would, given a scientifically objective viewpoint, in some sense balance out the negatives we are likely to experience. Does Revkin endorse this?

      • "...but is closer to your position than Stager's..." should read something like "...but is closer to your position than Stager's characterisation..." - Stager says

        Ethicist Clive Hamilton’s premise that seeing anything but catastrophe in an Anthropocene future is “un-scientific”

        This is not Hamilton's premise.

      • I must disagree. there was a lot I could complain about in Revkin's piece (I will get back to the disdain for numbers, which is telling), but it didn't irritate or appall me anywhere near as much as Hamilton's did. And it doesn't seem to me to be a terrible mischaracterization of Hamilton even if not a direct quote.

        This is a direct quote:

        Tacking “good” onto “Anthropocene” may be an effective emotional reframing, but it is without scientific foundation.

        And sorry, but that claim basically sucks rocks.

        It strikes me as pure Climateball. Bombastic, meaningless, alienating, self-aggrandizing, and, quite literally, stupefying. Can we grow up, now, please?

      • Can we grow up, now, please?

        By saying things like 'people appear to be hoping for the worst'?

        I'm not particularly defending Hamilton - I didn't like his follow up piece much, but it is a misrepresentation of him to say that he sees only catastrophe in the anthropocene future. 'Bad' is not the same as 'catastrophe'.

        Do you not see any problem with Curt Stager saying the following?

        Science demands that we consider more than what most grabs our attention, and as with past global changes one’s loss is another’s gain; this makes rigorous ethical analysis more difficult than the science itself. As Arctic sea ice species wane, southern taxa are re-colonizing waters their ancestors knew in past warm periods, and as parts of Bangladesh submerge Greenlanders find new opportunities.

        And do you not see any problem with Andy Revkin elevating it from the comments?

      • I'm with OPatrick on this one. Andy Revkin's constant beating the bushes for positive voices is not helping and some of the people he promotes are subtly misdirecting people away from the truth. I'm of the opinion that until we all get that this is a planetary emergency, work of the scale that is needed is not going to happen. Evidence now is that we are hell bent on consuming everything in sight, have no idea that we need to change, and techno-optimists are not helping.

        We do not need to be "perfect" to tell the truth. Demanding perfection from those who are aware that our global system is in trouble allows us to target each other rather than pointing out that disinformation is wrong and bends towards evil.

        As an avid NY Times participant, I note also the recent Nyhan article, "When Beliefs and Facts Collide." The comments there are a study. He promotes Kahan, who already gets too much attention, but the point is valid. There is no bridge crossing there; the arguers have every denialist meme down pat and are significantly incurious about what they oppose. (And I'm sticking with denial as I'm sick of the word being used as an excuse to ignore the message and beat on the messenger, we've been bamboozled on that one, avoiding the real issues in favor of an argument that enables falsehood.)

  11. > Our capacities are immense.

    As Lessig would say on an even more pressing matter:

    The odds are irrelevant.

    https://twitter.com/MayOneUS/status/485213170471280640


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