Utopias in the Anthropocene

[In my opinion this article deserves a lot more attention than it has received to date. Presented at a plenary session of the American Sociological Association meeting in August 2012, it’s republished here with the permission of the author, Dr. Clive Hamilton. It’s quite sobering, but we are where we are, and five years later, we appear hardly closer to understanding and accepting it. The original, with footnotes and references, appears here. -mt]

Utopias in the Anthropocene

It is not widely understood that carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for centuries, so our
future will depend on the total amount we humans put into it over the next several decades.
This is the paramount fact that separates climate change from all other environmental

On top of past emissions, the total amount will depend on two critical factors—the year in
which global emissions reach their peak, and how quickly they fall thereafter. Let’s make
some optimistic forecasts. Firstly, assume that global emissions peak in 2020, so that after
that year any increase in emissions from poor countries must be more than offset by declines
in rich countries. Realistically, after persistent failure to reach an international agreement,
global emissions are likely to keep growing until 2030 or beyond.

Second, assume that global emissions fall by 3% each year after the 2020 peak until they
reach a floor, the minimum necessary to supply the world’s population with food. Of course,
we cannot expect poor countries to cut their emissions as fast as rich ones, so a global decline
of 3% per annum translates into a 6-7% per annum decline in energy and industrial emissions
in rich countries.

Can this be done? It would certainly be unprecedented. After the collapse of the Soviet
Union, Russia’s total emissions in 1990s fell by 5.2% per annum, which is close to the rate
of decline needed. However, the sharp decline in emissions was associated with a halving of
that nation’s GDP, with widespread social misery.

Nevertheless, if we think positive and assume global emissions do peak in 2020 and decline
by 3% annually thereafter, with rich country energy and industrial emissions falling by 67%,
where would that leave us? The shocking fact is that this optimistic scenario would see
concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reach 650 ppm (the pre-industrial level
was 280 ppm and it now stands at 392 ppm). That level translates into warming of 4°C above
the pre-industrial global average. As oceans warm more slowly, a global average of 4°C
means warming of 5-6°C on land, and even higher closer to the poles. Warming on this scale
and at the expected rate, would radically change the conditions of life on earth. The world
would be hotter than at any time for 15 million years, yet this is now regarded by leading
climate scientists as the most likely future before the end of the century.

This analysis has been replicated, with small variations, by a number of research groups.
A study for the German government shows rates of emissions reductions that would be
needed if we are to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 2°C (Figure 1). If global
emissions peak in 2020 they would need to decline at 9% per annum thereafter, an impossible
task. No wonder John Schellnhuber, who led the research, referred to the curves as ‘vicious

Another analysis from the Climate Interactive program developed by MIT’s Sloan School
and the Sustainability Institute (Figure 2) shows possible paths of emissions reduction and
the associated temperatures at the end of the century. If we are in an optimistic frame of
mind and assume that the commitments made by various nations at international summits are
implemented in full then we will be on the ‘Confirmed proposals’ path, which is expected to
see the Earth warm by 4°C.

The International Energy Agency is the last international body that could be accused of green
sympathies, other than OPEC. Yet last year it concluded that if governments do no more than
implement the policies they are currently committed to the world is expected to warm by
3.5ºC by the end of the century. It concluded: ‘On planned policies, rising fossil energy use
will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change’. Without radical policy
change in the major emitting nations, this future will be locked in over the next five years
because the infrastructure will have been built.

Warming approaching 4°C is uncharted territory. As is apparent from Figure 3, the climate
system would cross several tipping points and trigger various feedback effects that would
render the climate system largely beyond human control. The idea that when things get
too hot we can then turn the thermostat down is not how the climate system works. On the
road to warming of 4ºC the Earth system would cross several thresholds that would amplify
warming and make the climate system unstable. The planet has warmed by 0.8ºC above
the pre-industrial average already and inertia in the system means that 2.4ºC of warming is
already locked in, with heating reaching 4ºC perhaps in the 2070s.

What are the expected impacts? I don’t plan to dwell on the likely impacts of a 4°C world,
except to refer to the well-known ‘burning embers’ diagram. In Figure 4, the left half shows
the best estimates in 2001 of indicators like threats to ecosystem survival and risks of extreme
weather events at various degrees of warming. The right half shows the assessment of risks
updated in 2009 on the basis of new research. Redder areas indicate higher risks.

A decade ago we thought we were reasonably comfortably located in the lower left quarter,
i.e. that 2°C was an achievable aim and the impacts of 2°C warming were worrying but
manageable. With a better understanding of the higher risks of each degree of warming, and
the realisation that 2°C is unattainable and we will be lucky not to reach 4°C, we suddenly
find ourselves in the sea of red in the top right hand quarter of the diagram. The alarm bells
are ringing insistently, yet we are deaf to them.

It’s hard to communicate to the public what a world warmed by 4ºC will be like. Even those
who have no reason to doubt the credibility of the figures don’t really take them seriously.
It seems like an abstract threat. For many people one unseasonable snowstorm is enough
to nullify decades of painstaking scientific study. And psychologists have discovered that,
after accounting for all other factors, when people are put in a room and asked about climate
change they are significantly more likely to agree that global warming is ‘a proven fact’ if the
thermostat is turned up.

The Anthropocene

As I have said, the persistence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the most profound and
least well-known feature of human-induced climate change (Figure 5). The climatic effects
of burning fossil fuels will last longer than Stonehenge, longer even than nuclear waste, and
will bring a long era of climatic instability. The impact of burning fossil fuels on the Earth’s
atmosphere has been so far-reaching that it is the principal factor, along with population
growth, that has persuaded Earth system scientists to declare that the Earth has entered a new
geological epoch known as the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans.

The Anthropocene is defined by the fact that the ‘human imprint on the global environment
has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in
its impact on the functioning of the Earth system’. This new epoch comes after an
extended period of unusual climatic stability, a 10,000-year era known as the Holocene. The
Holocene’s mild and equable climate permitted human civilisation to flourish. But humans
have flourished so successfully in this sympathetic environment that we have shifted Earth’s
geological arc.

The Anthropocene began at the end of the 18th century with the industrial revolution. It was
not until the 19th century that the idea of progress took hold, an idea that since the 1950s
has become identified with economic growth. Endless growth has been the shared goal of
capitalism and socialism, but when the visionaries and pragmatists of all political traditions
promised affluence they took for granted the accommodating conditions of the Holocene.

The arrival of the Anthropocene represents the most far-reaching challenge to the growth
project and all political and social analysis that presupposes it. If the Holocene’s anomalous
stretch of climatic dependability made civilization possible, what does it mean for the
Holocene to come to an end? What does it mean for humankind to be entering an era of
climatic volatility, with a rate of warming hardly matched in the palaeoclimate record?
The most immediate implication is that the principal assumption of modernity, that of
endless progress, now looks untenable. We are inclined to forget how deeply entrenched this
assumption is; it is the grand narrative that would not die, the story-line of daily decisionmaking
in public, corporate and private life.

It has often been noted that utopian political ideals were a materialized form of the Christian
promise of salvation. Among utopians, it did not take long for the ideal of progress to harden
into a law, a law of history. The law of progress allowed those who understood it to know
the future; to be a political actor then meant to work to bring about more quickly that which
is inevitable. When the ideal became law all champions of social transformation—democrats,
Marxists and liberators of all kinds—could believe that history was on their side. That is what
it meant to be ‘progressive’. Philosophers like Hegel provided the dialectic motor for the iron
logic of progress, but in the end the proof was there for all to see in the relentless advance of
gross domestic product.

But what happens to the ideal of progress when the law fails, or proves to have been true
only for an epoch that has now passed? The law can live on only at the price of denying
the passing of the age of progress and pretending that the Anthropocene is something for
scientists alone to worry about. Although the births of utopias are precipitated by times of
great turmoil, all presuppose stability and the absence of conflict; yet there will be no stability
in the Anthropocene, especially if the expectations of abrupt change (unprecedented rates of
warming, tipping points, feedback effects and so on) come to pass. Instead of investing in
more growth we will be pouring resources into trying to climate-proof our lives—our cities,
our coasts, our infrastructure, our houses and our food supplies. The dominant task will be to
protect the gains of the past and manage the effects of climatic insecurity so that they do not
spill into conflict.

Unreal utopias

Entrenched structures of power and unchangeable ‘human nature’ have always been the
principal obstacles on the path to utopia. For utopians overcoming them is achieved by way
of a historical rupture, often an act of violence, that overthrows the old structures and creates
a ‘new man’. But the rupture we now confront is not one of our making, or rather not one we
have consciously brought about; it is not one to welcome but one to resist for it renders us
less free, less powerful, and less able to build a New Jerusalem. We begin to see that in the
vision of ‘permanent self-surpassing toward an infinite goal’ lay a trap that has only now
been sprung. We believed that human destiny could be shaped by what we believed; yet now
we see that all utopias rested on the technological transformation of nature but that nature
would not be subdued and now holds our fate in its hands.

Some leading thinkers have begun to grapple with the meaning of the new epoch now
dawning and the all-crushing truth of climate science. In Living in the End Times Slavoj
Žižek takes up the essential question for the left: with the shift to the Anthropocene, ‘how
are we to think the link between the social history of Capital and the much larger geological
changes of the conditions of life on Earth?’ Yet Žižek can get only get to declaring
that ‘materiality is now reasserting itself with a vengeance’ over intellectual labour before
reverting to labour, capital and the old social categories, unable to see that the convergence
of human history with geological history (Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essential insight) has
invalidated the ‘social only’ understanding of the world.

For Žižek the ground has not shifted and the task remains the remaking of the social and
economic system to ‘solve’ the problem, confident that the Earth will obediently follow
the program. Human agency, the first-born child of the Enlightenment, is undimmed: ‘one
can solve the universal problem … only by first resolving the particular deadlock of the
capitalist mode of production’. But the paramount fact of carbon dioxide’s longevity in the
atmosphere means that it is too late to ‘solve’ the problem. We cannot make it go away; we
can only hope to moderate the worst.

Ulrich Beck seems to go much further in recognizing that the unintended dynamics of
capitalist modernization ‘threatens its own foundations’. Climate change demonstrates the
impossibility of maintaining sociology’s separation of social forces from natural ones and
enforces ‘an ongoing extension and deepening of combinations, confusions and “mixtures”
of nature and society’. Yet Beck too immediately reverts to the familiar by insisting that
climate change must be inscribed into the old categories. It is true, as he writes, that ‘one
cannot conceptualize climate change without taking its impacts on social inequality and
power into account’; but it is also true that one cannot come to grips with climate change if it
is cast only as a problem of power relations and differences among humans.

Beck somehow manages to reframe the destabilization of the conditions of life on a
millennial scale as a golden opportunity to achieve the progressive dream. Let us close our
ears, he tells us, to ‘depressing’ talk of catastrophe and shun the ‘negativity’ of ‘well-meaning
green souls’. When the ‘world public’ (itself a utopian fantasy) wakes up to the fact that
we are all in this together ‘something historically new can emerge, namely a cosmopolitan
vision in which people see themselves … as part of an endangered world …’. He entertains
the poignant wish that a golden era of ‘enforced enlightenment’ and ‘cosmopolitan realism’
will dawn.

Beck is the ultimate Modern, whose implicit faith in reflexivity guarantees our autonomous
capacity to respond to the world as it is. Responding to climate change requires a ‘new
contract between the managers of risk and the victims of risk in world risk society’. Yet
is not the essential lesson of the climate crisis that reflexive modernisation has failed?
We would expect the new conditions to ‘bend back’ on the agents so that they shape the
environment to avoid the threatened harms. But the most striking fact about the human
response to climate change is the determination not to reflect, to carry on blindly as if nothing
is happening.

Moreover, Beck’s new contract is one from which the Earth itself, in its new incarnation
as the Anthropocene, has been excluded, except as the spur to greater human triumph. The
existential threat morphs into the occasion for total emancipation, where all of the problems
that have beset the world will be resolved. For Beck, ecology becomes the solution to
poverty, inequality and corrosive nationalism. The social always defeats the natural; the
Earth remains the mere backdrop on which the human drama is played out.
So confident is Beck that human agency can prevail in the Anthropocene that he ends up
welcoming the climate crisis because it opens up industrial modernity to ‘fundamental
critique and multiple futures’, a process of ‘self-dissolution and self-transformation’.

We need to turn to Bruno Latour to find a thinking open to the meaning of the
Anthropocene. The tragedy of Modernity is that the future is seen as infinitely malleable
and therefore exists only as an abstraction. The Moderns, and in this class we may include
Žižek and Beck, are flying into the future but facing backwards, writes Latour, fleeing from a
horrible past of suffering and oppression but unable to see the destruction that lies ahead. For
them the real is what is left behind and the future is only what the autonomous subject ends
up creating.

Few progressives have turned around to face the future; and one can see why, for the
progressive who turns around can no longer be a progressive. In the Anthropocene, in
addition to the past we seek to escape, now we have a future we want to avoid; so we are
squeezed from both ends. Isn’t it easier to turn back to the past, to take comfort in the familiar
kinds of suffering from which we can still aspire to free ourselves? ‘Give us back our past’, is
the cry [of] all denial.

But now the Anthropocene—‘that mix up of all mix ups’— gives us a future that is all too
real. It is no longer ours to construct; nature is no longer merely the inert stage on which
the human drama plays out. Nature, we are learning, has its own grand narrative, a narrative
against all (human) narratives that says ‘you can no longer take me for granted, as something
infinitely malleable’. So now we must find ways to navigate it, to accommodate whatever it
throws at us, to work out how to live on a planet less liveable.


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