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Review of Defiant Earth–Humans Rupture Earth System; Earth Fights Back

Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene
By Clive Hamilton (Polity Press, 2017)

The term “Anthropocene” was coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, in a year 2000 article, as the name for the geological epoch which has succeeded the Holocene epoch. They dated the beginning of the epoch in the latter part of the 18th century, the time the industrial revolution began. In formal proposal for recognition of the Anthropocene epoch submitted to the International Geological Congress the date given for the beginning of the Anthropocene was 1945. Clive Hamilton in Defiant Earth gives a lucid account of the implications for the humanities of the current scientific meaning of the epoch.

Hamilton emphasizes that the “Anthropocene” is itself a scientific term, not a humanistic term. Like other geological periods, it must be located in the stratigraphic record of Earth. While geological timescales may seem to connote only sediments, these sediments trace the biological history of Earth as well. From a strictly stratigraphic standpoint, the layer of radionucleotides laid down around the planet by the 1945 nuclear explosions will mark the beginning of the epoch for millions of years to come. These explosions alone, however, would not mark the beginning of new epoch. The “Great Acceleration” of human activity on the planet that began in 1945 is distinctly different from human impact prior to that point. It is the period of the Great Acceleration that has profoundly altered Earth.

Hamilton states, “The idea of the Anthropocene was conceived by Earth System scientists to capture the very recent rupture in Earth history arising from the impact of human activity on the Earth System as a whole. (p. 9)” Then he asks his readers to read the preceding sentence again with an emphasis on “very recent rupture” and “Earth System as a whole.”

According to Hamilton the principal reason for recognizing a new epoch is the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and its cascading effects on the Earth system. Ocean acidification, species loss, disruption of the nitrogen cycle, and other matters also support the naming of a new epoch. The effects may, however, be so great that we are entering not just a new epoch but, as Thomas Berry wrote, a new geological era.

In explaining the significance of the transformation that has occurred, Hamilton states variously:

  • “The entire history of Earth [has been] split irrevocably into two halves—the first 4.5 billion years in which Earth history was determined by blind natural forces alone, and the remaining five billion years in which it will be influenced by a conscious power long after that power is spent”(p. 5).
  • If humans now compete “with the forces of nature in its impact on the way the planet as a whole functions, the human imprint is the effect of a force fundamentally unlike physical ones such as weathering, volcanism, asteroid strike, subduction, and solar fluxes. This new ‘force of nature’ contains something radically different—the element of volition” (p. 8).
  • It was only when science understood Earth had a history that humans were seen as having a history independent of Earth. Now, however, “human history and geological history have converged” (p. 8)
  • This represents an “ontological shift in the deep history of the planet. . . . We are entering a geological episode whose designation depends not only on gathering and evaluating the available data, but also on human impacts on the Earth System that have not yet occurred” (p. 7, italics in the original).

Science brought humans and Earth into the Anthropocene and also provided the knowledge, through Earth System science, that enabled humans to understand they had entered a new epoch. The study of Earth as a system only began in the latter part of the 20th century. For example, before World War II climate was understood to be the result of local variations and not of global factors. Earth systems science “represents a markedly novel way of thinking about the Earth that supersedes ecological thinking” (p. 12).

Hamilton then gives an extensive analysis of the many misunderstandings of the Anthropocene—such as that it is the increasing gradual influence of humans; or that it is simply a measure of the human footprint on Earth; or that it is the continuation of a natural process; or even that it is evolution to higher consciousness and the fulfillment of modernity. All the while, Hamilton returns to his key notions that the Anthropocene is a rupture in the functioning of the Earth System and that understanding Earth as a system is a fundamentally new meta-science, a paradigmatic shift in knowledge. He laments that the Anthropocene is misinterpreted by the use of conventional categories, such as archaeology, social geography, ecology, and landscape geography, as a continuation rather than a rupture. Thus it is deprived of its dangerous quality and rendered benign.

The danger arises from the counter-power of Earth now awakened from its slumber, enraged by human activity. Both humans and nature are more powerful in the Anthropocene. As much as Hamilton wishes to call attention to the activity of humans, he wishes to make clear the “Anthropocene antinomy” of Gaia fighting back. Both are necessary for the “new anthropocentrism.” His goal is to redefine the human role and relationship in Earth.

Whereas environmental literature from the 1960s onward has seen Earth as victim of human neglect and abuse, now we are confronted with Earth’s more than equal power. Hamilton proceeds to develop a philosophical anthropocentrism that differs not only from the old anthropocentrism, but also from “virtually all philosophical understandings of modern environmentalism and post-humanism. Attempts to counter anthropocentric stances by adopting a non-human-centered standpoint (that of nature, or ecosystems, or of other creatures) or by spreading agency around without regard to the human exception, cannot resist the evidence of Earth System science” (p. 49)

Hamilton cites Vaclav Smil’s stunning calculation that if we were to divide all of the vertebrates on Earth into the three classes of humans, domesticated animals, and other, then of the total, by body mass, humans would constitute 30%, domesticated animals 67%, and other 3% (p. 432). This being the case, there is no way humans can leave Earth alone, or that Earth in response will leave humans alone. The old anthropocentrism sees human mastery of Earth as a moral right, the new anthropocentrism recognizes human mastery of Earth as a fact that puts humans in a place of responsibility and peril not heretofore imagined.

The new anthropocentrism acknowledges that humans are agents more powerful than ever, yet confirms our ultimate inseparability from the forces of the natural world we inhabit.

“The new anthropocentric self does not float free like the modern subject, but is always woven into nature, a knot in the fabric of nature” (p. 52).

The cosmology of the Anthropocene must be based on the concept of agency that extends beyond humans to the freedom that is woven into nature itself. In this view nature is a “dynamic, self-organizing system, characterized by emergent properties” (p. 137-38. Emergent properties “cannot be found in any individual element [of the Earth system] and evade all cause-and-effect explanations. . . . The future always evades full predictability and inevitably holds surprises.” Humans in a unique way manifest the spontaneous creativity of nature. Their “creative powers embody the possibility that they be used to enhance the life–enriching potential of the Earth as well as to improve the human condition. Nature therefore contains within it the possibility of mutually harmonious human-Earth enhancement” (p. 144).

But if freedom is woven into nature, so is responsibility. In the Anthropocene “our inescapable responsibility for the Earth defines us as moral beings,” even more than “our own welfare, our virtues, and our duties to one another” (p. 144) We cannot even let ‘nature take its course,’ which is realistically impossible with the still increasing impacts of humans on Earth. We must become involved as agent in a new way. “For humankind, how to create worlds while remaining within nature’s limits is the supreme challenge” (p. 152)

This review is excerpted from Herman Greene’s article, “Clive Hamilton’s Anthropocene, Thomas Berry and His Ecozoic Era, and Alfred North Whitehead and His Organic Philosophy.” Download the full article here.