Requiem for a Species – review
Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change, by Clive Hamilton, April 2010. Earthscan, 286 pages, ISBN 978-1-8497-1081-7. RRP £14.99
Anyone who has ever addressed the issues raised by environmentalists and climate change scientists in the pulpit by way of sermons and prayers will quickly become aware of a conservative undertow from the pews. As members of CEL we find it bizarre and incredible that there are folk in our churches who regard the categories of “green” and “Christian” as somehow incompatible. How then is this conservative undertow to be understood and confronted?
In this quest Clive Hamilton’s book will prove immensely useful in offering us a concise and eloquently written account of the mind set of our opponents. Hamilton is an Australian Professor of Philosophy and his account draws on that discipline and on that of social psychology. There’s no evidence here that he’s a Christian indeed the only comments about Christianity in the book are critical ones about Christian fundamentalists with traditional emphases. The names of St Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew, Pope Benedict and other Christians who have given the lead on these issues do not occur in the index.
Hamilton sees the essence of the problem in the way in which human beings imagine themselves to be entirely disconnected from nature. This leads inexorably to an ever stronger orientation towards the personal self and the fulfilment of its desires. The instrument that will deliver the fulfilment of these desires is economic growth at the expense of nature. Science has contributed to this by fostering an “outside of nature”, “perspective free viewpoint” characteristic of physics. This influences would be physicists in the economics profession whose love and admiration for free market solutions has led them to forget that economics is not only a dismal science but a moral science. All this has led to the rise of consumerism and growth fetishism, the baleful consequences of which are all around us.
Sadly climate change denial was given new impetus by the fall of communism as American free market conservatives looked for and discovered a new enemy in environmentalism. We are a threat to them because we challenge their assumption that western civilisation is based on endless growth and our challenge to them is doubly disturbing because it is made in the name of science. Anti environmentalists tend to be politically conservative, anti-egalitarian and hold strongly individualistic values with traditional evangelical religious beliefs. Well I think we all knew that but Hamilton makes his case very well.
What I was less aware of are the insights of social psychology. Human beings respond to risks through immediate feelings rather than by cognitive processing. We identify a challenge and we flee or fight. In the case of climate change we need to use our reasoning powers to stimulate our feelings and our fears but we are not well adapted to do this. We prefer to be distracted.
Hamilton refers to the myth of Prometheus in Greek tragedy. Prometheus steals fire from heaven and Zeus the father of the gods punishes and restrains him. But Prometheus becomes unbound and in his unbinding we see the release of the forces of science and technology that have transformed our lives and our world but are now leading to our destruction. Prometheus must be bound once again but this can only be done by the humans that Prometheus allowed to flourish. There is no solution to our crisis by the use of technological fixes or in a supposedly sophisticated free market approach. As Hamilton says “currents trends suggest that the most likely response is to seek to counter a Promethean problem with a Promethean solution but if current trends continue we humans will not. There is no solution to our crisis by the use of technological fixes or by way of a supposedly sophisticated free market approach.
“Requiem for a Species” can seem a depressing read at times. It shows the nature of the forces we must confront: our hubris as a species, our desire to avoid the facts, the perversity of institutions, and our anti-Christian devotion to the worship of money, consumerism and growth. Please read this book and then re-double your efforts to work for the re-orientation of our spiritual consciousness. Hamilton is not a theologian but he knows that only a religious revolution can offer any hope for the salvation of humanity and as Christians we’ve always known that to be true.