Facing the truth
“Sometimes facing up to the truth is just too hard. When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them. Around the world only a few have truly faced up to the facts about global warming. Apart from the climate ‘sceptics’, most people do not disbelieve what the climate scientists have been saying about the calamities expected to befall us. But accepting intellectually is not the same as accepting emotionally the possibility that the world as we know it is heading for a horrible end. It’s the same with our own deaths; we all ‘accept’ that we will die, but it is only when death is imminent that we confront the true meaning of our mortality.”
– Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: why we resist the truth
about climate change (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010), viii.
These are the opening words of Hamilton’s new book. In case you hadn’t picked it up from the title, it’s no exercise in optimism. Hamilton believes that we have largely missed our opportunity to respond in time to climate change and now all we can do is minimise the damage and salvage what we can. However, reaching that conclusion involves a willingness to face the full scale of the threat rather than watering it down through a variety of coping mechanisms.
There are three important claims in this quote. First, Hamilton believes that "the world as we know it is heading for a horrible end". It is important to distinguish between the planet and the world. The planet will survive, life will go on, but the human world, our societies and contemporary globalised industrial civilisation, will not survive in anything like their present form. This prediction may or may not be true, but our ability to determine its truth will be partially affected by our openness to considering the claim closely rather than dismissing it out of hand.
Second, Hamilton points out that it is quite possible to accept this prediction in the abstract, to know something of what the likely implications of climate change will be, and yet for this knowledge to remain at arm’s length, disconnected from our emotional life. We "get" it, but many of us have not had what Hamilton calls the "oh shit" moment, where we really get it: "We can no longer pretend the impacts of warming are too far off to worry about, or that the scientists must be exaggerating. We realise that our apathy is rooted in fear or that our hopes for a political upheaval are no more than wishful thinking. We concede that no technological marvel will arrive in time."
Third, Hamilton draws an analogy between facing personal and social mortality. Just as we evade really facing the former through a variety of distraction and coping mechanisms, so there are analogous strategies at work to keep us from facing the depth of our current predicament.
Where can we draw the strength to face the truth about ourselves and our situation?
byron smith said…
“There have been any number of books and reports over the years explaining just how ominous the future looks and how little time we have left to act. This book is about why we have ignored those warnings. It is a book about the frailties of the human species, the perversity of our institutions and the psychological dispositions that have set us on a self-destructive path. It is about our strange obsessions, our penchant for avoiding the facts, and, especially, our hubris. It is the story of a battle within us between the forces that should have caused us to protect the Earth – our capacity to reason and our connection to Nature – and those that in the end have won out – our greed, materialism and alienation from Nature. And it about the twenty-first century consequences of these failures.”