Ecopragmatism and the ‘Good Anthropocene’

I stumbled on this debate on Twitter yesterday in a response by Clive Hamilton to a TED talk by Andy Revkin on ‘Charting Paths to a “Good” Anthropocene’. Andy’s talk stresses the potential for a more optimistic future by pointing to a number of cognitive and emotional strategies with which we can better adapt to the worsening climate crisis. Clive’s critique argues that this type of thinking is part of an emerging form of ‘ecopragmatism’ which promotes a hopelessly unrealistic vision of human capacity to adapt to the climate change pathways we will experience this century (this argument is further developed in an article that has just come out in Scientific American). Andy has responded, arguing that he doesn’t believe he and Clive are so far apart in terms of recognizing the very real dangers of the climate crisis and that he hopes those who have ‘bridled’ at his vision for a ‘good Anthropocene aren’t hoping for a bad one’!

Responses on Twitter vary from those in the more ‘denialist’ camp who have trumpeted about how 4 degrees can’t be too bad and all that warming will be great for relieving heating costs (!), through to those who Clive has critiqued, arguing the criticism is misplaced and they were not suggesting climate change will be necessarily ‘good’. There has also been a healthy number praising Clive’s response (I especially liked Elizabeth Kolbert’s tweet that ‘good’ and ‘Anthropocene’ are two words that should not be used in sequence!).

The debate is well worth watching as it raises the more general issue of how to frame our climate future. The ‘ecopragmatist’ line appears similar to ecological modernist arguments that place faith in economic development and technological innovation in ‘solving’ environmental problems. However, climate change has brought to the fore an environmental issue which cuts to the heart of our economic system. As Daniel Nyberg and I have argued in a recent article:

…the current destruction of the environment is not so much an unfortunate by-product of industrialisation, but rather an essential feature of our dependence upon continued economic growth and the expansion of consumption. 

The limited policy responses we have seen to date in relation to climate change, such as introducing cap and trade measures and promoting capitalist innovation in ‘green tech’ and ‘corporate environmentalism’ provide one political myth for narrating this future. However, how realistic is such a vision and does it close us off from the more radical changes we actually need to undertake (e.g. leaving 80 per cent of fossil fuel reserves in the ground)?

Some argue that if we outline the truly dire nature of our predicament, we will simply turn people off, and that a more positive message is better in building motivation for change. However, there is little sign the mainstream media or politicians have grasped the existential nature of the threat we now face. Moreover, unlike many other challenges of the past, the laws of physics, chemistry and biology are not responsive to these appeals. They respond to our actions, and unfortunately our actions are rooted in ever escalating greenhouse gas emissions driven by global capitalism and hyperconsumption.

The true danger of the ‘ecopragmatist’ line then is that it seriously underestimates the systemic nature of the climate crisis and in its more extreme forms promotes a vision of ‘business as almost usual’ – new technologies, new markets, new opportunities to cash in on the climate crisis (on this latter point McKenzie Funk’s new book Windfall is a marvelous eye-opener).

As climate scientist Kevin Anderson has pointed out, to actually limit global warming to the politically contrived 2 degree level by 2050, its going to require a far more dramatic path of decarbonisation than most ecopragmatists would envisage. Is it better to be honest about this given it threatens a lot of the economic assumptions we hold dear, or ‘sugar-coat’ the bitter pill?


15 thoughts on “Ecopragmatism and the ‘Good Anthropocene’”

  1. Nice summary. What’s missing is any evidence that shouting catastrophe ever louder will engage citizens or leaders in ways that can foster *both* mitigation efforts and deeper investments in cutting vulnerability to climate extremes in both rich and poor places.

    In the absence of such evidence – particularly in places like China and India where energy access will trump climate-*change* concern for years to come – I’ve shifted from goals that are numbers (350, 2C, 80 x 2050) to goals for boosted societal capacity not just for innovation (as you and Clive imply) but also for empathy, collaborative capacity, transparency, basic science etc. (my “bend stretch reach teach…” mantra). Show me evidence a different course is better and I might shift.

  2. Andy,
    Thanks for the comment. Re ‘shouting catastrophe even louder’ – I’m not sure we have ever had the frank conversation from our political leaders about what climate change will mean either re the optimistic 2 degrees pathway (looking increasingly unlikely) – let alone the 3-6 degree pathway we’re now on. Those who have tried to surface this inevitably get shouted down (mostly from a pretty well orchestrated denial machine – News Corp, Koch Industries, Tea Party, Republican Party etc.). We’ve yet to really trace through at both macro and micro levels what this will mean for different communities and ways of life. So for most people in the developed world, there is no ‘burning platform’ just an assumption that everything will go as it always has, or if bad stuff happens we can just adapt (build bigger walls to keep the sea and the refugees out, more desalination for the water we no longer have, or geoengineer the climate).

    I think we need to be brutally frank about where we are heading and not sugar-coat it. I’m all for empathy, collaborative capacity etc but these need direction towards targeted outcomes. Kevin Anderson’s lecture struck me as a more tangible attempt to actually start with a climate target and then work back from that in terms of what we need to do to achieve it. The task is huge, but without a clear idea of where we need to head, other efforts become ineffectual (and as I’ve alluded above used by vested interests to present a mirage that not much has to change and all will be fine).

    1. In the UK, we have a legally mandated emissions reduction target (80% by 2050) that can only be changed if the scientific evidence changes. The Committee on Climate Change has presented very detailed reports working back from that to see what’s required in policy terms, much as you call for, I think. And we don’t have anything like the political opposition present in the US. And yet, we’ve seen little progress on emissions reduction since the Climate Change Act was passed. Why? Because implementing this stuff is *really* hard as, in lieu of any technological breakthroughs, it asks people to make sacrifices for intangible benefits. The CCC appeared surprised that installing wind turbines was proving harder than imagined their spreadsheets. That’s not down to nefarious vested interests, it’s local people not wanting solutions imposed them.

      Even if one could wish away inconvenient opposing voices tomorrow, the fundamental challenges in climate change would still remain.

      1. Yes true it is very hard to implement, but also I’d suggest the impact of organised climate change denial can’t be under-estimated in shaping the policy agenda of the last 25 years (not only in the US, Aust and Canada – but also the UK). Secondly, having long-range emissions reductions targets (2050) are only a first step which then require much more detailed pathways based on short and medium-term targets (Kevin Anderson’s lecture cited in the post outlines some of these details re what it might take to achieve the 2 degree limit). The point is if we are serious about responding to the scientific evidence – this will require a substantial shift from business as usual (really beyond our imagining in our free market, consumption at all costs economy). You’re right most people don’t want solutions imposed on them but also most people have no idea what the dire implications of climate change will be in their lifetime (let alone their children’s). The point of my post was to question both what I think is the flawed approach of ‘ecopragmatists’ who can be interpreted as providing a ‘she’ll be right’ response, and also their underestimation of the economic and political forces underpinning our current climate trajectory (4-6 degrees C).

  3. Very interesting discussion and topic. My personal take on some of this is that there is a remarkable level of irony in some of these discussions. We seem to have similar people (and I don’t mean Andy Revkin specifically here) who will both argue that scientists mustn’t advocate as science should be objective and free from biases, while at the same time suggesting that we should present an optimistic picture since shouting “catastrophe” won’t work. Surely you can’t have it both ways. If you want science to be objective and free from societal biases, then you have to be willing to listen to what scientists are saying, even if it sounds alarming. On the other hand, if you want to argue that we should present an optimistic picture, then you run the risk of scientists not presenting the evidence as clearly as maybe they should.

    My personal take is that we should be willing to let scientists present the evidence as clearly and honestly as they can. What we do, given that evidence, is up to us – through our policy makers. Suggesting that we should be pragmatic and avoid saying things that might seem unsettling just seems like a form of burying our heads in the sand.

  4. What Christopher and ATTP said.

    For reasons too banal to go into, I’ve been wading through the science/policy ding-dongs in the late 1980s/early 90s, especially in Australia. What is both terrifying and fascinating is how little the debate has shifted. One side says “science isn’t settled/it’s not clear what benefits there will be alongside the costs” with a side order of “science is being politicised!” The other side says “holy shit, we better start taking action NOW.”

    Twenty five years on…

    For what it is worth, I blame people me – social movement activists. We have fundamentally failed in our tasks, of turning scientific concern into irreversible political and social momentum/pressure. Why is a clown like Abbott able to do what he does? Because for twenty five years climate activists like me have been wallowing in the smugosphere. We have been stuck in sterile formats (rallies, marches, camps) and have expected to “win” hearts and minds by wheeling out a scientist and a Keeling Curve. This. Does. Not. Work.

  5. @Chris, I admire your honesty and the cogency of your analysis. Its refreshing!

    Both Andy and Clive have said and done much that’s useful. While I don’t want to sit on the fence on climate strategy, here’s some alternative ways to see the communications debate.

    I’m increasingly thinking that debates about how to *best* communicate *the story*, because I think that its part of a broader cultural problem to do with obsessing on the act of communication. I’m guilty of it, BTW, rapidly churning out Tweets at all hours of the day rather than doing the deep thinking!

    Our focus has to be on taking real economic power, not shaping debates. We risk becoming victims of a sort of postmodernism if we elevate the communication function above all other processes.

    As a communications strategy for the climate movement, I reckon that we can talk simple memes about positive action in mass media campaigns while simultaneously engaging in honest conversations at a deeper level in political, intellectual and social movement circles.

    The positive communications should of course be informed by the best thinking on persuasion. I’m particularly intrigued by developments in neuroscience and would love to know more about what it can offer us. But we can walk and chew gum at the same time, right?

    There’s no reason that mass media communications can’t, for example, talk up solar as a money saver while at the same time our targeted political communications in journals, blogs, political meetings, shareholder meetings, industry associations, unions, academia etc can be framed in order to hold politicians to account for their crimes against humanity and the planet, in the stark language of climate reality.

    1. Thanks Dan – I agree re the need to distinguish public communication and political influence. However on the former, it seems that in situations of crisis (think WW2) governments and media typically present a ‘clear and present danger’ to mobilize public sentiment. We’re not seeing this in regard to climate change. Indeed, the public communications is going the complete other way – ‘no need to panic’, ‘she’ll be right’, ‘don’t listen to the Chicken Little’s – the sky isn’t falling’. We all know the reasons why this line is peddled given the vested interests in favour of business as usual (and as pointed out above profiting from the events the climate crisis is producing – oil exploration in the Arctic, arms sales to failed states etc). Sorry but ‘bend and stretch’ just don’t cut it in getting people motivated when the house is on fire!

      1. I *think* I’m with Chris here, if I understand the issue being debated rightly. I think it’s necessary to keep pounding away at the facts of this situation, in both public and private communications–the facts are dire and there is plenty of evidence that climate change is already upon us and the hour is late. I don’t really see a conflict between this and simultaneously pointing to the good things that can be done and are also already happening, although at a rate that is much slower than needed. Why will people (and politicians) act, if they don’t really understand the stakes?

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