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The Anthropocene: Disrupting all our Stories

26 Jun 2018

William Temple Scholar Matthew Stemp reflects on the 30th anniversary of an important intervention in the debate and discourse around climate change.

On June 23rd 1988, James Hansen gave his famous testimony before the US Senate. Now known as “the father of climate science”, he announced that “…the greenhouse effect has been detected, and is changing our climate now.”

Hansen’s testimony that global warming is anthropogenic – human-caused – had an immense impact on public awareness and political debate. But at the time, there was still some doubt as to whether things were so clear cut. Hansen was somewhat going out on a limb, despite speaking boldly and without reserve. By contrast, the First Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change two years later was far more cautious, stating that the observed increase in global temperatures “could be largely due to …natural variability” and concluded that “The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more.”

But Hansen basically turned out to be right. Now three decades on, it is difficult to argue that we are on the way towards meeting the climate challenge Hansen so presciently declared. In 1988, renewables and nuclear provided around 21% of the energy supply. Today, for all the technological, political and economic advances that have been made, zero-carbon energy sources meet only 19% of the world’s energy needs. Meanwhile, economic and population growth have driven a 68% rise in carbon emissions from fossil fuels and this rise seems to be continuing.

Thirty years is a long time in climate science. Behind all the numbers lies a story of dramatic change that academics of various stripes have now started calling the “Anthropocene”. The previous 10,000-year epoch was called the Holocene, during which human civilisation developed and flourished. But Earth scientists and philosophers alike have begun to argue that the extent of our impact on the climate and the ramifications of this for the whole Earth System has initiated a wholly new time.

This Anthropocene narrative tells us that even if human beings were to disappear tomorrow, our influence would continue for thousands of years. The brutal mathematics of global warming is such that even if we were to completely stop emitting greenhouses gases today, the CO2 already accumulated in the atmosphere would keep driving up the average global temperature (by about 0.6°C over the next century). That makes meeting the ambitions of the Paris Agreement to keep temperatures “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” extremely difficult. The greater the delay to ending the burning of fossil fuels, the more rapid and likely more turbulent the energy transition will have to be.

The delayed response of the climate system means that already certain processes like the melting of ice at the Earth’s poles and the resulting sea level rise are locked in for centuries at least. Scarily, it is very difficult to ascertain exactly to what extent these processes are reversible, and in particular where the “tipping points” are beyond which these processes enter into feedback loops that contribute even more to global warming. The more the ice caps melt, for example, the less sunlight is reflected by the planet’s surface, and the greater the amount of energy absorbed by the ocean waters. As climate scientists Katherine Hayhoe and Robert Kopp put it, we are “conducting an unprecedented experiment with the Earth’s climate system.”

Clive Hamilton, in his book Defiant Earth, argues that the Anthropocene has ironically arrived at a time when we were meant to be getting used to living without such “grand narratives”. According to Jean-Francois Lyotard famous definition, ”postmodernity” was supposed to involve the failure and rejection of “grand reçits” that assume a bird’s-eye view of everything. Modernity was the story “enlightened” human beings imposed upon the natural world, turning it into a dependable supply of “natural resources” to fuel our political projects.

Flipping this upside-down, the Anthropocene is a grand narrative that is imposed upon us. Its message is simple: “Humanity may have become the most powerful force on the planet, but the Earth has become defiantly unpredictable.” The Anthropocene, Hamilton argues, therefore disrupts all our stories. We are no longer in stable time of the Holocene, during which all our grand narratives emerged and our various traditions (both religious and secular) evolved. We have unwittingly entered a new time, defined by the ambiguous relationship between human beings and the Earth. That means that no single story, no one tradition of human thought, can claim to have warned us in advance; only climate scientists like James Hansen saw what was coming (through a glass, darkly).

Put simply, no worldview or religion can say: “I told you so.”

For unlike the story of modernity, the Anthropocene does not provide a foundation for a newly imagined social order, or new ways of thinking about what it means to be human on a “defiant Earth”. The future is radically open-ended, paradoxically both shaped by human power yet not controllable by human hands.

The climate scientists will continue over the next few decades to make their models and predictions increasingly precise. For all the fear and anxiety that comes with working on climate change, the fascination of discovery continues to drive their work forward, and figures like James Hansen will continue to inspire them to communicate their findings with clarity and conviction. What remains for the rest of us is to discover what it means to inhabit the Anthropocene, against all the forces of denial and distraction of which we are all too aware.

If nothing else, the Anthropocene has the potential to humble us all, requiring a new level of openness towards other traditions, faiths, philosophies and spiritualities. If the Anthropocene compels us to recognise our inadequacies, it can also help us face out of our silos towards unexpected sources of wisdom and insight. And that alone should give us reason enough to keep going.

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