Oh, Brad (part 1)

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

Defiant Earth is an important contribution to thinking about the Anthropocene. It’s a book that everyone exploring ways in which to theorise the new epoch should take on board. I want to review it in detail over a couple of posts, to try to tease out its significance and to spell out my disagreements with it.

Hamilton has carved out a significant niche in debates about the Anthropocene in the last several years as a sort of TH Huxley figure. That is, he’s cast himself in the role of Paul Crutzen’s bulldog, defending an Earth Systems version of the Anthropocene in a series of surreally combative interventions called things like “Ecologists Butt Out: You Are Not Entitled to Redefine the Anthropocene,” “The Anthropocene Belongs to Earth System Science,” and “The Anthropocene: Too Serious for Post-Modern Games.” 

In some respects I’m sympathetic to Hamilton’s arguments. He’s frustrated by sloppily defined accounts of the Anthropocene, and in particular by hostile critiques that describe “the Anthropocene” in sketchy and question-begging ways. He’s attentive to the word’s genealogy in Earth System science, and to its planetary rather than merely anthropocentric frame of reference. His enthusiasm for the significance of Earth Systems thinking is productive, even though his claims about the absolute novelty of modern ESS are clearly a bit overdrawn.

But why does he think that there’s only one thing that “the Anthropocene” can possibly mean? He growls (in the “Post-Modern Games” piece, the one with the least incendiary title of the three) that “most people have not bothered to read the half dozen basic papers on the Anthropocene by those who have defined it, and therefore do not know what they are talking about.” I can guess which half dozen papers he means. But why does he think that they, and only they, are the holy writ of the Anthropocene? And must it really be the case that people who use the word differently are therefore ignorant or wrong?

I think that the word Anthropocene has accumulated a complicated and interesting variety of meanings in the early twenty-first century. It’s come to be used in different senses by different people, and the best way to achieve clarity is to reconstruct that range of meanings rather than to rule all but one of them illegitimate.

I’ve read as many papers about the Anthropocene as Prof. Hamilton has, I would presumptuously wager. And his Earth Systems version of the concept and mine differ (or so I’d like to believe) in some relatively subtle but interesting and significant ways: the distinction between the stratigraphic and the Earth Systems versions of the Anthropocene has been one of the most frequent themes on this blog. The problem I have with Hamilton isn’t that he seems not to be aware of that distinction. The problem is that he thinks legitimate distinctions such as that can’t exist.

Defiant Earth itself incorporates parts of those ham-fisted blog posts, without elaborating on them in the way one might expect. If it promises to be a book-length explication and defence of the Earth System version of the Anthropocene, that’s not what it delivers. In fact, its account of the intellectual history of ESS is strikingly threadbare. (When Hamilton polemicizes against the ecomodernists and their antipathy to mainstream ESS, one of his examples is that “scientific adventurism seems to underlie the collaboration known as Future Earth” (p. 22). It seems pretty clear he’s unaware that Future Earth is in fact the successor organisation to the IGBP and its sister projects, the institutional home of ESS. The later chapter called “A Planetary History” doesn’t include any actual references to planetary history.) To Hamilton’s credit, three parenthetical sentences stuck on to the end of paragraphs, evidently at a late stage of the writing process (pp. 10, 20, 23), give generous acknowledgement to Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene, a book that does indeed give a much better account of the scientific context than the one in Defiant Earth itself—“whatever one may think of [its] politics,” Hamilton says.

This isn’t a book without flaws, in short. And yet taken as a whole it’s a much more varied and more interesting text than the polemics that preceded it. In order to appreciate both its significance and its most deep-rooted limitations, you have to work through it almost from back to front.

The book ends in the most unexpected of ways, with an anxious, self-cancelling, weary coda, the very obverse of the dogmatic machismo of “Ecologists Butt Out.” All along, Defiant Earth had harped on about the importance of “responsibility.” Mankind, Hamilton kept saying, ought to buck up and take “responsibility” for the state of the planet. Then at the very end we read: “For all their worthiness, appeals to ‘responsibility’ have no heft, no ontological substance” (p. 155). He doesn’t explain or expand on this disavowal of the claims he’s been making. “How to finish a book like this? I don’t know,” he says. Perhaps we just have “to learn to live in the doubt” (pp. 157–58). Junking your own book in its last ten pages is hardly constructive or illuminating. But there’s something oddly sympathetic and creative about it, about this sudden admission of vulnerability. It’s an ending that casts everything that went before in a different light.

Twenty pages earlier, at the start of the final chapter, this increasingly strange book had again re-started almost from scratch. In this penultimate version of Hamilton’s thesis, the Anthropocene seems to be understood as broadly equivalent to “modernity”: that is, to eighteenth-century Western European enlightenment plus twentieth-century techno-industrial transformation—the whole thing being understood as the singular process in which “humans […] attained their majority” (p. 152). And it’s an ontological, rather than a planetary, phenomenon.

Hamilton seems to identify Schelling as his principal source in this part of the book, and his argument goes something like this. “With the arrival of Anthropocene Earth freedom/spontaneity can no longer be allocated to the domain of the subject and necessity is no longer owned by the object/nature” (p. 139). More precisely, the world never was fundamentally split between a domain of subjectivity (and freedom) and a domain of nature (subject to determination)—but it had always appeared that way. “Freedom belongs to nature-as-a-whole” (p. 137), but the spontaneous freedom of the nonhuman world had remained merely potential rather than actual until the coming of modernity/the Anthropocene.

“Freedom [is] woven into nature,” but that freedom can only be made manifest by the appearance of a self-conscious agent who both possesses, and can reflect upon his possession of, the power either to destroy nature or to choose to refrain from doing so. Hence “humankind is […] the key to nature-as-a-whole” (p. 141, his italics). For that reason, the Anthropocene means “that the Kantian categories of subject and object have collapsed” (p. 139). “The human impact […] has deflected the Earth from its natural geological path” (p. 148), but this deflection means that humankind has the power to start taking responsibility for nature. Thus, Hamilton concludes, “the openness given to humans to make the choice of how to care for the creation was the most tremendous ontological event”; “our coming of age”—the Anthropocene—“was the manifestation of the agency latent in nature-as-a-whole” (p. 152, 144).

Now, this is a lot of things. But it definitely isn’t Earth System science. What it is, is a riff on German Idealist metaphysics. For someone who believes there’s only one true version of the Anthropocene, Hamilton sure does endorse two completely different ones in Defiant Earth. How can he possibly think (does he think, really?) that this is the same version of the Anthropocene as the one that “belongs to Earth System Science”? He makes one very brief stab at connecting the two: “the spontaneity of freedom”—his Schellingian principle—“makes sense within a complex system with emergent properties” (p. 138). But that’s all he gives us to go on, as far as I can tell.

And yet Hamilton doesn’t explicitly jump ship from ESS to Schelling or Hegel. If he was willing to say outright that world history is the progress of the Absolute to self-consciousness, or that it’s the dialectical self-unfolding of Geist, the problem I’m talking about would disappear. In that case, world-historical events would certainly also be metaphysical events. But instead, he seems to be committing himself to the idea that ESS itself is a description of the Anthropcene as a “tremendous ontological event.” Why?

That question will take us further back through Defiant Earth: to its account of geohistory and then finally to its politics, where all the accumulated debts fall due. But first, there’s something else to clarify.

As the quotations above show, by the time the book reaches its Schellingian phase Hamilton has fully adopted “humans” and “nature” as his basic categories of analysis. He wants to distribute their properties in a particular way, such that freedom is an quality belonging to nature as well as to humans, and humans are embedded in material necessity. Nonetheless, he plainly believes that “today a great struggle is taking place between the forces of nature and unruly humans” (p. 143).

Hamilton belongs enough to the twenty-first century to realise that these days this kind of human/nature dualism requires a defence. It comes in a section on what he loosely calls “post-humanism,” a category under which he gathers a whole spectrum of critical and new materialist thinkers: Moore, Hardt and Negri, Bennett, Latour, Haraway, Tsing, and “the post-humanist sympathizer Tim Morton” (p. 94). Of all the characters in Defiant Earth it’s scholars like those to whom I feel the most affinity, so I’d like to say a word in their defence.

Hamilton’s method of argument against the “post-humanists” is simple caricature. Bennett and co. want to “[dissolve] human intentionality,” to “dissolve boundaries between human and non-human” (p. 91). His charge is that they deny that humans have agency, and thus deny the threat that humans pose to nature.

He compares his post-humanists to “Dr Frankenstein’s … lab assistants” (p. 99). But that can’t help but make me think of a slightly different analogy. Confronting contemporary critical thought, Hamilton reminds me a little of all-American Brad Majors, lost in not in Frankenstein’s lab but in Frank N. Furter’s mansion, tugging at his shirt collar and still forlornly humming “the future is ours, so let’s plan it, Janet!”

For Hamilton, agency is more or less identical to “power.” It’s all about who’s the boss. I imagine someone whispering in his ear that perhaps, on the contrary, agency might be distributed, mutualistic, relational, queer; that it flows hither and yon along mutable, improvisatory networks of actants, unconstrained by species boundaries; that “we humans” don’t ever act as one, and instead agency can emerge from struggles and disjunctures between human groups; that the agential isn’t simply about who’s in charge, and instead (per Latour) “things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on…”

That sort of urbanity isn’t part of Hamilton’s worldview.

Critique of the human world’s relation to nature was an unwarranted epistemological leap … humans do occupy a position separate from nature and from there now stand against it … When post-humanists  speak of the Anthropocene the objective is always to dethrone humans, to deny our uniqueness, insisting that we do not stand apart but like everything else are spread through matter … Taking the monopoly of agency away from humans, and giving it to non-human and non-living forces or entities, changes the meaning of “agency.” (pp. 87, 89, 98, 100; my italics)

Oh, Brad.

More to follow!