Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017), 200 pp.

Reviewed by: Scott Hamilton (Banting Postdoctoral Fellow, Wilfrid Laurier University)

The world, as we have always known it, is about to transform in profound, dangerous, and unpredictable ways. Are we ready? According to Clive Hamilton’s Defiant Earth, this is a rhetorical question to which every individual and state will soon be forced to respond with a resounding ‘no!’.

As we enter the twenty-first century, humanity’s increasingly wanton use and destruction of the planet and its resources has become so rampant that it has interfered with the basic operation of the Earth’s most fundamental life-support systems – ranging from the atmosphere (climate), to the hydrosphere (oceans), to the lithosphere (land), to the cryosphere (ice). With these systems destabilized, our planet is departing from the pleasant 11,500-year epoch known as the Holocene, the conditions of which allowed life and human civilization, as we know it, to flourish. Now, in this looming geological transformation, we are proceeding into new and unpredictable territory: a human-made geological epoch named after its Promethean creator; the epoch of anthropos, the human. Defiant Earth is thus a philosophical exposition of the normative and ethical requirements for humanity, as it punches a one-way ticket for its journey into an unpredictable epoch of turmoil. In other words, ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene!’.

Sun’s Northern Hemisphere in Mid-Eruption. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / NASA/SDO/AIA

What does this seemingly environmental or geophysical concept of the Anthropocene have to do with states, politics, or the United Nations (UN)? As Hamilton stresses, quite simply, everything. The Anthropocene signals what he calls a “rupture in the history of humans as a whole” (p. 34), because it transforms the geophysical and social conditions of the Holocene into something new and frighteningly unpredictable. The Anthropocene’s rupture reveals an Earth that is no longer comprised of the familiar international patchwork of a plurality of states and cultures. Instead, it reveals the Earth as a single, total Earth System that is now undergoing an incredible transformation. The Earth is entering “a new, unstable, and unpredictable geological era that will endure for thousands or tens of thousands of years.” (p.37). It will no longer be a stable pliant garden of resources to be exploited by separate polities to gain competitive advantages against one another. The Earth will no longer be compliant, but rather it will become defiant. States and institutions that deny this transformation, will thereby invite future collapse. Hence, the goal of Defiant Earth is to make the stakes of the Anthropocene clear and to invite the reader to consider what type of humanity can and should exist in the future, when today’s Holocene conditions are no more.

One of Hamilton’s core messages is that this ‘defiance’ of the Earth in the Anthropocene is illustrative of the concept of an Earth System that must be respected as singular and total. It emerges from a new, holistic, “paradigm-shifting meta-science” (p. 13) of Earth System Science (ESS), that posits the Anthropocene’s “core insight [to] conceive of the Earth no longer as a collection of ecosystems, landscapes, catchments, and so on, but as a single, total functioning system.” (p. 34). Indeed, humanity’s transformation of this system’s operation, and the task of learning to respect and to react to its changing planetary boundaries, thereby becomes another crux of the book. Modernity has created this planetary mess, but by studying and engaging the Earth System on its own terms, possibilities are thereby raised for a “humble” or “new Anthropocentrism” that fosters a new planetary history, a cosmology linking humanity and the Earth, going forth (p. 119). Humanity should steward the transforming processes of the Earth, by acknowledging its own special place as “planetary super-agent”. Agency, therefore, is granted to humanity when it grasps the insurmountable power of the Earth system and its own newfound responsibility to safeguard and steward this power, whilst simultaneously being embedded within it. Throughout the book, therefore, this message is repeated: acknowledgement of the power of the Earth System will save humanity itself from the incredible changes that humans have accidentally unleashed (p. 48). However, this is not a narrative of or human achievement, potential, or celebration, but of a sombre maturity emerging from a Kantian, post-Enlightenment realization of self-inflicted catastrophe (p. 136). “There is no promise of a happy ending in the Anthropocene narrative”, Hamilton writes. “It is not a story we want to believe in; it is one we are compelled to accept.” (p. 78)

The normative responsibility and agency of humanity in this new epoch, thereby raises the second theme underpinning Defiant Earth: outlining the relationship between the Earth System and humanity as one that celebrates humanity’s uniqueness and special role as a planetary steward, whilst respecting its separation and difference from nature. “The fundamental lesson of the Anthropocene”, Hamilton writes, is that humans are distinct, world-making creatures that now possess the volition and creativity to respond to the constraints of the Anthropocene. Contrary to much critical thought in the social sciences and humanities, “[t]he problem is not that humans are anthropocentric, but that we are not anthropocentric enough.” (p. 43). A response to the defiant Earth, therefore, demands that humanity takes responsibility for the damage it has done (p. 99), by recognizing “the profound importance of humans, ontologically and now practically, to the Earth and its future.” (p. 43) Yet, viewing the Anthropocene through Hamilton’s “new Anthropocentrism” will be tough for many – especially post-humanist[1] scholars trying to eliminate the binary division between humanity and nature – to accept. In chapter 3, Hamilton pulls no punches on this front, lambasting post-humanists, eco-modernists, and ‘new materialists’ such as Donna Haraway, as adversaries of the new Anthropocentrism’s celebration of humanity’s special world-making role. They deflate the importance of the Anthropocene through their irresponsible denial that humans occupy a separate place from the rest of nature, thereby hindering the action that anthropos can take to ameliorate the worst of the looming rupture (p. 89).

Yet, the danger that emerges here in reading Defiant Earth is not in distancing anthropocentrism from post-humanism[2] , but rather, in alienating readers that might be sympathetic to the science and dangers of the Anthropocene whilst remaining on the neutral sidelines of the social science’s ‘anthropocentrism’ debate. This tension bubbles to the surface as the book advances, and the third theme of the book becomes clear: to combine ‘new Anthropocentrism’ and ESS into a concept of a singular, globalized concept of humanity, reconceived as a universal humanity and “newborn anthropos” (p. 121); a planetary “super-agent”.  Indeed, rather than eliminating binaries with nature, “[w]e become the key to nature-as-a-whole.” (p. 141)

“Dawn in the Anthropocene”. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Cugerbrant

Hamilton’s move from ‘new anthropocentrism’ to a totalizing planetary stewardship is a big leap for humanity to make. Yet, Hamilton allows no room for debate, which will surely irk some readers. Either every human being gets with the program of ESS and joins the ranks of the newborn Anthropos in a form of planetary super-agency, or they are grouped with the post-humanists or ‘eco-modernists’ that are holding us all back from taking our special place in a unified human-Earth history. As the book nears its conclusion, the tension between these two positions builds. It becomes difficult to understand how Hamilton’s eerily biblical-sounding call for an Anthropocene eschatology (p.156) and its new form of human-centered cosmology (p. 109) is derived purely from the science of ESS from which the book’s arguments began. Rather, as it advances, Defiant Earth moves subtly from a powerful and important reminder of the implications of human-induced systemic planetary crises, to Hamilton’s own personal vision for a cosmological transformation that aims at the metaphysical unification of the human species into a totality. Any readers priding themselves on national, cultural, religious, linguistic, etc., differences and pluralities, will naturally be opposed to becoming swallowed-up in this vision of a human and systemic totality. To be fair, Hamilton recognizes this point throughout the book. However, the difference between ‘friends and adversaries’, that he repeatedly notes, leaves the reader with an uneasy recollection of Carl Schmitt’s famous distinction between ‘friends and enemies’, except in Defiant Earth, it is Hamilton that is granted the power to make the ‘decision’ about which is which. It thus becomes difficult at times to separate the science and implications of the Anthropocene, from Hamilton’s own eschatological vision for humanity’s salvation in totality. The lines between science and belief become blurry. After all, the Anthropocene’s ‘rupture’ is only one vowel away from becoming its ‘rapture’.

In closing, Defiant Earth is a recommended reading for anyone interested in the future of humanity, the Anthropocene, and the dangerous scenarios now facing the planet and its life support systems. The book is a deeply philosophical and intensively argumentative plea for all of us to reconcile ourselves with the looming planetary crisis that is now on our doorstep. It is not only beautifully written, but passionately argued. Although readers will certainly be divided between those that either find its call for systemic totality alluring or those that find it disturbing, the book presents challenging questions to all, concerning the status and relevance of plurality and difference when dealing with ‘global’ crises that violate today’s normalised boundaries and timescales. Therefore, Defiant Earth is a challenging book that brings these important cosmological and ethical issues to the fore, to be discussed and debated in a frank and intellectually engaging manner. All books should aim for this stimulating provocation of thought, but it seems a rare accomplishment that few manage to achieve.

[1] Post-humanism is a school of thought that aims to rid anthropocentric or ‘human-centered’ conceptions of nature and politics from our understanding of the world, in hopes that it will reduce forms of oppression and violence that exist in social orders when humanity elevates itself above nature

[2] This is indeed, a long-standing debate in itself, that shows no signs of abating.