It has often been said that the European Enlightenment represented the transition of humanity from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. Philosophies of social progress have seen history as freedom unfolding under its own momentum. With the arrival of the new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene it now seems that the flourishing of human freedoms has been at the same time eroding the foundations on which they were built. Civilization became possible only when, 10,000 years ago, the Holocene epoch brought the exceptional climatic stability and clemency that has persisted until recent times.
The reframing of modernity as the “risk society” is built on an implicit faith in our ability to recognize how our environment is changing and respond accordingly, guaranteeing our autonomous capacity to respond to the world as it is. Yet the most striking fact about the human response to climate change is the determination not to reflect, to deploy a range of psychological protections against the warnings of the scientists and so to carry on as if nothing profound is happening.
With the advent of the Anthropocene, we are beginning to see the limits to human spontaneity and self-making. In the 1929 Davos debate between the Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger, Cassirer defended an enlightened humanism and Heidegger argued for a darker vision of humans thrown into a destiny inscribed in Being itself. The dispute revolved around the question of whether the human being is limited by its existence in a finite world or can break free of those constraints and create its own world; in other words, it was a debate that went to the heart of the claims of modernity.
One thing is now clear; striving for the perfectibility of humankind is a failed project. We now see that all utopias take as given the natural conditions of the Holocene and imagine that, whatever social structures may delimit utopia’s pathway, continuing material advance faces no insuperable natural barrier. Yet, the ever-more unsympathetic and irrepressible climate expected this century and beyond will consume a growing share of resources merely to defend the economic gains of the past.
In the absence of self-delusion (admittedly a heroic condition to impose), a hard confrontation with the scientific warnings inevitably erodes the essential optimistic mood of late modernity, and replaces it with a kind of existential dread. Against Cassirer’s sunny humanism, Heidegger’s grim vision seems to be vindicated with every new paper published in a scientific journal.
The advent of the new epoch forces us to look into the future in a new way. No longer a speculative vista constructed by social beings—history as “the break with nature caused by the awakening of consciousness” (in Jacob Burckhardt’s words) – the activation of the Earth in the Anthropocene allows us to see, with more certitude, the changing constraints to which human actions will be responding.
The hidden residue of Hegelian world history, that of the ineluctable advance of human freedom, has now been exposed as wishful thinking, not so much because human freedom may increasingly be limited by “geology” but because the unquestioned benefits of that freedom—freedom from want and opportunities for self-expression—must now be confronted with their dark side, the use of freedom to ravage the Earth.
The question of the survival of the human species is starting to move from the backwaters to the mainstream, from speculation to serious thought. While the “existential question” can be considered in physical terms, posing it also resurrects in a new way the oldest conundrum: What are we doing on this planet? We are prompted to ask whether our response to the approach of the great disruption is the ultimate test we were sent to confront.
If the history of Homo sapiens has a known beginning and a conceivable end, should our demise be regarded as a misfortune for the last generations or a tragic failure of cosmic purpose? Was the emergence of human consciousness a mere accident of evolution, or did it have significance for the universe? If our greatest triumph, modern science and technology, cannot save us, was there something buried in technological society that prevented the world from being saved?
Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and the author of Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the Anthropocene (Polity Press, 2017).