From the Sydney flood to the heatwave in Japan, we are pests

“The lesson is that man is a stupid and dangerous creature.” It’s a statement by Australian climate philosopher Clive Hamilton, who is convinced we have a very troubling future, and that we’re too late to turn things back. Not exactly a happy boy, then, but – unfortunately, in fact – also someone, with strong and well-known arguments, came to a less widespread conclusion: that we are essentially noxious animals, not least to ourselves.

Temperatures are peaking all over the world, and plants and animals are dying at a rapid rate: it is up to us unequivocally. That sea levels will rise sharply, those islands will become uninhabitable, and that drought will strike the rich West even more in the years to come: we all know it now, no matter how much we hang from our heads in barren soil. We humans believe that everything will always work out, says Hamilton: that is exactly what we are crazy about. Or are we smarter than we think?

You don’t have to be a black eye to worry. Heavy rain and flooding forced tens of thousands of Australians to leave Sydney this weekend. Last weekend, at least six people were killed in the Italian Dolomites when part of a glacier broke. The country itself is facing its worst drought in 70 years in the Po River Plain, including its rice fields. For those who will soon be wondering why risotto will become so much more expensive: it’s not because of the pandemic. Last week, Japan suffered its worst heat wave since measurements began in 1875. The government warned of blackouts while at the same time calling on people to turn on air conditioners, because hospitals were overflowing with heatstroke people.

From the floods in Sydney to the heat wave in Japan, we are pests.

Clive Hamilton’s somber quote about the “stupid” person comes from the book A Little Happier A better environment doesn’t start with yourself Dutch journalist Jaap Telbeek. In this pamphlet, Tielbeke made a vigorous argument two years ago to politicize the climate problem, and thus also to disprove the dogma that we must all fight individually for a better planet. This will never suffice, it is now evident, and this call often distracts from the real levers. Telbek pins his hopes on civil resistance and politics, not surprisingly either in the courts. He talks about climate issues in the Netherlands, France and Belgium, but also talks about how thousands of Dutch people rallied behind the Shell recall – and won.

Recently, my grandfather was warned regarding the latter. Last week, the US Supreme Court – the same court that decided not to guarantee the right to an abortion – sharply reduced the jurisdiction of the US Environmental Agency’s EPA. In concrete terms, this means that restrictions on CO2 emissions cannot be imposed on the energy industry. This cripple a large part of US President Joe Biden’s climate plans. More generally, American governance demonstrates that even in democracies, the Constitution does not guarantee a liveable future.

The implications of this are far-reaching and require deep thinking about how we can still survive. The experiences of the past decades are rather bleak. It’s hard to change eating, flying, or showering patterns. Political action, even in Europe which is very progressive in this respect, is still of little use. The miraculous solutions of technology – the dream of wet ostriches in the debate – are not imminent. The result is not exactly summer, but at the moment there are not many reasons to refute Hamilton’s statement. He wonders do we have a death wish.

The climate philosopher has committed himself to the reasonable control of damage already done years ago. This position seems less ambitious to the “masters of the universe” who we still think we are. But it might be more realistic. No, we must not lose hope in any way, not on an individual, political or legal level. But maybe we should already bear in mind that he’s not going back to what he was anytime soon.

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