Rather than the old idea of a natural climate being something to which we can return, that gives us some security, that grounds and guides our actions in the world, in the future climate will be understood as reflecting our moral triumphs and failures on Earth. Mike Hulme
Mike Hulme is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Cambridge, UK. His work sits at the intersection of climate, history, and culture, studying how knowledge about climate and its changes is made and represented, and analysing the numerous ways in which the idea of climate-change is deployed in public discourse around the world. His latest book is Weathered: Cultures of Climate (SAGE, 2016). Previous books include the widely acclaimed Why We Disagree About Climate Change (Cambridge, 2009). He has previously held chairs at King’s College London and the University of East Anglia, where from 2000 to 2007 he was the Founding Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Since 2008 he has been the founding Editor-in-Chief of the review journal Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews (WIREs) Climate Change.
This talk took place on 23 April 2018, in the Hallstrom Theatre at the Australian Museum.
Sue Saxon: My name is Sue Saxon and I'm a creative producer here at the museum, and I'd like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and to pay respects to their leaders past, present and to come.
Welcome to the third of nine talks in the inaugural Human Nature lecture series. This is a landmark series that marks the collaboration of four major universities within the Australian Museum, and with academics from around Australia and the world who are leaders in the environmental humanities.
The Australian Museum seeks to make nature, Indigenous cultures and science accessible and relevant to everyone. It is the custodian of a collection of more than 18 million objects providing a record of the environmental and cultural histories and diversities of the Australian and Pacific regions.
The museum's scientific collections and ongoing research informs understanding of some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges facing our region, including the loss of biodiversity, a changing climate, and the assertion of cultural identity.
The museum is a place where the past meets the future, and where exploration, understanding and care for our world is inspired by the research of our scientists and cultural specialists; by our exhibitions, and by events like this Human Nature lecture series, through which we strive to investigate and communicate the relationship between people, culture, and the natural environment.
I hope you'll join us for the rest of the series, and spread the word far and wide, because we do have an extraordinary line-up of speakers still to come. We're delighted that tonight's lecture will be broadcast on ABC Radio National's Big Ideas, so you can listen to it again later.
And so, to introduce our esteemed guest, I'd now like to hand over to Dr Donna Houston, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University, and one of the organisers of this series. Donna is the director of the department's Urban Planning program and the co-director of its Environmental Humanities Research Cluster. Thank you, Donna.
Donna Houston: Thank you, Sue. It's with great pleasure that I welcome you to the third talk in the Human Nature Environmental Humanities lecture series. This series has emerged out of ongoing conversations and collaborations in the environmental humanities. Australia—and Sydney in particular—is the leading hub of research in this field. And throughout 2018 the series includes nine leading scholars in environmental humanities, to consider the roles and responsibilities of humans in a more than human world, and in a time of rapid and varied environmental change. Our speakers draw on approaches from history, anthropology, literature, philosophy, human geography and related disciplines to explore what the humanities can offer in addressing some of the most pressing problems that we face today.
I would like to acknowledge the work of my colleagues in bringing this series together. Some of them unfortunately can't be here tonight. Thom van Dooren and Astrida Neimanis from the University of Sydney; Juan Salazar from Western Sydney University; Judy Motion from the University of NSW, Emily O'Gorman from Macquarie University, and Tanya Goldberg from the Australian Museum.
Our speaker this evening is Mike Hulme. Mike is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Cambridge. His influential work sits at the intersection of climate, history and culture, studying how knowledge about climate and its changes is made and represented, and analysing the numerous ways in which the idea of climate change is deployed in public discourse around the world.
His latest book, Weathered: Cultures of Climate, was published by Sage in November 2016. Previous books include the widely acclaimed Why We Disagree About Climate Change, by Cambridge University Press in 2009. Mike's previous positions have included chairs at Kings College London, and the University of East Anglia, where from 2000 to 2007 he was the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Since 2008 he's been the founding editor-in-chief of the review journal Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews, or WIREs Climate Change.
Tonight Mike will be speaking on the topic of Cultures of Climate. Please join me in welcoming him. Thank you.
Mike Hulme: Thanks very much, Donna, and thank you to your colleagues for extending the invitation to me to speak, and to the museum here for hosting very generously this lecture opportunity. And thank you for coming to the talk this evening.
So one mid-October afternoon last year, the midday skies over Britain turned an eerie shade of orange. Dimming the atmosphere, altering moods, and unsettling people's sense of normality. Hash-tag Apocalypse starting trending on Twitter and newspaper headlines spoke of Britain's 'Martian Sky', and 'The Day Britain's Sky Turned Orange.' Journalists alluded to times past when strange weather events were regarded as omens of doom. But now, they claimed, in 2017, unusual weather is no longer the sign of doom to come, it is the doom itself.
So interpretations of extreme and unusual weather have always reflected human fears of a world unravelling. People have sought and continued to seek comforting explanations of the sky's unusual appearance, reassuring us that such apparitions are not portentous of fearful events to come.
Fortunately, Britain's October sky, orange sky, could safely be explained as the result of the decaying hurricane Ophelia entraining and dispersing Saharan dust particles in the high atmosphere above Britain.
But the public reaction to this episode spoke of a wider unease about today's climate and whether it's supposedly normal and reassuringly patterned behaviour can be relied upon any longer. Unusual weather nowadays acts as an allegory for a world disturbed and set loose from stable, comforting and predictable foundations. Weird or freakish weathers are now publicly interrogated in western societies to find the deeper political, cultural or moral meanings of climate change—just as has strange weather for many other cultures in past and present.
This idea of climate change then carries this sense of unsettling. The weather is no longer perceived as normal. And it's symptomatic of the realisation that humans have irretrievably altered their world. Their weather world now, just as much as their altered bodies, cities, ecosystems, landscapes and oceans.
Hence it is that these red October skies indeed are somehow portentous of the new threatening climates of the Anthropocene.
So that vignette of orange skies over Britain offers the backdrop to this talk. I'm interested in exploring this idea of climate. What climate is, how our idea of climate changes over time and the effects that the idea of climate has on our imaginative worlds.
And the overall argument is that we have to develop a better understanding of the cultural functions of the idea of climate, which takes us well beyond simply scientific conceptions or scientific predictions. And for me as a geographer by training, and therefore by instinct, I conduct this inquiry from that particular vantage point, but more broadly it fits very well into this field of environmental humanities, of which this lecture forms part of the wider series.
So the ideas I'm going to summarise here are drawn heavily on this recent book I published, Weathered: Cultures of Climate, which itself, I think of this as a prequel to my earlier book on why we disagree about climate change. And the point of that is we actually have to do more work to understand the idea of climate itself before we can fully understand the reasons why we disagree about climate change.
What sort of thing is climate? And therefore why do we get into arguments about what to do about climate change? I draw upon historical and geographical and cultural dimensions of this idea, the idea that climate is a way of people living securely with their weather.
And the book therefore plays on this idea: weather. People weather. We become weathered through the process of weathering. True of people in fact and true of all entities, sentient or inanimate.
And the book explores this through these three different dimensions: how climate's come to be known, the knowledges that we construct around climate; the powers that climate exerts over the human imagination; and the way in which people approach the future possibilities of trying to keep control of our climate—whether by prediction or redesigning the climates, or through new forms of governance.
So I'm going to pick illustrative dimensions of these different elements to illustrate my argument tonight. So first of all let me just outline some of the ways in which people think about climate, and initially the two dominant ways in which climate is thought of in western science. So we have, for example here, the classic definition that I first got exposed to as a geography student over 30 years ago. It's formalised by the World Meteorological Organisation and it follows on earlier traditions of 19th century geographers and meteorologists that here climate is a statistical construction.
And in a sense it's actually quite arbitrary, the idea of choosing 30—originally it was 35—but choosing 30 years of numerical measurements of the atmosphere of a particular place and by averaging and aggregating these together we'd get an adequate description of the climate of a place. It imposes quite arbitrarily some order, some numerical order on the continually turbulent atmosphere.
Time and space in this definition are quite artificially segmented. But nevertheless, weather, the way in which the atmosphere is continually turning itself over, becomes ordered through numbers, through measurements, and through aggregation.
The other scientific approach to thinking of climate is more as an analytical or mechanistic system. This is the way in which for example the United Nations Panel on Climate Change thinks of climate. Here a description of the state and the dynamics of the physical planetary system: It's a mechanical system of moving parts and flows which is mathematically predictable. We can simulate this inside a computer.
And this view of climate, this systemic view of climate, has become dominant during the last three or four decades, a time when earth systems science produced by totalising satellite observations of the planet, pervasive instrumentation of the atmosphere, international scientific cooperation and numerical computation.
So those are the two dominant contemporary, scientific framings of the idea of climate. But climate has not always been understood in this way. There are much older and different ways that people have understood the idea. Thus if we look at the etymology of the word climate, the origins, it takes us back to classical Greece.
And here early attempts of climatic classification by thinkers like Herodotus and Ptolemy, revealed that for the Greeks and the Romans, they surprisingly—maybe not—ended up inhabiting these ideal, forgiving climates of the eastern Mediterranean. And these contrasted to the dangerous climates of the north and the south, the frigid and the torrid zones.
So for the Greeks and the Romans the idea of climate helped to fix a very ordered and stable explanation of the relations between weather, place, civilisation and race. Climates were these fixed, zonal entities that held an understanding of the world together for these early Mediterranean civilisations.
Or we could jump to the early 19th century and Alexander von Humboldt, the German geographer and explorer, who thought a lot about climate. And for Humboldt, he thought of climate in a much more relational sense. Synthesis and connections were important. For von Humboldt the idea of climate was holistic. Climate represented the totality of atmospheric phenomena at a particular place, linked to other biophysical properties—as in his classic conception of Andean biozones. So it was synthetic in the sense of holding things together in particular locations, but also it was holistic because von Humboldt connected climates together geographically around the world.
He came up with the notion of thermalines, or isolines, ways of mapping points together that had similar meteorological characteristics. So here climate was a synthesis in space. So as with the classical thinkers in the Mediterranean, for von Humbolt climate was anthropocentric and climate was relational, and it embraced the idea of place.
But then too there's another way of thinking of the idea of climate and how we understand climate. Climate is something that captures our prevailing attitudes and conditions. This is a more metaphorical reading of climate. Maybe less to do with the weather of the atmosphere but more to do with the notion of culture—our shared systems of symbolic meanings and social practices that hold a particular polity or a particular society together. So we speak of political and economic and moral climates. For example, in this book by the theologian Michael Northcott, a moral climate playing on the connections between this metaphorical use of climate and the physical definitions I mentioned before.
But beyond these scientific, historical and metaphorical definitions, I want to try to tease out a further way of thinking about the idea of climate, a one that both underlies these other usages but also I think extends it in important imaginative ways. It also I think escapes the specific confines of these scientific conceptions or historical settings. And we can see this, I think, applied across different human cultures.
So I want to suggest, then, is the idea that climate is a necessary invention of the human mind. We need it in order to live reliably in the world around us. Climate as an idea is a way of stabilising the relationship between on the one hand the turbulence of the atmosphere—the weather—and on the other the reflective and patterned ways in which we live culturally.
So here, rather than von Humboldt's relational view of climate between one place and another or between the physical and the physiological, this view of climate is relational between weather and culture, between the atmosphere and our human imaginations and cultural ways of life.
Climate, therefore, for us, emerges from our instincts, our need of finding pattern amongst chaos. Our need for degrees of order and stability in the everyday. Climate in this sense develops the possibility of trust in the stability and the viability of human cultural life. Without the idea of climate or something like climate, our creative human life would become undirected, disorderly and unstable. So in essence the idea of climate in this thinking is an idea in which we place our trust.
And so you have the common aphorisms such as, 'Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.'
The idea of climate offers this container, this linguistic and sensory repertoire through which the arbitrariness of the weather becomes interpreted and tamed. Or as the historian of science Lorraine Daston has explained in her essay about the boundaries of nature, she says, 'Without well founded expectations, the world of causes and promises falls apart.'
So in this sense the idea of climate cultivates the possibility of a stable psychological life and meaningful human action in the world. Climate both identifies the degree of order in the weather, but at the same time it's an idea which imposes a degree of order in our cultural response. The idea of climate stops the human world falling apart. It gives us the confidence to plan and to act in the world.
But if this is so, as with all relations of trust, the thing or the person in which we place our trust can let us down. And this is true of climate as well. And it explains why the idea of climate change becomes such a powerful and disturbing idea. It's the fear of a world falling apart which is this long deep-seated, common source of human anxiety.
This anxiety is longstanding. It's manifest today in some of the language that we see evolving around climate change. So we have weather weirding, we have freak weather, climate disruption. We have neologisms like weather bombs and snownados. Climate chaos must be stopped.
So if climate change is an idea that performs these functions of stabilising between the weather and our cultural life, then when the physical weather itself begins to change, the search for an explanation of that change becomes urgent and pressing. This is illustrated in the work of various anthropologists as they've worked around the world in different cultures. Just a couple of examples: one here from the work of Peter Rudiak-Gould the anthropologist working in the western Pacific amongst the Marshall Islands: 'And we asked a particular islander whether he believed in climate change,' and the English phrase of course 'climate change' does not translate well into Marshallese. The reply, nevertheless, was this: 'I think it may be true because I see that the mejatoto,' which was the Marshallese equivalent here, the closest that could be found, 'the mejatoto is not very good nowadays. Life is harder, goods are expensive, the sun is stronger and there are improper relations between kin.'
Climate change in this world view becomes a metaphor for 'everything change'. The unsettling of climate suggests nothing less than the unsettling of the matrix of relations that in this world view hold reality together. Purposeful human life becomes difficult when climate is changing.
Or another example from the nearby Solomon Islands, again from the work of an anthropologist, Edvard Hviding from Norway. He, 30 years ago doing fieldwork in these islands just as the initial messages around the human influence on the climate system were beginning to circulate and to reach places like the Solomon Islands, Hviding in conversation with a schoolteacher found that he expressed his concerns, the Solomon Islander's concerns about changes in weather patterns:
'The people of old told us how things are. They said that this wind will come at that time and finish after so many moons, and then the other wind will take over. All things, too, tides and rain and all the fish of the sea will ever follow this, they said. And so all things have their time, and because the people of old knew to mark those times they told us about this and we believed them, because we could see this with our eyes too. But now, I don't know. It seems that the weather is not straight anymore. I would like to trust what the people of old taught us, but one day I came to think that maybe they fooled us back then. Maybe things have never been as straight as they'd want us to believe.'
So let me summarise this first part of the talk, then. What I'm suggesting is we need to understand what this idea of climate actually is and what it means to us in the everyday. And I can summarise this through these three ways, if you will, that the idea of climate performs for us. Climate on the one hand is an index. This is how scientists would most likely think of it. It's a useful description of some physical reality. Hence we have all of the graphs and time series and numeric that scientists come up with.
But climate is also, as we've seen in some of these explorations, an agent or a force. It's a power that exerts itself on our social worlds and on our material worlds. It seems to lead, it seems to cause significant change in both the imaginative and the physical material.
And then climate is an atmosphere, something that shapes our imagination, describes our mood and our apprehension of the future.
And my point is that when we talk about climate change today, then these three different ways in which climate operates often get mixed and entangled together. It's not always quite clear which of these three particular associations of climate we really are talking about.
And I want to illustrate and illuminate this further, then, in the second part of the talk. And here I'm going to draw some examples from the book Weathered, to see how we can observe in different historical and contemporary cultures how climate has this set of cultural associations, both part of climate cultures but also contemporary cultures. And these demonstrate the imaginative and rhetorical meanings that climate can and do exert on our public life just as much as they do illustrate the changes physically that are happening in the atmosphere.
The idea of climate is often deployed in public life to discipline personal social and political behaviours in contrasting ways to different ends.
The four examples I want to give here is to show how climate changes in our imagination, the idea of how climate gets entangled with biopolitics, to think about how climate prediction follows in a long line of cultural thought about the prophetic.
And then with new technologies emerging, how climates have become virtual. And then I will finish the talk with a few thoughts on the future of climate. The future of climate as an idea. Not the future of our physical climate but the future of how we're actually going to think about what sort of a thing climate is and what sort of cultural function in the future the idea of climate might have.
So first of all, this example then of how climates change in the imagination. For early modern Europeans tropical climates were often understood as morally degrading, disease-ridden and deadly. This was true of many 18th century conceptions of the climates of the Caribbean. Many writings from the time, for example James Johnson's 1813 book The Influence of Tropical Climates on European Constitutions emphasised the importance of locality for determining the unhealthiness of tropical climates. A combination of a meridian sun, marshy rotten soil and heavy rains made it impossible for Europeans to think of a Caribbean island climate as anything but unhealthy. But changes in commerce, in medical knowledge and the rise of international tourism had by the 20th century altered Caribbean climates in the eyes of most Europeans into a desirable commodity. Caribbean island climates with sunshine and warmth and predictable dry seasons began to be marketed for foreign consumption.
For example, a 1905 hotel brochure from Barbados claimed that it was located in, 'The most ideal winter resort of the tropics for tourists, invalids and those seeking a genial climate.'
The warm tropical climate, then, now for Europeans, far from being a deadly deterrent, was now the Caribbean's best economic asset. Caribbean climate, then, had changed. Not changed physically, but changed in the European imagination to become one of the world's most idyllic tourist havens for sun-starved tourists.
The second example is around how climate gets entangled with biopolitics. So there have been many credible and persuasive accounts of blame and culpability in human cultures. And these accounts of blame and culpability fulfil various political, social and psychological needs. Climate very often gets bound up in these narratives of blame. Wars, economic performance, street violence, political despots, famine, property prices, suicides, the age of menstruation—many more phenomena have all been explained by climate.
And the illustrative example here comes from the work of cultural scholar Ashwini Tambe. And it concerns the work of the League of Nations Convention on Trafficking, which met in the summer of 1921 in Geneva, attended by delegates from 34 countries. The underlying ambition here was to protect girls from trafficking for prostitution and to do so by establishing a universal age below which practising prostitution would be illegal.
Establishing an international norm for this age of sexual consent of 21 years, which was the ambition of the meeting, would allow more traffickers to be prosecuted under international law.
But the meetings quickly ran into trouble regarding the very different cultural norms about the ages of consent and legalised marriage which prevailed in different nations. A proposal to exempt eastern countries and tropical colonies from the age standard was rejected. No agreement was reached in Geneva in 1921, nor in a series of further meetings through the inter-war years.
And this disagreement focussed on the age of first menstruation. Climate, in particular the average temperature of nations, entered the discussions as a useful explanatory force. French, Polish and Italian delegates used climate as a shorthand to capture differences between the sexual mores of various nations. They successfully argued against a single international standard and instead lobbied to have differences between nations rest on the explanatory variable of climate.
While it was clear to all parties that countries differed in their sexual practices, invoking the idea of climate as controlling the menarche lent a naturalised certitude to these defensive justifications.In the end this assertion and acceptance of climatically determined differences in the menarche inhibited the League from ever reaching a consensus on an international age of consent, thwarting one of the goals of the anti-traffickers.
So here we see how climate, the idea of climate, offered a convenient index of national differences in sexual practice, drawing upon the sciences of race which the 19th century had earlier put into circulation. References to climate's imputed power over the human body performed important ideological work in naturalising hierarchical relations between the nations.
The third example explores climate prediction, and in particular associating climate prediction in association with the practice of prophets and prophecy. So there's a long cultural history of claims-making about the future, and scientific forecasting is only the latest in the tradition of prophetic knowledge. Numerical computer modelling of the climate is but just one means of predicting its future course. Yet climate predictions emerging from computer modelling stand in a long line of prophetic voices, all of whom have faced multiple yet similar challenges. How is the prophet to be credible? How are they to carry authority in a society? How are they to be useful?
By placing climate scientists in the cultural tradition of the prophet, rhetorician Lynda Walsh, American scholar, untangles the confusions and conflicts which climate predictions have generated in contemporary societies.
At the heart of this confusion is the role and cultural expectation of the climate scientist. Walsh asks, then, is their function [the climate scientists] to reveal the climatic future as surely and accurately as possible, speaking from a stance of disinterestedness and scientific objectivity, or is their role less about a dispassionate unveiling of the future and more about entering into a public dialogue about what Walsh refers to as a society's 'covenant values', those values that a polity shares and which distinguish it from its neighbours.
If it's the former, revealing the future dispassionately and scientifically objectively, while it's philosophically attractive so we might argue—it separates the 'is' from the troublesome 'ought'. But, Walsh argues, it's rhetorically unstable. Scientific advisers are caught in an ethical Catch 22. For example, governments call upon the IPCC (the International Panel on Climate Change) to predict the future climatic consequences of their actions. When these answers align with the existing rhetorical ambitions of these same governments, scientific advisers are lauded. But when critics want to challenge these policies, or when the climatic predictions misalign with the prevailing policies, the is/ought boundary is invoked by politicians to undermine the ethos of the scientists.
And we could see this manoeuvre at work with respect to the Climategate controversy a few years back that emerged at one of my previous universities, and the challenges that were subsequently made to the integrity of the IPCC during the winter of 2009 and 2010. So for Walsh, her argument then is that following in the line of the prophetic tradition, although our science advisers cannot tell the future or tell us what to do, they do and will continue to help us to know ourselves, to return us, as she puts it, to our covenant values, just as have all prophets done through the ages.
And then my fourth example concerns the emergence of virtual climates. New digital, visual technologies combined with the data storing capabilities of the Cloud are transforming the way that climates can be visualised. Computer animations of the planet using Google Earth are changing the possibilities of how climates past and future can be made visual. Through these animations climate, in the words of Leon Gurevitch, becomes both manufactured and remediated media.
Climate is not just 'out there' or in the mind. Climate is now in the machine. Future climates can be visualised and re-engineered so easily through these animated technologies that the feasibility, even the desirability of a future climate engineered planet becomes normalised.
The desire for climate control, previously achieved in homes, gardens, buildings, patios and cars, can now find consummation in a thermostat-manipulated planet brought to life, as it were, through Google Earth's digital platforms.
The point here that I'm making is that how climate is represented culturally, technologically, changes the imaginative possibilities of how people might invent or live with or alter their future climate.
So this brings me to my conclusion then, which is to say a few words about the future evolution of climate as an idea. How might we go into the future thinking about the idea of climate? So taking inspiration from Arjun Appadurai's book The Future as Cultural Fact, I argue that the future of climate is not simply something to be predicted by climate models or by climate scientists. The evolution of the idea of climate is something to be shaped through the human imagination.
And I offer here three possible ways, then, of thinking about how this idea of climate may be imagined in the future, which I put under these labels: modernist, eco-modernist and non-modernist. So just a word about each of these in turn.
So first, and most conventionally, perhaps, is the prospect of climate being resecured within desirable and safe limits.
This is the modernist impulse. By eliminating or at least minimising the effects of human influences on the physical climates of the future, the ambition here would be to re-establish the degree of orderliness in the world, which is the historical function of climate that I've referred to, to shore this up. This imaginary seeks to resettle what has become unsettled in our imaginations, and therefore this way of thinking about the future of climate could be said to have great psychological merit. It fits within the tradition of modernist projects of control and mastery over the physical world, and issues in the oft repeated claim that a stable climate is a public good.
And so we see this circulating in our contemporary discourses around climate change, these different ways of trying to secure climate, either through governmental projects so we'd see for example the international negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement which is a project of transnational governance, if you will, or we see it through the technological proposals to resecure climate by spraying particles into the stratosphere as a sunshield, or to suck CO2 in vast volumes back out of the atmosphere and sequester it under the surface. Or we see it in the calls for socio-political change, reorganising the functioning of the global capitalist economy.
These are different pathways, these are different proposals, but they all have as their goal the goal of resecuring climate. And in this sense I label this way of thinking under the heading of modernist proposals.
Second, though, what I call eco-modernist here, climate improvised. A different future for the idea of climate is offered by this idea of improvisation, making it up as one goes along. So this imaginary recognises the limits of modernist projects of control. Climate change cannot be solved. Climate cannot be resecured, but what matters are the efforts that people take to try to solve the conundrum that climate change has presented us with. The best that could be hoped for is a future of improvised but largely unknown climates rather than of the resecured or restabilised ones that the modernists would try to deliver.
Improvisation then, suggests a more humble disposition with regards to the relative powers of the human and the non-human. Yes, it recognises the inevitability of purposeful human actions will have an influence on our future climates, but only within certain limits of possibility or knowability. Physical climates will always escape the desire for human management and control.
So in contrast to the modernist position, this imaginary requires some re-evaluation of the imaginative role of climate as a stabilising idea which I referred to right back at the beginning. This imaginary has different premises to the modernist impulse. Yes, humans do have planetary effects through their actions but the physical processes will also exceed human control. It's an idea that Nigel Clark has explored in his book Inhuman Nature. This position has more in common perhaps with some eco-modernist thought. It also resonates with the metaphor of gardening, as some writers have observed. Marcello Di Paola, for example, explores different attitudes to nature and suggests that gardening is a constant work of improvised creation. Gardening then becomes a metaphor for caring and making, mindfully and responsibly. But the gardener is always aware of their limited powers over the life forces of the garden.
And then thirdly, what of this non-modernist proposal, climate abandoned? Well this is more speculative and provocative. The very idea of climate should be abandoned. Or at least to abandon the function entirely of climate as an idea which in any sense stabilises and brings security to human life. This imaginary position embraces the complexities and the deep unpredictabilities of future change, and doesn't seek to extract climate as one special manifestation of an evolving world that is separate from everything else, one that is, putatively at least, controllable. So Margaret Atwood the novelist puts it quite well when she says that 'Climatic change has no meaning. There can be no change which is merely climatic. I think calling it Climate Change is rather limiting,' she says, 'I'd rather call it Everything Change.'
So this imaginary, climate abandoned, suggests that the changing human condition has outgrown the usefulness of climate as an idea that any longer brings us security and order. The new normal of the Anthropocene is simply that there is no normal. The idea of climate therefore becomes a zombie idea of academic but little practical value.
This possibility would appear to be quite disturbing for us, even disorienting, given what I've earlier said about Daston's orderly world. And this future, certainly of abandoning of the idea of climate, is in contrast quite starkly to the modernist proposal to resecure the climate. It would regard stabilising climate at 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees or any degrees as a myth; as much a distraction, for example, as the enduring myth of progress.
And unlike the eco-modernist impulse of improvised climates, this position wouldn't even have climate as the object of purposeful action. Whatever the human future is about—whether it's about human enhancement, the creation of artificial intelligence, new measures of wellbeing; whether it's securing the sustainable development goals—whatever actually the human project is, it's not about securing the climate.
And here new guiding myths and concepts and metaphorical ideas beyond climate, then, will be needed to meet the emotional, spiritual and material demands of living in an atmosphere which is now irretrievably of human making.
Or to put this latter reading of climate slightly differently, to echo Pope Francis in his 2015 Encyclical, it's not about the climate we want, (as for example was claimed in the 2012 UN Summit) our powers of prediction and control are far too limited for that. As implied by Francis's Encyclical, it's about the sort of people we want to become. And more than ever before, the weather in the future in the Anthropocene will come to reflect the moral standing of humanity.
Rather than the old idea of a natural climate being something to which we can return and which will give us some security—that grounds and guides our actions in the world—in the future climate will be understood as reflecting our moral triumphs and failures on Earth, our struggles between corruption and justice, between greed and generosity, between ignorance and ingenuity, and between hubris and humility. Thank you very much.
HumanNature is a landmark series of talks by a stellar line up of leading Australian and international scholars. They will share with us their insights from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology and art to examine the significant interplay between the humanities and the environmental crisis we face today.