One of the greater shocks of my professional life came when a senior editor at the liberal Guardian newspaper, whose analysis of world affairs I respected enormously, refused to entertain the possibility that humans could influence anything as vast as earth’s climate through their own actions.
She was no climate denialist and did not doubt scientific reports of sea-level rise, extreme temperatures or the extinction of species; but she had been schooled in the classical arts and humanities and her faith and culture would not allow her to grasp that we humans had so much power.
That was 30 years ago and we have all had to change our assumptions since then as science has moved on and globalisation continues to throw up profound political, economic and spiritual shocks.
In just one generation – nothing in planetary time - the ancient belief that we are the centre of the world and that history is human has been shaken to its core. Climate change destabilises everything, makes us rethink our place in the world and consider our own future and that of that of all other life.
No-one has grappled with the philosophical and ethical questions raised by anthropocentric climate change more than Dipesh Chakrabarty. This Indian scholar, who left Calcutta as a young man to join Chicago university, is not a scientist or a political activist, but an historian of the changes now taking place in the way we think.
“Chakrabarty is a chronicler of the change that is taking place in our thinking”
The Holocene epoch is ending after about 13,000 years, he says, and we live now in the emerging Anthropocene, a new geological epoch created by the deliberate actions of humans. But he argues that to understand this immense historical change we must see ourselves on the cusp of two distinct ages.
While the global age is human-centred and includes politics, economics, commerce and technology, the planetary age works on a different time scale and ignores humanity. Man-made climate change, he says, shows us that we are now an unprecedented geological force of nature itself, working on both timescales.
This throws up a multitude of questions. The conundrum we face, he says, is that although we are altering the planet beyond anything it has experienced in billions of years, we are actually of little or no importance to it.
Far from being created with humanity in mind, it does not need us. It is both humbling and shocking to know that the future need not include humanity, that we would not be missed and indeed other life might be better off without us.
So how should we respond politically, morally and ethically to the latest IPCC report, the worst droughts in American or Australian history, supercharged monsoons and heatwaves in India, the collapse of ecosystems, and the prospect of no summer ice in the Arctic? Every day seems to bring new catastrophes and warnings.
When the best science tells us that we are creating the conditions for new pandemics to emerge and strike us down, and that one million species are in line to become extinct in our children’s lifetime, it is scary. To be told that the planet could become uninhabitable for much of life or that we are nurturing a “Generation Dread” is profoundly unsettling.
Chakrabarty does not try to answer these questions or reassure us so much as give us the historical grounding to understand the changes taking place. He is unique because he bridges the old intellectual divides between natural and human history, culture and the western sciences, but also the political traditions of different regions.
A deep understanding of the aspirations of developing countries allows him to track a world transitioning from the empires that European colonialism created to one with twice as many people but fewer resources, where the bulk of humanity must struggle against both poverty and nature. Climate change may have been the creation of the rich but it is impacting first and hardest on the poor and the young.
“Climate change may be the work of the rich, but it hits the poor first”
What has been so shocking, he suggests, is that it came out of the intellectual and cultural blue for a complacent and greedy western establishment, wrong-footing liberal institutions, academic disciplines, professions, the media, the policy makers and, above all, those religions who until recently saw Nature uniquely as God’s work.
No-one wanted to see it coming, few have wanted to address it, and in a very short time it has divided generations and raised questions about what is human development and progress.
This unexpected shock to the global system may have started with western science, but is now rippling through every discipline and culture creating fear of the future.
Now, suggests Chakrabarty, governments must understand that they have foisted a dangerous economic system on people, and the young, whether of Lahore or Louisiana, are having to come to terms with the fact that the world is in permanent crisis and their future is at stake.
There are huge uncertainties about how and over what time scale climate change will play itself out, and whether humanity can limit its effects, but the battle ground has shifted from science to ethics, justice and theology.
The way forward, Chakrabarty implies, is firstly to abandon the distinction between natural and human history and then to rise above our old intellectual prejudices. We must recognise that climate change is a global, indeed planetary event which requires new thinking, and a new approach to life itself. It is at once a thrilling and frightening prospect.