The Rebirth of Nature and the Climate Crisis

Clive Hamilton
7 July, 2009

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In recent times a new theory of a living Earth has captured imaginations. According to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, the Earth is a living system in which the biosphere interacts with other physical components of the Earth to maintain conditions suitable for life.

The prevention of climate catastrophe, some argue, requires a shift to a new consciousness, one based on a rediscovery of the idea of a living Earth. To understand how such a philosophical transition might occur, it helps to consider the last great historical transformation of consciousness, the one that gave us the modern view of the Earth.

The emergence of the mechanical philosophy in the second half of the 17th century changed our deepest conception of the world. Previously the Earth was seen as alive and intentioned; the new science saw it as dead. Although Renée Descartes is usually regarded as the seminal thinker of the mechanical philosophy, in fact its roots can be traced to the thirteenth century Scottish theologian Duns Scotus.

Isaac Newton’s work saw the triumph of the conception of a dead Earth, yet Newton himself did not reject the old ‘Hermetic’ philosophy for the new one but held to versions of both. While writing his great mathematical work, the Principia, he also devoted himself to esoteric studies. If Newton could simultaneously be the father of modern science and conceive of the world as alive, could his insights provide the seeds for a new ecological consciousness? And does Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis solve Newton’s conundrum of how to marry a conception of a living Earth with the methods of modern science?

Clive Hamilton is Charles Sturt Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics based at the Australian National University. Until early 2008 he was the Executive Director of The Australia Institute, Australia’s leading progressive think tank, which he founded in 1993.

He has held a number of visiting academic positions, including ones at the University of Cambridge, the University of Sydney and the Australian National University. He has just returned from a period as a Senior Visiting Fellow in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

Clive is the author of a number of best-selling books, including Growth Fetish, Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change, Affluenza (with Richard Denniss) and Silencing Dissent (with Sarah Maddison). His most recent book, The Freedom Paradox: Towards a post-secular ethics, was published last year.