The ancient Greeks invented the idea of hubris, of human beings having overweening pride and self-esteem that needed to be punished for its excess. There are perhaps those who believe that what is commonly called climate change is a punishment for hubris, for human beings having gone beyond their place in the scheme of things.

However, an equally good case can be made that the call for human beings to make far-reaching changes to their way of life in response to climate change is itself a form of hubris. To begin, it is based on the belief that human endeavours, in the shape of industrial development, have had such an impact on the Earth that they threaten to disrupt its environment on an enormous scale. Not only have humans made such an impact on the planet, they are also capable, through an act of will, of reversing that impact and setting things right.

According to this scenario, human beings are the most important players in the history of the planet; they are the lords and masters who can destroy things as well as set them right. This belief in the capacity of humans to control the environment is very old. In some ancient civilisations the ruler was supposed to have the power to create a beneficial climate. If there were a prolonged drought, then the ruler sometimes was expected to make the ultimate sacrifice to propitiate the gods. During the depths of the Little Ice Age in Europe, some communities asked God for forgiveness of their sins so that a better climate might return.

Today, however, we look to the state to return us to the path of righteousness. Government can undo the wrongs that we have inflicted on the planet.

Think how much worse it would be for us if it could be demonstrated that the process of global warming were outside of human hands and unable to be manipulated by human efforts. The most we could do would be to adapt to the changes that are occurring. It would be a huge blow to humanity's ego.

Human beings do not want to feel helpless in the face of such changes. They want to feel in control. Believing in climate change creates the illusion that they are in control, that they can do something to make a difference. If they have already affected the planet in such a profound way, surely they can do it again.

If human beings did not have climate change they might find themselves reduced to being mere spectators in a cosmos over which they had fairly limited control. They would feel that their stature had been diminished. Put simply, they need climate change.

Yet, reading Ian Plimer's excellent Heaven and Earth, what impresses one about his extraordinary account of the Earth's history and its climate is the many forces of nature that are beyond human control. These range from cosmic radiation to the movement of continents and the force of volcanoes. In so many ways we are just spectators, pilgrims who spend a short time on Earth.

That so many people need climate change in the face of the immense forces of nature can be put down to human hubris. They want the illusion of control, and the tool that they use to further that illusion is no longer religion but the state.

The same impulse that leads individuals to look to the state to control climate change also leads them to want to use the state to control economic matters. This is not to say that there is no role for the state in providing the framework in which economic activities take place. It is merely to point out that there are times when it is better for it not to interfere and to allow things to work themselves out.

There is a very important law in politics and economics known as the law of unintended consequences. When governments intervene in matters about which they have limited knowledge, and this is basically everything, they can take steps that make things worse rather than better.

The same law applies to the natural world. Plimer describes a universe so complex that it is simply not feasible that any computer model devised by a human being could capture its complexity.

State action based on such limited knowledge invariably will have unforeseen consequences that may well prove quite harmful.

Humility can be seen as the antidote to hubris. Human beings should be humble in the face of the immense forces of nature and recognise that their power to manipulate and change the world is very limited. They can do this only if they recognise that adherence to climate change is the ultimate expression of hubris. There are times when the best thing for the state to do is nothing.

Greg Melleuish is an associate professor in the school of history and politics at the University of Wollongong in NSW.