Here on Earth by Tim Flannery

September 5th, 2011

Book Review: Here on Earth by Tim Flannery.


Climate change, environmental degradation, overpopulation, and war each threaten the future of our life on earth. They are our own man-made Horsemen of the Apocalypse – not sent by a vengeful deity to roll up the world, but a lethal consequence of the greed and stupidity of that species we still call Homo Sapiens.
We are in charge of our own destruction and we will take the planet with us. Earth will find a way to recover – eventually – but all those millions of years later it not likely that humans will get a second chance.
Tim Flannery is not a Doomsday prophet. Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2005) makes grimmer reading, and James Lovelock in The Revenge of Gaia (2006), thinks it is already too late for us to change our fate. On the other side of the argument are all those scary men shouting for more coal, more oil, more runways, more weapons and bigger bonuses.
Here on Earth is a factual account of the state of our planet now, an explanation of how we got here, what the problems are, and most importantly, how we might solve those problems if we act now. Not later… now. Flannery knows we are living in End-Time; it is now or never for the planet as a sustainable home for future life. He is optimistic but he is a realist. Our generation has to start work, and the work will have to be global.
Flannery is clear that we can no longer blame ignorance. In a wry moment he declares that all those insurance clauses headed Acts of God, have had their day. Believers and non-believers alike will have to take responsibility for those seemingly freak earthquakes, floods, droughts, soaking summers and melting winters. The ruination of livelihoods in agricultural Africa and India as the floods rise and the water-table falls is not dumb old earth getting it wrong again, or the missionary view that ‘heathens’ get what they deserve; it is a consequence of climate change engineered by industrialisation. The last two-hundred and fifty years have a lot to answer for.
So why is Tim Flannery an optimist? It is all down to his brain – and ours. How we think about ourselves and our life on earth will be the crucial factor in our survival. As ever, how you tell it is as important as what you know. The stories of our lives are our lives.
Human beings have a strange fascination with the various forms of suicide – one by one, or in cultish group deaths, or in the Gotterdammerung-like vision of a sinking shattered earth, or a fireball apocalypse. We like The End is Nigh.
Reductionist Christianity and Islam both approve of a view where here on earth hardly matters; the life to come should be our goal. Reckless war-mongering and a disdain for humanity and the planet are the inevitable consequence of such a view, and the virtues of Secularism are often held up as a superior corrective.
In fact, Secularism, or godlessness, as it used to be called, has in large part retained the fateful narrative of indifference to life on earth – look at Communist China under Mao, the Soviet Union under Stalin, and the short-term profit drive of late Capitalism.
Reductionist science offers a story line no less pessimistic; we are selfish savage creatures whose fight for survival will include destroying the resources of others – even if that ultimately means the end of ourselves too. The Neo-Darwinists, among whom Richard Dawkins is the best known, offer a dispiriting view of life as a pre-death experience.
Tim Flannery’s skill is to give us the facts – the state of the planet now – and then offer us the competing stories that claim to explain the facts. Scientists don’t really like their theories being called stories, but if, like palaeontologist Peter Ward, you are going to call your theory Medea, to hit back at the alternative message of the Gaia hypothosis – then you are already in mythic territory.
That seems like a good thing to me, because if Flannery is right about the power of narrative and symbol, and every artist would say he is, then we should look carefully at our own myth-making, and see how, where, and why, we ask the facts to fit our myths.
It is a mistake to assume that a secular world and a scientific world is only objective. And it is a mistake to assume that we don’t need myths – our story telling powers are just as capable of changing us as they are of imprisoning us. That is what Freud understood, and so it is no surprise that some of Flannery’s optimism comes from a reading of the work of a contemporary of Freud in Vienna, the biologist Paul Krammerer, who was looking for inherited memory.
Krammerer’s work was picked up by German biologist Richard Sermon, who coined the term Mneme in the 1920’s, to try and talk about how memory behaviour – as well as physical behaviour – is imprinted from one generation to the next.
Richard Dawkins built on this in his best-seller of neo-Dawinism, The Selfish Gene (1976). Dawkins accepted that ideas (he spells it memes) are transferred just as genes are. For Dawkins, genes and memes are equally selfish. I sometimes wonder with Dawkins if someone read him The Selfish Giant when he was a little boy and never got to the end.
Flannery wonders if Dawkins’s book was the necessary text for the about to happen Reagan/Thatcher era of Chicago School free market economics, just as Darwin was used to justify the brutality and superiority of the British Empire. Survival of the Fittest was not a Darwin phrase, it was coined to ‘explain’ that the miseries of the poor and the success of the rich were all a part of ‘natural selection.’
But Darwin had a rival – the scientist Alfred Russell Wallace, a self-educated working class genius who followed the same evolutionary processes as Darwin to posit a theory of how new species come into existence. Yet Wallace had a very different story to tell; the ruthlessness of natural selection has left us with an inhabited planet of intricate interdependence and cooperation. The war is over; this is the long reign of peace.
Wallace’s views were way ahead of his time. His scientific descendent is James Lovelock, another independent scientist, whose Gaia theory is rubbished by Dawkins as pop-ecology.
Lovelock believes that the earth is a self-regulating system that regulates its temperature and chemistry at a steady-state for life. Like Wallace he sees life as a tightly-bound interdependency, now fatally threatened by humankind’s refusal to do its part.
Flannery makes no bones about the fact the life-science is overwhelmingly reductionist, and territorially aggressive. Gaia is gaining recognition as a theory, but in 2009, palaeontologist Peter Ward offered his own dark story of life periodically bringing about the destruction of life, thus making ecological stability impossible. This is the Medea hypothesis and in direct opposition to Gaia’s homeostasis. Ward calls Gaia ‘fairytale science.’
So what story do we want to hear? What story will we tell our children?
Flannery wants optimism and realism, imagination and hard work. We can control our population, we can stop chopping down rain forests – and we have to because for all our fancy talk about carbon capture, trees do that for us, with maximum efficiency, and for free. The Boys Own world of tech-fix is not better and certainly not more beautiful than nature’s devising.
There is a gender issue in our necrotic fascination with destruction and death. It was a woman, Rachel Carson, in her seminal The Silent Spring (1962) that told the truth about the spray-happy chemical lunacy of the post-war world, where America inherited Nazi know-how on chemical killers and decided to use it on nature.
We need more women on climate change advisory panels and crucially on the boards of large companies. Recent research has shown that women are more cautious investors, and more interested in investments for the long-term. That is what the human race and Earth needs.
Flannery wants different business models, where ‘externalities’ are costed into the balance sheet; what happens if you chop down that forest, or build that power station? Who and what will pay the price and how much will it be?
The banking crisis should have revealed how crass and crazy our finance models are. Flannery is asking for intelligent legislation from governments world-wide and a new charter of global responsibility for those businesses with global profits.
Tim Flannery does not believe in wishful thinking or magical thinking. The earth will never be flat because we think it is, and we can’t bring back the dead by concentrating hard enough.
Imaginative thinking is different. If we want this to be point in our evolutionary history where we change the direction the future is taking, then we have a chance to do so. We are smart enough. We are global enough. One story could change the world.