25 July, 2011Issue 16.6Politics & SocietyScience

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Guided by Gaia

Joel Krupa

Here on EarthTim Flannery
Here on Earth: A New Beginning
Allen Lane, 2011
316 Pages
ISBN 978-1846143960


Tim Flannery is a multi-talented man on an all-consuming mission against environmental fatalism, whose goal is to show that a sustainable future is possible through cooperation and environmental restoration—even for as many as nine billion of us. This outspoken and highly credible Australian environmental scientist, praised by Sir David Attenborough as “one of the greatest explorers [of scientific progress] of our times”, has become one of the world’s most outspoken advocates for climate change awareness and corporate social responsibility. Flannery, a long-time interdisciplinary researcher of Australasian zoology, has focused much of his current work on informing international policy to avoid global climate catastrophe and influencing major conglomerates like Siemens and Tata Group to reform their environmental governance structures and, in the process, reduce their environmental impact.

Flannery’s intellectually sprawling new book, the whirlwind tour de force Here on Earth: A New Beginning, keeps with his trail-blazing, activist mission, borrowing from a smorgasbord of scientific literature—ecology, the history of evolutionary biology, indigenous environmental history, the links between cultural and biological evolution—to argue that we need not write off humanity’s environmental future too quickly. Yet this is not your everyday science textbook, and Flannery stays far away from over-intellectualising and unnecessary verbosity by concisely conveying scientific principles in clear language. The book follows in the sizeable footsteps of physicist Carl Sagan, journalist Natalie Angier, and other great science writers in exploring science in unorthodox, exciting ways, yet it also breaks from the overwhelming pessimism of the environmental community by offering a cautious optimism. Flannery outlines an alternative vision—a compassionate, humanistic path—that seems attainable if we are able to appeal to our better selves. How we arrive at this end is open to debate. Flannery suggests a variety of different methods for realizing environmental regeneration, such as rethinking our increasing detachment from the Earth and considering the implications of E.O. Wilson’s “biophilia” concept that claims that man holds an innate sense of longing for the natural world. Although his more extreme suggestions are unlikely ever to be adopted, his proposed solutions are always rigourously scientific and, at least in theory, could render sustainable change.

Flannery, a quintessential ecologist, sees things holistically, and in the book elegantly outlines interconnections and interdependencies. He makes the natural world come alive, whether he is describing the crucial role played by sea cucumbers in maintaining biotic environments on the ocean floor or outlining the myriad dangers posed by persistent organic pollutants and radioactivity. Quite simply, Flannery’s rational exuberance and love of nature is contagious. Throughout Here on Earth, Flannery does not shy away from challenging the conventional ideologies of doom and gloom, taking particular aim at the “selfish gene” theories of celebrity academic Richard Dawkins, the grave warnings of imminent atmospheric catastrophe by former NASA atmospheric scientist James Hansen, and Peter Ward’s so-called Medea hypothesis that “life itself periodically brings about the destruction of life and…long-term ecological stability is impossible”.

One of the key scientific arguments backing Flannery’s central thesis is a controversial one, despite its solid footing in empirical science. It focuses on the homeostatic “Gaia” vision of UK scientist James Lovelock, who argues that Gaia is a living, self-regulating entity that tends toward equilibrium and, where possible, will take concrete measures to protect its environs. Although it has been dismissed by Dawkins and other prominent scientists as failing to account for natural selection and general evolutionary biology, Flannery nevertheless insists that it holds great promise for explaining and predicting future environmental trajectories. Flannery highlights fascinating new research—such as the ability of rainforest canopies to alter rainfall patterns in ways that seemed scientifically impossible—in arguing that we can reinforce Earth’s natural survival mechanisms to ensure the continued inhabitability of the planet.

In sometimes graphic detail, Flannery highlights the barbarism and cruelty that have blighted much of humanity’s past, arguing that we are beginning to outgrow our savagery. Ongoing social developments and interesting examples of altruism and compassion serve convincingly as arguments that we may be evolving toward a stronger awareness of the needs of the integrated whole, as opposed to focusing solely on our own narrow interests. In light of this theory, Flannery draws comparisons between the development of superorganisms like ant and termite colonies and the complex superorganism of globalised humanity. Consequently, he is largely dismissive of conventional economic orthodoxy, noting that “there is more than a passing similarity, incidentally, between neoclassical economics and Dawkins’ selfish gene theory…both describe idealised frameworks which can be powerfully explicatory; but when they become universally dogmatic, ideologies have the power to erode our capacity to value one another, and so threaten to destroy the common endeavour that is our global superorganism.”

Given his deep knowledge of biology, ecology, and resource management, this stance might seem surprising, as one might presume that Flannery, who is all too aware of the political inertia and scientific ignorance that impede necessary reforms, would despair of our current environmental situation. Furthermore, many would approach his optimistic premise, which has assumed a notable outlier position in modern environmental assessments, with a certain degree of justified scepticism.

However, Flannery does not hesitate to rebuke those he considers irrational optimists, for example in conveying his dismay at the overwhelming political failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. He repeatedly calls into question traditional economic assumptions and criticises the ongoing failures to account properly for environmental externalities in economic analyses. According to Flannery, it is undeniable that degradation is accelerating—acidifying oceans, melting ice caps, and deforestation are only the beginning of his list—and this book makes it clear that the problems are not insignificant. He also warns of the complex psychological reasons beyond environmental apathy, such as the all-too-human preference for current gratification at the expense of later hardship.

As one might expect, this occasionally simplified and optimistic perspective occasionally oversteps realistic boundaries. Sometimes Flannery’s proposals seem inherently counterintuitive or, occasionally, the stuff of dreams. For example, he decries at length the excesses of the rich and the excessive consumption that inevitably results from rising living standards. Yet, later, he argues that “the last few decades have seen the most astonishing progress in lifting the entrenched poor out of their misery, and our future depends on hastening the trend”—a troubling and ostensibly contradictory prescription in a resource-constrained world. He does not appear to fully grasp the enormity of the fiscal challenges that will be required to facilitate some of his more startling predictions, such as the contention that “I have no doubt that [in the near future] we will all use electric cars.” Flannery does admit that the smart grid development needed to enable this transition would “require over 400 billion dollars in financing in the United States alone”, but he remains silent on how the political will and private sector involvement needed to coordinate such a massive project would be catalysed. In this particular case, the additional grid restructuring, infrastructure investments, and massive new developments in energy generation would cost trillions of dollars worldwide. Such a voluntary transition seems highly unlikely, especially without some sort of major environmental catastrophe or political revolution that Flannery claims we can avoid.

These shortcomings aside, the ideas in Here on Earth are incredibly powerful. From superorganisms, to Gaia, to policy, there remain many paths to a better future for all generations. In one particularly stimulating section, Flannery describes a group of Western Australian researchers and displaced Pintupi hunters returning to the latter’s traditional Aboriginal lands. In eloquent detail, Flannery describes the crestfallen looks of the elders as they assess the utter lack of biodiversity and complete soil erosion decades after their departure—the inevitable outcomes of the abandonment of their sustainable controlled burning practices in favour of modern, “scientifically-sound” methods of environmental management. Without resorting to unnecessary idealisation of non-scientific knowledge, this example is instructive, and shows us that there must be another way besides the status quo.

Joel Krupa graduated in 2010 with an MSc in Environmental Policy from Mansfield College, Oxford.