Book review: ‘Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope’ by Tim Flannery.
Global warming is one of those rare scientific ideas that reaches out from the world of labs and scatter graphs into the living rooms of non-boffins. It is a subject that a good many scientists have attempted to tackle cohesively in a bookstore friendly manner, attempting to balance the heavy and widely varied scientific data with sentiments and real world scenarios with which non-scientists can relate. Sadly, very few authors have gotten it right. Some get too carried away with Lovelock-ian touchy-feeliness while others get too bogged down in rigorous data that is lost on those who haven’t spent their professional lives learning to make sense of it. In my opinion, Professor Flannery gets it right, both in terms of the hard science and connection with his audience.
For those of you who have not heard of Tim Flannery, he is an Australian paleontologist, mammologist and environmental activist who currently holds a professorship at Sydney’s Macquarie University. Importantly, he has also served as an advisor to the Australian parliament on environmental matters. Some of his previous works, namely 2005’s ‘The Weather Makers’ and 2009’s ‘Now or Never’ have also focused on climate change and how we can hope to address the challenges presented by a world creaking under the weight of anthropogenic change. ‘Here on Earth’ is a logical continuation of these earlier works and is in many ways a broader piece of work.
Flannery applies his paleontological expertise to first explore how evolution has shaped stable ecosystems amid the comings and goings of ice ages and mass extinction events. Logically, this includes exploring how human ancestors were produced by a given econiche and flourished into species (note the plural) capable of inducing much change in the ecosystems around them. Anthropogenic climate change, he argues, is nothing new, we (and our ancestors) have been at it for a very long time. This gives rise to an interesting question. Is this destructive tendency, what Flannery calls our Medean nature, an unavoidable part of who and what we are?
As the title suggests, Flannery argues that disaster is not unavoidable, that climate change can be addressed and that human altruism can win out over greed should the conditions be right. He states that the mnemes of the world’s most powerful nations need to change if climate change is to be slowed. The expensive SUV in the street should not be a symbol of wealth and respectability, but a deplored example of the most destructive kind of excess. I couldn’t agree more.
While in the past I have been skeptical of the suspect parsimony of Lovelock styled Gaian Earth systems when compared to the hard-nosed, hard-science approach of neo-Darwinist biology, Flannery’s thoughtful and evidence supported approach encouraged me to think twice. I found myself reconsidering the ‘Daisyworld’ model and other experiments I had previously dismissed as fanciful, quite an achievement given my tendency toward the most extreme sorts of stubbornness on such matters.
I’ll admit, Lovelock styled ‘Earth as an organism’ concepts are not for everyone, you may not be as convinced as I was but then again I don’t consider myself an easy sell. Flannery writes well and entertainingly, the book was not a chore and would be equally as interesting to the non-scientist as it is to the scientist concerned about climate change. For these reasons I’d urge you to take a look at it, if not for the overarching theme, for the wonderful and interesting pieces of science he uses to build it.
Flannery, Tim. (2010). Here on Earth. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company.