Tim Flannery “Here on Earth” book review

Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope (Text Publishing, 2010). First published in PAN (Philosophy, Activism, Nature) Issue 7, 2010.

Tim Flannery describes the twenty-first century as the valley of death we must cross if we are to survive as a species and asks how we should care for the earth to ensure a flourishing future.  His is no Deep Green Ecology, however; it is a practical guide to mounting a challenge to wasteful environmental practices without questioning the need for enough base load power to bring a favourable quality of life to the increasing population of the planet. He is pro-technology and speaks of human use of the planet in terms of management, which will annoy many of the book’s more ecocentric readers. But he does not think of the planet merely as a giant farm, explicitly pointing out that this is part of the problem. He thinks we can handle the nine billion population mark projected for mid-century, if only for a while, until the population decrease expected with a more widely educated (and democratic) world lessens that pressure. We can do this by utilising things like soil rehabilitation, reforestation, care of the commons (such as the seas) and – more controversially – with global satellite surveillance. Here on Earth is a very broad-brush stroke, yielding little of immediate benefit to the activist determined to make immediate change to everyday habits, so the way this surveillance is to be carried out (and who is to monitor the monitors) is not discussed, apart from some vague gesturing towards a kind of earth-responsible United Nations. Given the generally slow uptake of the idea that human society needs to change in a wholesale and immediate fashion, this kind of generic populism on behalf of a more ecocentric vision is probably just what is needed in the marketplace.

Flannery makes the interconnectivity of all human societies today a prime focus; all peoples are communally linked by the ecological health of the planet and national boundaries are no longer rational borders in regards to the way we think about our collective interests, even at a limited social level. There is no point in maintaining sovereign rights over a landscape that can be devastated by the impacts of a neighbouring country, when both could take measures to consider it as a total ecosystem. Flannery writes about things like slow but increasing acidification and poisoning of the oceans, which effects everyone (diminishing the life of the ocean and therefore seafood catches, sending ever-increasing amounts of dangerous heavy metals up the food chain to humans, doing unknown damage to the deeps that could come back to haunt us in the future in such things as dumped poisons). In this he jumps quickly towards a planetary committee of ecological overseers, discussing the UN and its promise and failures as a worldwide governing body, who could manage these always-human focussed affairs for the benefit of all.

He considers a rigorously controlled, united force that could help protect the health of the ‘commons’ with a set of firm principles designed by Nobel Laureate in economics Elinor Ostrom for that very purpose. Her research into effective protection of such shared places led her to believe that they can be managed sustainably if the following powers are available to a controlling body: “the ability to exclude outsiders (such as poachers or illegal loggers); clear, mutually agreed rules about who is entitled to do what along with appropriate penalties for transgressors; an ability to monitor the resource; and mechanisms to resolve conflict.” (255) Flannery points out that indigenous groups like Australian Aboriginals have been practising such things for millennia, calling them “ecological bankers” for the way their use of fire recycles nutrients in a sustainable manner. (99-100) He uses financial systems as a metaphor for health regularly throughout this book, pointing out that “ecological bankers”, like the marsupial giants that roamed Australia before the ancestors of the Australian Aboriginals arrived, maintained nutrients in soil and vegetation, and increased the carbon content of soil, thanks to their diet and lifestyle. (83) He proclaims the need for other “biological banker[s]” like the mammoth of the Siberian tundra, who “kept a climatically formidable environment productive and alive” through its practices of eating hardy vegetation and returning it to the ground as fertiliser. (86-7) The loss of such creatures effects overall biodiversity and this is exacerbated by the loss of forests (with their capacity to capture carbon and release oxygen), damaging the health of the whole system, and thereby “Earth’s energy budget.” (257-8) Alongside our obvious problems with carbon in the atmosphere, the diminished amount of photosynthesis going on in a climate system where such “Gaian tissues [are] most critically damaged” reveals not just a scientifically quantifiable process but a damage to the “small miracle” of the leaf and its “transubstantiation” of lifeless gas into living being. (258)

Flannery continuously flirts with religious language, choosing to explain his own grasp of climate science alongside a view of life on the planet as something imbued with an almost cosmic, certainly pre-conscious, intelligence. He asks us to consider Alfred Russell Wallace alongside Charles Darwin for a more balanced notion of evolution and its outcomes. Flannery believes that Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is a similar type of insight to Wallace’s almost intuitive notion that the Earth’s vast complexity is integrated into a holistic system. This system, since the rise of consciousness, is one based not just on the gene of physical processes but the cultural mneme of thought, which now requires united action for its perpetuation.

So, life influences the planet to promote its opportunities and sustain its atmosphere; in effect, it creates its own conditions of homeostasis.

When Flannery writes about Gaia – he seems to use the term interchangeably with Earth – he calls it a ‘she.’ (278) While we must be wary of the idea that nature can be universally gendered feminine – writers like Louise Westling have shown how such metaphors provide able vehicles for masculinised cultures to have their way with ‘her’ – there is also a sense in which this feeling that the physical cosmos can be likened to the ‘womb’ out of which we all arise is so common in human cultures as to be almost universal. There is a certain undeniable rationality behind the mythic image and Flannery does not abuse it but instead speaks of loving Gaia as we love ourselves and each other. Hence he mobilises the theme of love to create a bridge between human society and the physical world and this seems to me a welcome manoeuvre for scientific discourse. It seems hard to imagine the extensive shift in human consciousness required to face global ecological crisis without it being accompanied by a renewed appreciation, at the deepest level, for the very world we share, are born out of and into, and must tend to with a kind of care indistinguishable from love.

Flannery clearly wants to be a motivating force towards this kind of shift in action and belief and seeks a middle ground between his confidence in the bad news of climate science and the necessity to motivate people with positive emotive forces such as hope, rather than negative ones such as despair and fear. He mentions the much more successful option of the carrot and the relative failure of threatening people with a stick, even while maintaining that, in accord with Ostrom’s outline for a way to help save the commons, punative capacities must be afforded the council responsible for such protective measures. On the scale that has been debated amongst ecophilosophers for some time now, he seems to sit at about the ‘realistic’ version of weak anthropocentrism. He recognises the anthropocentric selfishness of the human animal, especially the way certain subspecies, such as neoclassical economists, relate so well to social Darwinisms such as that proposed by Richard Dawkins and his selfish gene theory. (218) What is welcome in this book is that there is no attack on other people’s beliefs, but an attempt to find evidence of the way humans can work together well, so that such incidences can help us to learn how to find the social glue necessary to effective, global restitution of biospheric health.

Flannery writes about human civilisation as a ‘superorganism,’ the latest version of an animal tendency that began millions of years ago. Any social entity, be it insect or human, that is based on the underlying principles of the superorganism can be studied for the way its members work together towards a more complex – hopefully but not necessarily more satisfying – society. (111-12) Obviously division of labour is the fundamental property displayed by such colonies and Flannery discusses the advantages (greater capacity for complex constructions and leisure time) and disadvantages (sections of society forced into low-status jobs, mental or physical stunting of growth due to repetition) of this. Then of course there is the pattern of human self-domestification required at the groundwork of civil society but which can also lead to dangerously unreflective consumption of water, food and energy. (128) Flannery mentions some of the parallels between the ancient Roman Empire and today’s global superorganism of settlement civilisation, both of which fight the enemy of ‘diminution of resources; their Achilles’ heel is interruption to the flow of energy – whether it be food or oil – or water.’ (144-45) Today’s global human civilisation, with its currency of American popular culture and its advanced technologies, magnifies this weakness for more and more energy into a potentially ‘Medean event that erodes the living fabric of Earth.’ (150) The question Flannery poses here is: will we be capable of loving our planetary home as a Gaia or will we desecrate it, even consume it to death, as Medea did her own children?

Flannery sees an attitude of the frontier still operating in human cultures, even though the age of exploration tied closely with exploitation of resources and damage to the land and its native peoples is over. (205) In summary, he shows that we cannot let the attitudes promoted at the frontier lead us towards ecocide. (275) While desire to build and develop new markets has always been a driver behind the extension of any human frontier, Flannery links the positive basis of exploration – human curiosity – with the technological evolution that accompanies our civilisations in his Foreword:

We have trod the face of the Moon, touched the nethermost pit of the sea, and can link minds instantaneously across vast distances. But for all that, it’s not so much our technology, but what we believe, that will determine our fate. (xviii)

Here on Earth is a commendable effort in attempting to overcome the persistent belief that civilisation operates somehow free of the rest of nature. By taking into account the deep history of the human animal and its evolution, without reducing or decrying culture’s religious elements (and with some recourse to its mythic bases), the author asks his reader to move closer to an understanding of the way we are inextricably interwoven into the destiny of the Earth itself. We are now, in fact, indispensable elements in the way the Earth’s systems respond to the climate crisis. Flannery recognises that this challenges both ends of the spectrum of the anthropocentrism debate: we can no longer afford to think of ourselves as separate from nature or as merely one species among many. (276) For better or worse, we are now ‘lords of creation’ who must perceive environmental problems and correct them, taking responsibility for ‘managing this world of wounds we’ve created’. (276) While Flannery considers many of the ways in which this cultural revolution is and may continue to go ahead – or be derailed – his concluding plea that we must love the Earth as ourselves satisfies both current scientific findings and imperatives as well as the deep impulses for care that we may have shifted away from but can recognise when imperilled. This makes Here on Earth a valuable corrective to other influential commentators who continue to push their version of right thinking against what they see as the unreasonable ‘other’. Flannery attempts to promote inclusivity on behalf of planetary care and this is the attitude required of a world seeing many of its old nationalistic and political borders dissolving into a difficult, new global reality of interconnected damage control and healing.

I would have liked to see some question of the way we live but Flannery is too realistic for that. This is not ecophilosophy; it is popular (and populist) environmentalism for the people. It is possible that this is exactly what is needed as a stepping-stone towards better management of the earth’s resources, even while such wording underscores the quite strong anthropocentrism of Here on Earth.

One comment

  1. Zooligists sheese!

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