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April 01st 2011 print

Michael Kile

Mammoth Fantasies


Tim Flannery, Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope, Text, 2010, 316 pages, $34.95. 


But I am certain of one thing—if we do not strive to love one another, and to love our planet as much as we love ourselves, then no further human progress is possible here on Earth.
                                             Tim Flannery, Here on Earth 

The trajectory of a person’s life is a mystery. Consider the case of Tim Flannery. Who could have predicted the now fifty-five-year-old mammalogist, palaeontologist, discoverer of the great monkey-faced bat (Pteralopex flanneryi) and environmental activist would appear—after many adventures in the jungles of Melanesia and at international climate conferences—as a guest at this year’s Perth Writers Festival, speaking on the themes of “truth and fiction” and “science is the new art”, and promoting his latest book, Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope?

Flannery has become not only Australia’s version of Professor Challenger (without the pterodactyl and “bellowing, roaring, rumbling voice”) and a public eco-evangelist, but also Chief Commissioner of our new Climate Commission—an Orwellian “independent” body set up recently to “engage” with the community and to persuade it to support a “carbon (dioxide) price” (tax); a step that is supposed to enable the government to adjust the globe’s elusive thermostat until it is, like Goldilocks’s porridge, just right for Australia. This is Tim’s—and the Commission’s—first mammoth task.

Here on Earth joins Flannery’s earlier books in the eco-apocalyptic flood that began over half a century ago: Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet (1948) and The Limits of the Earth (1953), Kenneth Boulding’s Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth (1966), Garrett Hardin’s Exploring New Ethics for Survival (1968), the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972) and Robert Heilbroner’s Inquiry into the Human Prospect (1974) were followed by James Lovelock’s Ages of Gaia (1988), William McKibben’s End of Nature (1989), Rupert Sheldrake’s Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God (1990), Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance (1992) and many other works. Growing anxiety about “dangerous” climate change has increased the genre’s appeal during the past decade or so.

Flannery’s new book, the product of five years’ reflection, explores some similar territory to that of the now ninety-one-year-old Lovelock, especially his most recent books: The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back and How We Can Still Save Humanity (2006) and The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can (2009).

Many nineteenth-century naturalists, such as Charles Darwin, strove to free science and nature from religion. “Nothing is more remarkable than the spread of scepticism or rationalism during the latter half of my life,” Darwin wrote in 1879: 

Before I was engaged to be married, my father advised me to conceal carefully my doubts [about Christianity], for he said that he had known extreme misery thus caused with married persons. Things went on pretty well until the wife or husband became out of health, and then some women suffered miserably by doubting about the salvation of their husbands, thus making them likewise to suffer. 

Flannery’s meditation on life’s past, present and future—which is as much a search for meaning as an argument for hope—is, by contrast, an attempt to re-sacralise nature. If Darwin “murdered” Christian moral sensibility by revealing a ruthless natural world “red in tooth and claw” without a benevolent God, Flannery wants to resurrect it by emphasising life’s “co-operative” dimension.

For him, evolution is not about survival of the fittest. It is a more benign process with a homeostatic goal, one that “actually builds co-operative systems that produce stability”. He prefers the “great holistic analyses” of Alfred Wallace and Lovelock over the work of evolutionary “reductionists” like Darwin and Richard Dawkins, precisely because he feels they open a window on this kind of “spirituality”.

But does introducing characters from Greek mythology, “mnemes” from evolutionary biology, discount factors from finance and so on—and creating what resembles at times an allegorical drama between good and evil—make complex concepts more comprehensible? Even the author describes it as “a strange sort of book” and has doubts about whether “everyone will be sympathetic to it”.

According to an internet review by Tom Coyle, what surprises in Here on Earth are “the factual errors, inconsistent logic and an imbalance between rhetoric and content … The delivery is seriously destabilised by a problem with form versus substance and a seeming inability to maintain a distinction between Flannery’s metaphors and his science.” While Coyle praised parts of the book, he noted that “inaccuracies and confused theories make up too much” of it, possibly disappointing readers seeking “something practical and wise”. Furthermore, Flannery “does a thorough job of undermining the important task he is trying to accomplish: moving humanity to act to save itself and the planet from climatic catastrophe”. His “preference for form over substance, flourish over fact” may “prove to be an effective approach for those he is attempting to convince, but it is a risky strategy”.

If such matters worried Flannery’s Perth Festival audiences, they kept it to themselves. Many seemed inspired by his panoramic view of the history of life on Earth. Others warmed to his folksy sense of wonder and idiosyncratic brand of eco-chat. (A few, however, were dismayed to hear a former Australian of the Year describe a well-known adversary’s contribution to the climate debate as a type of non-aromatic bovine emission. Echoing through the interior of the University of Western Australia’s magnificent Winthrop Hall, the word seemed to break the spell of this sacred Seek Wisdom space.)

Was his view that humankind could—and should—save itself from (climate) catastrophe wholly accepted here? It doubtless struck a redemptive chord with those who, rightly or wrongly, share his fears about the future and about “future eaters”. For others, however, the book’s “visionary solutions”—promoted as “required reading for politicians and corporate leaders”—were probably more puzzling than “provocative”. 

In his big thought-experiment, Flannery introduces the realms of Gaia and Medea. Gaia, a “self-regulating super-organism”, resembles the merciful God of the New Testament. She too has a compassionate purpose: preservation of life by creating a steady-state Garden of Eden, through some unexplained process of spontaneous environmental adjustment. Yet how his Promised Land—a sustainable state of permanent “stability”—could prevail for long on a dynamic, revolving and evolving Earth suspended in a turbulent cosmos, remains unclear.

Lovelock, Flannery said, is “one of my great heroes”. A colour photograph of him appears in the book, standing in a lush garden in front of a statue of Gaia. Below it is one of Flannery, with a slice of rock in his left hand. The caption reads: “This 3.8 billion-year-old rock preserves evidence of the beginning of Earth’s carbon cycle, and thus life on Earth. Holding it gave me a personal connection with life’s origin.” Every religion, it seems, has its sacred relics and rituals. And yes, “we, quite literally, are Earth’s crust”.

The concept of Gaia, the “Earth as a living thing” with a goal—“the regulation of surface conditions so as always to be as favourable as possible for contemporary life”—apparently came to Lovelock in a moment of inspiration in 1975. It continues to have many critics. Dawkins described Lovelock’s notion of purposeful “homeostatic regulation” of the Earth’s atmosphere as part of “pop-ecology literature”, or pseudoscience. What also upsets many scientists is Lovelock’s—and presumably Flannery’s—claim that the “hypothesis describes co-operation at the highest level—the sum of unconscious co-operation of all life that has given form to our living Earth”, which “possesses many of the qualities of a living thing”.

Medea was Jason’s vengeful enchantress, so her realm is much less benign. It is a place where “life itself periodically brings about the destruction of life” and “long-term ecological stability is impossible”. When Flannery asks whether “this means that humans and their market systems must inevitably, Medea-like, imperil the planet”, he answers with a version of Malthus’s Principle of Population proposed by US palaeontologist Peter Ward: “Species will, if left unchecked, destroy themselves by exploiting their resources to the point of ecosystem collapse.”

For him, Ward’s Medea hypothesis suggests that “ruthless selfishness is inevitably a recipe for the elimination of a species”; and “that if we compete too successfully we will destroy ourselves”. This is the question that “goes to the heart of this book. Will ours be a Medean or a Gaian future?”

If human society is to evolve further, Flannery argues, it has to be more than just a perpetual struggle between greedy, future-eating Medeans (nasty market capitalists) and virtuous Gaians (nice social democrats). The latter can save humankind from climate catastrophe, but only if the former allow themselves to be transformed into a more caring and sharing group. Only the growth of individual Gaian consciousness will “check”—and reverse—humankind’s precarious position.

There is much here to perplex the reader. Take, for example, his claim that “the demographic transition represents the triumph of the individual against the tyranny of the selfish gene”. Some triumph, given the human biomass has tripled since 1950, from 2500 million to 7000 million people this year.

Flannery’s belief that this phenomenon is evidence for humankind “becoming self-regulating” requires closer scrutiny. He sees it as a “total paradox”, as it seems to arise from “a desire to restrict our own numbers” in an environment favourable to reproduction.

What is not paradoxical, however, is that demographic transition—the shift of birth and death rates from high to low levels in a country’s population over time—is actually a consequence of economic development and the “selfish genes” that drive it. It is an effect of per capita income growth, growth that has been based historically on access to cheap energy, especially coal.

For the developing world, four-fifths of today’s global numbers, the best way to reduce population growth rapidly is modernisation, at least based on evidence from recent demographic history. But any transition to a lower birth-rate stage will require consumption of vast quantities of cheap (coal-fired) power, especially as the planet’s population moves towards nine billion by 2050.

This is an intractable dilemma for climate alarmists. Modernisation on this scale would produce a huge increase in the very greenhouse gases that allegedly are causing—or about to cause—“dangerous” warming and other “extreme” natural events. Furthermore, the process’s uncertain rate makes predictions about when—and whether—we can “pass humanity’s population peak without catastrophe” problematic.

Flannery believes the Earth can support nine billion “at least for a few decades”, but he also notes our population can be reduced only slowly. While it is a “critical element in the long-term solution to our problems”, he prefers to deal with more “immediate challenges, such as our destabilising climate”.

Flannery senses (correctly) that the eco-alarmism of the past few years—a movement to which he has been, and ironically remains, a generous contributor—has been counter-productive. It did not produce “hope for the future”, but rather fear of it. He now wants to try a new strategy. Like most evangelists, political or religious, he wants a less “dog-eat-dog world”, a planet with more compassion and “justice”. Unless we can be made to see the light—that is, “the fundamental interconnectedness of things”, we—and future generations—will not inherit the Earth.

Yet his “argument for hope” is sparse, appearing only in the book’s final ten pages, and most controversial section: “An Intelligent Earth?” Here Flannery bravely attempts to answer Lovelock’s question from 1979: “Do we as a species constitute a Gaian nervous system and a brain?” Humankind must take on the role of terrestrial estate manager. It is time the “human super-organism [began to] foresee malfunction, instability and other danger, and to act with precision”.

Even the most optimistic, however, will be unsettled by being placed “perilously suspended between Medean and Gaian fates”; where “beckoning us towards destruction are our numbers, our dismantling of Earth’s life-support system and especially our inability to unite in action to secure our common wealth”. Faced with such problems, many might prefer to live out Lovelock’s “final warning” and enjoy it while they can. 

Flannery also urges us to “increase Nature’s influence” by “re-wilding” the Earth, for “there is something magnificent about the idea of a wild and free planet, one whose function is maintained by that commonwealth of virtue formed from all biodiversity”. A “commonwealth of virtue” arises from biodiversity? Very much a teleologist and myth-maker keen to deify Nature, Flannery seems unable to resist anthropomorphising it. But how many “reasonable beings” will join him on this quest?

Species resurrection, then, is Tim’s second mammoth task. One of the first objectives of his proposed super-council to “regulate” Gaia will be to bring back the mammoth. For him, “creatures such as mammoths are vital elements in important ecosystems, and it is only through restoring them that the Earth’s productivity and resilience can also be brought back to the level that would most benefit our living planet and ourselves”. Re-wilding without mammoths would be “bound to fail, because mammoths and other elephants are the ecological bankers of our world … Attempting to re-establish their role in ecosystems is akin to helping a crashed economy back onto its feet.”

But would a new world super-council, or Gaian Security Council, be just a more authoritarian version of the United Nations? Could we expect noble eco-philosopher-kings to materialise and to replace an entrenched class of career bureaucrat, a class motivated more, perhaps, by the prospect of receiving billions of dollars of “climate debt” than pursuing truth, salvation and species resurrection of a (hopefully) non-Jurassic Park kind?

Tim’s third mammoth task for humankind is even more ambitious—to colonise the galaxy and the universe. One day our species’ “work” on Earth will be done. “If we really are the first intelligent superorganism”, Flannery confides, then it must be our evolutionary destiny “to populate all existence”. Surely, he muses, we could visit at least some of the 250 billion stars in the Milky Way in the next “five to fifty million years”, en route to other galaxies?

“This is the first book I have read on climate change,” someone said, “that introduces the prospect of humanity launching a star-faring civilisation. And why would you want to bring back the mammoth if the world is entering a phase of dangerous warming?” 

Flannery also spoke briefly at the Festival’s opening event on truth and fiction. There were, he said, no truths in science, only probability statements. For him, scientists fall into two categories: “reductionists” like Dawkins, and those who take a more “holistic” view of complex systems, like Lovelock—and presumably Flannery himself. The only way, apparently, to “understand” such systems is to attempt to model their complexity. These models, however, cannot make predictions about the future. All they can do is “merely suggest how things might work out in the long-term”.

Flannery went on to make a controversial comparison, at least for a few folk in Canberra. In Flannery’s world, such models “resemble a piece of drama”. They were also “very similar” to novels. “Truth,” he said, is “in modelling the world in some kind of creative way.” If “truth resides in fiction” in this sense, however, it implies that models are at best fallible, “creative” representations of possible future outcomes. So how do we distinguish between “good” and “bad” climate models? How close are they to the true state of things?

At the opening night party later, and after at least one glass of Watershed 2007 Shades shiraz merlot cabernet, Flannery was adamant that real climate scientists would never claim their models had genuine predictive power. When had he decided to use this subject in the discussion about truth and fiction? “I actually had no idea of what I was going to say when I reached the podium,” he replied. “But when I saw Julie Bishop in the third row, I thought it was a good time to tell her something about models.”

Why is the reductionist-holistic distinction so important for Flannery? It allows him to give the public the impression that scientists who practise “hard” (empirical) science—and who diligently using the scientific method in their research—are unaware of, or miss, the Big Picture. However, those who practise “soft” (holistic) science—or what some now refer to as Earth System Science—allegedly have superior insights into the way nature works, insights that transcend anthropomorphic projection, even if they cannot prove they have it in the traditional (evidence-based) way.

It is sometimes said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who feel and those who think. For the thinkers, the world is a comedy; but for those who feel, it is a tragedy. For Flannery, thinkers tend to be heartless reductionists. Those who feel, he suggests, have a deeper, more holistic, understanding of life—and science. They connect more readily with Gaia’s pain. This possibly explains his popularity with the latter group, especially under-thirties activists.

So dawns the postmodern Age of Storylines. It is an age where science can morph into a new art (or religion) before one can say carbon sequestration; where obscuram per obscuris arguments (“explaining” an obscure and complex phenomenon—such as climate change, the Earth, or the universe—by evoking something even more obscure and complex—such as a climate model, or Gaia, or God) are fashionable again; where facts are fluid and theories fuzzy; where metaphors multiply like cane toad colonies; where the rhetoric is deep green; where prophets of doom rely on dodgy differential equations in place of entrails; where high anxiety triumphs over pragmatism; where the political atmosphere can be polluted by a “you ain’t seen nothing yet” confirmation bias; where public discourse is corrupted by semantics; where speculation struggling with its own contradictions can be packaged as a thought-experiment and promoted not only as a plausible glimpse into the future, but also as sufficient justification for a national carbon (dioxide) tax and the fundamental restructuring of Australia’s—and the world’s—energy economy.

Arthur Schopenhauer defined hope as “the confusion of desire for a thing with its probability”. Flannery’s vision may or may not be persuasive or wise, but it does illustrate another insight of the late German philosopher, one worth remembering at this strange-disposed time: “It is natural to believe true what we desire to be true, and to believe it because we desire it.” 

Michael Kile is the author of No Room at Nature’s Mighty Feast: Reflections on the Growth of Humankind. Grateful acknowledgement is made to the Perth Writers’ Festival for its assistance.


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