A decade ago, Tim Flannery’s ‘The Weathermakers‘ was one of a handful of rapidly-read books that inspired me to understand the true enormity of the climate crisis. Ten years later, and starting a new job focussed on helping city mayors lead where national governments have failed in cutting carbon emissions, I decided I needed a Flannery refresher course and so picked up his latest book, Here on Earth.
Flannery was first introduced to me as “the Australian David Attenborough” and he certainly shares the great man’s knack of being able to explain real science to the masses, even including people like me for whom the formal study of biology and chemistry ended in their early teens.
But whereas Attenborough is almost universally regarded as a national treasure, Flannery regularly attracts the soubriquet “controversial”, at least in his home country of Australia, due to his willingness to fight for climate action on the political as well as the scientific stage.
In Here on Earth, he explains at the outset why he has chosen to be a scientist with a political mission:
“Fifty thousand years after our ancestors left Africa, our species is entering a new phase. We have formed a global civilisation of unprecedented might, a civilisation that is transforming our Earth. We have become masters of technology, spinning energy from matter at will and withal realising the dreams of the alchemists – transforming one element into another. 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.”
This melding of scientific and philosophical thought prompts him to pose the central question of the book:
“Are we constituted by natural selection to be so selfish and greedy that we’re doomed to catastrophe? Or are there reasons to believe that we can overcome the problems confronting us, allowing our civilisation to continue?”
His answer to the first question is emphatically “no”. While what most people remember about the theory of evolution is indeed the concept of survival of the fittest, Flannery points out that this phrase was coined by the libertarian philosopher, Herbert Spencer, rather than Darwin himself. Moreover, while Darwin’s fear of revealing to the world that we are spawned not from godly love but evolutionary barbarity held him back from publishing his theory for twenty years, the man who can lay equal claim to fathering evolutionary science, Alfred Russel Wallace, had no such inhibitions because he drew very different conclusions about the lessons for human development.
Wallace believed that “while evolution by natural selection is a fearsome mechanism, it has nevertheless created a living, working planet, which includes us, with our love for each other, and our society.” He saw the Earth as an eco-system, with each living thing dependent on others for survival. As Flannery paraphrases:
“If competition is evolution’s motive force, then the cooperative world is its legacy. And legacies are important, for they can endure long after the force that created them ceases to be.”
In the twentieth century James Lovelock developed Wallace’s outlook into his ‘Gaia Theory’, which sees Earth as:
“a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system..this system [has] a goal – the relation of surface conditions so as always to be as favorable as possible for contemporary life.”
Lovelock, like Wallace, was a working class outsider and his theory was largely ridiculed when he first posited it. But as continuing scientific advancement has served to better prove Gaia Theory, Lovelock has come to occupy in his nineties the sage-like reputation gained in old age by another 1970s threat to the establishment – Tony Benn.
Like Benn, however, while Lovelock is now able to somewhat bridge political divides, his ideas remain inherently radical. As Flannery puts it, “the deep interconnectedness central to Gaia hypothesis presents a profound challenge to our current economic model, for it explains that there are both limits to growth, and no ‘away’ to throw anything to.”
Flannery wants his readers to adopt Lovelock’s analysis as call to action, rather than an excuse to give up and sit back. Gaia theory doesn’t tell us that living things consciously choose to cooperate, but that evolution has shaped them to do so. We can’t rely on the rest of nature to sort things out so that the conditions on Earth remain conducive to human life.
Here on Earth describes in depressing detail how humanity has become sufficiently dominant within Gaia to single-handedly make other species extinct (at an accelerating rate) and generally wreak a pattern of eco-system destruction across the planet.
This appetite for destruction is not just a recent phenomenon. While we have caused more pollution in the last fifty years than in the previous 300,000, right back to the first pre-historic migrations, “every time the arrival of upright apes was a disaster for the land they discovered. Hardly a creature in the new found lands had an adequate defence against them, and there was nothing to stop our ancestors consuming all they required and then moving on.”
But, Flannery argues, we don’t have to carry on in the same vein. Whereas most species are constrained in their development by the glacial pace of biological evolution, human cultural evolution allows us to consciously choose to co-operate in order to preserve the delicate balance of an eco-system that has allowed our species to flourish so considerably in the last few seconds of evolutionary history to date.
By way of example, Flannery cites the fact that “it took the saber-toothed cats millions of years to evolve their great stabbing canines, but it took humans only a few thousand years to develop metal daggers that are far more potent weapons.”
Flannery refers to this cultural evolution as the transfer of mnemes, rather than genes. That is the transmission of ideas or beliefs, that have a physical response in changed nueronal patterns – rewiring the brain.
This is where Flannery gets back to politics, because just as the course of biological evolution is not pre-set but determined by reaction to changes in the physical world, so the course of cultural evolution is affected by changes in political and philosophical norms:
“If we believe in a dog-eat-dog world where only the fittest survive, we’re likely to propagate very different mnemes from those that arise from an understanding of the fundamental interconnectedness of things. In large part, our future as a species will be determined by which of these mnemes prevails.”
Flannery concludes that catastrophic climate change cannot be averted under the dominant neo-liberal model of the last few decades. Indeed, he warns generally against allowing business interests to determine societal outcomes, quoting Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to do so:
“The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from [the business community] ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted until after being long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same as that of the public, who generally have an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”
But Flannery does not seek the overthrow of capitalism. He is a political reformist, not a revolutionary, and believes that a better kind of capitalism, in which climate catastrophe is averted, is possible.
It is in this final forward-looking analysis that Flannery diverges from his mentor, Lovelock. The latter believes the die is cast and sadly predicts that nine out of ten of humans living this century will die as a result of climate impacts, leaving just a few hundred million of us clinging to refuges in places such as Greenland and New Zealand.
Flannery, on the other hand, argues that this is just one possible future. Humanity has the tools necessary to avert climate catastrophe, it is just a matter of using them. And we should “take solace in the fact that from the beginning we have loved one another and lived in company, thereby through giving up much, forging the greatest power on Earth.. And today we understand ourselves, our societies, and our world far better than ever before, and are uniquely empowered to shape our ends, rough-hew them as natural selection will.”
The second half of his answer to the two-pronged question I cited at the start of this review, of whether cultural evolution can overcome the limitations of evolution by natural selection, is a loud “yes”.
In fact he goes so far as to speculate that if humanity can snap out of its current individually selfish, mutually self-destructive stage, then there is the prospect of not just averting climate catastrophe but of a far better future – a genuinely intelligent Earth policed by a benign human super-race. An outcome, he concludes, that would mean that “the Gaia of the classical world would in fact exist.”