Anyone who has been paying attention to the state of the Earth knows we live in precarious times. There is no shortage of well-informed writers warning of a coming catastrophe. British geologist Jeremy Leggett has crunched the numbers about carbon emissions and oil production to suggest that we’re practically doomed. George Monbiot, Gwynne Dyer, and James Hansen have painted similarly frightening scenarios based on the seemingly never-ending increase in carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere.
So you can imagine my relief when I came across a new book by one of the world’s leading scientists that offers a brighter picture. And this isn’t any ordinary researcher. Tim Flannery, author of 2005’s The Weather Makers, has been called the “rock star of modern science” by none other than Jared Diamond, the UCLA geographer and author of such bestsellers as Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Flannery’s new book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, posits some big ideas. Among them: human beings are a “superorganism”, similar in some respects to certain species of ants, that has evolved to form a great civilization. In fact, he argues, human beings are the only warm-blooded superorganism on the planet.
Another big idea? The Earth itself is a system similar to the human body, in that both function in a coordinated way with a command-and-control centre. In animals, this resides in the brain. In ant colonies, pheromone trails guide each member of the colony, resulting in the development of tunnels and well-travelled routes that resemble highways. Interfere with the pheromones and the colony—the system—may collapse.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight from Toronto, Flannery explained that the Earth system is controlled at a rudimentary level by what he calls “geo-pheromones” like dust and carbon dioxide, among other substances. However, human beings continue dumping greater and greater amounts of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, making it difficult for the system to remain in balance.
“But the argument I made in the book is actually the Earth system has thrown up a very different solution to these problems, which is an intelligent species that can act as the global intelligence, if given half a chance,” Flannery said. “That’s the Gaian system. It’s really just a reflection of the same process that makes our bodies complete entities, and ant colonies complete entities, but occurring on a much larger scale.”
In other words, Flannery is saying that the Earth system—also known as Gaia, after the earth goddess of ancient Greece—has evolved in a manner similar to individual species. The planet, like humans and ants, is adapting to changing circumstances. And this leads to another big idea in Here on Earth: that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has been perverted by right-wing, free-market thinkers to suggest that people are inherently selfish.
In 1859, Darwin published his landmark book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The essence of this work, according to Flannery, is that more are born than can survive. Those best fitted to the circumstances are most likely to survive and breed.
“It was almost immediately taken up by [English political theorist] Herbert Spencer and others and applied to a social context,” Flannery stated. “And ideas like survival of the fittest came into being.”
He added that growing evidence of Earth as a self-regulating system indicates that this is not a “survival-of-the-fittest world”. Interconnectedness and interdependence mean that human beings prosper by working cooperatively. “But if you believe”¦you live in a dog-eat-dog world, then of course you’ll be very selfish,” Flannery said. “But ultimately, that is very destructive. That social Darwinism gave rise to everything from Nazis to eugenics to neoclassical economics, in part. There are other influences, as well. It gave rise to a whole lot of very negative, right-wing perceptions, which are in part justified on this belief, this mistaken belief.”
Central to the history of evolutionary theory is the work of Alfred Russel Wallace, who arrived independently at the theory of natural selection at around the same time that Darwin published his book. While Darwin was part of the scientific establishment, Wallace was on the outside. He opposed vaccinations, Flannery reports, and became the dupe of spiritualists.
“One of his chief preoccupations was the air pollution choking Britain’s cities,” he writes. “He believed that the ”˜vast manufacturing towns belching forth smoke and poisonous gases’ were stunting the bodies of working-class children, and indeed they were, carrying countless thousands prematurely to their graves.”
Near the end of his life, Wallace became fixated on the atmosphere and its importance to the Earth system. “We need to read Darwin with Wallace, together, to understand not only the mechanism of evolution, but the legacy,” Flannery told the Straight. “That is a much more satisfactory basis for deriving a philosophy of life or any other discipline.”
As its subtitle states, Here on Earth attempts to give a natural history of the planet. Here, Flannery explains why the movement of continents maintains a relatively constant level of saltiness in the oceans. He points out that green plants remove about eight percent of the world’s atmospheric carbon dioxide each year. He also demonstrates how certain large species act like the planet’s “ecological bankers”, facilitating the flow of nutrients and energy through the system. Wipe out large animals and you remove a key regulator of the system.
The founder of Gaia theory, James Lovelock, has noted that life on land prefers temperatures around 23 ° C, whereas life in the oceans thrives at 10 ° C. “If Lovelock is correct,” Flannery writes, “then our Earth has a two-state thermostat, which results from a colossal tug of war between life on land and in the sea”¦.But consider the reptiles, or even hibernating mammals. They also exist in one of two states, warm or cold, depending on external conditions.”
During ice ages, carbon levels in the atmosphere fall because more of it is transported to the depths of the oceans. As Flannery explains, this is because cold water retains more carbon dioxide than warm water. Conversely, when temperatures rise, more carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, where it can trap heat within the system.
Since around 1800, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from about 280 parts per million to nearly 390 parts per million. Some scientists believe that if it goes beyond 450 parts per million, a series of changes would be triggered that could cause havoc on Earth.
Flannery lays out two options for humanity. The first is a Medean approach, in which humans act selfishly and ultimately destroy themselves (Medea refers to a terrifying god in Greek mythology). The second is a Gaian approach, in which humanity works cooperatively in a systematic manner to bring about a positive resolution to the crisis.
He said that our civilization faces a stark choice. “There is nothing given about it; there is nothing set in stone,” he explained. “We have to make a decision. Do we want to live sustainably and have a better future for everyone, or are we happy to throw four billion years of evolutionary history away, and our futures away, just because we can’t think about life without fossil fuels at the moment?”
If we choose the former, Here on Earth offers a road map out of the mess. This month, Flannery noted, the planet’s population reached seven billion. He believes that the Earth could support a population of nine billion for a while, provided humanity makes the correct choices.
One of the keys is protecting tropical rainforests, which, he writes, is easier to do with modern satellite technology. He points out in his book that the destruction of rainforests is responsible for 15 percent of all human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. Not only do they store carbon, but they recycle water through the cloud cover they generate.
Flannery also mentioned that a process called “pyrolysis” can work wonders in generating power efficiently. He likened it to cooking, with biomass such as forestry or crop waste being broken down into three products. The gas can be burned to create electricity. The bio-oil can be used in the same manner as conventional oil. The third byproduct, charcoal, is nearly pure carbon in a mineralized form.
“You can put that charcoal in the soil and use it as a carbon store,” Flannery stated. “That takes carbon out of the atmosphere, obviously.”
Soils treated in this way produce much less nitrous oxide, which is another greenhouse gas. Flannery’s book notes that the world’s intensively used croplands have lost 30 to 75 percent of their carbon content—or about 78 billion tonnes—over the past two centuries. With an appropriate management approach, he suggests, about two-thirds could be restored within 25 to 50 years.
“By virtue of their large extent, their rapid responses to changes in grazing regime, and the relatively small numbers of people involved, it’s possible that the world’s rangelands offer the greatest potential to sequester large amounts of carbon in the shortest possible time,” he writes.
In summary, Flannery told the Straight that his book’s biggest message is that there’s still cause for hope in dealing with environmental problems. “Evolution is on our side to do that,” he maintained. “The only way we’ll achieve it is by cooperation and some level of trust.”
Tim Flannery will speak at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. next Friday (April 29).
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.