Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Here on Earth: a new beginning – Tim Flannery ****

Sometimes great books on a particular subject are like busses – you can wait for ages, then two come along together. In this case it’s Curt Stager’s Deep Future and Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth. After reading Deep Future I was feeling surprisingly positive about global warming. Not in a ‘no need to bother’ sense. But Stager points out that in the long term, the global warming we’ve had so far will have some beneficial effects, and if we can cut back on emissions, we should be able to cope with what it will throw at us. Now Tim Flannery has given me a reality check by pointing out that it still could be fairly horrendous.
Don’t get the idea, though, that this is just a ‘woe, woe, and thrice woe!’ climate change misery memoir. Flannery starts with an absolutely brilliant introduction to evolution, the development of Earth and life on Earth, and the development of human civilization. Taken on its own this would be a superb (if rather short) five star book. Flannery’s writing style is superb – I just wanted to keep reading on – he is a natural storyteller. Anyone who still doubts evolution, for example, should be exposed to Flannery from an early age. (The only slight hesitation I have is that he isn’t strong enough on that creationist bugbear, the idea that micro-evolution makes sense, but it’s much harder to explain the formation of new species.)
In effect this is a three act book. The first part is this wonderful introduction. Then we get the realities of global warming and other human-caused pollution and what it is going to do the flora and fauna of our world. (And, potentially, to our civilization.) Finally there are some suggestions on how to fix this and make things better. The reason this book gets four stars, rather than five, is that each of these sections is slightly less convincing than the one before. Perhaps it was because I came to straight from Stager’s book, but I found the predictions of doom in the centre section not entirely convincing, and I certainly have very little hope that Flannery’s over-optimistic solutions will show fruit.
I also had a concern about a tone in the writing and a couple of specific statements. That tone is the way he refers to Gaia and other fringe scientific ideas with rather too much enthusiasm. I don’t think the way to win over politicians and business people is through New Age feeling concepts, however much Lovelock’s original Gaia model has merits (which it does). Flannery never points out that Lovelock himself has pointed out the people tend to over-literalise Gaia.
The first specific problem is a strange bias in a comparison he draws. He suggests that low tech hunter gatherers are much more flexible and capable than a typical ‘modern’ human being because post-hunter gatherer societies are mostly composed of incompetent individuals. To illustrate this he points out that a Westerner (say) put in a New Guinea hunter gatherer environment would flounder and not survive, yet he has met people who were born New Guinea hunter gatherers who have become helicopter pilots (say). This is a bizarre comparison. Certainly if you put a typical city dweller in the jungle and said ‘survive’ they wouldn’t live long. But equally if you put a New Guinea hunter gatherer straight from the forest into the pilot’s seat of a helicopter at 10,000 feet and said ‘survive’, he or she would last an even shorter time. It’s a stupid comparison that detracts from the weight of his other arguments.
There’s also at least one example of distorting history to make a point. Flannery tells us that organo-phosphate crop sprays were derived from nerve gasses, implying that the evil, anti-Gaian farmers took something terrible – nerve gas – and thought ‘why don’t we spray this around without a care?’ In fact this happened the other way round. Because the crop sprays were discovered to be dangerous when they landed on the skin, nerve agents (usually liquid rather than gas) were derived from the crop sprays. I’m not saying spraying with these substances is thus okay, but that by reversing the historical order of things to make people’s actions seem worse, Flannery endangers his argument as a whole.
Overall, then, this book is worth reading for the first section alone, which is beautiful. And as long as you can reign in any tendency to dismiss the good parts because of the tone and the occasional folly, the rest of the book is also very powerful. Flannery may not have instant solutions to the problems of climate change, and I think he is over-optimistic about the reactions of governments, particularly at the time this book was published with most of the world in recession. Yet there is some encouragement there – and I hope that many people will be inspired by Flannery’s obvious love of the natural world and his immense talents as a writer.
Paperback (US is hardback):  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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