October 2010

Arts & Letters

Primary care

By Christine Kenneally
Tim Flannery’s ‘Here on Earth’

For many years, India’s White-rumped Vulture population was large and thriving, but from the late 1990s the number of vultures suddenly declined. So precipitous was the drop that 97% of the birds disappeared over 15 years. As they died out, the animals they once scavenged were left to rot. Cattle carcasses piled up, feral dogs increased in number and the spectre of a rabies epidemic grew. The Parsees, a religious group who place their dead on towers to be consumed by vultures, watched in horror as the bodies of loved ones accumulated and slowly decomposed.

In 2006, autopsies revealed the birds’ kidneys had been destroyed by Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle and water buffalo. Completely inadvertently, humans had brought the vulture population to the edge of extinction. In the immensely ambitious Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope (Text Publishing, 352pp; $34.95), Tim Flannery describes the vultures and other case studies that follow this depressingly familiar plot: either through indifference or ignorance, by poisoning the environment, changing the climate or launching more straightforward hostilities, humanity has created one ecological disaster after another. Will the vultures survive? Veterinary Diclofenac was banned in India in 2006 and small groups of vultures returned. However, the drug is still sold illegally, so the birds still suffer. What of humans, and even the Earth itself; will we survive? Despite the book’s subtitle, Flannery does not make a sustained argument for hope, though he does consider the respective likelihoods of a cataclysmic or a healthy future.

The scientist, bestselling author and 2007 Australian of the Year sets out to deepen our understanding of who we are and where we are heading by looking at the disparate industrial, social and political activities that impact upon the planet’s health. He further develops the picture by placing our activities in the context of 50,000 years of human migration. Flannery is at his best when describing what’s at stake on Earth right now. He catalogues devastating cases of deforestation, pollution and carbon emission, as well as extinctions and near-extinctions. And he makes a solid case that, unless humanity changes its course, an ecological endgame is inevitable. By contrast, his reasons for hope include a few inspiring individuals, some nature reserves, futuristic technologies and a reimagined UN in the form of a “Gaian Security Council”.

Flannery frames the book by asking us to consider the Gaia and Medea hypotheses. The first, proposed by James Lovelock in the 1970s and named for the ancient Greek ‘Mother Nature’, says that the Earth system is made up of atmosphere, rocks and ocean, which together regulate the conditions of the planet to support life. The Medea hypothesis, developed by Peter Ward and named for the filicidal mother of Greek myth, says that the fundamental principle of life is unconstrained greed. Any especially successful species will eventually exhaust the resources it depends upon and cause its own demise.

Many case studies in ecology fit one pattern or the other. Coral reefs emit chemicals that help create clouds, which in turn protect life in the reefs. Yet some species, such as foxes when introduced to Australia, reproduced and ate so much that they almost brought about their own annihilation. Flannery convincingly shows that we need to understand how a species affects the patch of planet on which it lives, and how this has serious implications for its future. The more extreme versions of Gaia – which claim the planet is like a living organism – have long been denounced as wrongheaded. For instance, organisms reproduce themselves – they have parents and offspring (in some form), but the Earth does not. So Flannery proposes that, rather than thinking of the Earth as an organism, we think of it as a “commonwealth of virtue”. But this seems a mere change in terminology – he still talks about the “organs” of the planet, and even proposes that we think of atmospheric gases and dust as “geo-pheromones”.

When Flannery looks at human history through the Gaian/Medean framework, he observes that the human past is a grim tale of destruction. Of modern humans, he writes, we are “feeble cogs” and “poxed, incompetent weaklings”. However, Flannery also writes about our “deep urges to preserve biodiversity”, and the “human impulse to preserve rather than destroy”. He explains the gap between these versions of human nature, to some extent, by showing that we often wreak havoc when we first enter a new land, as in Australia 50,000 years ago, but we can eventually “co-evolve” with the local animals and find a way to live in balance in the new environment.

Here on Earth also looks at other creatures in an attempt to help us understand ourselves. Flannery talks about superorganisms, a term generally applied to ants. Some ant colonies create complicated hierarchies of distributed labour without an intelligent ‘boss ant’ who plans or controls what the other ants do. By following pheromonal signals, each ant is an unthinking cog in a brilliant machine. Flannery says that humans form superorganisms, too. To some extent, this is true. There are ways that human cities follow emergent, unplanned principles.

For Flannery, the point is to argue that humanity may not need central “command-and-control” to manage the recovery of the Earth. Yet many of his examples require a central authority to stop damage. For example, in the case of the dying vultures, Indian farmers didn’t elect to save the birds. Rather, the government had to ban the manufacture of Diclofenac. Flannery’s vision of what a human system without centralised control might look like is opaque. With an eye on the ants, he writes that, for humans, “an effective governance system need not be ruthlessly centralised, but merely capable of sending messages that effectively influence the system it seeks to control”.

He also talks about memes, a term popularised by Richard Dawkins. Memes are ideas that act like genes – they replicate themselves in people’s minds. Dawkins argues, for example, that there is a “God” meme. According to Flannery, memes are more powerful than genes because we invented genetic engineering, which “… allows us to snip genes we don’t like out of our genomes”. But this claim misrepresents the state of genetic engineering. While it’s true that scientists have removed genes from animals experimentally (sometimes causing changes in health or behaviour), this is not standard practice for human beings.

It’s clear Flannery has an important role to play in keeping the egregious excesses of modern Australia in check. But it’s hard to see how this book will assist his cause. Flannery’s attempt to knit Earth systems science and environmental activism together with deep history and ‘big ideas’ into a grand whole is more baffling than illuminating. What’s more, when he is in ‘activist’ or ‘hopeful’ mode, many of his statements – which are perhaps rousing in an auditorium – fall apart on the page.

Flannery’s meme argument, for example, amounts to little more than the old axiom ideas are powerful. Thus he makes a plea that we promote environmentally sound practices and shun big cars. Fair enough. But he goes further and claims that it’s not technology so much as our beliefs “that will determine our fate”. It’s hard to know what is gained by this distinction. After all, technology is the instantiation of ideas. Then again, even if you take the statement at face value, Flannery also provides a strikingly contrary list of environmental calamities caused by human technology, such as pesticide use and nuclear weapons testing.

At other moments, confusingly, Flannery discusses technologies in ways that are, to put it mildly, boosterish. He talks about worldwide web-voting and smart transport grids, and he makes a case for cloning mammoths, who have been extinct for thousands of years. Though he cautions that scientists can’t do this “quite yet”, he does not mention that the only extinct animal ever cloned was the Pyrenean Ibex; that it had only been extinct since 2000; that only one resurrected ibex was born; and that it died a few minutes later. Rather, he expresses great enthusiasm about the mammoth’s potential utility. Mammoth urine and droppings, it seems, helped keep the Siberian tundra productive despite its harsh weather.

For good measure, towards the end of the book, Flannery presents – in a single paragraph – a vast world of ideas in which most scientists would fear to tread. He writes that some geneticists believe humans will interbreed to the extent that genetic differences will be lost. He adds that linguists are documenting the rapid extinction of the world’s languages and that language extinction may leave us with a single human language. And then he leaps to this: “With a homogenous gene pool, universal communication and a common political system, our children and grandchildren may have a far better chance than we do of acting as one.” Of all the fantastic visions that Flannery conjures, this is the most absurd. And it is not even a desirable state; as he himself points out, diversity makes species and ecosystems stronger.

So where does this leave us? Are we now “witness to a descent into chaos or a profound revolution that will lead to a better future”? Based on the evidence Flannery supplies, chaos appears more likely. It’s too bad – I believe Flannery can see a ‘grand whole’, and maybe it’s a helpful one, but he doesn’t lay it out here in a convincing or useful way. Perhaps if he could discuss the fate of the Earth without asking us to imagine we might one day be mammoth-tending, genetically homogeneous, monolingual members of a Gaian security council, more productive ideas would emerge.

Christine Kenneally
Christine Kenneally is the author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. She has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, Slate and New Scientist. @chriskenneally

White-rumped Vultures, once abundant in north-east India, are considered a threatened species. © Corbis
Cover: October 2010

October 2010