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An argument for hope?

Written By: - Date published: 6:03 am, January 31st, 2011 - 24 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, International, sustainability - Tags: , ,

I read a good book over the break. Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope, by Tim Flannery (author of The Weather Makers). I was immediately attracted by the subtitle. Ever since the failure of the Copenhagen summit on climate change I have been less than optimistic about our medium to long term future. So “an argument for hope” was exactly what I was looking for. Come on Tim – sell it to me…

Section 1 covers the basics of evolution, the similarity between genes and mnemes (ideas), social Darwinism (“survival of the fittest” inappropriately applied to society), the energy budget of the Earth, and other basic topics. Like the rest of the book the material is concise, informative, accessible, and presented with a light touch that is easy to read.

Flannery draws a crucial distinction between the Gaian and Medean hypotheses. The Gaia hypothesis (from a Greek goddess of the Earth) at its most abstract sees Earth as a living organism. Flannery prefers to see it as basic science, “Earth Systems Science”, as taught in many universities. The Earth is a self-regulating system, shaped (to the very crust and continents) by the interaction between physical and organic processes, and balanced so as to maintain surface conditions that are favourable towards life. In contrast the Medea hypothesis (from a Greek goddess of destruction) supposes that life is “bloody and self-destructive”, and that “species will, if left unchecked, destroy themselves by exploiting their resources to the point of ecosystem collapse”.

The contrast between the Gaian and Medean world views is a constant theme the book. One path offers hope, the other does not. For me this passage sums up the pervasive Left / Right divide in politics:

It’s often said that there are two fundamental sentiments that decide an election — hope for the future, and fear of it. If hope prevails, we’re likely to elect more generous governments and reach out to the world, but if fear prevails, we elect inward-looking nationalistic ones. Factors determining the successful spread of mnemes are clearly extremely complex, but at the broadest level it does seem that we, collectively and as individuals, gravitate towards one of these two tendencies. If we believe that we live in the dog-eat-dog world where only the fittest survive, we are 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 these mnemes prevails.

Section 2 of the book covers early human history and the impact of our arrival as we spread out of Africa. Everywhere we went we reshaped our environment, laying waste to forests and eliminating many species of animal life. Flannery finds a few small seeds of hope, pointing to some traditions and cultures that preserved or balanced at least part of their environments. But on the whole the record is bleak.

Section 3 explores the concept of “superorganisms” – species collectives that are capable of far more complex and powerful behaviours than any individual of the species. Ants, termites and other social insects are the classic example, and Flannery asks if evolution is driving us in a similar direction. Both genetic and social factors combine to produce “superorganismic glue” that binds such collectives together. Flannery identifies the birth of agriculture as the catalyst for the human superorganism, and outlines the historical interactions between the five human superorganisms (emerging from the five locations around the globe where agriculture was independently developed).

Section 4 is a profoundly depressing read. It covers the destruction wrought upon the environment by our rapidly developing technology. The effects of oil and coal extraction. Radiation. Pesticides and poisons. PCBs. Heavy metals. The accumulation of toxins in the food chain. Ozone depletion. Some of these were at least somewhat controlled by international action, but only after huge damage was done. This section finishes with an overview of climate change:

One of the most worrying aspects of the new [IPCC] report is confirmation that we had ample warning but did not respond. From the decline in the shell thickness of microscopic plankton in the Arctic Ocean to acidification of the seas, through to a rise in sea level and increasing land and air temperatures observed two 2009, scientists predicted what was going to happen, even if they underestimated the speed of change. And the scientists’ predictions for the future are grim. If we continue as we are for a few more decades, experts such as James Hansen believe that we are likely to trigger a shift to an ice-free earth, which will eventually raise sea levels by tens of metres.

Section 5 turns to “the human superorganism as it exists today”. Mnemes, our beliefs, are very powerful, in some cases trumping genetic factors, leading to for example a decline in population growth in many countries. Flannery identifies an important factor of our psychological makeup, “discounting the future”, the near universal tendency to value short term gain over the (possibly much more significant) long term consequences. Homicide rates, for example, are by far the highest in populations of young men who perceive themselves as having nothing to lose. “Generally, the less security we have, the more we discount our futures”. This leads to some challenging conclusions:

The tendency to discount the future helps explain why people sometimes act to destroy their environment, whether by cutting down rainforests, continuing to pollute the atmosphere , or destroying biodiversity. And people without prospects are created in a number of ways — through grinding poverty, through greatly unequal societies and through war, famine or other misfortunes. If you’re concerned about our future, it’s not just desirable that we eradicate poverty in the developing world, create a more equal societies and never let ourselves fight another war; it’s imperative, for the discount factor tells us that failure to do so may cost us the earth.

It’s clear that the affluent will need to reduce their consumption and and to manage their expectations if they hope to protect their futures. But if raising the standard of living of the poor is challenging, reducing the consumption of resources by the rich is a far more difficult task. One way it might become more achievable is to propagate the right mnemes just as we have propagated the anti-smoking mneme. If we decry excessive consumption wherever we see it, whether in four-wheel drives on city roads or in oversized and energy-hungry houses, we may succeed. But this takes courage and individual action. All too often, when I see such things and want to say something, I remain silent for fear of social embarrassment.

Before anyone writes this off as a Leftie treatise, there is plenty here for the Right to support too. “Markets are essential to society’s prosperity and dynamism”, although Flannery argues that they must be much better regulated. And property rights are seen as the key:

The growth of democracy is vital to a sustainable future. It alone can provide security, and secure rights, such as property rights to the individual, which ensure that most have ‘something to lose’ and so will not steeply discount their futures.

The last three chapters of this section present what seem to be the three pillars of Flannery’s argument for hope. Chapter 20 – “A New Tool Kit” – reviews technologies such as smart power grids, intelligent electric cars, and the impact of technology on agriculture. Chapter 21 – “Governance” – pins its hopes on democracy, but argues for reform to limit the control of the powerful few. We are bad at managing the global commons, and Flannery calls for more individual action (amplified and enabled by the web) such as Greenpeace opposing whaling in the Southern Oceans. Chapter 22 – “Restoring the Life-force” looks at ways of expanding Earth’s biocapacity and halting the inexorable growth of atmospheric carbon. Tropical rain forests are key, and the destruction must be reversed. Sustainable farming techniques and new methods for agricultural carbon capture could also have a significant impact.

The final chapter draws the threads together. For me the following (lengthy) extract captures the essence of the book:

If we take too small a view of what we are, and of our world, we will fail to reach our full potential. Instead we need a holistic, Wallacean understanding of how things are here on Earth, with its illumination of how ecosystems, superorganisms and Gaia itself have been built through mutual interdependency. In this light it is absolutely clear that our future prosperity can be secured only by giving something away. But for the brief moment that is the early twenty-first century we strange forked creatures are perilously suspended between Medean and Gaian fates. Beckoning us towards destruction are our numbers, our dismantling of Earth’s life-support system and especially out inability to unite in action to secure our common wealth.

Yet we should take solace from the fact that, from the very beginning, we have loved one another and lived in company thereby, through giving up much, forging the greatest power on Earth. These simple traits have allowed the weakest of us collectively to triumph, to establish agriculture, businesses and democracy in the face of opposition sometimes so formidable as to make success look impossible. We have hated and fought too, but all the while villages have grown into towns, and towns into mega-cities, until at last a global superorganism has been formed. And today we understand ourselves, our societies and our world far better than ever before, and are uniquely empowered to shape our ends, to rough-hew them as natural selection will.

… [It is possible] that we will use our intelligence to avert catastrophe and secure a sustainable future. We now have most of the tools required to do this and, after ten thousand years of building ever larger political units, we stand just a few steps away from the global cooperation required. But do we have it in us to take those last steps? Between our evolved genes and our social structures, are we constituted so as to cooperate at a global level?

Well, thanks if you hung in there and read all that. Flannery’s book is a challenging and informative read. But in the end, is it a convincing argument for hope? Has it convinced you?

24 comments on “An argument for hope? ”

  1. Fuck hope …. and don’t vote
    George Carlin says it all …. people are stupid

    • happynz 1.1

      If so, seeing as how you are of the opinion people are stupid, why take seriously anything Carlin said? As far as I am aware, he was ‘people’ too.

      • Afewknowthetruth 1.1.1

        Valid point.

        Only 19 out of 20 ordinary people are stupid when it comes to environmental issues.

        The 100% rate applies to politiicans and business people who have learned to be stupid perhaps .

      • KJT 1.1.2

        People showed with the anti mining demonstrations that the majority are not stupid. That is a justification used by politicians to keep the present power structure. Years of real democracy in Switzerland show that on the whole the majority do not make stupid decisions. Stupidity is endemic in those who seek political power though.

    • RedLogix 1.2

      Everyone I’ve shown them to has responded positively to the Robert Newman videos you linked to a while back. Brilliant political theatre and storytelling.

      By contrast, telling people they are stupid has just got to be counterproductive.

      • Afewknowthetruth 1.2.1

        Perhaps we should define stupid as allowing oneself to be misled …. over and over again.

        Robert Newman is far from stupid; in fact he’s brilliant.

  2. infused 2

    Good old George Carlin.

  3. just saying 3

    Excellent post Rob.

  4. M 4

    I think the theme of hope is misplaced – if we only use electric cars, smart grids, carbon sequestration and democracy then everything’s gonna be OK.

    Derrick Jensen I believe is much closer to the truth. In the film END:CIV he pulls no punches and says that the only way to save the planet is to destroy civilization because we’re on that trajectory now. He cites in the film that a Californian governor said that a dam was necessary for residents of a particular area could exercise their God-given right to water their lawns and then added that there was no argument that he could put up to rebut such an assertion and that the only way to stop such nonsense was to blow up the damn. This is a man who loves the earth and is very melancholy because he feels powerless to get change in train.

    Also in this film the corporatisation of the green movement is examined – IIRC two ex Greenpeace CEOs left to become head of logging and mining companies so their former CEOs’ beliefs in the cause lasted only as long as the pay cheques kept rolling in and one of the founders of Greenpeace said he felt the right to criticise and in a way felt culpable.

    The best thing most people can do worldwide from my perspective is to give up private car ownership and get a bike, plant a vegetable garden or join and community garden group if they have no land, consume only what is necessary (and yes that will be hard in the extreme for many) because so much as what we perceive as necessary is complete tosh. One of the greatest frauds ever perpetuated on women is the “beauty” industry and how the $50 facial cleanser, $80 lipstick and $200 nail treatments are necessary for them to be OK in society’s eyes and not realising that animals are being exploited and oil dug up for such things.

    People in most cases won’t change until it is forced upon them and governments are too weak willed to act but they ignore this bad news at their peril.

    One woman from the First Nation said after some of her tribe had been carted away by the police in Canada for protesting logging said “We regard those trees as our mother and she is being raped – would you let someone rape your mother?”

  5. Afewknowthetruth 5

    ‘[It is possible] that we will use our intelligence to avert catastrophe and secure a sustainable future.’

    Everything we have done over the past 10,000 years has reduced the habitability of the planet we live on and shortened the potential lifespan of our species. Why would we suddenly stop doing that now?

    Most of the time the chief source of problems is solutions, which have unintended consequences.

  6. johnm 6

    Hi Rob, Flannery writes a good book. To me it’s a…If only we could be like this everything would be ok book! Or Joe Biff is being expelled from school: but!!! if only he could have behaved himself in the manner teachers had explained to him he would be staying!
    It’s the same for humanity on this Planet,it’s not our fault, To survive as long as we have we learned not to be soft cuddly creatures but savage fighting exploiting and at times war making creatures:that’s why we survived on a Planet that plays no favourites! Now that we’re top dog of the Planet Yes we should change to be cuddly Earth loving nurturing creatures practising Kundun’s gentleness and harmony.But we can’t shake off our brutal origins in our genes: Think of all the animals and fish we’ve slaughtered and eaten including other people! The Japanese signed the Antarctic Treaty not to do commercial actions there but they can’t and will not leave the Whales alone and we are unable to control our population numbers which is essential for harmonious balance.
    Currently we are caught up by the selfish rich get richer poor stay that way cult of NeoLiberalism which is not a cooperative social model but gives us a feudalistic elite, Look at Egypt everything there is Privatized and the people driven into poverty.
    I am afraid Joe Biffs time has run out and we will be expelled by Climate Change and resource depletion and the termination of the carbon era. Joe Biff will survive but on a different Planet with vastly reduced circumstances similar to the cave man era when we were in harmony with the Earth through small numbers which will be enforced on us again by the Planet. That Nuclear Weapons exist says everything about our violent destructive species!

  7. Bill 7


    If indulging in self destructive behaviour, say punching oneself in the face, then the solution is pretty simple and straight forward. Stop doing it.

    But if somebody has constructed and is maintaining a position of power predicated on the destructive behaviour, then the solution becomes more problematic if still essentially simple.

    If I stop punching myself in the face (if I don’t drive and won’t participate in job activities that contribute to climate collapse and don’t consume in a reckless or thoughtless fashion), then those in power and their underlings will quite happily take over the task of punching me in the face ( eg visit institutionally sanctioned and onerous levels of poverty on me).

    Meanwhile, to expect action to emanate from those enjoying the privilages that accompany power is insane. They aren’t, afterall, going to pin your arms to your side are they?

    • greywarshark 7.1

      Cinny put up a link to the series the Century of Self. Watching it makes one pessimistic, this one anyway. It is hard to stand out against the ease that technology can bring, also the push from business and government to give up doing those little manual things that we can do easily, open our own doors etc.

      Visiting a government department is rationed. Telephoning instead is inefficient strangely, because they don’t meet demand with extra call centre time and there can be a heck of a wait. 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and landlines are being taken away as options leaving only cellphones with their charge per second or whatever.

      Walking anywhere, is fraught now with cycles flying by. And flying to Chch to see grandchildren has meant that I am not a stranger and haven’t had to spend two days travelling to get there and back.

      The link makes the point of how suggestible we are to some things, and conformist.

  8. Draco T Bastard 8

    But do we have it in us to take those last steps? Between our evolved genes and our social structures, are we constituted so as to cooperate at a global level?

    Doesn’t look like it. Looks like we’ll have to take the anthropogenic ELE as another hard lesson in how to be human.

  9. r0b 9

    I must admit that although I found it an excellent book, I was underwhelmed by the actual “argument for hope”.

    I don’t doubt that we have the knowledge and the technology, I do doubt that we have the will. Half the population will reflexively deny and oppose, and even the other half that acknowledge the need for change is much better at talking about it than doing it (myself included). I see no evidence that democracy at any level is up to the task.

    Think I agree with Draco at 8 above. We’re going to take our licks from nature, and emerge (I hope) fewer, sadder, and wiser. History is going to judge us harshly, especially the unfettered greed of the political “right”.

    • weka 9.1

      My hope rests in tipping points (social ones) and the cultural shifts needed to get us to the point of doing the right things. When I look at the amount of change around climate change awareness and action even in the last five years, I see the potential for rapid change if/when the right conditions emerge.

    • weka 9.2

      “myself included”

      Would you mind sharing why that is?

      • r0b 9.2.1

        As an affluent westerner, I am part of the problem. Most notably I fly (part of my job) and I eat meat (not much, local and organic, but even so). I drive a petrol car (usually walk or cycle to work, but not every time). I use ecologically destructive gadgets like this laptop (same one I wrote the original post above on in 2011, but even so).

        In short, my carbon footprint is way too big, there are things I should be doing about it that I don’t do. I’m part of the problem and therefore it’s a bit hypocritical of me to go on about it.

        All I can say in my defence is that I’m working on it.


        Edit: Since comments are now closed on this post, I’ll reply to your question below weka via this edit. What stops me changing “more or faster”? Lack of time, lack of money, lack of will power. It takes all three to make the big changes needed to sustainably reduce your carbon footprint. I’ve made a lot of progress since 2011, but I have to be honest and acknowledge to myself that there is further that I need to go.

        • weka

          I was just wondering what stops you changing more or faster given your level of awareness of the problem (hoping I’m asking that in a non-judgemental way, am genuinely curious).

  10. Odd. The first response to this post disappeared after it was published.
    I wonder what happened?

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