Back in March we had a book club that looked at E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered. It reminded me that a few years ago I reviewed a couple of interesting books. Since it’s been a while, perhaps no harm in reposting the first of those reviews again today.
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?