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Book review: Here on Earth – An Argument for Hope

Written By: - Date published: 10:01 am, May 21st, 2017 - 12 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, International, sustainability - Tags: , , ,

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?

12 comments on “Book review: Here on Earth – An Argument for Hope ”

  1. I’m already convinced. Mr Flannery’s explorations are thorough and intense and quite different from the poetic works that influence me the most, but the tenor of what he finds is akin to my own feelings. I met Tim Flannery a few years ago, in Invercargill outside of a hall in which he was to speak about his then-new book, “The Future Eaters” – we were both a little late, and enjoyed a light-hearted chat about the concept that we humans consume our world. You’ve written a very comprehensive commentary on his latest book, Anthony; your article reads very well and I enjoyed it very much.

  2. Bill 2

    Gaia versus and Medea – five great extinctions and all driven by a Gaia that’s supposedly 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

    So no. Certainly not convinced on that front. Not to say I buy into ideas about Medea either. There’s shit. Shit happens. Sometimes good shit. Sometimes bad shit. That’s life. (For the couple of billion years left for life here anyway)

    The left/right divide – we do live in a ‘dog eat dog’ world. And while some hope to be successful in that world, others hope for something different. So is it so far ‘out there’ to suggest that one persons fear is another persons hope? I think not. But just that simple admission tumbles his neat divide.

    Skipping section 2.

    Section 3. Evolution isn’t a thing with a motive (like I say, there’s shit, shit happens…) Holding that evolution can ‘drive’ anything and have some end goal ‘in mind’ as it were , is a straightforward projection of a liberal world view – y’know, the one that gave us colonisation, capitalism and all that other good stuff that paves the road to some nirvana at the end of ‘progress’. (How’s that working out btw?)

    So no, not convinced.

    Section 4. Nothing needs saying.

    Section 5. “Discounting the future” would suggest that a young person committing suicide because they perceive no point in living, would not in fact commit suicide, because their natural inclination would be to ignore the dismal and hopeless long term view they have.

    It also doesn’t explain why people trash environments. Profit motive and a fear of destitution explains that tendency far better. Plenty of cultures did not willfully destroy their environments. But then, it seems Flannery is somewhat keen on the notion of ‘the market’, it being apparently essential to society’s prosperity and dynamism. Bollocks, say I…and probably best if I just say nothing on his view of ‘property rights’. 😉

    Chapter 21. If you have democracy, you’ve already solved the problem of powerful elites. So I’ve no idea what Flannery’s thinks democracy might be – a dog eat dog world of competing interests kept in check by the general dogginess of it all?

    Chapter 22. We want to halt a rise in CO2 levels, then we stop burning fossil. That’s it. That’s all it is. Can’t get much simpler.

    Final chapter. Well, if ever there was a rosy spectacled rant…I actually find it quite disturbing and dishonest. The weakest have not collectively triumphed – look at the world! On ‘business’ I fully support the spirit and legacy of the Luddites – away! with your business and its enslavement – quite happy producing in this small scale and empowering way, thankyou 😉

    And how does globalisation and intense urbanisation (his ‘superorganism’) mean that 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.?

    We understand no better than a cave person did (possibly less) – we’ve lost our power before huge concentrations of power and wealth etc (on the cusp of co-operation my arse!) – and, importantly, if Gaia is a “self regulating system” that’s “favourable towards life”, then what in the name of hell is this nonsense about “shaping our ends”? That makes zero sense given his belief in some benevolent Gaia.

    Back to the trees or grass lands with you Mr Flannery! Take your “intelligent electric car” with you, set a direction and progress away why don’t you?

    It was a good read Anthony, but a very bad story-line. 😉

    • weka 2.1

      Evolution isn’t a thing with a motive (like I say, there’s shit, shit happens…) Holding that evolution can ‘drive’ anything and have some end goal ‘in mind’ as it were , is a straightforward projection of a liberal world view – y’know, the one that gave us colonisation, capitalism and all that other good stuff that paves the road to some nirvana at the end of ‘progress’.

      I don’t think that’s how Flannery is using the concept. Rob said,

      “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.”

      The ‘driving’ there is the ongoing process of evolution. You and I can’t choose to change our eye colour or pass a different eye colour onto subsequent generations. In that sense evolution ‘drives’ those things. It’s not driving in the sense of humans consciously making choices due to motives (e.g. capitalism and ‘progress’), it’s the natural consequence of the way ecology works i.e. survival of those organisms (and traits) that best fit in the environment they are in. The driving is being done by the systems in play that we don’t get to control.

      The problem I have with Flannery’s idea (not having read the book), is that memes are given such high value. They may have that much influence, but I’m not entirely convinced (and look where social Darwinism gets us). I suspect that the underlying glue is still basic survival drives and that humans, having evolved in groups not individuals, are now trying to adapt to some pretty aberrant conditions.

      • Bill 2.1.1

        I don’t think that’s how Flannery is using the concept

        Aye. Fair point. Seems I was still annoyed at the Gaia thing at that point. Should have read it twice. His ‘superorganism’ thing is…yeah, nah.

        Like you say (to paraphrase), we’re essentially social animals given to co-operation, who now find ourselves essentially locked into socio/economic/political environments that atomise us, that favour and reward the interaction of the individual at the systems level – and that comes at the direct expense of enjoying the fruits of co-operation.

        Unless you were meaning the “aberrant conditions’ to be referring to stuff like AGW and the other multiple effects we’ve unleashed (essentially pollutions and destructions) through living by or under those socio/economic/political conditions? 😉

        • weka 2.1.1.1

          No, the first one, by aberrant conditions I meant late stage capitalism etc 🙂 Although I also think that climate change, nuclear winter, etc are problems we aren’t evolutionarily able to deal with well. No societies or tribes have had to deal with the absoluteness and scale of those problems. So in addition to capitalism there is the whole cognitive dissonance thing. Makes it very complex.

          It is interesting to think about it in terms of evolution though. We are social group animals, so what’s the adaptation process going on when the (social) environment is changed so much and this way? Voting strong state-centrist apparently 😉 There I think it is people taken out of the tribe and reflexively operating from survival need. What is the most safe thing, not from an intellectual perspective but from a more primal brain perspective?

          • Bill 2.1.1.1.1

            …so what’s the adaptation process going on when the (social) environment is changed so much and this way?

            For my money, a rising incidence of screwed up behaviours and generally deteriorating states of mental health. That’s our adaptation. It’s a natural reaction, or set of natural reactions to our environments.

            I think it’s worth remembering that we didn’t all just willfully trot along into this state of affairs. It was imposed, often with great levels of violence.

            Maybe if we remembered that and rediscovered our outrage, our right to rebel and say no…

      • Incognito 2.1.2

        Hi weka,

        Jung introduced the concept of the collective unconscious – to him it was more than a concept. Teilhard de Chardin came up with idea of the Noosphere. Bergson introduced élan vital. Others have different names for it but I believe that all these ideas (and faiths) circle around a core truth. As long as we humans have been thinking and verbalising our thoughts the same theme has reoccurred, time after time. So, what is all this telling us?

        I think that consciousness and evolution are inextricably linked; this adds another dimension to our ecological paradigms that are limited to what is sometimes called the Biosphere.

        • One Anonymous Bloke 2.1.2.1

          Collective unconscious or genetic memory? This is how it may work.

          It is high time public health researchers took human transgenerational responses seriously.

          Prof. Marcus Pembrey.

  3. weka 3

    I also enjoyed this and am glad you posted it r0b. Very good read.

    For me hope is something that one chooses to engage in oneself. So that even in the darkest hour there is a path of integrity and honour and respect and thus a willingness to do the right thing. But I get that people need external examples to give them hope.

    The other issue reading that brought up is what people consider a disaster. For me mass destruction of ecosystems is the frightening possibility because humans are directly dependent on the environment even where we feel we are separate.

    The end of human civilisation worries me less because we are smart enough and have the resources to do that in a good way *were we to so choose. In that sense I am not convinced by the superorganism thing, or at least about the potential for global governance if that is where Flannery is going. Old hippy that I am, it’s still think global, act local.

    I also appreciated the bit about survival fear amongst the well off. This is something I am thinking through currently and considering that it is the main driving force behind the aware middle classes for not changing re CC. We could take a big drop in standard of living and still be ok, so what is stopping us?

    • r0b 3.1

      Thanks weka, and all.

      Yeah Bill I don’t think Flannery sells hope convincingly either. I was really hoping that someone could convince me that he does…

  4. 808state 4

    The theme of two competing world views – Medea and Gaia/Earth Systems – is interesting and compelling.

    Yes it is a convincing argument for hope, as far as it describes one realistic call to action that ensures our species survival.

    As for the planet system itself, I don’t think we have to worry t o much about it, it will keep chugging along no matter what humans get up to.

    At one point the entire planet turned into an ice ball, once it defrosted, I guess all the plant seeds germinated and evolution kept going.

    Ok its sad from a subjective point of view when all those species start disappearing, but apparently circa 99% of species that have ever existed are now extinct – so nothing is forever anyway.

    Worse case scenario, human civilization collapses, but pockets of it will be ok.

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