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Here on Earth: A Natural History of the…

Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet (2010)

by Tim Flannery

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Flannery gives us an overview of life on our planet and of our species, with an eye to making us see the importance of being a cooperative part of our planet's ecosystem (the Gaia hypothesis) rather than the rulers and exploiters of the ecosystem (the Medea hypothesis.) There's a useful and interesting review of the different paths and perspectives of the two creators of the theory of evolution--Charles Darwin and the less-remembered Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin held off on publishing for years, in part because he was disturbed by some of the moral implications of his theory. Wallace, in contrast, saw in evolution the beginnings of something like the Gaia hypothesis--that Earth's ecosystem is ultimately an interdependent whole, and the picture of nature as "red in tooth and claw" is at best half the picture.

Over the intervening century and a half these competing visions have played out, with the harsher Medean viewpoint more often prevailing. Now, though, we have reached a point where we potentially endanger the survival of the ecosystem we depend on for our own survival. Flannery makes the case that we both must, and can, become in effect the brain and nervous system of a Gaia that will nurture us along with all the other diversity of life on Earth.

Along the way, he tells some fascinating and illuminating stories. I was enthralled by the account of how mammoths made the Russian steppes more productive and life-diverse by acting as an ecological "banker," controlling vegetation, returning nutrients to the soil, and making it possible for the steppes to be far more productive than they are today--and how their extinction, at least in part due to human over-hunting, ecologically impoverished the steppes. Even more fascinating is his account of how the Australian aborigines first eliminated much of the diversity they found on arriving in Australia, hunting to extinction most of the megafauna of the continent, and then, struggling to survive in the impoverished landscape, effectively took their place as "ecological bankers." Carefully controlled firestick farming took the place of the large grazers; strict cultural rules on when, where, and how to hunt, along with restriction of hunting rights to the clans resident in particular areas, allowed Australia to be preserve much of the productivity the elimination of the megafauna would otherwise have eliminated. European colonists, on their arrival, began pushing the aborigines off their lands and exploiting the land in ways based on their experiences in Europe, and once again severely damaged the productivity of the land. Now, Australians are once again attempting to modify their behavior to preserve their environment and unique fauna, and restore the productivity of the land.

All of this is in support of a discussion of how humans worldwide are now, on the one hand, exploiting the world in ways dangerous to our survival, and groping towards more sustainable practices. Some of the discussion is specifically about political systems: it's easier for democracies to start to lessen their environmental impact, because everyone has some degree of a say in what happens, and everyone has something to lose, making a "take the money and run" approach less attractive. Likewise, modern views of equality of rights and opportunity means that women, who bear most of the biological burden of reproduction, can and do choose to limit their child-bearing in favor of devoting more of their lives to professional, artistic, and volunteer activities. The spread of these rights and opportunities creates the possibility of escaping the Malthusian trap of outrunning our resources by limiting our reproduction to a sustainable level and even reducing the total human population a bit without resorting to China's harsh and oppressive measures.

Unfortunately, while I like the information and the viewpoint of the book, and learned some useful and interesting things from it, I do think that too much of it is preaching to the choir. In some of the chapters where I would most like him to be making a convincing case, Flannery is in fact offering arguments and examples that I fear will convince no one who does not already agree with him. And the final, summary chapter waivers between hope and gloom in a repetitive and uncompelling manner.

An interesting book, but I can't recommend it if you're not already sympathetic to the Gaia hypothesis.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
Despite the rise of climate scepticism, it’s probably fair to say that the scientific community has reached consensus about global climate change. We’re warming up and that warming is the result of greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide. Whether or not it’s happening is no longer the question. The question is how we’re going to fix it and how long we have. Here on Earth isn’t really a book about climate change per se, although that comes out as the most urgent issue that the human ‘superorganism’ has to deal with. Instead it’s a book about the whole notion of what humanity is as a species, and how that relates to the world we live in. The book takes the Gaia hypothesis as its starting point – the notion that we’re part of the entire living ecosystem of the Earth – including the biosphere, the atmosphere, the ‘commons’ of the oceans and poles, all integrated to form a system much greater and more united than our current political system of ‘nationhood’ would suggest. Written in such clear, scientifically cogent prose, what might have appeared wacky somewhere else, comes across as elegant and utterly rational. Although it must have been tempting for Flannery to write this in a polemical style - after all, there's much to do and little time to do it in, the writing is never didactic or prescriptive.

Instead, Flannery uses evidence to suggest that we are at a major crossroad, and that we can either destroy ourselves, Medea like, or we can evolve to the next phase, recognising our unique power and our extraordinary capability to cooperate as a united organism working for the common good. Although there’s plenty of evidence for the former, the book, as the subtitle suggests, remains positive, beyond even fixing the immediate crisis of climate change and overpopulation:

There is something magnificent about the idea of a wild and free plent, one whose functioning is maintained principally by that commonwealth of virtue formed from all biodiversity." (277)

The book begins and ends with Darwin’s sand walk, and the notion of evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’ and moves through Dawkins’ selfish gene, proposing that, beyond the gene, there’s the mneme – as Flannery presents it, a kind of idea/association/memory that has a physical reality and that can be used in a way that goes beyond strict self-interest towards the greater good. It’s the idea of this greater good towards which this book leans – a ‘commonwealth of virtue’ that works, in a grander way than self-interest:

In such a commonwealth the various elements are sorted and stored in the most appropriate planetary organ. Non-living parts of the system are coopted for the benefit of life, and there is no ‘waste’ because species recycle the by-products of others. And there is a tendency, over time, towards increased productivity and interdependence. All of this is achieved I the absence of a command-and-control system, and with only limited ability to elicit specific, system-wide responses. The remaining question, as Hamilton realised, and which we shall re-visit towards the end of the this book, is whether a commonwealth of virtue so defined promotes its own stability: in other words, is it Medean or Gaian in nature? (62)

Of course whether we're Medean or Gaian is the rub, and clearly we have the potential to go either way. We could progress to the next level of cooperative evolution, perhaps through our fast evolving technology, and not only fix the planet, but also learn to live in peace with one another (yup, world peace). Alternatively, we might just end up, as Flannery so eloquently puts it in a nod to Cormac McCarthy, ‘on the road’. If there are no other superorganisms in the universe, then that would be that. It would be tempting to look around at the extreme and growing polarities, and persistent poverty so evident in the world today, and shrug. Flannery doesn’t do that, and in fact quite clearly eshews such negative “self-fulfilling prophecies”. Instead he offers a range of solutions from electric vehicles, smart grids, and satellite surveillance of environmental trangressions, along with the suggestion that the ultimate answer lies in governments being willing to cede power for the common good. That might require maturity that the human race, still in its juvenile phase, isn’t ready for. But if anyone can create the kind of awareness that leads to growth, Flannery can. If so, perhaps there really is an argument for hope.

Article first published as Book Review: Here on Earth: A New Beginning by Tim Flannery on Blogcritics.
  Magdalena.Ball | Nov 8, 2012 |
My ebook edition was marred by terrible formatting errors. ( )
  Katong | Apr 16, 2012 |
When he sticks to the subject matter suggested by his subtitle he is quite good. A convincing and entertaining writer on our natural world but an agenda that leads him too far astray. ( )
  jacoombs | Jul 1, 2011 |
Attempt to pull back and make sense of the world and humanity's place in it. Compares approaches of Darwin, and Wallace. Instead of Dawkin's concept of the selfish gene, he focuses more on the positive and intricate cooperation within ecosystems. ( )
  KateWa20 | Jun 15, 2011 |
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Dieses Buch ist eine Doppelbiographie des Menschen und des Planeten Erde.
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An explorer and environmentalist offers a natural history of the Earth as well as a biography of the human species.

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Penguin Australia

3 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 1921656662, 1921656875, 1921758724

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