Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review of Tim Flannery "Here on Earth" Text Publishing 2010

This is a book with a vast scope, and a brave book. It is very easy to read, and despite yourself you will learn things. I was blown away by some of the scientific content. I'm not sure if I understood it correctly, but the relationship between continents moving and the organisms that live on them just boggled my mind.

He takes aim at Richard Dawkins. The narrow interpretation of evolution as simple genetic survival of the fittest is perhaps the primary target. The case is made very well, and again, I learned things.

It's also interesting that the subtitle "an argument for hope" is aimed squarely at the pessimistic literature. One point he could have made is that pessimism is the ultimate abdication of responsibility. If it's all going to hell in a handbasket then what the heck, I'll just go to the pub. The idea of discounting the future. No future, no problem - no worries. Clive Hamilton ("Requiem for a Species") is never mentioned or discussed. Interesting.

His scope brings him into the territory of Jared Diamond (especially "Collapse"). Jared's view is not an inherently pessimistic one - there are many positive non-collapse cases in his work. Jared is not an ecological determinist - he explores the choices that societies make. But when Tim makes the case that the world is getting more connected, a global society is emerging, then you can almost hear the cynical sighs in the back row. But there are positive things happening, and there are examples where the world has cooperated and overcome significant problems.

In tone, it reminds me of the "general science" authors of the early twentieth century. H.G.Wells, Aldous Huxley and the like. But the title should read "the possibility of hope", as the argument for hope is quite weak.

His opening about Charles Darwin walking the sand path around his house for ten years and not publishing his work is compelling. He wonders what he was thinking about, as he walked. Well let me suggest a hypothetical. Charles Darwin was thinking about Auschwitz. Of course he wasn't thinking about the actual camp, as we had to wait a century for that to appear. But Darwin well knew the application his theories would attract, and Auschwitz is a logical result of one interpretation of his theories.

Which makes me wonder. How can we have a "biography of our planet" that does not mention Hitler or Stalin? Yes, we have had conflicts between rich and poor. They happen all the time. But what has killed millions of people is the power of ideas. They are very dangerous things.

So my question is this: can we dramatically transform our civilisation without conflict? Nobody would go out to seek such a thing. I hope it doesn't happen. But history tells me that large changes mean conflict. Not necessarily between countries, but perhaps between economies. We have the new sustainable economies and the old fossil fuel based economies. It doesn't make sense to transform an economy if others on the planet ensure that it is doomed anyway. The new economies may eventually lose patience with the laggards.

This is a courageous book. It is worth reading, and engaging with the arguments.

1 comment:

Haiko said...

we live in interesting times.