Review: Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope

Byron Smith reviews Tim Flannery's call to action in light of contemporary environmental challenges.

According to his title, Tim Flannery offers an argument for hope here on earth, amidst climate change, biodiversity decline and the crisis around issues of contemporary sustainability. This is not a hope based on a milder re-evaluation of our predicament, a downgrading of the threats we face in the light of new evidence or priorities. Flannery is convinced the danger is real and present. The source of his hope lies elsewhere, in an account of human prehistory and history: “as we come to know ourselves and our planet we will be motivated to act. Indeed, provoking that action is the purpose of this book” (p. xvii).

The opening chapters present the conceptual heart of the book. Flannery introduces his two main intellectual protagonists and their contemporary protégés. In one corner stands Charles Darwin and his current successor, Richard Dawkins; in the other, Alfred Russel Wallace and James Lovelock. It is from Lovelock’s most famous idea that Flannery then sets up the central conceptual opposition of the book: the Gaia hypothesis versus the Medean hypothesis.

Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is relatively well known. The biosphere as a whole – atmosphere, oceans, crust and all life – is a super-organism, an integrated homeostatic system in which the various elements maintain conditions favourable for life.1 Despite fierce competition at the level of individual organisms, life on earth unconsciously cooperates at the macro-scale. Evolution by natural selection has resulted in a planet that is hospitable to life: “If competition is evolution’s motive force, then the cooperative world is its legacy” (p. 31). Lovelock’s optimistic thesis was prefigured by Wallace’s work on atmospheric dust and is named in honour of the Greek goddess Gaia, the earth mother.

Against this stands the Medean hypothesis, self-consciously named in opposition to Gaia after another figure from Greek mythology, the homicidal Medea, who sought revenge on her unfaithful husband Jason by killing their children, his new lover and her father. Life, according to this hypothesis, is bloody and ultimately self-destructive. The success of any single species will lead to overexploitation of the resources on which it depends and its subsequent collapse. The name comes from palaeontologist Peter Ward, but the concept is grounded in a neo-Darwinian vision of all life in perpetual competition for resources (even genes competing against their own bodies) combined with a contemporary sensibility of the fragility of ecosystems. 

Thus Gaia and Medea represent two ways of understanding Earth’s biological history, but also two visions of its likely future: one optimistic, expecting life to work out over the long term, the other pessimistic, expecting a Genghis-Khan-like species to conquer everything and in doing so to undermine the conditions in which life can flourish. Do we live on mother earth or amidst nature red in tooth and claw? Flannery argues that the Medean hypothesis can be rejected by pointing to the stunning successes of complex ecosystems that have managed to avoid collapse for millions of years.

Flannery’s account of the effects of Paleolithic human migration on indigenous megafauna is one of the highlights of the book. Everywhere humans have spread, the mark of our arrival has been the decline or extinction of the largest creatures and the subsequent transformation of the landscape they had helped to shape

And yet, as we are becoming increasingly aware, today there is a novel element in the equation, something new under the sun, a relative recent development in evolutionary history: human culture. Human culture is not unique, since all higher animals have cultures. What is unique is that we have combined culture with technology “in a way that allows us to mimic keys aspects of evolution by natural selection, and speed it up ten thousand times” (p. 72). Human culture is evolution on steroids. Rather than evolving fangs, we develop spears. Rather than waiting millions of years to develop furry coats that would enable us to survive in conditions much colder than the African savannah on which we evolved, we steal fur off other creatures or weave clothes from fibres.

The success of this strategy has been stunning, enabling homo sapiens to become “a destructive force par excellence” (p. 72). Flannery’s account of the effects of Paleolithic human migration on indigenous megafauna is one of the highlights of the book. Everywhere humans have spread, the mark of our arrival has been the decline or extinction of the largest creatures and the subsequent transformation of the landscape they had helped to shape. With few exceptions, megafauna that have managed to survive into the modern period have been African (and to a lesser extent some Eurasian species), since only they had the privilege of coevolving with us, developing survival strategies to avoid being hunted to extinction by us voracious upright hairless apes.2

On this basis, Flannery notes that there is a more sophisticated version of the Medean hypothesis that applies simply to humans and our technological culture. If we live on a Gaian planet in which complexity contributes to stability, is the novelty of human technological culture part of this stable complexity or a disruptive element? Our technological culture has given us such a stunning advantage over other species that we have come to dominate the globe and all the processes that happen on it. We have become a force of nature, altering the chemical and physical properties of atmosphere, oceans and land surface. Our global dominance and the pace at which it has arrived raises questions about whether Gaia can survive a disruptive super-species.

And so whether we face a Gaian or Medean future cannot simply be read off from our genes. Instead, we have to consider our mnemes: the history and ideas of human culture that shape our behaviour. Mnemes are “cultural genes”, ideas and practices passed on from generation to generation. Yet unlike genes, mnemes are also capable of transformation and cross-pollination within a single generation, making them inherently less stable than genes.3

Two examples of such mnemes are the Gaian and Medean hypotheses themselves. And Flannery’s key claim in the book as a whole is that which hypothesis turns out to be true in practice may well rest on which mneme comes to dominate in our culture. If we adopt a Gaian pattern of thought and behaviour in which we see life as an interconnected whole capable of working in cooperation, then our future will reflect that. If we embrace Medean competition, then self-destruction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our destiny is in our hands – or rather, in our heads and mouths and behavioural patterns.

Therefore, the latter sections of the book are devoted not to the distant geological and Paleolithic past, but to modern history and our contemporary global economic, political and technological situation. Unfortunately, Flannery moves from his areas of expertise to fields in which his opinions have somewhat less evidence behind them. Flannery makes the familiar argument that we live within a narrowing window of opportunity. There is still time to shift course from the bleak Medean path we are currently walking and set out on a Gaian adventure. The technology is already largely developed (including some necessary geoengineering of the climate), what is lacking is the political will and economic structures to steer us away from catastrophe.

Nonetheless, Flannery is surprisingly optimistic about politics. Observing the rapid spread of democracies over the last four decades, he enthusiastically extrapolates the overcoming or minimisation of all the systemic problems that beset contemporary democracies, such as the distorting effects of hyper-capitalist wealth accumulation on public transparency and accountability.

Indeed, for Flannery, globalisation is simply good news. This section was one of the more disturbing elements of the text. Without a far greater degree of homogeneity in human culture, cooperation will be impossible. Flannery emphasises that minority cultures, languages, religions and all other vestiges of tribalism must be left to die (or put to death?) in service of a united human future. Flannery’s hope is therefore for the universal victory of liberal humanitarianism, an outcome he believes is more or less inevitable. Nothing else can prevent the tribal conflict that hinders the cooperation necessary for our collective survival.

Is this really a recipe for success? Might not the loss of cultural diversity be akin to the loss of biodiversity? Just as the latter correlates with greater ecosystem stability and productivity, might not the former as well? Indeed, isn’t part of our present crisis the fact that a globalised culture of consumption is sweeping the field of other ways of life?

And even if such cultural homogeneity were to be desired, is it really likely or even possible? Few will be filled with hope when observing the track record of attempts at international cooperation in the three major parts of the globe that fall outside of national sovereignty – the atmosphere, oceans and poles. Flannery traces these difficulties, but remains upbeat, apparently confident that because it must be done in order to survive, therefore it can and ought to be.

Our future could then be bright green, as we implement high-tech solutions to our ecological woes that lead us ultimately into the colonisation of space in order to “populate all existence” (a denouement that seems somewhat ill at ease with an earlier passage calling for re-wilding). Unfortunately, his analysis of key technological developments is largely based on anecdotes. He offers little evidence that his preferred options will be viable at the scale necessary to achieve the outcomes he desires. He claims that it will be possible to feed nine billion by 2050, at least temporarily while we await natural decline after that point, yet without showing any of his working. There is also no mention of peak oil and the likely energy shortfall we may experience in coming decades, raising further questions over our ability to implement ambitious technical fixes and maintain global harmony in the process.

He seems to believe that believing in this world will make it so, that a sustainable future will be a given if and when such ideas have won the day

Thus, the second half of the book is less convincing than the first. Flannery intends to show that a Gaian world of cooperation is possible. To do so, he has significantly extended the meaning of the Gaia hypothesis, turning Lovelock’s descriptive and macro-level account into a prescriptive call to personal action. He seems to believe that believing in this world will make it so, that a sustainable future will be a given if and when such ideas have won the day. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible given various lags between ecological damage and their ramifications for human society that we could have such a change of heart too late to make a decisive difference. Indeed, it is possible that we may already be past various points of no return, committed to a more difficult and dangerous future on an impoverished planet. Where hope or the motivation for compassionate behaviour are then to be found is a crucial question on which this text is silent.

The phrase “here on earth” may be familiar to some as part of an expression of hope from a much older context. Jesus, in the prayer he taught his disciples, as recorded in chapter six of the Gospel of Matthew, included a petition that God’s will would be done “here on earth as it is in heaven”. This request finds a natural home amidst an acknowledgement of human dependence on God for sustenance and a desire for participation in God’s forgiving grace.

Flannery doesn’t have much to say about the origin of his title, but his grasp on Christianity as the source of hope for millions throughout human history is somewhat shaky. He assumes that the language of human “dominion” in the opening chapter of Genesis implies permission to treat the planet however we like (p. 38). He also seems to assume that monotheism rules out personifying the Earth or deeming it worthy of deep respect, a confusion of reverence with worship. This is not the place to offer a detailed account of how Christian thought has conceived of hope, simply to note that Flannery has not really engaged with it.

Here on Earth: An argument for hope is an ambitious and highly multidisciplinary book filled with fascinating statistics and important insights into our human condition here on earth. Yet Flannery also wants to win hearts and minds, to offer an argument for hope.4 While he succeeds in giving us a frequently mesmerising account of life here on earth, his argument for hope is somewhat thin.

Byron Smith is a CPX fellow and is currently pursuing a PhD in Christian Ethics at the University of Edinburgh.

1. Flannery intriguingly highlights evidence that suggests even the existence of continents – of dry land above sea level – may be largely the result of life: “So vast was the amount of basalt weathered to create the first continents that recent research indicates it could have occurred only if life was capturing energy and using it to produce compounds that help break down rocks.” (p. 45)
2. When we move into the modern period, even species that coevolved with us are now defenceless against our technical superiority and only survive due to the human impulse to preserve. Flannery argues that this impulse is based on a respect for nature that only developed later in human history, once we became aware of the damage our actions were causing. See chapter eight.
3. In passing, it is interesting to note that Darwin’s great competitor, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, in his earlier and now widely rejected theory of organic evolution, thus confused genes with mnemes. Only the latter can change
4. Authors rarely pick their own subtitles, yet Flannery puts hope front and centre in the opening lines of his Foreword and as a constant theme throughout the text. A new hardcover print of the book is to be published in early March 2011 by Allan Lane with a different subtitle: A new beginning. It is difficult to know the reasons for the alteration.