Tim Flannery’s slim book Now or Never: Why We Need to Act Now to Achieve a Sustainable Future does not mince words, when it comes to describing the seriousness of the situation humanity now finds itself in, with regards to the diminishing capacity of the planet to sustain human flourishing:

There is no real debate about how serious our predicament is: all plausible projections indicate that over the next forty to fifty years humanity will exceed – in all probability by about 100 percent – the capacity of Earth to supply our needs, thereby greatly exacerbating the risk of widespread starvation, or of being overwhelmed by our own pollution.

Flannery, previously known for his book The Weather Makers, describes the latest climatic science as detailed by James Hansen before scoping out some of the options that exist for mitigating its seriousness, if humanity acts quickly enough.

Flannery is also forthright on the matter of just how difficult it will be to prevent unacceptable amounts of climate change – hinting (but never saying directly) that geoengineering may be required. The book places a strong emphasis on the possibility of drawing carbon dioxide from the air and into biological sinks, and considers the role that carbon markets and offsets could play in driving such actions. It does not adequately consider the issue of certainty, however. To be really worthwhile, the carbon needs to be removed from the atmosphere indefinitely – something that cannot really be ensured by planting trees (which could burn or be cut down) or enriching soils with carbon (which could be re-released).

All in all, I wasn’t hugely impressed with Flannery’s argument. He seemed overly focused on defending livestock agriculture, too bullish on pyrolysis and biochar as sequestration techniques, and overly eager to attribute intentions to nature. At many points, Flannery brings up the Gaia Hypothesis, which I think is often dangerously misleading in its implications. There is no reason to believe the Earth ‘prefers’ one state or another, or that it will always respond to shocks by moving back in the direction of how it was. Rather, there is evidence from the paleoclimatic record that when the climate system is pushed aggressively enough, it can swing into dramatic new states, in a way that could be profoundly hostile for humanity and most of the planet’s other species.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the inclusion of responses written by prominent individuals including Peter Singer (who very effectively rebuts Flannery’s argument that meat eating isn’t too problematic) and Bill McKibben. In his response, Gwynne Dyer neatly responds to some of the book’s Gaia language, while also making a key overall point:

Whether you want to dress [knowing human manipulation of the climate] up as human beings becoming the consciousness of Gaia, or just see us as the same old self-serving species we always were, we are taking control of the planet’s climate. This billions-strong human civilization will live or die by its success in understanding the global carbon cycle and modifying it as necessary to preserve our preferred climate.

Those key points – the seriousness of the risk of climate change and the importance of taking action in response – have not yet really been absorbed by either the general public or the world’s political elite. If that is to change in time for the very worst possible outcomes to be avoided, that needs to change quickly. By helping to publicize those key facts, Flannery certainly seems to be helping that process, even if there are valid criticisms that can be raised against some of his perspectives and proposed responses.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Byron Smith February 7, 2011 at 10:43 am

I’ve just read Here on Earth, in which Flannery more or less says that whether the Gaia hypothesis is true is up to us, or rather, up to which cultural meme wins the day: the Gaia hypothesis or a neo-Darwinian Medean hypothesis (i.e. that we are doomed by our own success). I don’t think it’s a strong argument, and despite containing all kinds of fascinating paleobiological details (Flannery’s real forte), the book was ultimately a bit of a disappointment.

Milan February 7, 2011 at 6:54 pm

The Gaia Hypothesis is like a quasi-scientific (rather than religious) version of the Lindzen Fallacy.

It suggests that the planet actively cares about us and wishes us well, which makes us less likely to take responsibility and accept that maintaining the habitability of the planet will require active effort on our part.

Antonia February 8, 2011 at 2:29 pm

I only know Flannery from his the ‘Birth of Sydney’ book but this isn’t encouraging me to branch out.

My understanding of the Gaia hypothesis that it involves the Earth being self-regulating to the benefit of the continuity of life – life on Earth itself forming an aggregated (and perhaps conscious) self-perpetuating entity nurturing its own survival. Wikipedia entry as currently edited seems to support this. Though adoption of this view and interpretation of its implications varies, the essential hypothesis wasn’t necessarily pro-human, just pro-Earth-life.

While the Gaia hypothesis tends to a view that the Earth is a self-regulating system with a tendency to stabilise and support biodiversity, unlike many religious views, it doesn’t necessarily endow the entity/system with sufficient power to overcome all destabilising influences or especial support of the continuance of humans within the matrix.

As wikipedia states Some have found James Kirchner’s suggested spectrum, proposed at the First Gaia Chapman Conference, useful in suggesting that the original Gaia hypothesis could be split into a spectrum of hypotheses, ranging from the undeniable (Weak Gaia) to the radical (Strong Gaia).

While the hypothesis has outrun its author and his own views are far from static*, Lovelock’s ‘The Revenge of Gaia’, discusses how the climate science we knows demonstrates a self-regulating system being stressed beyond its tolerances.

Only some extreme minority interpretations of the Gaia theory have it eradicating climate change.

Lovelock himself has presented a number of arguments that the self-regulating system of Earth, entity or otherwise, may be better described as Medea than Gaia as the throes of human-induced climate change may themselves represent a self-regulating maneovre to expunge interfering humanity so the system is not longer prey to our destabilising interference and can reach a new equilibrium http://www.nextspaceage.com/?p=59

Antonia February 8, 2011 at 2:33 pm

I know that’s riddled with typos but if I wait til I’ve gone home, rested etc and take the time to check I just end up never posting.

Though that’s a very qualified apology for the proof-reading failure I hope it at least offers an understandable excuse.

BTW I’ve caught an episode of a series called ‘Man on Earth’ looking at the previous effects of radical change on nascent and evolving humanity, and the series is perhaps worth looking at in full. The bit I caught was extremely Afro-Eurocentric though – one sentence reference to the explosion through Asia to Australia. That might just be that episode as the next was due to range as far as the Maya and beyond.

R.K. February 8, 2011 at 3:00 pm

It’s much better to have interesting content with typos than to have blank space.

Milan February 8, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Agreed. Thanks for the informative comments.

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