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.