ENVIRONMENT:Leading Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery sees the degradation caused by mankind everywhere but, despite everything, he retains hope, he tells MARK HENNESSY,London Editor
NEEDING SLEEP, but reluctant to go to bed during the day, Tim Flannery sits wearing shorts and a T-shirt on his bed in the Savoy Hotel in London, exhausted after arriving from Australia just a few hours before. But the author of Here on Earth: A New Beginningis soon enthusiastically talking about the challenges facing mankind, moving seamlessly from the dangers caused by climate change to the co-operation practised daily by ants to survive.
Consuming resources at an unacceptable rate and facing a global population heading towards nine billion by 2040, mankind must mend its ways, or face a crisis that could go beyond the point of no-return within decades.
But Flannery, who has received garlands beyond number from his home country, including the title of Australian of the Year in 2007, remains optimistic; or, at least, hopeful that shifts in public opinion are taking place.
In the opening to his book, Flannery, a historical ecologist, palaeontologist and mammalogist, says that he sat down to write it “at a time when hope that humanity might act to save itself from a climatic catastrophe” seemed to be draining away. “I am not without hope, for I believe that as we come to know ourselves and our planet we will be moved to act,” he writes, saying that the choice is one between “a descent into chaos, or a profound revolution that will lead to a better future”.
From the off, he argues, mankind has misunderstood Charles Darwin’s dictum of the survival of the fittest – even if the phrase was invented by Herbert Spencer, and not by Darwin – which was used to justify the gross inequalities of Victorian Britain. The misunderstanding, he contends, has continued since, through Nazi Germany’s fascination with eugenics, and support in America in the 1930s for mass-sterilisations of those judged to be inferior, right through to Margaret Thatcher’s belief in the individual rather than society.
Today, the survival-of-the-fittest argument has been dubbed the “Medea hypothesis” by palaeontologist Peter Ward, after the Greek mythological figure Medea, who murdered her children after he abandoned her. “The Medea hypothesis, in fact, suggests that ruthless selfishness is inevitably a recipe for the elimination of the species. It argues that if we compete too successfully then we will destroy ourselves,” argues Flannery.
Instead, Flannery believes that Alfred Russell Wallace, who came up with the theory of natural selection 20 years after Darwin, but before Darwin had published his findings, should offer the guide to humanity today. Wallace, who campaigned against air pollution long before others saw the need, believed that competition was the force behind evolution, but a co-operative world operating in harmony “is its legacy”.
Some see football as being about competition, says the Australian, when in fact “it is a miracle of co-operation” between players and fans, who erupt with emotion over goals and stay in hushed silence for last-minute free-kicks. “Our planet is rather similar. If a sufficiently superior and arrogant species arose and pursued a winner-takes-all philosophy, it would be game over for all of us.”
Flannery draws on a long list of man’s depredations, from tens of thousands of years ago when our ancestors massacred mammoths, who had helped to maintain the balance and fertility in what is now Siberia, to the extinction within a few hundred years of animals in Australia. In more recent decades, Flannery quotes the loss of vultures in India at the hands of an anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle that caused liver failure in the birds when they ate from the carcasses, and mercury poisoning found in fish near Hiroshima in Japan. Initially, the poisoning, which led to severe ill-health among 10,000 locals (and, bizarrely, cats walking backwards), was blamed on the 1945 atomic bombing of the city, but it was not until 1968 that the company responsible for the dumping at sea was forced to stop.
Beginning his research, Flannery said he held to the Medean view that all hope was lost, but he said he became progressively more hopeful as he realised that it is co-operative structures that survive. “Once I started looking through that lens I saw a whole series of reasons for hope. From small things; like the triumph of democracy in various countries through to really big things like the Montreal Protocol.”
He repeatedly draws on the Montreal example, where the world’s nations decided on September 16th, 1987, to outlaw CFC gases that had been used for decades in refrigeration, but which were eating a hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. However, the argument that action needed to be taken against CFCs was helped because advocates could deploy “beautiful colour images on TV showing the ozone hole growing every year over the Antarctic. people probably wouldn’t have got it. That was a case of people power. Climate change is less identifiable, it’s based on probabilities. CO2 is an invisible gas. How do you show that, other than by a graph, which doesn’t chime with many people?”
Despite the damage caused to the climate-change movement by the row about the integrity of statistics and the focus on dealing primarily with the global financial crisis, Flannery insists that it is undeniable that we are making progress. “I am not saying that we haven’t got an enormous job ahead of us, but you would have to say that we are slowly starting to make headway with some of the biggest challenges that are facing humanity. It is really important to understand the time-frame. If you look at the 24-hour media cycle you would go out and slit your throat, but if you look back 10 years I think you will see that there has been some enduring progress made.”
The key is the world’s population: “When you look at the UN population figures you see that the population is projected to top at nine billion in just under 40 years from now. That’s a big number and allowing Earth to sustain nine billion people is a big challenge and it is doubtful whether it can be done or not; but for the first time ever we can see the population peak and not just continue to rise.”
The peak could come in at one billion lower if greater efforts are made now to ensure a more equitable distribution of income throughout the world and better education to encourage and persuade people to have fewer children. “I grew up in an Australia full of baby clinics. The state had invested an enormous amount of money in a growing population. I am going to die in an Australia that is going to be full of age care-homes, but I think we will get through.
“There is no reason why those investments should be more dismaying just because they are at the other end of the cycle. Europe is already living with the difficulties of a more stable population and Russia is seeing decreases. But better that than eternal growth.”
With a control of population numbers and a greater understanding of the fragilities of the planet, Flannery believes that humans can become Earth’s regulator, rather than having to depend on James Lovelock’s Gaia theory that the Earth is a self-regulating organism to explain all.
“We are never going to command all of the Earth’s systems, just as the brain doesn’t control everything, because there are lots of nervous systems, but we will exert an influence on it. And we already are, inadvertently. We have the power to do so positively. We are doing it in this malign way right now, altering the greenhouse-gas balance, and so forth. You can imagine a future with all of the monitoring systems that we could have.
“Using them, in the deep oceans, the atmosphere, the land, we may be able to shift our activities to optimise eco-system productivity and sustainability, just as the brain does to optimise conditions. I think that is a possible future.
“The words of AR Wallace at the end of his book, Man’s Place in the Universe, where he said: ‘Maybe it is human destiny to fulfil the human spirit in the vastness of the universe’, isn’t so silly or naive as it sounds.
“Perhaps at that stage we will have entered a phase where Gaia reproduces, if we ever do go to Mars and set up living systems there. Maybe with our computer systems we will be ordering matter there. Maybe we will shift Mars into a living system. That is a form of reproduction. It is silly to look at us as separate from the planet, we are animated bits of the Earth’s crust; we are Earth. There is no separation between us and the planet, any more than there is between a brain and a body,” he says.
LIFE, THE UNIVERSE, CREATION are not easy topics to digest at any time, but by now a jet-lagged Flannery has to do so while intermittently picking at a meal of fish-and-chips that has been delivered by a hotel waiter.
Drawing on Lovelock’s theories, he explains how the Earth has managed to maintain an optimum temperature range for life over billions of years even though the sun today is a quarter less powerful. “Temperatures should have varied much more wildly in the past than it does. So, too, with our bodies. Life tends to like stable conditions. How did we slip through the cracks? Essentially, this very novel entity had been created.
“ an entity with self-awareness, with the capacity to self-organise in a super-organistic way and nothing like that had been seen before. In the life of any creature the single most perilous moment is the moment of its birth.
“I would argue that a strong Gaia was beginning to be born at that moment when a global intelligence was starting to arise and our species started. I know that sounds spiritual, but I think it reflects the self-organisation of matter.
“These are things that I have thought about. I do think that we can draw between living organisms and the planet as a whole, and these analogies of birth, reproduction, perhaps death, are real at the planetary level.”
One of the keys – perhaps the most important key – will be China, which recently announced its 12th five-year plan that repeatedly emphasises the need for environmental protection, a growth in renewable energies. “They want energy independence, they need a much cleaner system and you can already see the investments put in place: the world’s largest producer of wind-power; they are the world’s epicentre for photo-voltaics [solar panels].”
Today, China supplies just 7 per cent of its energy needs from nuclear power. By 2030, it intends to supply 22 per cent of a much greater total by such means, along with “the rumour that they are now going to cap the amount of coal that is to be burnt in coal-stations in the country, by decree”.
Flannery believes that nuclear power is going to have to be part of the solution to climate change and energy shortages in places such as China, if not in his home country which is “rich in renewable resources and we only have 22 million people”.
“But if you look at eastern China where it is quite cloudy, there isn’t much in the way of renewable energy resources. They have hydro in the mountains, but not much else, the choice is grim. It is either coal, nuclear, or natural gas. If they get natural gas, that might help out, but there are real bottle-necks getting enough natural gas into China. Nuclear has to be part of it.”
Inevitably, the Japanese nuclear crisis has heightened public fears about the nuclear industry, Flannery acknowledges. “My thoughts are very much with the Japanese people as they face the horrific triple tragedy in Japan – earthquake, tsunami and the partial meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
“It’s clearly not a good moment for objective discussion of nuclear power as a future energy source, but I think that the way things develop and are handled at Fukushima will have a very significant bearing on the future of the industry,” he says.
But back to China – in 2009, president Hu Jintao ordered that China should become 20 per cent more efficient in its use of energy in advance of the Copenhagen climate-change talks, though Chinese bureaucrats were very sceptical that it could be done because it was so ambitious.
“They fell slightly short, but they did an amazing thing. That 20 per cent reduction in energy intensity was an unbelievably ambitious target, so they are serious about it,” says Flannery, who has repeatedly engaged with senior Chinese figure in recent years.
However, Flannery’s views about China are mixed, given his admiration at one level for its ability to enforce dramatic changes in policy with his belief that one-party states cannot survive in a world of social networking.
“Where the internet is having its biggest influence right now is in the destruction of dictatorships in north Africa – the classic example. We can see that happening right now. Democracy is becoming an unstoppable force as people co-ordinate their actions through social media.”
Some people, he acknowledges, contend that China can stay outside of this ever-increasing inter-connectivity, becoming “the world’s largest Local Area Network. I suppose that’s possible, but if that happens it is totally cut-off and it has got a dismal future. Yes, I think that [the Chinese] do [want democracy]. Maybe people don’t think about it as democracy, as such, but as freedom from tyranny: the number of demonstrations that have been occurring in China has been increasing year by year, partly driven by land acquisitions of dubious nature, but also about general discontent.
“But from an environmental point of view there is an argument in favour of the existing structure, because you can have five-year plans that mark major changes in direction, without the annoyance of getting people’s agreement.
“Yes, you can inflict pain; economic and political pain. The world is full of paradoxes and, yes, that is one, but I just don’t think that the current political structure in China is sustainable in the longer-term. I really don’t. I could be entirely wrong, in a century from now it could still be there, but I don’t know,” he says, voicing his belief that China’s motivation for action now is “simply the survival of the Communist Party: But does that matter? It is the outcome at the end of the day that matters.”
Flannery’s hope of co-operation between nations, however, flies in the face of the belief held by many that the coming decades will see increasing tensions between states for a share of declining resources, such as oil, or even water.
His optimism, he acknowledges, dies if such is the future: “Once you have power-blocs, they are fractures in the global civilization. My guide for this is the way that complex super-organisms operate. The most evolved social insects have eradicated conflict within the super-organism. I think we see in the modern era how very difficult it is for nations to go to war with others. We have had the Iraq war and in sub-Saharan Africa we still have the most brutal conflicts.
“But if you look at the data in the book there has been a decline in the number of war deaths internationally. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have fraud, criminal gangs, drugs and all of the rest of it.”
Repeatedly, Flannery comes back to the lessons to be learned from ants: “It struck me that there were so many similarities in the evolution of the social insects and ourselves despite the incredible differences between them. “In civilizations where individuals become ever more dependent on others they lose capacity to do a lot of things. In ant societies, some can’t reproduce; some can’t feed themselves. You can see our civilization going the same way. I hadn’t realised the parallels between us and ants and termites. Our civilization is an outcome of natural selection, there is no doubt about that.
“No one designed it, it is not a civilization designed by intelligence, it is an outcome of evolution and it runs by the same rules. I think while there are huge differences between insect civilizations and our own there are some really important lessons that we can draw from them.
But unity will be the key: “When you get a world with nine billion in it, where resources are being squeezed, where you have upright apes armed with nuclear weapons, then a breach of the peace becomes a major threat to civilization.
“You see it with the ant colonies; they can’t exist in the face of internal conflict. It can often be the rise of a subsidiary queen, for instance, then it becomes very difficult for those things to maintain themselves,” Flannery says, as he spears the last of his fish.
Here on Earth: A New Beginningby Tim Flannery is published by Allen Lane (£14.99)